Friday, June 13, 2014

ISIS guerrilla-terror group issues warning to America

We’ll be hearing a lot more about ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (also rendered Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) – in the coming days.  ISIS overran the major Iraqi city of Mosul in the last week, and is close to establishing itself in control of western Iraq, and Iraq’s major water supplies from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a shadowy figure who doesn’t make public appearances and doesn’t even reveal his face to most of his own fighters.  This is presumably in part because he’s an ex-U.S. detainee (not of the Guantanamo facility but of the Camp Bucca prison in Iraq), who was released by the U.S. in 2009, but who now has a $10 million price on his head.  He takes stringent precautions to avoid capture.
But it’s also a measure to cultivate a mystique, in my opinion.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has big plans for the region.  Up to now, the stated goal of ISIS has been uniting Iraq and Syria (part of the territory of “al-Sham,” or “ash-Sham”*) in a great sharia state. 
Recently, ISIS has proclaimed an intention to invade and conquer Jordan as well (with a specific threat to slay King Abdullah).  This is a natural progression, and Lebanon and Israel can assume they are in ISIS’s target sights as well.  (Regarding Israel, ISIS and al-Baghdadi have been relatively demure, not loudly emphasizing Israel as a target.  But as indicated here, a recent proclamation from ISIS in early 2014 alluded to jihad in Gaza.  This theme will inevitably become more important in the future.)
The rhetoric common in ISIS videos – and in particular of a video (below) which is represented as a sort of manifesto by al-Baghdadi – has a combination of regional, territorial, and global allusions.  It depicts a growing movement, implicitly on a path to political power, which is consolidating territorial gains and building a pyramid of loyalty from both local peoples and jihadhi fighters, the latter of whom come from different parts of the greater Middle Eastern region.
In the meantime, ISIS has now announced its intention to seize Baghdad.  Not that we didn’t see that coming, but the speed and seeming hubris of the announcement are an indication of al-Baghdadi’s confidence, and apparent contempt for the staying power of the Maliki government.
If Iran or perhaps Russia doesn’t intervene, there is in fact a good chance the Iraqi government forces, under a sustained assault over time, will be unable to hold the approaches from Mosul and Ramadi to Baghdad.  My prediction is that one or both of Iran or Russia will intervene at some level (not necessarily by deploying their own troops, although it’s quite possible that they would send paramilitary forces to Iraq.  But certainly by supplying the Maliki government).
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
In the meantime, a little about Baghdadi.  He’s a Sunni, described as a long-time Salafi, who was born in Samarra, Iraq (in the center of the so-called “Sunni Triangle”) in 1971, and educated in Islamic history and culture.  The Western public knows little about him, but he was reportedly put in detention in 2005 during the U.S. occupation because he was cruising the countryside in the area northwest of Baghdad “trying” and executing whole extended families.  At one point he was known as al Qaeda’s top man in the city of Qaim, on the border with Syria.  The border area between Qaim and al Bukamal, in Syria, served as Baghdadi’s ISIS redoubt prior to the 2013 “breakout” in which ISIS seized Ramadi and Fallujah in the Euphrates corridor.
The sketchy timeline on Baghdadi suggests that he was affiliated for a period of time with al Qaeda, but was not “grown” from the beginning as an al Qaeda asset.  He’s an Iraqi Sunni extremist with a grand vision of his own for an Iraq-centered sharia state.  Most readers will be aware of the widely reported fact that al Qaeda actually repudiated ISIS several months ago.
The Western media have characterized this move as evidence that ISIS is “too extreme” even for al Qaeda, but I disagree with that assessment.  It’s far more likely that al Qaeda dissociated itself from Baghdadi because Baghdadi is a rival with a very specific territorial goal, one that is in direct conflict with the general, long-term vision of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Baghdadi has no intention of being subsumed in a broader caliphate under someone else’s banner.  Nor does he plan to wait for political timing or supernatural manifestations.  He’s his own Alexander, if you will, bent right now on conquering territory and carving out a state that he plans to be in charge of.
Where things go after ISIS consolidates “Iraq and al-Sham” isn’t entirely clear.  But the specificity of the current vision suggests that Baghdadi and his inner circle are already thinking about it.
One analytical comment about Baghdadi and his methods.  Remaining shadowy and unseen will only get him so far.  At a certain point, this posture will set limits on the scope of his ambitions.  In order to achieve a lasting political impact, he will have to have a mode of strategic communication – with subjects, with opponents – and project a personality to the world.  I suspect he understands that.  What we do see from him is studied, “educated,” and steeped in systematic narrative.  He may be holding back on the personality projection until he has secured enough territory to avoid being easily dislodged from it.
Attaching a personality to the strategy of ISIS will nevertheless be a requirement at some point, if Baghdadi wants to go further.  It will be informative to watch in the coming days to see how or if that happens.
ISIS announces its presence with authority
With this in mind, the following is a selection of videos.  Baghdadi himself appears in none of them, so don’t look for him.  We are given to believe that the first video is narrated by Baghdadi.  His cadence is that of the accomplished, devoted Muslim cleric, and if it is Baghdadi, it shows him as the “scholar” of Islam and regional history that he is reputed to be.  It has subtitles in English, and is clearly meant for an English-speaking audience, given the professional appearance of the translations.
There are several things of note about the first video, but I’ll highlight just two. First, Baghdadi refers to Nouri al-Maliki as the “Safavid,” a historical reference to Shias which is common in Iraq (less so, but still seen, in the rest of the Arab world), and which is emphasized as a way to disparage Shias and stir up animosities from the past against them.  The Safavids were invaders from the Persian (modern-day Iranian) Safavi dynasty in the early 16th century, who captured Baghdad and held onto it in a series of back-and-forth wars with the Ottoman rulers over the next 100 years.  They imposed Shia Islam on what are now modern-day Iraqis.  But some Iraqis resisted Shia conversion, remaining Sunnis and continuing to fight alongside the Ottomans for control of the territory around Baghdad.  Eventually, the yoke of the Persian Safavids was thrown off entirely.
This resentment from 500 years ago is part of Baghdadi’s political call to supporters, and is, of course, reminiscent of the old resentments infesting the cultural and religious divisions in the Balkans, Turkey, and elsewhere in the larger region.
Warning to America
The other notable aspect of the video is its warning to America, which starts around 14:40, near the very end.  Here is the warning in its entirety:... [See rest at link]
J.E. Dyer
CDR, USN (Ret.)
Hemet, CA

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