In home base of Iraq, a softer IS than in Syria

The Islamic State (IS) has taken two vastly different approaches in Iraq and Syria, making alliances with locals and tribes in the former while gaining authority through force in the latter.

al-monitor Fighters of the Islamic State stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

violence, tribal politics, syria, sharia law, islamic state, iraq

Jul 9, 2014

The Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) in Syria is different from its counterpart in Iraq, with the distinction being in their practices. This conclusion is built upon the interpretations of many Salafist jihadists and their observations regarding the identity of the organization and its structure, and, based on these interpretations, predictions for ISIS' future are determined. 

In Syria, IS is a foreign force; it is more violent, and there are no controls on its practices. In the "emirate" IS established in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, the utmost violence is carried out. They killed dozens of the city's residents, imposed the burqa on women and forbade smoking, even inside homes. The force that has been commissioned to implement these tasks and rules is comprised not of Syrians, but of "immigrants" [fighters]. The latter include both Arabs and non-Arabs and have no links to the local community. And most importantly, ISIS has deemed other fighting factions infidels, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic factions, some of which resemble IS in terms of their religious identity and Salafist methodology. 

In Iraq, the situation until now is completely different. IS has fought alongside tribes, the Baath party and Sufis, and joined them in formations to manage areas that have been taken from the Iraqi army. Further, they left the task of managing Mosul to another faction, although they were the primary force that entered the city after the fall of the Iraqi army in Mosul. Perhaps the difference in IS' methods in Syria and Iraq are more noticeable in terms of its relationship with the tribes in each country. In Syria, the IS organization restrained the tribes and forced them to pledge allegiance to it, without taking into consideration the tribes' structure. Meanwhile, with the Iraqi tribes, IS established relationships that take into account many of the latter's traditions, and the IS member they assigned to oversee ties with each tribe can trace his roots back to that particular tribe. 

This difference is linked to the identity of IS, for the organization is Iraqi first and foremost, before being an international Salafist jihadist organization. Its leadership is entirely Iraqi, as well as its local emirs and most of its fighters. On the other hand, Jabhat al-Nusra has a similar "Syrian-ness," yet its links to the international al-Qaeda organization assume the task of linking it to international Salafist jihadism, and avoiding suspicions of nationalism, which are considered an intrinsic shortcoming in these types of organizations.

IS is considered to be "Iraqized," and a Jordanian sheikh from Jabhat al-Nusra, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "IS's Shura council is entirely composed of Iraqis, and many of them were former officers in the Iraqi army. … This wasn't deliberately done by the organization, but rather based on many things, most notably the authoritarian way in which things are managed within [IS]." 

Researcher Hassan Abu Haniyeh said, "Nusra became 'Syrianized,'" while "ISIS became 'Iraqized.'" 

"Unlike the first and second 'births' of al-Qaeda, the third 'birth' [i.e., IS] is witnessing a location-based focus," Haniyeh said. "And this will lead to fundamental transformations in the identity of the organization." While immigrants comprise the [basis] of IS in Syria, Iraqis comprise its basis in Iraq. This also explains the great disparity in the level of violence practiced against local communities in the two countries. This is because "immigrants" are more oppressive and less sympathetic to local truces. Moreover, they are strangers to local traditions and tend to deem any local custom to be apostasy, resorting to "general heresies." However, in Iraq, local members of IS serve as a channel for accepting and sympathizing with truces. 

Yahya al-Qubaisi, a researcher specializing in Iraqi tribes, notes that IS is more flexible than al-Qaeda — which preceded it in Iraq — in terms of ties with the tribes. He said, "[IS] has members from all of the tribes in northern and western Iraq. And these members take charge of connecting the group with these tribes. [IS'] relationship with the al-Jabour tribe is managed by an IS member from this very tribe, and the same is true with the Shammar and Dulaim tribes, among others." 

The "caliph"

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is today the "caliph" of IS after he announced its caliphate, is an Iraqi from the city of Samarra. He is from the Badri tribe and his real name is Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim. He graduated from the Sharia Faculty in Baghdad. According to a professor who taught Baghdadi, as a youth, he was not Salafist. The professor said that he specialized in Quranic recitation, and had nothing to do with anything but recitation. The other IS leaders are mostly former officers from the disbanded Iraqi army, most notably Ahmed al-Alwani, Abu Muhannad Sweidawi, and Abu Ali al-Anbari.

Many Iraqis downplay the importance of tribes in western and northern Iraq "pledging allegiance" to Baghdadi. This is because these same tribes had pledged allegiance previously to [Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki and before him [former President] Saddam Hussein. What's most important to these tribes is their relationship with the authorities, regardless of who the latter may be. Tribal elders, including new ones and old ones, know that their power is derived from their relationship with the authorities. They are quick to change allegiances and turn against any declining authority. In this sense, the tribal expert Qubaisi said that first IS took control of swaths of Iraq, and the pledges of allegiance by tribes was a result of this control, not a cause for it. 

Today, IS in Iraq has all the specifications of a local force: local leadership, relations with local factions and investment in the tribes. Yet the organization also invokes Salafist jurisprudence that strengthens the "legitimacy" of its local ambitions, and in Salafist jihadist literature this is called the spatial dimension of the caliphate. IS says that it seeks to gain spatial control and announce the caliphate in the region it has taken from the "infidels." Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and its Syrian branch (Jabhat al-Nusra) depend on "empowerment" and "Sultan rule", which is based on "agreements with influential figures" and not imposition by force.

A jihadist Islamic preacher close to Jabhat al-Nusra explains the jurisprudential disagreement between the two groups as follows: "The jurisprudential root of the dispute is the issue of setting up a caliphate for Muslims after an absence of a caliphate for more than a century. They [IS] appointed our brother Abu Bakr [al-Baghdadi] as caliph of the Muslims, and requested that the people pledge allegiance to him, deeming all those who didn't infidels. Thus, fighting broke out with [other] jihadist factions in Deir ez-Zor. We still consider ourselves to be a faction fighting for the overthrow of the regime in Syria, and we will remain as such until there is consultation with influential figures to agree on who will rule after [the fall of the regime]. We are not interested in ruling the people via the sword, but rather ruling over them via Sharia law."

The preacher pointed out another dispute between Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. "The second jurisprudential dispute is represented by the necessity of resorting to a Sharia court to settle disputes, especially in 'matters of blood.' And we consider that not using [this method] is blasphemous. IS has refrained from using [Sharia courts], under the pretext that it is a state, and the people should settle disputes with it. One of the most important incidents that provoked this issue was the killing of [Jabhat al-Nusra leader] Abu Khalid al-Suri, and it is likely that IS killed him," he said. 

The preacher said, "The difference between IS's behavior in Iraq and Syria, as it was more friendly with Iraqi tribes and did not fight them, unlike the factions in [Syria]." But he said it was likely that this was only temporary, as IS awaits "empowerment," and according to him this is not a retreat from errors committed in Syria. 

The "Iraqi-ness" of IS

All indicators point to IS' "Iraqi-ness" taking precedence over its "international Salafist jihadist" nature. A Jordanian jihadist with a leftist background compared this issue to the dispute between Stalin and Trotsky. While Stalin wanted to install authority (i.e., in the current situation, the caliphate), Trotsky introduced the issue of exporting the revolution as part of building a state. This comparison, even though it requires more scrutiny, could be useful in explaining aspirations to build authority. Baghdadi announced a caliphate, found a location for it (northern and eastern Syria, and western Iraq), specified its Iraqi focus, and formed local alliances. And perhaps the moment in which the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was announced in the Stalinist model reminds us, albeit imprecisely, of the moment the IS model invoked the "doctrine of savagery." Abu Bakr al-Naji, the man behind this doctrine that IS adopted, said that the moment the caliphate was established was the moment the public was no longer controlled by the "infidel" restraints of the modern state, so savagery prevailed. According to Naji, the leaders must control this savagery to establish the caliphate. 

That IS in Syria is different from IS in Iraq has led to two paradoxes: The first is that Jabhat al-Nusra, and along with it the global al-Qaeda organization, has not objected to the Iraqi IS. Rather, it has even said that the IS approach in Iraq is the same as Jabhat al-Nusra's approach in Syria. This approach involves establishing local alliances, refraining from deeming others apostates, and observing the traditions of tribes and local residents. When Jabhat al-Nusra sheikhs repeat these facts, their repeated statements are full of admiration for IS's "achievement," yet this admiration is mixed with the bitterness of the quarrel and the bloodshed between the two groups. Baghdadi has established his authority on large tracts of land, and this authority addresses his jihadist adversaries that he had always deprived.

The second paradox is that al-Qaeda figures who are not supporters of Baghdadi are aware that the "Iraqi-ness" of his caliphate is something that will make Iraqi concerns take precedence over general concerns of the caliphate. And this is something that puts them at ease. This is because IS will "drown" in local concerns, in the same way that befell other jihadist groups in the world, such as the Taliban. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar announced a caliphate for Muslims, but his caliphate did not go beyond Afghanistan. Other examples are the Somali Al-Shabab, where Somali concerns have outweighed the group's general jihadist concerns, and the Pakistani Laskhar-e-Taiba, which is drowning in the Kashmir issue. The attraction of any jihadist group to a local issue will eventually lead to the localization of the "caliphate" and invalidate its global rhetoric. 

Different logic

The Syrian branch of IS is currently acting according to a different logic. There is what resembles an occupation, as IS has established its caliphate in Iraq, and now Syria must accept and join. This type of forced unity has long been witnessed by the Levant throughout history, with Syria being the smallest state that has to accept the unity. This happened with Egypt in 1958, and with Iraq in 1963 and 1964. And it was the Syrians, even those who previously were in support of the unions, who took charge of secession later. 

Whoever meets with Salafist jihadist preachers who do not support the caliphate of Baghdadi can sense the "nationalist" frustration at IS and its claims that it has the right to establish a caliphate outside of Iraq. And perhaps Baghdadi's penetration of this environment with his method derives its strength from the attractiveness of power and the need to become involved with its channels. Moreover, its strength comes from Baghdadi as an extension of the path of al-Qaeda, or from his exit from al-Qaeda and what was established by the late al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, when he introduced fighting the Shiites while fighting the Americans in Iraq. 

The issue of "fighting Shiites," in the case of IS, brings us back to the Iraqi nature of the conflict. This is because the "Shiitization" there is something regional and Iraqi, and the conflict over it is a political — not sectarian — conflict, despite claims to the contrary. The sectarian component of the Iraqi dilemma is different from the sectarian component of the conflict in Syria, and it is hard to integrate the two conflicts, despite the political similarities between the regimes in the two countries. And perhaps what was revealed by IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, in his response to al-Qaeda's request that IS appease Iran and curtail fighting the Americans, elucidates the split between the two groups.

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