Is the Islamic State/ISIS a flash in the pan? Brutal but ephemeral? Or might it be more long-lasting?
Could it even become a ‘proper’ state? Might the ‘Caliph’ one day address the UN?
Dr. Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and researcher who tries to answer these questions in Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad.
Based in Damascus, he has the bitter sweet advantage of witnessing the events convulsing his country at first hand, and has interviewed many of those involved. This proximity to sources and evidence gives a unique perspective to his book. An added strength is that he has no particular axe to grind – the tragedy he describes that is the current Syrian crisis is made all the worse by seeming to have no obvious solution and no easy fixes.
In trying to understand ISIS and the other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, he emphasises their ideology as deriving from one specific strand of Islamic thought, and not, as ISIS and indeed some of its enemies would claim, inherent in and intrinsic to Islam itself.
Moubayed traces this extremist interpretation from the 1300s thought of Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) to later Wahhabism in the 1700s and beyond, revived in the twentieth century by people such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb and continued by modern salafi-jihadism.
He shows that this history is far from irrelevant – it is indeed the central focus of and justification for the ruthless campaigns of ISIS, the Nusra Front and al Qaeda: a return to what they imagine was the purity of the past. Simply return to those beliefs and glory will follow. Anyone rejecting the call stands in the way of regress, and will suffer.
Moubayed describes how the Islamic State based on the city of al-Raqqa in Syria, and headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi/self proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, now has all the trappings of a state – a civil service, a police force, an army, an intelligence service, taxes, schools, a capital, a national anthem, a flag and significant income from oil smuggling and border crossing levies. This developing governance structure is staffed by many experienced ex-Iraqi Army officers and former Baath officials.
No less important is a slick and sophisticated communications strategy, taking in social media, as well as print, television, and radio.
Overall, Moubayed concludes, ISIS is a significant threat and one that stands a good chance of creating a functioning and enduring state from the ruins of what was Syria and Iraq.
A sobering assessment from an experienced and talented scholar in an informative and well researched book.