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The Rise of ISIS: Impacts and Future
Dong Manyuan 来源:CHINA INTERNATIONAL STUDIES·September/October 2014 2016年01月27日

  ISIS: The Backbone of International Terrorist Forces 

  Since June 2014, the extremist terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) has expanded quickly and seized significant territory in Iraq and Syria. It not only threatens the very existence of the Iraqi government, but also has changed the nature of the Syria conflict, and its influence is spilling over outside of the region.

  1. The escalating objective of the strife 

  Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to ISIS, was established in early 2004. It began by recruiting Sunni Muslim extremists, as well as Muslim fundamentalist converts.1 Its founding leader was the notorious terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the group’s goal was to drive the United States troops out of Iraq. When al-Zarqawi was shot dead during a United States air raid in June 2006, AQI appointed Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi as its Emir, made Abu Ayyub al-Masri its chief Islamic jurist, and renamed their organization the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI), with its new mission expanded to include driving away American troops, overthrowing the pro-American puppet regime and turning Iraq into an Islamic State.2 On April 18, 2010, Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri were shot dead during an American and Iraqi joint raid. ISI held another election on May 16, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi won by a landslide, becoming the Emir and chief Islamic jurist.3 He established his absolute authority in ISI and even boasted that he was “the descendant of the prophet Mohamed.” Under his command, ISIS attacked American troops, Iraqi government troops and the Shiite Mahdi Army. It also planned and executed car bombings against the Sunnite mosques, further exacerbating the conflict between religious factions by intentionally leaving “physical evidence” that would implicate the Shiite Muslims. When the United States withdrew its combat troops from Iraq in 2011, the military pressure on ISI was abruptly eased. At the beginning of 2013, al-Baghdadi decided to send part of his principal forces into Syria in order to convert the Syrian civil war into an Islamic Jihad, with the aim of ousting the Bashar regime and establishing an Islamic fundamentalist regime in Syria. On April 8, al-Baghdadi renamed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), now calling it the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Arabic.4 The expansion of the terrorist group’s name marked a further promotion of Islamic Jihad: it will not only set up an Islamic State in Iraq but also outside these borders, with the biggest objective being the elimination of the United States-backed Israel. ISIS’s leader claims that Islamic Jihadists would never hesitate to eliminate Israel just because it has the United States’ support. ISI had already fought twice against the American troops, and the American troops could find no way to eliminate the Islamic jihadists, otherwise they would not be getting out of Iraq.5


  Civilian children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked ISIS in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, in this June 10, 2014. 

  Shortly after the establishment of ISIS, it struck a heavy blow against the Syrian government troops and the Syrian Liberal Army (secular anti-governmental forces), and began occupying the northern and northeastern parts of Syria. With his troops advancing on the battlefield, al-Baghdadi began to demand that the al-Nusra Front in Syria subordinate itself to ISIS. The head of the al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Al-Jawlani, requested that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri make a verdict. Al-Zawahri ruled that it ran counter to the Islamic law to expand the name of ISI, and the attempt to annex the al-Nusra Front would never get consent from Allah. He ordered that al-Baghdadi confine his organization’s activities within Iraq. But Al-Baghdadi refused to accept the verdict. He ordered his troops to disarm the al-Nusra Front. In January 2014, ISIS launched two major battles in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, forcing the al-Nusra Front to leave the province of Raqqa and bringing 80 percent of its military personnel to surrender. As a result, Ayman al-Zawahri disowned al-Baghdadi.

  After the two battles in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, ISIS won a base in Syria. Given these circumstances, al-Baghdadi decided to connect his two battlefields in Iraq and Syria by launching military actions. Since June 2014, ISIS has dispatched half of its main forces eastward to Iraq. The ISIS forces captured the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah, and controlled most areas of Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces, and approached Arbil, the capital city of the Kurdish autonomous region. They also control all the border crossings at the Iraq-Syria and Iraq- Jordan borders. On June 29, Baghdadi announced that ISIS would be renamed the “Islamic Caliphate” (also referred to as “Islamic State”). Its territory not only includes all member states of the OIC, but also covers areas in Italy and Spain on the northern shore of the Mediterranean, as well as China’s Xinjiang region. Baghdadi appointed himself Caliph, requiring Muslims around the world to obey his rule. Baghdadi called on his followers to “conquer Rome and Spain,”6 “put the banner of Allah on the White House,” and “occupy Xinjiang within a couple of years.”7

  2. More extreme and cruel than other terrorist groups 

  From 2004 to the end of August 2014, the majority of terrorist attacks against civilians occurred on the borders of Iraq and were initiated by the newly renamed Islamic State. And from early 2013 until late August 2014, more than half of the terrorist attacks against civilians in the Syrian territories were conducted by the Islamic State. The group took violent steps to dismantle its opposition and subordinate them to the new Caliph. On June 15, 2014, ISIS captured the city of Tal Afar in Nineveh province and brutally executed 1,700 Iraqi government soldiers.8 On July 17, the Islamic State took over the Sha’ar gas field east of Homs in central Syria and executed 270 Syrian soldiers.9 On July 28 2014, at the conclusion of Ramadan, the “Islamic State” released a half hour-long video on the Internet showing them destroying Shiite mosques on the outskirts of Mosul and Baghdad, as well as the executing Shiite Muslims. Beginning on August 5, the Islamic State began its ethnic cleansing of the Yazidis who lived in the Sinjar region of Iraq. They killed all men who refused to convert to Islam and took Yazidi women as their sex slaves. About 50,000 Yazidis fled to the mountains. On August 19 and September 2, respectively, American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded on video by ISIS. They threatened that if the United States did not cease its airstrikes, they would execute more Americans.

  3. Emerging as the strongest and most influential terrorist group 

  In 2014, the Islamic State expanded its militant forces from over 10,000 to more than 90,000 (over 50,000 in Syria, and over 30,000 in Iraq) in three months,10 controlling an area of up to 260,000 square kilometers and selecting Raqqa as its temporary capital. Regarding the composition of its militant forces, the backbone is made up of the al-Qaeda Branch of Iraq and the Chechnya Islamic militants. Later on they also took in about 3,000 jihadists, hailing from dozens of countries around the world, including second and third generation Muslims with American or European citizenship, dozens of Caucasians from Europe and the United States who converted to Islam, and dozens of ETIM terrorists. Since July 2013, the Islamic State has hijacked several prisons, demanding that prisoners become jihadists or be killed, save for those who can provide a special excuse under Islamic law.11 In addition, the “Islamic State” accepted several thousand military and government officials from the former regime of Saddam Hussein and the rebel Syrian military personnel. In terms of financial support, some Islamic Foundations in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided long-term funding to the Islamic State. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has openly accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar and engaging in said support, but the royal families of these countries deny any such “official funding.”12 In reality, the funding received from Saudi Arabia and Qatar could not satisfy the great expansion of the Islamic State, and the main source of funds comes from the spoils of war. Every time they conquer a town, they rob the banks and jewelry stores and sell historical relics. They levy taxes in the areas that they control and execute those who refuse to pay. They set up checkpoints to impose levies on passing vehicles. After taking over gas and oil fields and power plants in Syria and Iraq, they began to sell gas, oil and electricity to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries. The Iraqi intelligence agency estimates that the Islamic State has assets in the vicinity of 2 billion USD, including 430 million USD in cash and huge amounts in gold bars. In terms of equipment, the “Islamic State” has taken over more than ten government arsenals, obtaining a large amount of military equipment. The amount and quality of tanks, armored vehicles, large caliber artillery and air defense weapons in the possession of the Islamic State far exceeds that of al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas and Islamic militants in Chechnya. It is worth noting that Islamic State captured the Tabqa Air Base in Syria and the Mosul Airport in Iraq, seizing more than a dozen “Black Hawk” helicopters and dozens of MiG-23 fighters. Baghdadi claimed that they would take a lesson from September 11, 2001, and let these aircrafts “come in handy.”13

  4. Setting an example for other terrorist groups 

  The sharp rise of the Islamic State in just one year has attracted the attention of terrorist groups around the world. Some groups express their allegiance to ISIS, while others would like to draw from their successful experiences. For example, Abu Omar al-Shishani, head of JMA, a major branch of the Chechnya Islamic militants, pledged his allegiance to Baghdadi in November 2013. When ISIS was expanded into the Islamic State, Abu Omar al-Shishani further announced that Chechnya was an integral part of the Islamic Caliphate. In July 2014, Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Boko Haram in Nigeria, announced that his organization is loyal to Baghdadi, and that Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad will be incorporated into the Caliphate. On July 8, 2014, the Pakistani terrorist group Tehrik-e-Khilafat pledged its allegiance to al-Baghdadi and declared that the South Asian subcontinent and the Khorasan region will become integral parts of the Caliphate.14

  Meanwhile, al-Qaeda branches and some other Islamic terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (Indonesia), the Abu Sayyaf Group (Philippines), Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, all recognize the value of the Islamic State’s experience but have not expressed allegiance to al-Baghdadi. In addition, hostility between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, as well as between Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri, has led to the breakup of the al-Qaeda system. The al-Qaeda branches of the Arabian Peninsula, the Maghreb, the Sinai and Somalia refuse to fight against the Islamic State, illustrating that al-Qaeda headquarters and Zawahri himself have at least partially lost control of al-Qaeda’s branches.

  The Spillover Effects of ISIS 

  Originating in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has broken the deadlock in the Middle East and North Africa, forced the regional situation off its original course and created spillover effects outside of the region. These developments manifest themselves in the following ways:

  All stakeholders have been hurt 

  ISIS makes a large number of enemies, most of which can be divided into two categories. The first category includes pagans, atheists and their regimes. The United States, Europe and Russia belong to the pagans and China belongs to the atheist. According to their division, most people in the world are “enemies of Islam.” Enemies are not to be totally exterminated, and those who convert will be treated in the same manner. The second category mostly refers to Islam’s so-called “traitors,” a category that includes individual traitors and traitor regimes. Since ISIS is an extremist ideology and Sunni fundamentalist movement that worships the doctrine of “Jihadi Soldiers of God,” the teachings and fiqh of Shia Islam are deemed to be heresy and their followers are required to convert to Sunnism, or be treated as “individual traitors.” Shia regimes should be overturned, as they are against Islamic law and are thus “traitor regimes.” On the basis of such divisions, the regimes of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon should to be overturned. In light of al-Masri and al-Baghdad’s fatwas, it is not just Shia individuals and regimes that are the enemies of Islam. Many Sunni Muslims are also “individual traitors” and “traitor regimes.” Other ideologies, movements and organizations have become apostates, with the exception of the Nigerian Boko Haram, Jemaah Islamiah in Egypt and Southeast Asia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Philippines Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and al-Shabaab. The Islamic world is therefore earnestly in need of salvation and transformation.

  The expansion of ISIS, resting on Syria and Iraq, challenges the United States’ interests in the Middle East. The fruits of geopolitics and “democratic transformation” in the wake of the Iraq War will come to naught in light of the establishment of ISIS. The Islamic State is also bent on eliminating Israel, which is unacceptable to the United States. The Islamic jihad led by the Islamic State directly squeezes the “Shia Crescent” and threatens Iran’s geo-strategic interests. The Islamic State has also committed itself to overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime, posing a challenge to Russia’s “sphere of influence” in the Middle East. It also swears to occupy Xinjiang, which is a potential threat to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

  Disrupting American Strategic Deployment in the Middle East 

  The rise of ISIS has compelled the United States to delay the changing of the al-Assad regime in Syria. Since September 2013, the United States has been trying to force Syria to surrender its chemical weapons and attend the Geneva Conference on Syria’s “political transition,” taking advantage of the “chemical weapons for peace” initiative proposed by Russia. The United States hopes that once Syria agrees to reject the arrangement of Bashar’s “political transition,” low cost regime change will become a reality. If Syria opposes, on the grounds of the chemical weapons incident that happened on August 21, 2013, the United States could push the International Criminal Court at the Hague to issue an arrest warrant with relevant charges and set a deadline for reply. After that deadline, the United States could launch an external military intervention and support the “Free Syrian Army” to overthrow the regime. The United States is now making use of the situation that the Syrian government troops are fighting against the Islamic State militants. Consequently, the “regime change” has been postponed, even though al-Assad held an election in June 2014 and was reelected, challenging the Geneva “political transition” process.

  Second, the United States is seeking to compromise and make exchanges with Iran, putting off its efforts to exterminate Iran’s nuclear weapons. On November 24, 2013, six great powers and Iran reached a first-stage deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program. In the deal, Iran made a commitment to halt enriching uranium to a level above 5 percent purity and to stop the installation of new centrifuges in exchange for the United States and Europe’s relief of some sanctions. The agreement was to take effect on January 24, 2014, agreed by six powers and Iran, and then they could launch negotiations on a final agreement. Iran and the IAEA reached an agreement on increasing “transparency” of its nuclear programs with five measures. Javad Sarif, Iran’s foreign minister, met with the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, on November 9, 2014. Javad Sarif was “optimistic” about reaching a final agreement before November 24, 2014. But at the same time, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hasaan Rouhani appealed for “international cooperation” to fight against the Islamic State’s terrorism. Compared with Iran’s positive attitude, Arab countries have been reluctant to make substantial contributions, particular regarding military, to combat the Islamic State. One of the Obama administration’s final options is to conduct “limited cooperation” with Iran to strike ISIS. Iran has been friendly to the United States and supported al-Abadi’s attempt to form a cabinet and call for thorough relief of sanctions and tolerance on “peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” All signs indicate that the United States and Iran have increasing room for compromise, whether on fighting the Islamic State or reaching a final agreement on nuclear issues.

  Third, containment of the Islamic State has been closely linked to the achievements of the “Arab Spring.” The former is regarded as the basis for the latter. The United States has demanded that Arab countries declare their positions on the Islamic State and cut connections between domestic extremists and the Islamic State. Meanwhile as per the United States’ request, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya have received promises from Arab countries that they will obtain military and financial assistance, blocking AQAP and its branch in Maghreb’s collision with the Islamic State, banning native Muslim Brotherhood and other religious extremist groups with their support.

  Widespread turmoil in Asia and Africa 

  Various violent terrorist groups in Asia and Africa are taking the Islamic State’s experience as an example. Afghan Taliban launched the “Autumn Offensive” and hit government troops heavily in some areas, such as Ghazni province, in early September. Pakistan Taliban have frequently succeeded in ambushing NATO convoys in difficult terrain, like the Kyhber Pass. Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiah claimed to establish ISIS of Southeast Asia, with territory that could expand from Indonesia to Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei. Nigerian Boko Haram has advanced to the capital Abuja along the borders of Nigeria and Cameroon and the borders of Nigeria and Chad since mid-August. Roughly 650,000 people have already been displaced. In Libya, struggles over airports and refineries between fundamentalist forces represented by the Misrata militia and Secular forces represented by the Zinta militia are increasingly intense and beyond the control of the administration. The national security situation in Yemen, Somalia, Kenia and Chad is also worsening.

  Prospects for the Islamic State 

  The Islamic State regards the United States as its major enemy. The group’s rise is in conflict with the United States’ strategic interests in the Middle East. It is unlikely that both of them will show their strength and power quickly, even though a battle is inevitable. Since the Obama Administration announced air attacks aimed at the Islamic State in Iraq on August 7, 2014, the group has adjusted its tactics, flexibly dealing with the United States while keeping its main force and multiplying troop numbers. In the meantime, the Islamic State has strong expansion momentum in Syria. It resisted government troops in the south area of Deir Ezzor, reduced the actual control area of the “Free Syrian Army” on the northern banks of the Euphrates and has been recruiting small groups of anti-government forces.

  United States President Barack Obama announced complementary measures to fight against the Islamic State on September 11, 2014. First, the United States will expand the range of its air strikes against the Islamic State from Iraq to Syria. Second, it will organize an international coalition to contain the Islamic State’s expansion, composed of Western allies, members of NATO and regional partners in West Asia and North Africa. The United States called on its Western allies and members of NATO to offer weapons, ammunitions, information and personnel training to the Iraqi army. Meanwhile, it has also called on the Kurdish army and “Free Syrian Army” to tighten immigration control so as to prevent infiltration of the Islamic State’s terrorists into the West. Specifically, the United States’ regional partners, including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and six GCC states are required to terminate funding for the Islamic State and regulate the immigration of native extremists from going to Syria and Iraq or the Islamic State’s terrorists from entering their countries and establishing terrorist branches. Third, the United States will dispatch an additional 475 soldiers to Iraq, making the total number of American troops total 1,700. The mission of the 475 soldiers will be to secure the United States’ institutions and citizens in Iraq, direct the Iraqi army and Kurdish arms to counter terrorists and hunt key operatives of the Islamic State when possible.

  Considering the above conditions, it will be difficult to eliminate the Islamic State, or even contain its expansion. The reasons are as follows.

  First, the development and expansion of the Islamic State is well timed, well located and has enhanced support because of various basic contradictions in the Middle East and North Africa.

  Their society seriously lacks equality and justice. The gap between the wealthy and impoverished is widening. The government serves the interests of the West instead of its domestic population. Prices are soaring and inflation is rising. Youth unemployment and official corruption are rampant. The Palestinian issue has not yet been solved, and it is hard to reclaim all of the lost territory. The United States is partial to Israel and adopts a double standard on issues of “democracy,” “human rights” and “counterterrorism and nonproliferation.” The Western values and lifestyle impact people’s Islamic beliefs. All these contradictions have a long history and may be difficult to solve in the future. Given this background, the Islamic State is claiming to “save and transform” the Arab and Islamic world, an objective that obviously appeals to the poor and vulnerable.

  Second, the fighting force of the Islamic State is beyond Iraq, Syria, the Kurdish army and “Free Syrian Army.” American troops are unable to attack the Islamic State’s effective strength without intervening on the ground. The United States’ ground forces have not been deployed, a fact that has been stressed by Obama several times, and the Western allies and regional partners may not send their ground forces unless the United States takes the lead.

  Third, the United States air strike in Syria will present a new quandary. If the air strike is only aimed at the Islamic State, then it will help the al-Assad regime and Iran, while taking both the Syrian army and ISIS as its target. This is an infringement of Syria’s sovereignty without any authority of a United Nations Security Council resolution. As a result, the United States will lose political and moral points, all while failing to overthrow the al-Assad regime and eliminate the Islamic State.

  In view of these factors, the United States cannot contain the expansion of the Islamic State or prevent the Islamic Stat e from extending its “jihad” to more Arab countries unless it expands international cooperation with Iran, Russia and even the al-Assad regime. If the United States really wants to deal with the Islamic State, it must discard its Cold War mentality and stop playing a zerosum game.

  Dong Manyuan is Senior Research Fellow and Vice President of China Institute of International Studies.

  1 “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_State_of_Iraq_and_Syria.

  2 Bill Roggio, “The Rump Islamic Emirate of Iraq,” The Long War Journal, 16 October 2006, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2006/10/the_rump_islamic_emi.php.

  3 “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Bakr_al-Baghdadi.

  4 “Levant”is a geographic concept in English language, while“al -Sham”is a geographic concept in Arabic. They both refer to the East Mediterranean Region including Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

  5 “ISI Confirms that Jabhat Al-Nusra Is Its Extension in Syria, Declares ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham As New Name of Merged Group,” MEMRI, 8 April 2013, http://www.memri.org/report/ en/0/0/0/0/0/0/7119.htm.

  6 Elgot Jessica, “ISIS Head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Warns ‘We Will Conquer Rome’,” The Huffington Post, 2 July 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/07/02/rome-conquerislam_n_5550646.html.

  7 “A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan from Amir Ul Mu’minin Abu Bakr Al Husayni Al Qurashi Al-Baghdadi,” 1 July 2014, http://triceratops.brynmawr.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10066/14241/ABB20140701.pdf?sequence=1.

  8 “ISIS Claims Execution of 1,700 Iraqi Soldiers; Over 4500 Captured,” The Shia Post, 13 June 2014, http://en.shiapost.com/2014/06/13/isis-claims-execution-of-1700-iraqi-soldiers-over-4500-captured.

  9 “Islamic State Killed 270 during Syrian Gas Field Takeover,” Reuters, 19 July 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/19/syria-crisis-attack-idUSL6N0PU04120140719.

  10 “Islamic State ‘Has 50,000 Fighters in Syria’,” Al Jazeera. 19 August 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/08/islamic-state-50000-fighters-syria-2014819184258421392.html.

  11 “Iraq: Hundreds Escape from Abu Ghraib Jail,” Associated Press, 22 July 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/22/iraq-prison-attacks-kill-dozens.

  12 “Iraqi PM Maliki Says Saudi, Qatar Openly Funding Violence in Anbar,” Reuters, 9 March 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/09/us-iraq-saudi-qatar-idUSBREA2806S20140309.

  13 “Al Qaeda Militants Captures US Black Hawk Helicopters in Iraq,” Zero Hedge, 10 June 2014, http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-06-10/al-qaeda-militants-capture-us-blackhawkhelicopters-iraq.; “Iraq’s Terrorists Are Becoming a Full-Blown Army,” The Daily Beast, 11 June 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/11/iraq-s-terrorists-are-becoming-a-fullblown-army.html.

  14 “Pakistani Terror Group Swears Allegiance to Islamic State,” The Telegraph, July 9 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/10955563/Pakistani-terror-groupswears-allegiance-to-Islamic-State.html.