Even though the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or Da’esh) emerged in Syria in 2013, its structure can be traced back to three historical layers across three geographies and influences, the earliest one being rooted in Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, and most recently, Syria.
These layers should be interpreted in accordance with George Balandier’s Political Anthropology, whereby the more recent events, practices and conditions do not substitute prior ones, but rather create new, additional layers. In his History of Religious Ideas, Mircea Eliade states that among the elements which comprise religious social phenomena, the earliest ones are the deepest in its formation. Thus, the more recent among said elements is that which is to be observed, and with which the phenomenon interacts in its concurrent environment.
The Afghani Layer
From its formative experience in Afghanistan, Da’esh learned an early method of globalised networking. Arab and Islamic “jihad” in Afghanistan during the 1980s is the earliest example of such globalisation, before the concept became ubiquitous in the 1990s. At the time, Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation, and in the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the CIA, advised by Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzenzinski, had sponsored the establishment of an Islamist resistance movement (Islamic movement in resistance to the soviets).
The Afghani jihad was primarily funded by the Saudis while the Americans provided arms. The Saudi, Pakistani and Egyptian intelligence services were also involved in its facilitation and organization. At the time, their governments consented to these actions; coercion and conspiracy were absent. It is imperative to keep in mind who were the first sponsors of contemporary jihadists, with the United States at its helm. While jihad against the Russians was a military campaign by nascent groups, they consulted with intelligence and interaction with these groups occurred at the levels of intelligence and military officials, rather than heads of state or foreign ministers.
The Afghani jihad movement comprised of Afghans, as well as large numbers of Arabs from Saudi Arabia and Egypt; Syrians, emergent from the Muslim Brotherhood’s final defeat in their struggle against Hafez al-Assad’s regime during the late 1970s and early 1980s; Algerians, Islamist Palestinians in the context of PLO’s departure from Beirut in 1982, and from many other Arab countries. From this group of recruits and volunteers, the phenomenon of “Arab Afghans,” – or the “mujahideen” – emerged.
But the establishment of an Islamist network to launch a jihad against the Soviet Union, as opposed to a secular national emancipation movement, did not emerge from thin air. The Soviet Union’s position, circumscribed by an Islamic arc or “Green Belt”, was very present in American thinking during the Cold War. The Islamist nexus has been utilized by the Americans since the 1960s via Saudi sponsorship, and American direction against Arab nationalism, and communism, since the 1960s. The Islamisation of Afghanistan gave Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, then under the leadership of General Zia-ul-Haq, a prominent role in the formation of the jihadist movement. It is now common knowledge that the Wahhabi monarchy has long been a trusted ally of the United States, and that it controls the production and global price of oil. At the time, the Americans had no fears or concerns regarding the financially rich, militarily weak and politically aligned Saudi kingdom. Furthermore, it became evident after the Iranian Revolution and the emergence of Islamists in many Arab countries that the latter could be used as a categorical opponent of Soviet Communism, seen in Afghanistan as an occupying force, but also in the USSR’s own regional imperial sphere, such as in the case of Islamic republics in Anatolia. The same attitude was held within the internal context of each Arab leaders held similar views of state. Anwar al-Sadat, for instance, had encouraged the emergence of Islamism in Egypt to challenge the Egyptian left, and to consolidate his rule, characterized by a departure from Nasserism and its policies.
At the ideological level, Afghanistan served as the laboratory in which Saudi Wahhabism encountered Egyptian Qutbism – an encounter that was at once political, personal and intellectual. Politically, Saudi Arabia and Sadat’s Egypt, as well as Pakistan, were the most enthusiastic parties within the framework of the United States endeavor to counter the Soviets, and the most eager to facilitate the rendering of occupied Afghanistan as a base for Islamic Jihad against it. Interpersonally, a substantial proportion of the “Mujahideen” hailed from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Afghanistan. Intellectually, Saudis adhered to the Wahabbist doctrine, which in 1979, the same year Afghanistan was occupied, inspired the occupation of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by Juhaiman al-Outaibi and his Salafist group. That year also witnessed the toppling of Iran’s Shah and the victory of the Iranian revolution, and the Aleppo Artillery School massacre by the Muslim Brotherhood vanguards. In Egypt, during the final years of Nasser’s rule and during Sadat’s era, Qutbism emerged and took root, with jihadist inclinations surfacing among its ranks.
While it is true that al-Qaeda, as we know it, was to see its genesis was established after the fall of the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of its defeat in Afghanistan, but the Afghani jihad was its the incubating experience, or the foundational prehistory of al-Qaeda. The “victory” in the battle for Afghanistan was the “victory” which granted legitimacy to groups, which had been rendered adrift, struggling to find a raison d’etre after the fall of the USSR, and the United States turning its back on a shattered Afghanistan.
The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan contributed in a major way to the collapse of the USSR as a global pole, and was, in turn, for the Americans, the loss of a worthy communist adversary. At the time, Islamists conducted no significant action against western interests (Arab violence conducted by Arabs against western interests between the 1950s and early 1980s was practiced under the banner of Palestinian nationalist, left, Arab nationalism and at a later stage, during the 1980s, under a banner of Shi’ism). Americans turned to Islamic terrorism as an alternative foe, and the “War on Terror” narrative as a grand narrative at the time of the “collapse of the grand narrative” in as expressed by Jean-Francois Lyotard’s formulation. It may well be the case that Osama bin Laden’s objection to American troops entering Saudi Arabia in 1990 in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, played a role in this developing American attitude.
In any case, the war on terrorism turned out to be a huge favor to Sunni jihadism which, contrary to its Shi’ite counterpart, lacked a state as a reference point, and which has conversely established an Empire of an alternate network, Al-Qaeda. In this context, the “new world order” or the unipolar international system professed “Islamic Terrorism” to be its arch enemy, and defined itself in contrast to it. At the time, and especially after September 11, 2001, it was not uncommon to claim that the world still comprised of two distinct poles, albeit they had come to be the United States and Islamic Terrorism. Al-Qaeda could not have dreamt come up with better publicity/propaganda..
The Iraqi Layer
The second Above the first, and elder, layer in al-Qaeda’s emergence is the Iraqi one, following the American occupation of Iraq. The Americans, who had created the clay of which al-Qaeda was molded, justified Iraq’s invasion because of Saddam Hussein’s cooperation with al-Qaeda. While this was an explicit lie, it soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Through the invasion and subsequent disintegration of the Iraqi state, and through the facilitation of Shiite dominion of a state that was rebuilt from scratch, the Americans ushered in a conducive environment for jihadist activity. Moreover, their hysterical undertaking in Afghanistan had scattered non-Afghan jihadists beyond their original hub, apart from its having been a major step forward inpropelling al-Qaeda propaganda among some segments of Muslim youth.
This time round, the Syrian regime, wary of becoming the next in the line of fire by the United States, who had invaded two countries in less than eighteen months, played a major role in the facilitation of jihadist entry into Iraq. The first wave of Syrians was by no means affiliated with al-Qaeda; they were rather motivated by a mixture of nationalist, pan-Arab and Islamist inclinations in opposition to American hegemony, an attitude which was acceptable to the regime. It is worth mentioning that during the six-month long American preparation for Iraq’s invasion, the six months prior to the beginning of the campaign, Syrian intellectuals and artists visited Baghdad, and expressed their solidarity against a then-imminent aggression. The sentiments of the first wave of fighters were not too different from such solidarity, and the improving relations between the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad facilitated this at the time. Those who fought and lived were not rendered al-Qaeda until after American antagonism, and their exclusion by the new Shia rulers, and later the arrival of the heirs of Afghani jihad, and the arrival of their memory and experiences.
Al-Qaeda itself was to undergo another transformation in the Iraqi laboratory, as al tawhid wal jihad emerged under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It became a movement that would later pledge allegiance to bin Laden, while holding on to its Afghan inception and experience, and its discipline within the Salafist-jihadist paradigm. At a later stage, al-Zarqawi would form “the Islamic State of Iraq” which endured significant strikes by the US, among which is the killing of leading to his death in 2006, as well as sieges by the “Sahwat”, from a Sunni Iraqi, and mostly tribal, milieu, that was also the recipient of American support to fight al-Qaeda. This Sunni base produced aversion to al-Zarqawi’s group; al-Zarqawi had made outrageous pronouncements because of his sectarian hatred, dubbing Shia as infidels (takfiri). He was primarily interested in fighting “the near enemy”, rather than al-Qaeda. The Sahwa succeeded in besieging and eventually nearly eradicating al-Qaeda’s presence, but were soon marginalized and persecuted, and ultimately weakened, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, pushing some into the ranks of al-Zarqawi’s Islamic State. Some of those who’d been part of Saddam’s Sunni intelligence services and military, and who had been deprived of their livelihoods and whose local communities were discriminated against, also became part of or started cooperating with the Islamic State of Iraq., by cooperating with it or dissolving into its ranks.
Along these lines, and in the Iraqi laboratory of jihad, developed the considerations, practices and relations which compose the second layer in the formation of what would become Da’esh: a substantial intelligence element, which solidifies the discretionary nature of al-Qaeda as a globalized network empire, with surfacing antagonisms directed at previous state-sponsors of Afghani jihad dating from 1990 when American and western troops were deployed in Saudi Arabia in 1990 in the wake of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. This transformation also occurred in the aftermath of Afghanistan’s abandonment when it was a collapsed state after the Soviet withdrawal, without any substantive aid for its political and economic recovery. Antagonism towards previous sponsors was bolstered after 9/11 and the American occupation of Afghanistan, and the detention and assassination of al-Qaeda leaders. All of this occured in the context of what Hassan Abu Hanieh and Mohammad Abu Rumman call “the Sunni Crisis”, which worsened and spread across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. (From their book “The Islamic State: the Sunni crisis and the struggle over international Jihadism, 2015)
From the Iraqi laboratory moreover emerged the state-project and ambitions of territorial control, distinct from the decentralized and non-regional network that was al-Qaeda. The “network” belonged to the Ummah, while the “state” is an implementation of Salafist-jihadist doctrine in one country, in a manner reminiscent of the communist adventure of the 20th century.
In reality, this was to be the most significant development: the transformation from al-Qaeda, the Salafist-jihadist network, into a violent police-“State” based on Salafist-jihadist doctrine. The gravity of the state and the intelligence/police (Mukhabarat) in the composition of this new entity has steadily surpassed the gravity of Salafist-jihadist ideology, in a manner reminiscent of the relationship between Marxist-Leninist doctrine and the state institutions and apparatuses which carried out this doctrine and sought legitimacy through this ideology.
Within the Iraqi laboratory thus developed the element of hatred of Shias, which had not been crucial in the Afghan stage. Perhaps most importantly, the leaders of the “Islamic State of Iraq” which would later evolve, after expansion into Syrian territory, into Da’esh “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” are Iraqis by origin.
The Syrian Layer
“Da’esh” as such only emerged in 2013. Leading up to this emergence, al-Qaeda jihadists had started proliferating in the Syrian interior in 2011, only months into the Syrian revolution. In January 2012, the establishment of Jabhat al-Nusra was announced. In this instance, the proliferation of jihadism was not triggered by external occupation, whether Soviet in Afghanistan, or American in Iraq, but rather an “internal occupation,” an expression by which I mean the escalating brutal military response of the Assad dynastic regime against those protesting it. This jihadist experience would later benefit from Bashar al-Assad’s release of Salafist detainees (perhaps all Salafist prisoners) in his regime’s custody, starting in June 2011. It is a distinct possibility that the regime sought to cultivate a Salafist-jihadist movement of the experimental variety, which it was previously capable of controlling – such as “Jund al-Sham” and “Fatah al-Islam”, – as means of consolidating support amongst an array of Syrian populi, including those from “minority” backgrounds, as well as amongst varying Sunni strata. not to mention the regimes reinvention and marketing itself as a partner in the “war on terror”.
In Syria, Da’esh’s state-project and territorial and resource-control ambitions were noticeable, even before its attempted expansion in Iraq that culminating in the assault on Mosul, from which the Caliphate was announced in June 2014. It played a role of a police-state, zealously and savagely opposed to local communities and expressions of revolt, even more so than its opposition to the Syrian regime. In Afghanistan, the Mujahideen had confronted the Soviet occupation, then turned into Jihadists and entered a conflict with the US; in Iraq, the jihadists confronted the Americans and the U.S. and Iran-allied Shia rulers; in Syria, their confrontation was, from the beginning, with the revolution and rebel formations which fought the regime. What further fortified the fascist tendencies of Da’esh, apart from the evolving police-state element, was the fact that the majority of non-Syrian jihadists (the “Muhajireen”) joined Da’esh after Jabhat al-Nusra had defected from it in April of 2013 (al-Nusra publicly pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda at the time, as a means of covering their jihadist backs). These Muhajireen have no local connections in Syrian society, which in turn lacks mechanisms to pressure them. They are literally foreign occupiers. Iraqis, as well as these Muhajireen, occupy the leadership positions of Da’esh in Syria.
For about a year and a half since the emergence of Da’esh, between April 2013 and September 2014, the Syrian regime did practically nothing to confront it. That is, not until the American-led coalition launched its campaign against Da’esh in fall 2014, with the theater of this war originally being Iraq, rather than Syria.
If the older and more rooted layer in the formation of Da’esh was Salafist-jihadist, the meeting of two tributaries, Wahhabist and Qutbist, in the Afghan context, and stacked above it was an Iraqi Sunni layer influenced by practices of the police-state, one cannot distinguish a Syrian foundational element in the composition of Da’esh, apart from perhaps the derogatory name by which Syrians refer to the organization: “Da’esh”. Otherwise, there aren’t any distinctly Syrian ideological elements, or political/security elements. The most prominent position occupied by Syrians in the entity is by the spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who is the product of the Iraqi layer, with no history in Afghanistan. Next are local jurists and security officials.
Is the absence of Syrian elements a result of the novelty of the experiment? Maybe. However, this is not equivalent to claiming that Da’esh did not develop in the Syrian context, or that the latter only had a limited effect on Da’esh. The very opposite is true. Da’esh was formed as a “State” in Syria, and as a state, it has controlled an expansive territory. In Syria Da’esh has developed characteristics of a settlement-based colonization, the pillar of which is the practice of attracting Muhajireen, who are then settled into residences whose owners are in exile or have fled, especially in Raqqa. These jihadists are materially rewarded (with homes and wives, rather than mere salaries) in a manner that is not comparable to the jihadists of post-American-occupation Iraq. And while Da’esh can be considered a hybrid of nihilist terrorist organizations, fascist police-states and settler colonizations, its colonial attributes have arguably developed in the Syrian laboratory, even if the seeds of the fascist state were planted in the Islamic State of Iraq, founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the terrorism elements originated in the Afghan experience.
A vital Syrian economic facet of Da’esh as we know it today, is represented in their control over Syrian oil in Deir Ezzor, which generates over $2 million in revenue on a daily basis, as per a detailed and well-documented investigative report by the local Deiri “Eye of the City” magazine, as well as control over private and agricultural property and lands in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Upper Mesopotamia was treated as an internal colony during Hafez al-Assad’s era, and similarly so in the era of Da’esh, which is rapidly developed its own settler colonies.
The report also explores the oil-trade relations between Da’esh and the Assad regime through the ANISCO company owned by businessman George Hasswani.
Prior to this, a novel development that al-Qaeda in Syria underwent was the rift between al-Nusra and Da’esh. Nusra is more Syrian in composition, and has genuinely confronted the regime. However, it has also steadily exhibited an inclination to control local society and challenge its civil formations and other militant groups.
In the Syrian laboratory has occurred another phenomenon: the transformation of Salafist jihadism from the globalised network of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan into a cross-organisational paradigm, encompassing non-al-Qaeda or even anti-al-Qaeda groups in general, and Da’esh in particular. In the Syrian jihad laboratory we observe that Salafist jihadism becoming generalized and prolific in a manner that is still unfolding, and with outcomes that are difficult to predict, especially since the intensification by Russian occupation forces in their campaign. Da’esh now represents the most complete embodiment of this paradigm in a way that pressures other groups to follow suit., resembling the pressure of the Soviet state on the international communist network dispersed across dozens of states. These Salafist groups (al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Jaish al-Islam) may be politically opposed to Da’esh, but they find themselves in the gravitational field of the actualization of the intellectual and doctrinal method, rendering it more difficult to confront Da’esh. This reality helps explain why these organizations hesitate to confront Da’esh, as portrayed in the “Eye of the City” report. The report mentions the verging-on-beseeching tone of a joint statement issued by Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam in Deir Ezzor on 28/11/2013, in which they plead with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to “apply jurisprudence” in “settling the dispute” over the control of a natural gas plant, and to “snub sedition and confront provocateurs.” This took place while Jabhat al-Nusra had 1000 fighters in Deir Ezzor, and more in “allied brigades”, while Da’esh’s manpower did not exceed 200! It recurred in Raqqa at the beginning of 2014, when the expulsion of Da’esh from the city still seemed possible. However, Ahrar al-Sham avidly eschewed clashes with Da’esh so as to “avert Muslim bloodshed”. Da’esh, on the other hand, did not hesitate to shed the blood of over 120 Ahrar al-Sham fighters, who at the time were already retreating. The issue then is not one of military might; it is one of hegemony, as the power of doctrinal belief and the clarity of the political objective, stemming from the retention of the authority to define what Islam indeed is. With this authority, Da’esh reprimands its opponents who refuse to join forces, and who fail to develop an alternative model.
Perhaps it is Syria’s ill luck that Americans learnt these two lessons “by heart” after their withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. From Iraq they learnt that “state” institutions are to be preserved, the same institutions they had dismantled and dissolved at the height of their neo-conservative fervor, with the exception of the Ministry of Oil, whose cadre they laid off only after keen insistence from their allies, the Shia opposition parties. In Syria, the sole constant in American policy during the last five years appears to be the prevention of the collapse of the Assad regime, which occupies state institutions and exploits them to murder his subjects. The lesson learnt from Afghanistan was aversion to direct assault on jihadist hubs so as to avoid their dispersal and proliferation to all corners of the world. This was personally reiterated by President Obama in November 2015, which conforms with the slow and deliberate, American and international, approach to fighting Da’esh. The strategy seems, at present, to revolve around the besiegement rather than dissolution of the murderous entity. This means that Da’esh is “remaining” in the short term, even if without significant “expansion”.
What remains to be discussed is Da’esh’s peripheral extensions far from its Iraqi-Syrian center, in Libya and Egypt and other places, but we don’t have comprehensive information in that regard.
Furthermore, this article did not intend to discuss the emergence of this well-researched phenomenon and its earlier development. However, as long as we restrict our discussion to historical layers, it seems that the earlier layers do not retain their significance but with the impact of later and novel experiences, stir themselves by current positions, roles and social contexts. If it should occur that the ancient past is revived after being diminished and forgotten, that is because there are those who resurrect it, or see the necessity to revive it. Human inclination to reclaim or re-appropriate the past, and to “resurrect” it, certainly exceeds our inclination towards ingenuity. Hence, history never ceases to repeat itself.
This is to say that Da’esh is the outermost layer of Salafist jihadism, and that its Syrian, imperialist layer is dominant over its Iraqi, police-statist layer. If it fails to evolve within what is imposed by the more recent layer, it is bound to dissolve and perish.
This also suggests that the network which does not evolve into a state is ultimately dismantled, and that al-Qaeda has reached a dead-end, faced with the choice to either Da’eshify, which is a temptation al-Nusra barely seems to resist, or expect to be effectively sidelined from the struggle.
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In conclusion, the innermost layer in Da’esh’s genesis retains a concussed intellectual/rhetorical formulation, hailing from Egypt, alongside an ultra-conservative and deeply patriarchal tendency from Saudi Arabia, which had abundant rent capital emanating from the oil boom of 1974. From the Iraqi layer, Da’esh was subject to a new concussion, and a strong police-state element, and from the Syrian layer, Da’esh has developed an imperialist dimension, and the gap between a migrant jihadi and a mercenary has become ever narrower.
None of this has to do with emancipation, neither does it relate even remotely to identity, self-affirmation or dismantling dispossession, let alone the persecuted wrestling for politics, land and wealth from those who are mightier. Da’esh is a degeneration that storms our society, due to prolonged political and religious manipulation by aggressive international powers, and regional powers with no cause or principle.
Da’esh, which was born out of our oppression, has no sustainable future. However, it will only perish when we emancipate ourselves from that very oppression.