What is Pakistan's stance on ISIS


Guido Steinberg

To person

Dr. Guido Steinberg is an Islamic scholar and works for the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin. From 2002 to 2005 he was a terrorism officer in the Federal Chancellery.

Hardly any other Islamist group is currently in the focus of international attention as much as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Where did the militant group come from? What role does it play in the Syrian war? And how is it related to al Qaeda?

Islamist ISIS fighters in the Anbar province of Iraq in January 2014. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took large parts of western and north-western Iraq, including the megacity of Mosul. Shortly afterwards, their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the caliph of all Muslims and quickly renamed his organization "Islamic State" (IS). The cocky rhetoric could not hide the fact that ISIS was just a militant organization that had only been in existence since 2000 under frequently changed names and never had more than 10-20,000 fighters before mid-2014. Its founder was the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab az-Zarqawi (1966-2006), who led his followers to Iraq in 2003, where he and his successors fought against the American occupation forces and the new Iraqi state. Despite numerous setbacks, the organization managed to regain strength after the US withdrew at the end of 2011, to expand its activities to Syria and, in 2014, to go on the offensive in Iraq.

Abu Musab az-Zarqawi and the genesis of ISIS

The ideology and strategy of the first leader Abu Musab az-Zarqawi has shaped the history of ISIS to this day. The Jordanian founded the organization "Tawhid" (= commitment to the unity of God) in 2000 as a gathering point for jihadists from Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Although he set up his headquarters in Afghanistan and maintained close contacts with the leadership of al-Qaida, he avoided joining the organization. Rather, the Taliban then ruling in Afghanistan gave him permission to set up a training camp near the city of Herat. Zarqawi's goals were initially limited and reflected the strongly Jordanian and Palestinian composition of his group: he wanted to overthrow the royal family in his home country Jordan and then "liberate Jerusalem".

At the end of 2001, Zarqawi and his supporters fled Afghanistan. They traveled via Iran to northern Iraq, where Zarqawi was waiting for the US-British invasion that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003. From the summer of 2003 an uprising broke out against the continued American presence, which was supported by numerous Sunni groups of different ideological orientations. One of the largest was headed by Zarqawi, who succeeded in integrating numerous Iraqis into his organization, which he now called "at-Tawheed wa-l-Jihad" (Confession of Unity and Holy War). The next renaming followed in October 2004, when Zarqawi swore an oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and from then on acted as the emir of "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" (al-Qaida fi Bilad ar-Rafidain). The integration of many Iraqis into the group also expanded the goals of Iraqi al-Qaeda. First, the American troops should be driven out of Iraq and an Islamic state should be built. The jihadists would then carry the armed struggle to the neighboring countries of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in order to then fight Israel and conquer Jerusalem.

Zarqawi's strategy in Iraq was as simple as it was daring and ultimately self-destructive. He wanted to provoke counter-attacks against the Sunni population through the most sensational, brutal and sacrificial attacks on Shiite dignitaries, shrines, security forces and civilians and to become the most important defender of the Sunnis in the civil war that followed. The civil war actually broke out after Iraqi al-Qaeda bombed the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, which was particularly sacred to the Shiites, in a bomb attack in February 2006. It quickly became apparent that, contrary to their announcements, al-Qaeda was unable to protect the Sunnis from the Shiite militias - if only because Shiites make up around 60% and Arab Sunnis less than 20% of the Iraqi population. In September 2006, many Sunni groups gave up the armed struggle, made peace with the American occupiers and turned against al-Qaeda. Zarqawi himself did not live to see the decline of his creation, because in June 2006 he was killed in an American air raid.

Two jihadist schools of thought

The public affiliation with al-Qaeda in 2004 could never hide the fact that Zarqawi's group (and later also ISIS) was an independent organization that represented a fundamentally different jihadist school of thought than the al-Qaeda headquarters in Pakistan. Both groups shared important goals such as combating the US presence in the Middle East, but they could never agree on a common course of action. The main points of contention were Zarqawi's anti-Shiite strategy, his uncompromising claim to leadership over other Sunni groups and his brutal acts of violence in general.

The fact that Zarqawi even joined al-Qaeda is likely to have had very mundane reasons. Al-Qaeda had funding and recruiting networks in the Arab Gulf states, to which Zarqawi gained access through the renaming. However, as early as 2005 it became apparent that relations between Iraqi al-Qaeda and headquarters were strained. Usama bin Laden and his followers also believed the Shiites to be infidels. Nevertheless, they rejected direct attacks on the Shiites because they primarily wanted to fight the United States and not unnecessarily provoke another opponent. Bin Laden deputy Aiman ​​al-Zawahiri made this clear in a letter to Zarqawi in 2005 when he warned the Jordanian that his anti-Shiite strategy and uninhibited violence against civilians stole al-Qaeda from public support. When Zarqawi refused to follow the advice from Pakistan, however, the al-Qaida headquarters saw no way of enforcing itself and tacitly resigned itself to the strategy of its "branch" in Iraq.

The activities of the Iraqi organization gave the world the impression that al-Qaeda was dealing with a global network capable of bringing the American superpower in Iraq to the brink of defeat. The annexation of the Zarqawi group also had the advantage that it tied Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese to al-Qaida in addition to the Iraqis. Before 2004, the organization had hardly been able to recruit recruits from these nationalities because they accused it of not advocating their causes, especially the fight against Israel. This was correct insofar as al-Qaeda primarily fought the US in order to force its withdrawal from the Arab world and then to overthrow the regimes in its home countries Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Accordingly, before 2004, al-Qaeda was often viewed as an Egyptian-Gulf Arab organization, which, as evidenced by its personnel structure, it was. The majority consisted of Saudi Arabians, Yemenis, Kuwaitis and Egyptians. The new recruitment pool opened up by Zarqawi seemed to the al-Qaeda leadership an attractive compensation for the lack of control over Zarqawi's activities, so they let him go.

The rupture did not occur until 2013/14, when the previously latent competition between al-Qaeda headquarters and Iraqi al-Qaida (ISIS) over the question of who should be in command in Syria turned into an open conflict. In the tradition of Zarqawi, ISIS insisted there, too, on an unconditional claim to sole representation and fought all other insurgents. The new al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri, on the other hand, stood for the competing school of thought, according to which the jihadists in all theaters of war should seek allies and work pragmatically with them.

Defeat and regain in Iraq

After Zarqawi's death in 2006, the organization was initially unable to adequately replace its charismatic leader. His successor was the largely unknown Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri (alias Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), who effectively led the organization until his death in April 2010. However, in Abu Umar al-Baghdadi (originally Hamid az-Zawi), an Iraqi was put at his side. When the Iraqi al-Qaeda announced the establishment of the "Islamic State of Iraq" (ISI) in October 2006, Baghdadi Emir and al-Masri were only ministers of war. The main aim here was to emphasize the Iraqi character of the ISI to the local population. reputed to be dominated by foreign jihadists, Baghdadi was little more than the figurehead, while the real command was with Masri.

At the same time, the organization fell on the defensive. With the beginning of the civil war, it quickly became apparent that the ISI was able to provoke a civil war, but not to protect the Sunni population from counterattacks by Shiite militias. In addition, the ISI used violence against other Sunni insurgents who refused to bow to its claim to leadership. Many non-jihadist insurgents therefore decided in September 2006 to enter into negotiations with the US troops. The former insurgents pledged to stop attacks on US and Iraqi troops and henceforth to fight against the ISI. In return, the US troops provided their new allies with money and weapons. At the end of 2007, the members of the militias that were formed in this way in Baghdad and the surrounding area and called themselves "Councils of Awakening" (sahawat) had more than 70,000 members. Together with these auxiliary troops, the American troops also proceeded more and more effectively against the ISI.

In the course of 2007 it became all too clear that the ISI was getting weaker and weaker; the Sunni uprising dissolved. Since 2008 at the latest, it has become apparent that the ISI would no longer be able to endanger the stability of the Iraqi state despite the continued high number of attacks. Another weakening was the death of the two leaders, Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, in a skirmish with Iraqi and American troops in April 2010.

In the civil war in Syria

In neighboring Syria, an uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, which quickly turned into a civil war. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (originally Ibrahim al-Badri) sent a group of Syrian fighters to their homeland in the summer of 2011, who on behalf of the ISI founded the Aid Front for the People of Syria (Jabhat an-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham) there. Under the leadership of the Syrian Abu Muhammad al-Jaulani, the Nusra Front became by far the most important jihadist and also one of the strongest insurgent groups in the course of 2012. The organization benefited from the fact that Syrians had provided one of the largest foreign contingents in the Iraq uprising from 2003 and almost all foreign fighters traveled via Syria. The Nusra Front was able to rely on the logistics networks established at that time in the north and east of Syria.

The stronger the Nusra Front became, the worse the relationship between Baghdadi and Jaulani became because the Syrian tried to evade ISI control. The conflict also had an ideological dimension, because the Nusra Front did not at all follow the example of its Iraqi parent organization. Rather, it was guided by the guidelines of the al-Qaida leadership and built on close contacts with the non-jihadist insurgents in order to overthrow Assad as quickly as possible. When it became apparent that Baghdadi would lose control of Jaulani completely, he declared in an audio message on April 8, 2013 that the Nusra Front was just the extended arm of the ISI and an integral part of it. The terms "Nusra Front" and "Islamic State of Iraq", according to Baghdadi, would be abolished in favor of the new common name "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria".

Baghdadi's declaration was followed by a virtual confrontation between the Nusra Front and ISIS, in which al-Qaeda leader Aiman ​​az-Zawahiri also intervened in June. At first, Jaulani refused, in an audio message released on April 10, to subordinate the Nusra Front to Baghdadi. Rather, he sought support from Zawahiri by swearing allegiance to him. The al-Qaida leader now felt compelled to intervene in the conflict between the two al-Qaeda "branches". He supported Jaulani's position by decreeing that ISIS should be dissolved and that ISI and the Nusra Front should operate independently of one another and under the supreme command of al-Qaeda headquarters in their respective home countries. Baghdadi refused to obey, so that Zawahiri later expelled him from the al-Qaida alliance in January 2014.

In parallel to these clashes, ISIS units gradually took over bases of the Nusra Front in the east and north of the country from early summer 2013. They benefited from the fact that many Nusra leaders and members defected to them. ISIS fought occasionally against regime forces, but focused on expanding its influence in the already rebel-held area. From summer onwards, the conflicts increased as ISIS used more and more violence and murdered numerous commanders from competing groups. In December, tensions escalated, especially between ISIS and the Islamic Front - an alliance of Islamist and Salafist groups led by the Free Men of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham) - and culminated in fierce fighting. As a result, ISIS had to withdraw to the east from Aleppo and the surrounding area.

From the terrorist organization to the Islamic State?

The fact that Iraqi Al-Qaeda wanted to take over the leadership of the jihadist movement became clear as early as October 2006 when it renamed itself "Islamic State in Iraq" (ISI). The new nominal leader, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, assumed the title of "Commander of the Believers" (Amir al-Mu’minin) - which implies a claim to leadership for the entire community of (Sunni) Muslims. However, this latent conflict only broke out when the severely weakened ISI regained strength after the American withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At the end of 2013 ISI / ISIS fighters conquered their old stronghold Falluja and also parts of Ramadi west of Baghdad; The triumphant march in Mosul followed in the summer of 2014. ISIS then took a two-pronged approach: On the one hand, it fought in neighboring Syria, where ISIS succeeded in driving the Nusra Front from its remaining positions in the east of the country in June and July and where heavy fighting between ISIS and regime troops became more and more frequent . On the other hand, ISIS attacked troops of the Kurdish regional government stationed in the north and west of Mosul - whereupon the US government ordered air strikes from ISIS units.

The successes in Iraq and Syria made Baghdadi serious competition for al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri. This is particularly evident in the large number of foreign fighters in Syria who have turned away from other groups and joined ISIS. Saudi Arabians, Moroccans and Tunisians are particularly well represented, but Libyans, Jordanians and Turks also make up large contingents. There are also numerous Chechens, Azerbaijanis and Europeans. For them, Baghdadi's hatred of Shiites, the unrestrained brutality and the fixation on the "liberation" of Jerusalem seem to correspond more to the essence of the Salafist-jihadist ideology than Zawahiri's political pragmatism.

In addition, the group has very good financial resources. Although it does not receive any government support, it stole hundreds of millions of dollars on its triumphant advance in Iraq. In addition, there are donations from wealthy private individuals from the Gulf States, income from taxes and duties and income from the sale of gas and oil, which even allow ISIS to pay its fighters salaries and to recruit numerous new recruits, so that the number of its fighters mainly decreases Summer 2014 grew.

It will only become clear in the coming years whether the jihadist schools of thought of Zarqawi and Baghdadi will prevail against those of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Much will depend on whether ISIS can really hold a larger territory for a long time and build a state-like structure there. Against ISIS speaks its tendency to fight all of its numerous enemies at the same time, which led to the defeat in Iraq in 2007/2008. The obvious weakness of the states in Iraq and Syria, which will remain unstable for years to come, speaks for him. The Nusra Front and Zawahiri, whose willingness to compromise is politically smarter and more promising in the long term, could also benefit from this. In any case, ISIS will remain present in Iraq and Syria for a long time, so that brutal acts of violence against Shiites, Alawites, Christians and other minorities and conflicts among rebel organizations in both countries will remain the order of the day.