The Islamic State is not a new phenomenon but its recent successes and level of support is truly unique, according to a US academic.
More international fighters have joined the various jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq over the past three years than during any Islamic war in decades. Some estimates place the figure at 15,000 individuals, including a handful of New Zealand citizens.
Now, as New Zealand prepares to join the three-month old international coalition battling the group in Iraq, US commanders are warning of a long fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key reportedly spoke with US President Barack Obama at the recent Apec meeting in China. The two discussed the IS threat and agreed that the long term solution can only be found in diplomacy.
The Washington Institute’s Richard Borow fellow and jihadist expert Aaron Zelin says that the present-day “Islamic State” incarnation has gone through many splits and consolidations over the years.
“It’s not really anything terribly new, at not least in terms of the group’s history. Their basic structure goes all the way back to 1999/2000 when it originally called itself ‘Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad’.
“Later on it changed its name to ‘al Qaeda in Iraq’. This was a sort of marriage of convenience between [Osama] bin Laden and Jordanian leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi since they both needed each other to stay relevant and gain resources,” he says.
Since joining the Syrian civil war, the adopted the name ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS). It was only recently, in June this year, when the group overran the Iraqi city of Mosul, that they changed their name again to ‘Islamic State’.
“Its long term goal is to take over the entire world,” Mr Zelin says. “But its mid-term goal is to retake all Muslim territory - areas like Spain or parts of the Balkans. All the way up into parts of Xinjiang in western China. Obviously a lot would have to happen for this to occur.”
High estimates of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, according to the United Nations, suggest about 15,000 people have travelled to the region. A lower estimate is closer to 4000, but this lower figure represents individuals who have actually been confirmed by name.
“Based from my own research, the true number is around 10,000. This isn’t how many people are currently there, it’s a total of the last three years. People have died or returned home, been arrested or moved on to other conflict zones such as the Sinai [Peninsula], Libya or Yemen.
“About 90 or so countries are represented in these numbers, so pretty much all of the world’s major nations. The largest regional draw cards are from the Arab world - primarily from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya. And then from Western Europe – the highest numbers from France, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands.”
One of the reasons for such high numbers, says Mr Zelin, is the relative ease of travel to the region. In comparison, it is extraordinarily difficult to travel to other conflict zones such as Libya, Mali, Afghanistan or Yemen.
“If you have a plane ticket to those places it looks sketchy. Whereas Turkey gets a lot of tourists, so it’s not as suspicious.
“There’s also the legacy of the facilitation of logistics networks left over from the Iraq War. Although Turkey today is the hub of these networks, last decade it was Syria helping people move into Iraq. So all the infrastructure is already in place,” he says.
Currently, the bulk of individuals heading to the region are Muslims, but the spectrum of belief is wide. Some are converts, some have been believers for life. Others are more appropriately classed as “reverts” – holding nominal Muslim belief from an early age, only recently observing.
“It depends on a country-by-country basis. For example, from Europe we see a lot more people that were born Muslim. They didn’t necessarily grow up religious but they became reverts. Whereas at least 50% of foreign fighters from the US are converts.
“So it’s important to get the data of who these individuals are. In New Zealand, since there’s only 6-8 individuals, it’s hard to know if that’s representative. But it seems by looking at the information available that many of the Kiwis are converts, but there needs to be more data,” Mr Zelin says.
Mr Zelin isolates a number of reasons for the resurgence of the group and its international popularity.
“One of the first things was the US military withdrawal. I’m not saying that the US should have stayed, a lot of the blame should be placed on the Iraqi government after the US left in terms of some of the politics they conducted.
“But the biggest thing that changed the game was the so-called Syrian Jihad. In April 2013, the Islamic State officially entered themselves into the conflict which allowed them to access new recruits, weapons and new sources of funding.”
The group also piggy-backed off the grievances of the Iraqi Sunni community. After the US troops departed in 2011, the Sunnis were promised political integration by the Iraq government which wasn’t delivered.
“The entrance of Islamic State in Syria in 2013 led to the break up between that group and [al Qaeda affiliated] Jabhat al Nusra. One of the things they’re arguing about is the methodology of how to govern and take territory, but also how to deal with the local populace.”
He says the post-Arab Spring Middle East is a very different place compared a decade ago. After more than ten years fighting Western troops in Iraq, IS have taken some notes on what not to do.
“Jihadists have started to provide governance and social services. That’s an area where IS has been able to learn from some of the lessons of their failures last decade.
When they were in control of [Iraq’s] Anbar province last decade, the group wasn’t providing any services, they were primarily doing law and order. But now, in addition to a brutal method of governance they are also providing soft governance such as medical, food and education services.”
Of course these ‘friendly’ municipal actions are based off the group’s own interpretations of the doctrine of Islam, but since they currently monopolise the utility services that’s making it difficult for the local population to push back.
“They’re cleaning roads, fixing the electrical lines, and running one of the dams on the Euphrates [River]. It’s a relatively sophisticated operation,” he says.
After announcing their so-called “Caliphate” this year, IS are now recruiting volunteers not just for fighting. They are calling for doctors, engineers, nurses and people with other careers.
“This expands the scope of people who can be recruited. Volunteers don’t need to simply fight to join up with this group, this is truly a state-building enterprise. We see many foreigners involved in the governance aspect of IS operations, since often they don’t have a background in military training, and are highly educated in relevant social skills,” Mr Zelin says.