Inside the Islamic State

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate

by Abdel Bari Atwan
London: Saqi, 256 pp., £16.99 (to be published by University of California Press in September)
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Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching in a mosque in Mosul, from a video released in July 2014

In November 2001, two months after the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, James Buchan, a novelist and a former Middle East correspondent, published an article in the London Guardian in which he imagined the triumphant entry into Mecca of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist:

It was no ordinary evening, but possibly the holiest in the holiest month of Islam, the so-called Lailat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, on which, according to the Koran, God’s revelation was sent down to the Prophet Mohammed…. More than 50,000 people had gathered on the hot pavement of the mosque enclosure and in the streets outside to pass the evening in prayer. Millions of others were watching on a live television broadcast at home.

As Sheikh Abdul Rahman, famous all over the Islamic world for the beauty of his voice, mounted the pulpit, a hand reached up and tugged at his robe. There was a commotion, and in the place of the Imam stood a tall man, unarmed and dressed in the white cloth of the pilgrim…, and recognisable from a million television screens: Osama bin Laden, flanked by his lieutenants….

Armed young men appeared from the crowd and could be seen padlocking the gates, and taking up firing positions in the galleries.

So began the insurrection that was to overturn the kingdom of Saudi Arabia….

While the details in Buchan’s fantasy describing “the west’s worst nightmare” have changed, the scenario he outlined appears more plausible today than it did fourteen years ago. Bin Laden is dead, thanks to the action of US Navy SEALs in May 2011, but as Abdel Bari Atwan explains in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s official successor as leader of “al-Qa‘ida central,” looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden’s true successor is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy caliph of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. As “Commander of the Faithful” in that nascent state he poses a far more formidable threat to the West and to Middle Eastern regimes—including the Saudi kingdom—that are sustained by Western arms than bin Laden did from his Afghan cave or hideout in Pakistan.

One of the primary forces driving this transformation, according to Atwan, is the digital expertise demonstrated by the ISIS operatives, who have a commanding presence in social media. A second is that ISIS controls a swath of territory almost as large as Britain, lying between eastern Syria and western Iraq. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days in ISIS-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria, stated categorically in January: “We have to understand that ISIS is a country now.”

In his book, based on visits to the Turkish-Syrian border, online interviews with jihadists, and the access to leaders he enjoys as one of the Arab world’s most respected journalists, Atwan draws a convincing picture of the Islamic State as a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.

For security reasons, and to enhance his mystique, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph, keeps a low profile, rarely appearing in public. He is sometime known as the Phantom (al-shabah) or “‘the invisible sheikh’ because of his habit of wearing a mask when addressing his commanders.” His real name is Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri al-Qurayshi. He was born in 1971 in the Iraqi town of Samarra, once the seat of the caliphs in the Abbasid period (750–1258), whom he seeks to emulate. Crucially, the Bobadri tribe to which he belongs includes the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe of Qurayshin in its lineage. In the classical Sunni tradition, the caliph is required to be a Qurayshite.

According to Baghdadi’s online biography, supplied by the IS media agency al-Hayat, he is from a religious family that includes several imams (prayer leaders) and Koranic scholars. He is said to have attended the Islamic University of Baghdad where he received his BA, MA, and Ph.D., with his doctorate focusing on Islamic jurisprudence as well as including studies of Islamic culture and history. He first attended the university during Saddam Hussein’s “Faith Campaign,” when the Iraqi dictator encouraged Islamic religiosity as a way of rousing national feeling against the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the US liberated Kuwait from Saddam’s occupation in 1991.

While Baghdadi’s academic credentials confer legitimacy on his claim to be a religious guide as well as a political and military leader—an authority possessed by neither bin Laden nor Zawahri—his extensive battlefield experience and reputation as a shrewd tactician have enabled him to gain the support of experienced commanders and administrators from the former Baathist regime. As Atwan writes:

Islamic State always has the advantage of surprise and is able to seize opportunities as and when they arise. Rather than “fight to the death,” its brigades will slip away from a battle they are clearly not going to win, regrouping in a more advantageous location….

In January 2015, for example with the US-led alliance bombarding Islamic State targets in Iraq, the Military Council decided to redeploy its efforts to Syria. Fighters inside Iraq were ordered to lie low…while battalions and sleeper cells in Syria were reactivated. As a result, the group doubled the territory under its control in Syria between August 2014 and January 2015.

While skeptics may doubt the sincerity of the ex-Baathists, assuming they are seeking a return to the power they enjoyed before the US invasion, it seems more likely that their support for ISIS has been motivated by religious conviction. With their former hegemony lost, and the previously despised “infidel” Shias in the ascendant in Iraq, these erstwhile secularists are returning to their faith.

This is not to say that the expertise they acquired under Saddam has been lost. As Atwan explains, ISIS is a “highly centralized and disciplined organization” with a sophisticated security apparatus and capacity for delegating power. The caliph—as “successor” of the Prophet—is the ultimate authority; but despite his sermon exhorting believers to “advise me when I err,” any threat, opposition, or even contradiction is instantly eradicated. Baghdadi has two deputies—both former members of the Iraqi Baath Party. Both were his fellow prisoners in Camp Bucca, the sprawling American detention center in southern Iraq now seen as the “jihadist university” where former Baathists and Sunni insurgents were able to form ideological and religious bonds. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Baghdadi’s second-in-command, was a member of Saddam’s feared military intelligence. Baghdadi’s second deputy, Abu Ali al-Anbari, was a major general in the Iraqi army.

Baghdadi and his deputies set the group’s overall objectives, which are then communicated down the hierarchy, with local commanders and administrators allowed to fulfill their tasks at their own discretion in territories under ISIS control. There are advisory councils and several departments run by committees, with leaders of each department sitting in Baghdadi’s “cabinet.”

The most powerful of these is the Sharia Council, which oversees draconian implementation of the penalties for “crimes against God’s limits” (called hudud), which include amputations and capital punishment, as well as the punishments for other crimes (called tazir), largely aimed at shaming offenders and inducing repentance. The Islamic State has also established a sharia police force (similar to the religious police in Saudi Arabia) tasked with enforcing religious observance. Regular police are brought under ISIS administration, and wear new black uniforms. Police cars are resprayed with the ISIS insignia.

“Sharia courts deal with all complaints, whether religious or civil, and cases can be brought by individuals as well as the police,” Atwan writes.

In conurbations were there has been no policing and no judiciary owing to the collapse of central government, these courts are largely popular; citizens can bring cases directly to the courts, which are able to process cases quickly and, in most cases, reasonably.

Justice is said to be impartial, with ISIS soldiers subject to the same punishments as civilians.

An anonymous Sunni Muslim described as “non-extremist” living in Manbij, near Aleppo—under ISIS control since 2014—told Atwan “that crime is now nonexistent” thanks to “the uncompromising methods of the extremists and their ‘consistency.’” The taxes called zakat (one of Islam’s five “pillars” of religious obligation) are collected and given to the poor and to the displaced families from other parts of Syria who make up half the city’s population.

Atwan’s informant told him that most of the people living under ISIS rule approve of its educational policies, despite a focus on Islam, with the teaching of science seen as being generally strong. (Atwan claims no other evidence for this view.) More importantly perhaps, teachers are receiving their salaries after months of nonpayment.

The Education Council oversees the provision of education and the curriculum, based on the strict Salafist, or ultra-orthodox, interpretation of the Koran and sharia law. In many cases the curriculum used in Saudi schools—especially at the middle and high school levels—has been adopted in its entirety. Several subjects are banned, including evolutionary biology. Contrary to some media reports, girls are not deprived of education. Indeed ISIS in its online magazines makes a feature of its all-female schools and universities. While gender segregation is rigorously enforced, women are not forbidden by law to drive, as in Saudi Arabia.

The jihadists of ISIS may be terrorists—to use an imprecise, catch-all term—but as Atwan explains, they are both well paid and disciplined, and the atrocities they commit and upload on the Internet are part of a coherent strategy:

Crucifixions, beheadings, the hearts of rape victims cut out and placed upon their chests, mass executions, homosexuals being pushed from high buildings, severed heads impaled on railings or brandished by grinning “jihadist” children—who have latterly taken to shooting prisoners in the head themselves—these gruesome images of brutal violence are carefully packaged and distributed via Islamic State’s media department. As each new atrocity outdoes the last, front-page headlines across the world’s media are guaranteed.

Far from being an undisciplined orgy of sadism, ISIS terror is a systematically applied policy that follows the ideas put forward in jihadist literature, notably in an online tract, The Management of Savagery, by the al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji. This treatise, posted in 2004 and widely cited by jihadists, is both a rationale for violence and a blueprint for the Caliphate. It draws heavily on the writings of Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328), the medieval theologian who inspired the Arabian Wahhabi movement and is highly regarded by Islamists for holding rulers to account in the practice of true religion.

Naji, who was killed in a US drone strike in Waziristan in 2008, considers the violence inherent in conflict a necessary stage in the establishment of the Caliphate. He refers in particular to the campaigns of Muhammad and the “Wars of Apostasy” fought by the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who reigned 632–634 and fought the tribes that had abandoned Islam after the death of Muhammad when they no longer considered themselves bound by their bayat (oath of allegiance). Naji sees the coming period of savagery as a time of “vexation and exhaustion” when, as Atwan summarizes, “the superpowers will be worn down militarily by constant threat…from the jihadists.” The Americans, he writes, “have reached a stage of effeminacy which makes them unable to sustain battles for a long period of time.” Naji’s aim here—as Atwan explains—is “to provoke the US to ‘abandon its war against Islam by proxy…and the media psychological war…and to force it to fight directly.’”

While the inspiration for the “savagery” detailed by Naji relies on transplanting the early battles of Islam and projecting them forward in an apocalyptic showdown in northwest Syria, ISIS maximizes the impact of its terror strategy by encouraging scenes of violence and death to be shown on screens and phones.* Brutality, however, is only one element in the stream of images uploaded by its sophisticated media outlets. The Islamic State, according to Atwan, is also presented as

an emotionally attractive place where people “belong,” where everyone is a “brother” or “sister.” A kind of slang, melding adaptations or shortenings of Islamic terms with street language, is evolving among the English-language fraternity on social media platforms in an attempt to create a “jihadi cool.” A jolly home life is portrayed via Instagram images where fighters play with fluffy kittens and jihadist “poster-girls” proudly display the dishes they have created.

The idea of the “restored Caliphate” has been the dream of Islamic revivalists since the formal abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by Kemal Atatürk in 1924. The appeal, carefully fostered by Baghdadi and his cohorts by means of the Internet and social media, is for a transnational body that stands above the various tribes or communities making up the Muslim world. They are achieving impressive results, with pledges of allegiance (bayat) from militants in places as far removed from one another as Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen, and in Libya ISIS now has an airbase in Sirte, the hometown of former leader Muammar Qaddafi.

The jihadists’ most potent psychological pitch is exploiting dreams of martyrdom—a theme that is cleverly juxtaposed with images of domestic normalcy. Close-ups of dead fighters’ smiling faces are frequently posted, along with the ISIS “salute”—the right-hand index finger pointing heavenward. In one Twitter feed a British-born woman shares her “glad tidings”:

My husband Rahimuh Allah has done the best transaction you can make his soul [sic] and in return Jenna [heaven] may Allah accept you yaa shaheed [martyr].

“Five hours earlier,” Atwan writes, “she had posted a picture of a bowl of cream dessert with bits of Toblerone chocolate stuck on top.” For young viewers already used to simulated violence on television and computer games, Naji ups the ante, insisting that in suicide missions jihadists should use “a quantity of explosives that not only destroys the building…[but] makes the earth completely swallow it up. By doing so, the amount of the enemy’s fear is multiplied and good media goals are achieved.”

The use of explosives for propaganda as well as military purposes can be compared to the “shock and awe” tactics favored by Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell in the assault on Baghdad in 2003. The online reputation achieved by these ferocious jihadists inspires such fear that government troops in Iraq and Syria have fled rather than put up a fight. Only Kurds and Shias still have the motivation to offer resistance.

Fear-inducing terror is also personal. Naji writes that hostages whose ransoms have not been paid should be “liquidated in the most terrifying manner which will send fear into the hearts of the enemy and his supporters.” American citizens—James Foley and Steven Sotloff—were executed, on camera, in the orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. The online theatricals serve to legitimize murder as a type of qisas—“retaliation in kind”—which is one of the well-known punishments in Islamic law.

As Atwan points out, these horrifying scenes are expertly disseminated by the ISIS media department, which is run by a French-born Syrian-American trained in Massachusetts. The public information department is led by a Syrian, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, whom Atwan describes as “the most significant figure in Islamic State after Caliph Ibrahim and his deputies.” This Goebbels of the Islamic State has been responsible for some of its most inflammatory propaganda, including an online speech urging “lone-wolf” jihadists living in the West to kill “citizens of countries which have entered into a coalition against Islamic State” by “any means you chose,” such as deliberately running over people with vehicles. His speech was followed in quick succession by hit-and-run attacks in Canada, France, and Israel.

Atwan explains how the Islamic State’s media department employs an army of journalists, photographers, and editors to produce slick videos with high production values that are disseminated on the Internet without their source being detected. Activists use “virtual private networks” that conceal a user’s IP address, in conjunction with browsers—including one originally developed for US Navy intelligence—that enable the viewer to access the “dark Internet,” the anonymous zone frequented by child pornographers and other criminals.

In 2014 the US State Department’s intelligence unit oversaw the removal of 45,000 jihadist items from the Internet, while Britain’s Metropolitan Police deleted some 1,100 items per week. It seems doubtful, however, that this “electronic counter-jihad” will prove any more successful than efforts to abolish Internet fraud or close down pedophile rings. Like other criminals the “cyber-jihadists” keep one step of ahead of the government agencies and service providers seeking to close them down.

Confronting believers with the choice between heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, using fiery rhetoric and imagery, has long been the stock-in-trade of preachers, as famously analyzed by the psychiatrist William Sargant in his classic study of religious conversion and “brain-washing” in Battle for the Mind (1957). ISIS can dispense with preachers and instead use social media to stimulate a process of self-radicalization, with thousands of foreign Muslims (and some converts) flocking to join the Caliphate.

Atwan, who visited the area in late 2014, considers the number of fighters for the Islamic State considerably larger than the 100,000 or so usually cited by the Western media, a third of whom—at least 30,000—are foreigners (i.e., non-Iraqis and non-Syrians). The most numerous, according to the Washington Institute, are Libyans (around 21 percent), followed by Tunisians and Saudis (16 percent), Jordanians (11 percent), Egyptians (10 percent), and Lebanese (8 percent). Turkish volunteers, he says, have been underestimated, with some two thousand Turks in ISIS. Europeans are led by the French brigades (composed of French and Belgians of North African descent), with some 6 percent of the total, followed by the British with 4.5 percent. “Australian authorities were shocked to discover” that some two hundred of their nationals had joined ISIS, “making the country the biggest per capita exporter of foreign jihadists.”

Conversion and recruitment, however, are far from the only benefits achieved by the Caliphate’s mastery of the Internet. Like criminal gangsters, the jihadists use bitcoins and other forms of “crypto-currency,” such as “stored value credit cards” linked to prepaid disposable mobile phones, to avoid detection when accumulating or transferring funds. The group’s main source of revenue, however, has been oil. Although ISIS lost two of the Iraqi oil fields it controlled after the Iraqi government’s security forces reconquered Tikrit in April, it is still a wealthy organization, having “numerous legal and illegal revenue streams that involve both local and global partners.” The budget is managed by an Economic Council that produces annual reports each March. The reports describe in detail attacks and military operations, along with revenue and expenditures. In January 2015 overall receipts were reported to be $2 billion in all the territories controlled by ISIS, with a surplus of $250 million added to the war chest.

Ironically ISIS has benefited from the ban on Syrian oil exports imposed by the US and European Union by selling oil directly to the Assad regime—thereby increasing the suspicion that Assad has been an active collaborator with ISIS, in order to eliminate any vestiges of the “moderate” Syrian opposition that retains some Western support. Damage caused by US air strikes to the Syrian oilfields in Deir el-Zor has been compensated by ISIS’s conquest of Palmyra (Tadmor), which has two fields of natural gas and a phosphate mine, the largest in Syria.

Other sources of income include bank robberies, kidnap ransoms, “fees” at roadblocks, and “taxes” imposed on traders living in ISIS-controlled areas. Atwan sees management of these funds as “indicative of a large, well-organized, state-like entity” governed in strict accordance with Islamic law. Jizya—the per capita tax paid by Jews and Christians prior to nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms—is now exacted from non-Muslims, while booty and “spoils of war”—including captured women and slaves—may be distributed in accordance with Koranic prescriptions.

Also among such spoils of war are the antiquities taken to buyers from ancient archaeological sites, such as Palmyra. In general, sites are destroyed only after everything of value that can be transported has been removed. In addition to Palmyra—the first site in Syria captured directly from government forces—the looters in Syria have been at work on Hellenistic and Byzantine remains in Apamea, Dura-Europos, and the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa.

As well as describing the internal structure of the Islamic State and its uses of the Internet, Atwan provides an authoritative account of its beginnings in the branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq dominated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who—contrary to bin Laden’s more inclusive approach—adopted violently sectarian rhetoric and organized atrocities at Shia mosques and places of pilgrimage in line with his ultra-Wahhabist theology. Atwan thinks that Zarqawi’s overall strategy was to fight the US occupation by dragging the ruling Shias into a civil war with Sunnis. This would allow his group to increase its influence among the indigenous Sunni population and bring in Sunni fighters from neighboring countries (Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) where Sunnis are the majority. Given the current state of Iraq and Syria, the strategy seems to have paid off handsomely.

In June 2006 Zarqawi was tracked down and killed by a fighter jet after posting Rambo-style pictures of himself on the Internet, enabling US surveillance to pinpoint his location. The lesson was not lost on his successors, who joined with other Sunni groups to form the umbrella Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the nucleus of ISIS. By a Darwinian process, jihadists who failed to master complex systems of cybersecurity were rapidly eliminated, leaving the field to their more sophisticated and technically proficient brethren.

Atwan notes that none of Zarqawi’s successors, including Baghdadi, pledged allegiance (bayat) to bin Laden or his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Technically ISI and its heirs (now ISIS or Islamic State) have been independent of al-Qaeda for the past eight years, a factor that helps to facilitate defections from members of other Islamist groups, such as the Syrian-based Jabhat al-Nusra, which retains its formal links with al-Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra, supported by Qatar and other Gulf states, now spearheads internal opposition to the Assad regime. Rather than threatening Damascus politically, ISIS has focused on building its state.

The obvious question that arises is, where will all of this end? A meeting in Paris in early June of twenty-four coalition partners led by the US and France failed to come up with any new strategies. With ISIS in control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and nearing the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria, coalition air strikes are plainly insufficient to deter the Caliphate’s expansion. Only the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iranian-trained Shiite militias have the capacity and will to halt the Caliphate’s amoeba-like growth in Iraq. But the deployment of Shia militias can only escalate an already dangerous sectarian conflict.

Shia mosques are being targeted by ISIS not only in Iraq, where Shias are in the majority, but also in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the oil is located. Efforts by the Saudi regime to defend its Shia minority (who already suffer discrimination) must surely play into the hands of the ISIS militants, who like their stricter Wahhabi counterparts regard the Shias as heretics. As Atwan explains, both the House of Saud and the Islamic State lay claim to the “true path” of Islam as outlined by the eighteenth-century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, yet each considers the other to be in a state of apostasy.

There seems little doubt about which of these claims is perceived in Saudi Arabia as more authentic. In an online poll conducted in July 2014, a formidable 92 percent of Saudi citizens agreed that ISIS “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.” In mounting its challenge to the Saudi monarch’s quasi-caliphal claim to lead the Muslim world as “Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines” (Mecca and Medina), ISIS highlights “the royal family’s love of luxury and acceptance of corruption which, it claims, renders its members ideologically and morally unfit for the task.”

The values and hubris of the Saudi dynasty are exemplified by its astounding exploitation, not to say desecration, of Mecca’s holy city, where the world’s largest hotel (seventy restaurants and 10,000 bedrooms) is under construction in the dynasty’s favorite wedding-cake style—with five of its forty-five stories reserved for exclusive use by the royal family. As oil prices decline the princes and their friends expect to benefit by “catering to the increasingly high expectations of well-heeled pilgrims from the Gulf.” By appropriating Wahhabism’s iconoclastic rhetoric, along with its anti-Shia theology, ISIS challenges the legitimacy of the Saudi rulers as guardians of Islam’s holy places far more effectively than any republican movement. With Iraq and Syria falling apart and the US caught between conflicting impulses (fighting alongside Iran in Iraq while opposing it in Syria), it may only be a matter of time before the nightmare imagined by James Buchan becomes a reality.

—June 9, 2015

  1. *

    See my “Lure of the Caliphate,” NYrblog, February 28, 2015.