We have preconceived notions about terrorist groups, including young extremists with long hair and beards carrying out suicide operations, bombings and assassinations to sabotage and overthrow regimes. The difference today is that such appearances and acts are coming from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) more known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, not Al-Qaeda.
Daesh is a chaotic organization with weapons and videos broadcast on TV. It has the potential of a state, with wealth, power, people and lands. It has oil wells and refineries, trucks to smuggle it and a network of brokers who can arrange sales and barter. Daesh has also a margin for maneuver — it deals with its enemies, and sells gas and oil to some government-controlled areas in Syria to operate power plants.
It has people in charge of levying money from banditry, trucks in transit and taxes. Daesh has formed municipal councils in the cities and towns it controls, with their own courts and police. They try to control local phone communications and Internet distribution. In Daesh-controlled areas, the streets are lit and water reaches all houses on a daily basis. This terrorist state has a leadership, flag and propaganda campaigns. It brutally slaughters people to terrify others.
When I attended the recent World Economic Forum by the Dead Sea, I asked an Arab banker about their branch in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is occupied by Daesh. He said although its business has deteriorated, the branch opens every day on time, and the staff goes to work every morning. Daesh has not closed banks, although it considers them forbidden usury.
Daesh in Iraq controls more than 40 cities and towns, the largest of which are Mosul and Ramadi, capital of Al-Anbar province. Its militias are just 80 kilometers away from Baghdad. It shares borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and extends its authority to east, north and central Syria. Daesh controls three dams, and has deprived its opponents of water.
If Daesh decides not to expand, and if it does not lose future defensive battles, it will be able in a couple of years to have official relations with some countries. Such an evolution makes Daesh more dangerous than its mother-organization Al-Qaeda. The latter’s aim was to spread religious extremism and attempt to overthrow regimes that were against it. However, it lacked proper plans for the aftermath.
Daesh is an advanced and more dangerous model, a project to establish a real state. It targets troubled areas, seizes lands, validates its presence then expands. It seems that it can accurately read its opponents in Syria, Iraq and the West. It takes advantage of sectarian incitement by Iraqi and Iranian Shiite political forces, and exploits it to recruit Sunnis in the areas it occupies.
The sectarian mobilization allows Daesh to present itself as a state to those who do not feel that they belong to a state. They will defend the state with conviction and fearlessness. It seems that the organization is thinking more with its mind than its weapons. It monitors what comes out of opposing governments, especially the United States.
So far, Daesh has not provoked Washington with hostile operations that may lead the US government to repeat what it did in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. The strategy of Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s government seems more focused than the leadership of late Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Baghdadi is targeting failing states or those suffering from a political vacuum, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. He seeks to control areas that fall within his sectarian interest. He suppresses people and seizes their financial resources. He appoints some people from the area to manage local affairs, and after seizing weapons and lands, he moves to well-planned military operations.
Daesh is a rich state. The Rand Corporation estimates that its income from oil-smuggling last year reached $100 million, its revenue from extortion $600 million and looting from banks $600 million. Even if these numbers are overstated, it is certain that Baghdadi’s state is richer and much more dangerous than Bin Laden’s organization. Daesh has oil, banks, massive weapons supplies, and local youths and outsiders fighting for it.
It will be difficult to challenge Daesh without the participation of all countries in the region, including conflicting governments and the existing international coalition. It will be very difficult as long as Washington remains unable to manage Baghdad’s orientations or to stop Iran. Without the criminalization of sectarianism from both sides, the coalition will lack power. The clash between the Gulf countries and Iran over Syria and Yemen is complicating the situation. With these regional differences and the American underperformance, Daesh will prosper and will be very difficult to defeat.