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Chaos theory: Islamic state’s apocalyptic vision

The Islamic State may have sounded its death knell with the Paris attacks. But its fighters won’t mind: they believe the world is about to end

world Updated: Nov 22, 2015 13:24 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
A man identified in the subtitiles as Al Karar the Iraqi, an Islamic State fighter, gestures as he speaks at an undisclosed location in this image taken from undated video footage released by Islamic State.
A man identified in the subtitiles as Al Karar the Iraqi, an Islamic State fighter, gestures as he speaks at an undisclosed location in this image taken from undated video footage released by Islamic State. (REUTERS)

Dabiq is a small village outside the Syrian capital of Damascus. A few years ago, it was overrun by fighters of the Islamic State. Subsequently, the IS named its main online propaganda mouthpiece “Dabiq.” The obsession of this terrorist-state that boasts of taking on a global coalition of “60 flags” with this unimportant village reveals a lot about its motivation.

According to Islamicist prophecies, Dabiq will be the site of a final battle between Islam and its enemies, a battle that would pave the way to the end of the world. Capturing Dabiq was not about winning a war, it was about readying the ground for the apocalypse.

As the people of Paris have discovered, wanton bloodshed is the hallmark of Islam’s cult of doom. The IS repeatedly says its ultimate goal is tawahhush, the Arabic word for chaos.

This apocalyptic vision was the primary source of difference between Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of what was to become IS, and his original mentor, Osama bin Laden, founder of al Qaeda. Bin Laden had a clear political goal of creating a global caliphate.

Zarqawi and his successors saw that only as a step towards fulfilling prophesies that foresaw an end to the world. IS ideologues also argued this required a ruthless purging of Muslims who were trying to stop judgment day. This included Shias, moderate Muslims and eventually even al Qaeda. A disgusted al Qaeda declared in February 2014 that it was “not responsible for [the Islamic State’s] actions,” and that they had no organisational ties too.

Rise of madness

A series of events left a vacuum in West Asia that allowed IS to emerge. The first domino was the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, part of an unsuccessful attempt to rework the Arab world following 9/11.

Zarqawi’s initial war was with the US and it was not successful. Andrew Hosken, author of Empire of Fear, argued that by 2010-11, “80 per cent of their leaders had been captured or killed and they ended up as a little rump. We didn’t finish them off and like a cancer they came back.”

The second domino was the Iraqi regime of Nouri Maliki. A Shia, Maliki’s biases against Sunnis led to a resurrection of the IS. The third was the Arab Spring and the subsequent self-destruction of the Shia-minority government of Bashar al Assad.

Read: With Islamic State targeted, what happens to Syria’s Assad?

The civil war there degenerated into a Sunni versus Shia conflict — and opened up eastern Syria to what was now renamed the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams (Arabic for the Levant). From 2013 to 2014 what had been a small insurgency became a large regional one and, with the capture of oilfields and cities like Mosul and Raqqa, a rich terrorist state. Writes William McCants of Brookings, “The major reason why the IS was so successful from 2013 to 2014: it was left alone.”

Rebranding itself the Islamic State, it soon developed an international notoriety as it began recruiting would-be terrorists from Europe and parts of the Arab world and imposed a seventh-century legal system that allowed child marriage and slavery.

Global war

By autumn 2014, the IS was at the pinnacle of its power. It had overrun northern Iraq and was eating away at the Assad regime. Thousands of foreign fighters were joining its ranks and estimates puts its annual income at $ 2 billion.

The IS began advertising for engineers and plumbers as it seemed to develop the attributes of a normal government. But the IS remained at war with the Shia states of Iran and Iraq. Its attacks on secular Syrian rebels and capture and beheading of foreign hostages led the US to initiate airstrikes against it in September. The Gulf monarchies and countries like Jordan joined the US campaign.

The IS began to look for ways to retaliate against the West. It began recruiting militants-in-the-making in the West via the internet, urging them to attack their homelands rather than come to Iraq and Syria. This policy merged with the IS’s apocalyptical vision.

It began encouraging such attacks regardless of whether that country had joined the coalition against IS or not. Says Cole Bunzel, IS expert at Princeton University, “It’s important to look at the audio address issued September 21, 2014 by the speaker of IS, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, who called on IS supporters to attack Westerners globally in retaliation for the air campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq. He put special emphasis on citizens of the coalition countries, but also said to kill all Europeans as equally complicit in the West’s crimes.’

Geopolitical smarts

The IS has seemed until now to practice a canny “foreign policy”. Ringed by Iran, Turkey, the Gulf kingdoms and Israel — some of whom could overrun IS in an all out war — the terrorist-state has carefully avoided being anyone’s main enemy.

It attacked the Kurdish minorities in Syria and Iraq, knowing they are Ankara’s number one concern. They have avoided attacking the region’s most formidable power Israel. They have fought against the Shia front of Iraq and Iran — but have been happy to sell oil to their ally, the Assad regime.

The Gulf kingdoms see the IS as the Sunni Arab’s swordarm, helping blunt Iranian power. Analysts are divided. Is this is a sign the IS leadership is lot more “normal” than its rank and file’s ravings would indicate or a result of circumstances? Avoiding conflict with Israel is sensible realpolitik, but it also fits in with prophesies that say the conquest of Jerusalem is part of the third stage of the apocalypse — which comes after the global caliphate is established.

In the past few months, it seems the IS has overstepped itself. In two major terrorist attacks — the Russian airline over the Sinai and the massacres in Paris — the IS has ensured two great powers have mobilised against it, with the US moving towards even greater involvement in the conflict.

Read: Who were the Paris attackers? Many crossed officials’ radar

Bernard Haykel, author of a forthcoming book on IS believes ISIS is a “symptom of a much deeper structural set of problems in the Sunni Arab world.” In an interview, he said. “[It has] to do with politics. With education, and the lack thereof. With authoritarianism. With foreign intervention. With the curse of oil … I think that even if ISIS were to disappear, the underlying causes that produce ISIS would not disappear.”

As he and others have argued, for an Arab living in much of West Asia the past decade of chaos has ensured that the IS’s claims that the world is about to end, that the Anti-Christ is coming to battle the Prophet, ring true. A 2012 survey found that half of Muslims in North Africa and West Asia expected the “imminent appearance” of the Mahdi — the Muslim saviour, who would mark the end of the world. And none of this will go until the larger crisis of a collapsing West Asia is settled — and no one other than IS claims to have a solution to that.

Keeping a distance from India

Only in February this year did the Indian government bother to ban the Islamic State (IS) within its own borders. Rather than be touched by the toxic geopolitics of West Asia, India has preferred to focus on securing the home front — largely trying to prevent the IS recruitment of Indian Muslims. This policy has been possible largely because the IS itself barely bothers with India.

This is not because the IS has any love for India. IS leaders rhetorically add the Indian government to the lists of enemy regimes that should be overthrown. Their maps of future conquest covers much of the Indian subcontinent.

In a speech made months ago, the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, inveigled against India: “Where is the relief of the rulers of Mecca and Medina for the Muslims in China and the Muslims in India against whom the Hindus commit the worst of crimes daily, including murder, burning, rape, severing of joints, looting, plundering, and imprisonment?” The supposed oppression of Muslims in India feeds into the IS’s belief that Sunni Muslims are everywhere under siege from infidels and apostates. “India certainly figures in their worldview.

India’s leaders are unbelievers who ought to be killed,” says IS expert Cole Bunzel of Princeton University. “But the IS don’t seem busy with it at the moment.” He speculated that the IS had been put off by al Qaeda’s lack of success in recruiting among Indian Muslims. Some Indians have fallen to the IS’s siren song, but their numbers have been trivial.

Read: Islamic State can find no ground in India

Last November, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval said only four Indians are known to have actually joined the IS and 10 others had been prevented from going. Those who have gone have found themselves being treated as servants. Jihad for Areeb Majeed ended up being largely about fetching water and cleaning toilets. This is why much of New Delhi’s anti-IS activity at home includes the wholesale blocking of websites to ensure that IS content is not disseminated in India.

India has found many reasons not to do much more against the IS. One is the fate of 39 Indian workers, who were taken hostage by the IS and whose fate remains uncertain, though one witness has said that they were killed earlier this year. But New Delhi has been even more wary of the original Sunni-Shia undercurrent that divided opinion regarding the IS in many West Asian countries. Many Sunni countries, notably the Gulf emirates, saw the IS as a necessary bulwark against growing Iranian influence. Increasingly, New Delhi may find it has little choice but to come out more strongly.

The influence of the IS has been creeping eastward. Dozens of Afghan militant groups have declared allegiance to the IS, swayed partly by money and partly by al Qaeda’s decline in the region. However, said a member of the US National Security Council, “The strongest response against the IS in Afghanistan has come from the Taliban who have immediately attacked any group that declares support for IS.” Pakistan, already thick with its homegrown Islamicist terrorist groups, has also not observed much in the way of IS recruitment.

However, unfavourability ratings for the IS in the Muslim world are among the lowest in Pakistan. The IS, in its online magazine, Dabiq has expressed interest in Pakistan for something else: nuclear weapons. IS commanders are open in saying that such bombs would be used to wipe out millions of infidels.

The IS has also claimed responsibility for attacks on Bangladeshi liberal intellectuals though, as in Afghanistan, it is likely these seem to have been local recruits at best inspired via the Internet. But like India, almost no Bangladeshis have made the long trek to Syria and Iraq to fight. The surprising fount of the IS recruits in South Asia is the Maldives. With only a few hundred thousand people, an estimated 250 Maldivians have joined the IS.

As the global coalition against the IS slowly comes together and incorporates more Sunni Arab states, New Delhi can possibly afford to at least become rhetorically more active against the IS. It will probably still shy away from military involvement. As Bunzel notes, “If India were to become directly militarily involved in the fight against IS, the group would be more likely to try to threaten and attack the country.”

The four who went to join the IS

Humaira Ansari

(Left to right) Areeb Majeed, Fahad Sheikh, Aman Tandel and Saheem Tanki left home in May 2014 to join the IS in Mosul.

Dutiful sons. Polite, gentle and namaazi (prayerful). That’s how friends and family remember the four young men who left in May 2014, to join IS. Three — Areeb Majeed, Fahad Sheikh and Aman Tandel — were studying engineering; the fourth, Saheem Tanki, was a high-school dropout and worked at a call centre. They became the first Indians to join the IS. All four were in their 20s, leading regular lives in Mumbai’s sleepy suburb of Old Kalyan.

“None of them had a criminal record. No brawls with neighbours; nothing,” said P Tayde, senior police inspector at the Bazaar Peth police station, where a missing persons’ complaint was first registered, speaking to HT in March. Investigations have since revealed that they met at a local mosque, where they had heated discussions over the plight of the Palestinians, and ‘true Islamic’ ways. They chatted online with an ISIS recruiter who posed as a woman.

Just before they left India, Majeed in particular began to exhibit what would in hindsight seem like warning signs. He stopped using the air-conditioner and started sleeping on the floor. He berated his family for their ‘indulgent lifestyle’. He turned up at the hospital where his sister worked as a nurse and made a scene, saying she was touching the hands of strange men.

Majeed is the only one who has returned home. Injured in a gunfight, he contacted his father, who reached out to the NIA, which arrested him in Turkey last November. He is now awaiting trial on charges of waging war against an ally of India. Tanki is believed to have been killed in fighting in March. Sheikh and Tandel remain at large. It is believed that they are still fighting for ISIS.

While Tandel has had no contact with family, Sheikh has made sporadic calls home, saying he does not ever plan to return. He is also active on Twitter, setting up new handles every time an account is suspended. A July tweet showed IS fighters on a boat with rifles and their flag.

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