ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

Allegiance to ISIS: The Loyal Following

It seems that everyone hates ISIS and that everyone wants to defeat ISIS. If that is so, then why ISIS is still around more than two years after it began its most publicized advances? How is a group of tens of thousands of fighters with stolen weapons able to withstand the military onslaught of dozens upon dozens of nations that include the most advanced militaries in the world? Part of the answer lies in the attraction of the message that ISIS communicates. Part of its continuing success comes from the fact that ISIS is not alone in its message. What follows is a brief discussion of who else is fighting alongside ISIS and who supports ISIS. This is not a comprehensive list. As previously and continuously stated, what is known of this organization is less than most people admit and so what appears here is an educated guess regarding its support and following.

Often the discussion of ISIS focuses on the negative aspects of the organization, making it unbelievable that anyone would want to be a part of its state or wish to support it. This book does not make judgments about ISIS as to whether it is evil or good. That is true about a great many of the people who are without choice governed by it or those who are inclined to be governed by it. For the vast majority of these people, the choice is not between benign governance and evil governance. The governance for Sunni Arabs in Iraq or Syria is not positive. Most feel that the governments are opposed to their existence and, at best, want from them their taxes or their performance of tasks necessary for the survival of the state. The average Sunni mother or father did not imagine in 2013 or 2014 that their children could grow up to be whatever they wanted to be. Instead, most were concerned with securing for their children the most basic of human needs to include subsistence, education, respect, and dignity. Theirs was not a choice between self-actualized accomplishment and barbaric abuse. In many cases, the life under ISIS is no worse than under the state regimes and, in some cases, it is better. ISIS provides stability and security. There are no death squads running around the streets of cities controlled by ISIS as there were under the Iraqi government. Though there is a greater level of religious oppression, people can walk the streets in a greater degree of certainty.

As previously stated, the organization of ISIS was like a snowball; as it continued to operate, it attracted more and more followers of various groups, slowly adding to its mass as it moved along. The following sections explain the types of groups and people who became associated with the organization or the movement.

Conservative Sunni Muslims

The largest collection of people within the sphere of ISIS is not necessarily inclined toward the most radical interpretations of the group nor are they inclined toward spreading the beliefs through violence. They believe in sacrifice to advance the faith and in a strict interpretation of the faith. There are many conservative people among the various tribes in Iraq. They want to return to a purer interpretation of life and they want to maintain the old ways of behavior, worship, and social interaction. While they may not be personally inclined toward the same salafist interpretations of the faith which ISIS endorses, many respect those who do subscribe to and live by such interpretations. Most of these people are not inclined toward violence though they believe in protecting their family and property. They believe they have been discounted and disrespected. They have been treated as a minority in their own country, which they (as a people) used to rule. In this disrespect, they have been threatened, their families harmed, and their property destroyed. They want stability and respect.

Former Ba’athists and Former Iraqi Regime Members

In May 2003, when the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), then ruling Iraq, issued its Order #2, it put hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers out of work. The CPA believed it was easier to rebuild an army from the ground up than to restructure a standing army. As the new Iraqi Army was being recruited and trained, some of the former soldiers joined, but most did not. Most of the officers were prevented from joining. Their pay ended and their retirements were voided; they needed employment and they wanted honor and dignity. Many joined the opposition, and as that opposition coalesced around what would become ISIS, they were incorporated into that group. The professional officers, especially those with specific skills like intelligence, explosives, engineer, etc., gained positions of authority and respect as they helped organize the less-trained though highly motivated members of the group.

Sunni Nationalists

Some conservative Sunni Muslims and former Ba’athist Iraqi Regime members may fall into the category of Sunni nationalists as well. These are people who believe in supporting and promoting the Sunni cause especially in opposition to a growing Shia influence. They may come from anywhere in the Muslim world.

Salafi-Jihadis

The center or core of ISIS is composed of like-minded people who believe in the stated goals and ideology of the organization. These like-minded people believe in sacrifice to advance the faith and they believe in a strict interpretation of the faith. They have a belief that it may be necessary and is acceptable to both sacrifice oneself and inflict harm on the enemy to advance the faith. Those who share these ideals can come from anywhere in the world. They can be recent converts or lifelong Muslims.

Foreign Fighters

The groups in this list overlap. This group comes from outside Iraq and Syria. They may have been inspired by the suffering of Muslims in the Middle East, in general, or by the suffering in Syria or Iraq as afflicted on the local inhabitants by corrupt regimes. Regardless, they were inspired and they traveled to the region, typically at personal expense, to participate in this struggle. They are believers. It may be a false belief and they may leave shortly after arriving, if they can, but they are a belief-driven group. Unlike the case of al-Qaeda affiliated groups, those who join ISIS are making a semipermanent or permanent decision. They are coming to the Islamic State to build the state rather than coming for some jihadi tourism. This is not universally true, but it is generally true.

Foreign Supporters

Not everyone who supports ISIS does so with force of arms. ISIS made a choice not to accept support in the form of foreign donations, which left it free to chart its own course without fear of outside direction. There are people who have not and will not travel to the caliphate but want to support the state. Some do this through social media and some do it through recruiting, either online, in mosques, or by other means. Some provide money for the caliphate or for those who desire to travel to the caliphate.

Allies and Franchises

The success of ISIS has inspired numerous other groups to want to enjoy the notoriety and success of association. These groups have declared allegiance to ISIS and to Caliph Ibrahim as their legitimate ruler. To this point, this allegiance has had little real-world impact in terms of shaping the struggle and behavior of ISIS yet the groups are growing and some are achieving notoriety and success on their own. This gives ISIS multiregional reach and the ability to claim that it is an everywhere force. The various groups are termed wilayah that is an Arabic word sometimes translated as state or province. (See entry on Wilayah later in the book.) These groups are in Afghanistan-Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sinai Peninsula Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Nigeria. The most newsworthy group before declaring allegiance was Boko Haram in Nigeria. Another successful group in launching attacks is in Sinai as it most notably downed a Russian airliner on October 31, 2015.

Though a very small percentage of Muslims agree with everything ISIS teaches, there are more who agree with some of what it represents. The idea of Muslims defending their beliefs and standing up against the spread of ideologically opposing groups, peoples, nations, and states appeals to many in the Muslim world. From this group of Muslims, ISIS will draw a tacit level of acceptance, which may be the most important benefit. Though they may be disagreeable, there are many who do not feel they cross the line or that they should be destroyed.