How did a group of religiously fanatical warriors grab hold of world media, shock us with blood-spattered video, shame us with growing fear, and sweep across north central Iraq and the heartland of Syria, grabbing control, imposing their version of Sharia law and bamboozling tens of thousands of Iraqi troops?

Unprecedented in my experience, ISIS (or IS or ISIL) is like no other military incursion or insurrection in living memory. In this part of the ISIS Dispatch, we will review six underlying realities then trace seven stages of conquest to its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Underlying realities
Following up on ISIS Dispatches I and II, it matters to note those underlying realities that fanned the jihadist flame, provoked its formation, created opportunity and fueled funding for its operation. I note six.

First is the jihadist doctrine. As previously noted and historic in its genesis, violence and brutal
takeover was part of its earliest formation. In the 18th century, an Islamic cleric Muhammad ibn ‘Abd-al Wahhab brought into the Saudi peninsula, an Islamic rationale for insistence of application of early and primitive laws and regulations: Sharia. The excessive brutality seen in Iraq following 2003, waged between Muslim factions themselves, seems unbelievable to most outsiders, but within their longer history, such calls to jihad were not uncommon.

Their hatred for the West was hyped beyond any civilized expectation. Following the collapse of the Shah of Iran in 1978 and the America expulsion, Persian hatred of the West became normal fare. But in and among Arabs and Afghanis, two recent invasions brought to a white heat their despising of both Soviets and then Americans and Europeans.

Third was the chaos that engulfed Iraq and Syria. After the U.S. 2003 invasion and the subsequent hanging of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi military was dismissed, leaving tens of thousands of angry men without work, status, or income.  Sectarian fights broke out. Shias who had been held down by Hussein, now under President Maliki turned their fury on Sunnis. Christians from both Iraq and Syria have told me that their lives were protected under Hussein and Assad. When the two lost control, their lives as Christians were in jeopardy, caught between Muslim sectarian battles. With no one controlling either Iraq or Syria, ISIS had open range to kill, intimidate, rob and take command. (What is not usually understood is that while Sharia law is barbaric in many respects – beheading unbelievers, cutting off hands of thieves, etc., subjugation of women – there is a social contract to look after people, including the disabled.  Some cities now under ISIS have established systems to provide funds for its citizens.)  For many who have known nothing but bombings, killings and shortage of food for years, it is not surprising that some have preferred losing personal freedom while gaining social order, over retaining freedom yet living amidst chaos and fear of imminent death.

Four. Chaos created an environment in which a ready supply of fighting equipment became available. The military surge in 2007 poured in billions of dollars. When the U.S. pulled out in 2011 they left behind a huge military cache, and who better to use it than the Sunnis whom the U.S. had trained in the first place. Added to that was the experienced military skill and leadership these soldiers had developed under Hussein. When they were dismissed by the coalition, they had nowhere to go. When ISIS fired up its plan, these men were willing; money was a powerful attraction and now they also had a cause.

Fifth, ISIS had a plan. In 2004 an online manual, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass (Umma means the global Muslim community) was released. This detailed manual is comprehensive in its scope, including how to set up Islamic rule and defeat Jews and Christians. Its clarity, sophistication, its strategic and detailed vision along with a visionary dream could (apart from details) be lifted from a Fortune 500 corporate plan.  It’s unknown how much ISIS used this specifically, although its unfolding of action to date comes close to its replication. The point is, those running ISIS, while barbaric and primitive in their views of human rights and freedoms, possess organizational skill beyond what we assumed was within their capabilities.*

Finally, their resources. Their plan is huge and their need for money inexhaustible. While al-Qaeda raised funds from donors, ISIS makes money. They had at their disposal huge caches of arms and the latest and best of military equipment that cost them nothing. Then they took over oil fields and banks, making millions a day on the oil market, sucking up the cash reserves of banks, and then taxing those in their caliphate – those in regions they now control. Entrepreneurs they are. While we see their destruction of historic sites, they also are saving some of the most precious of ancient treasures, and selling them on the black market.

Stages of conquest
What then were the stages that took them from a new formation to calamity, fear and a new military entity the West and Middle East is flummoxed in dealing with?

Stage One – Outsiders
The Soviets smashing into Afghanistan in the late 1970s coalesced Muslims to set up military opposition.  The U.S. provided funds and equipment to help those opposed to the Soviet presence, which included Osama bin Laden. After forming al-Qaeda, in time he saw the American base in Saudi Arabia as an affront to Islam.  Establishing training bases, al-Qaeda prepared for 9/11. The U.S. Coalition invasion in Afghanistan and then Iraq fueled these hatreds, and provided a cesspool in which opposition began creating hybrids.

Stage Two – Emergence of Islamic organizations
Within those wars and the subsequent Sunni/Shia inter-Islamic fighting, al-Qaeda and ISIS created internally disciplined groups that were sophisticated in military battle and driven by a ferocious and narrow Islamicism: though primitive in their view of humanity, they became killing machines. Al-Qaeda had not been in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, but they needed to protect their Sunni community, now under attack by the government and its Shia majority. Ironically the Coalition forces, in trying to limit the sectarian killings after the 2003 invasion, created Bucca Prison, through which 100,000 passed from 2003-2009. It was a feared place to manage and, inadvertently, became an ideal site for insurgents and jihadists to meet, to formulate plans, to learn from each other, all in preparation for their next stage. When they were released, many ended up serving in ISIS.

Stage Three – ISIS is formed
In 2006 Zarqawi formed ISIS in Iraq.  He was opposed by Bin Laden who by that time was so under fire and hiding in the mountains of Pakistan/Afghanistan, that Zarqawi could do most anything.  Ironically his vicious bombing and killing of Americans and Shia triggered protest from even al-Qaeda.

Stage Four – U.S. military withdraws from Iraq
In 2011 the U.S. military withdrew and by so doing allowed Iran and its Shia majority to build support with Maliki, president of Iraq (himself a Shia), and bring pressure on the Sunni minority. In this vacuum ISIS built its power base from which it in time moved north and west into major sections of Iraq and the heartland of Syria.

Stage Five – The Arab Spring
Beginning in Tunisia and finding its most dynamic force in Egypt, over time civil unrest erupted in Syria. A young boy who demonstrated against Assad was tortured and his mutilated body dumped back at his parents’ home. Fueled by years of dictatorship and control at the hands of Assad and his minority Alawite, the country rebelled. Over 300,000 have been killed and 4 million have fled. Within this chaotic country, the border between Iraq and Syria meant nothing, drawn arbitrarily by the French and British after WWI. As in Somalia, a lawless land is ideal for an Islamic jihadi group in which to operate.  Syria was ready-made for ISIS, giving them conquerable territory in which to set up their Caliphate.

Stage Six – Proclaiming the Caliphate
After much internal squabbling in Iraq, ISIS as a force for power took off: looting the military equipment the U.S. had left behind, recruiting experienced Iraqi military leaders, and drawing in Sunni soldiers by promising them a living wage.  With the shock of horror and blood- letting, in early 2014 they swept across the north central plains of Iraq and into Syria holding in their control an estimated 6 to 9 million. In Mosul, a city which had been a population of 1.8 million, Iraqi soldiers literally dropped their weapons and ran for home.  On June 29, 2014, the new leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the formation of a Caliphate. This told the Muslims world-over that a new era had dawned and became a recruitment-rallying cry. It is hard for a non-Muslim to feel the emotional power of such an announcement.  A Caliphate is a promise that they can be part of destroying the West, be present in the establishing of a pure Islamic community, and join with the Islamic prophetic call of the Last Days’ promised Apocalypse. This magnetic combination is a call that many cannot resist.

Stage Seven – Recruitment
What drives young men or women to invest their lives in such a vicious and murderous operation? The sophisticated recruiting videos and on-web programs have drawn in over 20,000, mostly from the west. These foot soldiers now have a cause for which to live and die. Their angst over how they think the “Christian” West has treated Muslims boils over and leaving all, they follow.

How then should a Christian view this development? While ISIS’ outreach has extended to other places including Paris, still their Caliphate is local and their message is unflinching in its call to destroy Jews and Christians and to purify Islam, all the while waiting for the Final Days in which Islam will rule the world.

ISIS Dispatch IV will attempt to offer suggestions going forward.

Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance
December 2015

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