Understanding the rise of ISIS: Sykes-Picot, American Imperialism and slickly-produced propaganda (warning: graphic images)

By Eoin Molloy

Following on from their success in finally settling on a name earlier this year (to be fair ISIS was a bit comic book-villainy and ISIL is so 2013) the group known as the Islamic State have consolidated their territorial gains in northern Iraq and parts of Syria into a theocratic caliphate under their reclusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But how have they risen so swiftly?

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(credit: nationalpost.com)

The new boys on the block of Middle-Eastern terrorism have created a permanent and effective administrative framework in the largest cities of their caliphate: Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq. ISIS, who gained notoriety earlier this year for their hard-line interpretation of Islamic law and their propensity to slay every single non-Muslim in any given region, have impressively implemented a totalitarian theocracy whereby the Qur’an governs every aspect of daily life. Within the boundaries of the caliphate, ISIS controls everything: from the management of banks through to the distribution of aid provided by NGOs.

But what motivates this group? The very fact that IS, having created a transnational caliphate would indicate that their grievances are territorial. In a video released by IS online entitled The End of Sykes-Picot, English-speaking jihadists announce their intentions to destroy the boundaries drawn up by French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and British officer Sir Mark Sykes. The Sykes-Picot treaty is little-discussed by news outlets when detailing the rise of IS. This treaty, drawn up in the aftermath of the Great War, was designed to carve up great swathes the territory of the collapsed Ottoman Empire, which had spread itself from Anatolia, threw the Arabian Peninsula and even across the Maghreb area of northern Africa. Much like the wanton borders drawn by the colonialist British in Ireland and India, these boundaries left many ethnic minorities stranded.

The treaty created a Syria controlled by France and left Iraq under British mandate. Iraq had historically never existed as a unified country in the way that we see it today. Therefore, dhimmi or non-Muslim minorities such as the Yazidis, the Assyrian Christians and the Kurds were all incorporated into a country with both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. It is for this reason that the area is so utterly unstable and there is so much tribal violence and animosity between neighbours. This somewhat explains the emergence of the caliphate’s disgusting penchant for genocide, abduction and murder of non-Sunnis who refuse to convert. Iraq was unified by Britain and a proxy king installed in order to open up the Iraqi oil trade to the West.

In the End of Sykes-Picot video released by IS, they say that the Iraq-Syria border (which has become all but invisible during their insurgency) is not the first border they will break, highlighting the undeniable fact that the hastily-drawn borders of Sykes-Picot are a major motivating factor for IS militants.

ISIS has unsurprisingly become a haven for Middle-Easterners harbouring anti-American sentiment. For this reason, the Islamic State has been fairly effective at attracting disillusioned al-Qaeda fighters. Therefore, one could argue that the overextending nature of American Imperialism in the past two decades in the region has somewhat abetted the rise to prominence of ISIS.

ISIS and al-Qaeda are both clearly intent on global jihad. To that end, they both wish to create an everlasting caliphate that Muslims the world over will owe allegiance to. That being said, there is a clear difference in tactics between the two groups. Al-Qaeda prefers isolated terrorist attacks such as the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi. Islamic State militants are more like a marauding horde, stampeding through the desert claiming cities, spoils and slaves.

The main drawback to operating in the open is that they have left themselves susceptible to Obama’s plan of air-strike ‘degradation’. They are also more brutal towards Shi’ites, apostates and members of other religions who refuse to convert. The sheer brutality of Baghdadi’s brigands is what caused them to splinter from al-Qaeda in the first place. If any group makes al-Qaeda look reasonable and tolerant, then you know something is up.

In videos posted online, ISIS militants have shown just how imaginative they can be when it comes to committing subhuman acts. One video shows captured Iraqi soldiers being lined up and shot off a cliff edge into a gushing river below. The doomed men waiting in line to be shot are degraded, slapped and shouted at by the ISIS militants. Another harrowing video shows more captured Iraqi soldiers bound together, lying in a pre-dug grave waiting to receive a bullet to the head from a militant performing his task with one nonchalant hand on an ak-47. The final, and most brutal video released online shows IS militants cheering as a man, bound by hand and foot, is tossed off a rocky cliff edge to certain death.


(credits: catholic.org and wnd.com)

Therefore, there is a clear power shift occurring amongst radical Islamists in the Middle-East. Al-Qaeda defectors misinterpret this cowardice and brutality as strength, and have flocked to the Islamic State. Al-Zawahiri’s perceived weakness has therefore also fuelled the rise of IS. Young radicals no longer see al-Qaeda as ever realistically achieving global jihad. A video released by a Yemeni group of new IS pledges refer to al-Baghdadi as the ‘Caliph of the Muslims, the mujahid in the first row of attack against America.’  An al-Qaeda splinter group known as AQAP condemned the ‘declaration of war’ by the United States on ISIS, calling on ‘all Islamic groups to support their brothers by afflicting America.’

Even though most of ISIS’s grievances are territorial and tied up with ethnicity, it seems as though this Middle-Eastern conflict could not escape an American dimension. Unfortunately for the US, they have now done so much geo-political fiddling in the region by way of regime-change and droning that they cannot escape becoming involved in this conflict. After all, it was America who left a power vacuum in northern Iraq following their withdrawal in 2011. Therefore, it was virtually impossible for ISIS to avoid eventually antagonising America as we are seeing occur now. This has helped to supercharge their rise to power.

The final, most unique aspect in understanding ISIS’s rise to distinction is their inimitable use of well-made propaganda videos. Al-Qaeda terrorist videos released in the noughties were typically filmed on VCR recorders before being bundled into al-Jazeera offices in dusty gear bags for release. This is in stark contrast to the slick, high quality resolution of the ISIS videos. It is worth mentioning that IS has its own media arm: al-Hayat. Therefore, it is clear that they see propaganda as a viable tool for recruiting disillusioned Muslims in other countries. The execution videos recently released by ISIS feature HD-quality footage, modern graphics and logos as well as decent sound editing. As Nancy Snow of The Guardian said in a recent article: ‘the scariest thing about these videos is how well they are made’, as they are excellent tools of recruitment for Muslims living in western countries.

Just to clarify, there is nothing morally good about these videos. The atrocities committed by IS fighters are so far removed from basic humanity as to be completely unjustifiable by any skewed elucidation of a holy book. That being said, ISIS’s social-media savvy approach seems to be working in tempting a small minority of young European Muslims to go and serve the Islamic State.

Take for example the case of Asqa Mahmood, the privately-educated daughter of a Pakistani businessman who was resident in Glasgow who abandoned the UK after achieving stellar GCSE results to join the Islamic State’s struggle. She had an active twitter account until recently, which provided greater insight into the mundane side of life in the caliphate. She dutifully married an IS fighter and instantly became a domestic homemaker.

In summation, it is peculiar that a group of modern-day Islamic jihadists can count colonialism amongst the causes behind their rise to prominence. But that is certainly one of the discerning factors between IS and groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who were purely reacting against American and Soviet interventions in the region. That is not to say, however, that they have entirely escaped the American adversarial effect amongst their membership corps.

Their sole motivation is to form a caliphate akin to that following the death of the prophet Muhammad. It is also worth noting that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr, is the namesake of Muhammad’s father in law who succeeded the prophet as the first Caliph.  Therein lies the extremely archaic aspect of the Islamic States’ statement of intent. If we are to fully understand ISIS and their motives, we must first recognise that they see themselves as a soon-to-be global caliphate to which all Muslims owe their allegiance. The very act of creating a caliphate betrays their archaic thinking. They are not seeking to adapt ideas of jihad to the modern world, ISIS are essentially reverting to the seventh century caliphate.


One thought on “Understanding the rise of ISIS: Sykes-Picot, American Imperialism and slickly-produced propaganda (warning: graphic images)

  1. Pingback: Editorial Final | hannah nelson

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