The Origin Of The Islamic State

by Marco Luigi Cimminella

It’s more than a jihadist group. Cruel in war, ruthless with its hostages, radical in purposes. The Islamic State (Is) has been trying to establish a caliphate throughout the Middle East and the North Africa. Cunning military strategists on the battlefield,  social network experts on the web, Is leaders are determined to eliminate each obstacle to the achievement of their project of grandeur.

The origin. The Islamic State (Daish in Arabic) was born from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In 2003, Us troops intervened in Baghdad so as to oust Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi war had broken out: with the end of the dictatorial rule, the nationalist party in power (the Baath) was declared illegal and the army disbanded. The country was divided by ethnic and religious differences. The Shiites , the majority of population, started to administer the State in the post-Saddam era. The sectarian policy of the government, the discrimination and the violence suffered by minority groups (especially Sunnis) worsened the instability of the country and its domestic divisions. The ideal soil for the insurrectional strategy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Afghan war (1979-1989) veteran, al-Zarqawi was a Jordan mujahidin. After fighting against Soviets in Kabul, he came back to his motherland in order to try a coup against the monarchy. He failed and was arrested in 1994.  After 5 years in jail, he went to the Taliban Afghanistan, which was attacked by Us raids. Then, he flew to Iraq, where he pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and founded Aqi (al-Qaeda in Iraq) in 2004.

The two organizations differed in some respects. On the one hand, Zarqawi used the violence in a brutal way because – he thought – it was necessary to purify corrupted society; conversely, Al-Qaeda leaders wanted to defeat apostate regimes avoiding, whenever possible, to harm the image of Jihad. On the other hand, al-Qaeda, founded by Osama Bin Laden and then directed by al-Zawahiri, wanted to be a Sunni foreign legion with a mission: defending Islamic territories from the western invasion. Differently, Aqi  aimed to create a Sunni caliphate in Baghdad: a new state, with its territory and its boundaries. Nevertheless, the alliance held on: al-Zarqawi network was a powerful fifth column in Iraq; Aqi, instead, attempted to make use of the most famous terrorist organization brand to fill the ranks and grow up.

To fulfill its goals, al-Zarqawi envisioned an effective strategy: provoking an institutional crisis in Iraq, fuelling a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, two rivals of a zero-sum game for the conquest of political power. In 2006, the al-Askari Shiite mosque shelling in the city of Samarra triggered a bloody civil war.

Isis. That year al-Zarqawi died, killed by American artillery. The movement, which changed name in Islamic state of Iraq (Isi), was weak: the military Us advance in 2007 was impressive and new raids in 2010 annihilated the new leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The battle appeared won and the White House brought troops home, leaving the management of security to Iraqi army. It was too soon. Isi was re-organizing very fast under the rule of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who dreamt a great Islamic caliphate stretching from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Palestine, passing through Jordan. The jihadist group started to be known as Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

It was easy in Iraq. Us troops withdrew in 2011 but the Iraqi army, divided along sectarian lines, was not capable of facing a guerrilla war against jihadists: soldiers were not professional and their equipment was inadequate. Besides, the Shiite government of Nuri al-Maliki favored its ethnic and religious component, marginalizing the other groups: state police often killed pacific protesters and arrested Sunni civilians using terrorism law as a pretext. Isis leveraged these two elements to recruit militants and to prepare its war of conquest. A conflict which transformed soon into an epic fight, necessary and legitimated by god. A struggle which reached Syria, swallowed up  by civil war. In Damascus, al-Baghdadi launched an offensive against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Alawite (Shiite branch) president, accused of having slaughtered Sunni population.

Syria Map (March 2014). Source:


Overwhelming offensive. Jihadists conquered the Syrian North-east and set their stronghold up.  They consolidated their positions in the northern region of Iraq and destroyed the frontier between the two countries – established by Sykes-Picot agreement (1916), which gave to United Kingdom and France the control of, respectively, Iraq and Syria.

In occupied territories, Isis have imposed a radical version of Sharia law. It have obliged minority groups – as Christians and Yazidis – to run away. Militants have been executing Shiites and kidnapping foreign people, beheading them in front of cameras. By using internet and social networks, they have been spreading all over the world the images of their truculent acts. They have been publishing a magazine in many languages (Dabiq). They have been successful: foreign fighters and lone wolfs have been exporting Isis war beyond Middle East boundaries.

The Islamic state was proclaimed in June 2014, after Mosul collapse. Al-Baghdadi was appointed caliph. He began a war which will never end – he said – until Is flags wave over Rome.


Hegemonic ambitions. The Islamic State is not a guerrilla group or a transnational jihadist movement. It is an efficient and multi-level organization, radical in its aspirations and extremist in its ideology. Its aim is to develop a territorial state within delimited frontiers.

Today, the caliphate reigns over a region which stretches from Aleppo (Syria) to Fallujah (Iraq). An area which consists of 270.000 Km2 and includes the provinces of Al Anbar, Salhuddine, Ninive, Hama, Aleppo, Hassakè, Raqqa and Dier al Zour: a region which is almost as big as Italy, where they live 11 million inhabitants. The Is moves towards the West, with attacks in Lebanon. And it uses its bridge-heads in Libya in order to expand all over the North-Africa.

Domestic Policy. In the Middle East chaos reigns. The Islamic State, conversely, guarantees order and wellbeing inside its borders. As Charles Lister explains in “Profiling the Islamic State”, the caliphate have developed an efficient welfare state model, which is successful above all in contexts of great instability. In Iraq, al-Baghdadi have offered to Sunnis a viable alternative to oppressive Shiite regimes. Made of war, violence and submission to a radical interpretation of Sharia. But also structured as a bureaucratic and functioning organization, able to assure medical and social care, primary goods and education. After having conquered a new city, Is “officials” administer all aspects of public life: they levy taxes, pay soldiers with good wages and manage the justice. Often in an extreme way: in 2008, Isi “banned women from purchasing cucumbers and prohibited the sale of ice cream because it did not exist during the time of the Prophet Muhammad”. 

Governance framework. The up-down structure of power is dominated by the caliph al-Baghdadi, who is helped by a personal advisor and two deputies, both former high rank officials in the Iraqi army. The first one is ex-general Abu Ali al-Anbari, head of operations in Syria. The second one is ex lieutenant colonel Fadl Ahmad Abdullah al-Hiyali (Abu Muslim al-Turkami), who has led military actions in Iraq. Moreover, there is a cabinet formed by 8 members and a military council of 13 people.

Source: The telegraph

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The government of Islamic State is composed by different ministries: from war operations to civil activities, passing through financial and political duties. It plans to introduce its own currency and promote the development of a system of Vilayaat (emirates) in the Middle East and the North Africa. So far, these vilayaat are the provinces of Salahuddin and Kirkuk, the South and Middle Euphrates, the Border (Syria-Iraq), Anbar and Baghdad. As Theodore Karasik reports, Daish ambition is huge: in an audio recording, al-Baghdadi reveals its plans “for building vilayaat and the naming of wulat [governors] to the lands of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria”. A project which has already started in the Libyan city of Derna, where hundreds of tribesmen declared their loyalty to al-Baghdadi. Another vilayaat could arise in Egypt, where jihadist group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis joined to Is troops.

Jihadist money. The Islamic State is a proto-state but it has not renounced its terrorist vocation. So, on the one hand, it imposes taxes, produces and sells primary goods, exports oil. On the other, it smuggles relics, holds foreign people to ransom and loots banks. Last year, thanks to a widespread racket system, the group collected 12 million dollars per month. It raised 36 million dollars selling ancient objects and robbed hundreds of thousand dollars from Mosul banks. In any case, the majority of caliphate financial resources depend on gas and oil.

Daish exploits Iraqi and Siryan oilfields. In 2014 the trade reached 70 million barrels per day, which means an average daily profit of 2 million dollars. A wealth which produces an image of power and prosperity, in contrast with the misery to which Iraqi and Syrian people, exasperated by years of poverty, abuses and civil wars,  seem to be condemned. In this way the caliphate, combining stick and carrot, offers to them an exit point that is, simultaneously, authoritarian and compassionate. Quoting the political official of Islamic Front:

“Isis is definitely expanding. It has a lot of money and right now, Syrians are so poor. Money changes everything. People will turn to and support extremism out of desperation”.

 Dataviz. Follow the link: Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Map and bar chart