Are top ISIS leaders really religious

Syria, Iraq and region

Wilfried Buchta

To person

Dr. phil., born 1961; Study of Islamic Studies, Political Science and Religious Studies; 2005 to 2011 Senior Political Affairs Officer of the UN Peace Mission in Baghdad / Iraq; freelance writer and Middle East consultant since 2012, lives in Berlin. [email protected]

On June 9, 2014, the jihadist terrorist militia "Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria" (ISIS) under its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi captured the two million city of Mosul in northern Iraq. This day will go down in Middle Eastern history as a turning point. Baghdadi not only triggered another Shiite-Sunni civil war, but also set a beacon. Because with the fall of Mosul, the capital of the almost entirely Sunni province of Ninawa, the disintegration of Iraq, which began with the US invasion in 2003 and has continued insidiously since then, became irreversible. [1] On June 30, 2014, the leader of ISIS, who had since been renamed "Islamic State" (IS), proclaimed a transnational caliphate in Mosul. He named himself as "Caliph Ibrahim" as its ruler. With the extension of this IS caliphate's claim to power to include the entire Middle East, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, which had been separate until then, became the IS’s area of ​​operations.

The IS thus sealed the disintegration of Iraq into three states, which are clearly denominated and ethnically divided. If you wanted to give them a catchy name, you could characterize them as "Schiastan", Iraqi Kurdistan and "Sunnitistan".

"Schiastan" is the rump state of Iraq, controlled by a Shiite-dominated government, with the capital Baghdad and the ten almost purely Shiite provinces of central and southern Iraq. This is where the largest of the country's rich oil and natural gas reserves are stored, which generate 90 percent of the state's revenue.

Iraqi Kurdistan with the capital Erbil consists of the three provinces Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dahuk. It is the territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the autonomous Kurdish region. The KRG found official recognition in autumn 2005, when the Iraqi government, which emerged from the first free democratic elections, set up a constitutional commission to draft a federal democratic constitution. With this constitution, the Iraqi central state granted the Kurds in northern Iraq their own real autonomy for the first time. From 1991 - thanks to the no-fly zone in northern Iraq imposed by the USA after the Kuwait War to protect the Kurds - structures were created that functioned independently of Baghdad. Since then, the Kurds have founded their own parliament, their own regional government and Peshmerga security forces. In other words: the Kurds had laid solid foundations for a Kurdish quasi-state long before the US invasion of 2003.

The IS caliphate of "Sunnitistan" had brought more than a third of Iraqi territory under its control by mid-2015, especially in the Sunni provinces of Anbar, Ninawa and Salahuddin. In addition, there are large areas in the east and in Syria the territory around the provincial metropolis of Raqqa. Everywhere IS subjected the inhabitants of the territories it had conquered to a rigid Sharia order. In mid-2015, the IS state comprised an area that was about half the size of Germany and had around eight to ten million inhabitants. Based on an army of 30,000 jihadists from Iraq and Syria as well as from the rest of the Arab world, Europe, Russia and Asia, IS built a relatively efficiently functioning state system that guaranteed its subjects services of general interest and a reasonably functioning infrastructure. The IS benefited from capable military, security and administrative experts from the former state elite of the fallen Ba'ath regime, who had sided with IS. Economically, the IS caliphate is based on a "loot economy" geared towards permanent expansion. Their most important sources of income are, in addition to oil sales from the conquered oil wells, as well as tax and protection money levies from his subjects, also antiques smuggling and ransom extortion.

Iraq today is a failed state, i.e. a state without sufficient state authority. He can no longer convey a common national identity to his divergent ethnic groups. In addition, he can neither secure rudimentary services of general interest nor maintain order and law for a large part of his population. When the structures of Iraq disintegrated after the US invasion in 2003, power vacuums formed. This in turn provided an ideal breeding ground for radical religious groups such as the Islamic State. A brief look at the history of Iraq is required to understand the emergence and expansion of ISIS.

Modern Iraq until 2003

Iraq was created in 1918 after the end of the First World War from the territorial bankruptcy estate of the Ottoman multi-ethnic empire. After the defeat of the Ottomans, his Arab provinces in the Levant and Mesopotamia were administered as mandate powers by the victorious powers France and Great Britain. The borders of what is now Iraq came into being in 1916, when Paris and London established their territorial spheres of interest in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement. In the course of the war Great Britain conquered the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, provinces which the British grouped under the name Iraq and whose administration the League of Nations gave London as a mandate of Iraq in 1920.

In 1921 the British finally installed a parliamentary monarchy under their mandate, headed by the Arab Hashimite king Faisal I, who was based on a small Sunni-Arab military and administrative elite. Iraq was an artificial nation-state from the start. Within its arbitrarily drawn borders lived three ethnically and denominationally different and mutually hostile ethnic groups. As in the Ottoman era, a Sunni Arab minority of around 20 percent wielded power. In contrast, the Kurds (20 percent) and Arab Shiites (60 percent) were politically oppressed and economically disadvantaged.

The power conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites have been a constant since the state was founded, as have the rebellions that flared up again and again among the Kurds striving for independence. London retained the dominant political and economic influence in the country by separate contractual agreements. It was not until 1958 that the nationalist military took power and overthrew the monarchy that British influence ended. The following decade saw a succession of Sunni authoritarian nationalist governments who came to power through coups d'état. In 1968 the pan-Arab, secular and socialist Ba'ath Party finally gained the power it held until 2003. It immediately eliminated all communist, nationalist and religiously oriented power competitors and in 1972 nationalized the Iraqi oil industry. Thanks to the oil revenues, which have flowed more and more abundantly since the 1970s, as well as the harsh domestic political repression, the Ba'ath Party was able to build a secular nationalist development dictatorship. It promoted economic and prosperity growth, industrialization, social modernization and "Pan-Arab Unity" under the leadership of Iraq. In most of these areas, the regime made great strides by 1980.

Saddam Hussein's war adventure and its consequences

However, all of this was undone by Saddam Hussein's wartime adventures. After he ousted his political foster father, the previous president Hassan al-Bakr, from the presidency in 1979, he seized sole power in the party and the state. A year later, on September 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein gave the Iraqi army the order to launch a preventive war against Iran, whose new Islamist regime he felt threatened and whose initial weakness he believed he could use to assert territorial claims in the alluvial plain of the Shadows el Arab to assert. But instead of bringing down Khomeini's regime, the Iraqi war of aggression consolidated the rule of the mullahs by unleashing a wave of patriotic willingness to fight among the Iranians. As a result, the war dragged on until 1988 and ended in a military stalemate. After eight years of war of attrition, there were no winners, only defeated. Saddam Hussein nevertheless interpreted the stalemate as a military victory for propaganda purposes, announced the rapid reconstruction of his country and threatened his Arab neighbors with aggressive expansion rhetoric. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein occupied the neighboring oil emirate of Kuwait. But, as in 1980, he miscalculated in 1990. The USA, which had massively supported Iraq in the war against the Iranian revolutionary regime, now turned against Saddam Hussein. On January 17, 1991, "Desert Storm" broke out, the largest military action since the Second World War. A US-led international force retook Kuwait.

With the wars of aggression against Iran (1980 to 1988) and against Kuwait (1991), Saddam Hussein ruined Iraq economically and made himself an internationally isolated pariah. Worse still: The tough economic sanctions regime and the military-technical control measures imposed by the United Nations in 1991 to weaken Iraq militarily by destroying its depots of weapons of mass destruction so that it would no longer be able to threaten neighboring regional states, caused mass poverty and impoverishment in the country broad sections of the population, but not the regime elite.

From 1991 to 2003 this led to a massive erosion of the state foundations of Iraq. The sanctions and the foreign policy isolation of the regime led to the loss of important financial and legitimizing sources of its power. The Ba'ath Party, whose pan-Arab nationalist ideology had been discredited after two lost wars in the country, suffered a severe loss of influence. This was also felt by Saddam Hussein, who was weakened domestically from 1991 onwards. In order to maintain power, he therefore enforced a policy of divide et impera. At the same time, he turned to Islam in order to regain his battered legitimacy. Because in the face of hardship and misery and the failure of the state and its secular ideology, millions of Iraqis were now looking for support, hope and protection in Islam, the religious-cultural force whose influence Saddam Hussein had previously successfully contained.

He financed the construction of numerous mosques and Islamic schools across the country, and he and the rest of the secular regime cadres celebrated Islamic piety in public rituals to underline their faith. In this way, the regime sought to channel and control the rising tide of re-Islamization, which could have been dangerous to it.