Decoding ISIS: The artificial actor in the Middle East

Capture of Mosul by self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and declaration of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi as caliph shocked the world in June 2014. Despite all efforts ISIS still stands strong.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

The capitulation of Iraq’s second most populous city, Mosul by ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s declaration of 'caliphate' in June 2014 have overturned the Middle East’s balance of power immensely. The periodic air strikes launched by the US-led coalition and ground incursion of Western-backed Kurdish and Iranian-backed Shiite militias, have delivered a blow to ISIS. But this artificial actor of the Middle East’s scene, still stands on the battlefield. 

The roots and transformation of ISIS

Even though it captured global attention by tremendous and sudden advances in June 2014, ISIS had been operating long before the world turned their attention back to Iraq. The inception of ISIS finds root in Al Qaeda of Iraq (AQI), an insurgency movement formed in 2004, a year after the US-led coalition invaded Iraq. Since then, ISIS underwent extensive transformation and morphed into a new, unique structure. Brookings Institute’s Charles Lister and Wilson Center’s Marina Ottaway, described ISIS’ original construction as a proto-state. Currently ISIS holds control over large swaths of territory, stretching eastward from the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria’s largest, to Western Iraq. It self-proclaimed to be a state, naming a caliph as head of state.  ISIS has a working bureaucratic structure and a steady income with which it undertakes many duties of a government, such as municipal administration, jurisdiction, social assistance; and does so arguably better than a few surrounding governments. Reports, experts, and news mention a daily 2-3 million USD income.


Key points of ISIS' expansion strategy

ISIS’ ultimate goal has been claimed to be the establishment of a ‘global caliphate’, by its propaganda machine. In the fifth issue of its multi-language Dabiq magazine, ISIS draws a so-called ‘caliphate’ that includes Rome, together with Makkah, Madinah, and Jerusalem, that covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth. Jessica Lewis McFate, Research Director of Institute for the Study of War (ISW), emphasizes the two goals of ISIS’ expansion strategy in the report titled “ISIS Defense in Iraq and Syria: Countering an Adaptive Enemy” published in May 2015. According to McFate, ISIS, first, supports its defense inside Iraq and Syria and second, seeks the literal expansion of the caliphate: “ISIS announced operations to expand to Libya, Sinai, and other corners of the Arab world in late 2014[...] The timing of this announced expansion supported ISIS’ momentum while it faced counter-attacks inside Iraq and Syria. Global expansion is a motif that ISIS desires to propagate at times when it is experiencing tactical losses. Expansion into new territory is therefore a defensive supporting operation, but it is nevertheless also a concrete operational plan to make its caliphate larger.”



ISIS' propaganda machine, sources and power

ISIS actively attempts to spread propaganda via various media outlets despite the current global crackdown. Their media wing contributes immensely to this cause. They produce publications and are seemingly organised on social media, generating up to 90,000 tweets a day. According to J. M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan's study, published by Brookings Institute, ISIS supporters used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts between September and December 2014. With effective use of social media outlets, the organisation managed to attract outraged youth from all around the world to join and fight for their cause as “foreign fighters.” On the other hand, ISIS’ rapid seizure of land is often attributed to certain factors of its power. The first, is the high motivation and utmost commitment of its militants. Leaders use this high motivation to justify all perpetrations, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, beheadings and political assassinations. The fear that these acts create among opponents is another contributing factor to their strength.



Turkey's struggle with ISIS

Entering the 21st century, Turkey found itself neighbouring political instability. Flashbacks of the American invasion of Iraq accompanies the Syrian crisis; one that has an unkown number of belligerent factions. Despite not having direct affiliation or involvement in both crises, Turkey was not safe from spill-overs either. In fact, Turkey bounced back from the brink of war a few times. ISIS however, exploited the tumultuous atmosphere on both sides of the border to achieve its agenda.


ISIS one year later: No sign of collapse 

Before the spring of 2015, ISIS’ advancement seemed to slow down. This was attributed to air strikes by the international anti-ISIS coalition aiming to curb the progress of the militant group. At the same time, the Iraqi Army was starting an offensive to re-capture land. But ISIS does not give any sign of collapse. The militant group has started a new wave of deadly attacks in the summer of 2015.