Global Jihadism: a year after the caliphate

The Finnish Institute of International Affairs · 18.08.2015 10:00 - 12:00

Last year in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State made the headlines by occupying Mosul and declaring a caliphate. Shortly after, a US-led coalition started airstrikes against its bases in Syria. Some experts claimed that the war would be short. Different types of aid was delivered to those who remained on the ground to fight the IS, for example to the Peshmerga Kurds. Even Finland sent some military officers to Iraq in order to train the local military. However, the so-called caliphate is still standing. It is still luring foreign fighters from across the world and spreading its networks outside of Iraq and Syria. In this seminar the current situation is put under focus. The main questions are: How is the whole IS enterprise financed? What is the role of regional actors in the conflict? How is it related to other actors representing Global Jihadism, like al-Qaeda?


Speaker: Aaron Zelin, Richard Borow fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Rena and Sami David Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. He is also a PhD candidate at King’s College London where his dissertation is on the history of the Tunisian jihadi movement. Zelin is the founder of the widely acclaimed and cited website, which is a clearinghouse for Sunni jihadi primary source material, analysis, as well as a translation service. Zelin’s research focuses on global jihadi groups, with a particular focus on North Africa and Syria. He is a frequent contributor to Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and the CTC Sentinel. He is also the author of the New America Foundation’s January 2013 study ”The State of the Global Jihad Online” and the June 2014 Washington Institute study ”The War Between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”.
Comments: Wolfgang Mühlberger, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Chair: Teemu Sinkkonen, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the seminar:

Teemu Sinkkonen, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, introduced the topic of the seminar which was the Islamic State (IS). Since the declaration of the so-called caliphate last year, masses of foreign fighters have joined the conflict and the IS continues to spread its networks outside Syria and Iraq. Sinkkonen pointed out that it seems as if the IS is overshadowing al-Qaeda in the field of global Jihadism, this seminar also aimed to look at the differences between the two movements.

Aaron Y. Zelin, a Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, introduced the topic of IS from several different perspectives. He began by presenting an outline of the territories under IS control and underlined that the IS’s conceived idea of the Islamic State is much larger than the areas that they in reality control. They have lost territories in Iraq but gained areas in Syria, with frontlines remaining in central and eastern Syria. The IS is now trying to expand the Caliphate outside areas in which their main support lies and, although they do not control much territory outside of Syria and Iraq, they also operate in Libya, Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula. Zelin predicted that Tunisia and Gaza could be the next places where IS is looking to expand.

As to the funding of the IS activities, Zelin mentioned that a significant part is coming from oil refining and sale on the black market. Borders in the region are not closed and IS continues to do business with the same factions it is fighting. IS is also involved in mafia-style business rackets, kidnapping for ransom, human trafficking and forgery of ancient artefacts; taxation and extortion of the populations in their controlled areas as well as online fundraising. According to Zelin, IS is a very self-sustaining organisation, with an estimated 95% of their funding coming from the territories they control. This allows the movement to autonomously decide what kind of activities they want to use the funds for.

The vast majority of foreign fighters are in the Syrian area. Zelin underlined that the number of people is extremely difficult to estimate, but that the size of the phenomenon is nevertheless something completely unprecedented. The reasons for this massive mobilisation are vast but the ease of travel is definitely one of the main reasons. Existing networks in Europe have also allowed for easy recruitment of foreign fighters. The social media plays a significant role, exposing people to IS’s propaganda in unprecedented way. The propaganda of the so-called ”five-star Jihad” in Syria shows the luxury side of the fight which is designed to appeal to the youth. Adventure, camaraderie, religion, identity and the imagined caliphate project is important as a source of inspiration for foreign fighters. Large numbers of women have joined IS ranks to join the Jihad, but the reality is that women are not fighting with the IS. Women may be given a role in the security apparatus doing pat-downs on women at checkpoints but they are usually assigned as nurses or teachers for smaller children, their main role being the upholding of family life.

Zelin went on to look at the differences between al-Qaeda and the IS. He pointed out that al-Qaeda’s priority has always been the attack on the West, whereas the main priority for the Islamic State is building a state. There are long-reaching problems and disagreements between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, open disaffiliation between the two branches has now led to a war of words between them. Zelin explained that a part of the issue is generational but there are also differences in methodology and al-Qaeda is viewed as a more elitist organization whereas IS is more populist. Their styles of producing and handling media are also very different: al-Qaeda is more about lecturing where IS is keen on appealing to younger generations through their Hollywood-style theatre, storytelling and their short and action-focused clips.

Having studied the IS propaganda, Zelin pointed out that the IS is extremely active in disseminating official releases, generating fan fiction, producing news articles, upholding conversations as well as trolling and targeting journalists on a daily basis. They also master the game on Twitter and are innovative in spreading their message. In their official message they dehumanise their enemies, portray themselves as the winners and their military camps as incubators of the future generations. Zelin also noticed that the propaganda has gotten more sophisticated with pictures showing IS involvement in construction projects such as the building of roads and bridges; agricultural activities and medical and public health campaigns. They want to show that they are competent in state building projects and in administering justice. The propaganda promotes the caliphate and the pictures they spread try to make it both appealing and idyllic. Zelin highlighted the fact that a lot of the propaganda seems to be targeted at young people and children, as the IS sees the younger generations as the future.

Wolfgang Mühlberger, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, disagreed with Zelin on the funding issue, and argued that the revenue from contraband activities are not important enough for the observed scope of military activities to keep going. He said several Gulf monarchies are known to fund the movement and that the early funding from the Gulf countries was what helped the movement start and initially survive. According to Mühlberger, IS has transformed into a factor of state instability in the region and the only way is to contain it at the moment. He also said many regional players have strongly varying interests with regards to the movement, for Turkey, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia it’s more profitable to have IS around as a regionally contained movement. He sees IS dominance limited by the natural barriers of Muslim regions, with IS influence limited to Sunni-habited areas. Mühlberger also argued that regional players should empower themselves in the fight against IS because at the moment foreign military engagement against IS is reinforcing its propaganda. IS activities are also endangering both the democratic transition in Tunisia and the political agreement in Libya. He concluded that although the IS strategy to expand is starting to get limited, one of their goals is to reach the kingdom of Saudi Arabia which has recently been the target of high profile terrorist attacks.