ISIS: Rapid transformation from militia to state

In addition to its military power, it is said to be building an economy from taxes, theft, and black-market oil and gas sales.

Raed Omari
Raed Omari
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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has probably undergone the quickest transformation to statehood in modern history. In less than two months, it has gone from a militia to a self-proclaimed caliphate.

ISIS controls large parts of Iraq and Syria. In addition to its military power, it is said to be building an economy from taxes, theft, and black-market oil and gas sales.

Its horrific abuses have led to anger among those under its rule. However, there has been a gradual acceptance of a new reality, and a preference to the sectarian rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. I was shocked to hear this from Syrians and Iraqis living under ISIS.

The detachment of ISIS from Al-Qaeda has enabled ISIS to act independently without carring al-Qaeda's reputation and baggage. The near future is expected to bring about an abrupt change in Al-Qaeda’s radical ideology towards more moderation due to ISIS’s brutality and intolerance. This resembles the decades-old ideological disagreements between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement: when one shows extremism, the other shows moderation.

The relationship between ISIS and Al-Qaeda also resembles that between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. As ISIS is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan were either members of the latter, or received military training and guidance from it. Given present realities, we may even see ISIS with a central place at the negotiating table.

Exploiting the state of chaos and sectarianism prevailing Iraq and Syria, where the Arab Sunnis blame Shiite Iran for their marginalization, ISIS has presented itself as the defender of the Sunni identity in a bid to gain the sympathy of those sidelined segments. Prominent Islamist groups researcher Hassan Abu Hanieh has written an insightful piece on such a notion, attributing ISIS’s success in building alliances with the Iraqi Arab Sunnis to the latter’s belief in the Sunni Islamist militia’s willingness to eradicate Maliki’s Shiite government.

Throughout its state-building endeavor, ISIS has been adopting an “alluring” narrative, so to speak, full of anti-Iran sentiments in an effort to add legitimacy to its rule over the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq. Its abhorrence of the “imposed” territorial state as opposed to the collective Islamic state, or Caliphate, has no doubt attracted supporters who still blame the Levant’s and Arab Peninsula’s woes to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. A video showing ISIS members from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries tearing and burning their passports was meant to show the group’s alluring belief in the collective Muslim identity.

All in all, ISIS’s presence and rule within the region is largely linked to Syria and Iraq restoring their security and stability. Once people in those pivotal war-torn countries succeed in eliminating the totalitarian rule of Assad and Maliki, their next target will be definitely destroying ISIS's "caliphate."

Throughout its state-building endeavor, ISIS has been adopting an “alluring” narrative, so to speak, full of anti-Iran sentiments in an effort to add legitimacy to its rule

Raed Omari

ISIS’s horrific attitudes within a region historically known for its religious, ethnic and cultural diversity might not be the direct reason behind its demolition one day inasmuch as it is the group’s declared confrontation with al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.

In a tit-for-tat move against ISIS’s declaration of its Caliphate, al-Nusra has recently announced its own version of Islamic state, declared as Emarat Al Sham (the Islamic Emirate of the Levant). The new state was declared in an audio on June 29 circulated on social media, claimed to be of the al-Qaeda affiliate leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani’s statement. The leader supposedly said that an Emirate would implement Sharia law and would form courts for that purpose.

Ideological disputes

The two radical groups, ISIS and al-Nusra, have been engaged in ideological disputes over the past period, manifested in their leaders trading accusations of deviation from Sharia law. Since his release from prison, which coincided with ISIS’s declaration of its Caliphate, Jordanian Salafist leader Isam al-Barqawi — better known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi – has been attacking Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamist "state." Sheikh al-Maqdisi, perceived as supportive of al-Nusra’s ideology, has forcefully rejected ISIS’s declaration of a new caliphate and branded the newly-formed group "deviant."

In mhe ideological division and military confrontations between al-Baghdadi’s ISIS and al-Jounali’s al-Nusra Front have much resemblance to those confrontations between the Afghan Islamist leaders Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud following the Soviet Union withdrawal from Afghanistan. The two leaders’ infighting during Afghanistan’s Civil War had had an immense impact on the alluring image of the Afghan revolution which ended has struggle over power.

Added to the existing abhorrence between ISIS and al-Nusra has been ideological disputes and military confrontations between al-Baghdadi and al-Joulani’s fighters - this will definitely have a negative impact on the state models the two groups have been promoting.


Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via [email protected], or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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