Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting Played by ISIS? Welcome to the Club!

[China Matters will be on vacation hiatus until July 14, 2014.  It will be interesting to see how this piece on ISIS holds up in the interim.  Best summer wishes, and thanks to all our readers.]

Apparently ISIS is a business, a bloody and illegal business, sort of like the Mafia.  That’s what I gleaned from a McClatchy report by Hannah Allam on the group’s finances, revealed at least by a trove of documents captured by the US, turned over to RAND a few months ago, whose conclusions leaked into the public sphere today.

Mosul was the Islamic State’s fundraising nerve center for years before the city fell to ISIS this month, according to Johnston’s analysis of the documents. A key to understanding the city’s enduring importance to the group comes from a Mosul “administrative emir” whose meticulous records from August 2008 to January 2009 were seized and added to the database. 

In accordance with the Islamic State’s business model, Johnston said, cells were required to send up to 20 percent of their income from local enterprises _ such as kidnapping ransoms and extortion rackets _ to the next level of leadership. Higher-ranking commanders would examine the revenues and redistribute the funds to provincial or local subsidiaries that were in dire straits or needed additional money to conduct attacks.

The records show that the Islamic State was dependent on the Mosul members for cash, which the leadership used to bail out struggling militants in the volatile provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin and even Baghdad.

Looking at ISIS as a high-level crime syndicate in the matter of its operating philosophy (as opposed to its core convictions centered on establishment of a new “caliphate”) would explain some puzzling elements of the group’s behavior, ones that don’t fit in with the usual perception of extremist, caliphate-committed jihadist groups.

For one thing, ideological purity does not interfere too much with operational opportunity.  ISIS is out to earn, increase its footprint, and magnify its clout.  When ISIS is ready to roll somebody, it goes ahead; but if the time isn’t ripe, it coexists.  And, when it can gain the cover of a compromised local political machine, it co-opts.

ISIS has made a big show of turning over the administration of Mosul to its local Sunni allies; when the Baji refinery fell, ISIS announced that local elements, not ISIS, would run it (though the decision to put some distance between itself and an abandoned refinery with a giant bulls’ eye painted on it might not be an instance of unalloyed ISIS altruism).

In northern Iraq, ISIS is happily collaborating with ex-Baathists and Sunni tribal chiefs; in Syria, it is murderously muscling in on the turf of fellow jihadis Jabhat al Nusra.  It demonstrates its ideological rigor by massacring Christians and Shi’as, the very groups it is trying to demoralize in its drive toward southern Iraq.

ISIS’ unwillingness to take it to the Assad regime has opened ISIS to accusations that it’s in the pockets of the Syrian government and Iran; however, ISIS’ forbearance may simply mean that it is waiting for the right opportunity to make its move in Syria.
If, as per RAND via McClatchy, the group’s financial heart is Mosul, that would explain the rapid takeover; ISIS was simply coming out of the shadows to assert control of the city whose economic and political life it already dominated.

The most interesting question, for Americans at least, is how ISIS fits into the strategies and tactics of the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia.  Is ISIS simply an astoundingly successful local startup that is unilaterally driving the agenda in Iraq; or is it an element in some Saudi strategy to confound Iran and the Shi’a world?

Certainly, Saudi Arabia seems pretty happy with ISIS’ challenge to the Maliki government.  But whether ISIS is simply another Gulf-funded jihadi shop is open to question.

RAND analysts assert that ISIS received only 5% of its funding from the Gulf, and draw the inference that Gulf influence and control is not decisive.

 This doesn’t quite make the case—despite the palpable desire of the Saudis to rebut Iranian and Iraqi accusations that ISIS is bankrolled by the Gulf--since the records only go up to 2010, when ISIS was more of a struggling startup and had yet to come under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.  Who knows, maybe with the acquisition of Baghdadi’s top-flight management skills, ISIS became eligible for a round of angel financing from well-heeled jihadi VCs in the Gulf.

It does seem that ISIS, with its best-practices operational, political, communications, and business strategy seems more sophisticated than anything the sclerotic Saudi security establishment could come up with on its own, or even with the eager advice of Israel.

However, I speculate that there is a collaboration going on between ISIS and Saudi Arabian security elements, but one that is initiated and to a certain extent controlled by ISIS, rather than the other way around.  Saudi Arabia, in other words, is just another big player in the Middle East to be wooed, threatened, and exploited by ISIS as circumstances dictate.

Anbar sheiks and local Ba’athists have, I would expect, a pretty clear-eyed understanding that ISIS will treat them well only as long as it is in ISIS’ interests to do so.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, after all, became an onerous and resented burden in Anbar, which the sheiks were able to shed through the “Anbar Awakening” i.e. death squads a go go a.k.a a JSOC/Sons of Iraq joint operation.

So I speculate that the cooperation of local non-jihadist anti-Maliki Sunnis with ISIS is predicated on the understanding that Saudi Arabia is condoning and endorsing the ISIS campaign, with the idea that once a “government of national unity” i.e. government with a Sunni veto is installed in Baghdad, or the whole country just fragments into de facto and increasingly de jure Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish zones, the Gulf states will step up in financial and security matters to avoid ISIS completely filling the resultant political and economic vacuum.  

In other words, I think Saudi Arabia may have funneled money to ISIS as the “best of breed” jihadi startup, blessed the ISIS advance into northern Iraq, maybe jumpstarted the instantaneous collapse of the Iraqi army with some judiciously distributed bribes, and encouraged Sunnis in the government to let the Maliki government twist in the wind.  At the same time Saudi Arabia is abetting ISIS’ operations, it has avoided endorsing ISIS as its creature, and is reaching out to ISIS collaborators to assure them that there is an endgame other than lonely subjugation to ISIS and its criminal exactions once the situation in Baghdad shakes out.

As for the United States, the unhappy handwringing has not been unexpected.  Clearly, America wants to see the twisted wreck of Iraq in its rearview mirror and doesn’t want to have to return to the scene to bandage the bloody, wailing victims.

Nevertheless, the willingness of the Obama administration to take time out to flay the Maliki administration for its amply-documented political sins and push for a leadership change, instead of focusing on the threat from an extremely successful black-flag waving/sectarian massacring ISIS outfit is rather remarkable. 

If the United States had any security role in the Middle East beyond the “it’s the oil stupid” rationale, one would think it would include supporting a secular democracy trying to forestall military conquest by advocates of a fundamentalist caliphate. 

The conspicuous lack of an Iraqi man on horseback capable of uniting sects and ethnicities to protect the Baghdad government makes the decision to overthrow the current man on horseback and hope for the best look pretty dubious.  The US “decapitate the regime and everything will work out great” strategy has failed rather spectacularly in 1) Saddam’s Iraq 2) Libya 3) Egypt 4) Afghanistan 5) Syria (still pending but already FUBAR) does not quite vindicate the idea that, with its capital under threat, what Iraq really needs now is a struggle to fill a power vacuum at the highest level of government.

One can suspect that the US is not ready to take the momentous step of openly backing Iran and Iran’s man (Maliki) in an Iraq clash when Saudi Arabia and Israel obviously want things to go the opposite way.  Supporters of this view—maybe some funded by KSA, Israel, and the rest of the anti-Iran bloc, I dunno-- spend a lot of time dumping on Maliki as the author of Iraq’s predicament, while trying—in a manner I find rather unconvincing—to shoehorn ISIS into the “armed auxiliary of populist uprising” narrative.

Well, I guess if Pravy Sektor can be spun as the midwife to the birth of Ukrainian democracy, it’s not too much of a stretch to characterize ISIS as the handmaiden of social and political justice in Iraq.

But at the same time, of course, the US tries to play on the Iran side of the field—President Obama is, after all, still desperately attempting to normalize relations with Iran, which is, sorry Israel, the only stable democracy left standing in the Middle East—so Iraq gets 300 US advisors.

With the brave 300 comes, of course, the possibility of some morale-boosting air strikes against ISIS, which is apparently a difficult nut for the US to target even though its fighters are now driving Iraq Army-supplied Humvees and tanks all over the barren, very barren, so very exposed landscape.

The China Hand crystal ball tells me that, as long as that equipment is driving toward Syria, US targeteers, torn by the US policy of supporting ISIS in Syria while griping on ISIS in Iraq, will encounter insurmountable difficulty in identifying and destroying it.

In other words, maybe the United States, like every other power in the region, is getting played by ISIS.  Welcome to the club!

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