The Continuing Decline of a Self-styled Jihadi State

Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment entitled, “The Islamic State of Iraq’s Positions on Iraqi National Elections: The Continuing Decline of a Self-styled Jihadi State:”

On February 12, the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) released an audio message from its shadowy amir (leader), Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, lambasting the country’s then yet-to-be-held national elections. Al-Baghdadi, who has never appeared on film, has released numerous audio messages via the ISI’s media outlet, the Al-Furqan Media Foundation. The ISI is an umbrella organization for several of the most violent jihadi-takfiri insurgent groups operating in the country, the largest of them being Al-Qa ‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers/Iraq (AQI), which was founded by the late Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi. Founded in October 2006 as the successor to the Mujahideen Shura Council, the ISI has seen its fortunes decline since late 2007, following the United States military’s “surge” and the emergence of the so-called “Awakening Councils” from among many of Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes. The ISI’s response to the recently-held Iraqi national elections is a further sign of its decline since the “golden age” of the Iraqi insurgency from 2003 to 2007.

In his audio message, “The Political and Religious Crime of ‘Elections’ and Our Duty Towards It,” al-Baghdadi alleges that because they are predicated on the sovereignty of the people, elections are in contradiction to Islamic law (Shari‘a). He says, “The ideology of democratic elections cannot be separated from the idea that sovereignty is for the people, while the fundamental principle of our creed and religion is that supremacy is for Islam. The sovereignty of the people in the parliamentary electorate system means that the people, each in their own respective region, are given authority every four years to delegate or choose a person who then becomes a member of the parliament…he legislates laws which pleases the people, even if they oppose Allah’s ruling in the matter.”

The ISI amir also repeats his usual litany of polemics against Shi‘i Muslims, which is characteristic of many of his messages. Al-Baghdadi says that the Iraqi national elections are only a ploy by “Crusaders” (primarily the U.S.) to empower Iraqi Shi‘is, whom he refers to as “Rafida” (Rejectionists), a popular derogatory term used by some Sunni Muslims, particularly Salafis, for Shi‘is, who they claim have rejected “true Islam.” His main target, however, are Iraqi Sunni political parties and politicians, whom he accuses of treachery because of their participation in the national government: “As for the traitors of Muslim Brotherhood, they are still as we know them. Their religion is a mix of self-benefit, lying and forgery. Here we see their leaders and figures, Tariq Al-Hashimi, Rafi Al-Isawi, Dhahir Al-Aani, Abdul-Kareem Al-Samarra’i, Salam Al-Zawbai, their tribes far distant from them!”…” The strange thing is that they all humiliatingly submitted themselves, and joined alliances led by the Rafidites! How strange that they claim to want to defend the Sunnis and their rights!”

Al-Baghdadi’s criticisms of Iraq’s elections are two-fold. First, as mentioned earlier, elections contradict Shari‘a, at least as the ISI interprets it. Second, he says that since Iraq’s Sunnis cannot possibly benefit from the elections, there is no point in participating in them. Despite the seeming absoluteness of the first, the ISI amir felt the need to also mention the more practical reason for non-participation, perhaps because he knew that a blanket rejection had less chance of succeeding.

The ISI, perhaps worrying that al-Baghdadi’s dire warning against participation was not enough to keep Iraqi Sunnis from voting, released a “very important statement” on March 5, the Friday before the March 7 elections. In it, the ISI’s “ministry of information” announced the imposition of a “curfew over all Sunni provinces” during election day, March 7, warning that those who did not abide by the curfew would bear the consequences. True to its word, the ISI carried out sporadic attacks on March 7, many of them targeting Iraqi Sunnis.

Although it remains a dangerous force, as evidenced by multiple massive attacks on government ministries and other buildings in Baghdad, the ISI is no longer able to carry out widespread insurgency. Between 2004 and the first half of 2007, AQI and its allies were able to carry out numerous attacks on a daily basis, from relatively small-scale ambushes and sniper attacks to massive car bombings and other kamikaze operations. Today, the ISI is no longer capable of carrying out attacks nearly as frequently as it could two and three years ago. Instead, it has forgone frequency for potency, focusing its efforts on planning large-scale attacks such as the ones in Baghdad during the past eight months, which the ISI has dubbed the “Expedition/Raid of the Prisoner.”

Al-Baghdadi also repeats his call for all Sunni insurgent groups to unite under the ISI’s banner. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief ideologue and deputy leader of Al-Qa‘ida Central (AQC) has made similar calls, including one in a 2007 video interview, produced by AQC’s media outlet, the Al-Sahab (The Clouds) Media Foundation, to Ansar al-Islam, one of the country’s largest and most potent insurgent groups. Both al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri have been ignored by the majority of Iraq’s insurgent groups, including Ansar al-Islam, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the religious-nationalist Islamic Army in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi continues to be the “commander of the believers”, the caliph, for only a very small group of insurgents, despite the ISI’s illusions of grandeur.

Despite its rhetoric, the ISI’s handling of Iraq’s national elections is yet another sign of the group’s decreased power. Al-Baghdadi’s call for Sunnis to boycott was largely ignored. Decreased voter turnout during the March 7 elections was noticeable across central and southern Iraq, not only in Sunni Arab-majority provinces. Similarly, the ISI’s “curfew” was also largely ignored and the group carried out attacks on its own supposed support base. This clearly shows that the “golden age” of the self-styled “Islamic State” of Iraq has passed and, although it remains capable of carrying out lethal attacks, that it no longer poses a mortal threat to the Iraqi central government.

Christopher Anzalone
Graduate Program
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN

End/ (Not Continued)

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