Russian expert on Arab affairs: Authoritarian regimes are main recruiters for IS
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group is one of the major threats to peace and stability in the world today, having caused so much speculation around this abbreviation. We believe it is simply necessary to interview one of the leading Russian experts on the matters of the Arab world. Aleksandr Shumilin is director of the Middle East Conflicts Analysis Centre under the USA and Canada Institute. Mr Shumilin has spent many years in the Middle East. The Fergana news agency invited him to the Central Asia Television to ask several questions on the conception of IS, and this terrorist organisation’s founders, sources of financing and what the world can offer to resist and combat it.
Host: Mr Shumilin, the first question I want to ask is this. There is so much talk about the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or IS). However, the common information consumer, who hears, reads and watches news, knows nothing about this group except for severed heads, as you have correctly stated before recording [this interview], and receives no background/additional information. So my question is rather simple: how did IS come into existence and what did everything start with? Who does the group see as enemies? Is this a movement opposing the governments of its current members, or is this an Islamic movement?
Shumilin: It is a very important question, which has been a pressing one for a long time and many attempted to unravel it. I have my own explanation and will be sharing only my thoughts about the matter. First off, let’s use the term “phenomenon” or “grouping” to denote IS, not Islamic State, because it is not a state in the true meaning of the word no matter how hard they try to create an appearance of one. To be sure, despite all those sorts of institutions they are establishing, in reality they are occupants of a certain territory. Although I may be jumping the gun here, apparently they will not be able to hold this territory under control for too long.
The most frequently asked question is this: How is this group different from its ancestor Al-Qaedah? This is the crucial point of a number of groupings and ideological bases juxtaposed, which can bring us closer to the understating of what is what we are dealing with is. Al-Qaedah, indeed, contributed a lot to the formation of IS; after all, this group was initially called the Al-Qaedah of Mesopotamia and surfaced in Iraq between 2004 and 2006. Az-Zarkaoui, who is believed to be the founder, used to unequivocally state that he is an emissary of Al-Qaedah to establish this organisation. Here is a very curious and noteworthy point I cannot help but notice.
The discussions around the group include such arguments as there was the dictator Saddam Hussein, bloodthirsty or not, under whose rule there was no Al-Qaedah or IS. Therefore, he is offered as a better alternative, the so-called “secular option”; however, applying this notion on a nationalist and dictator warrants caution. While there are many aspects to be analysed, az-Zarkaoui appears in Iraq back in Saddam’s times, i.e. in 2001, and launched the local branch of Al-Qaedah. It is no coincidence he appeared in Iraq at the very end of 2001—simply put, he fled Afghanistan, which was then in the crosshairs of international forces under the US leadership. They crushed Al-Qaedah’s base in October-November 2001—quite swiftly following the September 11 events in Washington DC and New York. So, az-Zarkaoui surfaces in Iraq and launches a branch of Al-Qaedah there in late 2001. Numerous questions arise here, which will be later clarified I am certain. At this time, we only indicate the fact all this was already unfolding under the Hussein regime, because it was toppled in March 2003 after a lengthy period of time he spent in hiding and subsequently executed. One may presume, as some analysts incline to, that there was a link between az-Zarkaoui and Saddam because he wouldn’t be able to live in Iraq for two years… Although I do not know to what extent this claim is based on reliable information and material.
Host: Yes, [your statement] was begging this question and I knew you would address it…
Shumilin: And it is a very important factor, because both the Americans mainly and Westerners accused Saddam of links with Al-Qaedah and terrorism in general. But this particular point was never raised and accusations remained groundless because there was nothing [specific and/or tangible] on the surface. However, it is now showing itself up in connection with az-Zarkaoui and, most importantly, in connection with his followers because az-Zarkaoui was eliminated by the Americans; [latter] were not alone in doing so and I will return to this later. But Zarkaoui’s followers—al-Bagdadi and his ideologists—who were conceiving of what then still was Al-Qaedah of Mesopotamia, help understand that such links with the regime existed. Otherwise nothing of this sort would have taken place, since this organisation’s purpose was fighting with the United States. Based on anti-Americanism specifically—to put in simpler terms—could a “contact” take place…
Host: So, they found a common ground…
Shumilin: Could have found. We do not have irrefutable proof, but they could have come into contact on that common ground. This is very important. Extending a “bridge” into future and analysing the situation around IS to date, many tend to believe IS military units are formed of mainly former Iraqi army soldiers. But that is not so entirely, or not entirely so; in other words, there is a link between Saddam’s former subordinates and his strategy for Al-Qaedah. This is clear whether it is proved or not, since everything unfolded based on the common interest of fighting the United States.
The organisation came to full “fruition” in 2004-2005, and especially in 2006. It is principally important to analyse this organisation from this period on specifically, because doing so will make the status quo even clearer. The Al-Qaedah of Mesopotamia under Zarkaoui was based in the so-called “Sunni triangle” in Iraq, and was trying to recruit Iraqi Sunnis to fight the newly installed administration of Al-Maliki, a Shiite, in Baghdad. In other words, “slipping” onto the religious plane and ideology has already occurred back then. And this is the point where the agenda of resisting the Baghdad regime is clearly seen, which was then essentially propped up by the American occupational forces as well as the agenda to deepen the interreligious chasm between the Sunnis and Shiites. Az-Zarkaoui’s Al-Qaedah expressed its stern and sometimes violent character. This led the local Sunni population, however pro-Saddam they were, to quickly get disappointed in Al-Qaedah, get scared and to deny hospitality, to put it mildly. This is the time when that paradoxical phenomenon, as many put it, takes place: Sunni fighter units in this “triangle” joined forces with the American troops and the Iraqi army to combat this very Al-Qaedah. This is an extremely important event given that Sunnis themselves kicked Az-Zarkaoui and his Al-Qaedah out of their home territory. While this is extremely important in many regards, the most important aspect is this: These groups were kicked out of Iraq by predominantly the Sunnis along with Americans as well as Iraqis and went underground only to resurface later in Syria in the circumstances of a civil war in 2011. They did not hide their origins and were “resurrected” under the name of the Islamic State in Syria and Levant.
We are gradually approaching the point of obtaining an answer to our question. Although this group was formed in the Syrian territory, it is an alien phenomenon for Syria, because it takes roots mostly in Iraq. But its ideology of “jihadism” and Al-Qaedahic ideology of Islam’s triumph in the whole world has turned it into what we see today. It is important to repeat once again that this group is alien for and in Syria: it is fighting against Asad on the one hand and those opposing Asad on the other; at the same time, it urges Muslims with radical thinking in the world to join its ranks. Having gained some strength, it suddenly charges onto the Iraqi territory a year ago in August 2014, and declares its existence in Iraq in the “loudest” way possible from parts of the aforementioned “triangle” it occupied. However, this time around they were not really counting on mustering the Sunnis’ support, as was the case back in 2006. They actually wanted to exact revenge—and this is very important—on those very Sunnis who drove them out of Iraq and take revenge on Sunni tribal leaders; the overall deteriorating security in this part of the country came in handy for them. This was the time when relations between Sunnis and Shiites were complicated given the governments were replacing one another and they had difficulty distributing offices with Sunnis being discontented with the Shiite majority…
Host: The same situation has unfolded in Syria as well with the Shiite minority at the helm of power.
Shumilin: No, [the Shiites] are the majority in Iraq, while in Syria they are a minority. When the Americans were still there, they attempted at regulating the situation by hinting and influencing, so that the Sunnis are not that badly discriminated against. However, after the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, the Al-Maliki administration, including himself personally, withdrew from their promises and abused the power they held at the time. The Shiite factor has thus become dominant everywhere, which has obviously stirred discontentedness. And IS attempted to capitalise on that sentiment when it stormed into the Iraqi territory. The first thing the IS terrorists did—and this is confirmed—was murdering chiefs of Sunni tribes.
Host: In other words, this is not even a Sunni vs. Shiite case any more, but an intra-Sunni animosity?
Shumilin: Yes, and this is very important. One could argue a main thesis they maintain is the alleged necessity to be a harsh Sunni Muslim, and those Sunnis that are not—“non-radical”, as we would characterise them—must be eliminated. In other words, moderate Sunni Muslims are on the top of IS’s enemies and traitors list, and must therefore be eliminated. But one does have to say the Shiites are still higher on that list.
Nonetheless, in the light of events I discussed above, i.e. the matters of 2006, the first thing they did after storming into Iraq was the physical elimination of chiefs of Sunni tribes, who refused to dance to their tune, join their ranks or provide assistance. This is confirmed by recently uncovered mass graves. The first group of those physically eliminated was 112 individuals, which suggests that not only the chiefs but also those close to them [fell victim]. But the prime target is the Shiites, of course. In other words, this is an intra-Islamic, intra-religious war, which is being waged by a radical group among the Islamists. We shall not utilise the term “Muslim”, since the goal the warring parties are eying is [secular and political] power. And Muslims are kind-hearted in their absolute majority, pious in their thoughts and intentions and everything else. On the other hands, Islamists are those who cover their intentions under the mask of Islam for political purposes with IS being the most radical group whose ideology stems from that radical Islamism ideology. To be sure, not [radical] Islam, but such Islamism.
I have listed their enemies in order: moderate Muslims, heads of state in all neighbouring Sunni monarchies and the majority of subjects there. The royal family in Saudi Arabia is identified as an enemy, which they received from Usamah Bin Ladin. The prime target for him, a Yemen-born citizen of Saudi Arabia, was fighting this royal regime because he identified them as traitors of Islam. Now IS picks up this banner and declares all moderate Muslims unwilling to take up arms and fight for supremacy of Islam in a fight with infidels—first Shiites, and the Western civilization thereafter—must be eliminated.
It is important to highlight that significant ideologies controversies erupted between “daughter” IS and “mother” and boil down to the following. The tasks Al-Qaedah pursues are global, fighting the distant enemy and the West, while fighting those closer are of lesser priority. The terrorist events in New York, Spain, England, and France are episodes of the strategy, to which their entire logistics and organisational structure conformed: masked cells of supporters in any given country, community—the so-called “sleeper” cells that later “awoke” to fulfil certain tasks. These group acts similar to secret services’ units with sabotage missions, i.e. not only collecting intelligence but also carrying out terrorist attacks. In other words, any person walking next to you in the street could turn out to be an Al-Qaedah supporter, who will take a weapon or an explosive devise when the command to do so comes.
Unlike [those with such] a strategy, which I am equating with sabotage/intelligence activities, IS is a terror group, which was established and shaped in a completely different guise. This here is an army with its flags, banners, and local tasks with capturing a territory being the most important one for further expansion and establishment of grounds for a pseudo-state. Unlike Al-Qaedah, which existed in caves and no one knows where else…
Host: Many people had the same argument: Al-Qaedah is a network organisation…
Shumilin: Exactly—a network organisation, while IS is an army with tanks and all kinds of other forms of armaments; most importantly, it has a specific banner…
Host: That contradicts Islamic [teachings]. Several experts told me having a banner was in violation of Islamic principles and that it is not something Islam accepts.
Shumilin: Well, those appear to be very deep studies, because if you look at historical events, there have been banners in the past. You are puzzling me now, because there were banners in the past; and this black banner of Al-Qaedah and IS with white inscriptions is from “there”. The same [argument] applies to the green flag of Saudi Arabia, because Islam is mostly associated with the green colour.
Host: What sources of funding does IS have? It is somewhat clear by now, although not entirely. And where did the money come from when they were still very small [in size] and were only starting?
Shumilin: It is important to end discussing the differences in goal Al-Qaedah and IS pursue. If Al-Qaedah has the same goal of establishing a caliphate in remote future, there is a specific task here [IS putting before itself]—an immediate occupation of a territory, which will be designated as part of a caliphate as was the case after they occupied parts of Iraq and Syria. In other words, this is an organisation closer to the ground, hence a different tactic. And it differs in its overall strategy of fighting everyone around, the neighbouring areas of Turkey—which started bitterly fighting them recently—and Syria, Iran and Jordan. So these are their main enemies: Shiites, moderate Sunnis that are Muslims, and then people of other faiths. This is why they treated Christian-Yezidis the way they did.
With all these factors in the backdrop, we can move onto the issue of financing. Initially this organisation was financed just like Al-Qaedah was. By the way, there are many distortions and perversions, sometimes premeditated ones, in this regard. There is a group of experts in Russia, well, so-called “experts”, who claim Al-Qaedah and Usamah Bin Ladin were hand-fed by the Saudi Arabia…
Host: And the USA…
Shumilin: And the USA, yes, even though these are countries are actually the main nemeses in the words of Osamah Bin Ladin himself. It is a paradox. So these “experts”, who will remain unnamed, often make claims but then refuse to elaborate on them. Because if you start asking question, the whole picture they tried to paint crumbles. To be sure, the situation [around financing] is very complex because Al-Qaedah wasn’t financed by Bin Laden’s personal funds alone, even in the early stages. The major source and financing channels were so-called “grey” funds, which are mostly held by private entities or disguised state-affiliated funds. [I used the term] disguised because they are presented as if meant for one purpose, while utilised for other goals. But there are only so many of such private funds, including Saudi billionaires; so the money could have indeed come from Saudi Arabia. But they were not always dispatched from within Saudi Arabia, but from offshore companies or by using elaborate schemes, which would involve neighbouring as well as Western countries. But here is the most important factor—those who established these funds were adherents of a radical interpretation of Islam. And while they looked like well-intended citizens of Saudi Arabia, they actually harboured grudges against the ruling family. And there are many such individuals that we have come to know about. As a form of opposing the ruling family, they provided funds to various radical groups, not only Al-Qaedah. However, Osamah was fighting the royal family for the sake of cleansing Saudi Arabia from filthy foreigners—American troops were quartered for a short period of time there after the Storm in Gulf in a war against Iraq. And he would champion the idea of battles within Saudi Arabia as a form of securing and obtaining money from some of the [royal family] opponents. In other words, this has nothing to do with the Saudi statehood or the ruling family and officials; these are opponents.
Host: Private welfares…
Shumilin: Indeed, private welfare sources, which delivered [monetary aid] to Al-Qaedah via various complicated schemes. The scheme remained and perhaps still applies in IS’s case, but it is not a state. Specifically, neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia are financing IS.
The second source of financing, for the sake of which IS commits such horrible atrocities with so much brutality and blood, is obtaining parts of obligatory tax on wealthy Muslims—zakah—pay annually all over the globe to mosques and then do not know where it goes. To my mind, they are somewhat successful in this. Perhaps IS uses such “grey” schemes to obtain money from zakah, one of five pillars of Islam. And IS declares itself a competitor to Al-Qaedah: unlike Al-Qaedah, which hid in a cave and did something based out of it, we are fighting, cutting the heads of infidels and need your support. And we carry, as they would claim, allegedly the “pure and correct” version of Islam, by which they mean a radical interpretation of the Quran. To be specific, they ignore the vast majority of the Quranic chapters and positions therein, and only cherry-pick the sternest ones and distort their meanings, as numerous scholars of religion argue. Thereby one sees some sort of an ideological canvas unfolding, which—and I repeat—has been disproved and refuted by authoritative and respected scholars of religion, who maintain that this has nothing to do with Islam; if anything, it is a deliberate perversion of Islamic teachings. And yet they raise the banner of Islam in order to gain attention of discontent Muslims in other countries. The issue of replenishing their ranks is a different topic. At the moment, we are discussing how funds are channelled there. So parts of what Muslims collect is somehow sent to support the plans of these—what could we call them?—I would say bandits…
Shumilin: Extremists or radicals to put it mildly, which announced asserting Islam and Islam’s struggles their purpose; and those waging it are them, which they are doing out there. Further, obviously, forcible take over of companies, businesses, contraband of oil, misappropriating bank products, etc.
Host: There is yet another “hotspot” which has been catching up with scales in Syria—Afghanistan and challenges Central Asia is facing lately. First, I would like to ask whether the difference are significant regarding interpretation of Islam in the Arab world and Central Asia. After all, one of historical centres of Islam is located in Central Asia, Uzbekistan specifically. IS is approaching their borders and there have been unconfirmed opinions that IS is making arrangements with the Taliban, which has also been busy occupying northern parts of Afghanistan. Experts maintain that Taliban do not harbour ideas of expanding beyond the borders of Afghanistan: they want to capture and seize Afghanistan and rule there. On the other hand, IS has far larger objectives and if they do come to an agreement with the Taliban, then how significant would this threat on Central Asia be? To be sure, Central Asian nations, as well as Russia, are extremely concerned about this problem.
Shumilin: You know, I would not limit everything to agreements with the Taliban. The fact of the matter is that there are many issues at hand. At this time, there are more contradictions and controversies than common ground between the two groups, because everything boils down to interpretation of Islam and its specifics. But even this is not discussed in depth; most probably issues of geopolitics and interests prevail. The Taliban do not want to rescind the presumed supremacy and rule over Afghanistan to IS’s favour, because what happened to Al-Qaedah will happen to them—they will get pushed out of the imagined Islamic super-space, IS captures limelight and becomes a magnet for power, human resources, and will attempt to administer “theoretical work on Islam”. Henceforth, the discrepancies with the Taliban, which has always been closer to Al-Qaedah—Mullah Omar was the patron for Osamah Bin Ladin; he may have become a relative as well. This may actually become an obstacle for IS’s advancement in this direction.
IS may advance in the direction of Central Asia, bypassing Afghanistan. They have such experience with its cells showing up in various [not geographically linked] states in the Arab world like Libya and Mali in Africa. This is happening thanks to the same old mechanism, when a part of the territory is announced a caliphate and a caliphate has to expand by capturing more and more lands. IS has cunningly extended an ideological bridge onto the concept of a caliphate that the entire Muslim community of the world can relate to. [The idea] is now being presented and regurgitated as a vision of reinstituting the historical caliphate in the near future. Therefore, all the modern areas and countries that once were part of the caliphate, including the larger part of Spain, is presented as a potential area for a new caliphate. The mechanism spawns groups in these territories, which then declare themselves as IS supporters, and the territory under their control is now reportedly a part of the caliphate. Figuratively speaking, there is a “crazy quilt” spread over many countries and such a “patch” may appear in any part of the world.
The threat Central Asia is facing is directly proportionate to the potential radicals have and are ready to announce their allegiance to IS, act on its commands in their style and spirit for the sake of a pseudo-caliphate. To be sure, specific conditions and circumstances create an environment for such people to come about.
The story of a Tajik colonel who fled his country and duty to join IS is a story of one’s complete disappointment in the environment and corruption they were part of, discontentedness with the impossibility to live enjoying justice, especially so among the youth—these factors contribute to their recruitment. This significant, if not total, corruption unfolds in North Caucasus as well: as in Central Asia, the youth there are disappointed by the lack of room for growth and injustice reigning in their society. The predominantly opted to go underground, and now they are traveling to Syria and Iraq to join IS. But IS is only capitalising on the brutal reality these young men suffered from—injustice, authoritarianism, dictatorship, lack of perspective for self-expression and self-assertion unless one is a member of a ruling clan/family, the impossibility of a normal life, defending honour and dignity from judicial bodies and many other factors. In other words, the authoritarian regimes, in my understanding and vision, are the main recruiters of potential fighters for IS. It does not matter where they are active—whether Central Asia or Syria or Iraq, which will soon to come to an end, I think. But even if IS disappears, social discontentedness will transform onto the religious plane one way or another in the case of Central Asia. These grievances would then be expressed in the form of radical terrorist acts in Al-Qaedah’s style or sabotage/intelligence gathering activities in IS style or, lastly, will break out in the form of an open faceoff of armies. This is the root of the problem and it is necessary to apply forceful methods to combat it. However, social reformation of institutions and society in general must not be overlooked or ignored by those who wish to rid their country of the threat radical Islamism.
Host: I would like to return to the topic in the beginning of our conversation now that we are running out of time for our show. So allow me to ask you this last question; make your answer brief if possible. You expressed certainty that IS will not exist for much longer. Why do you think so?
Shumilin: Because we can already see indications suggesting countries coming together and joining forces to combat it. And the base of this force is in the Muslim world: while Turkey has so far been the weakest link, it has eventually joined the anti-IS coalition. [Ankara] is firm on this position and blocking oxygen, so to speak, to IS by preventing new recruits from reaching its ranks.
On the other hand, the situation in Syria is pivoting to Asad’s detriment and the help of that same coalition and other groups [is essential]. In other words, the forces fighting both IS and Asad are starting to gradually capture dominant positions. This trend will likely persevere, thereby limiting IS’s chances to consolidate its military might because of Iran and Turkey. Iran, to be sure, is entering this war and Russia is prepared to activate its forces against IS. In other words, IS is backed against a wall and can be crushed in its present form, but not destroyed completely. It is opting for changing names, going underground, and reviving itself elsewhere under a different title and quasi-Islamic radical names.
Host: Mr Shumilin said the words I was having in mind to conclude this conversation. In other words, that is exactly what will happen: IS will dissipate and disperse, and some other group will show up. And as Mr Shumilin put it correctly, the important question to be asked here is not “who” will come around, but “why”. Thank you!