The Other Side Of ISIS


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On 26 July, an amalgam of rebels planned an operation against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Army. The grouping is named Jamaat Ahadun Ahad (JAA). The operation was called Laylat-ul-Qadr (Night of Power), those three nights of Ramazan — the 19th, 21st and 23rd — when ibadat (special worship) is called for. Good deeds performed on this single night, the number of du’as sung, are equal to those performed over a thousand months. Some interpreters believe that it was on this night that the Quran was brought down from Baytul M’amur, the heavenly abode, for the Rooh (Jibreel, or Gabriel) to incrementally reveal to Muhammad.

It’s a night of absorbed prayer. But the JAA had another intent in mind: for it, Laylat-ul-Qadr presented a conflation of two desirable circumstances. There would be three nights to choose from for the attack — Assad’s army would need an oracle to know which. It was also a night that promised the making of destiny and the passing of a decree.

More to the point, the JAA is part of the operational arm of the ISIS that most disturbs the “coalition of the willing” (COTW) that US President Barack Obama is belatedly trying to cobble together after the gratuitous slayings of the two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The JAA consists of mujahireen, fierce, ideologically-motivated foreign fighters who are said to comprise roughly half the 50,000-man army of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, and a growing number of its 30,000-strong army in Iraq (figure courtesy Syrian Observatory for Human Rights). Its members are predominantly Chechen and North Caucasian; their “overall commander” is Amir al-Bara Shishani, who is considered legendary (by some Chechens but by no Galmeans all) because he fought under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

The JAA has a body of core members, a more or less permanent brigade that is filled as and when its foot soldiers are killed, and a floating population that treats it like a halfway house or a caravanserai. Chechens, Turks, Europeans and even former members of the Taliban stay if they can find common cause with the Chechen core, or move on to other forces of marginally different denominations.

The JAA is hyperactive on Twitter, with Turkish supporters finding ways to keep the feeds alive by opening new profiles and piggybacking on innocuous hashtags whenever the Twitter management shuts them down during its frequent cleaning sweeps.

While the ISIS has consistently been eulogising its foreign component, the western analytical narrative continues to focus narrowly on its ‘Middle East’ fighters. This aligning of the gunsights is dictated less by ground reality than by selective geopolitics. It serves the US’ purpose that all artillery — literally and figuratively — remain trained on West Asia and North Africa.

The internationalist aspect of the ISIS has been underplayed in the western discourse on the roiling in West Asia — that the group is itself farīqun l-ālamīna, a “coalition of the worlds”, a COTW doppelgänger. It is an aspect more societally interesting, more logistically significant, and far more strategically problematic than would be expected of the one-dimensional force that is being advertised across all manner of media — a desert tsunami of masked, barbaric decapitators and mass murderers sworn to ultraconservative Wahhabism and to qudrat-e-shamsher, the power of the sword. But, as many among the COTW (especially the US ‘allies’ in West Asia) have warned, it would be imprudent to ignore the fact that the ISIS is a far larger synergy with greater numbers of the more willing from more corners of the earth.

In his televised address on 10 September, Obama authorised air strikes against ISIS Syria but kept his focus firm on ISIS Iraq, with roughly 140 airstrikes, three-fourths of them centred on Mosul dam alone, and most of the remaining one-fourth joint sorties on Mosul and Erbil.

There is a reason for this skewed attrition, of course: Erbil is the oil-rich seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraqi Kurdistan, which, if it falls, will not only open the sluicegates into Turkey — Hakkâri in southeast Turkey is a mere 350 km from Erbil — but also into Iran, through Mīāndoāb, about 310 km from Erbil.

More to the point, as The New Yorker reported (10 August), “ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the many oil and gas firms large and small drilling in Kurdistan under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favorable terms”. ExxonMobil huckstered itself into a position of primacy in Erbil in 2011. The Bush administration helped the US oil companies along by keeping Erbil out of bounds to non-US interests. The Obama administration did absolutely nothing to change the equation.

And that’s where matters stand today, for the two enemy COTWs: oil. Wherever the ISIS has managed to hang on to oil wells, it has; where it hasn’t, it has employed the scorched earth policy, torching the oil wells — such as it did in the Ain Zalah field in Zammar district in Iraq in August.

Not that Erbil’s Kurds, who understand as well as the ISIS the world-building value of the liquid gold they are sitting upon, are letting others filch it: They are bending inconvenient international covenants to get what is theirs, de natura if not exactly de jure. In end-July, for instance, a US court had passed an order (Ministry of Oil of The Republic of Iraq vs 1,032,212 Barrels of Crude Oil, 3:14-249, US District Court, Southern District of Texas [Galveston]) on the seizure of the contents of a tanker, the United Kalavryta, which was flying the flag of the Marshall Islands but had filled up $100 million worth of oil in the southern Turkey port of Ceyhan, which is the maritime clearing house for West Asian, Central Asian and Russian oil and natural gas.

The Kurds seem to be canny at getting their hands on their oil without the restrictive intervention of the US or Iraq government, which told the court that the oil was its property. It didn’t sit well with AET Tanker Holdings Sdn Bhd (formerly American Eagle Tankers), a Kuala Lumpur-based shipping fleet specialising in crude transport, which had a delivery contract for the United Kalavryta oil with Talmay Trading DMCC, a British Virgin Islands-based company with its head office in the Dubai Multi Commodities Center free zone authority in the UAE.

This is where the trail gets murkier and more byzantine. According to a Platts Crude Oil Marketwire report (14 June 2006, Vol. 27, No. 115), Talmay was owned by the Switzerland-based Europetroleum Group, which was founded by members of the Russian state trader Nafta Moskva JSC. Nafta Moskva is 100 percent owned by the multibillionaire Suleyman Abusaidovich Kerimov, Russia’s 19th-richest oligarch: Nafta Moskva has a shadowy but documented history with the United Nations’ Iraqi Oil-for-Food Programme (1995-2010) kickbacks during Saddam Hussein’s regime.

And it gets murkier still. The United Kalavryta, a 52,000-tonne Suezmax tanker, is managed by Marine Management Services, which is headed by a particularly lightheaded, carelessly libertine Greek shipping tycoon, Gregory Callimanopoulos. More to the point, his company manages five Suezmax tankers, two of them under Marshall Islands flags and three under the Greek flag, which have been transporting oil from Ceyhan.

And the murkiest of all. Too big to enter the port of Galveston, the United Kalavryta steamed off — and literally dropped off the radars in the Gulf of Mexico. Nobody knows where it went or who the final buyer of one million barrels of unlicensed Kurdish oil was.

Erbil’s Kurds might not be new to oil money but they are freshly exposed to supertankers of it: making it a rights issue that transcended Iraqi nationality, even as the ISIS was broadcasting its plans for Erbil — the terrorist group prefers frightening with noise to maddening with silence, the logic of which tactic is still unclear to the West — in December 2013, the KRG administration knocked together the 60-km-long pipeline that connects the Taq Taq oilfield, located 85 km southeast of Erbil, to the entry point for the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. The Taq Taq oilfield is shared between the Anglo-Turkish Genel Energy (44 percent), the Chinese Sinopec Group’s Addax Petroleum (36 percent), and the KRG (20 percent).

The pipeline is theoretically capable of pumping through a maximum of 300,000 barrels of oil per day to Turkey, but the war has put paid to thoughts of easy money. In any case, the Iraqi government has steadfastly opposed Kurds selling the oil they are sitting upon — 45 million barrels of it, by one estimate, leading Genel to pronounce the Kurdistan Region “one of the last great frontiers of global energy”.

A close look shows that what seems to be a tripolar grab at the cash-bag — with the US and Iraq declaring ownership, Turkey and the KRG defying them by signing a Gas Sales Agreement in 2013, and the ISIS filching up to $3 million a day in oil and gas revenue from under everybody’s noses — is, in fact, a multipolar freestyle wrestle.

In May, the very first bulk of crude, transported by another Callimanopoulos tanker, the United Leadership, brought the KRG $97 million. It was, by all calculations, ranging from Brent to Argus, a bargain sale, at a discount of about $13 per barrel, undercutting the ISIS’ asking rate by $17 per barrel. The buyer’s identity remains undisclosed, but the money was deposited at Turkey’s state-owned Halk Bankasi (People’s Bank), or Halkbank.

Halkbank had made its name by defying political diktats, including the US’ March 2012 sanctions against Iran using the international funds transfer mechanism, swift; a year later, Halkbank raised even more Amerika hükümet hackles by routing India’s $5 billion oil debt to Iran through its good offices.

Like many North European banks, Halkbank’s client list can’t be bought with love or money. The ISIS sells more than 30,000 barrels of crude a day at a blackmarket rate of $30 a barrel to Turkey and Jordan, who then redistribute the oil throughout the Levant — and this is a conservative estimate. ISIS Syria controls seven oil manufactories in Iraq and between 60 percent and 70 percent of Syria’s oil assets, right from the Syrian east to the northeast, including some areas that are ostensibly under Kurdish control.

Some of this goes to Turkish Kurd middlemen who grease the long road from Erbil through southeastern Turkey to Ceyhan in southern Turkey, a distance of some 900 km. Some the ISIS uses to fuel its growing fleet of US-made war vehicles (starting with the Abrams tanks, 1,500 Humvees and 52 howitzers it captured from the fleeing Iraqi Army in Mosul). Some it sells to the Assad regime, which in turn sells weapons back to the group. And some it routes to Shia and Kurdish businessmen from Lebanon and Iraq.

We know, because the media have rushed to tell us, of the handful of Americans, Indians, Australians and more than just a handful of British who snuck across to Iraq; and of some of them who died there and were exalted into billboard martyrs for ISIS Kāmilayni (International) — and into spectres for the putative COTW. It was only on 8 September that President Obama seemed to have decided on how to tackle the problem of parallax between ISIS Iraq and ISIS Syria: In the usual, bluff potus manner, he asked for autonomy with no oversight, and was straightaway handed $5 billion by Congress — no questions asked. America loves resoluteness in its presidents, and it always rewards them with an unquestionable freedom that rarely turns out well.

What makes the ISIS so brutal?

The violent rise of the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a classic case of Frankenstein’s monster turning on its masters, writes Prem Shankar Jha


Syria is not Iraq, the dynamics of the ISIS sweep in the two countries are different, and the ISIS in one isn’t quite using the logistics of the other. In fact, it is a headache for the western COTW that ISIS is difficult to pin down because it is microtailoring its behaviours according to which country it is nailing at any given moment: Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria or Turkey.

Al-Baghdadi knew who his audience was when he said early this year, “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Ahvaz, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, in the East and in the West.” These nations and regions are those that supply the bulk of the ISIS mujahireen. These are the regions the ISIS wants to harvest further.

In many ways, ISIS has a more internationalist doctrine than any militant group till date — certainly more internationalist than former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s catchy but meaningless “doctrine of international community”. “Rush O Muslims to your state,” al-Baghdadi had said in his Ramazan-eve speech. “Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.” As a beckoning, it is far more seductive than any “coalition of the willing” that Obama can conjure up: It speaks not just of a unitarian pan-Islamism but of a gigantic, borderless, stateless caliphate.

It is a dream that has attracted 9,000 mujahireen from as far as Chechnya and Russia, by far the majority of them loyal to the Caucasus Emirate, which was floated in 2007 by the Russian terrorist leader Doku ‘Dokka’ Khamatovich Umarov (1964-2013).

Most of these highly-respected Chechen fighters are in Syria; they pronounce themselves “independent” of rebel infighting, and only some have given bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to al-Baghdadi. Since this means reneging on fealty to the Caucasus Emirate, Chechen leaders in Syria such as the Georgian Abu Omar al-Shishani (originally, Tarkhan Batirashvili) have come to be loved by al-Baghdadi and reviled by Chechens who consider al- Baghdadi an upstart and his caliphate secondary in both age and importance to the Caucasus Emirate. Al-Shishani has managed to duck all the criticism, and al-Baghdadi rewarded him by elevating him to commander of the northern sector of Syria in mid-2013. By June 2014, the death of Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al- Anbari in Mosul raised him further to the post of ISIS military chief.

In effect, one of the top ISIS honchos is not of Arabic origin. Nor is the leading spoofer of al-Baghdadi affiliated to the ISIS, a Chechen named Muslim Abu Walid al-Shishani, who leads the Junud as-Sham faction. Islamic State News reported in July that, following a video address by the Caucasus Emirate Emir Abu Muhammad, Muslim al-Shishani was accused of leading the company of those “who fight allegedly for the word of Allah above all else on Earth, but don’t want to establish it, saying that it is allegedly still too early.”

It’s a damning accusation, and should have been the end of Muslim al-Shishani — except that his cachet with the ISIS cadre and Chechen mujahireen is notably greater and more enduring than that of Omar al-Shishani, whom he considers a maverick along with al-Baghdadi. There is a biopic of Muslim al-Shishani being planned back in Chechnya, the first reports of which are said to have sent the much younger Omar al-Shishani into a sulk. The irony has not been lost among American observers that even as Muslim al-Shishani was reported to have “hoisted the flag of Chechnya higher than that of Allah”, his reputation as the Chechen Che — handsome, unflappable and charismatic — seemed to count for more among the ISIS cadre than loyalty to the new Caliph Ibrahim. It counted for so much, in fact, that al-Baghdadi has wisely left Muslim al-Shishani to his own wisdom.

We don’t hear of the Harakat Sham al-Islam, comprised of Moroccan mujahireen, led by former Guantánamo detainee and former al-Qaeda top shot Ibrahim bin Shakaran (known in Syria as Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir). He is said to have fought in the Hindu Kush and Tora Bora mountain ranges of Afghanistan. He was then arrested by the Americans and transferred to Guantánamo, subsequently spending three years in prisons in Morocco.

Many mujahireen are not directly affiliated with the Islamic State, or even the recently formed Jabhat Ansar al-Din. But they share the ISIS’ goal, which essentially entails instituting Islamic governance. Most of them declare they are neutral with regard to the infighting that has haunted the Syrian jihad from its first week.

These are the denominations that the Obama administration isn’t paying much attention to. But it might be prudent to keep in mind that the Chechens gave Russia the shakes. Using none of the brutal flamboyance of British and American mujahireen, the Chechens might just give the COTW a long-haul migraine.

Study ‘Threat Economics’, not ‘Threat Finance’

RAND Corp’s advice to strategists after analysing declassified ISI documents

Terror template Al-Zarqawi passed on a well-oiled machine to ISIS
Terror template Al-Zarqawi passed on a well-oiled machine to ISIS

In a monograph, An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qaeda in Iraq, recently released to the public but prepared in 2010, the RAND National Defense Research Institute blows away major preconceptions doing the rounds of the Obama administration and, of course, of most but the specialised media. The monograph’s sources are two declassified collections of documents of the “finances, payrolls, and organisation” of the Tanzim Qa‘idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, or Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2005 and ’06 in western Iraq’s massive al-Anbar Governorate, which is today almost entirely occupied by the ISI’s successor, the ISIS. But RAND believes that the analysis still carries the “important implication for all current and future counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations […] that a militant group’s financial records may hold valuable information about the group’s operations and motivations”.

From a brashly-confident “coalition of the willing” point of view, the documents would be revelatory to those among the Obama administration who are attentive more to analytics than to the US president’s drawn-out underconfidence jag. RAND found that “senior financial administrators [of the ISI] kept detailed records, including the names — albeit in alias — of operatives and deceased members, along with all financial flows, equipment purchases, and other types of information”.

The records provide definitive proof that the Islamic State didn’t soak up recruits from the ranks of the unemployed and uncertain in the war-torn, hardscrabble Iraqi economy. ISI combatants faced a 50-fold yearly increase in risk of death, but the income of the average ISI combatant’s family was just $111 a month, compared to $515 for the average Anbari household. In the 31 years between the (presumed) productive ages of 18 and 48, an ISI member could hope to earn just $54 per annum while his civilian counterpart could make $824 per annum. RAND’s analysis suggests “that if [ISI] members were rational when it came to their finances, financial rewards were not a primary motivation, and they were not adequately compensated for the additional risk they took on. RAND estimated “that these other motivations in aggregate were worth forgoing at least 57 percent to 77 percent of expected future income for the average [ISI] member”.

But if the US had a national mechanism, it would be a cross between a bulldozer and an ostrich. “Many insurgency theorists, military operators, and intelligence officials have posited that the financing of insurgent groups is pivotal for sustaining their operations, and thus their financial systems should be key targets in operations by counterinsurgents,” says RAND. “The wide acceptance of this principle led the US National Security Council in 2005 to create the Iraq Threat Finance Cell, a joint Department of Defense and Department of the Treasury group whose primary mission was to increase the quality and availability of intelligence information on insurgency related financial issues.”

In effect, the US Treasury Department can, in the words of David Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, be as “hard at work” as it wants “to undermine ISIL’s financial foundation” — and still find recruits bulking up the ISIS at the same furious pace as today. Of particular significance to analysts of the perplexing ‘unforced conscription’ of ISIS members is RAND’s finding that “the observed higher-than-expected education and wealth levels of terrorists weakens theories explaining participation in militancy as being due to financial deprivation, mental instability, or poor education”.

RAND also busted another much-promoted belief — that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries funded the birthing of the ISIS. If anything, outside donations came to about 5 percent of the ISI’s 2005-10 working budget.

What al-Zarqawi’s ISI passed seamlessly on to al-Baghdadi’s ISIS was the “aspiration to establish and maintain a hierarchy, even a bureaucracy, generally ruled from the top down, as a probable precursor to a global caliphate”. The documents included “bylaws, committee structures, letterheads, forms, and permission slips”.

Just because it seems startlingly encashable, the isis doesn’t deserve its status as an mnc’s wet dream. Al-Baghdadi took over a group already flush with cash. RAND found enough “evidence to suggest that the Anbar chief administrative officer, known as the administrative emir, exported revenues to other provinces in Iraq or to other countries”. But salaries guzzled the cash, of which emirs had a mere two weeks’ back-up; reallocation and compensation accounted for up to 56 percent of payouts. The imprest account was replenished by a zakat of 20 percent that every ‘cell’ deposited from its income from “local enterprises” — kidnappings and extortion. The emirs kept spotless books, shunting funds where they were required.

Each sector had its own administrative emir, guiding purposeful bureaucracies — movement and maintenance; legal; military; security; medical; spoils; and media. Contrary to general perception, al-Baghdadi is not a genius who conjured up an executive structure for the ISIS (for which invention he gifted himself a promotion to Caliph): He was gifted an institution, which hundreds of burōkerathā had constructed, consolidated and buffed from 2004 onwards.


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