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The Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) finds itself “increasingly on the defense,” according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby on Friday. As the coalition campaign, Operation Inherent Resolve, to “degrade and defeat” ISIL, enters its fourth month the official assessment sounded positive, “They have less ground now than they did before. They’re trying to defend what ground that they have. They’re not going on the offense much, and they’re really trying to preserve their own oxygen,” said Kirby.
That assessment is not without its critics. In “The National” (UAE) today analyst Hassan Hassan of the Abu Dhabi-based Delma Institute wrote, “Despite what numbers say, ISIL is still in full control of its territory and sometimes on the offensive in enemy territory.” [“Don’t believe the hype, ISIL is still on the offensive“] In addition to providing context to ISIL’s strengths and weaknesses, Hassan writes that, “As recent media reports suggest, the worst thing to do when dealing with ISIL seems to have already happened: distraction from the real issues that led to the rise of ISIL in favour of wishful thinking or cynical overstatements of achievement.”
Those comments reflected sentiments expressed by Prince Turki Al-Faisal in an address he gave at the Belfer Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts in November. Putting the regional threat posed by ISIL and other militant groups in perspective he said:
The challenges posed by groups like al Qaeda, Fa’esh [ISIL], Hezbollah, and the Houthis have echoes in the past, but they present new challenges incomparable with anything we have had to deal with previously. As we have seen, sectarianism and radicalism are symptoms of an underlying disease. They are boils that emerge when the fever of lawlessness and oppression take over a country. Their antidotes are stability, safety, and freedom.
Today Prince Turki, chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, expanded on his insights and perspectives about the Islamic State, or “Fahesh” as he refers to the organization, in an op-ed published in the daily Asharq Al-Awsat. Prince Turki regularly comments in writing, speaking appearances and SUSRIS interviews on the political and national security challenges facing Saudi Arabia and the consequences for Saudi-US relations. In November he recounted for the Arab-US Policymakers Conference attendees a litany of presentations he made in recent years about the conflict in Syria and the prescriptions he offered. He noted:
Ladies and gentlemen, I am not touting my prophetic capabilities. I am merely reflecting on what could have been. Had America and Europe listened to the Kingdom and provided the moderate opposition with anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and anti-artillery weapons, we would not have had to deploy our air forces to face the challenge of Fa’esh – that’s my slang for Da’esh.
We provide here for your consideration today’s op-ed by Prince Turki Al-Faisal on the emergence of “Fahesh” (the Islamic State) in Iraq and Syria. He previously served as head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service (1979-2001) and as the Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom (2003-2005) and to the United States (2005-2007).
A New Name for ISIS
Prince Turki Al-Faisal
When the international community decided to punish Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for the 9/11 attacks, a number of Al-Qaeda members fled to Iran. The Iranian authorities then sheltered these militants under the supervision of the intelligence service. Some of them included members of Osama Bin Laden’s family, as well as Saif Al-Adl, one of Al-Qaeda’s most senior military commanders and the man responsible for planning the attacks on Riyadh in May 2003, and Salih Al-Qar’awi, the leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Qar’awi later relocated to Waziristan in Pakistan where he was eventually killed by an American drone attack and his body flown back to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan.
Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the destruction of the Iraqi government, military and security institutions, Tehran allowed many of these individuals to enter neighboring Iraq, where they found fertile ground to carry out their schemes. Here, they re-grouped and rebranded under the new name, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and were also joined by militants coming from other countries, such as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and Muhsin Al-Fadhli, the leader of the Khorasan Brigades. Fadhli, who comes from a prominent Shi’ite family in Kuwait, is believed to be responsible for the attack in Najaf that killed the senior Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Al-Hakim. The Iranian government also allowed Fadhli to enter Syria shortly after the uprising there began.
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Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad actually allowed the entry of many of these individuals through his country and its borders, where they eventually made their way into Iraq. In fact, and in what is the first twist in this story, former Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki sought during his first term in office to submit an official complaint to the UN Security Council accusing Assad of supporting terrorist groups and allowing the passage of their members into Iraq. But Maliki never followed through on the accusation, leaving space for Al-Qaeda in Iraq to form in the country, where it eventually found strong resistance in the form of US forces and armed Sunni tribal coalitions. Many members of the group and its leadership were killed during these fierce battles, among them Zarqawi. Those who survived were thrown into American-run prisons in Iraq; but as soon as the US started pulling troops out of the country during Maliki’s first term, the men were released. Among them was Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, along with some of his close aides.
From there the seeds of a new terror organization were sown, one that would soon begin to carry out abominable terror campaigns. The group started recruiting disgruntled former soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army and played on the grievances of the Iraqi Sunni population, which was angered by Maliki’s sectarian policies and his giving free rein to armed Shi’ite militias to persecute Sunnis. This eventually led to popular uprisings in some of the country’s Sunni-dominated areas, where the people called for Maliki’s resignation and their full civil rights as Iraqi citizens. Maliki duly responded by violently quashing the uprisings, which led to thousands of Iraqis from Sunni tribes either being killed or driven from their homes, especially in the western Anbar province, which forms the main entry point into Syria. And here comes the next twist in the story: due to the lack of any international pressure on Maliki, this new group, now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq, gained a safe haven in Anbar province, whose residents had fought its precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, so fiercely. The organization then began to form sleeper cells in Sunni-dominated areas, especially in Mosul, and to recruit former members of Saddam Hussein’s army and fighters from the Naqshbandi Army, whose senior members include former Saddam aide Izzat Al-Douri.
After the start of the uprising in Syria against the Assad regime, which witnessed mainly peaceful demonstrations, Assad was unable to contain the protests using his shabiha militias or the Syrian army. He then took the malicious decision to turn the Syrian people’s peaceful uprising into a sectarian–terrorist conflict. Assad set free a number of prisoners in Syrian jails, all of whom were incarcerated on terror-related charges. The most infamous of them included Al-Qaeda leader Abu Khaled Al-Souri, who founded another terror group, Ahrar Al-Sham. Assad also called on other individuals belonging to terror groups outside Syria—whom he had previously allowed to leave the country and enter Iraq—to return to Syria. Among them were founding members of both the Islamic State of Iraq and the Al-Nusra Front, in addition to other groups. He also called on members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hezbollah, and members of Iraqi Shi’ite militias. All of these groups would assist him in murdering his own people.
As the conflict intensified, Assad continued to pound the Syrian population. When the terror groups began to become bolder and take the fight to the opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA)—mainly due to Western reluctance to arm and support the FSA—and impose their bloody will on some of the cities and towns they had captured, Assad began to use barrel bombs and even chemical weapons on the Syrian people, who were now, alongside the FSA, fighting a war on two fronts: one against Assad, and another against the terrorists.
It was during this time that the Islamic State of Iraq became “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” or “ISIS.” And with both the Syrian and Iraqi governments losing control of the borders between the two countries, the group was now able to make its lightening advance across Iraq, taking Mosul with the help of the sleeper cells it had planted in the city, as well as the former soldiers in Saddam’s army, some members of the Sunni tribes, and supporters of the Naqshbandi Army. And, in what was an embarrassing episode for the government of Nuri Al-Maliki, 3,000 members of this group were able to effortlessly roll past the 40,000-strong Iraqi army. Shortly after, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced the new Islamic “caliphate” and gave the group its latest name, “Islamic State,” though it continued to be referred to in the region as “Da’esh,” the Arabic acronym of its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
I have given the group a different name, however: “Fahesh.” I believe it is the more appropriate one, as the word derives from an Arabic root meaning, “obscene.” When we refer to someone using this word it means they commit obscenities, whether through words or deeds. For what could be more obscene than killing innocent people, enslaving women, declaring countless Muslims as infidels, driving people from their homes, brazenly exhibiting the heads of those you have decapitated, legitimizing the killing of those who say “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,” plundering banks, selling captives like chattel, and extorting those in areas under your control?
Moreover, the group’s styling itself as “Islamic State” shows it is completely out of touch with reality and ignorant of international laws, since the dictionary definition of the word “state” is: “a politically organized body of people usually occupying a definite sovereign territory, overseen by a group of permanent institutions.” The essential components of any state are, therefore, a government, a people, a defined physical territory, and sovereignty, as well as the international and legal recognition of its statehood. Neither Iraq nor Syria totally fall under the control of this group, neither does it practice its authority via permanent institutions—and, of course, there is no international recognition of any kind for this so-called state. As for its “Islamic” credentials, these are completely bogus. The members of this group are indeed the new Kharijites of the Muslim world (a 7th-century group that left the fold of Islam and was notorious for its barbarity and cruelty). ISIS’s crimes testify to the appropriateness of this particular appellation.
“Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind.” (Qur’an, Surat Al-Ma’ida 5. 32)
- Prince Turki is the former head of Saudi intelligence and the former ambassador to the United Kingdom and the United States. He is currently the chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.
Prince Turki’s Op-Ed was published by Asharq Al-Awsat on January 15, 2015
- DoD Press Briefing – RADM Kirby – Jan 9, 2015
- Don’t believe the hype, ISIL is still on the offensive – Hassan Hassan – The National – Jan 15, 2015
- Policy Amidst Regional Instability: A Conversation with Prince Turki Al Faisal – SUSRIS – Nov 22, 2014
- Prince Turki Al Faisal on Syria and Iraq with Amanpour – SUSRIS – Jul 1, 2014
- Prince Turki Al-Faisal On Regional Crises – SUSRIS – Nov 1, 2014
- New Regional Conditions: A Saudi View – Prince Turki AlFaisal – SUSRIS – Mar 12, 2014
- Has Iran Changed? – Prince Turki Al-Faisal – SUSRIS – Jan 9, 2014
- Prince Turki al-Faisal at Berlin Forum – SUSRIS – Dec 16, 2013
- More on SUSRIS with Prince Turki Al-Faisal