Middle East

How forward-thinking ISIS eclipsed Al-Qaeda

DOHA: The extremist group ISIS has blasted into the international consciousness over the past year with its stunning seizure of cities and towns across a vast swath of Iraq and Syria, enslaving minority sects, staging filmed pageants of mass slaughter, acts of brutality and violence that have left much of the world horrified and alarmed.

Through astute use of social media, carefully targeted recruitment campaigns and battlefield successes, ISIS has spread its stark and brutal vision of Islam from its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria to adherents in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Afghanistan. It has even eclipsed Al-Qaeda as the dominant voice of extremist Islam.

“ISIS is a hundred times more organized than the original Al-Qaeda. They are dictating their agenda and I think that is their position of strength. They will be with us for a while,” said Aimen Dean, a Saudi-born former member of Al-Qaeda who switched sides to work for British intelligence for eight years.

From his days as a confederate of former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Dean, who today runs a consultancy in the UAE, has a sharp insight into the strategic calculus that underpins ISIS.

Key to ISIS’ success is the composition of its leadership, a “toxic mix” of radical Salafi jihadis and former Iraqi intelligence officers in the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, Dean told The Daily Star.

Al-Qaeda, from which ISIS emerged, was a “fragmented organization,” Dean said, with branches across the Muslim world. The goal was to wage jihad with the eventual aim of establishing a caliphate. But the scattered nature of Al-Qaeda and the lack of a centralized core led to local priorities taking over from the broader agenda.

“Every branch of Al-Qaeda started to prioritize their strategy according to their [local] needs on the ground,” he added.

ISIS, however, chose the opposite approach – establishing the caliphate from the outset and using it as a nucleus for an expanding jihad.

“So what results? First of all, instead of [Al-Qaeda’s] globalized, fragmented, visionless jihad, [ISIS] became a unified, strong centralized jihad within a certain territory,” Dean said. “That territory provided them with money, with people, with recruits and the ability to behave like a state and act like a state. And that led to an explosion of wealth.”

According to Dean, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader of ISIS in May 2010 following the death of his predecessor, he distributed $120 million to some 100 underground cells in Iraq and instructed them to buy businesses that interact with local people, such as cafes, restaurants, butchers and grocery shops.

“He instructed that these businesses be as close as possible to government headquarters and military bases in Mosul, Ramadi, Tikrit, Fallujah, in order to spy on the government, to bug tables, to recruit insiders and this is exactly what happened,” Dean said.

He added that he informed the British Foreign Office of this development in November 2010 but was met with skepticism.

Then in 2013, ISIS staged audacious raids on prisons across Iraq, freeing hundreds of detainees, including senior jihadi figures.

“These jihadis could not have been broken out and transported to safe houses without a [logistics] network and immaculate planning,” Dean said. “It just shows you these people were always forward thinking, and if they were able to do that when they were hibernating and on the run ...what are they capable of now?”

ISIS deliberately targets its message to a “certain demographic” of Muslims in the West that Dean said was vulnerable “to the three building blocks, the unholy trinity, of violent extremism.”

The first, Dean said, is feeding the guilt of young Muslims in the West who are torn between the vices of alcohol, sex and drugs on the one hand and religious observance on the other – the “push and pull between temptation and redemption.”

The second stage is the “political narrative” in which the potential recruit comes to believe that the West is at war with Islam.

The third step is what Dean calls the “self-imposed elitist isolationism,” in which the recruit develops a persecution complex because he is a Muslim in a hostile Western environment and withdraws from society. That in turn leads gradually to a superiority complex as he “spiritually ascends.”

“He is now saying that he will absolve himself of all this filth and debauchery he was engaged in,” he said. “With that ascension he starts to see everyone below him as nothing but pigs and cows. And that unleashes the psychopath within in order for him to go and slaughter without any remorse whatsoever ... And that’s it, you have become an ISIS fighter.”

Dean’s own journey began in 1994 when he traveled to Bosnia at the height of the war in the Balkans. There he met Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and later traveled to Afghanistan where he grew close to bin Laden.

However, he began to have a change of heart following the Al-Qaeda bomb attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 in which 12 Americans were killed along with over 200 other people. Appalled at the high number of civilians killed, Dean examined the original 13th-century fatwa that sanctioned the death of innocents as collateral damage during a time of war. He discovered that the fatwa was issued during the Mongol invasions of the Arab world and bore no relation to the circumstances of the East Africa bombings.

“That was the first seed of doubt, more followed,” he said.

Dean later agreed to spy against Al-Qaeda on behalf of the domestic and foreign branches of British intelligence, spending an unnerving eight years among jihadis in Afghanistan and Britain. His covert existence came to an end with the publication of information leaked to an American journalist that eventually allowed Al-Qaeda to deduce that Dean was a spy.

Dean, who is working with governments to blunt the allure of ISIS to young Muslims, believes the organization has to be subjected to “hostile containment,” or military pressure to block its further geographical expansion. If it is unable to spread, the organization could turn on itself, Dean predicts, a consequence of its own religious intolerance.

Furthermore, he advocates clandestine operations, such as spreading disinformation and targeting funding networks, in an attempt to sow doubt and confusion among the militants as to the sanctity of their cause and the worthiness of their leaders.

“You can’t appeal to their humanity,” Dean said. “You have to make them doubt. Confusing them is disarming them. If he has 1 or 2 or 3 percent doubt ... that might cause him to disengage.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 19, 2015, on page 10.

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