Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
On October 29, 2014, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on the future of jihadi militancy in Iraq and Syria. The panel featured Richard Barrett, senior vice president of The Soufan Group; Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the BDC; and Bilal Abdul Kareem, a freelance journalist and documentary film-maker with extensive experience inside Syria. BDC Director of Research Sultan Barakat moderated the discussion, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Barrett opened the discussion by tracing the origins of the IS group and its relationship with al-Qaeda. According to Barrett, IS’s roots date back to at least the 1990s with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s establishment of a jihadi training camp in Herat and the founding of Jund al-Sham. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he said, presented Zarqawi with an ideal battleground and opportunity to gain recruits and funding. In 2004, Zarqawi officially joined al-Qaeda as the head of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) militant group. Due to ideological differences between ISI and al-Qaeda’s leadership, however, Barrett described this move as a “marriage of convenience.” While Zarqawi focused on fighting local enemies, al-Qaeda viewed its movement in a more global context.
Following Zarqawi’s death in 2006, the group underwent numerous transformations and leadership transitions, resulting in a dramatic reduction in military operations. The Syrian uprising represented an important turning point for ISI. Inspired by the success of its offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra, in Syria, ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi extended his group’s operations into the neighboring country, announcing the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS’s attempt to claim leadership over al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra led to a deepening rift between Baghdadi and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to Barrett, however, this rift “is more apparent than real,” with the two organizations sharing the same core objectives.
Lister then spoke, attributing IS’s military success to Baghdadi’s “professionalization of the organization,” his recruitment of experienced individuals (particularly Ba’thist officers) to oversee military operations, as well as a concerted “campaign of intimidation” against security officials and local populations. According to Lister, these factors have enabled IS to “exploit societal frustrations” and extend its control over Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. Another key source of IS’s strength, he said, is the group’s financial independence. While recent media attention has focused on foreign funding, Lister argued that only 5% of IS’s income is provided by external donors. The organization has largely bought influence and funded its activities through oil sales, extortion, taxation, and the selling of stolen antiques on the black market. Lister argued that recent strikes against IS-controlled oil refineries are misguided, as they will provide the group with a further opportunity to blame the international community for the scarcity of oil and electricity cuts during the upcoming winter.
When asked whether IS was motivated by “money or ideology,” Abdul Kareem argued that most jihadis in Syria were driven by two factors—the establishment of an Islamic state and the desire to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people—adding that “once they get [to Syria] they fall into different approaches and methodologies.” Abdul Kareem said that attacks against Western countries were never a priority for jihadis in Syria, arguing that “Blowback is only an issue when there is international intervention.”
All three panelists agreed that the coalition’s campaign was far too limited to halt the spread of IS. Lister, for example, argued that the coalition’s approach was too focused on counterterrorism measures. “Strikes will only minimally contain IS,” he said, arguing in favor of a more long-term approach aimed at supporting and strengthening moderate Sunni forces. Abdul Kareem explained that by exclusively targeting IS, the coalition had failed to take a clear position against the Assad regime, now responsible for over 250,000 deaths in Syria. The people on the ground, he said, can’t help but question the sincerity of the air campaign, thus bolstering greater anti-Western sentiment. He warned that “fighters from other groups who were not sold on the ISIS model will join ISIS after the bombings.” Barrett also agreed that “we need a different strategy; we can’t be fighting the same war of 2001.” The lack of effective governance, a reliable justice system, and equal opportunities for citizens have contributed to turning local populations into enemies of the state. “If you fill the governance gap,” he said, “ISIS will become a much less attractive option.” Barrett called for greater regional action in filling this void, urging further involvement from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Qatar.
When the floor was opened to questions, one member of the audience asked about the existence of possible links between the Assad regime and IS. Lister explained that while the regime had facilitated the transfer of jihadi militants to ISI during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, there are no “concrete coordinative links” between the two groups. The Assad regime has, at times, avoided any direct confrontation with the group simply because it had “other enemies to fight.” As IS advances further into Syria, he said, “We will begin to see further clashes between these two forces.” Nevertheless, all panelists argued that IS could not be defeated without first addressing the issue of Assad. “The more the regime kills the more this radicalism will grow,” explained Lister, pointing to a political transition as the only possible way forward. Another member of the audience inquired about alternative measures to fight IS. Abdul Kareem explained that supporting moderate groups with no traction on the ground, such as the FSA, would not be an effective solution. He said, “If Western forces or Western-backed forces replace ISIS there will be no peace in those areas,” concluding that “that there needs to be an Islamic solution to this issue or it will fail.”