ISIS, the West and the Mediterranean: dangers and solutions

We did not know anything about its identity until a few months ago. We were not even agree on its name: Islamic State, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. According to what the Department of State in Washington decreed, today the official documents present the acronym ISIL but mass media prefer ISIS. IS is the name Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī gave as soon as the “caliphate” have been proclaimed, on June 29th: whoever continued to use the old word Dāʿish – the abbreviation for al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah (Islamic State), would have been publicly  flogged.

Dismissed the problem about the name, intelligence analysts and experts started to study the features of the organization. The starting point is the enormous economic patrimony on which ISIS can rely[1]. The sense of being well-off arrived on June 8th, two days before Mosul fell, when Abū Hajjar was arrested and 160 USB sticks, which contained information about the accounting of the caliphate, have been seized. By analyzing them, 875 million dollars available and different assets have been revealed[2].

What are these resources for? First of all, they are for seeking two priorities ISIS gave to itself. The first one is the religious propaganda. Behind the videos uploaded to YouTube and the “tweets” on social networks, a well structured propaganda machine is hidden. Baghdādī committed to his experts the task to hit the minds, by convincing them that joining the cause of the Islamic State is necessary. The second priority consists in establishing an Islamic court within the occupied territories. These courts are also clear means of propaganda because they aim at restoring order in the areas affected by a chronic socio-political instability, by winning, therefore, favour.

These priorities are subject to the long-term strategy in Syria and Iraq: propaganda and Islamic courts can be interpreted such as the will to “instruct and educate”[3] the citizens of the caliphate.

So, these are the dynamics in the occupied territories. But the dynamics are not completely analyzed because they are hidden behind the blatant murders of Western people, which, with the declaration of imminent attacks against the “infidel” world, have increased the level of the anti-terrorism alert. So, which are the real dangers to the Mediterranean and the West? Let’s start with the latter. Especially after the first executions by ISIS, Europe and the United States announced a conspicuous reinforcement of security measures, in order to limit not only possible external dangers but also the so-called “foreign fighters”, local people fascinated by the jihadist cause, ready to go to the Middle East battlefront. The phenomenon is real and underrating it could be dangerous. However, it is necessary to wonder whether there will be imminent and organized plans of attack behind the spectacular announcement. The answer seems to be negative.

Let’s start with the murders of Western hostages. They have a propagandistic and demonstrative purpose. But it wants to arouse a local echo, as I wrote above. Baghdādī’s objectives are also local. ISIS concentrates its forces in the ongoing conflict against Syrian and Iraqi loyalist troops[4]. By so doing (in the same way as the other “sons” of al-Qaeda), it follows the strategy that the organization of Osama bin Laden has been clearly sketching out for a long time, marking an important step in the history of Islamic terrorism, from the global to the local jihad. Due to this plan, the purpose is to establish and reinforce the Islamic States in their respective theatres of operations, which have not clearly included the West until now[5].    

The same can be said about the Mediterranean. It is not an objective of settlement for ISIS, at the moment. The area is used in a different way that is for economic, strategic and military interests. From the first aspect, Baghdādī aimed successfully for the resources of North African territories which fell into instability, due to the Arab Spring. With reference to the other two aspects, the Mediterranean basin has become a big recruitment centre. In particular, the Turkish border houses this kind of structure and puts up who wants to become a fighter and comes from abroad[6]. Once they have entered the ISIS ranks, there are two types of integration: the first one is military, many leaders of the units come from Chechnya, Libya and Tunisia, at the moment; the second one is the booming sector of propaganda and media production, which are assigned by the Islamic State to foreign jihadists, mainly coming from the Mediterranean.

The present “localism” of ISIS won’t last forever but it is a problem that the West must quickly tackle. The possibilities are clear enough. In Iraq, the only possible solution is the restoration of the government and the army led by Sunnis. Arming the Peshmerga fighters is only a temporary measure: (maybe) Kurds could defend their stronghold but (definitely) they are not able to put the whole of Iraq in order. Moreover, they are only a non-Arab minority group, element that is impossible to underestimate.

In Syria, dealing with Assad seems to be the only possible hypothesis to keep the State alive, instead. Keeping on advocating an aprioristic collapse of the Alawite regime – a mistake already made in Libya – would be a clamorous own goal, which would drag the country into an anarchy worse than the current one, to Baghdādī’s men advantage.



[1] Cf. A. IORDACHE, Stato Islamico: l’economia della più ricca organizzazione terroristica, “Mediterranean Affairs”, October 2, 2014.

[2] Cf. A. NEGRI, Lo Stato Islamico visto da vicino, in “Limes. Rivista italiana di geopolitica”, 9/2014, p. 40.

[3] Ib., p. 43.

[4] The same can be said about the other sides of radicalism, both African and Middle Eastern. The different groups operating in have limited objectives: al-Shabaab bases in Somalia and has rarely crossed its borders; Boko Haram moves almost exclusively in Nigeria; AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) look after their own interests in Algeria and Tunisia, and in Yemen respectively.

[5] “Personal jihad” is different, instead. It is personified by single activists who decide to organize terrorism acts, against Western targets, in their own cities. They are often induced by an emulative spirit and are not directly in contact with the Islamic terrorism. They are like drifting mines because they act secretly and it is hard to identify them, as shown by the fact happened in Boston on April 15, 2013. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Chechen brothers who attacked during the Boston Marathon, were two boys apparently integrated into the US social fabric: the first one wanted to become a boxer, the second one was a university student. Anyway, personal jihad has a relative effect, quantitatively speaking. Remaining in the United States, we just need to analyze the following factor: since September 11, 2001, only 33 people have been killed in attacks related to the Islamic terrorism, compared to 14 thousand murders that happens in the country every year.

[6] By the fight against the Islamic State, Erdogan has the great opportunity to approach again the West, after the refusal from Europe and disagreements with the White House. Cf. M. ANSALDO, Sul califfato Ankara si gioca la faccia, in “Limes. Rivista italiana di geopolitica”, 9/2014, pp. 157-166.

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