Interview with "Der Spiegel" reporter Christoph Reuter
The strategists of terror

At present, IS is the most dangerous terrorist militia in the world. It controls a territory that stretches from north-eastern Syria to western Iraq, including almost all Syrian oil and gas fields. Igal Avidan spoke to Christoph Reuter (correspondent for the German weekly news magazine "Der Spiegel") about the ascent of IS

Islamic State (IS) was not established by Islamic theologians, but by secular generals and intelligence officers of the Iraqi Baath Party, with the indirect assistance of the US army. How did that happen?

Christoph Reuter: In order to understand events, it is necessary to go back to 2003, when the US army marched into Iraq and Paul Bremer, the American administrator of the country at the time, issued two decrees that dissolved the whole of the Iraqi army and large parts of the country's administration with the stroke of a pen. Many officers were fired and they felt unfairly treated. They were not necessarily Saddam loyalists. They subsequently joined the resistance against the US troops with the establishment of so-called "Baath brigades", which were the precursors to IS.

These brigades were named after the Baath Party, the "party of Arab renaissance" founded in 1947, which united nationalistic pan-Arabism and secularism with Arab socialism.

Reuter: The founders of IS quickly realised that a call to "bring back the Baath Party" did not appeal to the masses. By contrast, their promise to "bring back Islam, engage in jihad and establish an Islamic state" exercised an incredible pull on people around the world. These people were prepared to die for the cause, a great advantage for any party involved in an armed struggle. In addition, with a name like "Islamic State", they were able to make it clear to the group's enemies upon achieving a certain degree of strength that they are the "Islamic State" and that all those opposed to them are infidels. This creates a legitimacy that the Baath Party never had and never could have. It allows them to build on a 1,400-year-old history instead of just a mere 60 years.

These former secret service agents, Baath Party functionaries and special unit commanders were able to discretely rise through the ranks of "Al-Qaida in Iraq" and later "Islamic State in Iraq". In 2010, they took control of the group after the Americans killed or imprisoned almost all of its top leaders. They declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi their commander, because he was the only one within the upper echelons of IS that was a trained Islamic preacher.

Cover of Christoph Reuter's book "Die schwarze Macht. Der Islamische Staat und die Strategen des Terrors" (source: Spiegel Buchverlag)
Christoph Reuter's new book "Die schwarze Macht. Der Islamische Staat und die Strategen des Terrors" ("The Black Power. Islamic State and the Strategists of Terrorism") provides unexpected insights into the development and strategy concepts of the IS terrorist militia

Iraqi Sunnis, who had ruled the country under Saddam Hussein, were extremely bitter when, in April 2006, they were excluded from all centres of power by the new Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki. This prompted them to establish the "Islamic State in Iraq" in October 2006. But why did these Iraqis move to northern Syria to set up their "Islamic State"?

Reuter: The move to Syria in 2012 was ingenious. It enabled them to grow and to make it clear to all other groups that they were calling the shots. Their exploitation of the anarchic situation in northern Syria furthered their cause and allowed them to test the old, yet slightly modified concept of subjugation and seizure of power. They established preacher cells and missionary offices, where they could recruit and train informers. These spies had to provide a wide range of relevant information – for instance, about the most powerful families in the region, the religious orientation of the imam – and to uncover material that could be useful for blackmail, such as who had engaged in criminal activities, who was having an affair or was gay. In addition, the group held missionary events where free copies of the Koran were handed out and organised public meals during Ramadan. Later, some opponents were won over with money and positions, or they were secretly kidnapped and killed.

Why were foreigners, of all people, appointed as local commanders?

Reuter: This was also a carefully thought-out policy. After all, the Iraqis knew the people who had co-founded Islamic State. They did not want to rely on the Syrians because they might have local obligations. By contrast, the IS founders could completely rely on the predominantly young foreign recruits, especially those jihadists with military training from Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and Chechnya, as well as those from Europe. Beginning in mid-2012, they started to arrive in northern Syria and were prepared to die. This hybrid army was easy to control. It was only from May 2013 onwards that explicit reference was made to Islamic State.

To what extent did the strategists of Islamic State exploit to own political ends the historic enmity between Sunnis and Shias, who have fought over the true succession of the Prophet Muhammad for the past 1,400 years? So far, most of the victims of IS have been Sunnis, even though the terrorist militia portrays itself as the protector of the Sunnis.

Reuter: The fact that IS portrays itself as the saviour of the Sunnis in the face of Shia aggression is part of a very elaborate propaganda concept. However, in order to manage its military ascent in Syria, IS continues to maintain the old tactical alliance with the Assad regime, which is made up of Alawites, a small Shia splinter group. The Syrian intelligence service helped to smuggle the jihadists out of Iraq in an attempt to prevent the Americans from also overthrowing the regime in Damascus. In 2014, when the united Syrian rebels attempted to expel IS from Syria, the Syrian air force only bombarded the rebels. IS was spared because it is a gift from heaven for the Assad regime, as it serves to strike fear in the hearts of opponents. It is claimed that without Assad, the jihadists would have taken Damascus long ago.

Islamic State fighters in Mosul (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
The advance continues unchecked: "Islamic State sells oil to all interested parties, in particular to the Syrian regime, as it has refineries at its disposal. After seizing the Iraqi metropolis of Mosul and capturing a number of military depots, IS now feels powerful enough to fight the Syrian army," says Christoph Reuter

Does Islamic State finance itself primarily through the sale of oil in those parts of northern Iraq under its control?

Reuter: Islamic State sells oil to all interested parties, in particular to the Syrian regime, as it has refineries at its disposal. After seizing the Iraqi metropolis of Mosul and capturing a number of military depots, IS now feels powerful enough to fight the Syrian army.

As a journalist, you have visited Syria a total of 17 times. To what extent have you put yourself in danger while carrying out your research?

Reuter: The situation would sometimes change every couple of weeks. Between April and September 2013, IS had not yet begun systematically kidnapping foreigners. We could even meet with their fighters and local commanders. But we could see that people were afraid; some disappeared. During this time, we had to be much more careful. Starting in autumn 2013, all foreigners in this region were kidnapped by IS, including a number of journalists. Since then, we haven't travelled to northern Syria. In early 2014, it was once again possible to return to those regions of northern Syria where IS had been expelled. We maintain long-term contacts in every village in order to better know the people there and to ascertain if we can rely on them. We have to be as certain as we can that they don't sell us down the river or turn us in.

Despite all predictions to the contrary, Islamic State hs recently managed to seize Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. Is it at all possible to stop them in their tracks in the Mashreq?

Reuter: IS has the co-operative undertakings of its cool and sober planners to thank for its tremendous ascent. They have concentrated on conquering territories instead of carrying out terrorist attacks abroad. However, bomb attacks have reduced the number of experienced intelligence officers, and they are not easily replaced. When the new top functionaries, however, start to believe the movement's message – "We have been chosen by God, we must fight everywhere simultaneously, and we must carry out terrorist attacks abroad" – then it is highly likely that the same fate will befall them as that of other jihadist movements, which were their own downfall. Alternatively, they might create so many opponents at the same time that they will be defeated. The only way that a victory can be ensured is if the Sunnis of Iraq – whose territories the jihadists have taken often without any resistance – can live as citizens with equal rights.

Interview conducted by Igal Avidan

© 2015

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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