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ISIS Stamps Out Dissidents in Rutbah, Iraq: An Analysis

By Adlini Sjah


Source: Institute for the Study of War[17]


In late August 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) conducted 3 main activities to achieve state formation. As reported by the Daily Sabah[1], a major news source in Turkey, these activities are (1) crackdown on dissent and misconduct in Iraqi towns under its control; (2) recent use of roadside bombs; and (3) execution of ISIS members. This article will discuss ISIS activities from a religious and strategic rationale, particularly ISIS’ application of its Salafi ideology base and terror strategies in Jihad, its stance on indiscriminate attacks and attempt to establish dependence, and finally, ISIS’ strong adherence in upholding the obligation to Hijrah and fight.


Punishment of dissent and bad behaviour in Iraqi towns


The dissent was “a rare street demonstration”, involving “hundreds of residents” protesting against ISIS’s execution of Munir al-Kobeisi, who had killed an ISIS member. The Daily Sabah reports that al-Kobeisi’s action to kill the ISIS member was part of a “long-running blood feud between two local clans”. When it first rose to power, ISIS received pledges of allegiance from various Iraqi and Syrian clans, including those in the Anbar province where Rutbah is located.[2] However, since then, Anbar tribal leaders have formed a coalition against ISIS.[3] No doubt, this coalition was motivated by ISIS’ frequent killings of local tribal leaders who have resisted ISIS’ rule.[4] These tribal affiliations are important, as the Iraqi population identify stronger with their tribal ties compared to their ethnic or religious background.[5]


ISIS’ method of stamping out the dissent was by tying 2 residents, of a total of “dozens”, to each light pole in Rutbah, and detaining at least 70 others. As a result, “the town was gripped by fears that the group would carry out mass executions”. According to David Cook, this use of incitement and fear is a part of jihad.[6] The Qur’an contains passages stating:

We will cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers” (3: 151) .

And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged” (8: 60).


Although the residents of Rutbah are of a Sunni majority – and not ‘unbelievers’ in the non-Muslim sense – ISIS’ use of public methods of punishment towards protestors suggest that they believe in the use of terror for the purpose of creating obedience in the path of jihad.

Moreover, ISIS’ executions of populations under its own control, over matters of “sorcery, sodomy, adultery, banditry, and insulting religious values” – among others – indicates a very strict application of Sharia law akin to Salafism. For Salafists, jihad is not only a struggle against idolaters and non-believers, but also a ‘purification’ of Muslims and Islam. Salafist forms of Islam often rose in places where Islamic roots were weak.[7] Ibn ‘Abd Al Wahhab, a prominent Salafi Jihadist in the 19th century, even called Muslim opponents of his jihad as infidels.[8] In early February of this year ISIS has implemented a new school curriculum in al-Mayadin, Syria, with a primary focus on monotheism as based on the teachings of Al Wahhab.[9] In fact, a senior Salafi cleric from Saudi Arabia - which is considered to be the biggest state practitioner of Salafism – has declared that “ISIS is a true product of Salafism”, although the statement was meant as a criticism to ISIS’ blind adoptions of past methods of jihad.[10]


Is Rutbah, in the Anbar province, particularly significant for ISIS? Along with Baghdad and Mosul, Ar Rutbah was a part of the “Golden Triangle” where many Arab Sunni leaders of Iraq originated from.[11] From this standpoint, it is understandable why ISIS would consider its stronghold over Ar Rutbah to be significant, as their appeal to the Iraqi population would increase if they could show their similarities towards previous Sunni leaders of Iraq. In addition, Rutbah is a very strategic town, being located on a main transport route between Baghdad and Jordan. Therefore, ISIS’ continued control over the area- and its population - is key to its transnational operations.[12]


Use of roadside bombs


The recent use of roadside bombs by ISIS firstly points to further evolution of ISIS attack tactics, which were originally dominated by public beheadings. As various sources point out, ISIS is very tactically aware and organized. [13] Throughout this year, ISIS has used multiple, customized forms of IEDs combined with infantry units to successfully fight against Iraqi forces. [14]


Roadside bombs, a type of improvised explosive devices (IEDS), are argued to be more likely used by ISIS after the group has been targeted by airstrikes. According to Paulo Shakarian, this is because ISIS wants to “prevent reinforcements from the Iraqi army getting out of Baghdad”. [15] In line with this analysis, the recent bombs mentioned in the Daily Sabah article were situated in the border crossing between Jordan and Iraq and on roads closely connected to Baghdad. Moreover, the United States had started using Turkish bases for airstrikes against ISIS in mid-August, with Turkey conducting their own airstrikes starting July, providing the background to ISIS’ use of IEDs.[16] However, since no clear data exists on the increase of IED use before and after July, this theory cannot be verified.

Yet, the significance of the bombs’ placement on the road to Trebil can be understood. Although the map above is outdated, it shows how Trebil (Traybil) is a key town on the Iraq-Jordan border, and also how ISIS has ensured control over border towns leading into Jordan and Syria (signified by the black dots). Trebil is often used for goods coming into Iraq from the Aqaba port in Jordan.[18] This effort to cut off goods coming into Iraq, and particularly Baghdad, indicates an attempt to isolate Iraq from the outside so that the population has no choice but to be dependent on ISIS for governance and provision of goods. This strategy has often been employed by militants seeking to gain influence and establish strongholds, such as in Somalia where Al Shabaab’s role as the sole provider of goods and services significantly helped establish civilian support.[19] The importance of maintaining control in key transport cities is mentioned in the following Quran passage:

“O you who believe! Endure and be more patient (than your enemy), and guard your territory by stationing army units permanently at the places from where the enemy can attack you, and fear Allah, so that you may be successful” (3:200).


Furthermore, a second issue with roadside bombs is that their target against combatants cannot be guaranteed. These bombs are also likely to cause harm to civilians passing by the roads. Therefore, an important question is how does ISIS’ use of IEDs fit into Islamic teachings of just war or past conduct of jihad – specifically in relation to indiscriminate attacks?


According to Ibn Rushd, indiscriminate attacks can be permitted to a degree, as the majority of jurists permit the use of mangonels, irrespective of whether or not (non-Muslim) women or children may be harmed in the process, as the prophet Muhammad has previously permitted it. Meanwhile, the issue of indiscriminate attacks which may cause harm to Muslim captives and Muslim children is contested.[20] However, other sources, such as the Hassan al Banna letters, strongly condemn indiscriminate attacks, with accounts of the Messenger proclaiming “Do not kill women, children, and aged people” and “Leave those (who lead lives of devotion in homage) in peace”.[21] These contrary rulings provide leeway for ISIS to conduct indiscriminate killings – as it has often done towards women and civilians – and still declare that it is in line with Islamic teachings. 


Execution of ISIS members


 Although the report of execution in the article heavily relies on one source – the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) –it offers some enlightening views towards ISIS treatment of its own militants and how it maintains order within its ranks.

The article doesn’t state specifically why the 39 members were executed, although other news sources report that “they (militants) have refused to join the battles in Aleppo province”.[22] The reason that these members did not want to join the fighting in Aleppo against Kurdish forces and Syrian rebel battalions is that they did not want to leave Deir ez-Zor province.  In addition, the Daily Sabah states that SOHR has previously reported ISIS’ execution of hundreds its own members for trying to return home - in this case mostly foreign fighters.


This unwillingness to leave and travel to the area of battle in in stark contrast with the Islamic call to “Hijrah” (emigrate) when necessary to help out your brothers in fighting. The Quran declares:

Fighting is prescribed for you, though it be detestable to you” (2: 216).

...But then when fighting was ordained for them, at once a party of them feared men as they fear Allah or with [even] greater fear. They said, “Our Lord, why have You decreed upon us fighting? If only You had postponed [it for] us for a short time.” Say, The enjoyment of this world is little, and the Hereafter is better for he who fears Allah. And injustice will not be done to you, [even] as much as a thread [inside a date seed]Wherever you may be, death will overtake you.” (4: 77-78).


Furthermore, Al-Baghdadi himself, the leader of ISIS, has proclaimed multiple times about the obligation of Muslims to conduct Jihad and Hijrah:

"If you are truthful in your claim, then obey your beloved and fight for the cause of Allah.”

“So march forth to your war O Muslims. March forth everywhere, for it is an obligation upon every Muslim who is accountable before Allah. And whoever stays behind or flees, Allah (the Mighty and Majestic) will be angry with him and will punish him with a painful torment.”

"So there is no excuse for any Muslim who is capable of performing hijrah to the Islamic State, or capable of carrying a weapon where he is, for Allah (the Blessed and Exalted) has commanded him with hijrah and jihād, and has made fighting obligatory upon him.”[23]


The many cases of individuals attempting to relieve themselves of their fighting duty indicates that ISIS’ members commitment towards fighting is not as strong as often believed to be of militant jihadists – particularly as members cower away from Aleppo, where they have a higher chance of facing death due to ISIS’ weakness in the area. Therefore, rather than a true commitment towards ISIS’ goals and ideology, many individuals who have joined ISIS may have simply been deceived by ISIS and grew disenchanted with the organisation after they witnessed their horrific practices, thus the frequent reports of ISIS members attempting to flee.


Interestingly, ARA News reports that individuals were sentenced in an “ISIS-linked Sharia Court in al-Mayadin” before their executions.[24]  This suggests that ISIS has a legal trial system in place for adjudicating crimes and providing order, which further strengthens the notion that ISIS is attempting to resemble a state in its bureaucratic administration and provision of governance structures. However, ISIS’ decision to execute those members who have evaded the obligation to fight is actually in contradiction with what the Quran commands, in the passage following the duty to fight:

And they say, ‘[We pledge] obedience.’ But when they leave you, a group of them spend the night determining to do other than what you say. But Allah records what they plan by night. So leave them alone and rely upon Allah. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs.” (4: 81).


According to the above passage from Surah An-Nisa, upon discovering that its members were unwilling to fight, ISIS should have left the members without punishment. However, ISIS’ need to maintain obedience among its other members and ensure a culture of terror seemingly takes precedence before adherence to the teachings of the Quran.


Conclusion


The activities of ISIS during the last week of August 2015 demonstrate ISIS’ interpretation of Islamic teachings and its strategy for maintaining control over populations and territories in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been shown to be very strict in its application of Sharia law, basing its interpretation on Salafism and the teachings of Al Wahhab (Wahhabism), which it also forces children in the area to learn. In terms of methods of jihad, ISIS is also exploiting the disputed status of indiscriminate attacks in Islam to use indiscriminate weapons such as roadside bombs. Finally, ISIS highly values the Islamic call to Hijrah, and severely punishes its own members who do not answer this call to fight and choose to remain behind. Meanwhile, in terms of its strategy to maintain control, ISIS has been shown to employ terror tactics and to attempt to make cities and villages dependent towards ISIS by isolating it from the outside world.



Adlini Sjah is an Australia Awards Scholar from Indonesia. She is currently a  Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include the Southeast Asia region, terrorism, and human security. 










Works Cited

Al-Banna, Hassan. “Toward the Light”, in Charles Wendell, (ed.), The Five Tracts of Hassan al-Banna, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 5.


Al-Obaidi, Manaf. “Anbar tribes form joint coalition against ISIS”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 3 February 2015, available from http://english.aawsat.com/2015/02/article55341087/anbar-tribes-form-joint-coalition-against-isis [5 September 2015].


Coker, Margaret. “How Islamic State’s Win in Ramadi Reveals New Weapons, Tactical Sophistication and Prowess”, The Wall Street Journal, 25 May 2015, available from http://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-states-gains-reveal-new-prowess-on-battlefield-1432592298 [6 September 2015].


Cook, David. Understanding Jihad, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

Gouré, Daniel. “ISIS, Ramadi and the Evolving IED Threat”, Lexington Institute, 16 June 2015, available from http://lexingtoninstitute.org/isis-ramadi-and-the-evolving-ied-threat/ [6 September 2015].


Graff, Peter. “Analysis – Emboldened in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State may be reaching limits of expansion”, Reuters UK, 27 May 2015, available from http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/05/27/uk-mideast-crisis-limits-analysis-idUKKBN0OC2C720150527 [6 September 2015].


Hanna, Jason, Greg Botelho and Nick Paton Walsh, “US begins manned airstrikes from Turkey targeting ISIS”, CNN News, 13 August 2015, available from http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/12/world/us-turkey-syria-airstrikes/ [6 September 2015].


Hassan, Hussein D. “Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social and Political Activities”, CRS Report for Congress ,15 March 2007, available from http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/81928.pdf [5 September 2015].


“In New Audio Speech, Islamic State (ISIS) Leader Al-Baghdadi Issues Call To Arms to All Muslims”, MEMRI, 14 May 2015, available from http://www.memrijttm.org/in-new-audio-speech-islamic-state-isis-leader-al-baghdadi-issues-call-to-arms-to-all-muslims.html [7 September 2015].


 “Iraq crisis: Rutbah latest western town to fall to Isis”, BBC News, 22 June 2014, available from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27960142 [5 September 2015].


Mamoun, Abdelhak. “5 Iraqi border guards killed in explosion near Trebil”, Iraqi News, 30 August 2015, http://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/5-iraqi-border-guards-killed-explosion-near-trebil/ [7 September 2015].


Monsendz, Polly. “Report: ISIS Sets School Curriculum in Syrian City”, Newsweek, 20 February 2015, available from http://www.newsweek.com/report-isis-sets-school-curriculum-syrian-city-308263 [5 September 2015].


Powell, Bill. “Sunni Tribes will be on the Strong Horse, and that’s ISIS”, Newsweek, 11 December 2014, available from http://www.newsweek.com/2014/12/19/sunni-tribes-will-bet-strong-horse-and-thats-isis-290633.html [6 September 2015].


Rushd, Ibn. The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer: A Translation of Bidayat Al-Mujtahid, (Reading: Centre for Muslim Contribution to Civilization & Garnet Pub., 1994).

“Senior Saudi Salafi Cleric: ‘ISIS is a True Product of Salafism’”, MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5872, 4 November 2014, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/8205.htm [5 September 2015].


Stone, Jeff. “Artificial Intelligence Reveals ISIS IED Strategy; Roadside Bombs More Likely After Air Campaigns”, International Business Times, 7 August 2015, available from http://www.ibtimes.com/artificial-intelligence-reveals-isis-ied-strategy-roadside-bombs-more-likely-after-2043650 [6 September 2015].


“Sunni-Shia Relations in Iraq”, available from http://countrystudies.us/iraq/38.htm [4 September 2015].


Wise, Rob. “Al Shabaab”, AQAM  Futures Project Case Study Series no. 2 (2011).

Yousef, Sarbaz. “Islamic State executes 40 of its militants as internal conflict intensifies”, ARA News, 4 September 2015, available from http://aranews.net/2015/09/islamic-state-executes-40-of-its-militants-as-internal-conflict-intensifies/ [3 September 2015].


Footnotes


[1]  “ISIS stamps out dissidents in Rutbah, Iraq”, Daily Sabah, 30 August 2015, http://www.dailysabah.com/mideast/2015/08/31/isis-stamps-out-dissidents-in-rutbah-iraq [2 September 2015].


[2] Bill Powell, “Sunni Tribes will bet on the Strong Horse, and that’s ISIS”, Newsweek, 11 December 2014, available from http://www.newsweek.com/2014/12/19/sunni-tribes-will-bet-strong-horse-and-thats-isis-290633.html [6 September 2015].


[3] Manaf Al-Obaidi, “Anbar tribes form joint coalition against ISIS”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 3 February 2015, available from http://english.aawsat.com/2015/02/article55341087/anbar-tribes-form-joint-coalition-against-isis [5 September 2015].


[4] Peter Graff, “Analysis – Emboldened in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State may be reaching limits of expansion”, Reuters UK, 27 May 2015, available from http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/05/27/uk-mideast-crisis-limits-analysis-idUKKBN0OC2C720150527 [6 September 2015].


[5] Hussein D. Hassan, “Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social and Political Activities”, CRS Report for Congress ,15 March 2007, available from http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/81928.pdf [5 September 2015].


[6] David Cook , Understanding Jihad, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 17.


[7] Ibid., 76.


[8] Ibid., 74.


[9] Polly Monsendz, “Report: ISIS Sets School Curriculum in Syrian City”, Newsweek, 20 February 2015, available from http://www.newsweek.com/report-isis-sets-school-curriculum-syrian-city-308263 [5 September 2015].


[10] “Senior Saudi Salafi Cleric: ‘ISIS is a True Product of Salafism’”, MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5872, 4 November 2014, available from http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/8205.htm [5 September 2015].


[11] “Sunni-Shia Relations in Iraq”, available from http://countrystudies.us/iraq/38.htm [4 September 2015].


[12] “Iraq crisis: Rutbah latest western town to fall to Isis”, BBC News, 22 June 2014, available from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27960142 [5 September 2015].


[13] Margaret Coker, “How Islamic State’s Win in Ramadi Reveals New Weapons, Tactical Sophistication and Prowess”, The Wall Street Journal, 25 May 2015, available from http://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-states-gains-reveal-new-prowess-on-battlefield-1432592298 [6 September 2015].


[14] Daniel Gouré, “ISIS, Ramadi and the Evolving IED Threat”, Lexington Institute, 16 June 2015, available from http://lexingtoninstitute.org/isis-ramadi-and-the-evolving-ied-threat/ [6 September 2015].


[15] Jeff Stone, “Artificial Intelligence Reveals ISIS IED Strategy; Roadside Bombs More Likely After Air Campaigns”, International Business Times, 7 August 2015, available from http://www.ibtimes.com/artificial-intelligence-reveals-isis-ied-strategy-roadside-bombs-more-likely-after-2043650 [6 September 2015].


[16] Jason Hanna, Greg Botelho and Nick Paton Walsh, “US begins manned airstrikes from Turkey targeting ISIS”, CNN News, 13 August 2015, available from http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/12/world/us-turkey-syria-airstrikes/ [6 September 2015].


[17] Available from http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Iraq%20Control%20Map%202015-7-20.pdf [7 September 2015].


[18] Abdelhak Mamoun, “5 Iraqi border guards killed in explosion near Trebil”, Iraqi News, 30 August 2015, http://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/5-iraqi-border-guards-killed-explosion-near-trebil/ [7 September 2015].


[19] Rob Wise, “Al Shabaab”, AQAM  Futures Project Case Study Series no. 2 (2011): 5-6.


[20] Ibn Rushd, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer: A Translation of Bidayat Al-Mujtahid, (Reading: Centre for Muslim Contribution to Civilization & Garnet Pub., 1994), 460-461.


[21] Hassan al Banna, “Toward the Light”, in Charles Wendell, (ed.), The Five Tracts of Hassan al-Banna, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 5.


[22]Sarbaz Yousef, “Islamic State executes 40 of its militants as internal conflict intensifies”, ARA News, 4 September 2015, available from http://aranews.net/2015/09/islamic-state-executes-40-of-its-militants-as-internal-conflict-intensifies/ [3 September 2015].


[23] “In New Audio Speech, Islamic State (ISIS) Leader Al-Baghdadi Issues Call To Arms to All Muslims”, MEMRI, 14 May 2015, available from http://www.memrijttm.org/in-new-audio-speech-islamic-state-isis-leader-al-baghdadi-issues-call-to-arms-to-all-muslims.html [7 September 2015].


[24] Yousef, “Islamic State Executes 40 of its Militants”.

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