The Complex Draw of the Islamic State

Last fall, a team of researchers visited the MacDill Air Force Base headquarters of Special Operations Command Central, the command lead by Army Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, to answer an important question about the popularity of the Islamic State. 

“What makes ISIL so magnetic, inspirational and deeply resonant with a specific but large portion of the Islamic population?” the researchers were asked, at the behest of Nagata, who leads all commandos in the U.S. Central Command region and has been trying hard to figure out what makes this enemy tick. 

The study was conducted by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s G2 Intelligence Support Activity Operational Environment Laboratory and was part of a 214-page report published in December. The unclassified report was published last week by, a public information advocacy group. 

The results of the study dovetail with a couple of my recent themes — that certain governments might like us while its people don’t, and that the enemy of our enemy is not so easy to peg. 

The bottom line up front falls into four initial insights. 

♦  Islamic State has little broad-based appeal in Iraq, and its two key allies — Sunni tribalists and neo-Baathists (those who were associated with since-hanged dictator Saddam Hussein) — are allies of convenience against the Iraqi government. 

♦  The people of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are part of the international coalition fighting Islamic State, as well as Turkey, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Algeria, have a “positive affinity” for the Sunni jihadi group. That’s resulted in “an environment that is conducive to unsanctioned recruitment and support” for Islamic State, which will require “intervention by regional governments to disrupt ISIL recruitment and support.” 

♦  The people of Jordan, the strongest and most motivated ally in the fight against Islamic State, “have mismatched government and population affinities for ISIL in which the population’s affinity for ISIL is substantially higher than their respective government’s affinity toward ISIL. This raises the issue of the government changing their behaviors to close this mismatch or potentially facing civil tension from segments of their population over the issue of ISIL.” 

(It has to be noted that the study team was in Tampa between Sept. 15 and Oct. 17, and the report was released in December, well before Islamic State released its video on Feb. 3 showing the burning to death of Jordanian Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who was captured after his F-16 crashed in December. Jordanian leaders, including Princess Aisha bint al Hussein in a recent visit to St. Pete Beach, have said that Jordanian opinion has coalesced against Islamic State since the video was released). 

♦ The transition in Iraqi leaders, from the highly toxic Nouri al-Maliki to Haider al-Abadi, both Shiite, “DID NOT” (emphasis theirs) improve affinities” between the government and Sunni civilian groups. 

Recent events highlight concerns raised in the report and some beyond its scope. 

The largely Shiite Iraqi security forces, led by the Shiite Iranian Quds Force and its charismatic leader, Ghasem Soleimani, have retaken most of Tikrit. 

Shiite militias in Iraq are as bloodthirsty as their Sunni jihadi enemy and have the same propensity for barbarity, raising real concerns about what happens to Tikrit’s Sunni population in the wake of the liberation of the birthplace. 

On a grander scale, the Iranian influence in Iraq raises additional concerns about whether Iraq, as it exists today, will continue as one nation or will be riven by sectarian, nationalistic and tribal strife into three separate nation-states — Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. 

The study also harkens back to comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to a joint session of Congress and his line about the enemy of your enemy being your enemy. 

According to the Tradoc study, and not the least bit surprising, the two groups in the region who have the lowest affinity for Islamic State are Israeli Jews and Iranians (followed on the affinity scale by folks from Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kuwait). 

Which means that not only do two mortal enemies have something in common, but, once again, when Netanyahu talks about enemies of American enemies, he is looking in the mirror, as well as 1,000 miles eastward toward Tehran. 

One huge concern beyond the study’s scope is the regional significance of the Iranian influence on the ground in Iraq. 

If you want to know what the Iranians are up to, listen to what they have to say. 

A Washington D.C.-based Iranian exile group called the The National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has been monitoring official Iranian media, reported on Thursday that the Iranian regime wants control of what it calls the “Iranian Plateau,” and that boots on the ground in Iraq, something the U.S. maintains it will avoid, are a step toward that goal. 

“At present, not only Iraq is under the influence of our civilization, but it is our identity, culture, center and capital,” the group quotes Ali Younessi, Special Assistant to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former Minister of Intelligence and Security, citing comments he made March 8 on state-run media. “This is the case today and has been the case in the past because the geography of Iran and Iraq is inseparable and our culture is inseparable. Thus, we either have to fight each other or become one.” 

The exiles say that according to Younessi, “all those who live in the Iranian Plateau will enjoy our protection and we shall protect them from the threat of reactionary Islam, atheism and heresy, a new Othman dominion, Wahhabi dominion, Western dominion, and Zionism.” 

The group also quotes Major General Jafari, Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), speaking at a meeting of the Iranian Assembly of Experts on March 11. 

“The advisory role of the Islamic Republic in Iraq and Syria with the assistance and advise of IRGC military commanders” is an achievement of the regime and “today, not just Palestine and Lebanon, but the peoples of Iraq and Syria acknowledge the effective role of the Islamic Revolution.” 

On the same day, according to the exiles, Fars News Agency quoted Soleimani telling a preliminary meeting of the Youth and Islamic Awakening Conference that “Iran is present in southern Lebanon and in Iraq too. Actually, in a way, these regions are affected by the measures and the mindset of Islamic Republic of Iran.” 

So when the question is asked, should the U.S. place troops forward in, say, the presumably upcoming battle for Mosul, what’s at stake is maintaining a waning influence on Iraq. The real question is if it is worth the cost in blood and treasure to do so. Feel free to chime in. 

Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command announced the deaths last week of seven commandos killed March 10 in a Black Hawk helicopter crash near Eglin Air Force Base. The Louisiana Army National Guard nor the Pentagon has officially released the names of the four aviators killed in the crash. 

Capt. Stanford H. Shaw III, 31, from Basking Ridge, New Jersey, Master Sgt. Thomas A. Saunders, 33, from Williamsburg, Virginia, Staff Sgt. Marcus S. Bawol, 26, from Warren, Michigan, Staff Sgt. Trevor P. Blaylock, 29, from Lake Orion, Michigan, Staff Sgt. Liam A. Flynn, 33, from Queens, New York, Staff Sgt. Kerry M. Kemp, 27, from Port Washington, Wisconsin, and Staff Sgt. Andrew C. Seif, 26, from Holland, Michigan, died in the crash. 

The Pentagon announced no new deaths in the ongoing operations in the U.S. Central Command Region. 

There have been three U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and none in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. 

The Tamba Tribune

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