WASHINGTON (AFP) – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared Wednesday that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death is imminent, as US-backed forces close in on the jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
“Nearly all of Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s deputies are now dead, including the mastermind behind the attacks in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere,” Tillerson told a coalition meeting in Washington.
“It is only a matter of time before Baghdadi himself meets this same fate,” he promised, as he opened discussions between the 69 members of the US-led military coalition and their Iraqi ally.
Signs of discontent are evident across the ‘caliphate’ as people tire of its taxes, prices caps and shoddy services
At first glance, Iraq’s second city of Mosul looks like a model of success for its new rulers from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the world’s most feared jihadi group. Well-swept thoroughfares bustle with cars, the electricity hums and the cafés are crowded.
But in the back alleys, litter fills the streets. The lights stay on, but only because locals rigged up generators themselves. And under the blare of café televisions, old men grumble about life under Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
“When I was seven years old the war against Iran started. Since then, we’ve been at war,” says Abu Ahmed, a quiet 40-year-old with a long grey moustache. “We’ve endured international sanctions, poverty, injustice. But it was never worse than it is now.”
Like those of others interviewed for this article, the name of Abu Ahmad, an honorific, was changed for his safety.
Abu Ahmed at first welcomed the takeover by Isis, which seized more than a quarter of Iraq and Syria this summer. He was not alone: Sunni Muslims in both countries have long felt discriminated against by regimes dominated by rival sects — in Baghdad, Iraq’s Shia majority; in Damascus, the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Isis supporters have tolerated everything from public stonings and beheadings to daily air strikes by the US-led coalition. But without an economy that gives people a chance to make a living, many say Isis has little more to offer than the authorities they replaced.
“Compared to past rulers, Isis is a lot easier to deal with. Just don’t piss them off and they leave you alone,” says Mohammed, a trader from Mosul. “If they could only maintain services — then people would support them until the last second.”
On that critical measure, locals say, Isis is losing its lustre: to traverse the ostensibly unified “caliphate,” a traveller needs three different currencies; aid groups provide medicine to much of the area; and salaries are often actually paid by Iraq and Syria — governments with which Isis is at war.
Rather than take over the reins of state, Isis is often contributing to its dysfunction by engaging in extortion rackets.
“In the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor they may be functioning something like a state, but there’s nowhere in Iraq where they’re operating anything like a state,” says Kirk Sowell, president of Uticensis Risk Services. “They’re operating like something between a mafia, an insurgency and a terror group. Maybe they thought six months ago they were going to function as a state. But they don’t have the personnel or manpower.”
Isis’s repression and restrictions on media make it difficult to fully portray the group’s administration system, but through a series of more than a dozen interviews with residents, and visits to Isis-ruled areas by a local journalist, the FT found its attempt at state-building has so far failed to win over locals.
In some cases they say Isis takes credit for systems in place before it seized power. In others, locals say it is stealing the resources of the region it seeks to rule.
Last June, Isis fighters bulldozed Syrian-Iraqi border posts and declared “the end of Sykes-Picot”, the agreement that divided the Middle East between French and British control. The group posted videos of volunteers handing out sacks of wheat stamped with their black and white seal. They even announced plans to issue a currency, posting a design for a new gold dinar on Mosul’s streets and handing out pamphlets in Raqqa, in Syria’s north.
From the outside, these projects look impressive — especially to people living in chaos in northern Syria, where rival rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government have been at war and unable to impose order.
Yet for those travelling the bumpy dirt road between Mosul and Raqqa, the borders have not changed, even if Isis reduced the crossings to rubble. Travelers must stock up on Iraqi dinars to use in Iraq, US dollars for the road and Syrian pounds once they arrive.
It is as if Isis is financing itself partly through a pyramid scheme, and this has begun to falter
If Isis’s “caliphate” were a state, it would be a country of the poor. Most Syrians in the territory are struggling to get by on about $115 a month. Isis’s foreign fighters make as much as five times that. In Syria, the price of bread has nearly doubled to almost a dollar — about a third of the daily income for
Syrian civilians. Even though Mosul was cut off from Iraq’s power grid when Isis took the city this summer, the electricity stayed on. But this is mostly thanks to the efforts of locals, who bought and set up generators to keep the power running in their neighbourhoods.
In Isis-controlled Syria, electricity still functions a few hours a day — courtesy of Mr Assad’s regime. Mahmoud, an engineer, and his colleagues still file into the same power plants where they worked for years before Isis took over. But while the militant group’s oil and gas authority now oversees them, the Damascus government still pays their wages. Thousands of civil servants have similar arrangements in Isis-controlled Syria and Iraq, where locals risk long and dangerous drives to pick up their pay in Baghdad.
Isis seized control of three dams and at least two gas plants in Syria used to run state electricity. Rather than risk blowing out swaths of the power grid, Damascus appears to have struck a deal.
“Isis guards their factories and lets state employees come to work,” Mahmoud says. “It gets to take all the gas produced for cooking and petrol and sell it. The regime gets the gas needed to power the electrical system, and also sends some electricity to Isis areas.”
Not only does the Assad government pay the gas plant staff, but workers say it sends in spare parts from abroad and dispatches its own specialists to the area for repairs. “I’m against Isis with all my heart,” Mahmoud says. “But I can’t help but admire their cleverness.”
Sajad Jiyad, an independent researcher in Iraq, says that Isis struggles to balance its books, but services continue to function because of the money Baghdad still pays to former civil servants in Mosul. Isis taxes those employees at up to 50 per cent of their salaries.
“Isis is dependent on its ability to seize territory and resources to continue funding its existing areas,” he says. “Its expansion is sometimes operated through affiliates who use the Isis brand but are in effect local mercenaries. It is as if Isis is financing itself partly through a pyramid scheme, and this has begun to falter.”
Basic services function poorly, but fear prevents anyone from speaking out. “Electricity, fuel, medicine, water are in low supply but people are surviving,” he says.
When they (Isis) are not there, we charge a higher price. Locals understand. The prices can’t always be what Isis says
Though many now question Isis’s economic management, its military prowess and organisational skills are clear. Despite the coalition’s strikes, which have stalled its advances, Isis holds huge swaths of territory that encompass up to a third of Iraq and a quarter of Syria.
Some of the group’s policies are seen as better than the previous regimes. Isis allows easy movement through its territories to facilitate trade. Trucks passing through are taxed about 10 per cent of the value of their cargo. Some businessmen in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, who drive shipments through the group’s territory, see the scheme as “Isis’s business-friendly face”.
It is also relatively easy to start a business — there are no start-up fees for those who want to open a store, though they have to pay a 2.5 per cent tax on their revenue after each year.
But to locals, these policies produce little benefit. There are few business opportunities in a conflict zone where people are scraping by, usually with help from relatives who fled abroad.
In Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, home to most of Syria’s oil wells, locals also complain about Isis commandeering their resources. “If they don’t take it, they tax you for it,” jokes the gas engineer Mahmoud. Isis, which he estimates controls nearly 40,000 barrels a day of oil production in eastern Syria, is believed to be the richest militant group in history, making perhaps $1m a day on oil and extortion rackets.
The coalition has been trying to bomb makeshift oil refineries to hurt Isis’s finances, but locals say that has little impact. Isis makes the bulk of its money from selling crude from the oil wells to Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian middlemen. Local partners refine the oil and sell it.
But other than these traders, most residents say they see little of that oil wealth.
Bassem, a hospital worker in Deir Ezzor, says when civil war first spread to eastern Syria two years ago, the region went from an impoverished backwater to a boomtown as rebels and tribes took control of oil wealth previously extracted and used by the regime. “You saw fancy cars, new stores. People were doing really well,” he says, speaking to the FT via Skype.
But under Isis, economic conditions steadily worsened, he says: “There’s no ‘economic administration’ with Isis — there is only people who take oil, divide it between the emirs and send it out. Where? We don’t know. Only a very tiny portion comes back to the people.”
Isis has tried to shape itself as a just ruler by setting prices on everything from bread to caesarean sections, which go for about $84. But locals routinely ignore the caps, Bassem says, because such prices are impossible to maintain given the skyrocketing costs of fuel and transportation. “Isis doesn’t study the market, it doesn’t calculate costs . . . these price caps are just comical.”
As a conservative Salafi Muslim, he was sympathetic to Isis’s ideology when they first took over, but was quickly disillusioned as economic conditions worsened. “I may be a Salafi, but I’m not an idiot,” he jokes.
Bassem’s hospital works round the price caps by charging patients for everything from the electricity to drugs. “When they (Isis) are not there, we charge a higher price,” he says. “Locals understand. The prices are not always what Isis says, because they can’t be.”
International aid groups often send in medicines and supplies, which Isis tolerates out of necessity. Iraqis see the practice in Mosul hospitals, too.
While it is impossible to know how deeply the frustration with Isis policies runs — as some are undoubtedly benefiting from them — all those interviewed say signs of discontent were rising.
When Isis members recently came to collect taxes for electricity in Raqqa, a car mechanic became so enraged he shouted as they approached his garage: “How can you ask for fees on a service only available a few hours a day?”
Further east, at a mosque in Syria’s city of Meyadeen, a former activist who once organised anti-Assad protests says he witnessed an eerily familiar scene. After Friday prayers, an imam mimicked a practice common in the era of Assad control, when congregants were made to pray for their president. This time, they were told to pray for Isis’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
From the back of the room came faint but audible whispers: “Screw him.”
It is just over 10 years since Nicholas Berg, an American businessman working in Iraq, was brutally decapitated on video by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the thuggish leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
With the murder of the American journalist, James Foley, on Tuesday, the US and its Western allies were vividly reminded of the worst excesses of the Iraqi insurgency in the wake of the 2003 invasion.
But it is not just in the manner of its bloodlust that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) and AQI share a gruesome symmetry.
The two organisations also share a lineage. The threadbare remnants of AQI – all but crushed by the US troop surge in Iraq of 2007 and the “sons of Iraq” movement to turn Sunni tribes against the jihadis – morphed into the earliest version of Isis.
But more importantly, Isis is also the operational, strategic and ideological twin of its predecessor.
“There is almost no difference in the organisations,” says Afzal Ashraf, a former RAF captain in Iraq and now consultant at the Royal United Services Institute.
Mr Ashraf points in particular to the shared heritage of Isis and AQI in drawing on former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Both are “parasitic insurgencies” that co-opt disenfranchised factions to their cause, he says.
It is perhaps for this reason that both AQI and Isis have historically shared a primary concern with the “near enemy” – other Arabs – rather than the far enemy – Western infidels – as their main targets. Isis, like AQI, is primarily a sectarian organisation, dedicated to eradicating the Shia governments in Baghdad and the Alawite regime in Damascus.
Military analysts also point to the similarity in battleground tactics used by Isis with those used by AQI, in particular the way both deploy force in circles of pressure, particularly around cities, using waves of car and truck bombs.
For Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and an expert in al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism, the defining characteristic of the Isis/AQI approach, however is the their particular “use of violence”.
“Groups like al-Qaeda used violence in a tactical way, in a way proportional to their aims,” he says. “For Isis and AQI the savagery is the point. The action is what matters, not the ideas. To Zarqawi and Baghdadi [the Isis leader], the spectacle and the limitless force – beheadings, crucifications, people being buried alive – is what matters.”
At least 12 people have been killed in the massacre which happened as journalists held their news conference
A cartoon mocking ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was tweeted by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo just an hour before two gunman burst into their offices and shot dead at least 12 people.
It’s not clear if the Twitter feed was hacked or if the magazine posted it themselves, but it wished him “good health and best wishes”.
French media reported “a number of fatalities,” and the official death toll is 12 dead, with five people in a critical condition.
The publication has launched a series of attacks on Muslim extremism and the tweet on its profile page @Charlie-Hebdo-, included a satirical cartoon of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Twitter user Jake Maguire said: “Either this was posted by terrorists during an attack or this led to it RIP.”
In December 2011, the magazine’s office was firebombed after it said the Prophet Muhammad would be editor-in-chief of its next issue.
Earlier, a witness to the attack, Benoit Bringer, told the iTele network, that he saw multiple masked men armed with automatic weapons at the newspaper offices in central Paris.
The French media reports that the assailants fled from the scene in a black car, a Citroen DS. The reports also say they then hijacked another vehicle and fled towards the east of the city.
President Francois Hollande headed to the scene of the attack and the government said it was raising France’s security to its highest level.
“This is a terrorist attack, there is no doubt about it,” he told reporters.
Prime Minister David Cameron joined the condemnation of the attack, saying: “The murders in Paris are sickening. We stand with the French people in the fight against terror and defending the freedom of the press.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the killings were a “barbaric attack on freedom of speech”.
“My thoughts are with the victims, their families and their colleagues,” he said.
Lebanese security forces have detained a wife and son of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi near the border with Syria, the army says.
The pair, whose names were not given, were picked up by military intelligence after entering Lebanon 10 days ago.
The al-Safir newspaper reported that Baghdadi’s wife was being questioned at the Lebanese defence ministry.
In June, Baghdadi was named the leader of the “caliphate” created by IS in the parts of Syria and Iraq it controls.
Last month, the group denied reports that he had been killed or injured in an air strike by US-led forces near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
It released an audio recording purportedly of Baghdadi in which he said the caliphate was expanding and called for “volcanoes of jihad” to erupt.
Describing them as “a valuable catch”, al-Safir said that, in co-ordination with foreign intelligence services, the IS leader’s wife and son were detained at a border crossing near the town of Arsal while trying to enter Lebanon from Syria with forged papers.
The Lebanese army has been battling jihadist militants loyal to Islamic State and the rival al-Nusra Front
IS and al-Nusra Front are holding about 20 Lebanese soldiers hostage
They were currently being held for interrogation at the defence ministry’s headquarters in al-Yarza, in the hills overlooking Beirut, it added.
A security source told the AFP news agency that the woman was a Syrian citizen and that her son was eight or nine years old.
“It is his second wife,” the source added.
Analysis: Jim Muir, BBC News, Beirut
Assuming the reports are true – and there is little reason to doubt them – the Lebanese authorities now face the delicate question of what to do with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s wife and offspring.
In theory, they could prove a useful bargaining chip in the highly-charged imbroglio surrounding the fate of more than 20 Lebanese Army soldiers held hostage since August by IS and the rival al-Qaeda-linked militant group, al-Nusra Front.
The militants are demanding the release of Islamist prisoners in Lebanese jails to spare the soldiers’ lives – three have already been murdered.
But al-Nusra has been much more involved than IS in back-channel negotiations for a possible exchange, so there is no guarantee it would pay off.
And there is always the possibility that the continued detention of the pair could provoke IS to seek revenge in one way or another, perhaps by seizing more hostages.
Very little is known about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has not been seen in public since June.
The Associated Press reported that Baghdadi’s first wife was believed to be Suja al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi citizen who was reportedly detained by the Syrian authorities before being released in a prisoner exchange with al-Nusra Front in March.
Lebanese security forces have arrested a number of jihadists suspected of carrying out attacks in the country with the aim of expanding the influence of Islamic State.
IS and another Syria-based jihadist group, the al-Nusra Front, are holding around 20 Lebanese army soldiers hostage. They are threatening to kill them unless militants are freed from Lebanese jails.
The kingdom spews out the corrosive poison that helps fuel religion-based fanaticism
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the jihadi leader whose blackshirts over-ran swaths of northern and central Iraq in June, gave his Ramadan rant last month after proclaiming himself caliph, he had it translated into English, French, German, Turkish, Russian – and Albanian. Why did his Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis), which now styles itself narcissistically as the Islamic State, take the trouble?
Since the end of the cold war and after the wars of the Yugoslav succession, the western Balkans – in particular Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and even bits of Bulgaria – have been carpeted with Saudi-financed Wahhabi mosques and madrassas. This is moving local Muslim culture away from Turkic-oriented, Sufi Islam towards the radical bigotry of Wahhabi absolutism, which groups such as Isis have taken to its logical conclusion. This is fertilised ground for jihadi ambition.
Saudi Arabia not only exports oil, but tanker-loads of quasi-totalitarian religious dogma and pipelines of jihadi volunteers, even as it struggles to insulate itself from the blowback; and King Abdullah, in his end of Ramadan address, warns against the “devilish” extremism of “these deviant forces”. Jihadi extremism does present a threat to the kingdom. But in doctrinal terms it is hard to see in what way it “deviates” from Wahhabi orthodoxy, with its literalist and exclusivist rendering of Sunni Islam.
Its extreme interpretation of monotheism anathematises other beliefs, in particular the “idolatrous” practices of Christians and Shia Muslims, as infidel or apostate. That can be read as limitless sanction for jihad. The modern jihadi is a Wahhabi on steroids. His main grievance with the House of Saud is that it deviates: its profligate deeds do not match its Wahhabi words.
The late King Fahd, Abdullah’s predecessor, for example, acquired a reputation as a playboy and gambler in his youth. Yet during his reign he built 1,359 mosques abroad, together with 202 colleges, 210 Islamic centres and more than 2,000 schools, according to official Saudi data. There seem to be no figures for Wahhabi “outreach” under Abdullah, a more austere and ecumenical figure. Anecdotal evidence says Saudi mosque-building is powering ahead wherever believers are found, especially in south, central and southeast Asia, home to about 1bn of the world’s 1.6bn Muslims.
The House of Saud, facing a potentially wrenching succession to the ailing Abdullah at a time of upheaval across the Arab world, is in a delicate position. As custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, it is the closest modern equivalent to the old Islamic caliphate. It thus abominates the violent presumption of Isis as much as it abhors the rival brand of pan-Islamic fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the kingdom still spews out the corrosive poison that helps fuel religion-based fanaticism.
The Isis rampage of destruction of shrines and mosques, for instance, continues the two centuries-old record of Wahhabi iconoclasm. Nor should it be forgotten that the House of Saud used Wahhabi zealots as its shock troops in the last century to unite by force most of the religiously diverse Arabian peninsula – won by the sword in 52 battles over 30 years. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia, and permits to build Shia mosques are rarer than desert rain.
Saudi Arabia is not solely responsible for the result; resurgent jihadism amid the virulent battle within Islam between the majority Sunni and minority Shia is playing out across the Levant, down into the Gulf and across to the Indian subcontinent. But it is a primary source of doctrinal bigotry, as Saudi schoolbooks enjoining believers to shun all but their own well attest.
The modern jihadi is a Wahhabi on steroids. His main grievance with the House of Saud is that it deviates
The worldwide surge in Wahhabi mosques began in response to Iran’s attempts to export the Shia radicalism of its 1979 revolution. The Anglo-American overthrow of Iraq’s minority Sunni regime in the 2003 invasion of Iraq – which installed a Shia majority and ignited sectarian carnage – and the west’s failure to support the rebellion of the Sunni majority in Syria, have fed Sunni grievances, sharpened by the Iran-backed Shia axis across the region.
It is uncertain whether the Saudi state and its Gulf allies finance groups such as Isis, but their citizens do, encouraged by the Sunni supremacist discourse and tactical promiscuity of their rulers, fearful of being outflanked from the religious right.
Saudi Arabia’s position as the world’s leading oil exporter, a leading purchaser of western arms and a counterweight to Iran in the Gulf has shielded it from criticism. In the current turmoil in the Middle East – characterised by an absence of state and institutions, a loss of shared national narrative in mosaic countries such as Syria and Iraq, and the feebleness of previously influential big powers – there is a lack of mainstream Sunni leadership.
The petrodollar theocracy of Saudi Arabia, in its contest with the petrodollar theocracy of Iran, has smothered Sunni space – except for the vacuum in which Isis is building its (also oil-rich) cross-border caliphate, now striking east into Kurdistan and west into Lebanon.
Previous generations of mainstream Sunni Arabs gave their allegiance to pan-Arab nationalists such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, tarnished paladins of a dead-end ideology. The potential disaster now facing the Arabs demands a new generation of Sunni leaders, able to defeat extremism within their own camp. That is something Saudi Arabia, whose Wahhabi absolutism is part of the genetic code of groups such as Isis, cannot do.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S.-led airstrikes targeted a gathering of Islamic State leaders in Iraq, possibly including the group’s top man, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Al-Hadath television station reported on Saturday.
Iraqi security officials were not immediately available for comment on the report from the station, part of Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television.
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