Why the Islamic State Isn’t in Any Rush to Attack Israel

The organization formerly known as ISIS has made clear that fighting Shi’ite Muslims is its top priority.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

While Israel is pounding Gaza, it’s good to know that at least one Muslim organization isn’t rushing to threaten Israel. This refreshing news comes from the organization known until about a week or two ago as ISIS, but which now – since it has started to consolidate its hold on a stretch of territory linking Iraq and Syria – calls itself the Islamic State.

In response to questions that appeared on several Internet sites as to why the Islamic State wasn’t fighting Israel instead of killing Muslims in Iraq and Syria, the organization responded on its Twitter account: “We haven’t given orders to kill the Israelis and the Jews. The war against the nearer enemy, those who rebel against the faith, is more important. Allah commands us in the Koran to fight the hypocrites, because they are much more dangerous than those who are fundamentally heretics.” As proof, the organization cited the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who began by fighting those who rebelled against the faith, as well as Saladin, who fought the Shi’ites in Egypt before conquering Jerusalem.

So, we can sound the all-clear siren. The Islamic State’s target bank contains a long list of Arab leaders – including the Saudi and Jordanian kings, the prime minister of Iraq, the president of Egypt and even the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood – before it gets to the Jews and Israel.

Meanwhile, the organization is acting like the Prophet Mohammed did during his journey from Mecca to Medina. It is forging utilitarian alliances with tribal leaders in Syria and Iraq, in order to increase its power. In Syria, for instance, it has offered tribal leaders in Deir al-Zour a share of the income generated by the oil fields it conquered in that region. Granted, it has applied Sharia law to these areas, but, when necessary, it also knows how to inject some flexibility into it – for instance, to ensure the protection of the Christian minority, or by turning a blind eye to those who sell cigarettes or smuggle alcohol.

In Iraq, a well-attended ceremony recently took place at which dozens of tribal leaders swore loyalty oaths to the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A loyalty oath isn’t necessarily a religious matter; it’s meant to forge a political and military alliance, and ensure that the tribes remain loyal to the leader. In exchange, they will enjoy his “protection” as well as a slice of the profits – which, in this case, aren’t small. According to Iraqi media reports, the organization’s takeover of banks in Mosul netted it more than $1.5 billion.

The organization also distributes weapons and food to its loyalists in Syria and Iraq. And to strengthen its ties with the Iraqi tribes, Baghdadi married Suja Hamid al-Dulaimi, a member of one of the strongest tribes in western Iraq. Dulaimi, incidentally, actually owes a big debt to the Islamic State’s rival, the Nusra Front, which freed her from a Syrian prison last March as part of a prisoner exchange with the Syrian government (in exchange, the organization freed Christian nuns from the convent in Maaloula).

Nevertheless, it seems that even marrying into the Dulaimi tribe won’t guarantee the Islamic State security and quiet. Last week, violent clashes erupted between the organization’s members and Sunni tribesmen in Iraq’s Diyala province, with 10 of the former killed.

It’s not yet clear whether such clashes will spread to additional provinces, but the gaps between the two sides’ respective goals are wide. While the Islamic State seeks to establish a state governed by Sharia law in the territory it controls, the Sunni tribes are looking for political gains. These same tribes, incidentally, cooperated with Al-Qaida during the first half of the last decade, until they got fed up with its extremist ideology. They then turned against it until it was finally defeated in the province.

True, there is great fear of the armed men with the thick beards and black flags. Many young people in Mosul and other Iraqi cities are rushing to centers that return people to religion, to obtain certificates that they have done so, to avoid being hurt. Policemen, former soldiers and young men are required to swear allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader, turn in all their weapons and promise not to work against the organization. In exchange, they receive a signed certificate saying they have repented and returned to religion. Some are even recruited into the ranks of the organization’s fighters, which earns them a salary of $2,000-$3,000 a month, depending on their job.

In any case, many Mosul residents consider allegiance to the Islamic State no worse than allegiance to the Iraqi government, which is viewed in Sunni areas as an occupying government. Granted, there are many horror stories about acts committed by Islamic State members in Mosul and other cities – such as the flogging of young men who watched the World Cup, the execution of hundreds of Shi’ite civilians, attacks on people walking down the street for no apparent reason, and the looting of houses, especially those belonging to Christians. But abuse, looting and harassment – though not executions – were also frequently perpetrated by Iraqi soldiers before they fled from the Islamic State.

Analysts in Iraq and Kurdistan argue that the Islamic State’s takeover of several Iraqi cities shouldn’t be viewed as the end of the story. If the organization tries to impose a way of life that isn’t acceptable to the tribes, these analysts say, it will encounter civic opposition, and Kurdish forces are liable to come to the Sunni tribesmen’s aid.

At the minute, it seems that many people’s main goal is to get rid of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And for the sake of that goal, even sworn enemies are willing to cooperate. But if and when this is achieved, the Sunni regions are liable to settle accounts with the Islamic State as well.

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