An expert on terrorism, Bruce Hoffman '76 sat down with CC Magazine to set the record straight on ISIS.
Edward Weinman: How did ISIS get started?
Bruce Hoffman: In response to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a Jordanian-born criminal named Abu Musab al Zarqawi founded a terrorist group that he called Tawhid wal Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War). Within the year, al Zarqawi would adopt the al Qaeda moniker and rebrand the group, but his relations with Osama bin Laden were always fraught. However, in the face of the American military’s continued presence in Iraq, al Zarqawi in 2004 formally pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and renamed his group al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI.
After a U.S. airstrike killed al Zarqawi on June 7, 2006, AQI appointed Abu Ayyub al Masri his successor. Al Masri renamed AQI the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
The American military’s “Surge” of 2007 and the accompanying “Sunni Awakening” among tribes in Anbar Province and other parts of western Iraq led to the arrest of increasingly large numbers of hard-core Sunni insurgents, who would turn their prisons into “terrorist universities” and thus plot the next stage in the evolution of Iraqi terrorism—leading to the establishment of ISIS.
It was at the U.S. detention center at Camp Bucca in Iraq that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi conceptualized and coordinated the creation of ISIS. Al Baghdadi, described by a U.S. Defense Department official as a “street thug,” is nonetheless reputed to have obtained a doctorate in Islamic Studies from a Baghdad university and previously worked as a preacher in his hometown of Samarra. He was arrested in 2004 and reportedly spent the following five years in detention, during which he became a key player in laying the foundation for the Sunni jihadi revival that would eventually crystallize into ISIS. Meanwhile, as ISI-affiliated prisoners were released—or escaped as the result of several ISI-orchestrated mass jailbreaks—the remnants of AQI coalesced into a new terrorist organization that resumed operations against the Iraqi government. It also worrisomely began to seize and hold territory.
With the organization still bearing the name ISI, al Baghdadi expanded the group’s operations in Syria. Then, in April 2013, al Baghdadi asserted command over Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, and decreed that he was therefore changing the name of the newly amalgamated organization from ISI to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The renegade leader brazenly continued to expand and consolidate ISIS’s dominant position in Syria. Then, on June 30, 2014, al Baghdadi formally declared the establishment of the new caliphate—henceforth known as IS.
EW: What are ISIS’s goals?
BH: ISIS seeks the return of an Islamic caliphate or empire where fundamentalist Sunni Islam is the only accepted religion and where Sharia … is the only law. In creating this caliphate they aim to redraw the map of the Middle East, erasing the artificial states and borders created by the Western powers following World War I and resurrecting the Islamic empire that once stretched from Spain across North Africa, through the Middle East and the Caucuses, into South and Southeast Asia. … ISIS claims that it is currently fighting to protect the oppressed Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
EW: How is ISIS structured?
BH: In contrast to its rigid ideology and extreme interpretation of Islamic law, ISIS’s organizational structure is remarkably flexible and fluid. Modern terrorist groups have generally found it beneficial to adopt a flatter, more linear and looser structure as opposed to the top-down hierarchical, pyramidal, command-and-control organizational entities that once predominated. The core around which this flexible structure extends in ISIS’s case is al Baghdadi, ISIS’s self-proclaimed Caliph, and the leadership council comprising of al Baghdadi’s most trusted advisers. Al Baghdadi also relies on a personal cabinet that includes specialists in the areas of finance, recruitment and media relations. Beneath al Baghdadi are two deputies: one for Syria and the other for Iraq. Under each of these deputies are roughly a dozen local leaders. According to IS documents acquired by American intelligence, many of these local leaders were former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army. The Amniya al Khalifia is the movement’s external operations arm and was directly responsible for the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks.
EW: How does ISIS fund its organization?
BH: Unlike most terrorist groups, ISIS actually possesses its own means of income generation and financing—which has fortunately been systematically degraded by American and coalition air strikes over the past years. ISIS, though, still controls oil fields in the regions it governs that at their height yielded an estimated revenue of up to $2 million per day at least. ISIS sells its oil on the black and grey markets using a complex network to smuggle oil to surrounding states, including Turkey and the Assad regime in Syria. To maximize the group’s income, ISIS also imposes economic and agricultural regulations on the populations in territory it controls.
One of ISIS’s largest sources of revenue is war spoils, including millions of dollars’ worth of captured U.S. equipment abandoned by the Iraqi military. ISIS has also collected at least $20 million in ransoms paid for the return of European hostages it seized and held captive. ISIS extortion rackets, targeting persons living in or visiting the region, reportedly bring in an additional several million dollars per month. Finally, ISIS profits from numerous other criminal activities, including smuggling, human trafficking and robbery. One widely circulated report claimed that ISIS also imposes an annual tax on non-Muslims living in ISIS-held lands. ISIS’s control of electrical plants and other essential services allows it to levy additional taxes on any companies or municipalities and outlying areas that want to enjoy uninterrupted service. Local activist groups have even claimed that ISIS has made a secret deal to provide electricity and natural gas supplies to Syria. Another important source of ISIS income is outright confiscations and theft. Donations from foreign sponsors and wealthy members provide a comparatively small portion of the income.