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Untangling fact from fiction: Who is really backing ISIS?

The world's newest bête noire, the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply Islamic State ("Da'esh" in Arabic) has barely been out of the news since it took control of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, in July this year. In the intervening months, the group has imposed its tyrannical rule over large swathes of land in western Iraq and eastern Syria, and has incurred the wrath of the United States and its allies in the form of targeted bombing campaigns. Alternately described as brutal and barbaric or sophisticated and strategic, it seems politicians, analysts and journalist alike are unsure what to make of this band of 35,000 off armed fighters currently ruling an area roughly the size of Jordan. But amidst all this confusion, how much power does ISIS really hold over the local population, and how much support is it really garnering on the ground?

While it is difficult to say with any certainty what the current situation is like in Anbar province and other areas under ISIS control (media reports are severely restricted and all journalists have been forced to comply with a list of rules published by the group), there are a number of reports emerging that may help shed some light on the otherwise murky underworld of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State". Notably, unlike Al-Qaeda, from which it originated, ISIS is not ideologically geared towards waging war against the West but focused primarily on establishing a Sunni caliphate in the region. What this means in practical terms is that it is more interested in making strategic gains in land and resources (not to mention eradicating Shias) than orchestrating attacks against foreign targets. The vast majority of the group's casualties have been Iraqis and Syrians – notwithstanding the theatrical displays of horror in the beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers.

In effect, ISIS behaves much like the new state it claims to be; using violence and coercion to establish its control over territories and populations and establishing networks of trade and commerce across borders to finance its state-building efforts. Indeed, the group's territorial aspirations and reliance on income garnered from the land it controls – whether that be in the form of oil revenues, taxes, or arms and tobacco rackets (although it is also estimated to receive funds from external donations) – have led some analysts to dub it the "rentier caliphate". It has also capitalised on local kinship and tribal networks in order to expand its influence on the ground, particularly with Iraq's embittered Sunni population who feel disenfranchised by the Shia-dominated government. Iraq's corrupt political system, in which sectarian ties count more than competency and resources are distributed along lines of communal identity, has thus provided fertile ground for ISIS to sow its seeds: exploiting pre-existing patterns of dependency to garner local support.

From the above, it is clear that ISIS is qualitatively different to Al-Qaeda and other global terrorist organisations; deeply rooted in local networks although with ideological aspirations to expand across as much territory as possible. But although the group may owe its initial gains to Sunni support on the ground, there are signs that the tide may be turning against it and that Al-Baghdadi and his gang are beginning to lose the battle for local hearts and minds.

The first big change that heralded a potential loss for ISIS was the resignation of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki in August and the appointment of Haider Al-Abadi. Although hailing from the same political party as his predecessor, the Islamic Da'wa Party (a Shia political party), Abadi remains relatively free of the sectarian accusations levelled at Maliki, who made himself very unpopular with Iraqi Sunnis during the seven years he presided over the country, and has been hailed by some as a "moderate" who may just have the ability to bridge the ever-widening gulf between Iraq's various religious and ethnic communities. Already, Abadi has pledged to protect Iraq's Christian minority and has cracked down on army officials over the so-called "ghost soldiers" scandal. Although still new to office, many hopes are resting on the new prime minister's ability to govern Iraq effectively and in particular to address the pressing issues of widespread corruption and sectarian violence in order to gain favour with the Sunni community. If he is successful in doing so, then this may well erode ISIS's support on the ground and pave the way for localised resistance to the group.

But perhaps the most significant development in the battle against ISIS is the recent news of collaboration between Shia militias and local Sunni tribes in Anbar province. In November, hundreds of seasoned fighters from the Al-Badr Forces and the Peace Brigades, an offshoot of the notorious Mehdi Army, arrived at the Aid Al-Assad military base 200km west of Baghdad. They were invited by members of the Al-Bu Nimr tribe, an influential local Sunni tribe who have been ruthlessly targeted by ISIS for their support of the Iraqi military against them. This is the first time Shia militias have been welcomed into Sunni territory and marks an important watershed in localised resistance to ISIS. It also suggests that the group have miscalculated their level of Sunni support on the ground and that its indiscriminate targeting of Sunni civilians in their pursuit of power may well backfire. Further evidence of this can be found in localised resistance movements such as the newly-formed Movement for the Liberation of Mosul, a Sunni group led by former Ba'thists who have issued a statement outlining their plan to oppose ISIS forces in Mosul.

Crucially, ISIS's biggest strength – namely its ability to secure local support through the distribution of resources and enforcement of territorial rights – may also transpire to be its biggest weakness. Coordinated airstrikes against ISIS targets, particularly strategic resources such as oil wells, trade routes and electricity and water supplies, are gradually reducing the ability of the "Islamic State" to effectively control the population it governs. While the situation on the ground remains fraught – especially given the recent involvement of Iran – there is a chance, however remote, that ISIS will lose its all-important support base. This probably won't result in the end of the organisation – such a prediction would be far too optimistic and ignore the ideological drive that inspires many fighters to join its ranks in the first place – but will at least reduce its local and regional impact. ISIS may be "here to stay", but with any luck its own arrogance and unrestrained ambition will prove untenable and ultimately come back to haunt it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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