The Three phases of the Islamic State Operation

To understand the recent history of the Islamic State operation, we need to distinguish two separate things, The first is what the mainstream narrative about ISIS says, which is what we call "The mainstream Islamic State", and the second is the complex maze of terrorist organizations operating in Syria and Iraq, and having the habit of changing allegiance and brand name every few months. Some of these groups currently adopt “ISIS” as a brand, and we refer to them as "The real Islamic State".

The mainstream Islamic State

The English Wikipedia provides a nice summary of “The mainstream Islamic State”. According to the Wikipedia[1], The origin of ISIL is linked to Al Qaeda, which is another ambiguous organization in the mainstream narrative, although the US formally admits creating and funding it[2]. The story says that a character called Zarqawi created a terrorist group in 1999 in Iraq[3]. This character resurfaced in the news when he swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2004. Then, in 2006, The Zarqawi character created another organization called MSC before being withdrawn from circulation due to a supposed US raid. Later that year MSC was rebranded to the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI. In 2011 ISI created a new terrorist brand in Syria, and the new brand split into two factions, one of them rebranded to ISIS in 2014.

The story of “The mainstream ISIS” seems to ignore multiple important facts, including the mysteriousness of all its leading characters, and the role of the US in arming and funding the real actors on the ground. For an excellent effort in debunking the myths of “The Mainstream ISIS” the reader may refer to the open source investigation by James Corbett and his community members[4].

Almost every serious investigation about the mainstream ISIS will highlight the links between the real terrorist groups and the United States Government. However, extra effort is required to document and understand the structure, the agenda, and the operation of the real terrorist groups operating in Syria and Iraq.

The Islamic State Origin

There are documented accounts of attacks against the occupation forces after the US and its coalition invaded IRAQ. The attacks started in 2003, after the occupation forces defeated the Iraqi army and dismantled the Iraqi government institutions. Many of the groups that started resisting the American lead occupation forces were legitimate organic national resistance. As the resistance was building momentum, organizing, and expanding, the mainstream narrative started talking about Operations by Al Qaeda against the American forces and the Iraqi people as well.

Most  of the national Iraqi resistance groups issued public statements condemning killing civilians, and emphasized their national positions against any sectarian or federal constitution sponsored by the occupation, The mainstream narrative ignored the legitimate national resistance,  and claimed that the US occupation forces had only one enemy in Iraq, Zarqawi and his Al Qaeda Affiliated organization.

In order to create a divide between the resistance and its public incubator, the Zarqawi story was upgraded. A secret organization started a new insurgency against the Iraqi people and government institutions.  The terrorist operations of this organization were publicly claimed by the Zarqawi organization. Therefore, possibly for the first time in history, AL Qaeda had a real presence. During the years of 2004-2006 the Zarqawi operation was used by the US lead occupation of Iraq to defeat the real Iraqi national resistance[5].

After serving its purpose, the Zarqawi character was withdrawn from circulation. The US army evaluated the “Zarqawi campaign” as “the most successful information campaign to date[6].”

Although the US Generals admit learning important lessons from their Zarqawi campaign, a more important lesson remained unrecognized publicly, and only visible in the policies that followed the retirement of the Zarqawi character.

Original Agenda of the Real Islamic State

The Zarqawi operation claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks against Iraqi civilians. However, no matter who, or how many, the operation killed from their community, the Iraqis kept their compass aligned against the real enemy, and responded to the terrorist challenge by supporting their government and Army[7]. Apparently the US generals have learnt that to have a civil war in this region, they needed to manufacture a new army that would challenge the Iraqi army, and possibly other armies in the region. Zarqawi’s organization (Al Qaeda in Iraq) was not a suitable cover, so the operation approached its expiry date.

The new operation started by ending the shelf life of Zarqawi in June 2006, and spawning new organizations around the country. Multiple terrorist brands started to appear and create coalitions between themselves, and later in October 2006, During the US elections campaign, a new brand name was introduced, The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) as a coalition of the coalitions of the manufactured terrorist organizations. A new set of characters was introduced to lead the supposed “Islamic State”

The media reported that the new leading characters swore to answer only to God, and to free the Sunnis from the oppression of the rejectionists (the Shia, this term includes the Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian governments) and the Crusaders[8].

Therefore, the Agenda of ISI was clear and public from the first day the ISI brand was publicized. This was the new phase of Zarqawi operation. It was created by the same people who created Zarqawi. The publicly stated goal for this new phase is to destabilize the local governments in the region, starting with what was labelled as “Rejectionist” governments.

The Real Islamic State in Iraq

ISI, as its predecessor, consisted of multiple dispersed terrorist cells supported by a strong media organization. So although it was big in the news, it did not control any important area in Iraq. To achieve the goals of the new phase of the operation, ISI needed to set up a real presence with a real army infrastructure to attract recruits and prepare for the upcoming challenge with the Iraqi army. This task had to be completed in a very hostile community who publicly stated their support for the Iraqi government and their opposition to the insurgents.

In 2007, The American army received new reinforcements, and started a campaign against the supposed Enemy, Al Qaeda. In fact, the operation targeted the real legitimate Iraqi resistance, as well as the local government infrastructure in multiple regions. The US Army was able to crush all resistance, and establish ISI’s control over multiple areas under the protection of American Marines and mercenaries.

The Iraqi people responded with another awakening in 2008, and apparently, the Iraqi government finally understood the real role of the US army in establishing The Real ISI. So the people and the government in Iraq realigned again and renewed their determination to get rid of the US occupation army.

During the years 2006-2009, The Real ISI was thriving under the US army protection. In 2009 the US Army commander in Iraq said that "Al Qaeda in Iraq has transformed significantly in the last two years. What once was dominated by foreign individuals has now become more and more dominated by Iraqi citizens"[9]

With the “Change” in the public opinion in the US against American occupation of Iraq near the end of 2009, The US army was forced to downsize, so the ISI strongholds started being exposed to the Iraqi government forces. The outcome of the second phase of the operation was not as expected, The US generals could not create an army for ISI, and many of their trainees and local ISI leaders ended in Iraqi prisons, but not for long.

The Islamic State Franchise

While the Iraqi army was busy destroying the Real ISI military and logistical infrastructure, the media operation that ensured the success of the first phase of the Zarqawi operation remained untouched, possibly because it was based outside Iraq. In addition to the mainstream propaganda branch which did the video production and the dissemination of IS related propaganda into mainstream news outlets, A recruitment branch was focused on converting the Real Islamic State into a franchise by inviting people to form local groups and swear allegiance to the Islamic State. This branch played a major role in building the Islamic State terrorist capacity, and helped achieve the original goal of creating an ISIS army during the upcoming years. We will call the ISIS recruitment branch “The IS franchise operation”. 

Two primary methods were used in the recruitment and brainwashing involved in “The IS franchise operation”. The essential part was executed offline, using recorded tapes and cassettes of lectures and speeches in Friday prayers or closed sessions. The collaboration and propagation was carried out in closed internet chat room (like Paltalk)[10]. The predominant narrative used in this media operation was very simple, The Sunnis have an existential threat represented by the infidel states in the gulf, and what was called “the Shiite crescent”, and the only hope for survival was to resurrect the Islamic Caliphate[11].

In the beginning, the IS franchise operation was not as successful as the original Zarqawi operation, but the people running it were learning by experience, and by 2010, when the real IS in Iraq was about to be crushed, Franchise operations were building momentum and preparing for the upcoming Arab Spring[12]. Now around the end of 2015, this operation is highly evolved. It has developed highly effective propaganda narratives, and has reached unprecedented levels of spread, organization, and effectiveness.

The IS Temporary Alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood

As the second phase of the IS operation proved unsuccessful in achieving the long term goal of challenging the existing states in the region, a new operation was being prepared, The Arab Spring. And as with the case of the Islamic State operation, The Arab Spring consisted of two major components, A media operation that we can safely call “The mainstream Arab Spring”, and a real insurgency. The media operation of the Arab Spring is well documented in the mainstream narrative, which is also well debunked. However, the real insurgency that accompanied it needs more research and coverage.

Apparently, the original agenda of the Arab Spring insurgency included assigning the leading role to the Muslim Brotherhood forces in the Arab countries. This was clear in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. During the first two years of the Arab Spring operation, The IS franchise operation was still ongoing and operating at full throttle in promoting the original IS narrative with one very important change, the idea of the Islamic State was replaced by the Sharia rule concept in the IS propaganda[13].

The Muslim Brothers proved to be a strong ally to the forces who planned the Arab Spring, mainly because they already had political and social organizations, so they were ready to mobilize and destabilize the target countries. In addition to that, they were able to build a secret military wing in Syria before the operation started, and to activate that wing as soon as they got the signal to start the insurgency.

The alliance between the IS and the Muslim Brothers did not last long. The IS Media operation resurrected the Islamic State in 2013 with new characters in the leadership positions, and introduced a character called Baghdadi as the caliph of the Islamic State. To cover the discontinuity between 2010 and 2013, the IS media operation’s cover story said that a Zarqawi-like character, called Jawlani, was sent from Iraq by the caliph. Then, after establishing his terrorist brand in Syria, this character declined allegiance to the IS and tried to establish his own Islamic State.

The third phase of the Islamic State

While the Jawlani-Baghdadi dispute looks like a scripted cover story, a real multi-polar dispute was being engineered in the heart of the operation.

In 2013, The IS Franchise operation re-established the original goal of an Islamic state instead of just Sharia rule, so the Gulf monarchies realized the threat of the Real Islamic State. They mitigated the threat by trying to buy the allegiance of as many terrorist lieutenants in Syria and Iraq as they could.

The Muslim Brotherhood forces were still strong and in control of wide areas of Syria, especially in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, and Daraa. Although their leadership was being sidelined after their defeat in Egypt and Tunisia, and with the humiliating withdrawal of their biggest supporter, Prince Hamad of Qatar, Their local lieutenants on  the ground kept their historic allegiance, and were reluctant to join the IS operation, or the new camp of the Gulf States.

Therefore, the third phase of the operation is characterized by three major terrorist forces:

  • The forces of the Real Islamic State, financed by the US and operated by the Pentagon.
  • The forces of the House of Saud and their partners.
  • The remaining Muslim Brotherhood forces, heavily beaten by the Syrian army and bleeding fighters to the highest bidder in the other two camps.

Other forces were also active, including many opportunist war lords whose only allegiance is to their own benefit, and the Turkmen gangs who kept their loyalty with Erdogan of Turkey. Even though, this model for the current terrorist forces in Syria might still be oversimplified because if does not cover all the forces fighting on the ground.

The upcoming fourth phase of the Islamic State

In Syria, the original Zarqawi operation achieved a huge progress. The people running it finally learnt how to build a terrorist army. Although I believe their army is the biggest mercenary army ever recruited in history, it is currently being crushed by the Syrian army and its allies.

Based on the experience and determination of the people running the Islamic State operations, we can expect that they will continue their efforts to destabilize the region. The next step of the operation will be a serious challenge to Iraq, Syria, and most importantly, to the Gulf monarchies.

If another real Islamic State is established in this area, All Muslims in the world will be asked to submit to the will of its leader, who might be another character like Zarqawi or Baghdadi. In this situation, the destabilization might spread world-wide.

Al-Ayham Saleh



[1] Wikipedia article: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

[2] Hillary Clinton, The US Secretary of State, comments on the House foreign affairs committee on April 23, 2009. Read the full statement on the website of the US Government Publishing house.

[3] The original source of this story is the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, remarks to the United Nations Security council on February 5th, 2003 during the American propaganda campaign to prepare for the Invasion of Iraq.

[4] The Corbett Report: Who Is ISIS? An open source investigation

[5] The Washington post quoted Col. Derek Harvey of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff saying: “Our own focus on Zarqawi has enlarged his caricature, if you will -- made him more important than he really is, in some ways.” And adding “The long-term threat is not Zarqawi or religious extremists, but these former regime types and their friends”. Source

[6] The Washington Post quoting an internal US Army briefing by General Mark Kimmit. Source

[7] According to the New York Times, The majority of the population in Iraq supported the government, and planned to fight the terrorists. The Iraqi Government supported them too. Source

[8] Roggio, Bill (12 October 2006). "Al Qaeda's Grand Coalition in Anbar". Long War Journal.

[9] Christie, Michael (18 November 2009). "Al Qaeda in Iraq becoming less foreign-US general". Reuters.

[10] From personal experience I remember that this operation was ongoing since 1999, and I remember entering a Paltalk chatroom that preached allegiance to the Islamic state of that time, which was the Taliban state. With the establishment of the new Islamic State brand at the end of 2006, The preachers shifted allegiance to the new Islamic State in Iraq, and their teachings and recorded tapes were spreading in Syria, Lebanon, and the gulf states, completely unnoticed by the security services in these countries.

[11] Although this propaganda had outside resemblance to the Wahabi ideology adopted by Saudi Arabia, the content of the propaganda was clearly pro-IS, which makes it by default against the existing Saudi family rule, in addition to being against the other states in the region.

[12] Two main factors could have possibly helped this operation, the introduction of Otpor/Canvas teachings in preparation for the Arab Spring, and the temporary alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

[13] The difference between “an Islamic State” and a “state of Sharia law” must not be underestimated. Any state that uses Sharia as a source for its constitution can claim it is a Sharia state. This is the case of the Gulf States. Sharia Law is also one of the principal pillars of the Muslim Brotherhood Ideology. In Extremist Islamic ideology, the existence of an Islamic caliphate requires all Muslims, including the kings of the Islamic monarchies, to swear allegiance to its caliph.  All Muslims will be required to conduct Jihad against the rulers who refuse to submit to the will of the Islamic State. For more information please read The Difference Between Sharia Law and an Islamic State

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