Long before militants rampaged across the Middle East to seize territory and declare an Islamic “caliphate,” the leader of al Qaeda had an ominous warning for the head of the terror group that’s now known as ISIS.
In 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote a letter of advice to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was then the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Zawahiri was concerned that AQI, a Sunni terror group, was alienating Sunnis in Iraq by attacking Shia civilians.
He advised Zarqawi to seek popular support from Sunnis in the country and slowly “develop” and “consolidate” an Islamic “emirate” until it grew to “the level of the caliphate” only after US forces left Iraq.
“The mission of the jihadists thereafter was to protect the caliphate’s domain and expand its borders until the Day of Judgment,” Will McCants, director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, explained in his new book, “The ISIS Apocalypse.”
Zawahiri emphasized that establishing the caliphate required “popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq and the surrounding countries.”
He went on to predict: “In the absence of this popular support, the Islamic mujahid movement would be crushed in the shadows.”
The videotaped beheadings that ISIS is now known for might “thrill zealous young men,” but most Muslims “will never find them palatable,” Zawahiri wrote. He noted that “aversion” to Zarqawi’s attacks on Shiites would continue despite AQI’s attempts to justify them.
Another top al Qaeda official, Atiyya Abd al-Rahman, also wrote to Zarqawi in 2005 to remind him of what happened to Algerian jihadists who fought for power in the 1990s. In the midst of a civil war, some Islamists started murdering civilians, which eventually “alienated the Muslim masses,” according to McCants.
“They destroyed themselves with their own hands, with their lack of reason, delusions, their ignoring of people, their alienation of them through oppression, deviance, and severity, coupled with a lack of kindness, sympathy, and friendliness,” Atiyya wrote.
“It was not their enemy that defeated them,” McCants pointed out. “They defeated themselves.”
Zarqawi did not heed these warnings. AQI continued massacring Shiites, and, in 2006, Zarqawi “announced a consultative council composed of several jihadist groups” that he described as “the nucleus for establishing an Islamic state,” which he said would be created within three months, according to McCants.
Later that year, Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike. AQI then announced the “Islamic State” – the beginning of the group now commonly known as ISIS – in October. The “caliphate” was declared several years later, in June 2014, and now encompasses a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS doesn’t quite enjoy the level of popular support Zawahiri envisioned when he wrote out his plan for establishing the caliphate.
The militants have forced their rule in the areas they control, publicly murdering those who oppose them and stealing from residents to help finance their operations. ISIS propaganda shows the militants being welcomed by the people who live in the towns they seize, but this likely isn’t reality.
Experts estimate that Muslims are “fleeing in droves” as it becomes evident that the caliphate isn’t the Islamic utopia ISIS claims it to be.
ISIS is so concerned about people fleeing that it has “placed IEDs around entrances to cities it controls, such as Fallujah and Ramadi, to prevent escape, which simultaneously serve the larger purpose of preventing the [Iraqi Security Forces] from advancing,” according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.