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The State of the Islamic State

Director of Analysis Jacob L. Shapiro and Managing Editor Cole Altom discuss one of the more brutal jihadist groups the Middle East has ever seen. For a deeper look, get the full report: The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State.

  • Last updated: February 21
  • Total word count: 9453 words

Jacob L. Shapiro: Greetings everyone, welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. I am Jacob Shapiro, I am joined by maybe not a special guest but a guest that has not been on it yet, Cole Altom. Cole, how’s it going?

Cole Altom: It’s going well. Thank you for having me. We had some very nice comments on this podcast not too long ago that said they were getting consistently better. And so thanks for having me on so I can halt that progress dead in its tracks. In all seriousness, it’s nice to be here. We’ve got a lot to talk about right now.

But first, I kind of want to pick your brain on a couple things. So today’s Monday. What can we expect for the rest of the week? What would you want to put on the radars of our readers for this week ahead?

JLS: Well I think the three most important things that we’re keeping an eye on going into the week are number one, the current state of Brexit negotiations. The official negotiations are going to pick back up again starting today actually.

The second thing is that the Winter Olympics begin on Thursday in South Korea. And if you’re a fan of women’s figure skating, this is a great time for you. But also, this happens to have major implications because North Korea is sending its athletes and this is part of the major, it’s not quite a détente yet between South Korea and North Korea but the Olympics have played a major role in those negotiations.

And then finally, there’s just been some more weird stuff going on in Iran.

CA: What’s been going on in Iran?

JLS: Well you know we had some protests break out going into the weekend on Friday. And we were watching closely then and…

CA: Wait, are those new protests or are they just a continuation of the old? Because these have been going around since the beginning of the year, right? Are they markedly different from some of the other ones?

JLS: They are different. You know the protests at the beginning of the year stopped after the Iranian authorities came in and decided that they needed to stop, which is how things normally work in Iran. Some new ones broke out and you know it’s really hard because reporting on the ground in Iran is pretty shoddy.

A lot of these protests seem to be about women’s issues and revolved protests around women taking off their hijabs and a lot of women activists were arrested but there were also other indications that some of these protests went back to what happened in early January where they were going against the Supreme Leader and against the current government. So there’s been a smattering of both and it still remains to be seen how its going to go forward.

CA: Have they turned violent at all?

JLS: We haven’t seen any hardcore violence yet.

CA: So are we led to believe then that security entities like the Artesh or the IRGC are actually keeping the peace or did they even need to?

JLS: It might be that they don’t need to if these are protests built around you know wearing the hijab and that’s all that they are, this is probably not that big of a deal. The thing that made the protests in early January such a big deal, was that normal Joe Schmo Iranian with a typical job was going out to the streets and risking his life and his family and everything because he was dissatisfied with the economic conditions.

So if that stuff is continuing and if this is somehow connected to that, this is a big deal. If this is just some liberal activists in major cities upset about some of the religious principles or the religious laws there in Iran, well that happens time to time in Iran. You can expect that. So that’s the dividing line.

CA: Fair enough but it kind of touches on something that I want to talk to you about as well. I mean we make the distinctions between the religious and the economic in Iran. A report surfaced last week that the Supreme Leader had called on the IRGC to divest their interest from the economy, which is strange. Why would he even do that?

JLS: It’s very strange. You know the IRGC, I forget what the figure is, but I mean a large portion of the Iranian economy goes through the IRGC. And the IRGC and the Iranian government kind of rule Iran hand in hand. So if the Iranian government is coming in and saying you can no longer do this, it reminds me of Xi Jinping in China going to the People’s Liberation Army, the PLA, and saying y’all are an army, like you don’t do this stuff where you run stuff on the side, you make money and you develop your own independent centers of influences and stuff like that. You serve at my pleasure and you follow my orders.

Another example would be Egypt where the army is super involved in the actual governance of the state. This is true in Iran too. IRGC is part of how the state governs. So if there is some kind of split, a factional split or political split emerging in Iran, where the IRGC is chafing under the leadership of the Supreme Leader or Rouhani’s government, that could have very serious implications. And if, I don’t want to be too long winded, but if you graft that onto the stuff we know is happening between conservatives in Iran and the more pragmatic camps, that want to open stuff up a little bit more, that also gets more interesting.

CA: Ok, so the situation in Iran dovetails into what will constitute sort of the bulk of this podcast today and some things I wanted to talk to you about specifically. So to contextualize it a little bit for our readers, pretty famously toward the end of the year, the Islamic State was sort of routed out of its capital in Raqqa, right? And obviously the United States was very interested in all those goings on, we had Russia involvement, we had Turkish involvement, we’ve had Iranian involvement, Lebanese. So everybody was sort of active there.

And now that the Islamic State has sort of retreated and this is one of the major things that we identify in our forecast, one of the major things that we’re going to be keeping an eye on throughout the year is that now that the Islamic State is I guess you would call it in retreat, they’re not gone, they’re not down and out, we’ll get to that in a little bit. But they have retreated and as we’ve identified, Iran kind of came out of that on top. They’ve expanded their influence throughout Syria and they were already pretty influential in Iraq.

So basically I want to talk about the Islamic State. I want to talk about the rise and the fall of the Islamic State because again it’s very tempting to just say that well we’ve heard the last of them. But as you’ve written recently, we almost certainly have not heard the last of them. I think before we can talk about what to expect from the Islamic State going forward, talk about its history. What lead to the Islamic State’s formation? Why were they powerful? Why were they able to hold the territory that they did? So can you kind of walk me through that and our subscribers through that right now?

JLS: I can. I think I’ll begin in kind of a strange place, which is I’ll begin with something that happened just this past week, which is that we had some reports coming out of Kirkuk in Iraq that Islamic State was getting active there, that they were planning on assassinating local government officials and that this was going to be one of the major hot spots for the Islamic State going forward.

CA: That is kind of a tactical hallmark of the group, is it not?

JLS: It is their M.O. to a T and it is exactly the thing that they did when they arose around 2010, 2011. The Islamic State, it wasn’t known as the Islamic State then, it had various name changes. I believe around then it was the Islamic State in Iraq.

CA: Yeah they’ve rebranded themselves more than Prince and Puff Daddy. It’s hard for people like us to keep track of it all. But yeah they are the Islamic State now.

JLS: But they were down and out in 2010. They were for all intents and purposes done. The United States Department of Defense said something like 34 out of 42 leaders were killed, assassinated by the United States.

CA: Including their initial leader Zarqawi, al-Zarqawi, right?

JLS: Including al-Zarqawi and the two people that followed him. So we got through three of the top leadership and a bunch of the lower cadres and also thousands of the Islamic State fighters were either in prison or also killed.

CA: Yeah but we’re still talking about them eight years later.

JLS: We’re talking about them eight years later because the Iraqi political situation broke down in large part because Iran, which we were just talking about, asserted its power in Baghdad because it wanted to see the Shiites become powerful there. That was exactly what the Sunnis in Iraq were afraid of.

And once that happened, the Islamic State got renewed energy because those Sunnis, who had actually turned against the Islamic State because of how brutal and violent the Islamic State was, began to think well, we’ve just been betrayed by Baghdad and by the United States and everyone and these guys said it was going to be true. So they started getting new recruits.

CA: Well let’s go back a little bit further then that. You mentioned the political tumult in Iraq, which many of us who were around at that time remember, what prompted the U.S. invasion? This chain of events goes back and back and back, I mean you could arguably trace it all the back to the Ottomans, could you not?

JLS: Well you can trace it back even further if you want. We’re talking about…

CA: Yeah, let’s go back to the Sunni-Shia split in the seventh century…

JLS: In 680 C.E., no but seriously though, I mean Iraq is really – all countries are fake I should preface by saying that – but Iraq is more fake…

CA: They’re all imagined communities.

JLS: They are.

CA: To borrow Benedict Anderson.

JLS: But Iraq is more imaginary than the other ones.

CA: Sure.

JLS: And there has been human civilization in this part of the world as long as there has been human civilization. So like this part of the world has seen it all. It has always been incredibly violent. It has always changed hands to multiple empires. What’s different this time and if you really want to sort of put a finger on when it starts, it starts after Word War I. And it’s not necessarily because the Ottomans collapsed. It’s because after the Ottomans collapsed, the British and the French came in and said we’re going to organize this in whatever way we think is best for us. And if there are three different ethnic groups in this one country? Ok, that’s fine!

CA: Yeah, notably it was the British with the Balfour Declaration and the French with Sykes-Picot, they did not draw the borders of the Middle East as we all know now, along the sort of like you might call the natural divisions of the region, you’ve got Sunnis, you’ve got Shias, you’ve got Kurds, you’ve got any number of offshoot sectarian ethnic branches as well. But if you were to draw those lines according to that, the region would look a whole lot differently but instead you have what we have now and they are all fighting each other pretty much all the time.

JLS: That’s true although and this is, I’m not trying to defend the British and the French in what they did, but I will say that the real problem was also that they of the different groups in the Middle East as nations. And nationalism had really just come up in Europe and it was the predominant political ideology and they thought that they could create these nation-states in the Middle East and that that would work. The problem is that even when we talk about Sunnis and Shiites or Kurds or Arabs, these weren’t nations. And nationalism didn’t emerge there naturally.

So Europe came in and not only drew the borders in particular ways but said ok the way these governments are going to function is the way we function. And they were dealing with not like parts, it was apples in Europe and it was oranges in the Middle East, and it just, it didn’t take. So even if you had drawn the borders completely perfectly, I’m not sure it would’ve worked anyway because this was not a real region where there was a mature idea of what a nation was. They didn’t even know what a nation was. These were tribes under an empire, who had never heard of this stuff before.

CA: Is there any reason to be cynical about this? Do you think that they deliberately tried to play some people off each other? Stalin sort of famously did the same thing in Central Asia and he carved it up in such a way that to ensure that none of these groups or ethnic divides could rise up against him and be a problem for him on his periphery. Do you think that factored into it at all? I’ve always kind of wondered about that.

JLS: I think a little bit. But I think the issue was more that it was the British and the French competing with each other and they were drawing lines to make sure that one was not more powerful than the other. Now within the different communities that the British ruled and that the French ruled, certainly they set those groups up against each other. The best example for the French is in Lebanon, the best example for the British is probably what happened and what was then Mandate of Palestine but it happened throughout the region and Iraq was one of the places that it happened.

CA: Well so there’s no tradition of nationalism there, fair enough. But as you also, the Arabs have been around for a long, long time. If not the nation and if not the state and to some degree tribes we’ve talked about that, but what bound them together was Islam, was it not? Like this was the tie that bound them and they’ve had different empires there. Does that impinge on the creation of the Islamic State as we know it today at all or are these separate things that we need to think about conceptually, differently entirely?

JLS: No, I think it does. Look the way I think about this is the Islamic State is a very small chapter in a much larger story. There is a war going on in the Muslim world, within the Muslim world and then also the Muslim world is at war with modernity and Western civilization too. And the Islamic State is a small manifestation of those battles actually taking place. The so-called Arab Spring was another one of them. Al-Qaida is another manifestation. The Kurds rising up all over the place is a manifestation. This region for over a hundred years after World War I ended was ruled by outside powers.

And it’s now beginning to reach a situation where the outside powers either don’t care or just want it to manage itself so the problems don’t spill over. And so now these different groups are trying to figure out well what does self-rule look like for a civilization where Islam has really been the predominant spirituality, prevailing ideology, mode of political organization, you name it, it’s been Islam since the mid-600s.

CA: Well I don’t want to get too off topic here either but I think that it’s real interesting when you talk about self-rule. You know after the so-called Arab Spring, you had free and fair elections in Egypt. What do they do, they elected an Islamist. He’s not there anymore.

JLS: Well yeah as we talked about earlier, the Egyptian military is really what controls Egypt and when the Egyptian military saw that its interests were threatened, they went in and took care of that.

CA: So what in your opinion are the earliest traces of what we now know is the Islamic State? Right so if this is the environment in which they are operating in, its chaotic, there are power vacuums, there are disagreements among the different Arabs and different Muslims and there are power dynamics at play with different outside powers in there. How did this enable the Islamic State to rise?

JLS: The Islamic State, you know can be arbitrary with that, you can pick multiple different points in history. The thing that I would point to is that around the 1970s and 1980s, Arab nationalism, Arab socialism was failing. It hadn’t destroyed Israel, it hadn’t brought prosperity to the rank and file people in these populations. It had tried to eliminate Islam and Islam was roaring back with a vengeance. And you began to see in the 1970s and 1980s, religious fundamentalism popping up all over the Middle East.

Now it wasn’t enough then because you still had people like Saddam Hussein, who had complete control over Iraq. Iran by the way, the Islamic Revolution, was part of this and it worked there. You sort of see, I mean, this was Shiite so it’s a different kind of thought process on the one hand but that’s a place where you know the Islamic and traditional conservativism…

CA: Yeah it was literally an Islamic Revolution and that’s how they created their state, sure.

JLS: But they were also able to cooperate with some of the political forces in a way that didn’t work in some of these less mature areas. And when I say less mature, that’s in part because Persianism is actually a lot more unified going back in history than say the Arabs are.

CA: Even outside the Middle East right, very famously we had Islamist fighters in Afghanistan. Can you talk about that a little bit?

JLS: Well the Islamist fighters in Afghanistan were bankrolled and were the brainchild of a Saudi prince named Osama bin Laden. So I mean again this is all coming out of the Arab world, it was exported to different places outside of the Arab world and it’s beginning to take shape in different parts of the Muslim world, but you know the Muslim world, the beating heart of the Muslim world, has always been the Arab world.

CA: Well sure but Zarqawi himself trained in Afghanistan briefly before heading back to Jordan to create some of the groups he would eventually create, yeah?

JLS: He did. So Zarqawi who was the guy who founded you know the original Islamic State, what he called it, it’s a long name but JTJ is the acronym for those who are following along, I don’t think you need more than that, is just to say that yes Zarqawi actually went to Afghanistan in 1989 because he wanted to jihad against the Soviets and as fate was cruel to him by the time we got there, the battle was over and he actually didn’t get to fight. He’s complained about this to his cell mates in prison that he was so upset that he never got to fight in Afghanistan. And once he got out of prison in Jordan, he started basically his own network and his own group and he started trying to do all this stuff.

Zarqawi though is, and I think this is one thing to think about in terms of the Islamic State, Zarqawi always started with fixing the Arab world. He wanted to fight local enemies, he wanted to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy, he wanted to overthrow the Saddam Husseins and the Egyptian militaries and the peoples like that.

CA: Which is kind of in contrast with the Osama bin Ladens of the world, is it not?

JLS: It’s directly, they actually broke. I mean for awhile their groups actually sort of allied with each other and by 2013, 2014 you actually had war between the Islamic State and between al-Qaida in Syria. They were actually fighting each other when the Islamic State conquered Raqqa, it conquered Raqqa from al-Qaida. They had pushed the Assad forces out together and then they were ruling jointly and then they had basically a little mini civil war in Raqqa and the Islamic State decided to take Raqqa. But so, the bin Ladens and al-Qaida, their ideology was all about fighting the West.

So it was all about attacking the United States, luring the United States and the West into the Middle East and creating change that way. But again this goes to show you that these lines are not simple. Even within the jihadist camps and the Islamist camps, there’s disagreement not just like you know the disagreements that you and I have…

CA: Of which there are many, which, we should note that we disagree on just about everything.

JLS: Yeah but we don’t go to war with each other.

CA: Not yet.

JLS: As a result of the fact that you like a different taco than I do.

CA: Yeah the night’s young. Ok, so fast forward to I guess 2003, 9/11 had happened, the United States invades Afghanistan, later the United States invades Iraq, which though not necessarily immediately, sort of like provided an impetus and created the conditions for some of these groups to thrive, correct?

JLS: Mmm hmm.

CA: Aided in no small part by the disbanding of the Iraqi military and the Sunnis in the west so can you tell us a little bit about that? Specifically, about the Anbar Awakening and I know you write about this in the report we’re about to publish, but that was like a truly pivotal moment.

JLS: It was a truly pivotal moment because the United States when it went into Iraq, it didn’t realize what it was getting itself into. The United States thought it was going to be welcomed and that you know liberal democracy was going to sprout up here in the middle of the Fertile Crescent. Not so actually.

CA: Yeah it hasn’t done that. I have not noticed that yet.

JLS: It has not. And you know groups like Zarqawi’s leapt at the opportunity. They were organized, they were trained, they were ready to take advantage of it. And they came in and took advantage of, it was really Sunni hostility to the United States coming in and the invasion and at first there was a massive insurgency which the United States didn’t expect. But the United States had a really rough time with it in 2003, 2004 when they first got there.

CA: And not to be pedantic here, although it would not be the first time I’ve been accused of pedantry, just to say for those of us who may not know, Sunnis are a minority in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was…

JLS: Was a Sunni, yes.

CA: Right.

JLS: But a secular Sunni.

CA: Fair enough. But it’s worth mentioning that it’s majority Shia and the current government right now and one that’s sort of kind of proved out after a few years of U.S. incubation was a majority Shiite as well. So when we saw Sunni insurgency, that’s kind of what we mean there.

JLS: Yes.

CA: Just wanted to throw that out there.

JLS: No I think that’s, I mean all the names get so, my eyes bleed whenever I actually have to deal with the stuff myself. But so you know the insurgency was going against the U.S. forces and then what really flipped was the Islamic State was so brutal that even the Sunnis in Iraq were like – this is not good. We don’t like this. Like we need to fix this. And so you had a bunch of different Sunni tribes get together and say, ok we’re going to fight these guys. And the U.S. was like ok we’re going to support you fighting these guys.

CA: We need your help.

JLS: And you know from about 2006 until 2010/2011, it was really the Sunnis backed by the United States who were doing the majority of the fighting here. And what flipped was there were parliamentary elections in Iraq and basically what happened was the Sunnis got sold out. Their candidate who wasn’t a Sunni himself, their candidate was actually a Shiite but it was a block of parties that were more secular.

CA: They won, they won the elections, right?

JLS: Well they got the most seats, which in a parliamentary system doesn’t necessarily mean you won. But…

CA: Fair enough.

Shapiro: His coalition got the most seats and there was every indication that they could’ve easily forged a coalition. Usually when a party wins the most seats and doesn’t get the mandate to form the government, it’s because they can’t get anymore support than the seats that they want. This was not the case here. There was certainly enough support for them to develop a coalition.

CA: But they did not.

JLS: They did not. Because the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was a Shiite and he was not one of these more pragmatic Shiites, he was one who was afraid of the Sunnis, who wanted to assert Shiite power. You know, I can’t prove a relationship with Iran, but certainly his regime tied closer to what Iran would’ve wanted in the region than what the rest of the people there wanted. And then you didn’t necessarily have another insurgency.

But at that point, the Sunnis went ok well we just fought for four years against these Islamic State people, we put our trust in this political process, we’re getting screwed. We’re gonna have to turn around. And it was that pivotal moment that the Islamic State hanging on by a thread, was like ok we’re here, maybe we’ve learned from some of our past mistakes. Maybe we’re gonna moderate ourselves just enough so that we can start to recruit and get more adherence and that’s what they started doing.

At around the same time that this was happening, civil war broke out in Syria which is right next door to Iraq, which opened up a whole other avenue of recruits and disillusionment across the border. It was the combination of those two things that created the Islamic State as we came to know it.

CA: Ok so the Islamic State is, it has recuperated, it’s filled its ranks again, by all accounts, grew more powerful. What did it do with that newfound power?

JLS: What it did was really unprecedented in the history of any of these kind of jihadist groups or even Islamist groups, what they did was they tried to re-declare the caliphate.

CA: What’s a caliphate for our listeners?

JLS: Well is it a caliphate or the caliphate, is the first question to ask I guess. But basically speaking and this is a very crude simplification but think of it as like the Pope of the Muslim world. You know the leadership of the Muslim world was embodied in the caliph. After Muhammad died, the prophet Muhammad died, a caliph took over for him and ruled the caliphate, which was basically the realm that Muhammad had carved out for this new Muslim Arab empire.

CA: The first caliph incidentally was Abu Bakr, which will be important here, it all comes full circle.

JLS: It all comes full circle because the man who declared the Islamic State in 2014 in the new caliphate took the name Abu Bakr. So you know the definition of the caliphate morphed over time, it would be incorrect to say there was one caliphate from 632 I think was when Abu Bakr took over until it was finally abolished in 1924. What you can say though is that from that year around 632 to 1924, there was always somebody claiming the caliphate. And there was this, at least this imaginary talisman that you could reach back into the earliest times when the Muslims had risen and taken over the entire region and it was still basically there.

In 1924, the new Turkish Republic, which had been the modern, excuse me, which had been the Ottoman Empire, got rid of the caliphate. And the Ottomans had sort of housed the caliphate and they housed two caliphs if you want to get specific about it. There was sort of a sultan/emperor type, who was more political, and then a more spiritual one. They got rid of the more political one first and then in 1924 they got rid of the spiritual one too. And the upshot of that is for the first time in something like 1,300 years, there wasn’t a caliph. There was nobody claiming to be a caliph, there was nobody claiming to have a caliphate.

All of this is very contested and Muslims themselves are fighting over these issues too and will get upset probably at different things that I’m about to say on this podcast. All I want to say is that I’m trying to describe how the jihadists think of this history, from the jihadist perspective.

CA: Well if you’re a jihadist, if you’re a fundamentalist, you’re ultraconservative, you have to, you can’t be happy with the fact that there’s no caliphate or caliph. You can’t be happy with the fact that in some ways, the West kind of deprived you of that, if you want to go that far. Again from their mindset, so it is almost, it’s galvanizing.

JLS: Right.

CA: It helps to mobilize some of these forces and give them sort of a common purpose I guess, which aids them in no small part to like recruitment and things like that, right?

JLS: It does and the thing that I’ve probably done a poor job of explaining until I say it hopefully very clearly this time is that, the caliphate and the caliphs as they existed, it was both you know this worldly and then spiritually or other worldly or whatever phrase you want to use there. So it would not have been enough for the Islamic State to say hey there’s a caliphate and then have anybody take them seriously. They needed to conquer territory and they needed it to look like they had a serious territorial entity for them to even think about declaring this.

CA: And to also have sort of the more what you might call the more mundane or the more banal structures of governance, right? They issued currency, not that like, I don’t know, this is not like bitcoin, right? This is not Venmo.

JLS: No gold dinars, we have pictures of them. Gold dinars.

CA: Well whether it was actually circulated and made a difference, we’ll never know, like I wasn’t there. But at the same time they did do these things, they had public outreach and they offered some social services and things like that, which you know I think is important, I think it’s important to note that. Because for all their brutality and for all of some of the horrible, horrible things that they did and were capable of, you don’t get that kind of following, you don’t get that kind of established presence just through fear of retribution. Although yes they went on a lot of these like campaigns to like kill local Sunni leaders, even though they were Sunni themselves, to instill fear and to coerce their cooperation.

But at the same time, they got buy-in. It did appeal to some people and they did offer some things that some of these war-torn regions of the Middle East haven’t had for a while. So it’s, I’m not trying to pat anybody on the back here, but it is important to know that like some of these regimes – this is not unique to the Middle East, but the world over whether it’s Bashar al-Assad or Xi Jinping or whoever – you have to create systems of buy-in for these things to like have legitimacy and to have staying power or else, they’re just going to be you know blips on the radar and they disappear just as quickly, yeah?

JLS: Yeah and I mean their claim to legitimacy was Islam. And just think about the two countries that you know sort of broke apart that allowed the Islamic State to emerge. Iraq you had a secular Sunni Arab dictator who was well steeped in sort of 1960s/70s socialism, Baathist ideologies. The Baathist party also was ruling in Syria and you had an Alawite who was ruling.

CA: I was just going to say, different complexion though if you want to talk about those differences because Assad is an Alawite and Alawite is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which is you know at worst a puppet of Iran but more likely a very close ally if you want to call it that.

JLS: Yes, these were two countries and two regions where Sunni Islam was the predominant, you know, I don’t even want to say ideology, it was the mode of organization of society and Sunni Islam, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and since their direct rule there, hadn’t been ruling these places. These people had basically been told no, Islam is backwards, you must embrace nationalism and secularism.

Bernard Lewis, who is for my money the best historian of the Middle East, talked about, you know, first the U.S. came in and you know beat up the Muslim empires. Ok, that was one thing. Then the West came in and it was individual states and stuff like that. He always said that the real breaking point was, and then the West came into Muslim homes and said, no you’re going to wear makeup and you’re going to take off this hijab and welcome to the new world of progress and enlightenment that doesn’t have room for this backwardness. And you know he was writing that in the 1980s and 90s as that foment that I talked about in the Islamic world was starting to bubble up.

CA: Well I think you also make a strong argument too that you can’t really ever fully separate church and state for all of our bluster, right? But you could also make a strong argument that Islam specifically has had a sort of, however you want to articulate it, a sort of more intimate relationship with governance, right?

Going back to Muhammad when he founded the religion, right. There was Muhammad in Mecca and he was the prophet and he preached to the people. And then there was Muhammad in Medina and he was a – whatever you want to call it, I don’t want to say king – he was a conqueror, he was a general, he was all these different things because he created a lot of enemies by creating this religion, right? I mean I’m not an expert, this is sort of my general understanding of it. So you have again the prophet, the spiritual aspect, but you also have, he was the head of state essentially.

Shapiro: Well you’ve actually put your finger on one of the things that I think is so hard for Westerners like us to understand, which is that…

CA: Blind squirrels.

JLS: There is a division of church and state in the West, it’s divided. Now, that’s not to say that religion does not influence the state or people’s politics or ethics.

CA: Or that either side doesn’t try to co-opt the other one sometimes for their own personal use.

JLS: Yeah, but there is a church and there is a state. That got divided. There are no longer kings ruling by divine right. Now there are monarchs in different European countries, you might say. But like I said, there is a very clear delineation between what the church is and what the state is and they try to influence each other but there’s a division.

There is not that in the Muslim world. And there never has been, and that is sort of embodied in the caliphate that we were talking about. The very definition of a caliph, well I don’t want to say the very definition – one way to think about what the caliphate is, it’s as if you took church and state and mushed them together in the West. That’s what the caliphate is.

The issue that is driving things in the Arab World, and I think I would make the claim in the Muslim world at large, is that they never did that themselves. They never decided as societies that they wanted to divide the responsibilities of the caliphate, that they wanted religion and the state to be completely separate. And in some ways, Islam doesn’t think in those terms in the world. In the West, it’s not even clear that it does that too. But the West had a couple more centuries to try and figure these things out and had horrible, bloody, you know religious civil wars amongst itself.

The optimists about this portion of the world and the optimists who thought the Arab Spring was happening were thinking oh this is the moment where the Islamic world realizes what the rest of the world realized, that we have to divide church and state. But this is the thing that I would say to people: church and state, those terms don’t work. That’s not, they think in terms of caliphate and the stuff that has happened since the caliphate collapse.

CA: Yeah, the great hope was that it was going to be some wonderful, democratic revolution and it turns out it was not democratic or even a revolution. It was just more of like an Islamist uprising, yeah? Awakening might be a better word for that.

JLS: I would call it, I’ve been using the word Islamist awakening but I would say it’s really too early to know. It could be, the Arab Spring could be the very first, if you’re an optimist, you would say that the Arab Spring was the first moment where democracy and liberalism really took hold in the Arab world.

I would just point out look at all the death and destruction and violence that happened in the West at the first moment that say the Renaissance or the Enlightenment popped up versus where we are today. Even the optimist has to grant that ok, we’re about to go through a major cycle of violence and purging within the Muslim world if that’s true.

If you’re like me and you’re a little more pessimistic about it, you say that may happen at some point, I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think that’s what that was. I think what that was, was a moment of real dissatisfaction with the political leadership in the Middle East. And the people that were best organized to take advantage of that dissatisfaction happened to be the Islamists.

And in the same way that Arab socialism and Arab nationalism was an ideology that ruled the Middle East for a good about 100 years, you know this jihadism and this religious fundamentalism is also an ideology. And the Islamic State is absolutely a fringe and a radical group of it but don’t think for a second that it’s completely separate from a lot of the other things that are happening here.

This is the Muslim world trying to figure out how it’s going to govern itself and the Islamic State is one radical fringe example of that and you can go all the way and see the other answers. That’s the fight, that’s the war that’s happening.

CA: Now that I’ve sufficiently distracted you from what we were originally talked about, let’s go back to the Islamic State. They’ve created a caliphate unlike any before them, right? What happened then? Where’s the U.S.? Where’s Russia? Where’s Iran? Does anybody care what’s going on? Do they see this? Do they notice?

JLS: Well most outside powers and even powers in the region either thought they could manipulate this group or thought this group wasn’t that big of a deal. You cut this out of the piece that I wrote, but I mean you know the famous Obama comment was that you know just because they put on some jerseys doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers. Like we’re dealing with a JV team.

CA: Right but this is 2018 and I don’t know if we need some outdated references to Kobe Bryant.

JLS: Oh that’s fine so I’ll get into the podcast. But again like really, the world basically underestimated the Islamic State because to the United States and other countries, they were decimated, they were gone. They didn’t think that this was still a problem and they were wrong. I mean, in June 2014, the Islamic State takes Mosul, it’s already been governing in Raqqa now for a good I don’t know six to eight months or so. And the Islamic State announces the caliphate and then over the course of next three to four months undertakes a massive offensive and take over all that territory.

CA: Well it’s worth noting too that when they took Mosul, it was a blitzkrieg. I mean they took it like that. (snaps fingers)

JLS: Well a blitzkrieg means that you defeat people very quickly. There was nobody for them to defeat.

CA: Fair enough.

JLS: The Iraqi security forces said ok…

CA: Hey have at this, yeah.

JLS: Take it.

CA: But so they took it in what, however many number of days.

JLS: Six, six days. The second Six-Day War.

CA: Compare that to how long it actually took security forces to reclaim that. And that wasn’t just Iraqi security. It was Iraqi security forces, it was the United States and like some contingents of Iranian-backed militias.

JLS: Kurdish peshmergas.

CA: It was no small doing. So I just want to be clear, when Mosul happened and we all remember this when it happened, it was like it was out of nowhere and people were like what is happening right now?

JLS: Well look the Islamic State was organized and it was prepared and it had been prepping the ground for two or three years beforehand and then it went on this massive, this massive thing and it really didn’t find much resistance. Now once they declared the caliphate and once they showed they could take over all this territory, then the United States and Russia both sat up a little bit. Then Turkey was like, can these guys really be controlled? Can we really just shut down you know the flow of the border and have them not do things in our neck of the woods?

Iran, which, this is absolutely a disaster for Iran, if you get a Sunni Arab entity that’s uniting on its border, this is its worst fear. It fought the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 because of how afraid it was of just Saddam Hussein and just Iraq being united against Iran, let alone a larger state that was able to call on the Sunni Arab world.

CA: So that’s actually one of the more like geopolitically fascinating things about this whole little situation is that you’ve got Russia, you’ve got Iran, you’ve got the United States, well and Turkey as well and at various different times, hate each other in various different degrees of hatred.

And yet this threat, the Islamic State, made some really strange bedfellows. All of a sudden these people are cooperating against the Islamic State in ways they haven’t really cooperated before. And you’ve got Iran over in the east over there and they’re enlisting their buddies in Hezbollah over on the west side of Syria to actually come in that way too, yeah?

JLS: They were, and I mean it’s hard to say that they were actually, some people will take issue with saying that they were cooperating because there were no formal alliances.

CA: No but cooperate, yeah that’s a good point, we should probably talk about that. Cooperating just means like, hey I’m just going to do this. I’m letting you know that I’m going to do this. When you say military cooperation in some of these theaters it actually might– it sort of denotes a higher degree of like close-knitted-ness than it actually means to convey but you know when you’re not actual enemies, you’re at least telling each other, this is a thing that I’m doing.

JLS: Yeah. I mean two good examples are when Iraqi security forces go back to Mosul to take it back, you know Iraqi security forces are coming on one side and that’s backed by the United States and the Shiite militias which were backed a lot by Iran, also by the Shiite government in Baghdad, they go run to the other side to make sure that nobody can escape, right? So it’s not like there was an Iranian general and a U.S. general sitting in the same room taking a picture. But that wasn’t a coincidence.

The same thing can be said in Syria right? You had the Assad regime backed by Russia, both entities that the United States was having major issues with. They made a push through the desert towards Raqqa. And then you had the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces pushing down from the north at the same time. And it was not a coincidence that they hit Raqqa around the same time and then went out to Deir el-Zour, another very important Arab city in Syria that the Islamic State had. They’re hitting these places from multiple angles at the same time. So you didn’t necessarily have formal alliances but you definitely had coordination on the ground and that is starting to break now.

CA: Yeah ultimately it worked, right? They kind of routed them from Raqqa and Deir el-Zour and so they are kind of in retreat right now. Which is just like – of course this is gonna happen. Now everybody’s turning on each other again. Everybody who was cooperating, even minimally cooperating, are now trying to make their power grabs and the competition is kind of heating back up.

I mean you had the Kurds for example had made some pretty significant gains throughout the Syrian civil war and throughout the battle against the Islamic State. And so naturally they try and you know declare their autonomy or get more of it. Everybody kind of shut that down really, really quick.

Then you have you know again Turkey starting to get more active in northern Syria and I think that was a subject of an earlier podcast we did, so we don’t need to retread all of that. But now that this common enemy is gone, they’re all at each other’s throats again a little bit, it’s just kind of fascinating to me.

JLS: Well this is exactly you know the Islamic State or whatever it was called back then, you know from 2003 to 2006, it grew a lot and then it got cut down because you know various people united against it. And then it rose back up again when people around them started fighting. And then it took a much bigger coalition of people to unite against them to cut them back down. You know, they’re still gonna be around. You know the thing that they have been able to do and I think was a calculated move, was declaring the caliphate you know gives them even more ideological legitimacy. Not even to a majority of Muslims but to enough…

CA: To enough, yeah.

JLS: Yeah, to enough to attract fighters and to make them believe that this thing is still happening.

CA: Well but what’s interesting too is that they’re not the only ones, right? Saudi Arabia is the de facto steward of Islam’s holiest sites, right? All two of them, so I guess I’m using that to parlay that into a question that is pretty obvious but doesn’t have a really good answer I don’t think. What do we expect next? So they’re gone from Raqqa, they have no real territory to speak of, they probably have some pockets here and there, they certainly claim to, whether they have the territory or the control over that territory is up in the air, but what we do know is that they are still around and they’re not just going to go away entirely, yeah?

JLS: Now they’re not. I mean first of all, what does it mean to control territory in the desert? You know there’s certainly towns where they have control and they’re doing some operations there,  they’re not completely gone. Look we’ve seen them already make a threat about Kirkuk that I talked about earlier. If you want to think about what the Islamic State is gonna do next, right now they’re in survival mode. They’re only thing right now is to survive, keep strong enough and organize enough so that when the next opportunity comes up, they can take advantage of it and in the meantime, they have to do whatever things they can to create that chaos that they thrive so much on. So Iraq has not been put back together, I think you now the focus goes back to Iraq.

But I think the Islamic State is a lot more ambitious than that. And if you asked me what the biggest problem spots in the Middle East were right now in terms of political stability, my first answer is Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is a very, very attractive target because the kingdom itself is going through economic problems, social problems, has a sizeable Shiite population in the oil-producing regions of Saudi Arabia, so it has that sort of sectarian issue going on there.

CA: And yeah Saudi Arabia is getting, well not Saudi Arabia, that’s not fair, Saudi Arabia and Iran are both getting a little chippier than they used to be, the way we saw with the resignation of Saad Hariri in Lebanon. That’s sort of heating up again too what we talked about some of these old rivalries coming back to the surface.

JLS: They are coming back to the surface and this is even more complicated by one of the first things we talked about, which is just as Iran is at a moment of maximum power or juncture in which it might be able to assert itself, suddenly Iran is at its own throat. So you have Iran also kind of weakening. You have the Islamic State, which has shown it can pull off fairly sophisticated attacks within Iran itself, maybe trying to stir problems there as well.

So if you’re think about what Iranian leaders are thinking about, yes there are political problems and yes there are foreign policy designs, but they also have to think about internally it’s not like that’s a completely unified homogenous country either and we’ve seen the Islamic State has been able to at least pull of some stuff there too.

So I think the places to keep an eye on, first of all Syria, Iraq, that’s where the Islamic State is going to survive. That’s where they’re going to go into survival mode. But if you really did see the stability of Saudi Arabia destabilize in a serious way, I think you’d see them take advantage and I think you’ll see them try and pull of various attacks to try and undermine that stability.

Same thing with Iran, same thing with a place like Yemen. Same place even like Egypt and the Sinai, I think that’s probably a less possible place. But all of these places are places where political stability is not assured and the Islamic State is gonna wait and try to bring about the right circumstances that allowed it to create that caliphate in the first place.

CA: I think that’s a really good place to end on. And it’s not a very optimistic note to end on, I suppose because one of the hallmarks of the Islamic State is to sort of incite or provoke sectarian violence or conflict or what have you. But as we’ve seen several times and as we see right now, they don’t need a lot of help, right? This is happening whether they poke and prod these governments or not. Point being, the rivalries exist.

JLS: The rivalries exist and the other thing I would just say is that again, the Islamic State, it’s a fringe group. It’s radical, it has difficulty attracting long-term support from a lot of the population. At the same time though, this idea that Sunni Islam might be the political banner behind which a large group of Arabs might united around, is not so crazy. So you know, you might see the Islamic State, this particular iteration die. You might see it changes its name five more times. I don’t think that this Islamic State is going to ever permanently rule a bunch of territory. Hopefully I don’t look like you know a complete and total idiot in the future when they conquer the Middle East, what it looks like.

But the thing that the Islamic State does show is that Sunni Islam is a force here and it can be very, very powerful and it can be uniting. And when you look at – we’ve only had Syria and Iraq really fall apart, we’ve still got Lebanon there and Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Egypt. I mean these are major countries with, when you add them all up, hundreds of millions of people, a lot of the world’s oil wealth. This is not over. We’re at the very beginning of really an internal Muslim civil war that’s been going on for a couple decades and probably has some more left in it.

CA: Well thanks a lot for having me, my maiden voyage. Hopefully we’ll still have subscribers after this. Now this report that we’ve been talking about is going to publish tomorrow, it’s going to be available free for subscribers and for purchase for non-subscribers and we hope you read it, we hope you like it. Until next time.

JLS: See y’all out there.