by RICHARD ENGEL
JUL 6 2016
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Muslims around the world on Wednesday were celebrating Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. But this year, the end of the month of fasting brings special relief because ISIS turned Ramadan — a time of prayer, charity and self-restraint — into a month of terror.
The terror group used Ramadan as a rallying cry for violence.
But was the wave of attacks — from Turkey to Bangladesh, Baghdad to Medina — a sign of ISIS strength or weakness? The answer may be a bit of both.
Many Iraqis believe the latest Baghdad bombing was ISIS’s revenge for Iraq’s much-celebrated victory in Fallujah.
The Iraqi army, backed by Shiite militias, defeated ISIS in battle and drove the militants out of one of their key strongholds, so ISIS militants responded by driving a truck bomb into the Shiite community’s soft underbelly, destroying a shopping street in Karada — one of Baghdad’s more upscale neighborhoods, home to many Shiites and considered relatively safe.
In Istanbul, ISIS commandos rampaged through the airport on June 28, killing 45 and scaring off tourists before the summer rush, which is vital to the local economy. The Turkish government had long turned a blind eye to ISIS, treating the militants more or less the same way it treated Syrian opposition groups that seemed to share Turkey’s officially stated goal of toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But Turkey has recently been cracking down on ISIS, tightening controls along the Syrian border and allowing the United States to carry out more airstrikes and surveillance missions from Turkish soil. One might say ISIS struck Turkey out of weakness, too — the attack perhaps designed to send a message to the Turkish government that ISIS will burn down the country unless things go back to the way they were.
Both the Baghdad and Istanbul attacks are part of a new phase for ISIS as the group adapts to battlefield losses — and a tightening noose around the areas it still controls.
ISIS is acting less like a state — or as it prefers to call itself, a caliphate — and more like an international terrorist group, arguably the biggest, best-trained, best-funded and most media-savvy terrorist group the world has ever known. Some analysts have called this new phase ISIS 2.0, but is seems to be more like ISIS 4.0.
ISIS is entering its fourth phase of development:
Phase 1: ISIS insurgency. A decade ago, the group, which was then-known as al Qaeda in Iraq, was an anti-American insurgency that gained valuable military experience fighting American forces mainly in western Iraq.
Phase 2: ISIS dormancy: A U.S. troop surge, helped by an alliance with Sunni tribes, relentlessly fought the insurgents in Iraq and ultimately succeeded in driving them out of their strongholds. The group was reduced to a small core that was largely dormant, a seed waiting for water, soil and light.
Phase 3: ISIS caliphate: The chaos in the Middle East following the Arab Spring revolts and Syria’s civil war allowed ISIS to regenerate. The group’s expansion was rapid after it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and seized huge stockpiles of U.S.-made, Iraqi-owned weapons and tens of millions of dollars in cash.
Phase 4: ISIS the international terrorist group: The ISIS footprint is shrinking as the group is under pressure in Iraq and Syria from a bizarre mix of adversaries who themselves are at odds with each other and include the United States, independence-seeking Kurds, Russia, the Iraqi government, the Syrian Regime, Iraqi Shiite militias, Iran and Hezbollah. ISIS is trying to stay relevant and conceal its losses by striking out with high-profile terrorist attacks, anywhere and everywhere it can. A high-profile attack in the United States would be the ultimate prize.
Why attack during Ramadan?
Why would ISIS, a terrorist group claiming to be Islamic, choose to make Ramadan a season of violence, and why attack primarily in Muslim countries? In other words, why kill fellow Muslims during a month explicitly dedicated to expressing devotion to the faith?
Last year’s Ramadan edition of the ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq spoke at length about the supposed benefits of fighting during the holy month:
“This is because Allah opens gates for the Muslims in Ramadān and upon them He sends His mercy. Thus, it is indeed a noble month. The gates of Jannah (heaven) are opened and the gates of Hell are closed. The devils are chained up. It is a noble month in which good deeds are multiplied and lowly desires are subdued.”
For ISIS, Ramadan is an auspicious time to fight because “the devils” are chained up and heaven is open.
It is not the first time Ramadan has been a time of holy war. The first significant battle in Islam, the Battle of Badr in 624 AD, waged by the Prophet Mohammed himself and his early followers against non-believers in what is now Saudi Arabia was fought during the Ramadan.
The Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel, is usually called the Ramadan war in the Muslim world.
Just as it is considered especially pious to pray and to be kind during Ramadan, it is equally considered an honor to die in battle for a Muslim cause.
Why Attack Saudi Arabia?
Many in the Islamic world expressed shock and surprise that a suicide bomber would attack in the city of Medina in Saudi Arabia close to the Prophet Mohammed’s own tomb. The condemnations poured in after the blast.
Al-Jazeera quoted Saudi Arabia’s supreme council of clerics as saying the attacks, “prove that those renegades … have violated everything that is sacred.”
Jordan, Lebanon, the UAE, Turkey and Pakistan were all quick to condemn the attacks. The foreign minister of Qatar, tweeted, “Bloodshed in the name of religion is unacceptable. #Qatar strongly condemns blasts targeting #SaudiArabia, and reaffirms solidarity.”
In an increasingly rare show of sectarian unity, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah denounced the Medina attack.
But the attack should have come as no surprise. While there has been no claim of responsibility, one of ISIS’s main goals is to discredit and ultimately overthrow the Saudi royal family. A caliphate without the Muslim world’s holiest sites, the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, is no caliphate at all.
For decades, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have used the adopted title “custodians of the two holy mosques.”
Explicit in the job title is a responsibility by the Saudi monarchs to safely watch over Islam’s most sacred places, the main mosque in Mecca, built around the Kaaba, to which Muslims all over the world turn to pray, and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, where Mohammed is said to be buried.
The attack in a Medina was designed to show that the Saudi “custodians” are failing at their job.
What’s next? After Ramadan comes of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to the Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia. Now that Saudi Arabia and its holy places are in the cross hairs, it seems only local that ISIS would want to continue its violence during the Hajj.
ISIS is evolving as it losses ground, but it is clearly no less dangerous. Some analysts have compared ISIS now to a wounded animal, striking out in desperation — but that may be wishful thinking.
ISIS is far larger than al Qaeda ever was, and has a penchant for sadism that has repulsed even rival terrorist groups. ISIS is losing its caliphate, one city at a time. The question is — what will it morph into next?