COM 01/2016

Interview with Major General Ashok Hukku (ret.) on the Islamic State

The jihadist group Islamic State has been capturing the attention of the world since it burst on the international scene with its claim to establish a Caliphate and with seizures of territories in Iraq and Syria in 2014. It has become infamous for mass killings, abductions and beheadings. In the interview below Major General Ashok Hukku (ret.), Y.S.M., expert on strategic development and international relations in South and East Asia and former chief intelligence advisor in the Cabinet Secretariat of the Indian government, shares his insights on the Islamic State and its geopolitical impacts on international peace and security.


Q: Gen. Ashok, the Islamic State (IS) stands as one of the most threatening jihadist groups next to Al-Qaeda. What is the background of the emergence of the IS? Where is it coming from?

The Islamic State movement basically started in Iraq. Initially Al-Qaeda was operating against the United States forces in  Iraq. The Islamic State grew out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and – after the withdrawal of the US forces in 2011 – became the main group fighting government forces in Iraq and Syria under the leadership of al-Baghdadi who had been a prisoner at Camp Bucca, a US military detention facility in Iraq. The Shia government which came to power after the withdrawal of the US continued to promote the Shia agenda backed by Iran. The Sunni insurgents rose in anger and started attacking the state apparatus. So basically, the IS is a Sunni jihadist organization operating from Iraq to Syria with the intention of establishing a Caliphate.

Q: So, the root cause for the emergence of the IS is the failure to build a stable state?

Exactly. I would go to the extent of saying that when Saddam Hussein was alive, the region was stable despite the conflict with Iran and in spite of the internal problems in Iraq. At least, the insurgent groups that later  transformed  into  the  Islamic  State and Al-Qaeda were not as active as they are today. Moreover, when the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, they left a very big power vacuum which was eventually occupied by the Islamic State in North West of Baghdad while the Iranian influence affected South of Baghdad. It was basically a failure on part of the political leadership of Iraq which failed to  govern  the  country  properly.  Saddam Hussein’s  army  and  its  leadership  were completely destroyed. It was replaced by a new leadership which was inexperienced and pro Shia and pro Iran. This was a hotbed for internal turbulences out of which the Islamic State grew.

Q: How is the IS structured with regards to its organization, process of decision-making and financing?

The Islamic State is essentially a one man organization. And that man is al-Baghdadi. He is a very strong leader, highly respected within the Islamic State, and the real source of authority in the organization. What he says happens. There is no dissent against him. I’m sure that if there is any dissent that person will be eliminated. But that does not mean that the organization will collapse if Baghdadi is killed. There is a Shura Council, a committee on which some important leaders sit. They are the people controlling the operations on the ground and some of them could take over the leadership in case al-Baghdadi is killed. So, even though I say that al-Baghdadi is the undisputed leader of the Islamic State today, killing him alone will not destroy the Islamic State. As of now, there are no rivalries – at least not visible – within the leadership of the IS. But I would not rule that out in the future. Rivalries come up in all organizations as it happened within al-Qaida. In all major organizations I have seen eventually rifts develop, either based on philosophy or simply on power. So I would not rule that out for the future in case of the IS.

One big reason for its success is the kind of money the IS has access to. A major part of their finances is coming from the oil fields they have captured in Iraq and Syria. Oil provides the IS with about 2 million USD per day, i.e. 50-60 million USD per month. The second largest source of finances is extortion and taxes. In the area occupied by the IS they are taxing the population, especially the non-Sunni people and other minorities very heavily, also the businessmen. They are allowed to do business, but they have to pay heavy taxes. From taxation they are earning around 3 to 5 million USD per month which is a very large amount. And then, of course, there are the ransom payments as a good source of funds. Overall, the income of the IS is around 60 to 70 million dollars per month.

Q: The IS poses a tremendous challenge to the international community. How do see the positions and geo-political moves of major powers involved such as Turkey, the USA and Russia?

Turkey is situated on North of Syria. It has played a very intriguing role in this whole drama. Turkey is a member of the NATO, but not a member of the European Union (EU) – they are very unhappy about not being a part of the EU. However, up to now, until one month ago, President Erdogan had, in a sense, been supporting the Islamic State. And when I say supporting, I mean two things. First, no insurgency can survive without logistic support. Insurgents must get reinforcements, weapons, ammunition; they must get finances and medical treatment. For the IS the logistic support has been going through Turkey. Across the border with Syria. Erdogan was aware of it but he did not stop it. Second, he did not allow the US to operate against the Islamic State from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. The US wanted to send fighters aircrafts from Incirlik Air Base, but Turkey did not agree. In fact, there was a lot of tension about this issue. Basically, Erdogan was more interested in Syrian politics. He wanted Assad out, so he was supporting the rebel groups in Syria. However, when IS attacks took place on Turkish soil such as the Suruc bombing in July, he got extremely worried. Turkish intelligence had warned Erdogan that already there were IS sleeper cells in Turkey, but he chose to ignore the information. Now, after the recent incidents, things have changed. Now, he does allow the airbase to be used by the US coalition. He is also helping to close down the IS supply routes. But some gaps are still open, not all of them have been closed. Basically, he is operating against the Kurdish rebels. That is his focus of attention and not so much the IS. But since some recent incidents have happened, perhaps he will be more cooperative.

The United States of America leads a coalition against the Islamic State. The US faces a dilemma. Earlier President Obama, who happens to be a “lame-duck” president now because his term of office will end this year, had a very clear policy. He was out to destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

150.000 troops operated in Afghanistan. Then the draw down began. He promised his countrymen that he would take the American troops out of Afghanistan. There was a tremendous public opinion against the loss of US lives in Afghanistan, and not only loss of life, also the expenditure incurred and ran into billions of dollars every month, troops were injured, families destroyed.

So, there was a strong public opinion in the United States against operating in Afghanistan. When he was trying to stick to his public commitment to bring US soldiers home, the Islamic State issue came up. At this stage he is politically and psychologically not in a position to put troops on the ground again against the IS.

Even in Europe no one is willing to put troops on the ground because they have seen what happened in Iraq and in Afghanistan. With so many lives lost, thousands of families destroyed, billions of dollars gone, and the problem still not solved, no one wants to put boots on ground either in Iraq or in Afghanistan. No country really wants Syria and Iraq on its hands now. Therefore, the only option left to the US was to carry out airstrikes. The US and the coalition are carrying out intensified airstrikes.  This year and last year they have launched more than 5,500 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. It is interesting to note, that France initially was of the opinion that they need to negotiate with the IS and were reluctant to take military action. But after the attacks in France, they changed their outlook. France has increased the intensity of airstrikes in Syria in Iraq.

The problem is that an insurgency of this kind cannot be eliminated by airstrikes. Air strikes can kill a lot of jihadists; they can destroy their strongholds, their weapons and their buildings. But they cannot destroy the organization or the idea of the IS. It is that which needs to be addressed but that is not being done with full force.

Russia supports the Assad regime. They are not for a replacement of Assad. The airstrikes which are being carried out by Russia in Syria are not targeting the IS, they are against the rebel forces operating against Assad. If IS members are killed in the process, that is an additional bonus. But now, it seems that Russia is changing its opinion slightly – not against Assad but towards the Islamic State to a certain extent.

Q: How do you assess the recent steps taken by the international community against the IS?

The UN Security Council has passed Resolution 2253 on 17 December 2015 saying that the financial resources of the Islamic State have to be choked, which means their oil must not be bought amongst other measures. Buyers of IS oil are Turkey, the Kurds and the Syrians. Let us see how this resolution is implemented. Though this was a US proposed resolution Russia signed it. To that extent I think there is some cooperation from Russia, but it remains to be seen if they will operate against the Islamic State more effectively.

A day after the attacks in Paris the US, Russia, Britain, France, Iran and Saudi Arabia signed a statement in Vienna which stipulates 1 January 2016 as deadline for the start of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, with the aim of agreeing on a ceasefire by 14 May 2016.

Saudi Arabia of course wants to oust Assad and has been supporting rebel forces operating against Assad with the exception of the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is very worried about the Islamic State  because the IS against the monarchy. So the Vienna meeting of 14 November shows some promise as does the UN resolution.

Q: What are the prospects for the fight against the Islamic State in the near future?

There is no mandate for troops on the ground. I also do not see that coming in the near future. If we try to see what kind of an environment is likely to prevail in the foreseeable future 2016-2017, I see the present struggle going on, air strikes going on, one leader killed here, another there, a new leadership emerging, the Islamic State losing certain territory here, gaining some territory there. These kinds of things are going to happen unless there is a categorical change in the offensive policy of the coalition. A lot will depend on what Russia is going to do. Until a ground force takes up an offensive against the IS it will not be defeated. Today the Islamic State is the world’s richest extremist organization. They have the weapons, the money, their logistic lines are running even now. They have a very strong presence on the Internet, on Twitter in the electronic media. This seems to attract a lot of people from all over the world. So the idea of the Islamic State is very much in existence and the more you suppress the IS the more will they reach out to potential recruits to show them how the world is against Muslims. Most probably status quo is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Thank you very much Gen. Ashok for this interview.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Duc Quang Ly, CPG.