Geopolitical Watch

Is Islamic State the new Conquistadors?

Islamic State changing global politics

As the world battles to come to grips with the new geopolitical reality posed by the radical Islamic State’s (IS) declaring itself a “caliphate”, ghosts from history abound.

For one there is a repeat of patterns found in the behaviour of Spain’s 16th century conquistadors, destroying and colonizing the Inca Empire in the name of Christianity and the Holy Roman Emperor. At the same time, IS seems to be attempting to reincarnate the Ottoman Empire’s 19th century hijacking of the caliphate idea as the “rightful successor” to the prophet Muhammad.

In an ironic twist of history, the Spanish developed its explosive power on the back of “crusading knights of Castile (who) had been driving the Mohammedans out of the Iberian Peninsula”, as John Hemming puts it in his 1970 book The Conquest of the Incas.

In the present situation, with IS (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS) having declared itself a “caliphate” at least in part in the original sense of being “rightful successors”, much of the existing world order and the premises it rests on is coming under severe pressure.

The concepts, structures, conventions and premises on which the existing world order has been resting especially since the end of the Cold War and which are presently under pressure or subjected to uncertainty, include:

• The question of what constitute statehood and its legitimate interests?

• When do the ‘normal’ rules, international law and conventions of armed conflict and/or war apply and when not?

• Where does the divide lie between legitimate political-economic activity and criminality? and

• Where does the divide lie between freedom of speech and hate speech?


While the almost unchallenged consensus in the West is that the Islamic State is not a state, but a purely terrorist organisation, a lot of grey terrain has been allowed to develop over the years since the Montevideo Convention of 1934. The convention stipulated that a state “as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:

a. a permanent population,
b. a defined territory,
c. government, and
d. capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

Some grey areas were clearly allowed to develop over the years, especially since 1974 when the Palestine Liberation Organisation, holding diplomatic relations with more than 100 states, was given observer status at the United Nations. This happened despite some states, notably the US and Israel, regarding the PLO as a terrorist organisation until 1991 and despite it still being without a formal territory and government.

In November 2012 Palestine’s status at the UN was upgraded to that of a “non-member observer state”, equating it to that of the Vatican in Rome.

Fact is, there is little in the Montevideo Convention that would deny statehood to IS, or any other violent group capable of seizing territory and subjugating a population.

In the end it boils down to what existing members of the UN, especially members of its Security Council, regard as in their own best interest. For example Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, has its membership of the UN blocked by Russia.

International law

The coming into existence of the IS, which does have partial control over land in Iraq, Syria and maybe an “emirate” in Nigeria, has also created some grey areas in international law.

In Iraq, a member of the UN with defined borders and partial control over territory, its government formally requested help in the fight against the IS. This renders bombing of IS targets in that country legal by the US in terms of international law.

However, Syria, also a UN member, defined borders and partial control over territory, but whose government is not acceptable to the US and its Western allies, is therefore treated differently.

Its government has not asked for help, neither has it consented to attacks in its territory. But US president Barack Obama declared: "We have communicated to the Syrian regime that when we operate going after ISIS in their air space, that they would be well-advised not to take us on.

“But beyond that, there's no expectation that we are going to in some ways enter an alliance with Assad. He is not credible in that country."

This puts the legality of Western invasion of Syria’s sovereignty in serious doubt and falls just short, if at all, of a declaration of war against Syria. At the very least it shows a flagrant disregard for the sovereignty of the Syrian state. After all, the UN Charter clearly states: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

To complicate things on the ethical front, as a recent report by David Alexander for Reuters pointed, out US-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria have damaged or destroyed 3,222 targets since August, including 58 tanks, 184 Humvees, 673 fighting positions and 980 buildings or barracks. ”A lot of this material was possibly Iraqi or Syrian Army, meaning the US-led strikes have succeeded in destroying a lot of its own material donated to the Iraqi military.”

In the meantime reports of civilian casualties of these bombing raids are also mounting. Even the US military recently admitted that this might be the case.

Terrorism and criminality

In a recent interview the terrorism expert of Germany’s Der Spiegel, professor Louise Shelley, explained how “normal trade” and terrorism became intertwined. While IS is financing itself largely through the oil trade, there are also many other activities.

IS taxes trade, make money from the passports sold by foreign fighters, sell mobile phones, trade in illicit cigarettes and engage in kidnapping as well as human smuggling and trafficking. And, of course, there is the arms trade. Other terrorist groups make money selling pirated CDs and DVDs. Counterfeit goods, forged passports and documents, the illicit wildlife trade and drugs earn a lot of money for terrorist groups.

“They simply use traditional trade relations. The connections between Iraq, Syria or Turkey are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. They were parts of common empires throughout history. Corruption of officials allows products to cross borders,” she said.

She points out that IS was formed in the prisons of post-invasion Iraq, which were crucial in forming the relations between the terrorists and the criminalised Baathist of the Saddam Hussein regime. “In analyzing them, you notice that the group is managed like a regular business,” she said.

Pressure on Western society

As the mounting pressure in Germany around protests against Islamic immigration and counterdemonstrations and the attack in Paris on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo illustrate, pressure on the values of Western societies are building.

On the one hand, the majority of Germans are determined that against the background of their Nazi history they do not want to live through a resurrection of xenophobia. On the other hand, people like Prof Shelley claim that IS recruits hundreds of volunteers in Germany to support terrorism.

Some observers also fear that the anti-Islamist marches could ultimately stoke flames that populists could capitalise on. “It’s a delicate balance for mainstream political parties in a country that’s been, until now, a magnet for foreigners – and for one that desperately needs them,” the Christian Science Monitor reported recently.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people died, has stoked a debate about the divide between freedom of speech and the prohibition of hate speech.

According to the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, Peter Neumann, the attack came at a “dangerous time” amid a growing wave of anti-Islamist sentiment throughout Europe. It could well aggravate this, possibly even leading to reprisals by right-wing nationalists. Moreover, ongoing divides between societies in Europe could stoke increasing anti-European Union membership policies.

At the same time the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies has just reported that the number of suicide bombings around the world surged by 94% last year amid the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Against this background Joe Boyle of the BCC is probably spot-on when he writes: “The military battle against IS is messy, deadly and terrifying for those directly affected. The battle for ideas is genteel by comparison, but it has largely expunged the myth of a universal idea of statehood. The consequences of that are likely to be felt for generations to come.”

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by Piet Coetzer

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