Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation: ISIS’s Intention Was in Their Name, But We Missed It

Hamid Lellou

The American media's use of the term ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is actually a mistranslation of the Arabic term that the group is using. They call themselves DAASH (Dawla Islamiya fee el-Iraq wa el-Shaam) which directly translates into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL instead of ISIS). The Levant is not just Syria, but includes Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.  Therefore, as their name implies, we should have been aware that the pursuit and takeover of towns and cities in these countries was part of their ultimate plan.

The group has recently evolved and changed its name to el-khilafa el-Islamiya (Islamic Caliphate). This name represents nostalgia for the 14th century Islamic state that stretched from Andalucía (Spain) to central Asia at the time of the Ottoman Empire. Following the same reasoning, their main target is the entire Muslim world, not just Arab countries. And the movement has already gained force. As of last week, AQIM (al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb) shifted its allegiance from supporting global al-Qaeda movement to officially recognizing the Islamic Caliphate. I wouldn’t be surprised to see AQIM changing its name as well. And the snowball effect continues as the Jabhat el-Nusrah organizations in Libya and Tunisia have both declared their allegiance to the Islamic Caliphate as well.

So, what is going on here? The rapid evolution, recent success and rise of the Islamic Caliphate, can be attributed to three key elements:

Good messaging: By using the name “Caliphate” they are stirring up a long held nostalgia for the Islamic state that was created following the death of the prophet. In addition, by selling the idea of a “state”, they are expressing their intent of establishing a physical state that encompasses the wider Muslim region, an element that was always missing in al-Qaeda rhetoric. This new tactic in messaging explains the craze of foreign Muslim fighters eager to join the Islamic Caliphate.

Political opportunity: Dr. Abu Bakr el Baghdadi, the self-designated Emir of the newly created Islamic Caliphate, saw a political opportunity to reach out to Muslim communities disillusioned by the failed promises of the ‘Arab Spring’. His organization is taking advantage of the political vacuum generated by the chaotic security situation in Syria and Libya, the political stalemate in Baghdad, the collapse of Muslim Brothers in Egypt, and the dissatisfied ‘status quo’ in the Maghreb and other Muslim regions.

Resource Mobilization: The Islamic Caliphate’s success in capturing Mosul and other important cities in Iraq has allowed them to recover military and civilian supplies as well as money in cash and conquered tribes’ allegiance. However, the real test lies ahead as they shift from the role of a localized regional, disruptive organization that blames Muslim society’s sickness on westernization, to their new role as the executive power (when and if they take over Baghdad and Damascus), which will require them to govern and provide for the population while continuing to fight. Disrupting this element may be our only hope in stopping this group in their quest for a so called Islamic state. On the other hand if the Islamic Caliphate takes over Syria this new situation would give the international community a legitimate reason to enter into the Syrian conflict. Russia and China wouldn’t have any reason or justification to veto international intervention in Syria; it would kill two birds with one stone.

We should have seen the evolution of this group weeks ago; their intentions were in their name.  However, our inability to translate the name of the group correctly has given them the lead. The rapid rise of this group indicates that they are very capable in harnessing and manipulating local Muslim societies. If we have any hope of staying one step ahead we must carefully and closely decipher their public communication and relearn the history of the previous Caliphates.

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