The Islamic State (IS) is clearly struggling to hold its ground in eastern Syria and has now, for the first time in its history, compelled men into its ranks to try to stem this tide.
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It was announced on 3 August that IS had imposed conscription on all men aged 20 to 30 under its rule in Wilayat al-Khayr, Deir Ezzor province of eastern Syria. Local outlets said that IS intended to use the sermons at Friday prayers the next day to recruit.
There have been some brief, localised uses of conscription. There was a reported instance in Mosul in April 2015, when IS made former Iraqi officers join its ranks, but that was very much an exception. Just a year earlier, IS had prevented Syrian rebel groups who wanted to defect from joining its ranks. This notification earlier this month is unprecedented.
In the notice, IS said the draft was intended to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad and all who resisted would be punished under the tazir (discretionary laws)—as opposed to the qisas (retribution laws) or hudud (lit. “boundary” laws, those specified in the Qur’an and Hadith).
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In the ninety-third edition of Al-Naba, IS’s newsletter, released on 10 August, IS confirmed that it had imposed conscription. On page 8, there was an interview with the “Emir of Office of al-Mutawa (Volunteers) and Draftees”.
The emir frames jihad as a rite, and therefore a theocratic government such as IS’s is within its rights to enforce it, especially at a time when the “oppressors” are bearing down on a Muslim authority so strongly. The “Imam”—i.e. Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi)—has ordered it, so it is now an obligation. More men are needed to “fortify what is left in our hands … and even to recover what the apostates have taken”, says the emir.
The emir rejects any parallel to “forced conscription” by Arab governments because those governments conscript people into an “infidel army” that not only avoids the obligations of Islam, but in many cases fights “the Muslims”, by which he means the jihadists.
The emir confirms that the ukase from al-Emir al-Mu’mineen (The Commander of the Faithful) applies to men aged 20 to 30, a necessary bulking-up of IS’s forces, the emir says, since IS gets plenty of volunteers from among the youth but is now faced with significant advances from pro-Assad coalition, led by sectarian Iranian militias, and needs to avoid a Sirte-style collapse of urban control.
Those with legitimate reasons, as assessed by an IS committee, will be excused from duty. For everyone else, the “duration of service, including shari’a and military training, will be up to four months,” the emir says, “during which the treatment of conscripts will be like the rest of the soldiers of the caliphate in almost all aspects”.
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The next edition of Al-Naba, number ninety-four on 17 August 2017, had an editorial on the first page of articles, page 3, that suggested IS had widened its conscription to all remaining areas of the “caliphate”. Interestingly, IS did this by appropriating a term from al-Qaeda, jihad al-umma (war of the nation or people’s war).
Al-Qaeda’s notion of jihad al-umma is not wrong in theory, IS explains; this holy war should indeed include the whole Muslim community. But al-Qaeda abuses the concept by embedding itself in Muslim populations at war, notably the Syrian rebellion, trying serve its own ends as a group, rather than the interests of Islam. “The people of misguidance are today using a ladder to descend down further rungs on their journey of endless concessions [away] from the provisions of the shari’a to satisfy their whims, and ask for the consent of the mushrikeen [idolaters, polytheists]”, says Al-Naba.
Al-Naba denounces al-Qaeda making “concessions to satisfy these communities” and retreating at the first sign of resistance to implementing jihadi rule, deluding themselves that piecemeal implementation will be accepted as legitimate. The “people of truth” must rush to establish His rule, says Al-Naba, accepting that some will fall short for a time, imposing punishments that correct this and demonstrate to others, and inciting the community to jihad against unbelievers and apostates.
“The concept of “jihad al-umma” can only be achieved if there exists al-jama’at al-muslima (a Muslim community) that listens to and obeys its Muslim Imam,” i.e. a caliphate state, Al-Naba concludes.