Written by Mehr Farhan 10:20 pm International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

The UAE’s War Against the Islamic State (ISIS)

Since ISIS’s inception, it has devastated the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and beyond. The UAE rose as an unlikely hero in the global war against ISIS. This paper highlights the country’s commitment against the Islamic State as well as the specific steps it has taken against the terror group.
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Mehr works as a contributor for Paradigm Shift.

Written in 2015


The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a sophisticated and well-funded group headed by religious zealots who believe that their corrupted version of Sharia law should govern the world. They have adopted terrorism and violence to achieve their goals which consequently has adversely affected the image of Islam and Muslims worldwide.

ISIS is an Islamist militant group that has captured a sizable stretch of land from northern Syria to central Iraq. The group originated back in the year 2004. It was initially known as Al Qaeda in Iraq and rebranded itself as ISIS a mere two years later (Thompson, Greene, & Torre, 2014). As is evident by its initial name, the group was an ally and believed in the ideology of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Just like Laden’s Al Qaeda, this group is extremely radical in its anti-West agenda. The militant group like its earlier namesake has also made ardent efforts for the establishment of an independent Islamic state within the region it operates in  (Khedery, 2014). However, ISIS has proven to be much more brutal and aggressive than Al Qaeda and has proved far more effective at maintaining control over the territory it seizes. Al Qaeda disowned ISIS in 2014 – whether this was because ISIS was more efficient than the group in carrying out a similar agenda or whether it was too aggressive for their taste, remains unclear (Bird, 2014).

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The fundamentalist militant group majorly comprises of Sunni extremists from the local population of Iraq and Syria as well as some foreigners. It is led by an Iraqi-born named Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry, more infamously known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a self-declared leader/caliph of the Islamic world (Coll, 2014). Despite existing since 2004, the group garnered notoriety after the civil war in Syria began in 2011. The existence of ISIS is a grave menace to international security, for the group happens to be the world’s largest land controlling and richest terrorist organization.

Until the summer of 2015, ISIS controlled the second-largest city in Iraq, Mosul, and advanced into western Syria (Strack, 2015), though its major stronghold exists in Eastern Syria. The group is said to have control of more than 50% of Syria’s oil assets as well as some major oil fields in Iraq. The energy expert, Luay Al-Khateeb, has predicted that oil from ISIS-controlled land is being sold in the black market and potentially earning ISIS as much as $2 million on a daily basis (CNN, 2014). After an analysis conducted by RAND Corporation, it was estimated that the major chunk of funding for ISIS comes from within Iraq and a meager 5% from elsewhere. This money raised is sourced from the tax levied on citizens of areas ISIS controls, extortion, ransom, as well as hijacking refugee aid and pillaging (Shatz, 2014). According to a December 2015 report by IHS Markit, ISIS makes up to $80 million every month (Strack, 2015).

ISIS’s ultimate object is to amalgamate all the various regions inhabited by Muslims under the aegis of their so-called caliphate. The extremist group strictly adheres to extremist jihadi philosophy, and it is alleged that they are strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The major problem with ISIS is their belief that those who do not agree with their ideology, including fellow Muslims, are considered infidels who deserve to be tortured or murdered (Wood, 2015). The group also has access to sophisticated war technology and weapons (Entous, 2015). ISIS believes its ideology to be representative of “pure Islam” and that all Muslims must adhere to this version of Islam. While having roots and a strong basis in both Iraq and Syria, the group’s reach has not eluded Egypt and Libya where its branches have spread. More so, a Nigerian based Islamic group namely Boko Haram also pledged its loyalty to ISIS in March of 2015 (Gutteridge, 2015).

Regardless of what the group’s agenda may be, there is absolutely no doubt about the fact that they are committed to their mission and are extremely structured and sophisticated. The group ensures that proper governing structures exist to rule any territory that they capture. Their hierarchical structure includes a proper cabinet, governors for each region, and separate financial as well as legislative bodies. The intricacy of the system is quite similar to many Western countries whose values ISIS otherwise finds appalling and ‘anti-religious’ (Thompson, Greene, & Torre, 2014). It is estimated that ISIS has around 30,000 fighters in its ranks. Surprisingly, not all of them belong to the native nations and close to 10% of these fighters belong to Western countries. To deal with this issue, many Western countries put in place measures that keep their citizens from traveling to Syria and Iraq lest they join ISIS’s fight.

The group knows no bounds when it comes to violence; they made viral the video of the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist, to retaliate against American airstrikes (Coll, 2014). This was, unfortunately, only one out of many beheadings that they have done throughout their existence. The beheading of a 26-year-old army ranger as well as the kidnap, torture, and public execution of Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy, a Muslim and Iraqi women’s rights advocate, showed that anyone who challenges the ISIS ideology is a target (Cumming-Bruce, 2015).


ISIS, in essence, is running a de facto country as it controls more than one-third of both Iraq and Syria. Their control over oil fields as well as zero inhibitions of raising money via kidnapping, extortion, and philandering means that they have no shortage of funds  (The Associated Press, 2014). The world has witnessed already what allowing similar groups to flourish does – Al Qaeda was able to pull off the 9/11 attacks. The bigger dilemma for the world is that ISIS is more refined, extremely centralized with an efficient governing system, and is handling a modern media arm – all of this requires up-to-the-minute counter-terrorism strategies to ensure that this already budding group does not become an even bigger incubator for all activities extreme (Stansfield, 2014).

While ISIS poses a threat to each nation, it being vehemently opposed to America and other Western countries means that no nation is safe from ISIS. Even Muslim countries are not safe. Although UAE is a Muslim state, its liberal take on religion makes it a target for ISIS. Moreover, the fact that UAE, especially Dubai, is a central hub of international activity, is accepting of other religions, and celebrates Christmas and New Year, is not something that sits well with ISIS – as was seen when the group bombed a building in Tripoli for publicly wishing a “Merry Christmas” (Kirkpatrick, 2015). This threat has been recognized by the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, when he said that UAE is “not immune” (Euronews, 2015).

In the year 2014, UAE announced that it fully supported the international efforts against ISIS as long as these endeavors would not lead to the division of Iraq, the marginalization of the Sunni sect, or intervention by any foreign power to further any subversive agenda. The idea behind the support is rooted in the fact that the UAE believes the security of Iraq is an integral part of the security of the region (The Khaleej Times, 2014).

Although UAE is a country far better known for building skyscrapers and shopping malls as compared to combatting terrorists, the country is taking an active part in fighting against the Islamic militant group. It is not only international forums that UAE is pledging its support in as the country took military initiative by conducting airstrikes that were led by America against ISIS in 2014. This transpired after the group seized control of new areas in both Iraq and Syria. As has been described by Ghanem Nuseibeh, ISIS has become much more than just a “red line” for the UAE because it has the power to expand in the Middle East and therein lies the rationale behind UAE’s war against ISIS. UAE along with fellow Gulf countries perceive ISIS as a threat to their flourishing economies even though they have been relatively unscathed by the advances of ISIS. UAE possesses one of the most modern air forces in the world and has increased military engagement in recent times.

The country’s air force has some of the most technologically advanced military hardware that includes American and French fighter jets installed with the latest updates. The government plans to advance its fleet furthermore which has come as a surprise to the international community, which initially did not believe Islamists to be a threat to the UAE (Habboush, 2014). The UAE has called upon the international community along with all its member states for cooperation to deal with terrorist groups. For UAE, the stability of Iraq is an absolute must and this has been stressed upon on many occasions. Foreign State Minister, Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said in 2014 that “I would like to stress in this forum as an Arab and Muslim, that I categorically reject that the terrorist organization Da’ish – ISIS – should be described as ‘the Islamic State.” He stressed how the group was far from being an “Islamic State” and was just a criminal gang that carried out terrorist activities on a large scale (The Khaleej Times, 2014). UAE has also shown its commitment to thwarting extremism by working with Egypt to inhibit Islamists in Libya.

UAE also formed a task force in coalition with the UK government. The UAE-UK taskforce held talks on issues that mutually concern both nations such as how to deal with ISIS (The Khaleej Times, 2014). The UAE also showed its commitment by trying 41 people for an alleged plan of establishing an “Islamic State” by overthrowing the government. Trials of such nature on such a large scale are quite rare in the country primarily because it has largely remained unharmed by “Islamic militancy” as compared to other Arab states. The accused were tried in the Federal Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, to highlight the severity of their crimes and make an example out of the suspects if proven guilty (The Arab Weekly, 2015).

Besides being part of a coalition with the Americans to carry out airstrikes against ISIS strongholds, the UAE has also been working towards eradicating or diffusing radical Islam groups. In July of 2015, a citizen of the country was executed after being convicted of murdering a schoolteacher of American descent at a shopping mall. The government also placed nine people on trial when they were charged with setting up an Al Qaeda cell that planned on carrying out bombings in the UAE (Jafria News, 2015).

After the recent attacks in Paris in November, that ISIS claimed responsibility for, the entire world was jolted. Anwar Gargash clearly stated that while UAE had not been officially asked for help for carrying out extra airstrikes, they would be very willing to assist France against ISIS due to the threat the group poses to different nations, which can only be neutralized if the international community puts up a unified front (Euronews, 2015).

It is quite apparent that UAE quite out of character has formed many different coalitions and has waged a war against ISIS to neutralize its threat on many different avenues. The proactive measures taken by the UAE clearly communicate where they stand on the issue and how they are dealing with it, instead of mere pomp.


The role of the UAE becomes all the more important because the actions of ISIS have cast a shadow of doubt over all Muslims and Muslim nations. To that end, when the UAE joined the war to neutralize ISIS, it sent out a clear message that the activities of ISIS have little if anything to do with Islam and that ISIS activities should not define the religion in any way. To that end, UAE must not back down from the stance that they have taken as long as any coalition does not violate the integrity of Iraq as a nation or the safety of Muslims that are not associated with the militant group.

The problem for Muslim nations like UAE is when they fight groups like ISIS they can lose their identity. Oft, they appear to be a minor player in another bigwig nation’s game or a pawn to achieve an end. It is imperative that UAE takes a stand in this war on terror, but their own stand instead of merely supporting other nations. Furthermore, the UAE’s voice must be unique within the international outcry over the militant group. While it has given open support to America and has helped airstrikes, the decision to withdraw aerial space after ISIS murderer a Jordanian pilot (Osborn, 2015) was an extremely wise and crucial step. It told the world, and more importantly, the nation that the government will not blindly follow another country and fight for another’s cause by placing their own people in danger.

Another reason of withdrawing support was the UAE government’s discontentment over America not keeping its promise concerning the support of Sunni Muslims in Anbar leaving them unprepared and severely under-equipped to deal with ISIS. No matter what the reason, the stand taken by UAE sent out a clear message that it shall not be rolled over and used no matter what the scenario is (Wilson, 2015). The UAE returned to the scene when its concerns over inadequate rescue plans for pilots were rectified (Osborn, 2015).

The country’s foreign policy is indicative of the fact that it does not support American backing of Israeli forces but it still stood with America against ISIS. It might come across as the country giving mixed signals and having a confused foreign policy – and to that end, the country must clarify its position. The situation is quite tricky for UAE holding their own as well as maintaining an international front as the UAE has promised support to the Americans, the French, and even some Arab allies. They, however, should popularize their reasons for supporting this war and make clear where they stand to ensure that nobody uses the country or blemishes its image on the international front.


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