The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has risen to become one of the most complicated modern day jihadist groups, changing the world’s view of global terrorist networks in the process.
ISIS, which was previously al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq before severing ties with the global terrorist group in 2010, has since received dozens of official pledges of allegiance from regional jihadist groups in Nigeria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Indonesia and several other countries.
However, global leaders have demonstrated confusion in understanding the motivation behind ISIS – something that may have contributed to significant strategic errors in preventing the rise of the group which has seized large areas of territory in Iraq and Syria.
A group of psychopaths
The average observer and even some seasoned experts see ISIS as a group of psychopaths disguised in religious belief and doctrine who want to create a dystopian version of an Islamic caliphate.
In a recently published interview, Jordan’s King Abdullah said that ISIS fighters are “outlaws who twist Islam and use intimidation as their biggest weapon.” Other world leaders such as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, US President Barack Obama and former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have also referred to ISIS as “not Islamic” and “a brutal, vicious death cult.”
However, a closer examination of the ideology behind ISIS suggests that the pseudo-Islamic state adeptly uses Islamic scripture and a potent doomsday prophesy to justify its brutality and persuade tens of thousands of foreign Muslims to join its ranks.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), around 20,000 foreign fighters have gone to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, although the accuracy of this number is debatable. Nevertheless, the declaration of an Islamic caliphate by ISIS in June 2014 attracted many foreign fighters, seeing the declaration of the caliphate as the fulfillment of a prophecy that Islam will conquer the world and offer salvation and martyrdom (shahid) to those taking part in the final battle for the soul of the world.
ISIS is building its Islamic empire on the foundations of a supposed Islamic caliphate. The last caliphate was the Ottoman Empire, which reached its peak in the 16th century and then experienced a long decline, before the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, euthanized it in 1924. Many Muslims did not acknowledge the Ottoman caliphate as legitimate since it did not fully enforce Islamic law.
Before the rise of ISIS, no group has attempted a more radical recreation of the prophetic model of an Islamic nation than the Wahhabis in the 18th century in what is now modern day Saudi Arabia.
This sect has grown from relative obscurity to dominate the global discourse on Islam and stimulating a number of violent jihadist groups, most lately ISIS.
Child of al Qaeda
ISIS is the current incarnation of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was created when Abu Musab al Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in October 2004. After a US air strike killed Zarqawi in October 2006, the group changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). When the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad began in 2011, ISI found itself in a prime position to join the fight as its networks for smuggling weapons and foreign jihadists into Iraq were already in place.
In January 2012, ISI established an organization to participate in the Syrian conflict called Jabhat al Nusrah (Al Nusra Front). But Al Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al Jawlani looked to al Qaeda central for support instead of ISI leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. As a result of this split, ISI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2013 and severed all ties with al Qaeda.
In June 2014, after capturing Mosul in northern Iraq, ISIS arguably became the strongest jihadist group in the world. Al Baghdadi then declared the creation of an ‘Islamic caliphate,’ with supposed authority from Africa to Southeast Asia.
Since then, the rivalry between ISIS and al Qaeda has deepened with several hundred members of the al Nusra Front defecting to ISIS. Even ISIS leader al Baghdadi has urged al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to pledge allegiance (baiat) to him – something that al Zawahiri has flatly rejected.
There is no doubt that ISIS’ ranks have swelled over the past year. Both ISIS and al Qaeda have been at the center of competition to win the hearts and minds of the global jihadist community. Young recruits, in particular, have been attracted to ISIS’ brazen violence. But al Baghdadi has had much less success in attracting the allegiance of established jihadist organizations, many of which remain openly loyal to al Qaeda.
Last November 10, jihadists from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen all swore allegiance to al Baghdadi in what was intended to be a show of global support for the self-appointed caliph.
Al Baghdadi offered “glad tidings” as he trumpeted “the expansion of ISIS to new lands, to the lands of al Haramain (Saudi Arabia) and Yemen, and to Egypt, Libya and Algeria.” Al Baghdadi accepted “the oath of allegiance from those who gave us baiat in those lands” and pronounced “the nullification” of all other jihadist “groups therein.”
He also announced the creation of “new provinces (wilayatul) for ISIS” in all five of the countries, adding that the group would appoint “wali (provincial leaders) for them.” All jihadists in these areas, and indeed all Muslims, must now obey the ISIS’ official representatives, according to al Baghdadi and his supporters.
Despite a series of beheading videos that many regard as brutal propaganda, ISIS very much springs from the Salafist-Wahhabist doctrine and the scholarship of religious leaders from Ibn Tamiyyah in the 14th century to Sayyid Qutb in the 20th century, who have credibility and authority among many Muslims.
ISIS strategists, propagandists and recruiters are very much grounded in a logical interpretation of the Koran, the hadiths – the sayings and traditions of Prophet Muhammad -and fatwa, or religious rulings. ISIS fighters often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd and old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but actually refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam. Even their forms of punishment – caning, stoning and amputation – follow the medieval-age traditions of Islam.
ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani has repeatedly called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, or “destroy his crops.” While this may sound odd to Western ears, al Adnani’s speech is laced with Islamic theological and legal resonance, and his exhortations to attack crops directly echo orders from the Prophet Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone – unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of infidels should be unmerciful.
This prophetic methodology, which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail, must be understood if it is to be effectively countered.
The Salafist doctrine
ISIS acknowledges Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 until his death in 2006, and Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi as progenitors. On most matters of doctrine, al Maqdisi and ISIS agree. Both are closely identified with the jihadist wing of a branch of Sunni Islam called Salafism, named after the Arabic al salaf al salih, the “pious forefathers.”
These forefathers are the Prophet Muhammad himself and his earliest adherents, whom Salafists honor and emulate as the models for all behavior, including warfare and even family life.
ISIS has radicalized the Salafist doctrine to an extreme level. Most Salafists are not jihadists and most adhere to sects that reject the concept of an Islamic state. Their main priority is personal purification and religious observance.
Another fundamental doctrine imposed by ISIS is the practice of takfir, or excommunication. In Islam, the practice of takfir is theologically perilous. “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’ then one of them is right,” says one of the hadiths. “If the accuser is wrong, he himself has committed apostasy by making a false accusation.” The punishment for apostasy is death. And yet al Zarqawi heedlessly expanded the range of behavior that could see Muslims condemned as infidels.
Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But al Zarqawi and the group he spawned take the position to judge many other acts as infidel that can easily remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election – even for a Muslim candidate – and being lax about condemning other people apostates.
Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard of apostasy as well, because ISIS regards Shia as bidah (innovation), and innovating the Koran is to deny its initial perfection, according to this hard-line school of thought.
ISIS claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the examples of the Prophet Muhammad. That means roughly 200 million Shiites are marked for death in the eyes of ISIS. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Islamic shariah law.
Following takfiri doctrine, ISIS is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people they deem to be infidels. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks.
Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Christians who do not resist their new government are exempted from automatic execution. Al Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.
Experts believe that the group is trying to re-create the earliest days of Islam and reproduce its norms of war. The declaration of a caliphate by ISIS in June 2014 was applauded by many jihadists, who saw the declaration as the fulfillment of a prophecy that Islam will conquer the rest of the world. This Islamic belief, being transmitted and reinforced by sophisticated online propaganda, lures disaffected youths and jihadists to Iraq and Syria.
The group regularly releases videos through its media wing Al Bayan – from beheadings to announcements of the capture of new territory. Such videos serve multiple purposes. They are meant to intimidate the organization’s enemies in the West and elsewhere, show defiance in the face of opposition and to convince other jihadists that al Baghdadi’s state is the legitimate caliphate.
While al Qaeda has been known to “corporatize terrorism,” it has long ago determined that graphic beheading videos do more harm than good for the jihadi cause, as they turn off more prospective supporters than they attract. But ISIS has clearly come to the opposite conclusion, cornering the market on savagery.
It has become common for Islamic militants to portray themselves as martyrs. The perpetrators of suicide bombings typically record “martyrdom videos” before the event in order to inspire others.
Expanding territory, claiming salvation
Experts and Western leaders tend to see and generalize jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. But jihadism has evolved since al Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.
Slain al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. ISIS, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.
Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are thought to have migrated to ISIS. Recruits hail from France, US, UK, Germany, Australia, Indonesia and many other countries. Many have come to fight and many intend to die as martyrs in what they are convinced is the final battle for the soul of Islam.
ISIS acts not just a political and religious entity but also as a vehicle for salvation. The flow of foreign fighters cannot be separated from beliefs rooted in Islam by which Muslims are obliged to pledge allegiance and migrate to the territory where the caliph applies shariah law. Those who reject doing so are deemed to be jahil (ignorant).
ISIS ideologues often compare this migration of foreign fighters with the “hijra,” or journey of the Prophet Muhammad to the city of Medina, a milestone that established the original Islamic state 14 centuries ago.
The directions of ISIS can be predictable since it follows the historical course found in the Koran. Only if ISIS’ ideas and the Islamic ideology in the Koran are examined can the group be understood and its actions more easily predicted. ISIS’ expansion shows that it clearly adheres to the historical aspect of Islam, while creating a victory for nostalgia for the time when the Prophet Muhammad ruled the ancient land of the Arabs.
For example, ISIS recently declared its new expansion into Khorasan province – a historical territory comprising Afghanistan and Pakistan, which jihadists consider to be the area where they will inflict the first defeat against their enemies in the Muslim version of Armageddon.
This narrative tells that an anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as the Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem in the final battle. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus (Issa) – the second-most-revered prophet in Islam – will return to Earth, spear Dajjal and lead the Muslims to victory. Other versions of this prophecy say the Imam Mahdi will be the one to rescue the Muslims.
Khorasan carries mythical overtones for some Muslims after an ancient prophecy that black flags (the jihadist symbol) would once again fly in Khorasan before the end of the world. ISIS spokesman al Adnani previously announced in an audio message that ISIS has appointed former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Hafiz Saeed Khan as the governor of the province of Khorasan. He urged rank-and-file jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan to pledge their loyalty to the leaders of Khorasan.
“We call upon all the soldiers of the Islamic State who are in Khorasan to listen and to obey the Wali, Hafez Saeed Khan, and his deputy (may Allah preserve them both), and to prepare for the great tribulations they will face. The factions will assemble against you and the rifles and bayonets will multiply against you. But you are up to it, with Allah’s permission,” he said in his message.
The key agent of apocalypse
ISIS differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. ISIS follows a distinctive variety of Islam which believes in the Day of Judgment. It is committed to returning civilization to a 7th century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.
ISIS sees itself as the key agent of the coming apocalypse. This belief has been the driving force of ISIS. Al Qaeda, by contrast, never talked about Armageddon in its propaganda. Even bin Laden rarely mentioned the apocalypse. Instead, al Qaeda focused on defeating the ‘far enemy,’ the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, the abolition of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorship in Muslim lands and countering US hegemony. While ISIS also shares these worldly concerns, the End of Days is a main theme of its propaganda.
During the last years of the US occupation of Iraq, ISIS’ immediate founding fathers saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating the arrival within a year of the Mahdi – the messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world.
Soon after that, ISIS began to launch attacks to seize Dabiq, near Aleppo in Syria. ISIS attaches great importance to Dabiq. It has named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated when at great cost it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet Muhammad stated, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp and the armies of Islam will meet them in the great battle. According to this prophecy, the army of Islam awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.
Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in ISIS’ videos and focus instead on horrid scenes of beheading. “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said a masked ISIS executioner in a video released last November, showing the severed head of Peter Kassig, an aid worker who had been held captive for more than a year before his beheading.
The regular air strikes carried out by the US and its allies have done little to drive out ISIS from its major territorial possessions. The US and its allies have also reacted to ISIS belatedly and in apparent confusion. The group’s ambitions and rough strategic blueprints were evident in its pronouncements and in social-media chatter as far back as 2011, when it was just one of many terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq and hadn’t yet committed mass atrocities.
Spokesman al Adnani told followers then that the group’s ambition was to “restore the Islamic caliphate,” and he evoked the apocalypse, saying, “There are but a few days left.” Al Baghdadi had already styled himself “commander of the faithful,” or emir – a title ordinarily reserved for caliphs – in 2011.
In April 2013, al Adnani declared the movement “ready to redraw the world upon the prophetic methodology of the caliphate.” In August 2013, he said, “Our goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognize borders.” By then, the group had taken Raqqa, a Syrian provincial capital of perhaps 500,000 people, and was drawing to it substantial numbers of foreign fighters who heard its message.
If world leaders had identified ISIS’ intentions early, and realized that the vacuum of power in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, they might, at a minimum, have fought its early online propaganda or at least have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis. That would at least have avoided the electrifying propaganda effect created by the declaration of a caliphate just after the ISIS’ conquest of Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul.
The failure to appreciate the significance of the split between ISIS and al Qaeda, and the essential differences between the two, has also led to dangerous decisions. One way to dislodge ISIS would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule.
Al Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground and operating in smaller cells. On the contrary, ISIS cannot exist in the same way. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate.
The caliphate cannot exist as an underground movement, because territorial authority is its requirement. If the US and its allies take away its command of territory, all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former followers of ISIS could continue to attack the West as freelancers, but the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty for Muslims to migrate and serve it.
The dilemma for the forces ranged against ISIS is that to confront it directly in a move to deny it territory would create shards of Salafist insurgency and terrorism across the world. The level of attacks that are already occurring in Europe and countries such as Libya and Tunisia would escalate. Dealing with ISIS will inevitably remain high on the security agenda for Western nations and corporate groups for many years to come.