The State of the Islamic State

ISIS 2
 It’s clear, as British Home Secretary Theresa May said on March 23, 2015, that the most serious and widespread form of extremism the democratic world faces is Islamist extremism. If the West does not necessarily envisage the issue as a clash of civilizations, the Islamist extremists see it as a struggle between “good, pure Muslims” and non-believers of all kinds.
The fight to control the spread of that Islamist extremism is ever more urgent with the documented information that more than 20,000 jihadist fighters from more than 90 countries have left their own countries, including several thousand from Western nations, to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS).

The U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harp, on February 17, 2015 spoke of the need to find the “root causes” that lead people to join the (unnamed) terrorist groups, and their lack of opportunity for jobs.

Even the State Department will find that the mysterious root causes are not political repression, or economic difficulties, or poverty, or unemployment, or lack of education or ignorance, or psychological disturbances, but are simply devotion to what is thought to be the purest form of Islam. Those who hold this ideological devotion are not dwellers in caves in mountainous regions of the Middle East but those who reject democratic values and tolerance towards those with whom they differ.

The world, both democratic and developing countries, now face various components of the jihadist threat with its rivalry between groups for leadership of the Muslim communities. Two major strands can be traced back to the meeting in Afghanistan in 1989 between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musabah al-Zarqawi, when they joined the mujahideen forces fighting against the Soviet Union forces in that country.

Bin Laden formed al-Qaeda in 1988 and Zarqawi who formed his own jihadist group in 1999 pledged allegiance to the al-Qaeda network in October 2004. But differences, tactical and ideological, emerged between the two. Bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian citizen, believing that the Islamic world was in crisis, called for the restoration of Sharia law, and the use of violent jihad (holy war) to do this. Anti-American and anti-Israeli, Bin Laden carried out ruthless massacres in Aden in December 1992, in Luxor in 1997, and inspired the 9/11 2001 attacks in the United States.

Zarqawi, of Jordanian origin, was anti-American, even more extreme than Bin Laden in his tactics, use of explosives and beheadings of individuals. Moving his strategic based from Jordan to Iraq after the 2003 war, his ruthless attacks were against those who did not follow the true path of Islam. They included attacks against U.S. and allied troops, U.S. diplomats, Jordanian leaders, oil wells, Shiite mosques, United Nations and Red Cross facilities. The American diplomat Laurence Foley was assassinated in Amman on October 28, 2002. Zarqawi acted independently of al-Qaeda in the bombing of three hotels in Amman in 2005.

Ideologically, Zarqawi was dedicated to, and more interested than was Bin Laden, in the creation of an Islamic state, a Caliphate, at first to be established in Jordan to replace the Hashemite kingdom. In this he emphasized more concrete constructive activities than did Bin Laden.

Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, and was succeeded as head of his organization, whose name was changed several times, by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The organization, Mujahideen Shura (MSC) united with other groups in October 2006 and declared the establishment of the Islamic State. Baghdadi announced in 2013 the fusion, under his authority, of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Nusra Front, though this group, an al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria and Lebanon, refused to join. Baghdadi became the emir of the new entity.

Thus the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) was established as a Caliphate, an Islamic state ruled by religious authorities, under the supreme leader, the Caliph who is believed to be the successor to the Prophet, Muhammad. Baghdadi, who claims to trace his lineage back to Muhammad, was appointed as the caliph with temporal and spiritual authority. He also demands the allegiance of all true Muslims worldwide. The new state rejected the legality of all emirates, groups, and states in the Middle East.

Ideologically, IS proclaims the most extreme version of Islam, rejecting as apostates all those who do not agree with its interpretation of Islamic beliefs and laws. It claims to be the restoration of the early Islamic caliphate, with all the religious and political implications that follow. It rejects all reforms in the religion and advocated as a first priority the purification of Islamic society.

The tactics of IS are now familiar: extremely brutal methods and territorial conquest. The new Caliphate, at least theoretically, is interested in world conquest, an ambition stronger than that of al-Qaeda with its network in a number of countries Afghanistan, Yemen, and Mali, linked together in different ways. The Caliphate’s harsh interpretation of sharia law has been immediately implemented, compared with the longer term aspirations of al-Qaeda.

Other factors differentiate the IS from al-Qaeda. IS, has and intends to hold a permanent territory, over which it claims sovereignty, in Iraq and Syria.  The territory is supposedly legitimized by reference to historical references and symbolic places. One of them is Dabiq, the title of IS’s propaganda magazine, a place in Syria which supposedly was the location of an important Muslim battle in the remote past. The objectives of IS are clear, the restoration of an Islamic golden age, and a “glorious” new Caliphate based on jihad.

IS proclaims itself as the religion of the sword, and sees the world as divided into two camps. Therefore, it is a call for conquest, and adherents are instructed to kill Westerners and others whenever and wherever they can. The objective of IS is domination over all other religions and ethnic groups, even moderate Sunnis, Alouites, and Yazidis (Kurdish religious community). There appear to be no concessions to or coexistence with the rest of the world.

All this means a global and regional aggressive strategy, starting with the Middle East. IS now claims, as a result of pledges of loyalty from terrorist groups there, expansion of its power in Sinai, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, and the Arabian Peninsula, and it also hopes to embody “Rome”, Europe. IS is up to date, using cyberspace to attack the web sites of countries to be defeated, and social networks to entice Islamic adherents.

Every objective commentator now can recognize IS as more extreme, more brutal, better in propaganda, and more attractive to thousands who envisage a future utopia than other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda. Perhaps the spokespeople of the U.S. State Department and the White House might recognize it for what it really is, the leader of Islamic terrorism and the greatest danger to the world.