The phenomenon of Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) has produced a particularly blood-stained chapter in the history of Islamic terrorism. Since coming into existence, it has managed to successfully communicate its violent message across not only the Middle East and large segments of the European continent but the entire world.
In order to comprehend how the Islamic State has posed such a threat to global peace a security, this Analytical Brief will be separated into three sections: Firstly, the circumstances to the origins of ISIS will be briefly explored, as this will provide an insight to their organizational objectives. Secondly, their ideological narrative will be examined, as this will grant an understanding as to how their strategy and targets for destruction are determined. Finally, once the goals of ISIS are identified, the feasibility of their intentions and tactics will be scrutinized in order to determine the true nature of the threat towards their perceived enemies.
The Origins and Organisational Objectives of the Islamic State
The pretext for the emergence ISIS onto the world stage can be found in the history of the rise of Islamism and Al-Qaeda.
Although there were many events that allowed Islamic terror to grow, it was the catastrophic defeat of the Six-Day War that saw Islamism rise to mainstream acceptance within the Muslim world. It was the loss of creditability of secular-nationalist governments that saw the Arab populace become disillusioned with those concepts and begin to resonate with the idea of political-Islam. This concept promoted an alternative political order, which rested on the idea of a unified Muslim world via theocracy. Furthermore, it considered Western culture itself to be an imperial and corrupting influence that was ultimately imposed upon the Muslim people.
It was Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden and Al-Zarqawi that undertook the application of Islamism and would eventually provide the model of the Islamic State: The Muslim world had suffered from the apparent tyranny from Western-style of governance that had undermined from the corrupting influence of secular modernization. Therefore, it was the duty of Al-Qaeda to rebel against such foreign concepts and return the Muslim world to their Islamic heritage. I would argue that this plan was an artificial manifestation of a civilizational clash akin to the works of Samuel Huntington: within the aftermath of the post-Cold War world, the next conflict will be fought between the Christian West and the Muslim East. This civilizational war was triggered by the September 11 Attacks which prompted the response of USdeclaring a War on Terror. However, Al-Qaeda strategists, with the exception of the idealists, realized the military defeat of the United States was unrealistic, they were successful in attracting recognition, expanded its networks and increased recruitment. Furthermore, it achieved a major psychological victory and progress towards their true goals: cleanse the Arab lands of Western influence and centralize control over the Sunni Muslim world via Wahhabism.
Although Al-Qaeda had sparked the War on Terror, by 2006 they were relatively defeated as a legitimate threat with the death of Al-Zarqawi. However, the Islamic terrorist threat had already begun to evolve with a Salafis-faction within the organization began to present itself as the true champion of Islamism. This faction has always possessed an independent streak that came into conflict with Bin Laden. For example, due to viewing Shities as apostates and thus allowed to be slaughtered angered Bin Laden as it was against Islamic law and lost of sympathy from the Arab public. But it was not until the 2011 Syrian Civil War that this faction broke with Al-Qaeda and established its own identity known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria. Under the leadership of Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the new terrorist entity could finally define its own organizational objectives
The organizational objectives of ISIS can be recognized to be dualist in nature: establish themselves as the premiere Islamist terror organization and to aggressively strive towards overturning the current world order of nation states. The first goal was achieved through the combination of implementing a policy of extreme violence. The use of violence saw kidnappings, beheadings, the systematic rape and enslavement of women, suicide bombings, the destruction of historical monuments, the burning alive of prisoners, cannibalism, infanticide and the oppression of minorities, looting, the sale of antiquities and oil smuggling. I would argue that this sent the message that it had the aggression to actively take the fight to the Western powers themselves and act in the same manner that 9/11 had for Al-Qaeda and drive recruitment and notoriety.
The second objective, according to the Institute of Study of War, was to ‘remain and expand’ by creating three ‘rings of power’. This consisted of an initial Interior Ring of capturing Iraq and Syria, a Near Abroad ring that consisted of historical territories of former Caliphates such as Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan. And finally, the establishment of a Far Abroad ring in Europe, the United States, Australia and Asia. I would submit that this strategy takes the idea of operating under the view of clash of civilizations and actually seeks to overturn the current world system and replace it with a global Caliphate.
The Ideological narrative of the Islamic State
The ideological narrative of the Islamic State is not unique to other terrorist organizations, but by deconstructing their worldview the threat that they pose can be eventually deciphered. It is the combination of Salafism, Islamism, Global jihadism and World Revolution that underpins their quest in overthrowing the current world order and replacing it with an Islamic World Caliphate.
According to Salafi thought, as declared in the Sahih, the first three generations of Muslims were the most pure, due to possessing a close temporal proximity to the Prophet Muhammad. It due to this belief that the Salafists have become the self-appointed champions of Islam. By doing so, they claim to uphold the authentic beliefs and practices of Muhammad, to be the only valid sources of theological authority, possess the true understanding of tawhid (God’s oneness), support the notion of defeating unbelievers, arguing for the fundamental interpretation of the Quran and Sunna under all times and circumstances and ridding Muslims of all apparent reprehensible innovations that may be been adopted.
The other aspect of the ISIS narrative is Sayyid Quib-inspired Islamism. According to Qutb, who developed his theories within the aftermath of the Six Day War, the nation state and secularism were imported constructs that were imposed by the Western powers and thus alien to the Muslim people. He condemned this new era as being a modern return to the jahiiyya, the state of ignorance that Arabs lived under prior to the revelation of Islam to the Prophet Mohammed. The narrative that he produced stated that it was Allah alone that possessed sovereignty and thus is deserving of adoration. When sovereignty is imposed on idols, such as nationalism, it becomes an object of adoration and thus evil, resulting in an anti-Islamic jahiiyya. However, by denouncing certain concepts as being un-Islamic came the consequence of Takfir becoming widespread. This meant viewing certain Muslims as impure and therefore excommunicated in the eyes of the Community of the Faithful. Once this is established, those who are condemned are no longer protected by the law and are condemned to death.
The other aspect of Islamism that hold particular influence within Islamic-thought was the idea of global jihadism. By believing that Muslims had lost their way, in the quest to rediscover the tawhid and the perception of being suppressed by their enemies, the Muslim world must be empowered to overthrow their enemies through the sanctification of violence.What made ISIS unique was that they viewed the West as the immediate enemy and therefore has the aggressive motivation to offensively battle their enemies aboard, as opposed to fighting them within the Middle East itself.
When the perspective of ISIS is dismantled and reconstructed, their behaviour and actions can be comprehended. For instance, by having the Salafi belief as the ideological foundation to their worldview, ISIS members can claim to be the modern equivalent of the first three generations of Muslims and therefore have the authority to judge Islam of any impurities. By combining this perspective with Quib-Islamism, the Islamic State allows itself to think of the current Muslim World as being in state of jahiiyya due to adopting the Western principles of nationalism and secularism. Therefore, it allows itself to adopt Takfir and dominate the Middle East with its own brand of pan-Islamism. However, it was not until the jihadist movement was adopted by the Islamic State that they managed surpass their predecessor by focusing on ‘the far enemy’. This allowed them to not only slay un-Islamic Muslims, but become a true transnational terrorist organization. This saw their violent message of terrorism to serve a duel-function: firstly, to be transmitted internationally and therefore move from Iraq and Syria and into non-Islamic nations. And secondly, it allowed ISIS to actively attempt the overthrow the current world system of nation states.
The nature of the threat and who ISIS poses a threat towards
The nature of the threat that ISIS poses is not primarily territorial but ideological, due to seeking to compete, if not eclipse, the western political order and assert their claim to universalism. In other words, the nature of their threat is antisystemic and thus their primary target is the concept of the Westphalian world order, particularly the Western world.
In order to understand why ISIS wishes to threaten the legitimacy of the nation state and the current world system, a comprehension of the nation state and how the West came to dominate international affairs must be undertaken. It was the Western political order, which came into being with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, that was built on the principles of the nation state, sovereignty, secularism, autonomy and human authority. Furthermore, the power of the West reached its zenith, when it defeated their Soviet rival and attained the unipolar moment. By doing so, the ‘End of History’ was announced, indicating there was no longer any alternative to Western ideals of liberalism, capitalism and national sovereignty.  Contrastingly, the Islamic political order views the world as a single unit whereby all ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups are serving Allah. This implies a post-nationalist world, where state sovereignty is non-existent, as only God is sovereign and therefore no human government has authority due to not being based on the Quran.
However, the notion of overthrowing the entire world system via a hot revolution is an unfeasible goal. Therefore, it appears that ISIS has altered their modus operandi from primarily focusing on gaining a power-bloc within the Middle East into asymmetrical warfare. This has seen the Islamic State announce their intention to penetrate the Europe via the Refugee Crisis by hiding amongst the masses. This has proven to be highly successful as the authority of the state has become undermined and has forced the both the government and people to experience an existential crisis in deciding in how to procced in combating domestic terrorism, while upholding their cultural constitution. This has come most apparent in examining the response of the French Republic in combating the Islamic State.
It was the French Revolution that saw the nation constitute itself under the banner of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the French state has upheld the values of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, secularism and the republican system of government. This has proven to be the antithesis of the Islamist ideology and thus a prime target for a clash of culture and a symbolic victory of the Western world. There have been numerous attacks under the during the 2015-2018 period including: the November 2015 Paris attacks, which saw a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that 130 people killed and the 2016 Nice Attack where a Cargo Truck deliberately drove into large crowds of people on Bastille Day and killed 86 people and injured 458 others.
In response to terrorist threat, the French government has begun to sacrifice its values by choosing to become more authoritarian in its counterterror laws along with the French people shifting their values towards a more culturally conservative persuasion. For instance, within the aftermath of Bastille Day, President Hollande responded by extended the State of Emergency, which was already in place due to a pervious attack, a further three months. This allowed authorities to enact counter-terrorist measures such as house searches without warrant, assigned residence orders and closure of mosques and businesses. This legislation has been extended a further five times, regardless of change of government, due the terror threat refused to yield. This law has been heavily criticized by Human Rights Watch Bénédicte Jeannerod, who stated that France has been progressively weakening the judicial oversight in its counterterror legislation and that the emergency powers can become normalized.
At the time of this writing, Russian President Putin announced that ISIS was defeated within Syria, but retains its destructive potential by attacking various nations across the world. I would argue that this vindicates the decision of ISIS to adopt asymmetrical warfare, as they still can retain their presence within Europe to continue their jihad and further undermine the authority of the nation state and the domestic culture of non-Islamic countries.
In conclusion, the ideology of the Islamic State is not an anomaly within Islamic Terrorism. However, due to their unique globalist outlook, it appears that they can survive, regardless of their guise or strength of or power base. This makes the ISIS threat ever-present as they can be called upon across the world and eventually reconstitute itself once again.
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