The Rise of the Islamic State and How to Reverse It
The US and the Islamic State (IS) use coercive force to project authority. This might be valid in classical political philosophy as well as in Muslim political practices; but it is not customary in democratic governance. Acclaimed evidence has characterized democracies as sensitive to violence and coercive measures. And the US is a democracy, while IS is not. This is the fundamental difference between the two camps. This difference diminishes when both engage in the propaganda of war: waging war is a parcel identity of states. States are often created from the disorder of war. The US is an example, and IS is not.
States are defined by sovereignty over a territory; this territorial jurisdiction justifies their legitimate monopoly on violence. Religion is neither about territory nor about legitimate monopoly on violence. IS understands this benefit of statehood, and that the secret of its ongoing name change in search of territorial jurisdiction for its violent Jihad. From the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the ‘borderless’ Islamic State (IS), there appears to be an obsession with the state: haltering its apparatus and replacing it with a perpetually expanding caliphate. Why is IS so obsessed with the state? What is the new scheme behind this strategy? And how is the US conduct in the war feeding into the same scheme? The article seeks to answer these questions.
The roots of IS can be traced back to US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, but its ideology belongs to that of al-Qaeda, the pillar of modern militant Islam. Abu Mushab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian imposter on Iraq who founded Jund al-Sham is credited for laying the foundation of the Islamic State. Evidence has shown that al-Zarqawi was a rival to Bin Laden’s leadership during their encounter in Afghanistan. But circumstances changed as Zarqawi returned to Iraq in 2002 and engaged in establishing his own brand of jihadi organization under the name of al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad. He did not align his group with Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda until 2004. This year coincided with US’s massive dismantlement of his network in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq between the cities of Baquaba, Baghdad and Ramadi.
As a result of these losses Zarqawi succumbed to Bin Laden’s leadership and swore his allegiance to the Al-Qaeda organization, thus transforming his group to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He was subsequently rewarded by Bin Laden as the al-Qaeda emir in the land of the two rivers. This was a partial recognition of his political ambition. We know from the literature that Jihadi groups pelage allegiance to Al-Qaeda for many reasons, including public relations, recognition and moral and financial support. Zarqawi’s acceptance of OBL’s leadership belongs to the last category. He needed both moral and material support from Bin Laden. In exchange of the alliance, he got a blessing and approval from both Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s second in command, al-Zawahiri.
Zarqawi’s Sunni emirate never materialized, nor did his alliance with al-Qaeda last. He was killed in a US aerial attack in 2006. His alliances of jihadists were dismantled two years later by the Sahwah Sunni groups, allies of the US army. Zarqawi was gone but his followers, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, carried on his legacy. Al-Baghdadi became the leader of the organization renamed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Zarqawi’s brutal legacy endured in the newly formed organization: indiscriminate bombing in civilian areas, public display of beheading westerners in their orange suit (as he did with both Owen Eugene Armstrong and Nick Berg) and a systematic pursue of spatial state in the Sunni heartland. It is ironic, that with all his gruesome crimes against both Iraqi Sunni and Shiite, Zarqawi was lamented widely in the region. In an Al-Jazeera online survey on “whether Zarqawi was a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Among 5,601 respondents only 24.6% said ‘terrorist’ while 75.4% portrait him as a freedom fighter.
This reoccurring quest for territorial sovereignty for the enactment of the Islamic rule is the root cause of IS clash with Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda. In 2011 one of al-Baghdadi’s deputies by the name of Abu Muhammad al-Joulani was sent to Syria to establish the newly franchised al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Al-Joulani succeeded in his mission. Not only Nusrah Front was inscribed in the fabric of the popular uprising against the Assad regime, it also became the heart of the Syrian insurgency. Two years latter, al-Baghdadi issued a public decree in which he characterized Nusrah Front as “merely an extension and part of the Islamic State of Iraq,” and there was a pre-agreement with al-Julani to make the newly established front in Syrian a subdivision of Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The nullification of the Nusrah Front, and the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham/ Levant (greater Syrian) was problematic. Al-Joulani complained that, “the leadership of al Nusrah as well as its humble leader (himself) was not aware of this decision, and were only informed through the media.” And that with his respect and admiration for al Baghdadi, his allegiance now is for “the Sheikh of Jihad, Ayman al Zawahiri.” This disagreement amounted to defection among jihadi fighters in Syria, where 95 percent of the foreign fighters defected to al-Baghdadi’s ISIS, thus prompting Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda Central to intervene.
In a clearly enumerated message, Zawahiri notes, "The people of Jihad were all dismayed by the public quarrel between our beloved brothers in the Islamic state of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra." Zawahiri made it clear that al-Baghdadi was "wrong in declaring the merger without consulting or even alerting al-Qaeda's leadership”. He added that Syria was the "spatial state for al-Nusra, under the commend of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani,” likewise, “Iraq was spatial state of ISI under the rule of al-Baghdadi,” and each was re-appointed to his emir position for a year, and the two should coordinate and cooperate in conducting the operations of jihad. Evidently, Zawahiri was sticking to the organizational style set by Bin Laden: Jihad has to be coordinated through a hierarchy and strategic process in which the violence against the near enemy (the Muslim) is categorically and proportionally different from the violence directed against the far-enemy (the Non-Muslim).
On June 15, 213 Al-Baghdadi’s response to Zawahiri was made public.
He rejected Zawahiri’s ruling, noting that, "the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will remain, as long as we have a vein pumping or an eye blinking. It remains and we will not compromise nor give it up until God make it victorious or we perish without it,” adding that ISIS was the wish of his predecessors—Al-Zarqawi, Abu Omar etc.. And this [organization] will not stop crawling until the shattering of last nail in the coffin of the conspiracy of the Sykes–Picot [Agreement]. Obviously, al-Baghdadi’s ISIS longs for the era of the pre-1916 France-Britain agreement that ended the Ottoman Arab’s possession. If Kamal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, is the Muslim archenemy of militant Islam for his role in removing the Khilafah from Istanbul, the French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and his British colleague Sir Mark Sykes are the external enemies who engendered all ills in the Muslim world by secretly negotiated the deal that ended the Muslim caliphate (Khilafah).
In this public dissent against the mother organization of modern Jihad—al Qaeda, al-Baghdadi is making public a new scheme that calls for a violent dismantlement of the modern state, subsuming the resulting chaotic situation into a new order of caliphate. This is an idea that was progressively deliberated in the Jihadi scholarship since the Afghan debacle, the US occupation of Iraq and the effective deactivation of al-Qaeda’s leadership by US drones. The practicality of the idea surfaced in the aftermath of the melodramatic removal of Islamists from their electoral victories in Egypt that followed the Arab spring. In a 2013 communiqué to the people of Syria, al-Baghdadi dismissed the idea of democracy noting that “it was also applied in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and look at their conditions and what they ended up with.”
IS Strategy: Dismantle and Deactivate the Nation-State
The notion of modern Jihad inspires one of the richest and most expanded debates in the discourse of militant Islam. In Essence, 3 major speculative works have shaped its legal argument as well as its operational outlook of recent years. Well-argued corpus has been produced by militant Islam since 9/11; and IS’s current practices are the embodiment of the latest trend of thought.
Abu-Bakr Naji’s 2004 book on Idaratu-l Tawahush (the Administration of savagery) appeared for many post-Bin Laden Jihadists to be pragmatic and visionary. He suggested the decentralization of al Qaeda, scaling back its magnitude to smaller units while dispersing the confrontation with the USA and its allies across the region, thus establishing ungovernable and non-manageable zones, where the administration of jihad can be applied and allowed to flourish. Creating a situation and state of desperation and savagery, in Naji’s account, is a prerequisite for the Islamic State. When an area is conquered by the Mujahidin, Najir argues, it has to be “subject to the lawlessness of the jungle in its most primitive image, where even the best guys as well as the most wise among the bad guys would yearn for someone to administer this savagery." Another book of operational significance is Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s 1600 page magnum opus entitled The Global Islamic Resistance Call, published on line in 2005. Al-Suri, arguably, the most articulated theoretician of modern Jihad, is of Syrian background. His main argument was that Jihad is in a “descending order for the last decade of the 20 century.” He calls for the urgency of reversing the ‘declining’ trend through the globalization of Jihad by shifting it from a group (militant Islam) project to Muslim community project that is based in the center of the Middle East, and not in the peripheral areas like Afghanistan.
The book of Treatises In the Jurisprudence of Jihad by Abi Abdullah Al-Muhajir is the third major corpus of Jihad, and it seems to be the most reflective mirror of IS’s practices. Al-Muhajir, an Egyptian-born Afghan mujahid, is the Sheikh of al-Baghdadi; he bluntly notes that Islam, "does not distinguish between civilian and military-combatants, but between a Muslim and an infidel, a Muslim’s blood is infallible whatever work or place he occupies, and the infidel’s blood is permissible whatever work or place he occupies." It could be said that Al-Muhajir’s book is a manual of blood, gloom and legalized genocidal war, devoted to 20 treatises on Jihad and bloodshed, where all are permissible as long as it hastens the move to conquer the state.
Although these corpuses are different in their strategy of fighting the enemy, they tend to merge into three schemes: the urgency of haltering the phenomenon of the modern nation-state, expanding the enemy category beyond the US, Israel and their Western allies to include the Shia community, and securing a territory for the application of jihad. Al-Muhajir stands out as the most logical advocate for the fist part—dismantlement of the nation-state.
In surveying these writings of militant Islam, one should admit that there is an accumulated knowledge based on battleground expertise that seems to inform their recent onslaught across the region. The logic of haltering the political landscape of the nation-state is at work in the post-Arab spring: we can identify three types of dysfunctional states in the region: States with a nominal government that has no control beyond its parliaments; while the rest of the country is divided between many sectarian groups as is the case in Yemen, Libya and Somalia. There is also the collapsed state in Iraq and Syria where the central government control some areas while militant Islam controls others. The third group is countries where militant Islam has been periodically active in some areas of the country such Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon. Beyond these three groupings are countries engaged ideologically or organically by militant Islam such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia in addition to the remaining Gulf monarchies, Jordan and Morocco.
The Limits of Reactionary Scholarship
There are many interpretations of Islam to which we must de-associate violence. It happens, as is the case within the human experiences, that some of these interpretations are selective, stagnant and remote from standardized human progress. While in fact, “nothing endures but change” as noted by Heraclitus, there have been changing Muslims over time and across places, and therefore religious prescriptions must change accordingly if they are to endure. I doubt that any religious ideas can remain prefect in perpetuity without engaging the changing nature of human values and material substance.
Muslims who found themselves out-of-place within their European realities share a common ground with those marginalized within the nation-states of the Arab world. In both cases, harkening back to a romanticized past is a natural impulse of any suffering subject. This is exemplified in the following passage in the Third Edition of IS propaganda Newsletter Dabiq “The modern day slavery of employment, work hours, wages, etc., is one that leaves the Muslim in a constant feeling of subjugation to a kāfir master. He does not live the might and honor that every Muslim should live and experience.” This is evidently written by a Western Muslim, who finds himself antagonized or then marginalized by the ongoing demands of advanced capitalism. Apparently, the statement is factually wrong; because even the Islamic State will have to subjugate its citizens to the organizational regulations of governance, including employment, hourly wage, taxation etc.
Mainstream Muslim scholarship is reactive to news stories rather than proactive in deconstructing ideas as they germinate in their natural habitat. Whether in the conflict zones in the Muslim world or in the intelligentsia of the West Muslim attitudes as well as judgments are projected in response to US policies and needs. For example, leaders of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, who are condemning IS’s presence in Syria today are the same figures that endorsed Nusrah Front’s call for Jihad in Syria in June, 2012, two days after the U.S. State Department characterized the Syrian regime as a pariah state. This type of reactionary viewpoint has limited impact or significance beyond the public relation mending in the media. It is irrefutable that there is no adequate body of scholarship in Arabic at the quantity or quality of militant Islam, starting with Sayyid Qutb’s abundant works to the current prolific writings of militant Islam
There is a fine line between salafi polemic and militant Jihad, discharging one entails dismissing the other. According to Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, the chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, al-Baghdadi was “among the brothers, the Muslim brothers; but he was interested in leadership, and then was corrupted by this groups … after his years in imprison, so he joined them.” However, al-Baghdadi’s replica has to be put in the context of what Amos terms Eclipse of the Sunnis. As a result of the US invasion, political power shifted and Iraq became a Shiite-dominated state; and four million Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, were displaced by the sectarian conflict. One of the major results of this shift was also the rise of Salafi polemic against Shiite, minorities and other religious groups.
The Islamic State in Iraq was a political embodiment of this polemic. A quick YouTube search of Zarqawi’ talks (al-Baghdadi’s most cited authority figure) would reveal his abhorrence of Shiite, whom he often calls al-Rawafid, a pejorative term for Shiites. He dehumanizes Shiites in all his speeches, then Americans in some forms and Israeli in lesser frequency. This is the opposite order of Bin Laden’s speech formats, where the US is at the top of the enemy order, followed by whom he called Judeo-Christian crusaders. Al-Baghdadi’s violence is a continuation of that of his master, al Zarqawi. Violence is a belief that manifests itself in action. In order to combat the latter we should debunk the former. Polemical beliefs that dehumanize Shiites, women and other religious groups are conducive to approving violence against them.
Militant Islam’s ideologies are deliberated and formulated from a long chain of sectarianism. Corpuses are highly organically grounded in lived-traditions through Qutb and Ibn Taymiyyah. Furthermore, major corpuses of modern jihad have been produced under the durability of incarceration, pressure of exile, practice or advocacy of Jihad. Like his mentor Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi’s mindset incarnates two decades of confrontation, displacement and rupture within the modern nation-states of Afghanistan and Iraq.
IS indiscriminate trend of attacks contrasts sharply to Al-Qaeda’s earlier strategies of selective targeting. This included embassies as in East Africa, business district as in New York and Military institutions as in the Pentagon. This was the idea of ‘legitimate’ targets of Jihad to quote Bin Laden’s assessment of these attacks. But Bin Laden is gone, and so is his vision of a top-down organic commend of Jihad. The adverse effect of his absence and the continuous elimination of potential leaders of Al-Qaeda Central is the provincialization of Jihad and the fragmentation of Jihad’s authority. No Jihadi could challenge Bin Laden’s leadership, because of his charismatic presence. But any ‘successful’ jihadi now can challenge Zawahiri’s leadership because of his continuous absence from the new battlegrounds in the Middle East. IS’s obsession with dismantling the network of the nation-state is beyond the limits of ideology. Its determination to invest in the disorder of the dysfunctional state is a pre-cursor to the rise of the Islamic caliphate. As prescribed in al-Muhajir’s magnum opus of Treatises In the Jurisprudence of Jihad there’s no conception of ‘proportionality’ in warfare against the modern states, the state’s annulation is a pre-condition to the rise of the Islamic state.
Because militant Islam is an alliance of citizen-combatants against the modern state, it flourishes in the absence of the nation-state (one of the most thriving legacies of colonialism). Thus IS’s rapid and sudden successes in Iraq and Syria in May and June of this year, was correlated with the collapses of these two states. This victory was decisive in solidifying al-Baghdadi’s legitimacy. His ascendance to caliphhood was a timely move in the aftermath of the collapse of both states. After all, Islamic legitimacy is solidified by a leader’s ability to win war, which is crucial in militant Islam’s pragmatism. The most revered Salafi scholar, Ibn Taymiya, calls this (AsHabu al Shawkah), ‘obedience is for the ruler who has control on the ground,’ he notes. (from his book al Siyasah al-Shar’iyaah).
In an al Arabiya TV documentary called “the Most important 20 Personalities of DAISH ([ISIS] are Iraqi Except One Syrian” one notices two factors: only one leader is a Syrian, and the overwhelming members of the group are former military officers of the Saddam regime. This latter point was further detailed in another Al-Arabiya documentary called “the making of death.” In both documentaries, there appears to develop a Sunni’s sense of entitlement to the state of Iraq, which al-Baghdadi likes to use as a vehicular for his sectarian messages. Within this territorial maniac; IS has shown no respect for life or religion, only a quest for political power whether in Iraq only as was the case with Zarqawi, or in Iraq and Syria as al-Baghdadi wanted al-Qaeda to accept or in an imaginative state of the past, as it is now with his IS caliphate.
I am a firm believer that the US cannot eliminate IS through coercive force and confrontation across borderless states. Statelessness is IS’s comfort-zone. Engaging it on its own turf of lawlessness means providing it with lifeblood of survival. Obama might have been right that IS “is neither Islamic nor a state,” but IS has to be defeated by both—Islam and the State. Its brand of Islam has to be replaced by a sheer Islamic scholarship that is genuinely deconstructive of the polemical roots of sectarian praxis. Equally important in eliminating IS is the state: the US should not replace combatant-Jihadists of IS with combatant-citizens of the Syrian Free Army. Both are equally illegitimate in democratic governance. Not only there is no observed evidence that a fighting force in Syrian can coalesce on anything beyond religious or tribal sectarianism of some sort, but because by supporting the Syrian armed civilians, rather than addressing the main problem of the nation-state in Syria, the US action runs in parallel with IS logic of rescinding the nation-state. In fighting IS with bad politics, the US is nurturing the same enemy that it aims to defeat.
Mbaye Bashir Lo is Assistant Professor of the Practice of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Understanding Muslim Discourse: language, tradition and the message of Bin Laden. He has recently authored a chapter on "Religion and Religious Teachings in Al Qaeda" In Religion and Terrorism, Lexington Books, 2014.