Islamic State

Jeffrey T Kenney



1999:  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi first met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and went on to set up a competing jihadi training camp.

2001:  Zarqawi’s jihadi group, Jama‘at al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (JTL), began operations in Jordan.

2003 (March):  The U.S. invasion of Iraq took place; Zarqawi returned to Iraq with JTL to confront the U.S.

2004 (September):  Zarqawi declared loyalty to Osama bin Laden and renamee his group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

2006 (June):  A U.S. air strike killed Zarqawi; Abu Ayyub al-Masri emerged as the new leader of AQI.

2006 (October):  al-Masri renamed AQI as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and identified Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the leader.

2010 (April):  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi emerged as leader of ISI after al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in a U.S.-Iraqi military operation.

2013 (April):  ISI announced that it was absorbing Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian-based jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaeda; ISI was renamed as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

2014 (February):  al-Qaeda renounced ties to ISIS.

2014 (June):  Mosul, Iraq, fell to ISIS; al-Baghdadi renamed ISIS as the Islamic State (IS) and declared himself caliph.

2014 (July):  The first issue of the ISIS/IS online magazine, Dabiq, appeared.

2014 (August):  The U.S. began its air campaign against IS targets in Iraq; IS began to carry out a number of highly-publicized beheadings of Western captives.

2014 (September):  An international coalition to defeat IS took shape under U.S. direction.

2014 (November):  An Islamist militant group operating in Egypt’s Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, declared it allegiance to IS and renamed itself Wilayat Sinai or province of Sinai.

2015 (January):  Islamist militants in Libya, identifying themselves as a province of IS, Wilayat Tarablus, kidnapped twenty one Egyptian workers who were beheaded the next month for shock value.

2015 (March):  Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group, declared its allegiance to IS.

2015 (May):  IS captured Ramadi, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria.


The group currently known as the Islamic State has changed its name several times through its brief history. In the narrative that follows, the various identities are acknowledged for the appropriate time periods. It is important to note, however, that the Islamic State continues to be referred to in multiple, and sometimes confusing, ways: the two most common alternative usages are Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL; the distinction here relates to the best rendering of the Arabic transliteration “al-Sham,” the region once known as Greater Syria, with some preferring the English “the Levant.” In the Arab world, al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi’l-Iraq and al-Sham or Daesh has become popular, in part because the acronym allows for satiric and disrespectful plays on other Arabic words. Some have questioned the wisdom of adopting references like ISIS, ISIL or even Islamic State since, in the context of an ongoing propaganda war, they may inadvertently lend support to the movement’s claim of holding legitimate Islamic political authority.

The Islamic State (IS) represents a new generation of global Islamist formation that combines jihadi-salafi ideology, sophisticated public relations, guerilla warfare, and state-building aspirations. It emerged as a dominant force when the chaos of two failing Middle-Eastern states, Iraq and Syria, allowed an otherwise isolated jihadist militia to reinvent itself and play upon political, economic, and social disillusionment in the region and beyond. The short-term success of IS has raised important questions about the political cohesion of nation-states in the Middle East, Western foreign policy in the region and the broader Muslim world, the volatility of global Muslim identity, and the ability of jihadist groups to capitalize on the failures, real and perceived, of modernity.

IS has both an ideological genealogy and organizational history, and their interconnection is important for understanding the way the group plays into the modern Muslim imagination about religion-state relations. The ideological roots of IS trace back to Islamism (sometimes referred to as political Islam) and the Islamist claim that Islam, not secular nation-states, holds the answers to development and political identity in the Muslim world. For its original advocates, Hasan al-Banna of Egypt and Mawlana Mawdudi of India (and later Pakistan), Islamism provided an authentic counter narrative to the Western modernity that had, in the first half of the twentieth century, attracted so many Muslims as the most viable means of establishing a place within the emerging global system. The seeds of Islamism were planted, not coincidently, at the very time that Muslim-majority countries were facing the challenge of colonialism and deciding upon their own political futures. And the historic institution of the caliphate was itself part of this mix of Muslim identity politics.

Founded in 632 C.E. upon the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the caliphate was officially abolished in 1924 after the newly-formed nation-state of Turkey, the remaining remnant of the Ottoman Empire, cast off its Islamic cultural baggage and created a Euro-centric (i.e., secular) future. In a very real sense, then, the end of the caliphate signaled the rise of political modernity in the Middle East, and Islamism emerged as an Islam-centered response, an attempt to modernize along a path that maintained a distinctively different identity for Muslims, even when this path mimicked many of the same structural and institutional configurations as Western nation-states. Most Muslim-majority nation-states came to reject Turkey’s explicit embrace of secularization, but they did adopt political systems with secular underpinnings, including legal structures.

Rather than disappear from the historical scene, Islamist movements, like the Society of Muslim Brothers in Egypt, founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, became a voice of political opposition, one that was sometimes suppressed quite brutally. The authoritarian nature of many states in the Middle East made it difficult for Islamists to advocate openly for the their version of an Islamic state, and the occasional outburst of political violence by Islamists gave authoritarian regimes reason to crack down even harder on these movements. Over time, Islamists divided over the most effective means to bring about their ideal Islamist order within the framework of nation-states that allowed little opportunity to engage in open political debate: some, following the lead of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb in his radical primer, Milestones, turned to militancy as the only way to eliminate what for them had become apostate rulers, if not godless societies; most, however, advocated a moderate path of preaching, teaching and charitable outreach.

All of this might seem far removed from IS, but the militant trend among Islamists within Muslim-majority nations took a dramatic turn in the aftermath of the Afghan-Soviet war, giving rise to the global jihadism of al-Qaeda, which was the precursor to IS. Activist Muslims flocked to the battlefields of Afghanistan, intent on waging jihad against the Soviet invaders; and they were supported in their efforts, secretly at the time, by the intelligence services of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. After the Soviets were defeated, some of the so-called “Arab Afghans” stayed on in Afghanistan and a few gravitated to Osama bin Laden’s call to continue the jihad but take it global. al-Qaeda was comprised, in part, of militant Islamists from places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Jordan, who had pushed the Islamist agenda in their home countries and failed to make headway against governments unfriendly to their political goals (Wright 2006:114-64). For example, al-Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been jailed in Egypt for his involvement with the Jihad Organization, which had assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981. But what distinguished the global jihadism of al-Qaeda from the militant Islamism of, say, Hamas in Palestine or Jihad in Egypt, was its identification of the West, in particular the United States, as the most important threat and focus of jihad. Whereas militant Islamists directed their attention toward the “near enemy” of secularized Arab-Muslim elites (viewed as apostates), global jihadist saw the “far enemy” of the West as the ultimate challenge to the victory of Islam. Moreover, whereas moderate Islamists had, over time, made peace with the modern state system, even agreeing to form political parties and participate in elections, global jihadist came to see such engagement as an embrace of Western ways and a betrayal of the Islamic cause.

A primary factor, then, in the emergence of global jihadism was the failure of Islamism to be accommodated within the “instrumental politics” of nation-states in the Middle East (Devji 2005:2). Islamism went global because it found the path to power blocked by authoritarian states unfriendly to its political goals, and global jihadism could only take root beyond the effective sovereignty of any state. Thus it was the chaos of war-ravaged Afghanistan that allowed bin Laden to organize al-Qaeda, establish jihadist training camps, and go on to wage war against what he called “the global Crusaders.” And it was the chaos of Iraq that served as the backdrop to the organizational history of IS.

The person who capitalized on and exacerbated this chaos was Abu Musab al-Zaraqwi, a Jordanian jihadist with a history of brutalterrorist acts. After serving a prison sentence in Jordan, he traveled to Afghanistan in 1999, where he met Osama bin Laden and, with bin Laden’s assistance, started a competing jihadi training camp nearby. While sharing many of al-Qaeda’s views and goals, Zarqawi remained independent. He founded Jama‘at al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (JTL), which established a record of terrorism in both the Middle East and Europe, all of which drew the attention of U.S. intelligence agencies. He shifted his base of operations to Iraq after the U.S. invaded in 2003 in order to confront Western forces. By 2004, Zarqawi had pledged allegiance to bin Laden, and JTL was rebranded as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Between 2004 and his targeted killing by a U.S. airstrike in 2006, Zarqawi waged a sectarian war, presumably with the approval of bin Laden, against Iraqi Shi‘a in an effort to divide the country and drive the Sunni population into the camp of AQI. So bloody were Zarqawi’s methods that he drew a rebuke from Zawahiri about the need to avoid alienating Muslims from the jihadist cause (Cockburn 2015:52; Weiss and Hassan 2015:20-39).

After Zarqawi’s death, command of AQI fell to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who renamed the organization Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) a few months later and identified Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the leader. From 2007 onward, ISI encountered increasing pressure from the Sunni Awakening, a joint effort of Sunni tribes and U.S. military to eliminate the jihadist threat. By 2010, ISI had witnessed a severe decline in its capacity to engage the enemy, whether Shi‘a or coalition forces, and the killing of both Masri and al-Baghdadi seemed to confirm this situation. The new leader of ISI, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, inherited a much-weakened organization, but the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 provided an opening to reinvigorate terrorist actions. ISI received added impetus from the civil war that broke out in neighboring Syria by the end of 2011 as a result of the Arab spring uprisings. Syria’s long-oppressed Sunni majority rose up against President Bashar al-Assad, who drew his support from the Alawite minority (a Shi‘i subsect). Much of the initial Sunni opposition in Syria reflected secular leanings, but it was quickly outpaced and out-financed by Islamist and jihadist groups. Thus what began as a broad-based protest against the regime to demand political and economic rights for Sunnis turned into a religious sectarian battle that drew in regional powers, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, intent on promoting their own political agendas.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the newly elected president, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, implemented a series of policies that strengthened the Shi‘imajority, often at the expense of the Sunni minority that had ruled the country under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Iraq’s Sunnis had already experienced a dramatic decline in political and economic power as a result of the de-Baathification policies introduced under the U.S. occupation, including the disbanding of the Iraqi army. Their sense of disenfranchisement grew when the Shi ‘i-dominated government in Baghdad strengthened its ties to Iran, drew on the support of Shi‘i militias, and targeted Sunnis/Baathists accused of attempting to regain power. The protest of Sunnis in Syria became a rallying cry for Sunnis in Iraq, and ISI was there to capitalize on the situation. A seeming perfect storm of beleaguered Sunnis and callous Shi‘i rulers in Syria and Iraq provided ISI with the opportunity to fan the flames of sectarianism and insinuate itself into the volatile mix of identity politics.

The instrument of ISI’s intervention in Syria was an AQI-affiliated group, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which established itself among the array of opposition fighters by early 2013. Claiming that it had sent JN to gain a foothold for ISI in Syria, Baghdadi declared the twogroups had merged to form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The leader of JN, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, rejected the merger, and a falling out between ISIS and al-Qaeda ensued, with Zawahiri attempting to restrict Baghdadi’s field of operations to Iraq. Infighting among jihadist groups was common in Syria, but the rift between ISIS and al-Qaeda threatened to split the core group that had come to define global jihadism. By early 2014, al-Qaeda and ISIS had renounced one another, and in June of that year ISIS made a bold military push in Iraq that included the taking of Mosul, the country’s second largest city, and a highly dramatized “smashing the borders” campaign that removed the barrier between Syria and Iraq.

With the border under it control, ISIS claimed that the era of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret treaty dividing the Middle East into spheres of colonial influence, negotiated in 1916 between France and Britain, had come to an end, and so too had the Western ideology that separated Muslim people in the region: nationalism. ISIS used this occasion to declare the establishment of the Islamic State (IS) and a return of the caliphate, with Baghdadi named the “commander of the faithful,” the person to whom all Muslims around the world owe allegiance and obedience. In a symbolic demonstration of his new title, Baghdadi, dressed in traditional garb, delivered the Friday sermon, on 4 July, in the Great Mosque of Mosul and led the congregation in prayer. His sermon made clear that the world had now split into two opposing forces, “the camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy,” and Muslims around the world were now religiously obligated to emigrate to the state where Islam and faith ruled (Dabiq 1:10).

It is important to note that the caliphate had been part of bin Laden’s theoretical range of vision. In an interview one month after 9/11, he stated: “So I say that, in general, our concern is that our umma unites either under the Words of the Book of God or His Prophet, and that this nation should establish the righteous caliphate of our umma…that the righteous caliph will return with the permission of God” (Bin Laden 2005:121). But bin Laden and his successor, Zawahiri, maintained their militant focus on the “far enemy,” never articulating the precise parameters that would allow the caliphate to reemerge. IS would later assert that it was fulfilling bin Laden’s desire, bringing bin Laden into its jihadi ancestry and isolating Zawahiri as an ineffectual pretender.

IS continued to gain territory in Iraq and Syria, and volunteers arrived from around the world, much to the chagrin of Western nations that witnessed some of their fellow Muslim citizens abandoning their seemingly comfortable lives to join a jihadist organization committed to fostering global conflict (Taub 2015). And IS was quick to publicize images of recent arrivals from the West burning their passports and shouting jihadist slogans. Indeed, provocation proved an essential feature of IS public relations, and propaganda of the deed became an all-too-common style: Middle Eastern Christian communities attacked, the men killed and women sold into slavery; Western journalist held hostage and later executed; a Jordanian pilot burned alive in a cage; Egyptian Coptic Christians taken hostage and beheaded en mass. IS made images of these deeds public through social media and reprinted them in issues of Dabiq, the glossy, English-language online magazine it began to publish in July 2014.

The timing of these deeds seemed intentionally linked to the growing efforts, from August 2014 onward, of regional and Western powers to take action against IS terrorism. As a loose coalition of forces, organized by the U.S., began to target IS strongholds, IS ratcheted up its taunting and bloodletting. For IS, drawing other countries into the fighting in Syria and Iraq was a strategy to spread the chaos on which global jihadism thrives. And spread it did: jihadist groups in Egypt and Libya pledged their loyalty to Baghdadi and transformed their areas of regional control into “provinces” of the Islamic State; and lone wolf attacks began occurring in the West as isolated, disgruntled Muslims heeded the IS call: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be” (Dabiq 5:37).

By early 2015, coalition forces had begun to push IS fighters out of territory it previously held in Syria and Iraq, and Muslim public condemnations of IS were sprouting up around the world. Coalition spokesmen claimed that the targeting of IS leadership and rank-and-file had depleted the strength of the enemy, and that it was just a matter of time before IS would be defeated. But whatever setbacks IS may have experienced, such as the loss of the city of Tikrit in Iraq, it recovered dramatically in mid-May, when it conquered Ramadi in Iraq and then Palmyra, the ancient Roman city in Syria. No sooner had these cities fallen than IS began its characteristic twinned efforts at effective governance: public execution of identified enemies and provision of social services. Reports indicate that new recruits continue to stream into the region, including from the West, where IS’s call to jihad and martyrdom continues to have a strange appeal that defies easy explanation. Coalition leaders remain publically committed to defeating IS and promise renewed military efforts, but some commentators have already started to talk of IS as a permanent fixture in the region for years to come.


IS views itself as the true remnant of Islam in the modern world, and defines its beliefs largely in relation to what it rejects among the dominant trends in Muslim societies, which it regards as unbelief (kufr). Like Islamism, IS frames its very existence as a return to or restoration of what has been lost by modern Muslims due to the impact of secularism and unislamic leadership. And like militant Islamism, it espouses a set of millennial ideas and practices that transforms Muslim societies, if not the entire world, into a battleground between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. This battleground took on territorial specificity once ISIS established the Islamic State and invoked the traditional division between the abode of Islam and abode of unbelief (dar al-Islam , dar al-kufr).

After establishing its provisional capital in Raqqa, IS began a program to teach religious functionaries (imams and preachers) its “methodology of truth.” Those selected to participate had previously served in these roles in the area, but they needed IS sanction to continue. The book selected for the one-month seminar of instruction was written by Sheikh Ali al-Khudair, an influential Saudi Wahhabi scholar known for his past support of jihadist activities. Its appeal rested on its firm grounding in the teaching of the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and its willingness to confront the evils of the age and advocate pronouncing the takfir (declaring someone a kafir, unbeliever; excommunication) against sinful individuals, even if they are unaware of their sinfulness (Islamic State Report 1:3). Many of the religious experts affiliated with IS, those in charge of educating the Muslim masses and rendering religious judgments, are Saudis with a strong commitment to the kingdom’s Wahhabi doctrine, though not the royal family. In its publications, IS casts itself as Salafi-Wahhabi, with a strong aversion to “deviant” innovations that emerged within Islamic tradition after the lifetime of the pious ancestors (al-salaf al-salih), deviants identified as Shi’is, Asharis, Mu’tazilis, Sufis, Murji’is, and Kharijis.

IS embraces Salafism’s generic creedal focus on the oneness of god (tawhid) and the rejection of any beliefs or practices that detract from divine unity. It also, like Salafism, places great attention on the details of textual argumentation, legitimizing every decision with reference to the Qur’an and Sunna and presenting its interpretation as the only authentic one. Indeed, creedal and moral certainty informs everything IS does, and serves as a strong selling point for those modern Muslims searching for clarity in a world of half-truths and lies. The Muslim identity IS offers has no equal: it is above reproach in its adherence to correct belief and practice, and it induces a sense of truth and righteousness that permits easy judgment of other Muslims (Haykel 2009:33-38).

Not surprisingly, religious leaders in a number of countries have accused IS of being Kharijis or adopting Khariji-like tactics, andsome jihadi groups have leveled the charge also, trying to distance themselves from particular bloody acts of violence. Kharijis were the first sectarian movement to emerge in Islamic history (seventh century), known for their pious zealotry, killing of fellow Muslims deemed apostates, and rebellion against authorities; the name of this sect has been reawakened in the modern period to anathematize radicals such as Sayyid Qutb and to shape the debate about Muslim extremism (Kenney 2006). For its part, IS views the accusation of being Kharij as propaganda intended to weaken the Muslim community by allowing unislamic behavior and ideas to continue. As a result, it does not shy away, out of fear of being labeled Khariji, from passing judgment against apostate Muslims (pronouncing them unbelievers, takfir) and shedding their blood. To demonstrate its commitment, IS has responded to the accusations in two ways: first, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani participated in a formal exchange of curses (what is referred to in Islamic tradition as mubahala ) that asked god’s punishment if IS were in fact Khariji. This was part of a larger debate with other jihadist groups, during which one leader claimed that IS was “more extreme than the original” Kharijis (Dabiq 2:20). Second, in what appeared a manufactured situation, IS uncovered a Khariji cell operating within its territory and threatening to attack the caliphate. The cell was subsequently “disbanded and punished” according to Islamic law, making it seem that IS acknowledged illegitimate violence (Dabiq 6:31). Still, defense of violence, even brutal forms of it, comes easily to IS. The burning of the Jordanian pilot shot down during a bombing run over IS territory is a case in point. In response to many Muslim critics who were horrified by the video images of the execution, IS laid out a case for why the punishment was in fact sunna, in accord with the example of the Prophet Muhammad (Dabiq 7:5-8). It engaged in much the same interpretive defense after receiving criticism for the beheading of captives. IS has also consistently claimed that Islam is a religion of jihad, not a religion of peace as many Muslims assert.

In keeping with its movement orientation, IS has revealed its creedal stance in the dynamic environment of violent conflict to which it has contributed. Indeed, its actions are often depicted as theology/law in action, demonstrations of its commitment, in contrast with other Muslim leaders and factions, to sacrifice the comforts of this life and life itself to purify the Muslim community. Moreover, IS’s narrative of the current Muslim condition places a demand for action on every believing Muslim. Its basic outline follows the Qutbian critique of modern Muslim society (outlined in Milestones): it is drowning in a sea of jahiliyya (ignorant, pre-Islamic) sinfulness, overseen by corrupt political rulers and compromised religious officials; Muslims have lost their way and are in desperate need of guidance, which only a vanguard of dedicated, true believers can provide; and jihad is the only solution to the elimination of this jahiliyya condition that has tainted everyone, the same solution implemented by the Prophet Muhammad when he and his early followers rose up against their pagan enemies in Mecca. IS writes a new chapter in this narrative by creating a safe haven in the sea of jahiliyya, an Islamic state where the caliphate has been restored and Islamic law is enforced. With this new reality in place, Muslims can finally live true Muslims lives. Or, as one issue of Dabiq makes clear, Muslims are now obligated to live true Muslims lives. It is every Muslim’s duty (fard ayn) to emigrate from jihiliyya to the Islamic State (hijra), to submit to the authority of the caliph, and to wage jihad. The formation of the Islamic State and declaration of the caliphate have created new doctrinal obligations. Muslims may no longer remain hypocrites, cooperating with unbelievers, remaining indecisive, and holding back from engaging in jihad. The formation of the Islamic State and declaration of the caliphate have brought about “the extinction of the grayzone,” just as the coming of Muhammad created a clear-cut choice between jahiliyya and Islam (Dabiq 7:54-66). Everyone must now make a decision, act according to it, and face the consequences. Failure to act is not an option, for it means siding with the unbelievers and falling into apostasy.

For IS, individuals who perform the hijra and take up jihad are actually participating in a larger god-ordained plan for humanity that is unfolding in the region: the coming great battle (al-malahim al-kubra) that precedes and sparks the final hour. Syria is linkedwith a number of end time prophecies in Islamic tradition, and IS has drawn on them to demonstrate the historic importance of events materializing within the caliphate and to inspire Muslims to participate. The title of the IS magazine, Dabiq, for example, refers to a site in Syria, attested to in hadith, where the final battle between Muslims and Romans (understood to mean Christian Crusaders) will take place, and which will result in a great Muslim victory, followed by the signs of the hour: the appearance of the Antichrist (Dajjal), the descent of Jesus, and Gog and Magog. A provocative reference to this prophecy, supposedly made by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, appears on the content page of each issue of the magazine: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify, by Allah’s permission, until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

IS plays on prophesies of this kind to heighten attention to its unique time in history and to the significance of the fighting, in the Islamic State proper and beyond, that has now enmeshed regional and international powers. Every minor battle, every inspirational speech, every newly-declared province, every terrorist attack, every military response by the West, and every new Muslim arrival to the Islamic State becomes another sign of prophecies being fulfilled and the coming ultimate conflagration that will end with Islam’s global victory. Even a seeming breach of Islamic ethics provides an occasion to promote the unique historical period in which people are supposedly now living. When IS encountered Yazidis, an ancient Mesopotamian people with a syncretic set of religious beliefs and rituals, in the Nineveh province of Iraq, it treated them as polytheists (mushrikun), not monotheists, and, following Islamic legal rulings, saw fit to enslave their women. In its discussion of this decision, IS drew attention to the fact that “slavery has been mentioned as one of the signs of the Hour as well as one of the causes behind” the coming great battle (Dabiq 4:15). This incident was revisited in a later issue of Dabiq by a female writer, Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah, who defended the decision to enslave women and used it to taunt IS enemies: “I write this while the letters drip of pride. Yes, O religions of kufr altogether, we have indeed raided and captured the kafirah women, and drove them like sheep by the edge of the sword…Or did you and your supporters think we were joking on the day we announced the Khilafah upon the prophetic methodology? I swear by my Lord, it is certainly Khilafah with everything it contains of honor and pride for the Muslim and humiliation and degradation for the kafir” (Dabiq 9:46). The writer ends the piece in a provocative and insulting aside, claiming that, if Michelle Obama were to be enslaved, she would not earn much of a profit.

Muslims who join IS become, intentionally or not, part of its mythic narrative of the coming apocalypse, but they also enter into a social world, in which people have been invited to lead real lives, with families, homes, and jobs. Through its media outreach, IS has appealed to Muslims around the world to emigrate to the newly-established Islamic State, and to contribute to the only place where Muslims can enjoy the fruits of a true Islamic society, where Islamic law is enforced and Muslim brotherhood comes naturally. People with professional backgrounds were specifically targeted because they would bring much-needed skills for the growing community. The benefits of life within the boundaries of the Islamic State are touted as material and spiritual: newly-arrived families are promised homes (sometimes confiscated ones), men are promised wives (sometimes enslaved ones), and social services were established to provide for the needy. IS is reported to have paid for the weddings and honeymoons of some of its fighters. IS goes to great lengths to show that it had established a workable society, with an Islamic police force, collection and distribution of charity (zakat), care for the orphans, and a consumer protection office, with a number to call with complaints (Islamic State Report 1:4-6). In an article entitled “A Window into the Islamic State,” images of people engaging in repairing bridges and the electrical grid, street cleaning, caring for the elderly, providing child cancer treatment attest to IS’s efforts to meet the worldly needs of Muslims (Dabiq 4:27-29). Another article entitled “Healthcare in the Khilafah” claims that IS is “expanding and enhancing the current medical care” and has opened training colleges for medical professionals in Raqqa and Mosul (Dabiq 9:25).

Such everyday images, however, stand in stark contrast to other promotional references to the final battle and the end time, andto photos of grisly beheadings, mass executions, stoning of adulterers, and martyrdom operations. But it is precisely this blending of the mundane and the murderous, of worldly and millennial expectations, that infuses IS propaganda. The life of jihadis in the Islamic State, it seems, must be lived on the knife’s edge of history and the apocalypse.


IS was born in a competitive jihadi environment, with numerous movements and leaders vying to attract recruits and financial support. All were operating under much the same Islamist banner, based on the teachings of an array of radicalized thinkers, from Qutb to bin Laden. Under the leadership of Zarqawi, ISI, the precursor to IS, distinguished itself by its ruthless acts of violence, directly largely against Iraq’s Shi‘i population. When IS declared the return of the caliphate and named al-Baghdadi the caliph of the age, it set itself apart from other militant groups, and created a crisis of legitimacy and expediency within jihadist ranks. Whether Baghdadi is the best figure to assume this historic role was (and continues to be) an ethical and legal question for many jihadists, and stirred up critical responses. Hence the attention given to the topic of leadership in the first issue of Dabiq , which ran under the title “The Return of Khilafah.” But IS effectively trumped the competition, and the debate about al-Baghdadi’s legitimacy, by winning the image war on social media and by backing up its claims of authority with military success on the ground.

Bold claims and bold actions, then, have transformed this movement-cum-state into a preeminent leadership role. What al-Qaeda aspired to become post-9/11, IS has turned into a reality, and it has done so by redefining the rules of militant Islam: movement structure has given way to state-building (a dramatic new scale); distinctions between “near enemy” and “far enemy” have become moot, for IS targets enemies everywhere; and the entire world has taken notice of the new threat because IS recruits globally. The existence of an actual state may appear to make IS vulnerable to attack because it now has infrastructure that can be targeted. But IS need not occupy particular territory to function as a caliphate. Unlike modern nation-states that define themselves by their borders, the boundaries of the caliphate can shift without undermining its theoretical integrity. Historically, the shape of caliphal lands on maps was always changing, as was the capital city of the caliphate. Reinvented in an era of nation-states, the caliphate appears anachronistic, and is, but that is precisely the point IS wishes to make. The modern period has not been good to Muslims, an assessment that has driven reformist thinking since the nineteenth century. Islamic power and cultural grandeur of the classical age faded as the West emerged as the center of science, industry, and global capitalism. By changing the modern map of the Middle East, and the structure and language of governance, IS is hoping to reawaken what it takes to be the true spirit of salafi reform and to reset the clock on modernity. It is a fantasy of sorts, but one that resonates with many who continue to wrestle with the narrative of disappointment that has informed modern Muslim consciousness.

For IS, leadership is key to this reset because it highlights both the failed model of secular nationalism that has dominated the region and the need for Muslims to be governed by an authentic Islamic model. This is a longstanding Islamist claim that IS inherited and then managed to impose, though it rejects those compromised Islamists who were working through democratic structures to transform their societies, such as Muhammad Morsi in Egypt. According to IS, neither nationalism nor democracy is compatible with Islam; the caliphate is the only political answer, and jihad is the only means of establishing it. The two leaders whom IS credits with laying the groundwork for the return of the caliphate are bin Laden and Zarqawi. All other jihadi factions, including al-Qaeda under Zawahiri, are rejected for their willingness to work with secular fighters or failure to recognize that the caliphate has been restored.

IS embeds its leadership claims in traditional Islamic discourse, even casting Zarqawi in the role of reviver (mujaddid ) of Islam, a popular salafi reference that has also been used to describe bin Laden. The organizational structure of IS, however, reveals that reestablishing the caliphate entails a great deal of reinvention. Aside from its name, it is no more authentic than that other invented tradition with which it competes: the nation. In fact, IS organizes itself and rules over the territory it controls much like a nation-state. It is a command-and-control operation infused with religious references and figures. Baghdadi serves as the “commander and chief” or caliph, with advice provided by a cabinet (shura council composed of religious specialists) and an array of deliberative councils spanning a range of state functions: military, finance, legal, intelligence, media, security…etc. As caliph, Baghdadi has ultimate authority, though he can in theory be removed from office by the shura council. Two deputies have authority to preside over affairs in Iraq and Syria, respectively, and governors have been named to oversee everyday rule in the various provinces. The precise means by which orders are passed along the chain of command remain vague, but a recent trove of information recovered during a raid suggests that IS has found ways to not only continue but expand its base of operations (Schmitt 2015). The organization has learned how to withstand the losses inflicted by coalition forces, maintaining its command-and-control infrastructure, economic activity, and flow of recruits, which is to say that it is functioning more and more like a state.

It is not clear the extent to which provinces beyond the contiguous borders of Iraq and Syria (e.g., in Egypt, Libya, and Nigeria) have been integrated into the organizational structure. Jihadist groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar al-Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, have declared allegiance to IS and benefited from both training and financial support. The long-term relationship of these provinces, however, no doubt depends on the continuing strength of IS and consequent advantages of rebranding. Still, every militant operation that these outlying provinces undertake, whether successful or not, redounds to the image of IS, confirming its reach and power. Finally, social media has provided an effective means of demonstrating the organizational unity of these outlying provinces with IS central. Twitter account handles signal provincial identity and communicate actions undertaken under the authority of IS. And execution videos have been produced in Libya and Egypt with jihadis in black outfits and the condemned in orange jumpsuits, mimicking the dramatic enactments broadcast from the deserts of Iraq and Syria. This may be more symbolic than substantive evidence of organizational links, but the symbolic power of social media has already proven to be an effective tool in convincing Muslims to make the “journey to jihad” (Taub 2015).


IS has succeeded by playing on and exacerbating political and social tensions that preexisted and facilitated its rise. Like its global-jihadist ancestor al-Qaeda, IS has operated opportunistically, taking advantage of weak states and putting pressure on ethnic and sectarian divisions. Its survival depends on continuing this strategy, even as it tries to govern the areas under its control like a state. At the moment, all signs indicate that IS will remain on the scene for much longer than many had previously anticipated. Some Western commentators have even suggested that governments reassess their stance toward IS and start dealing with it like a rogue rather than a terrorist state. Such suggestions reflect the dire circumstances in Syria and Iraq, the chaos of the Middle East following the post mortem on the Arab spring, and the lack of tangible progress against IS by coalition forces. Sectarian politics has effectively divided both Syria and Iraq, and, even if IS were to be eliminated tomorrow, the suspicions and hatreds will live on for decades. Neither country will likely return to its pre-conflict borders; the new geo-political status quo will necessitate the emergence of a separate Sunni state, a fusion of Sunni-majority regions in Syria and Iraq. Before this looming reality can come to fruition, however, coalition forces must overcome the current stasis. Targeted bombing has reached the limits of its effectiveness, and Western powers want to avoid putting their troops into ground combat situations. Iraqi military forces have not proven reliable, unless they are supported by Shi‘i militias, and the presence of Shi‘a fighting in the Sunni-majority region poses grave challenges given the sectarian divide. Despite expressions of national unity and promises of shared power, the Shi‘i-dominated government in Baghdad has not been able to win over its own Sunni citizens. The situation in Syria is no better, with a variety of rebel forces, some secular and some Islamist, challenging the Assad government and, all-too-often, each other. In the long run, defeating IS will require far more than a military response. Short-term counter terrorism strategy is no substitute for long-term political, social, and economic reform in Syria, Iraq, and the greater Middle East.

In the meantime, a stalemate has emerged, providing IS time to consolidate its power. The ability of IS to govern the areas under its control, and to provide the necessary services, has surprised many observers. But the surprise rests in large part on an assumption that IS is indeed a jihadist-terrorist group, and as such its efforts are directed toward undermining the sovereignty of existing states rather than trying to establish one of its own design. IS has tried to change the discourse and structural reality of global jihadism by creating an actual alternative political, social, and economic mode of modern life, a place where Muslims can emigrate to live a true Islamic life, under the protection of an emir who rules by Islamic law. According to its own reading of jihadist history, IS has achieved the very thing that Osama bin Laden had intended, once all the right factors had aligned. And viewed in the broader context of Islamism, the political ideology out of which global jihadism emerged, IS has arguably realized some of the statist-ideas advanced by figures like Hasan al-Banna and Mawlana Mawdudi. Of course, these founders of Islamism would no doubt find the sectarianism and brutality of IS troubling, if not revolting. But in the current historical moment extremism and good governance are relative matters in the Middle East.

And here lies the deeper significance of IS’s military threat: it is a harsh reminder of long-standing failures of nation-building in the region, to which the international community has contributed, and of the related potential of Islam/religion to destabilize Muslim-majority nations that have yet to create workable polities and religion-state relationships. Viewed critically, IS is a manifestation of the unsettled business of political and social modernization, a fact that IS knows all-too-well. Its own propaganda may seem a strange language from a different time and place, but it is coded Islamic discourse directed at populations attuned to both the frustrations of modernity and the various ways that Islam has been deployed, often quite cynically, by a variety of actors nationalists, neo-traditionalists, secularists, Islamists, and now jihadists) to address those frustrations. The populations under IS control may not be attracted to its jihadi ideology or harsh interpretation of Islamic law, but people can be won over or, at least, pacified with the provision of basic human services and an orderly, though repressive, daily life. After all, the previous nationalist governments were not known for their enlightened rule. So IS is playing for time, trying to appeal to the everyday needs and sectarian fears of Sunnis in the immediate region, to foment terrorism elsewhere, and to continue its social media campaign. IS has shown itself far more sophisticated about the use of social media and content messaging than its opponents (Mazzetti and Gordon 2015). More problematic for Arab and Western leaders, IS has a clear-cut message and identity to communicate. And this message and identity grow more powerful the longer IS remains in place, for success, and the mere ability of an entity like IS to survive is a sign of success, has the potential to create more true believers within the populations it controls and beyond.


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Haykel, Bernard. 2009. “On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action.” Pp. 33-57 In Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, edited by Roel Meijer. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Mazzetti, Mark and Michael R. Gordon. 2015. “ISIS is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes.” The New York Times, June 13, A1.

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Post Date:
29 June 2015


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