What is the Islamic State (ISIS)? The Islamic State is not only a terrorist group. It is a political and military organization that holds a radical interpretation of Islam as a political philosophy and seeks to impose that worldview by force on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Expelled from Al-Qaeda for being too extreme, the Islamic State claims to be the legitimate ruler of all Muslims worldwide. They have established what they regard as a state which includes large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, governed from Raqqa in Syria.
It advances a number of theological opinions to support its claims. Its adherents hold that they are merely practicing Islam fully, pronouncing those who disagree with them takfir (heretics). This designation is used as religious justification for killing the Islamic State’s opponents, typically slaughtering them wholesale.
Originally founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), what is now the Islamic State participated in the Iraq War fighting against American forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2013 they joined the Syrian Civil War, but rather than focus on defeating the regime of Bashar al-Assad, they focused on building their Islamic state.
On June 29, 2014, the Islamic State declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate with its leader being Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph.
What is now the Islamic State began as a group called Jamaat al-Tahwid wa-i-Jihad (JTWJ), founded in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Initially it focused on attempting to effect regime change in Jordan, although Zarqawi first gained experience as a jihadi in Afghanistan. He met Osama Bin Laden in 1999 and the two always had a fractious relationship, partly based on personal differences and partly on class differences. Zarqawi was brash, abrasive and from a poor background, whereas Bin Laden was from a wealthy background and did not feel the need to always be on the front lines.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States, Zarqawi became prominent in the insurgency against American forces there. In particular he was known for his ferocity and personal brutality as well as for his battlefield successes. His personal hatred for Shiites is well documented and remains an integral part of Islamic State ideology. He called them “a sect of treachery and betrayal ... the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion.”
Among JTWJ’s high profile terrorist attacks were an August 2003 attack on the UN compound in Baghdad that killed 22, including UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, then considered the most likely successor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. 6 In February 2004 the group killed 150 people in simultaneous attacks in Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Karbala during the Ashura festival. 7 Zarqawi was also known for personally carrying out beheadings, such as those of hostages Eugene Armstrong (American), Jack Hensley (American) and Kenneth Bigley (British) in September 2004.
In 2004 JTWJ formally became an Al-Qaeda affiliate when Zarqawi performed bay’ah, the oath of fealty, to Bin Laden.
The group changed its name to Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (the Tigris and the Euphrates). It was more commonly known as Al- Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq built up its own network of supporters and fighters during the Iraq insurgency. Although it was technically subordinate to Al-Qaeda central, in practice it was autonomous and able to develop its own ultraviolent brand of jihad. This created a generational difference between jihadists more aligned with Osama Bin Laden who fought in Afghanistan and those who fought with Zarqawi in Iraq, such as current Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In 2006, Zarqawi subsumed several smaller Iraqi jihadi factions under AQI leadership under the banner of Majlis Shura al-Mujahedin (MSM). Under the guidance of Al-Qaeda’s central leadership he focused on developing the infrastructure necessary to enforce sharia law as a state.
Zarqawi was killed by a United States airstrike in 2006. After the death of Zarqawi, AQI was led by Abu Ayyub Al-Masri and then by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The two were killed by a tank shell in 2010.
In 2006, the group changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), signaling its intention to focus on conquering Iraqi territory as a means of creating a sharia-based state there. The group concentrated its efforts on gaining territory in the desert region of Anbar province, where discontent among the Sunni population was rife. However their brutal attempts to enforce sharia law turned the local population against them.
Supported by American forces, tribal militias called Sahwat al-Anbar (Anbar Awakening), or alternatively Abna al-Iraq (Sons of Iraq), pushed ISI out of Fallujah and the rest of Anbar in bloody fighting. Founded in 2005, Sahwat al-Anbar supported the American troop surge of 2007 and were able to all but defeat ISI. Following victory, they were not integrated into the Iraqi military by the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, instead being targeted as a potential threat to Shiite majority rule. Many of them have now joined the Islamic State.
In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over ISI after the deaths of al-Masri and the previous al-Baghdadi. He was able to rebuild some of the popular support that had been lost under the group’s two earlier leaders. He also began to develop the organization’s strength and stage a comeback with his expansion into the Syrian Civil War in 2013, renaming the organization the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant – ISIL). Baghdadi’s decision to move into Syria provoked friction with Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra. Baghdadi attempted to take over Jabhat Al-Nusra, prompting rebuke from Nusra’s leader and Al-Qaeda central command. After multiple failed attempts at mediation by various leading sheikhs in the global jihadist community, the two groups split permanently when the leader of Al-Qaeda central formally repudiated ISIS.
Apart from the power struggle between the leaders of ISIS and Nusra, the groups differ in their methodology. Nusra favors a more gradualist approach that is willing to work with other factions and attempt to build an Islamic state later, whereas ISIS favors a more direct approach, seeking to seize territory, build a state and enforce sharia immediately.
Throughout late 2013 and early 2014, ISIS built its power base in Syria, establishing its stronghold in Raqqa, where it was able to seize total control after ousting all other rebel groups. Despite a counterattack by other factions sparked by its brutal tactics, ISIS was able to hold its positions and consolidate its power base. They effectively imposed control over areas by empowering their allies and crushing their enemies. Policies of divide and rule in fractious tribal areas helped them to sustain their hold on territory.
But ISIS never forgot about Iraq. In January 2014, they took parts of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province. In early June, ISIS shocked the world, storming across northern Iraq and capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, with the help of an uneasy alliance of ex-Baathists, tribesmen and other Sunni rebel forces.
On June 29, 2014, the first day of Ramadan, ISIS declared itself a caliphate and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim, calling for the immediate loyalty of all Muslims throughout the world.
The ideology of the Islamic State is that of Salafist-jihadism. It is important to remember that for them there is no distinction between religion and state. All decisions are based on a hardline interpretation of sharia (Islamic law), which is brutally enforced in the areas controlled by the Islamic State.
The ideology is almost exactly the same as that of other groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It differs in its approach to the proper timing and the conditions necessary to establish a caliphate. Groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in the Syrian Civil War) believe that although the long term goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate, the time is not yet right for such a move.
Salafist thought is based on the idea of returning to the supposedly pure form of Islam practiced by the successors to the founder of Islam, Mohammed, and the earliest Muslims.25 They reject any later additions as bid’ah (innovation) and un-Islamic. Their doctrine allows them to proclaim as takfir (heretics) Muslims who deviate from their strictly defined interpretation of Islam. The penalty for heresy is death. There is an ideological split within the Salafist community based on engagement in the political process and the acceptability of the use of violence.
Salafism as a movement began in Egypt. Its ideological forefathers are the same as those of the Muslim Brotherhood. It developed concurrently with Wahhabism, the doctrine of Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (died 1792), the cleric whose austere and violent interpretation of Islam became the state doctrine of Saudi Arabia.
Salafism and Wahhabism are very closely connected, partly because of the movement of Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood-linked clerics to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and 1970s. The terms are often used interchangeably, but strictly speaking Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism, a broader movement to emulate the earliest Muslims. Wahhabis call themselves Muwahideen (monotheists), a term used often in Islamic State literature. 27 Both movements draw extensively from the writing and thought of the 14th century Islamic jurist, Ibn Taymiyya.
Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue hanged by Egyptian President Nasser in 1966, is also a major influence on all jihadist groups, the Islamic State being no exception. Qutb’s contribution to jihadism was to take the idea of jahiliyya, the concept that Arabs were in a state of ignorance prior to the appearance of Mohammed and his Islamic teachings, and turn it into a concept of political philosophy. Qutb termed anything other than strict adherence to sharia law and Islam jahiliyya, including all contemporary Muslim regimes. He then advocated the violent overthrow of all such regimes in order to replace them with an Islamic state. In developing this concept, Sayyid Qutb built on the earlier work of Ibn Taymiyya and the early 20th century Indian Islamist Abu Ala Maududi.
These ideas were further developed by the thinkers and jihadists that would go on to form Al-Qaeda: Abdullah Azzam (the father of global jihadism) and Osama bin Laden.
The Islamic State has short, medium and long term goals:
Its short term goal is to consolidate the areas it already controls and capture more territory in Syria and Iraq.
One of its central tactics it has used to advance its goals has been to precipitate all out sectarian war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, which it tries to achieve by massacring civilian populations of Shiites whenever and wherever it can. This methodology is used partly due to their view of Shiites as heretics deserving of death and it is also a tactic aimed at causing reprisal attacks from Shiite militia groups, thus driving Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State’s medium term goal is to consolidate and expand its control of territory in Iraq and Syria and in the next stage to advance into neighboring Sunni countries.
Advancing in this way is in keeping with the Islamic State’s current practical approach of consolidating power in a contiguous territory in order to build a manageable and defensible state.
Ultimately the group aims at nothing short of total world domination.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the leader of the Islamic State and has declared himself the caliph. Due to security concerns he rarely appears in public. Soon after the declaration of the caliphate on the first Friday of Ramadan, he gave a speech in Mosul’s historic Al-Nouri mosque exhorting all Muslims to obey him.
Baghdadi has appointed a cadre of advisors, ministers and military commanders to run the caliphate. The Islamic State is run by a sophisticated hierarchy of commanders, each with specific areas of responsibility. A flash drive seized from the house of a member of the Islamic State in a raid by the Iraqi military revealed the organizational structure of the group.
Immediately under Baghdadi are two deputies, one for the territory in Syria and another for Iraq. He is also advised by a cabinet staffed with ministers, each with a clearly demarcated role, a salary and delegated powers. Treasury, transport, security and prisoners all have their own ministry and there is also a minister in charge of looking after the needs of foreign jihadi fighters. A specialized ‘war office’ manages the logistics and technicalities of war. Baghdadi has shown himself to be willing to delegate responsibility and to rely on the skills of his subordinates. Many of his cabinet and other higher level commanders served as high-ranking officers in Saddam Hussein’s military and many others have high level technical expertise. This military expertise is reflected at all levels of the Islamic State’s war machine. There are approximately 1,000 medium to top level field commanders in the Islamic State. Their salaries range between $300-$2000/month, depending on the job they are doing. Further down the hierarchy, each province has its own governor responsible for the administration of the region.
The Islamic State spends considerable energies on building the institutions and infrastructure of statehood in addition to their military campaigns. They intend to govern the territory they control and therefore must provide services for the population. Over the past year, since it conquered the north-eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State has established it as a de facto capital.
It runs healthcare, education and keeps public order. Everywhere the Islamic State operates it establishes these services, but it is most entrenched in Raqqa. It is well aware that in order to build a state it has to gain the acquiescence of the governed, at least to a certain extent. It also operates courts, based on sharia law. Gender segregation is enforced and women must wear the burqa in public.
The morality police, the Hisbah, patrol the streets to ensure that sharia law is being followed. Alcohol, tobacco and drugs are banned. Punishments for various transgressions of sharia law include flogging, amputation and death.
In Raqqa the Islamic State has been known to publicly crucify transgressors in the town square. This is part of their intimidation strategy aimed at pacifying the areas they control. By showing extreme violence to their enemies they utilize the propaganda value of fear.
This tactic is included in their propaganda arm. The Islamic State is well known for releasing extremely gruesome videos of it carrying out mass and individual killings, such as those of American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines. This tactic is replicated in their online strategy, tweeting out messages across several different platforms to ensure maximum visibility and utilizing social media effectively, such as the use of the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS immediately following the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State’s forces. This sophisticated messaging is an integral part of the Islamic State’s operations and is quite obvious in its glossy English magazine, Dabiq. The name of the magazine is taken from a location in Muslim eschatology, highlighting the Islamic State’s millenarian appeal.
All of these activities cost money, but the Islamic State is now the richest terror organization in the world. Its income is primarily from the smuggling of oil (at least $1 million/day), supplemented by extortion, kidnapping, and taxes on the area it controls. The group is largely self-financing, with donations making up a tiny percentage of its income.