The Islamic State Digression
The dramatic conquests of ISIS caught the worlds attention. However the group is but a digression from the main current of the global Salafi-jihadi movement. Its barbaric theatrics to instill fear and its reliance on force to coerce conversion to the faith are at odds with the teachings of the global movement and many would argue with Islam.73 In Islam conversion at the tip of the sword is forbidden. Yet ISISs contribution to the movement cannot be dismissed. ISIS rallied a global human grouping around the idea of reestablishing the Caliphate now and surged support to the Salafi-jihadi movement writ large. This effect will outlast the Islamic State as it has been realized .
The rapid rise of ISIS in Iraq shows how a small group of veteran Salafi-jihadi operatives and leaders can exploit conditions to reconstitute an insurgent group and transform that group into a global movement. ISIS rose from the ashes of al Qaedas defeat and sectarian Iraqi politics breathed life into its embers. The group broke from al Qaeda when it rebranded as ISIS in April 2013. Jessica Lewis McFate at the Institute for the Study of War warned of al Qaedas resurgence in Iraq in September 2013.74 She forecast the return of a strong Salafi-jihadi insurgency in Iraq.
Few if any foresaw the imminent objective of declaring ISIS-held territory to be part of the returned Islamic Caliphate a powerful concept within Islam and the Salafi-jihadi movement.75 Abu Bakr al Baghdadi the self-proclaimed Caliph called for the allegiance of Muslims globally to his rule in June 2014 based on the individual Muslims religious obligations to recognize the Caliph when the Caliphate returned.76 He emphasized the uncompromising observance of a radical conservative interpretation of Islam and ISISs willingness to use barbarity to impose it raised ISIS to the global stage. Individuals and groups outside of Iraq and Syria began responding to his call almost immediately and ISIS recognized five new wilayat provinces in November 2014.77 By January 2015 ISIS could claim to have inspired attacks globally.78
ISIS is building a global network to connect its dispersed branches with the leading group in Iraq and Syria. It expands in Muslim lands by collecting pledges of allegiance from existent or freshly formed groups. The central group initially offered resources especially finances to newly pledged wilayat.79 ISISs ideology requires that all new member groups subjugate themselves to the authority of the Caliph and practice ISISs version of Islam. It typically sent trusted individuals who had trained in or met with leadership in Iraq and Syria to be the local leadership cadreentrusted to enforce adherence to ISISs ideology.80 There are cases where a local leader has become the leader of an ISIS wilayah although these leaders were already well established in local groups. ISIS has recognized formal wilayat of its Caliphate in Yemen Saudi Arabia Algeria Libya the Sinai Afghanistan Nigeria and the Caucasus.81 These branches vary in size and capability; none show the level of sophistication in political-military campaign design that is signature to the group in Iraq and Syria. They all attack seams within the populations and exploit local dynamics to provoke the mobilization of a Sunni base which is a mark of the Iraqi groups influence.
The ISIS network is not yet fully constituted and may still be disaggregated through nexus targeting. It is not clear that ISIS has as robust a human network behind it as al Qaedas network which developed over decades of shared experiences. There are a handful of ISIS liaisons operating between major branches an indication that ISIS has begun to develop lateral lines of support among its branches in addition to the vertical lines back to the group in Iraq and Syria.82 Such developments reduce the requirements for every branch to retain direct lines of communication back to the central leadership and elevate certain groups to coordinate regional activities and build a local hub-and-spoke network. ISIS as a networked organization may be susceptible to sustained pressure on certain nodes but ISIS as an idea—the idea of the Caliphate—is more challenging and the greater contribution from the group to the global Salafi-jihadi movement.
The immediacy and urgency of ISISs call to jihad galvanized support in both the Muslim-majority world and more importantly the West. Thousands upon thousands of fighters answered ISISs 2014 call to fight in Iraq and Syria against the Shia and a Western-imposed power. There had already been high mobilization to Syria to fight against the Iranian-backed Assad regime. It was in fact the largest mobilization of foreign fighters to the Muslim world in the modern day by the end of 2013.83 The mobilization was not in response to a foreign occupation or the presence of foreign troops which had previously been al Qaedas primary means of recruiting fighters. The response to ISIS eclipsed this number.84 ISISs call resonated because the sectarian war forming in both Iraq and Syria showed a strong alliance against a vulnerable Sunni population. To the fighters that joined ISISs momentum was evidence that ISIS was following the true path of Allah and therefore on course to victory.
The Wests predictable response to the rise of ISIS—a military coalition—has weakened ISIS as an organization in Iraq and Syria but has not reduced its effect on the Salafi-jihadi movement. Recent losses in Iraq Syria and Libya may have dampened the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS but so too has the directive from ISIS leadership to remain in the West to conduct small-scale attacks.85 These attacks—ranging from directed to enabled to inspired86—are occurring with alarming frequency. ISIS continues to inspire attacks and promote such activity through its media networks as actions of “Soldiers of the Caliphate.” More dangerous however is the proof of concept through ISISs mobilization of “fight-in-place” attackers for the Salafi-jihadi movement. Al Qaeda which began attempts to inspire such attacks in 2010 never quite achieved this level of success. These attacks have polarized public opinion in some places isolating or even alienating Muslim communities from their governments. The effect is intentional since it drives support for far-right parties which in turn reinforce the polarization through anti-refugee or anti-Muslim rhetoric. Continued attacks claimed in the name of the Salafi-jihadi movement may only further this trend.
The clear divergence from any interpretation of mainstream Islam led Arab states to declare ISISs ideology as un-Islamic and that members of ISIS are not Muslim. Jordan the United Arab Emirates and others participated in a US-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria. Egypt conducted strikes against ISIS in Libya.
Jessica Lewis McFate Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent the Institute for the Study of War September 10 2013.
Salafi-jihadi thought leaders argued that violent jihad was an individual obligation on the since the fall of the Caliphate. A 2007 al Qaeda video featuring Ayman al Zawahiri also included a recording of Abdullah Azzam discussing the obligation for jihad. Azzam says: An individual duty ever since the Caliphate fell . . . so its not an individual duty in Afghanistan only. . . . And the wonder of wonders and strangest of the strange are those scholars who are still debating is jihad an individual or a collective duty. I do not know where these people acquire their knowledge. . . . If they had studied one book of Fiqh as it is well known that the attacker is to be repelled the attacker who seizes the people and wants to take their wealth or attack their honor or religion or country it is well known that it is an individual obligation to repel him. Al-Sahab Media Production Al-Sahab Media Production Releases al-Zawahiris Review of Events Video trans. Bryn Mawr December 18 2007.
The ISIS declaration of a Caliphate reverberated within the Salafi-jihadi movement and without. The requirement to recognize Baghdadi rested on whether he was a true Muslim and whether the Caliphate itself was legitimate. Al Qaeda argued against the Caliphates legitimacy. Some Salafi-jihadi groups expressed support for the Islamic Caliphate but stopped short of recognizing it. Others believed that the Caliphate had returned.
Boko Harams leadership recognized the Caliphate and Baghdadi as the religious authority. ISIS did not recognize the group which followed practices against ISISs ideology. An example is the Boko Haram practice of enslaving Muslim apostates. ISIS forbids this practice (the punishment for apostasy is death). Authors conversation with Jacob Zenn.
Amedy Coulibaly killed a police officer in Montrouge Paris and four people in a Jewish deli in Paris. He claimed his attacks in ISISs name and stated they were in retribution for Western attacks against ISIS militants. See also Tim Lister et al. ISIS Goes Global: 143 Attacks in 29 Countries Have Killed 2043 CNN February 23 2017; and Stacy MeichtryNoemie Bisserbe and Benoit Faucon Paris Attacker Amedy Coulibalys Path to Terror Wall Street Journal January 14 2015.
Reporting indicates that ISIS provided sufficient resources to new wilayat such that they could outcompete more established Salafi-jihadi groups financially and offer fighters better salaries. See ISIS in Yemen as an example. Elisabeth Kendall Al-Qaida and Islamic State in Yemen: A Battle for Local Audiences in Jihadism Transformed: Al-Qaeda and Islamic States Global Battle of Ideas edited by Simon Staffell and Akil Awan (London: Hurst Publishers 2016) 89–110 ; and Katherine Zimmerman Province Ties to the Islamic State Core: The Islamic State in Yemen in Beyond Syria and Iraq: Examining Islamic State Provinces edited by Katherine Bauer (Washington DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy 2016) 24–29.
For example an ISIS emir in Libya had reportedly been dispatched from Syria. See Emily Estelle and Katherine Zimmerman Backgrounder: Fighting Forces in Libya American Enterprise Institute Critical Threats Project March 3 2016.
Harleen Gambhir ISIS-Linked Regional Activity: June 2015 Institute for the Study of War June 27 2015.
For example Salmi Salama Salim Sulayman Ammar was ISIS Wilayat Sinais representative in Libya. US Department of the Treasury Treasury Designates al-Qaida al-Nusrah Front AQAP and ISIL Fundraisers and Facilitators press release May 19 2016.
Thomas Hegghammer notes that the jihad against the Soviets may have attracted more foreign fighters over the decade-long war but that there had not been more than an estimated 3000–4000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan. The number in Syria reached 5000. Thomas Hegghammer Syrias Foreign Fighters Foreign Policy December 9 2013.
Eric Schmitt and Somini Sengupta reported that a confidential US intelligence assessment estimated that 30000 fighters had gone to Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2015. The same assessment estimated about 15000 fighters to have traveled from 2011 to 2014. Eric Schmitt and Somini Sengupta Thousands Enter Syria to Join ISIS Despite Global Efforts New York Times September 26 2015.
Griff Witte Sudarsan Raghavan and James McAuley Flow of Foreign Fighters Plummets as Islamic State Loses its Edge Washington Post September 9 2016.
The three categories for attacks are part of a policy framework for US responses. Directed attacks are attacks that groups coordinate plan and partake in directly. The planning and support occurs within the group. Enabled attacks are attacks for which groups might provide support but that do not involve the organization itself. The planning occurs external to the group. Inspired attacks are attacks that do not have ties back to the group but that may follow general guidance to conduct specific tactical operations.