The Islamic State Digression

The dramatic conquests of ISIS caught the world’s 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 ISIS’s 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 Qaeda’s 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 Qaeda’s 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 Muslim’s religious obligations to recognize the Caliph when the Caliphate returned.76 He emphasized the uncompromising observance of a radical conservative interpretation of Islam‚ and ISIS’s 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 ISIS’s ideology requires that all new member groups subjugate themselves to the authority of the Caliph and practice ISIS’s 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 cadre‚entrusted to enforce adherence to ISIS’s 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 group’s 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 Qaeda’s 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 ISIS’s call to jihad galvanized support in both the Muslim-majority world and‚ more importantly‚ the West. Thousands upon thousands of fighters answered ISIS’s 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 Qaeda’s primary means of recruiting fighters. The response to ISIS eclipsed this number.84 ISIS’s 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‚ ISIS’s momentum was evidence that ISIS was following the true path of Allah and therefore on course to victory.

The West’s 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 ISIS’s 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.

Citation 73

The clear divergence from any interpretation of mainstream Islam led Arab states to declare ISIS’s 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.

Citation 74

Jessica Lewis McFate‚ “Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent‚” the Institute for the Study of War‚ September 10‚ 2013.

Citation 75

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 it’s 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-Zawahiri’s ‘Review of Events’ Video‚” trans. Bryn Mawr‚ December 18‚ 2007.

Citation 76

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 Caliphate’s legitimacy. Some Salafi-jihadi groups expressed support for the Islamic Caliphate‚ but stopped short of recognizing it. Others believed that the Caliphate had returned.

Citation 77

Boko Haram’s leadership recognized the Caliphate and Baghdadi as the religious authority. ISIS did not recognize the group‚ which followed practices against ISIS’s ideology. An example is the Boko Haram practice of enslaving Muslim apostates. ISIS forbids this practice (the punishment for apostasy is death). Author’s conversation with Jacob Zenn.

Citation 78

Amedy Coulibaly killed a police officer in Montrouge‚ Paris‚ and four people in a Jewish deli in Paris. He claimed his attacks in ISIS’s 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 2‚043‚” CNN‚ February 23‚ 2017; and Stacy Meichtry‚Noemie Bisserbe‚ and Benoit Faucon‚ “Paris Attacker Amedy Coulibaly’s Path to Terror‚” Wall Street Journal‚ January 14‚ 2015.

Citation 79

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 State’s 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.

Citation 80

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.

Citation 81

Harleen Gambhir‚ “ISIS-Linked Regional Activity: June 2015‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ June 27‚ 2015.

Citation 82

For example‚ Salmi Salama Salim Sulayman ‘Ammar was ISIS Wilayat Sinai’s 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.

Citation 83

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 3‚000–4‚000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan. The number in Syria reached 5‚000. Thomas Hegghammer‚ “Syria’s Foreign Fighters‚” Foreign Policy‚ December 9‚ 2013.

Citation 84

Eric Schmitt and Somini Sengupta reported that a confidential US intelligence assessment estimated that 30‚000 fighters had gone to Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2015. The same assessment estimated about 15‚000 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.

Citation 85

Griff Witte‚ Sudarsan Raghavan‚ and James McAuley‚ “Flow of Foreign Fighters Plummets as Islamic State Loses its Edge‚” Washington Post‚ September 9‚ 2016.

Citation 86

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.