The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claims to be a Muslim khilafat, occupying the states of Syria and Iraq as a first step, to be followed by the occupation of the Levant (Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus and Turkey), finally encompassing the whole of the Muslim world. ISIS is the latest stage in the continuous, increasing and spreading process of religious extremism, a more lethal challenge to peace and stability.
Although it has its roots in much earlier movements, the current type of extremism we are seeing can be traced to the Afghan jihad of the 1980s. The Afghan jihad provided a meeting ground for religious extremists from all over the world, especially the Arab Middle East, with international state patronage from the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, besides others. Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi were among those many Arabs who came to Afghanistan during that time. Most returned to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s after finding it difficult to bring revolutions in their home countries. Bin Laden had more financial resources and organisational capabilities, and he organised al Qaeda, bringing together various national and localised jihadists. These organisations targeted the US, the rest of the west and their own states. Al Qaeda became the most important organisation with the status of an international umbrella group for these jihadis.
Al-Zarqawi kept his distance and independent identity from bin Laden while avoiding any conflict. Zarqawi maintained a separate base in Afghanistan and formed his own organisation named the Jamat al Tawhid al Jihad. In 2004, he moved to Iraq and operated in Iraq under the name of al Qaeda in the land of two rivers, also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. Aligning with other jihadi groups in Iraq he formed the Majlis Shura al Mujahideen (MSM) in 2006, gradually distancing himself from al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda considers the US and the west to be the main target with Muslim rulers aligned to the west as a close second. Al Qaeda also considers attacking ordinary Muslims who may not be practicing Islam strictly to be a bad strategy. ISIS and its predecessors are takfiris (those who pronounce other Muslims as apostates), believing they have the right to declare non-practicing Muslims kafirs and thus legitimate targets of Islamic jihad. They give priority to bringing Islamic revolutions to Muslim countries rather than fighting the west. Though Zarqawi died in June 2006, his movement continued under its new leader Abu Hamza al Muhajir. In October 2006, ISIS was announced, marking the start of an open break from al Qaeda. Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, an ally of Zarqawi in MSM, became the first amir (head) of ISIS and was succeeded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after his death on May 16, 2010. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is known for leading an extremely violent movement of his own against Shias, non-fundamentalist Sunnis and foreign troops in Iraq before joining the MSM and then heading to ISIS.
Though al Qaeda and ISIS continued cooperation, strains in their relations were also emerging. Al Qaeda was more for continuing the struggle without taking control of territory but ISIS wanted to get hold of territory in Iraq. The collapse of the Syrian state as well as other states due to various popular movements, supported by the west and even conservative Arab monarchies, provided a space that ISIS exploited to push forward its strategy and approach to jihad, gradually directly challenging al Qaeda as the main expression of jihadi violence. It merged in Syria with a part of al Nusra, a jihadi outfit fighting against the Syrian government; that is when it properly transformed into ISIS in 2013. Before that, it was just the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Its takeover of Mosul earlier this year brought it into the international limelight. In June 2014, ISIS declared itself the “Islamic State” and al-Baghdadi as its khalifa (caliph).
ISIS works ideologically more cohesively than al Qaeda but organisationally it remains quite random. It appeals to all those who agree with its approach to religion and jihad, to act on their own without waiting for much central planning and control. ISIS considers central planning and structure will emerge with time out of the local actions of those agreeing with its ultimate aim of establishing an Islamic khilafat. ISIS challenges current state structures and boundaries. It appeals to those already active under different names in different Muslim or non-Muslim states. ISIS thrives on the vacuum created by collapsing Muslim states, relying on the belief and strength of existing, organised and committed jihadi groups, or attracting activists from them to form new structures.
Although al Qaeda still holds the allegiance of most jihadi outfits in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISIS is fast challenging it. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) announcement of support is the first step towards a shift away from al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has been critical of the violent means targeting other sects of Muslims by jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The takfiri ideology of ISIS appears to be closer to many such groups in this region, including the sectarian organisations of Pakistan, many in the TTP and even the Taliban of Afghanistan. The odds of most of these organisations, breakaway groups and individuals being attracted to the more violent ISIS are very strong. The increasing statelessness in Pakistan and continued challenge of state building in Afghanistan are creating a welcoming space for ISIS. ISIS is the new face of violent Islamists, targeting state structures in the whole of the Middle East for control.
A large number of Muslim clergy members, including those agreeing with anti-US and anti-west programmes have condemned ISIS and its proclamation of khilafat as well as its takfiri approach. We may see a new polarisation in the Muslim world, splitting al Qaeda, with some of it attracted towards ISIS and some towards the nonviolent political pan-Islamists. The weakening state establishments in their own right are also opposed to this new threat. In this polarisation, the liberal democratic or left voices have little space. However, this conflict within the Islamists must not be exaggerated as political pan-Islamists initially did not approve of al Qaeda and both initially did not approve of the Taliban but all ended up cooperating. The difference is who is in the leading position. They may again find reason to cooperate after their initial conflict over leadership is over, probably this time in favour of ISIS.
The international coalition formed by the US, of which some Arab states are also a part, has started a war that also marks a new phase in the post-9/11 war against terrorism. Wary of the experience of ground engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the west does not feel ready to get involved directly. The action plan of aerial bombardments has a chance of not just weakening ISIS but also of further weakening the states in which ISIS will be targeted, as well as those states that are cooperating directly or indirectly in this ‘war’. This new challenge, hitting at the root of the state system of the larger Middle East, seems beyond the capability of these weakening states. Direct intervention by non-regional powers may also create violence that is much more widespread.
One can find many causes and endlessly debate about this rise in extremism but the challenge, more comprehensive and lethal than its predecessors, has arrived.
The writer is a freelance columnist