How ISIS Made Al-Qaida and the Taliban Look Like Moderates and Where We Go From Here

The head rush from the Arab Spring protests turned to panic as ISIS took radical Islam where no terror group had gone before: Establishing a caliphate which, at its height, spanned the size of Britain

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An Islamic State member waves the group's flag in Raqqa, Syria, June 29, 2014.
An Islamic State member waves the group's flag in Raqqa, Syria, June 29, 2014. Credit: REUTERS

In December, 2010, a disgruntled Tunisian street vendor by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi stood in the middle of traffic in front of the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid, a city in central Tunisia, and doused himself in gasoline. With the flick of a match, he set himself on fire and sparked a wave of Arab Spring protests that would rock the Middle East in 2011. Soon the region would descend into chaos and the course of radical Islamic movements would take new directions.

In the decade to come, the world would witness gruesome beheadings, lone wolf attacks, an influx of thousands of foreign fighters into the Middle East, the systematization of sexual slavery, a Yazidi genocide and millions of displaced civilians in the worst refugee crisis of our time.

“ISIS and Al-Qaida kept saying that the Arab Spring was a kind of revolution. That this was what they were waiting for in order to fulfill the dreams of the jihadist,” says Dr. Michael Barak, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. But the Islamic State and Al-Qaida reaped the fruits of the geopolitical chaos in very different ways.

ISIS exploited the political upheaval to recruit fighters from all over the Middle East, especially from Libya and Tunisia. Syria’s regime lost control of the country as it spiraled into a bloody civil war. In Iraq, protests exacerbated Sunni disenfranchisement and political turmoil that had been brewing since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Ba'athist Salafists, who had already mobilized thanks to Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign to pursue an Islamist agenda in the ’90s, soon started joining the Islamic State. In the absence of9/11 state pushback and with a population feeling increasingly sidelined by their government, ISIS was able to gain significant traction and recruit an army of fighters. It would not fully materialize until 2014.

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Baghdadi’s apocalyptic message

In June 2014, following Friday prayers in Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of this motley army, stood at the marble pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and declared himself caliph – “leader for Muslims everywhere.” With this declaration, Baghdadi dared to take the Islamic State where no radical Islamist group had gone before, distinguishing itself from the likes of Al-Qaida and Islamist terror groups in Egypt, Zvi Bar’el writes in Haaretz. ISIS would go on to establish dominance in parts of Iraq and Syria; at its height, the territory under the group’s control was the size of Britain. Almost one century after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, the Islamic State brought in a new era of radical Islamic movements.

An Iraqi worker enters the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri during the complex's reconstruction in Mosul's Old City, December 15, 2019. Credit: AFP

The establishment of a caliphate is the shared vision of mainstream Salafi-jihadist organizations such as Al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nursa, but they saw it more as a long-term goal. Their methodology was less imposing and aimed to win the hearts and minds of the people while simultaneously carrying out jihad. ISIS diverged from other terror networks by establishing a caliphate from the get-go.

“Al-Qaida criticized ISIS, saying that there’s certain conditions under which you can declare a caliphate. You need wide consensus between Muslim scholars that would agree to establish a caliphate,” Barak says. “ISIS relied on a small group of people – if they can be called Muslim scholars.”

Other groups looked to first overthrow existing systems of governance, yet ISIS had the hubris to set up its own state institutions – issuing its own currency and identification cards, collecting taxes and creating and administering a judicial system. The many people whose homes happened to be inside ISIS’ territory had no choice but to rely on the group for its local governance; some even saw it as a lesser evil than their previous governmental organs.

Years before the declaration of the caliphate, and before social media came to dominate the public discourse, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian member of Al-Qaida who would go on to succeed its leader Osama Bin-Laden, wrote a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who some consider to be the progenitor of ISIS. Al-Zawahiri was concerned about the release of a video showing militant Islamists beheading American Nick Berg in Iraq in 2004. “I say to you that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” he warned.

Jihad gone viral

ISIS would go on to capitalize on technology that groups in previous decades didn’t have at their disposal. It created a well-oiled propaganda machine in which women played a pivotal role, and disseminated violent imagery in Arabic, English and Russian as well as Chinese, Tamil and Bengali. Never before were terror networks able to have such a global grasp through the social pulse provided by Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, Surespot and other platforms. For ISIS, “media and presence was just as important as actual jihad,” Prof. Meir Hatina of Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies tells Haaretz.

The notorious Dabiq magazine, named after a northeastern Syrian town featured in Islamic apocalyptic prophecies as the place of the final battle between Muslim and Crusader armies, concerned itself with a call to action: Now is the time to immigrate to Muslim lands and prove that you can and will take up the sword in the name of Islam. “This apocalyptic message really reached people who thought they were part of a divine plan to reestablish the glory of the caliphate,” says Barak.

For the group’s followers, “believing in ISIS is believing in the caliphate and vice versa,” Hatina says. Framing war as a prophetic narrative, which was unique to ISIS, offering fighters an opportunity to play in the real-life “Call of Duty,” accompanied by vanguard brothers and sisters and with the promise of honor in paradise. “It was portrayed as the perfect world you wouldn’t find anywhere else except the caliphate,” Barak explains. ISIS was the brand for disenfranchised individuals, hungry for belonging and attracted to an Islam peddled by Baghdadi.

A masked Islamic State militant holding a knife speaks next to man purported to be U.S. journalist James Foley on a video posted on a social media, August 19, 2014.Credit: Reuters

“When ISIS appeared on the scene, there was a very substantial shift regarding the use of takfir,” says Hatina. The term literally means excommunication but also refers to declaring Muslims to be infidels, thereby making it fair game to sanction violence against them for being non-believers. “For the first time it included Sunni civilians living under ‘infidel’ regimes, but without opposing them,” Hatina adds. In this sense, the group broke an Islamic taboo of killing fellow Muslims: ISIS carried out attacks on mosques and other gathering places, which Barak says Al-Qaida forbids. As ISIS ravaged Shi’a, Kurdish, Christian and Yazidi communities, Sunnis had no immunity either.

"In the same way as the GIA [Armed Islamic Group] in the ’90s in Algeria, ISIS butchered and massacred entire villages only because they were not agreeing to their ideology,” Barak says. While this was not the first time a radicalized group used the principle of takfir to kill Muslims, for the past two decades it had generally been understood as a breach of Islam.

According to Barak, ISIS’ liberal use of takfir led to the group being condemned by Al-Qaida, the Taliban and some of their own ex-followers, who blasted its leadership for distorting the true meaning of jihad and “harming the fight against the crusading enemy.” “The argument was that ISIS was not built upon religious scholarship but on layman,” Hatina explains.

In an attempt to follow some sort of Islamic precedent, ISIS forced its Sunni subjects to adhere to a strict version of Islam that at times diverged from a classical interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law. “Because ISIS established a caliphate, they had to prove they were following the rules of the caliphate. So they established sharia,” says Barak. Al-Hisbah, the group’s morality police, oversaw an estimated 8-11 million people living under ISIS’ rule using the hudud system of punishment according to Islamic law. “The categories of crimes as well as most of the modes of the punishments are anchored in Islamic tradition and jurisprudence,” says Hatina.

ISIS formulated its own penal code based on sharia with 11 listed offenses (including smoking cigarettes, drinking, theft, adultery and homosexuality) punishable by lashes, cutting off hands, stoning and beheading. However, the group simultaneously ignored many Islamic norms, such as suspending punishment for theft in times of war. ISIS’ enforcers burned captives and threw offenders off cliffs, actions that Hatina describes as “innovative” tactics specific to the Islamic State. “The relatively free and harsh hand in enforcing the hudud ignited harsh criticism from ISIS’ ideological rivals, depicted as deviation from Islamic norms and morality,” Hatina adds.

Former ISIS member Abu Muhamad Al Hashemi warned Baghdadi about declaring fellow Muslims to be infidels in a 2017 letter entitled “The Hashemite Advice to the Leader of the Islamic State.” Al Hashemi went on to write a book (published in March 2019) titled “Go Back on Your Pledge of Allegiance to Al-Baghdadi,” which laid out how ISIS under Baghdadi had lost its way and strayed too far from Islam.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen in video recording released by the group's Al Furqan Network on April 29, 2019.

Barak says that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Al-Qaida also started to introduce hudud punishments, but the practice waned around 2011, and stopped completely in 2013: “They understood that now is not the time to terrify people to follow them,” Barak says. Instead the group rechanneled its efforts into portraying itself as an institution that cared about the good of the people.

Although both radical and mainstream Islamic groups started speaking out against Baghdadi after the establishment of the caliphate, it was not until ISIS would go on to suffer a series of territorial losses beginning in 2015 that it would begin to lose its luster. In 2017, ISIS lost its self-proclaimed capital city of Raqqa; most recently, in October 2019, its leader was killed in a U.S.-led targeted assissination. Suffering large territorial losses – its defining asset – made ISIS no longer a political or practical force. While Baghdadi’s physical caliphate may already cease to exist, many of its fighters are regrouping in sleeper cells in remote areas throughout Iraq and Syria.

Al-Qaida goes local

Amid ISIS’ violent conquest, Al-Qaida started to shift strategy from transnational terrorism to hyperlocal mobilization. “Al-Qaida realized it had to exploit the Arab Spring and the bad situation of the central regimes in order to broaden popular support,” Barak says. Al-Qaida also used the aftermath of the Arab Spring to recruit fighters, such as Egyptian political prisoners who were released during protests in Tahrir Square, as it shifted focus from the faraway enemy to the near enemy. In Yemen, Mali, Somalia, Syria and beyond, Al-Qaida strategically forged ties with grassroots extremists, “portraying itself as people willing to support the battle of local groups” in order to strengthen the jihadist bloc, Barak adds.

With the spotlight on ISIS, Al-Qaida worked to swiftly build political legitimacy as a non-state regional force through a decentralized terror network, notably gaining new footholds in Africa. “Al-Qaida gave a larger space for local movements like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria,” says Hatina. “They were local movements with local agendas but they took the central themes of Al-Qaida … In this way Al-Qaida can be seen as a metamorphic body.” Al-Qaida’s pragmatic expansion of influence through taking a flexible approach largely stands in opposition to ISIS’ uncompromising, idealistic rigidity.

Hard-line Islamist Al Shabab fighters, who are Al-Qaida affiliates, conduct military exercise in northern Mogadishu's Suqaholaha neighborhood, Somalia, September 5, 2010.Credit: AP

This growing trend of large coalitions of small insurgency groups and the spread of increasingly radicalized terror affiliates could very well carry into the next decade. Some even speculate about the possibility of a reconciliation between Al-Qaida and ISIS in the future, pointing to the fact that Syrian Al-Qaida affiliate Huras al-Din sheltered Baghdadi in his final days. “There is a growing trend inside ISIS to change strategy and cooperate with Al-Qaida and other groups,” Barak says. “The worst nightmare is if ISIS and Al-Qaida cooperate.”

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