Last updated on 2019-03-20
This article is excerpted from Fawaz A. Gerges’s forthcoming book, ISIS: A History.
Although the spectacular surge of ISIS must be contextualized within the social and political circumstances that exist in Iraq and Syria and beyond, the group’s worldview and ideology should be taken equally seriously. Ideology is, after all, the superglue that binds Salafi-jihadists known as revolutionary religious activists or global jihadists of the ISIS variety to each other. The Salafi-jihadist movement emerged from an alliance between ultraconservative Saudi Salafism (or Wahhabism) and revolutionary Egyptian Islamism which was inspired by the Egyptian master theorist, Sayyid Qutb. The Afghan war against Soviet occupation from 1980s onwards baptized Salafi-jihadists by blood and fire and lay the operational foundation of what subsequently came to be known as Al Qaeda. Ever since, a vibrant ideology has allowed the Salafi-jihadist movement to renew and revitalize itself after suffering crushing blows. A traveling and expanding ideology, Salafi-jihadism has evolved into a powerful social movement with a repertoire of ideas, iconic leaders, worldwide supporters, networks of recruiters and enablers, theorists, preachers who provide members with ideological and theological sustenance. It has taken hold of the imagination of small Sunni communities worldwide.
Regardless of what happens to ISIS—which is an extension of the global Salafi-jihadist movement which includes a litany of groups, like Al Qaeda central—this messianic ideology is here to stay and will likely gain more followers in politically and socially polarized Arab and Muslim societies. Despite a costly civil war unfolding between ISIS and Al Qaeda Central, particularly in Syria, Salafi-jihadists continue to expand their influence and attract new recruits. A fringe social movement during the second half of the 20th century, Salafi-jihadism now vies for public influence and offers an alternative for both mainstream and radical Islamists. It is a popular, enduring brand. A sense of triumphalism permeates the discourse and public pronouncements by Salafi-jihadist ideologues and propagandists who openly proselytize. They boast that the tide of history has shifted their way and that they are on the cusp of a historical breakthrough.
Researchers have tended to underestimate the power of the Salafi-jihadist ideology at their own peril. The challenge is to shine light on this growing ideology and make sense of it. Although ISIS is an extension of the global Salafi-jihadist movement, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS who anointed himself caliph in the summer of 2014, and his cohorts represent another wave, a post-Al Qaeda generation, of Salafi-jihadists. At present, ISIS—its ideology, as well as its state and security status—has successfully tapped into a fierce clash of identities between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 caused a rupture in an already fractured Iraqi society. America’s destruction of Iraqi institutions, particularly its dismantling of the army and the Baathist ruling party, unleashed a fierce power struggle, mainly along sectarian lines, creating fissures in society. These growing ruptures provided the room necessary for non-state actors and armed insurgent militias, including Al Qaeda (AQI), to infiltrate the fragile body politic in post-2003 Iraq. In contrast to Al Qaeda Central whose key concern is the far enemy—that is, the US and its close European allies—AQI and its successor ISIS are a hyper-Sunni identity driven by an intrinsic and even genocidal anti-Shia ideology. ISIS’s lineage of Salafi-jihadism forms part of the ideological impetus; the other part of its ideological nature is an identity frame of politics. Despite the group’s insistence that it operates within a different value system from that promulgated by Western liberalism and the nation state system, its ideological rhetoric is anchored not in novelty but in identity politics whose main articulating pole is religious. Religion can act as a potent framework for social identity, especially in war environments where insecurity runs high and cultivates group loyalty by projecting itself as the truth and the right path to follow.
By providing a clear structure through strict sets of rules and beliefs and a worldview that encompasses life on earth and in the afterlife, ISIS presents individuals with the promise of an eternal group membership, which can prove particularly attractive for people prone to existential anxiety. Moreover, scholars point out that several factors feed into (Abrahamic) fundamentalist ideology, including dualism (absolute evaluations of good versus evil), authority (of a sacred book or leader), selectivity(choosing certain beliefs or practices over others), and millennialism (confidence in eschatology as God’s will). Of all factors, however, one facet is thought to be vital:“reactivity,”F which takes the form of a hostility toward secular modernity that is directed not only toward people outside of the fundamentalists’ religious in-group but also toward members of their own religious group who are not viewed as “true believers.”
In this light, ISIS’s development of a pure and absolutist ideology can be seen as part of a strategy to feed its members’ fundamentalism by emphasizing their exclusivity while projecting a universalist vision. For example, the widespread use of suicide bombers by Salafi-jihadist groups such as ISIS constitutes a recent modus operandi in Islam rather than a return to the roots. Few Muslim communities appear to be currently entangled in a war of subjectivities that stems from a series of ruptures that started with the Enlightenment and that takes the form of an Islamic-Islamic civil war over the Muslim identity itself. Meanwhile, many Arabs are also involved in an interpretative dispute about their being-in-the-world in which both the Arab world and the world at large are questioned and contested. According to an Arab philosopher, Fathi al Makdisi, the current rise of Salafi-jihadism and terrorism represented by ISIS is the result of not only creeping sectarianism or a crisis of the modern state, but also a growing nihilism that signals the collapse of progressive values and tolerance in its conception of humanity.
Nevertheless, far from being sui generis, genealogically and ideologically ISIS belongs to the Salafi-jihadist family, although it marks another stage in the evolution or, rather, mutation of the ideological gene pool. Over the past half century, the Salafi-jihadist movement has developed a repertoire of ideas, a frame of reference, theorists, thousands of followers, and “martyrs” who provide inspiration for new volunteers and who ensure the durability of the brand. ISIS has been able to draw from this repertoire, re-articulating old concepts and presenting them as new or revolutionary. Its rhetoric makes use of religious ideology to articulate identity politics. Indeed, religion has for some time been the glue that maintains the coherence, if not the unity, of various factions and divisions, and the rationale for vicious and flamboyant violence. Salafi-jihadists from various orientations, including ISIS, always cite verses from Qur’anic scripture to portray their offensive jihad as blessed.
The world according to ISIS is frozen in time and space, incorporating the rules and laws of seventh-century Arabia into the twenty-first century. Its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his associates depict themselves as battling the “antichrist” and paving the way for the ultimate triumph of the “Mahdi” and Islam (in Arabic, the Mahdi means “the Guided One,” the central crowning element of all Islamic end-time narratives, or an expected spiritual and temporal ruler destined to establish a reign of righteousness throughout the world). This millenarian thinking is at the heart of ISIS’s caliphate ideology and the global jihadist movement in general. The problem is not to know whether ISIS is Islamic—of course it is, though Muslims worldwide disavow it and distance themselves from its actions—but rather to understand how this organization borrows heavily but selectively from the Islamic canon and imposes the past on the present wholesale. Baghdadi and his propagandists overlook centuries of Islamic interpretations and counterinterpretations and rely on a narrow, strict, and obsolete textualist reading of the Islamic doctrine, a move that is very controversial and deeply contested by the religious community and al-Islam al-Sha’bi (lived Islam). There is no swell of public support for ISIS in Muslim societies, including the areas in Syria and Iraq under its control and hardly any important preacher or a cleric has lent his voice to Baghdadi’s Caliphate. Despite its sound and fury, ISIS remains a fringe phenomenon that is too extreme for mainstream Muslim opinion but sounds like a sweet melody to the ears of its social base. This base continues to replenish the ranks of ISIS and similar organizations with willing combatants and suicide bombers. Time and again politicians and observers have penned the obituary of the global jihadist movement only to be shocked by its resilience and capacity for self-renewal. Ideology is a significant factor in this process of regeneration, and it confers legitimacy on ISIS’s actions.
Under ISIS, there is no breathing space for social mobilization and political organization, including by like-minded Salafi-jihadist activism. ISIS possesses a totalitarian, millenarian worldview that eschews political pluralism, competition, and diversity of thought. Baghdadi and his associates criminalize and excommunicate free thought, and the idea that there should exist a legitimate other—be it a Muslim of differing ideological disposition or a non-Muslim—is alien to their messianic ideology. Any Muslim or co-jihadist who does not accept ISIS’s interpretation of the Islamic doctrine is an apostate who deserves death. In the same vein, any Muslim or co-jihadist who refuses to submit to the will of the new caliphate faces either expulsion from the land or death. One here needs to recall the words uttered by ISIS’s chief propagandist and official spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, following the establishment of the Islamic State. In a communiqué, Adnani, whose real name is Taha Sobhi Falaha, demanded that all jihadist factions everywhere pledge allegiance to the new caliph, Baghdadi, as the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations was now null and void. In his own words, “The land now submits to his order and authority from Aleppo to Diyala.”Adnani made it clear that there is only one Islamic state and one caliphate, with no room for dissent: “Indeed, it is the state. Indeed, it is the khilafah [caliphate]. It is time for you to end this abhorrent partisanship, dispersion, and division, for this condition is not from the religion of Allah at all. And if you forsake the State or wage war against it, you will not harm it. You will harm yourselves.” He also warned that all Muslims must obey the commander of the faithful, including former and current aspirants to the title, and ordered his fighters to “split the head” and “strike the neck” of anyone who breaks the ranks and does not submit to the will of the new caliphate.
In ISIS’s worldview, then, the caliphate is not just a political entity but also a collective religious obligation (wajib kifa’i), a means to salvation: Muslims have sinned since they abandoned the obligation of the caliphate, and, ever since, the umma has not tasted “honor” or “triumph.” ISIS’s repeated message to Muslims is that they must pledge allegiance to a valid caliph, Baghdadi, and honor that oath and live a fully Islamic life.
Politics and Tactics
Behind the romantic idea of the caliphate, however, lies identity politics, as the core of ISIS’s ideological framework is the affirmation of its “Sunni Islamic” identity and its redefinition of true Islam. Adnani’s orders might have given the illusion that the establishment of the Islamic State entails a real rupture from the present state system, but, just like under Saddam Hussein, under ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq is headed by an absolute leader who tolerates no dissent. In fact, ISIS’s conception of sovereignty does not break away from the autocratic mode of governance that has plagued Arab countries for decades: for example, both Hussein in Iraq and the Assads in Syria have used identity politics as a pillar for their policies—albeit an ethnic rather than a religious version.
ISIS has used its messianic ideology to brutally suppress both Islamists and nationalists (Baathists) in areas under its domination. Its raison d’être is to convert everyone to its cause, including rival jihadists who share a similar vision. For example, in a severe rebuttal, Adnani harshly criticized Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda Central and the most senior living jihadist, for daring to side with the chief of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, against Baghdadi in the power struggle for Syria. ISIS’s chief spokesman bluntly reminded Zawahiri that should he make it to the territories of the Islamic State, he would have to swear baiya (fealty) to Baghdadi and serve as one of his footsoldiers. As Baghdadi pledged allegiance to Zawahiri in 2010, this open attack represents the ultimate insult.
ISIS’s hard-line stance has caused much havoc within the global jihadist movement, even leading to a split between ISIS and al-Nusra, which was originally constituted on Baghdadi’s orders. A key cause of the rift between the two organizations was that Joulani rejected an order by Baghdadi in April 2013 to annex his front to ISIS. Baghdadi considered Joulani’s snub treacherous and ever since has waged all-out war against al-Nusra and its Islamist and nationalist Syrian allies. The intra-jihadist confrontation in Syria has killed thousands of skilled fighters from both camps and has seen atrocities committed by each side, including wholesale rape, beheadings, and crucifixions. The war within the jihadist tribe is as savage as the war with outsiders. Islamic State followers and those of Al Qaeda Central excommunicate one another and marshal religious discourse to show that they are the real jihadist vanguard, while their rivals are pretenders. In Syria ISIS could not coexist with al-Nusra or any other Islamist group because that would have challenged its monopoly on the scared and on the global jihadist project as well. In addition to mastering the art of making enemies of all regional and global powers, ISIS eliminates conventional politics altogether and aspires to organize society along puritanical lines of seventh-century Arabia, a worldview that imposes the distant past on the present.
It is no wonder, then, that ISIS engages in cultural cleansing, purifying the Islamic lands of all alien and infidel influences, including traditional Sunni practices that clash with its fundamentalist and timeless interpretation of the Islamic doctrine. The idea of purifying the Islamic lands is deeply ingrained in the imagination of radical religious activists, but ISIS is the first social movement to attempt to operationalize this ideology. As Islamic State militants swept across Syria and Iraq, they destroyed, damaged, and/or looted numerous cultural sites and sculptures, condemning them as idolatry. Celebrating their cultural cleansing in spectacular propaganda displays, Islamic State fighters show by deeds, not words, their intent to purify the lands and resurrect the caliphate. While ISIS’s propaganda is abhorrent to the outside world, it is greedily devoured by its social base. Its slickly produced recruitment films about cultural cleansing not only reinforce its strategic message of triumph and expansion but also divert attention from battlefield setbacks.3
A Pure Caliphate
For an authentic Islamic state to be erected, the Sunni militants of ISIS feel that the Islamic lands must be cleansed of apostasy and heretics, regardless of the human or civilizational costs. In fact, ISIS’s fighters are keen on displaying an ideological zeal and purity in an effort to outbid their Islamist rivals like Jabhat al-Nusra, the official arm of Al Qaeda Central. For example, in an attempt to cleanse Sunni society of other cultural influences, ISIS has sought to dismantle the diverse social fabric made up of Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians that has developed and persevered since the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. Broadly, their wrath is directed at minorities whom they view as infidels without human rights. A case that illustrates ISIS’s ideology of ethnic cleansing is its extraordinary punishment of the Yazidis, a tiny religious minority, representing less than 1.5 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of thirty-four million, whom ISIS considers heretics. After the capture of Mosul and its outlying towns in summer 2014, including Sinjar, near the Syrian border, home to tens of thousands of Yazidis, ISIS engaged in systemic cultural cleansing, forcing hundreds of thousands of minorities from their homes and using sexual violence as a weapon by indiscriminately raping Yazidi girls and women. ISIS viciously attacked the Yazidis, killing men and boys of fighting age and abducting a total of 5,270 Yazidi girls and women (at least 3,144 of whom are still being held at the time of writing), who were subsequently forced into sexual slavery, according to human rights organizations, United Nations figures, and community leaders. To handle the modern sex trade, ISIS has set up a Department of “War Spoils” and a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by its Islamic courts, according to a cache of documents seized by US Special Operations Forces in a May 2015 raid in Syria that killed top ISIS financial official Aby Sayyaf.And systemic rape has become an established and increasingly powerful recruiting tool for ISIS to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.
According to the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and investigative reports by the media, ISIS has destroyed hundreds of Yazidi women’s lives.4 Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, spoke to forty Yazidi women who had managed to escape from ISIS captivity, and said that what ISIS had done to them amounted to war crimes. “Hundreds of Yezidi women and girls have had their lives shattered by the horrors of sexual violence and sexual slavery in IS captivity,” she said. Zainab Bangura, a UN envoy investigating sexual violence in the conflict, has confirmed that an ISIS pamphlet that gives prices for the purchase of women is real and that “the girls get peddled like barrels of petrol.” Bangura notes that prices for boys and girls aged one to nine are about $165. Adolescent girls cost about $124, and it’s less for women over twenty. “They have a machinery, they have a program,” she told Bloomberg News. “They have a manual on how you treat these women.”According to ISIS’s ideology, Yazidis are seen as polytheists and, worse, devil worshipers, and they are not even entitled to be treated like “People of the Book,” Christians and Jews, who can atone for their sins by paying a tax known as jizya to be set free. In contrast, ISIS either kills or coverts Yazidis by force and enslaves their women, a punishment sanctioned, they say, by their experts of Islamic jurisprudence.
ISIS’s involvement in the sex trade and its enslavement of girls and women from the tiny Yazidi religious community are driven not only by power and male (patriarchal) domination but also by ideological zealousness. Baghdadi and his shura council (cabinet) want to distinguish themselves from Islamist rivals by attempting to revive traditions, rituals, and practices that have been dormant for over a thousand years in Muslim history. They have falsely made emulation of the Prophet Mohammed a strict duty, a tool to display their religious purity and authenticity.For example, citing selective sayings of the Prophet, a booklet entitled “From Creator’s Rulings on Capturing Prisoners and Enslavement,” calls for both kindness and cruelty to captives by ISIS. Enslaved women should not be separated from their children, the booklet says, but the rules allow the group’s combatants to have sex with female slavesISIS has also publicly boasted about its enslavement of Yazidi women in their magazine called Dabiq and in their propaganda videos. ISIS has justified its actions on religious grounds by juxtaposing the distant past with the present and selectively citing verses from the scripture or the Sunna (the traditions based on the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed) to justify their sex slavery. In an October 2014 article titled “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour,” the group argues that the Yazidi women “could be enslaved unlike female apostates [the Shia], who the majority of the fuqahā’ [experts in Islamic jurisprudence] say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword. . . . After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah [Islamic law] amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums [the one-fifth of booty or spoils that goes to the state].”
Christians do not fare much better. After capturing Mosul and other cities in Iraq and Syria, ISIS presented Christians in both countries with a stark choice: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (jizya), or get out immediately and be disinherited from everything you own. Recent evidence shows that despite paying the special tax, Christian girls and women have been victims of ISIS’s practice of systemic rape. In light of this ultimatum, the ISIS surge has triggered another wave of exodus by Christians, an exodus that began in earnest when its forerunner, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, also commonly known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, forced 1 million of Iraq’s surviving 1.5 million Christians to flee the country between 2003 and 2010. There is a real danger that Baghdadi could finish the job of his predecessor, Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006 by the United States—a job that would entail ridding Iraq of its ancient Assyrian community, nearly two thousand years old.
Moreover, ISIS’s totalitarian religious ideology also openly targets Muslims. Trying to distinguish themselves theologically from like-minded Islamist radicals, including Al Qaeda Central, Baghdadi and his cohorts are intensely takfiri44F—that is, followers of the takfiri doctrine, which calls for excommunication of a person or a group of kuffar (infidels) or non-Muslims. ISIS considers Shia Muslims to be apostates, sanctioning the shedding of their blood as well as that of Sunnis who oppose their vision. While it can be argued that Arab authoritarian rulers such as President Bashar al-Assad and former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki have not done enough to protect the region’s minorities against ISIS, these sectarian-based regimes created fertile conditions that allowed Salafi-jihadist groups like ISIS to build a popular base of support among Sunnis and surge. Indeed, ISIS is the main beneficiary of the divisive and destructive policies of the central governments of Iraq and Syria and the breakdown of state institutions in the Arab arena in general. From the beginning Baghdadi and his cohorts depicted themselves as the sole defenders of excluded and aggrieved Sunni communities against Shia-dominated regimes, first in Baghdad and then in Damascus.
As discussed at the beginning, ISIS is a near-enemy revolutionary movement, focusing on the Arab-Islamic world, not a far-enemy organization targeting the Western powers, even though it has recently devoted more resources to carrying out attacks against the far enemy, including Russia, Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia. It is an ideational, hyper-Sunni movement that harbors a genocidal ideology against the Shia, which means that roughly 120 Shias are marked for death. After it burst out of its original home in Iraq, ISIS expanded to Syria in 2012, with grand ambitions to spread to neighboring countries. In his second address to the world in November 2014, Baghdadi confirmed that his imperial ambitions were not limited to Iraq and Syria but also included Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and beyond.
Theorist Enablers of ISIS
Although ISIS does not have its own reputed scholars or theorists, it has mined Salafi-jihadists’ repertoire of ideas and selectively borrowed whatever fits its unique worldview. At times, the organization has even been accused of falsely appropriating the works of extremist Salafi theorists. For example, a prominent Salafi-jihadist scholar, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, lashed out angrily against Baghdadi’s cohorts for stealing his writings considered to be foundational by Salafi-jihadist and claiming them as their own. Maqdisi, however, is not a major inspiration for ISIS, as the group is nourished on a bloodier and deadlier diet. Baghdadi and his inner circle rely particularly on three Salafi-jihadist manifestos to rationalize and justify what they do.The most well-known of the three is The Management of Savagery. Circulated in PDF format under the pseudonym Abu Bakr al-Najji in the early 2000s, the manifesto provides a strategic roadmap of how to create an Islamic caliphate that differs dramatically from similar efforts by Salafi-jihadists in earlier decades. The second book is Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad by Abu Abdullah al-Muhajjer, which calls on Salafi-jihadists to do whatever it takes to establish a purely unified Islamic state. The final book is The Essentials of Making Ready [for Jihad] by Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Abdel-Qader Ibn Abdel-Aziz or Dr. Fadl. This massive work focuses on the theological and practical meanings of jihad in Islam, and it has become a central text in jihadi training. Dr. Fadl admitted that he wrote the book in 1987–1988 in order for it to be a manual for training camps of what subsequently became known as Al Qaeda.47F
While Najji’s identity remains unconfirmed, both Muhajjer and Dr. Fadlwere close associates of Zawahiri. Muhajjer is an Egyptian national who fought in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. After graduating from the Islamic University in Islamabad and teaching at jihadist camps in Kabul, Muhajjer mentored fighters at Zarqawi’s camp in Herat, and he was seriously considered as a candidate for the scientific and scholarly committee of Al Qaeda Central. After the collapse of the Taliban rule in 2001, he escaped to Iran and was held by the authorities there until his release to Egypt just after the January 25, 2011, revolution. Dr. Fadl was an early associate of Zawahiri. The two first met in the late 1960s in Cairo, where they both attended Cairo University’s medical school. In the early 1980s their paths crossed again in Pakistan-Afghanistan, where they worked together to rebuild Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a Salafi-jihadist group. After September 11, 2001, Dr. Fadl and Zawahiri parted ways, engaging in a public feud over ideology and the future direction of the global jihadist movement. While serving a life sentence in an Egyptian prison, Dr. Fadl subsequently disowned his ideas and called for the demilitarization and deradicalization of the Salafi-jihadist camp. But despite Dr. Fadl’s subsequent revisions and repudiation of his extremist ideas, his book has taken a life of its own, a bible for many Salafi-jihadist. The story and journey of the three theorists show the enduring intellectual impact of the pioneers or the first generation of Salafi-jihadists on the movement as a whole. As a traveling ideology, Salafi-jihadism is nourished on ideas that can be tailored to fit the predilections and whims of every wave, providing nourishment and motivation to new coverts and adherents.
The three manifestos represent the most extreme thinking within the movement and the degeneration of the Salafi-jihadist ideology into Fiqh al-Damaa (the jurisprudence of blood). Although most analysts focus mainly on The Management of Savagery, the other two manifestos are as important in providing intellectual and ideological motivation and inspiration for Baghdadi and his ideologues. Despite differences, there are common conceptual threads among the three manifestos that offer theoretical guidance for ISIS’s actions. First, the three books call for all-out war and advocate performing offensive (jihad) as opposed to only defensive jihad in order to bleed the kuffar (infidels) or the enemies of Islam, thus creating chaos and fear. At the heart of this rationalization lies the belief that Salafi-jihadists must rid themselves of the illusion that the establishment of an Islamic state is possible through gradual electoral means or the political process. The authors poke fun of fellow Islamists who call for a reformist approach, arguing that it is impossible to build the institutions of an Islamic state under a system of apostasy. Second, although this total war should target both the “near enemy” (Muslim rulers) and the “far enemy” (the US and its close European allies), they prioritize the fight against tyrannical Muslim rulers who do not apply shariah (Qur’anic law). Finally, all three manifestos call on the movement’s planners and lieutenants to kill with impunity, to observe no limits and follow in the footsteps of the Prophet’s companions, who, in their opinion, brutally punished dissenters and rivals. They cite selective cases of early Islamic history to prove their claim that excessive violence produces the desired effect: submission. According to their logic, viciousness is the secret to success and victory, while softheartedness is a recipe for failure and defeat. They also argue that the ends—reclaiming Islam’s golden age and establishing the Islamic state—justify the means—viciousness and savagery.
Total War = Total Victory
Although all three Salafi-jihadist theorists advocate offensive jihad rather than defensive jihad, Najji explicitly makes the case for all-out war. According to Najji, in the past Salafi-jihadists lacked a strategic blueprint and carried out isolated acts of violence with no comprehensive “military strategy” or master plan. He harshly criticizes fellow Islamists for squandering precious time and effort on “preaching” jihad rather than doing jihad.Instead, Najji offers an expansive plan with three stages in which violence would be escalated qualitatively and strategically rather than in ad hoc and random way. In the first stage, al-Nikayawal-Tamkeen (vexation and empowerment), the will of the enemy must be broken by carrying out attacks against vital economic and strategic targets such as oil facilities and the tourism infrastructure. As security forces would rush in and mobilize resources to protect these sensitive targets, the state would be weakened and its powers would wither away, a condition conducive to “savagery and chaos.” Salafi-jihadists would then take advantage of this security vacuum, notes Najji, by launching an all-out battle on the thinly dispersed security forces. Once the rulers are overthrown, a second phase would commence, Idrarat al-Tawhush (the administration or management of savagery), and the third and final stage, Shawkat al-Tamkeen (empowerment), would see the establishment of the Islamic state. This Islamic state, Najji explains, should be ruled by a single leader who would then unify diffuse and scattered groups and regions of “savagery” in a caliphate. According to Najji, this third stage employs a mixture of persuasion and coercion to win hearts and minds and gain legitimacy and recognition forthe Islamic rule.
Although Najji does not directly acknowledge the influence of Sayyid Qutb, the master theorist of contemporary revolutionary Islamism, he borrows some of his terminology and Islamist references, such as al-Qilla al-Mumtaza (the vanguard) and Zulm al-Jahiliyya (the darkness of ignorance of divine guidance). However, he explicitly professes inspiration from an influential fourteenth-century radical Islamic scholar and theologian called Ibn Taymiyya, whose fatwas (religious edicts) on jihad have provided motivation for multiple waves of Salafi-jihadists, including ISIS. Unsurprisingly, Najji emphasizes the significance of the media and propaganda as an ideological tool to mobilize and recruit the Muslim masses to the side of Salafi-jihadists during the first and second stages of the long war, and then to control them and pacify them during the final stage under a centralized Islamic rule.
In The Management of Savagery, Najji’s sole preoccupation is with the near enemy, secular and renegade Muslim rulers. He lists a few countries as a potentially fertile ground, mainly Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, Nigeria, and Pakistan. However, Najji qualifies his shopping list by saying that it is temporary and that it would be more effective to apply his master plan to two or three countries before targeting the other cases. Similarly, in The Essentials of Making Ready [for Jihad], Dr. Fadl contends that although jihad should target both the far enemy and the near enemy, the latter should take precedence. According to Dr. Fadl, the near enemy is those “infidel rulers” who “apply infidel laws and infidel democracy.” He argues that attacking these rulers, whom he called Murtadeen (apostates), should even take priority over the other “jihad against Jews,” because they “are closer to us and they have abandoned and renounced Islamic beliefs.”55F He depicts these Muslim rulers as more dangerous than kuffar—Christians and Jews. Like Najji and Muhajjer, Dr. Fadl draws on Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas to justify war against the near enemy, claiming that jihad against “apostate leaders” is Fard Ayn (an obligation) of every Muslim who has reached the age of fifteen.Citing Ibn Taymiyya and being inspired by Qutb without naming him, he expands the list of apostates to “include anyone who rules by positivist [secular] laws.” During this phase of jihad, Muslims should “display animosity and hatred towards those living infidels,” and “disavow their infidel principles such as communism and democracy,” and “isolate themselves even by migration from the infidels’ land.”Dr. Fadleven argues that jihad against the enemy in its homeland should take place “at least once a year,” although he cites other Muslim scholars who argued that “there are no time limits to this Jihad.”6 The Muslim umma, he notes, must prioritize this offensive jihad, and both its internal and external policies, including agriculture, industry, commerce, and housing, must be geared to support this sacred mission. He warns Muslims that anyone who avoids “jihad for the sake of God” would “betray Allah, his prophet and the religion itself.”The key goal, notes Dr. Fadl, is to create Hakimiyya (the rule of God) on earth; this would occur “when Muslims defeat their enemies and apply Islam’s rules in the conquered lands.”  The concept of the vanguard is essential to the success of Dr. Fadl’s jihadist project, and he first and foremost calls on Salafi-jihadists to “form a Jama’a Muslima [Muslim group]” whose task is to recruit others to join the mission described in the manual. The significance of Dr. Fadl’s manual is that it provides doctrinal justification in the fight against the near enemy, which ISIS prioritizes over that against the far enemy.
Prioritizing the fight against the far enemy, Muhajjer calls on Salafi-jihadists to launch war on kuffar. In Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad, he opposes the consensus among jurisprudents over the centuries and asserts that “killing kuffar and fighting them in their homeland is a necessity even if they do not harm Muslims.”Muhajjer does not distinguish between “civilians” and “combatants” among non-Muslims because he bluntly confesses that the main reason for “killing them and confiscating their property” is the fact that “they are not Muslims.” Moreover, the writer who earned the pseudonym Faqih al-Damaa (jurisprudent of blood) expanded the definition of Dar al-Kuffr (land of apostasy) to include countries inhabited by a majority of Muslims; these states do not apply shariah or Islamic law and thus are legitimate targets for attacks by Salafi-jihadists.
Savagery as a Means to an End
Whether they prioritize the fight against the near enemy, as Najji does, or insist that attention should be paid to both the near enemy and the far enemy, as Dr. Fadl and Muhajjer (to a lesser extent) do, all three authors argue that the existing system of Kufr (apostasy) must be overthrown, incinerated, regardless of the inherent cost or sacrifice. In fact, the authors’ key argument is that Salafi-jihadists must hasten social and institutional disintegration of the state system and induce mayhem and be prepared to manage this cataclysm. The goal is to kill and terrorize not for the sake of killing or terrorism but for a higher moral purpose: cultural cleansing and the imposition of God’s laws on kuffar. For example, in The Management of Savagery, Najji points out that “the worst chaotic condition is by far preferable to stability under the system of apostasy”,thus turning the received wisdom of the mainstream religious establishment on its head. He depicts Salafi-jihadists as the vanguard best equipped to trigger an apocalypse or an end to apostasy, an end to the world as we know it, and a religious rebirth. “We must drag all the people to battle and bring the temple down on the heads of everyone,” Najji states. Even “if the whole umma perishes, they would all be martyrs,” he adds, justifying the death of millions of Muslims as for a worthy cause.
As to their favorite methods of violence, it seems that the authors have a preference for beheading and burning, which they see as effective in instilling fear and deterring others from resisting. Such vicious methods, they insist, can also be used to attack economic targets, particularly petroleum. Requiring sacrifice and pain, this confrontation must use shock-and-awe tactics to overwhelm the enemy, make him “think one thousand times before attacking us . . . and keep him on the defensive and off balance.”Najji advocates attacking the population and infrastructure in order to terrorize the enemy and maximize levels of savagery.
In a similar vein, Muhajjer advocates the use of gruesome methods such as beheading, a favorite tactic of his. In Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad, he devotes a whole chapter to beheading, arguing that it would “convey a gory picture” by “strengthening the hearts of Muslims and terrorizing the apostates” by deterring them.Muhajjer even provides theological justification for grotesque forms of punishment such as transporting and displaying the heads of those non-Muslims killed in battle from one country to another in order to boost the deterrence power of Salafi-jihadists. He dedicates another chapter to suicide bombings, claiming that killing oneself is theologically legal because it is designed to boost religion. Going beyond Najji’s guidelines, Muhajjer advises Salafi-jihadists to obtain weapons of mass destruction, which he sees as a “necessity” in this total war. Although he says that weapons of mass destruction must only be used in defense against an invasion by kuffar, he qualifies this by insisting on other measures of punishment if that would benefit Muslims.
There is a sober, realist, cold-bloodedness to the guidelines offered by Najji, Muhajjer, and Dr. Fadl, a businesslike attitude that belies the dark, sinister, and vile ideological message. Their point of departure is that the Islamic State can only be nourished on “blood” and erected on “skeletons and human remains”; the whole society must be transformed into a war society prepared to wage a prolonged battle that will produce historical leaders. Although these leaders, caution the authors, will sustain deep wounds and suffer great personal losses, they are necessary to build a jihadist generation, a Qur’anic generation baptized by blood and fire. Theirs is an existential fight between faith and Kufr, Islam and apostasy, and only total war against enemies near and far will bring about the Islamist utopia.
Totalitarian Religious Ideology: A Doubled-edged Sword
Much like it was for Al Qaeda before it, the world according to ISIS is characterized by a perpetual war against real and imagined enemies. Society is in constant mobilization, on a permanent war footing, to fend off enemies who lurk everywhere and hatch conspiracies against the Islamic State. According to this worldview, stability can only be attained when enemies are either subjugated or forced to recognize the group’s sacred mandate. This totalitarian and absolutist ideology is a doubled-edged sword that while, on the one hand, cemented the ties that bind among ISIS combatants and followers; it has blinded ISIS to the complex realities of governance at home and international relations abroad, on the other. There are credible reports of public restiveness in the areas under ISIS’s control in Syria and Iraq and even defection by some of its fighters. Residents also report that ISIS is experiencing serious financial hardship and is squeezing the local population in order to extract resources and conscript young men. Hundreds of leaked ISIS documents show that since the start of October 2015, the group has taken a number of measures, including military mobilization, fearing traitors in their midst. Becoming increasing paranoid, ISIS issued an amnesty for military deserters because it presumably needs more soldiers.
Ideological fanaticism has also led the group to monstrously miscalculate by mastering the art of making enemies and turning the entire world against it. Although ISIS has done impressively on the battlefield so far, its political and strategic miscalculations and shortsightedness do not bode well for the group in the long term. With ISIS, there are no blurred lines or gray areas, only followers and enemies: you either pledge allegiance to Baghdadi and his ideology or are labeled an enemy who could be killed. There is no neutral stance between good and evil; passivity is seen as apostasy. This binary black-and-white worldview pitted the organization against most of humanity, including the godfathers of Salafi-jihadist thought and neutral states like Turkey. Turkey is a prime example of the effects of ISIS’s strategy of waging war on the entire world and turning neutral regional countries and potential friends into enemies. Of all regional powers, Turkey was the least hostile toward ISIS and could have encouraged the organization to demonstrate restraint and diplomatic awareness. At the end of 2015, ISIS allegedly carried out deadly attacks against foreign targets, including a Russian jet, and urban centers in Beirut and Paris, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. These massive operations galvanized the great powers, particularly France and Russia, to coordinate and redouble their efforts to defeat ISIS. Instead of making an effort at diplomatic engagement that could have increased their claims of statehood, Baghdadi and his inner circle have united the world against them.
In a way, ISIS has rejected the structure of the state system and is attempting to offer an alternative revolutionary model based on Islamic identity, not state sovereignty. ISIS’s conduct seems suicidal, however. There is a disconnect between ISIS’s limited military capabilities and the long list of regional and global powers pitted against the group, including the two most powerful militaries in the international system—those of the Americans, the Russians, and the Europeans. With too many enemies and shrinking resources, it is doubtful if ISIS could sustain its stranglehold on the major cities that it controls in a prolonged fight over several years. A more plausible scenario is that, as military pressure intensifies against ISIS in the near future, its core middle and senior leaders might melt into urban areas and wage a terrorist campaign along similar lines to that of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) between 2007 and 2011. The “Islamic State” would mutate into its original type, an underground, paramilitary Salafi-jihadist organization. As explained previously, ISIS’s success so far has mainly depended on the group’s ability to exploit the deep communal divide in the region and the fragility of the state structures in Syria and Iraq as well as contradictions within the US-led coalition and the lack of effective local forces on the ground. More importantly, Baghdadi’s armed apparatus and “state” require a constant resupply of men of fighting age, arms, ammunition, and money, all of which have become scarce. Although foreign recruits continue to travel to Syria to join ISIS, albeit at a much reduced rate, there are credible reports of fighters who are disillusioned and defecting from the organization. The flow of jihadists to Syria has also dried up due to the Americans and the Turks working closely together by the end of 2015 to close down Turkey’s five-hundred-mile-long border with Syria, a border that until very recently provided a lifeline to ISIS. Fundamentally, in the coming future, it may prove to be a significant challenge for ISIS to keep its overextended armada oiled and stocked within an increasingly hostile regional and international environment.
With many enemies and very few friends, Baghdadi and his armed contingents stand naked and alone in the eye of a gathering storm, much weaker than ISIS’s propagandists would like us to believe. The Islamic State is built on shaky foundations, and the foolishness and recklessness of its planners aggravate its predicament. Baghdadi and his inner circle are their own worst enemies. While it is essential not to underestimate ISIS’s military strength, its ideological fervor, and the asabiya (social solidarity) of its hard-core operators, it is also important not to buy into the group’s narrative of itself as invincible, undefeatable, and expandable. In comparative historical terms, ISIS is more like the Taliban in Afghanistan than the great revolutionary movements such as the Bolshevik Revolution and the Chinese Communist Revolution. The notion of ISIS’s invincibility is a myth. Supported by the US-led coalition airstrikes, the Kurds in Syria and Iraq have bloodied the nose of Baghdadi and his cohorts, delivering ISIS a hard blow. The Iraqi security forces backed by Sunni and Shia allies and US airpower have recaptured major cities and towns from ISIS in 2015, including Tikrit, Baiji, Sinjar, and Ramadi. Supported by coalition planes, the American-backed anti-ISIS alliance of Syrian Kurds and Arab rebel groups, known as the Democratic Forces of Syria, made important gains against the group in the latter half of 2015, threatening to cut off its last direct access to the Turkish border and hampering its ability to attract foreign recruits. In addition, the introduction of Russian airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria in 2015 has allowed the Syrian army to regain territories from the group, though most of the Russian attacks focused on other rebels opposed to the Assad regime. And after the Paris attacks in November 2015, the French, together with other European powers, have become more active in the fight against ISIS, providing logistical and military assistance to local forces in Iraq and Syria.
A few days before the Iraqi security forces expelled ISIS from the center of Ramadi in December 2015, Baghdadi released an audio tape, his first public message in seven months, in which he conceded that his group faces a dangerous moment, calling on his soldiers to be patient and steadfast. Trying to shore up the morale of his followers in a rare public message, his first in seven months, Baghdadi said that “Crusaders and Jews” did not dare to fight on his turf and portrayed the military setbacks as a trial by Allah to test the faith of his men. “Be confident that God will grant victory to those who worship him, and hear the good news that our state is doing well. The more intense the war against it, the purer it becomes and the tougher it gets,” he preached. Baghdadi’s unusual acknowledgment of hardship and tribulation is not only related to recent military setbacks in Iraq and Syria but also to dissention within the group’s own ranks. The lesson is that ISIS can be defeated militarily if resisted by determined and organized local communities; whether this is an achievable goal in marginalized Sunni-majority areas in Iraq and Syria is another matter.
In the meantime, the organization will endure as long as the factors and circumstances that have fueled its rise remain in place in Iraq and Syria and beyond. While the fragility of the state structures in Iraq and Syria is the key cause of ISIS’s swift and spectacular surge, regional and global rivalries sustain and prolong its existence. As long as these conditions and cleavages exist, it is going to be difficult to defeat ISIS and dislodge it from Iraq and Syria.
 R. Ysseldyk, M. Kimberly, Matheson, and H. Anisman, “Religiosity as Identity: Toward an Understanding of Religion from a Social Identity Perspective,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 14, no. 1 (2010): 60–71.
Fethi Benslama, La guerre des subjectivities en Islam (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Lignes, 2014).
See the interview of Fathi al Makdisi: “The Modernity Promised by the Nation State Is No Longer Sufficient—There Is a Need for a New Affiliation,” al-Quds al-Arabi, August 22, 2015 [in Arabic],www.alquds.co.uk/?p=391704&print=1#comments_controls.
See link to an audio message by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani,“Hazizahu Allah” (This is the promise of Allah) June 29, 2014, http://jihadology.net/2014/06/29/al-furqan-media-presents-a-new-audio-message-from-the-islamic-states-shaykh-abu-muḥammad-al-adnani-al-shami-this-is-the-promise-of-god/.
See link to a voice recording by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani,“Apologies, Leader of al-Qaeda,” declaring the revocation of the pledge of allegiance to Al Qaeda and calling on it to reject the pledge of allegiance by Joulani:www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAB(posted on September 17, 2014).
Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “ISIS Fighters Seize Control of Syrian City of Palmyra, and Ancient Ruins,” New York Times, May 20, 2015. See also Anne Barnard, “ISIS Conquest of Palmyra Expands Militants’ Hold on Syria,” New York Times, May 21, 2015.
 Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Phil Stewart, “Exclusive: Seized documents reveal Islamic State’s Department of `War Spoils`,” Reuters, December 28, 2015]
Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” New York Times, August 13, 2015; see also Judit Neurink, “The ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Viewed Women Held Captive at a Syrian House as His Private Property, and Raped a Number of Them, Including the US Hostage Kayla Mueller,” Independent, August 14, 2015.
Amnesty International, Escape from Hell: Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State Captivity in Iraq(London: Amnesty International, 2014),www.amnesty.org.uk/sites/default/files/escape_from_hell_-_torture_and_sexual_slavery_in_islamic_state_captivity_in_iraq_-_english_2.pdf; Rothna Begum and Samer Muscati, “Interview: These Yezidi Girls Escaped ISIS. Now What?,” Human Rights Watch, April 15, 2015; Samer Muscati, “Raped by ISIS and Trying to Face the Future,” Human Rights Watch, April 14, 2015.
Amnesty International, Escape from Hell.
 The “price list” was first leaked by activists based in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria in November 2014, but it was unable to be verified and its authenticity was initially brought into question. Cormac Fitzgerald, “ISIS Executes 19 Female Prisoners for Refusing to Practice ‘Sexual Jihad’—Kurdish Official,” Irish Independent, August 6, 2015.
Fiker Center for Studies, “The Islamic State Organization: Drivers and Ideology” [in Arabic],www.fikercenter.com/, summarized in AlSouria.net, July 18 and 22, 2015.
 Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, and Phil Stewart, “Exclusive: Seized documents reveal Islamic State’s Department of `War Spoils`,” Reuters, December 28, 2015].
ISIS, “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour,”Dabiq, no. 4, October 2014.
For Baghdadi’s audio statement in November 2014, seehttps://pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/audio-message-by-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-even-if-the-disbelievers-despise-such/.
Abu Bakr al-Najji, Idaraat al-Tawahush: Akhtar MarhalaaSatamur Beha al-Umma [Management of savagery: The most critical stage through which the Islamic nation will pass] (n.p.: Markaz al-DerasaatwalBuhuth al-Islamiyaa, n.d.), https://pietervanostaeyen.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/idarat_al-tawahhush_-_abu_bakr_naji.pdf; Abu Abdullah al-Muhajjer, Masael fi Fiqh al-Jihad [An introduction to the jurisprudence of jihad], https://archive.org/details/msael-mn; and Abdel-Qade Ibn Abdel-Aziz [Dr. Fadl], Al-’Umda fi I’dad al-’Udda[The essentials of making ready (for jihad)],www.m5zn.com/newuploads/2015/02/18/pdf/4f2fb076fd7d595.pdf.
Abdel-Aziz, The Essentials of Making Ready, 5.
Ibid. Moatez al-Khatib, “Daesh’s Intellectual Origins: From Jurisprudence to Reality,” January 2015, http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/dossiers/decipheringdaeshoriginsimpactandfuture/2014/12/2014123981882756.htm#a20.
Najji, Management of Savagery, 83.
Ibid., 75, 77.
Abdel-Aziz, The Essentials of Making Ready, 340.
Ibid., 30, 344. Fard Ayn (an individual duty) is an act that is obligatory for Muslims individually. Each will be rewarded for performing it, or punished for failing to perform it. The five daily prayers, for which Muslims are individually responsible, is one example of this duty.
Fawaz Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 14.
Muhajjer, An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad,25.
See Najji, Management of Savagery, 4.
Muhajjer, An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Jihad, 270, 288.
Najji, Management of Savagery, 76–79.
 Shiv Malik, “The Isis papers: Leaked documents show how Isis building its state,” Guardian, December 7, 2015.
 Martin Williams, “Dozens of Fighters Are Defecting from the Islamic State. Here’s Why,” Washington Post, September 21, 2015; Schmitt and Sengupta, “Thousands Enter Syria.” See also J. Diamond, “Congressional Report: U.S. Has ‘Failed’ to Stop Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS,” CNN.com, September 30, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/09/29/politics/foreign-fighters-isis-congressional-task-force-report/index.html; Erin Cunningham, “The Flow of Jihadists into Syria Dries Up as Turkey Cracks Down on the Border,” Washington Post, August 1, 2015; David Brunnstrom, “U.S., Turkey Working to Finish Shutting Northern Syria Border: Kerry,” Reuters, November 17, 2015.
Baghdadi, “The Khilafa Publications.”See also Ensor, “Islamic State leader Baghdadi Goads West.”
Originally published on 2016-03-18
About the author: Fawaz A. Gerges is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and holder of the Emirates Professorship in Contemporary Middle East Studies. He was also the inaugural Director of the LSE Middle East Centre from 2010 until 2013. Gerges’ most recent books are: Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Popular Resistance and Marginalised Activism beyond the Arab Uprisings; The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World; and Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? On the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, Oxford University Press released Gerges’ book, The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda.
Source: Foreign Policy Journal
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