Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. But the Islamic State (IS) is not. The death of its “Caliph” is certainly a blow to the terrorist group. But the IS is ideologically stronger to survive the fall of its leader, and the geopolitical conditions that led to the rise of the group remain more or less intact. Much has been discussed about these conditions. Geopolitical tensions, civil conflicts and foreign interventions have been a source of power for jihadist groups such as the al-Qaeda and the IS. Remember, Osama bin Laden was a nobody before the Americans and their allies started bankrolling and training the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Red Army. The Taliban, which rose to power from the civil war-stricken Afghanistan was hosting the al-Qaeda when it carried out the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia. The al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) rose from the ruins of the Iraq that was destroyed by the American invasion. And the AQI morphed into today’s IS, exploiting the chaos Syria fell into in the wake of the civil war. While these are the objective conditions behind the rise of terrorist-jihadism , what is its subjectivity? Do these groups have an agency?
Brothers with arms
Though the al-Qaeda and the IS are cut from the same cloth, there are tactical and strategic differences in their operations. The al-Qaeda was basically a hit-and-run organisation until the IS changed the landscape of terrorism. The group would carry out attacks and then retreat to the deserts, caves or mountains where it was hiding. It did not expose itself to the conventional military might of its enemies. Barring certain pockets that al-Qaeda-affiliated groups now control, such as Syria’s Idlib, the group largely remains a hit-and-run organisation. The IS, however, took insurgency a step further. It started holding on to territories it captured, established a proto-state in those territories and called it the Islamic State. While the al-Qaeda also wants to create a global emirate, the IS took steps to implement its world-view. It declared a Caliphate, trying to revive an Islamic institution that ceased to exist following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. And by doing so, Baghdadi tried to place himself in the long list of Islamic Caliphs, the rightful leaders of the ummah (the global Muslim community).
Violent jihadism is inherently anti-modern and very unpopular among Muslims across the world . It is because of their unpopularity that these groups are involved in extreme violence. With their asymmetrical barbarity, jihadist groups have sought to overcome not just the shortcomings in their military capabilities but also the lack of their political capital. For Baghdadi’s group, violence was both a means and an end in itself. The puritanical interpretation of Islam by the IS has echoes from Salafi Islam. The Salafis follow the “pious forefathers” of Islam. For them, man cannot interpret the holy book or the Hadith. But Salafism itself is not a monolith. It can be a spiritual way of life. There are Salafi organisations whose members dedicate themselves to a “pure” Islamic way of life and have nothing to do with violence. But for groups such as the al-Qaeda and the IS, Salafism is a political ideology to attain power. And since they cannot attain power through mass movements, popular elections or revolutions, they turn to violent jihadism as a vehicle to reach that goal, which makes them Salafi-Jihadists.
‘Pure’ Islamic State
Unlike the al-Qaeda, the IS’s operations were not confined to carrying out suicide attacks in the West or West-backed countries. It wanted to create a “pure” Islamic State where the “true” believers can come and live. These “true believers”, for the IS, were Sunni Muslims alone and who followed the IS’s diktats. The Shias are in this worldview, considered “rafidha” (rejectionists, who “reject” the first three Caliphs of the Sunni Islam), and therefore merit second class status. In areas under their control, the minority communities had to pay minority tax to the state for protection. They could not publicly practise their religion. In the IS worldview, homosexuals were to be thrown off high-rises, the fingers of smokers had to be chopped off, slavery permitted and music and films forbidden. The concept of “nation-states” is also alien to the IS world-view, for whom the world is the Caliphate and where the ummah should be living under the leadership of their rightful Calliph.
In effect, the IS has stood opposed to everything modern liberalism offers — individual freedom, equality, liberty are all completely denied by the group. The IS also frowns upon and denies critical thinking, demanding only loyalty to its cause. At the same time, where the IS succeeded is in exploiting the contradictions within modern societies — the contradictions that were swept under the carpet by the roadroller of nationalism. The identity crisis of Muslims, especially young Muslims, in liberal societies, is what the IS tapped into using modern communication technologies. It offered a violent, alternative, vengeful vision to trap these people, while in Muslim-majority societies, western aggression was used as propaganda for recruitment. The IS managed to do this while holding on to territories that it captured within Iraq and Syria. It was for the first time in decades that a group claimed to have established a caliphate by erasing the borders of modern states (Iraq and Syria in this case) and by calling upon followers to migrate. The IS succeeded in attracting tens of thousands of people to its “Caliphate”— from Tunisia to India and the U.S. It was also opposed to the diversity of Islam terming Shias, Ismailis, Ahmedias and Alawites as non-Muslims. Syncretic traditions of Islam such as Sufism were branded anti-Islam by the IS. Even if Sunni Muslims did not buy into the IS version of Islam, they could be excommunicated (takfir) and killed according to its worldview. It is no surprise that most of the IS’s victims in the Arab world were Muslims.
Problems in the anti-IS fight
The IS’ Caliphate has now been destroyed and its leader gone. But there are two problems in the fight against the IS. One, the objective conditions that led to the rise of the IS remain intact in West Asia and the larger Arab world. The group still has affiliates and arms in several parts of the world such as Afghanistan, Egypt and Nigeria. The recent Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria is threatening even the limited advances made in the fight against the IS. The Shia-Sunni sectarianism that the IS tried to exploit is still burning across West Asia. Two, the IS will be defeated only when its ideology will be defeated, which is a tall ask. The IS is not an organisation that was created by “western imperialism”, but an organisation that used the chaos created by “imperialism”. It will continue to do so even after all these setbacks — this includes even the rump of the IS. The group does not need a standing army of thousands of soldiers to attack civilians through suicide blasts. For them, violence is linked to their survival. If the IS goes silent, it becomes irrelevant in the global jihadist landscape and all its talk of the expansionary Caliphate will come to an end. It is like Macbeth. The group will retain its need to kill in order to survive. To stop the group, its organisational and ideological apparatus has to be taken down in a region that is free of foreign interventions and repressions. For now, this looks a distant possibility.