Even as Islamic State (IS) continues to lose large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and suffer a large number of casualties on the battlefield, the group has continued to wage a series of deadly terrorist attacks around the world from Paris to Quetta.
So who are IS exactly? And what do they stand for?
In simple terms, IS is an expression of a staunch Islamist view that all power – political, social, economic and religious – must be under the control of the Caliphate, or what has come to be known as Islamic State.
Who was the caliph?
After the death of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (SAW) in 632, the Islamic community chose a Caliph or Khalifa to lead the faithful. That institution continued until it was abolished in 1924. But on June 29, 2014, all that changed when IS announced the re-establishment of the Khalifa. It said that the Khalifa must not only be Muslim, but he must maintain a purist and authoritarian form of order in his area of control.
The invisible sheikh
At the helm of today’s so-called Caliphate sits the self-proclaimed Khalifa, the absolute ruler – the shadowy figure of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sometimes dubbed the “invisible sheikh” for almost never being seen in public.
Born in the ancient Iraqi city of Samarra on July 28, 1971, as Ibrahim al-Badri, friends and neighbours have described Baghdadi as withdrawn, reserved and shy. It was said when he spoke, he could barely be heard. However, according to Will McCants, an expert on IS, when Baghdadi read the Quran, his hushed voice would come alive and he would pronounce “the letters in firm, reverberating tones.”
From Ibrahim al-Badri to the leader of IS
In 2004, Baghdadi was arrested for “militant activities” and detained in Camp Bucca prison as a “civilian internee” for around nine months. The prison was operated by the US government after their invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is believed that it was here, at this prison, that he became fully radicalised after he met members of al-Qaeda. Said to have a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Baghdad, Baghdadi gave Quranic classes and lectures to many prominent Iraqi and foreign extremists at the prison.
Baghdadi’s ascent to the leadership of IS was a combination of fortuitous timing and luck. When Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the first Emir or leader of Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was killed in a US airstrike in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was chosen as the group’s Emir by a Shura Council, where nine of the eleven men on the council decided in his favour.
Here he seized the opportunity to regroup and merged with other groups under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq. Baghdadi had, in a little over a decade, gone from a shy, quiet, religious individual to becoming the leader of one of the most feared terrorist groups in modern history.
Since emerging as the head of IS, Baghdadi has made only two public appearances. The first was in Mosul, Iraq on July 5, 2014. The appearance of Baghdadi at the Great Nurridin Mosque, dating back to 1142, was significant, as it highlighted the transition that IS was making to declare itself as a sovereign entity. His second public appearance was reportedly in a mosque in Fallujah, Iraq in February 2016. However, it is speculated that it may have even been a double, due to a United States bounty of $10 million on Baghdadi, and the enormous risks he faces in making public appearances.
Baghdadi in his first public sermon at the Great Nurridin Mosque, which was a 21-minute video, produced by IS, spoke of blessings for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan and called on them to participate in jihad. He also discussed his role as Caliph and portrayed himself as a reluctant leader.
It is important to understand the foundation of Baghdadi’s beliefs and, in turn, the core mindset of IS.
The basic beliefs of IS are resolutely driven by the following ideological and theological concepts.
First and foremost, IS believes in the concept of Islamism
IS’s inherent belief is in having a dominant political form of Islam, referred to as Islamism, which includes the forced implementation of Sharia law as the basis of government and societal law. Fervent believers of Islamism, such as IS, call for a strict interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith. Islamist groups like IS also oppose Western democracies and modern forms of government within the Islamic world. It would however be unfair and incorrect to conflate Islamism with Islam and its association with all Muslims.
Second, IS are considered Salafists
Salafists are individuals who hope to realise an Islamist state through the proselytising of Islam or da’wah. Their ultimate goal is the restoration of a fundamentalist Islamist state.
Third, IS adheres to the concept of Takfir
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, takfir is used for “sanctioning violence against leaders of Islamic states who are deemed insufficiently religious”. Takfir remains an essential component of Wahhabi ideology and IS astutely uses the concept of takfir for mobilising and rallying people against kuffar or infidels, who oppose da'wah.
The notion of takfir is reflected by the ideas of two modern-day influential Islamists, Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi and Sayyid Qutb.
Sayyid Qutb was the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood from the early 1950s until he was executed by President Nasser in 1966. His seminal book, Milestones, is essential reading for Islamist extremists everywhere and his influence on global Islamist terrorism is said to be profound. His work was known to have strongly influenced Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda.
Maududi, an Indian scholar of Islam at a Deobandi seminary in Hyderabad founded the Jamaat-e-Islami party in India in 1941. Originally it was the 14th century radical scholar Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah who established a precedent for the declaration of takfir, and this tradition continued through Muhammad al-Wahhab, who died in 1792, to latter-day Salafist ideologues.
IS and Wahhabi ideology also agree on the view of Hijra or migration, where the world is divided between Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) and Dar al-Kufr (House of Infidelity), and where Muslim migration to Dar al-Islam is encouraged.
Finally, IS ideology is grounded in Jihadist-Salafism
Jihadist-Salafism is a transnational religious-political ideology based on a belief in violent jihadism. The scholar Gilles Kepel coined the terms “Salafi jihadists” and “Jihadist-Salafism” in 2002 to describe “a hybrid Islamist ideology” developed by international Islamist volunteers during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989).
Fundamentally, Islamist groups obtain their ideology from the same source and have the same basic objective – a global caliphate. Ultimately, IS believes in taking forward its takfiri-jihadist Islamist rule through sheer organisational strength, politics, governance and ideological indoctrination.
While the basic ideology of IS can be seen as common to that of other Islamist groups, their indiscriminate use of violence as a means of controlling and shaping their narrative is what distinguishes them from all other violent extremist groups.
The management of savagery
In 2004, an al-Qaeda member calling himself, Abu Bakr Naji, published an online manuscript titled The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Ummah Will Pass. This influential publication is considered to be the IS handbook for justifying their vicious campaign of violence for achieving political ends and is thought to be much more than just the establishment of a Caliphate.
The requirements for the administration of savagery are establishing Sharia law, instituting a fighting society among all individuals, establishing internal security, providing food and medical treatment and securing borders.
An enduring narrative
Even after its defeat, the IS narrative may continue to resonate in the minds of its adherents in the core area it controls, in Iraq and Syria, and beyond. Reportedly it has already expanded its footprint or has attempted to, to Nigeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, among other countries.
Spreading of tentacles
At a recent hearing of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, painted an ominous picture that even a considerably degraded IS has the resilience, the manpower and the financial resources to strike at enemies both in the Middle East and in the West.
And as mentioned earlier, we have also witnessed the spread of IS’s tentacles to other parts of the world including Africa and South Asia.
This clearly poses a significant security threat for all states concerned and once again reinforces the need for boosting cooperation regionally and internationally in countering the group.