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The Two Caliphates: Al-Qaeda and ISIS’ Approach to State Building

Around the globe, the Salafi-jihadist movement is hellbent on establishing a feudalistic caliphate reminiscent of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires of the 7th century. Through extreme violence, Salafi-jihadism wishes to return to the supposed ‘golden age’ of Sunni Islam, enforcing extreme literalist interpretations of Islamic scripture and sharia law. While this is the end game of all Salafi-jihadist groups, conventional wisdom follows a ‘homogenising tendency’ to label Salafi-jihadism as a unified ideology.

However, this is the not the case. In recent years, the two leading Salafi-jihadi groups, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have clashed with one another in how, and when, to establish a theocratic state. While this is no revelation in itself, what is interesting is the approach both groups hold towards statecraft and how this posits them in an ideological standoff within the extremist world.

AQ’s method of statecraft is one of patience and tactile warfare, revolving primarily around its hatred for the US. For bin Laden, the US was the ‘head of the snake’, the lynchpin which holds the Middle East’s supposedly non-Islamic regimes in power through the establishment of a multitude of military bases throughout the region. Indeed, this position is reaffirmed through AQ’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. AQ believes that western governance, promoted by the US, undermines the purity of local Sunni Muslim culture. This explains AQ’s determination to wage jihad in Saudi Arabia through the establishment of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. The US presence in the Kingdom tarnished the purity of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest site. As a result, AQ launched a number of attacks against the Saudi state.

By toppling the US and western capitalism, AQ believes the Arab world will revert to literalist interpretations of Islamic doctrine. Through dispersed bombings, including 9/11 and the USS Cole attack in October 2000, AQ trusts it will remove western influence from the Middle East region. Over time, this vacuum will allow an Islamic state to emerge. In other words, it is only through a gradual process of jihadi warfare that a theocratic state will emerge.

To this end, AQ is a strong advocate of ‘defensive jihad’- the belief that Muslim lands and communities are under siege from ‘crusaders’ and ‘apostates’. Therefore, it is the obligation of every Muslim to protect such lands through violence. In fact, this is largely how AQ came to be. Stemming from the 1979 Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, AQ emerged from the defensive jihad waged by the Mujahedeen. This doctrine is embedded in its philosophy towards statecraft.

In comparison, ISIS shadows a rather alternative approach. Through conventional warfare, ISIS desires to establish a caliphate through the seizure of large swathes of physical territory at the earliest convenience. Indeed, at the height of its power in 2015, ISIS captured territory the size of the UK in Iraq and Syria, subjecting 8 million people to a reign of barbarism and feudal terror. ISIS’ scorched earth policy largely stems from its frustration with AQs prolonged war of attrition. Rather than focus on the far western enemy, ISIS directs its attention to more immediate threats. Namely, supposedly non-Islamic regimes of the Middle East. ISIS’ desire to establish a theocratic state at the earliest convenience stems from its suppositious belief that is living through ‘end times’. To this end, ISIS believes it is fulfilling the prophecy of returning the caliphate before the apocalypse.

In light of this, ISIS largely embodies ‘offensive jihad’ – the need for a strong Islamic state in order to wage war against external threats to Islam. Indeed, its slogan ‘enduring and expanding’ eludes to ISIS’ desire to inflate its territory beyond the Middle East and the Levant. In fact, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani stressed a similar notion in 2014 - ‘we will conquer your Rome and break your crosses… with the permission of God’. This, coupled with images posted online by ISIS supporters, suggests the militants wish to govern territory similar to the 7th century Umayyad Caliphate, stretching from Spain to China.

Under this caliphate, ISIS would reign supreme, conducting its fascistic devices of governance through literalist interpretations of sharia law. ISIS’ belief that it should govern stems from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-declaration as emir in 2014. This topic of contention fractured the relationship between AQ and ISIS. Indeed, AQ contrastingly does not believe it should govern a theocratic state directly. Instead, it posits itself in a supportive role, awaiting the arrival of the caliphate, providing the necessary political breathing space for it to manifest. This is why AQ has developed an ever-closer relationship with the Taliban. Both bin-laden and Zawahiri repeatedly pledged an oath of allegiance, or bay’ah, to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, declaring him emir of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. More recently, Zawahiri has reaffirmed AQ’s loyalty to the Taliban by swearing bay’ah to its current leader, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. Rather than declare one of their own as emir, as ISIS has done, AQ chooses to reinforce the Taliban’s state-building project instead.

Another area of dispute between ISIS and AQ is over governing the various ethno-religious groups of the Middle East. Throughout ISIS’ unrelating conquest over Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015, reports of brutality and gross human rights violations were common. ISIS has persecuted the Yazidis of Sinjar, capturing women and subjecting them to sexual violence and slavery. Similarly, ISIS hounded Mosul’s ancient Chaldean Christian community during its occupation of the ancient city in 2014-2015. Furthermore, ISIS has recurrently persecuted Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria, declaring that any deviation from Its understanding of Islam is unequivocally apostasy and deserving of death. In fact, a number of a articles published in ISIS’ English language magazine ‘Dabiq’ intended to incite violence against Iraq’s Shia population.

This unwavering war against all who contend its beliefs has created heated divisions between ISIS and AQ. In an infamous letter to ISIS founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2005, Zawahiri opposed his bloodthirsty persecution of Iraqi Shiites, stressing the importance of avoiding alienating all Muslims from the jihadist cause. In his own words, “why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance? And what loss will befall us if we did not attack the Shia?” Furthermore, in his Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt, Zawahiri indicates a willingness to cooperate with the Egyptian Christian Copt community, stating “We do not seek a fight with them , because we are busy with a battle with a bigger enemy of the nation and also because they are our partners in the nation, a nation where we seek to share living with them in peace and stability.”. Rather than persecute all who dispute its message, Zawahiri and AQ wish to convert them to the Salafi cause through “propagation, declarations, and statements”.

While the Salafi-Jihadi movement wishes to establish a theocratic state, reminiscent of the feudalistic caliphates of old, its two foremost groups dispute each other over a number of issues. Namely, how to govern, and how to establish the caliphate. While it is highly unlikely such aspirations shall be realised, understanding the exact motives behind extremist militant groups including ISIS and AQ will equip policymakers with the necessary tools to prevent them from spreading further violence, death, and tragedy.

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Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri’s Letter to Zarqawi. 2005.

Aaron Y. Zelin. The War between ISIS and Al-Qaeda for the Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement. 2014







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