Understanding Al-Baghdadi And The Islamic State


By: Y. Carmon, Y. Yehoshua, and A. Leone


The successive atrocities committed by the Islamic State (IS, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham – ISIS) have diverted the discussion away from an understanding of this organization’s political program, creating the erroneous impression that it is simply a more vicious version of Al-Qaeda. According to this view, this organization presumably intends to attack the West by means of its foreign militants who hold Western passports and could return to Western countries to carry out terror attacks – and hence it is paramount to destroy the IS forthwith. Saudi King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz promoted this approach when he said that he was certain that those jihadists “would arrive in Europe within a month and in America within two months”.

This report seeks to clarify the IS’s doctrine based on the organization’s official writings and speeches by its leaders. It will argue that, unlike Al-Qaeda, the IS places priority not on global terrorism, but rather on establishing and consolidating a state, and hence it defers the clash with the West to a much later stage. In this, it is emulating and reenacting the early Islamic model.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, IS prioritizes State-Building

Although the IS and global jihad organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda share similar beliefs about the necessity to wage jihad for the sake of Allah and establish a caliphate where Islamic shari’a law will be instated, a major distinction exists between them in terms of the order of priorities for implementing these major goals. Whereas in Al-Qaeda, emphasis is on worldwide jihad prior to the declaration of the yearned-for Islamic caliphate (see Osama bin Laden’s February 23, 1998 declaration of jihad against the Crusaders and the Jews), IS doctrine is characterized by prioritizing the establishment and consolidation of the caliphate state as the immediate and overriding objective. This objective is presented by the IS leaders as a matter of survival that warrants making compromises dictated by reality, the major compromise being deferral of the struggle with the West to a distant future. In other words, the IS’ doctrine under Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi explicitly puts off the clash with the West to different times, and concentrates in the immediate term on the region where the Islamic caliphate is being established. The IS’s English-language magazine Dabiq says that the Islamic State “is a marvel of history that has only come about to pave the way for al-Malhamah al-Kubra [the grand battle against the Crusaders at the End of Days].”

Furthermore, Al-Baghdadi’s vision of the Islamic state is modeled on ancient Islamic history, and therefore does not descend to the level of wallowing in contemporary Middle East politics and struggles. Hence, it addresses political issues such as the Palestinian national struggle quite marginally, and even postpones them to the End of Days era as well.

In the current stage, the IS is concentrating on consolidating its rule in the parts of Iraq and Syria it has already conquered, and on expanding its rule in these countries, beginning with areas where there is a Sunni majority. The next stage will be conquering the bordering Muslim states. The second issue of Dabiq cites a reliable hadith of the Prophet that precisely defines the organization’s order of priorities following the establishment of the state – first Saudi Arabia, then Iran and ultimately “Rome”: “You will invade the Arabian Peninsula, and Allah will enable you to conquer it. You will then invade Persia, and Allah will enable you to conquer it. You will then invade Rome, and Allah will enable you to conquer it. Then you will fight the Dajjal, and Allah will enable you to conquer him.” In his declaration of the caliphate, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-‘Adnani stated that the area from which the caliphate will expand is the region presently under Al-Baghdadi’s rule, extending “from Aleppo to Diyala”.

What supplants the struggle against the West at this stage are the duties of hijra (migration to the Islamic caliphate state) and bay’ah (pledge of allegiance to the Caliph), both of them central components in building the caliphate. In an audio message published immediately after the caliphate was declared, Al-Baghdadi said to Muslims everywhere, including in the West: “Whoever amongst you can migrate to the Islamic State should migrate. Hijra to Dar Al-Islam is obligatory.” In his first public appearance, his Friday sermon in Mosul, he referred to the implementation of the shari’a as “a religious obligation,” while avoiding any call to global jihad or to harming the West. Both Al-‘Adnani in the declaration of the caliphate and Al-Baghdadi in his Mosul sermon refer to the caliphate as an “obligation that has been forgotten for generations.” In this, their discourse contrasts sharply, for example, with the discourse of Muhammad ‘Abd Al-Salam Faraj, a major theorist of the Egyptian jihad movement in the 1980s, who termed jihad (rather than the establishment of a caliphate) the forgotten obligation.

In his speech following the declaration of the caliphate, Al-Baghdadi presented the vision of the caliphate following the hijra. He said: “Lift your heads up high. You now have a state and a caliphate that restores your honor, your might, your rights and your sovereignty. The state forms a tie of brotherhood between Arab and non-Arab, white and black, Easterner and Westerner. The caliphate brings together the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, North African, American, French, German and Australian… They are all in the same trench, defending each other, protecting each other and sacrificing for one another. Their blood mingles together under one flag [with] one goal and in one camp…”

While Al-Qaeda publications in English, such as its magazine Inspire, are brimming with incitement, practical advice, and professional information for performing terror attacks in the West – either in organized groups or in “lone wolf” fashion – nothing of the kind appears in the IS’ publications and in speeches by its leaders. On the contrary, IS spokesmen and mouthpieces constantly implore Muslims residing in the West to perform hijra to the Islamic State – which needs experts and qualified personnel (physicians, engineers, military experts, clerics and administrators) to ensure its consolidation and success. The sequential order is clear: hijra is the path to jihad (specifically, jihad aimed at guarding the nascent caliphate and its evolving borders), and “the Islamic state [comes] before al-malhama [the battle against the Crusaders].” Dabiq, which, being in English, is clearly directed at Western readers, states further: “A life of jihad is impossible until you pack your belongings and move to the caliphate.” Another article in the same issue states that “life amongst the infidels is heartrending.”

The issue also says: “Many readers are probably asking about their obligations towards the Khilafah right now. Therefore the Dabiq team wants to convey the position of the Islamic State leadership on this important matter. The first priority is to perform hijra from wherever you are to the Islamic State, from darul-kufr to darul-Islam. Rush to perform it as Musa (‘alayhis-salam) rushed to his Lord, saying ‘and I hastened to You, my Lord, that You be pleased’ [Taha:84]. Rush to the shade of the Islamic state with your parents, siblings, spouses and children. There are homes here for you and your families. You can be a major contributor towards the liberation of Makkah, Madinah, and al-Quds. Would you not like to reach Judgment Day with these grand deeds in your scales[i.e. in your favor when your good and bad deeds are weighed against one another]. Finally, if you cannot do any of the above for reasons extremely beyond your control, inshallah your intention and belief that the Islamic State is the Khilafah for all Muslims will be sufficient to save you from the warning mentioned in the hadith, ‘Whoever dies without having bound himself by a bay’ah dies a death of jahiliyya.”

Moreover, this struggle to establish the Islamic State also involves a major confrontation with rival jihad organizations, whom the IS expects to disband and swear allegiance to the Caliph. This is bound to delay the later stages of struggle even further. In his declaration of the caliphate, IS spokesman Al-‘Adnani addressed the other organizations, saying: “Now that the caliphate has been established, the legitimacy of your groups and organizations is null and void. None of you who believe in Allah can remain for even a single night without declaring loyalty to the Caliph.” This demand necessarily means a series of bloody confrontations that extend the first stage of building the caliphate and further postpone the battle to realize stages two and three. Dabiq often stresses the internal ideological struggle and the illegitimacy of the rival organizations, including by mocking their leaders, whose behavior, the IS believes, deviates from the true Islamic model. This contempt extends even to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and to Jabhat Al-Nusra leader Abu-Muhammad Al-Joulani.

The IS even directs oblique criticism at the global jihad movement for advising Muslims in the West to stay put in order to carry out terror attacks. Thus, for example, according to the third issue of Dabiq, anyone remaining in the West is a hypocrite who enjoys the illicit pleasures of Western living and is content to surf jihadi forums instead of participating in the preservation and defense of the Islamic State. Furthermore, it is argued that anyone failing to support the Islamic State falsely associates himself with jihad: “Those who are falsely associated with jihad turn away from the Islamic State, even publicly declaring their enmity against it in bizarre competition with the crusaders and the apostates.”

Pursuing a state as a first priority, even at the cost of compromises – Emulating the strategy of Muhammad

In his approach that prioritizes the consolidation of the Islamic State over an all-encompassing battle with Islam’s enemies, Al-Baghdadi is emulating the Prophet Muhammad – the ultimate Islamic role model. The Prophet, while displaying cruelty in battle ¬– cruelty mirrored by the IS – put off battles with his enemies and integrated compromises and tactical agreements in his policy, in order to gather strength prior to renewing action to obtain his ultimate goals. The IS, ruling from its informal capital in Syria’s Al-Raqqa, conducts itself in a similar manner, enforcing the laws of the shari’a while selling oil to Europe via the black market.

Assessing the Threat Posed by the Islamic State to the West

The IS’s ideology, discourse and conduct thus demonstrate that terror attacks in the West are at the bottom of its order of priorities. However, it is equally clear that, once the near and immediate enemy has been defeated, the West’s turn will arrive. Moreover, if allowed to implement its strategy of stages, upon reaching the third stage, the stage of war against the West, the Islamic state will no longer marshal only a few thousand fighters riding pickup trucks. Instead, it is likely to command a wide range of modern military assets, possibly including planes, guided missiles, and chemical weapons or some other kind of WMD. Therefore, postponing the clash with the West serves the IS’ interests rather than the West’s (which is precisely why it opts to postpone it in the first place).

Furthermore, while the threat of terror in the West is not part of the IS’s immediate agenda, the threat to Western interests in the Middle East, for instance in the Gulf States, Yemen, and Jordan, materializes in the second stage, a good deal before the millenarian battles.

It should be emphasized that although the doctrine of postponing the clash with the West is solidly entrenched, as reflected in the organization’s writings and actions, it cannot be ruled out that certain developments, such as a massive Western attack, could change the organization’s order of priorities and advance the stage of conflict with the West. The Western strategy of nipping the Islamic State in the bud may provoke counterattacks that were not planned by the organization at the outset. This places the West in a bind: inaction endangers the West in the long run, while immediate action may exact a heavy price that Al-Baghdadi did not plan to exact in the present stage.

Indeed, the parties who should have countered the caliphate, thus obviating the need for Western intervention in the first place, are the regional Muslim states who are threatened by the IS. However, these countries are incapable of acting alone. They need the U.S. to form an anti-IS coalition, and even with American and other Western assistance, the job is proving difficult, as evident from the refusal of Egypt, Jordan and Turkey to commit themselves to the effort on the ground.

Source: The Middle East Media Research Institute, Sept. 14, 2014


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