By: Rohan Khanna
Though we move further away from 2015, memories of a difficult year for globalized violent extremism continue to haunt us. The persistence of religion-linked extremist violence has proven difficult to counter and comprehend, and will likely remain a pressing global issue in the year ahead. As it is surely far more difficult to understand and empathise with the perpetrators of this violence, we are often left to speculate, or assume on the motives that drive them. Too often however, media and experts alike select specific factors and overemphasize these to the detriment of analysing others. This piece seeks to challenge popular premises that try to find both a unitary explanation to account for ISIL’s rise, and a silver bullet to inspire its fall. There is no one, clear cut reason for the group’s rise, but different factors that can only be understood through a combined approach.
Though it is often claimed that American intervention caused ISIL’s rise, as we shall subsequently explore, intervention alone cannot account for this. By drawing upon primary research involving dialogue with ISIL supporters, considering events in Iraq and Syria themselves and analysing Islamism as an ideology, the aforementioned conclusion becomes all too apparent: that ISIL is the product of multiple, interacting causes, and also consists of a plurality of different individuals with many motives. The broad, interdisciplinary approach will illustrate this best.
The first step in countering violent extremism is in seeking to understand it. The connection between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Islam is challenging. Too often the discourse around the role of Islam simply collapses into either vile Islamophobia, or denunciation of ISIL as entirely divorced from Islam, neglecting a ‘nuanced’ middle-ground debate around the brand of theology that actually drives ISIL. Though the exact nature of the relationship is difficult, there is certainly some connection. Jihad, implementing shariah and ideological factors were frequently cited as justifications for supporting ISIL in Quantum’s analysis of interviews with ISIL’s fighters, as was the vision of building a ‘perfect Islamic state’ for many foreigners, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Dabiq, ISIL’s slick propaganda magazine also frequently invokes scripture and prophetic tradition to justify its behaviour. Yet many understandably struggle to comprehend how ISIL’s interpretation of religion leads it to totalizing and violent conclusions. An appreciation of the wide diversity of beliefs under the umbrella of Islam is needed to account for this.
ISIL is fundamentally a radical Islamist/Salafi-Jihadist type organization. Not all Islamists are violent extremists, but many share a belief in the Islamic world’s decline and humiliation. Radicals take this as a calling point for action. This explains why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his July 2014 sermon appeared concerned with upholding the ‘dignity’ and ‘honor’ of the Muslim, implying a perceived loss of the two as a result of action against Muslims. Radicals typically view a reinterpretation of, and an enforced, literal return to early Islamic history as the solution to the degradation of the ummah (community of Muslims) following colonialism and other recent political turmoil, as this is perceived both as Islam’s heyday and the correct Prophetic model. To emulate this period, Dabiq often invokes archaic imagery of horsebacked riders, or uses classical terminology, referring, for example, to Shi’ites as rafidis (a derogatory historical term meaning rejecters, referring to the Shia belief that the first three Caliphs were illegitimate). To understand the current wave of violent Islamic extremism therefore, we need a clearer understanding of radical Islamism’s ideology.
Comparing ISIL’s Islamism with historical Islamism throws up some marked similarities. Let us take the views of Sayyid Qutb, the highly influential mid-20th century theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, who inspired groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda, as a good example of a radical Islamist perspective. Whilst the former in his seminal milestones sees the world as two spheres of jahiliyya (a state of ignorance) against Islam, al-Baghdadi does almost the exact same through dividing up ‘two camps’ of ‘Islam’ against ‘kufr’ (disbelievers). Their views on nationalism similarly overlap. Nationalism, to Qutb is plain ‘shirk’ (associating others with God, undermining the oneness of God) and to al-Baghdadi is an ‘idol’ (in Islamic terms, effectively the same and a grave sin). Though these are two very select examples, the parity between the worldview of ISIL’s leader and a major 1950s/60s Islamist clearly shows continuity in radical Islamist ideology. For Governments, this implies that any strategic response needs to grapple with this persistent radical Islamist ideology. Merely decrying ISIL as un-Islamic without exposing possible logical flaws in readings of history and theology, means that one risks neglecting the opportunity to counter the movement at a level which committed and well-versed Jihadists can understand and be affected by. Similarly, it ‘alienates’ the importance of religious leaders, who can play an influential role in preventing young men and women from partaking in violent extremism. ISIL’s declaration of a caliphate therefore, represents the attempt to forge an Islamic resurgence.
This is why it is crucial to single out radical Islamism as a distinct form of Islam. That most Muslims on Earth live peacefully, and that many are also highly integrated into western societies is evidence that the problem certainly lies with specific interpretations. The phenomenon of Islamophobia does nothing to distinguish radical Islamism, failing to accurately target the real source of the ideological issue and creating more problems by risking isolating ordinary Muslims. It is clear that ISIL reads the Qur’an, Hadith, Sunna and early Islamic history in a certain way, emphasizing or interpreting values differently to the mainstream. Strategies to counter violent extremism must consider countering radical Islamist ideology in an Islamic framework, by engaging with scriptural interpretation head on.
Yet countering extremist ideology alone is not sufficient. ISIL consists of individuals motivated by temporal factors fused with spiritual ones. Though issues of identity and lack of belonging (hence social factors) are frequently cited as push factors for foreigners to migrate to the Caliphate, we must turn to the turmoil of Iraq to find explanations behind the major backbone of ISIL’s success. The mismanagement of post-invasion Iraq fostered chaos. The Abu-Ghraib issue most certainly encouraged resentment of American forces, whilst Camp Bucca provided a breeding ground for radical ideologies to take form and spread. Additionally, disbanding the Iraqi army and Ba’ath party may have left anywhere up to 700,000 security personnel on the streets. These individuals, many of whom had serious expertise in military affairs, were immediately rendered unemployable by the Coalition’s drive for de-Ba’athification. Inevitably, several of these outraged young men gravitated towards violent militias, which provided some of the only sources of employment these dispossessed individuals could take up. These groups however, could not have spontaneously formed and resisted a foreign occupation alone. Thanks to the Ba’athists, they put up a ferocious resistance.
Remarkable research by Malcolm Nance illustrates how the Iraqi insurgency was thoroughly pre-planned and executed. Project 111 was initiated by Saddam 6 months prior to invasion. This entailed extensive preparations by the Ba’athist military and intelligence apparatus for the inevitable post-invasion occupation. The plan involved co-opting Iraqi and foreign religious extremists alongside regime loyalists to violently resist coalition forces. Saddam’s strategy envisaged a symbiotic relationship between Jihadists and Ba’athists, who would fight together from the outset against perceived Shi’ite/Kurdish domination, and coalition forces. We need to link this to the modern day context. Though many cite the presence of Ba’athist stalwarts in ISIL’s upper echelons as evidence for a simple Ba’athist/Islamist alliance of convenience, this is oversimplified. That Saddam instigated Islamist reforms after 1993, and planned meticulously before the invasion to work intimately with Salafi-Jihadist groups meant that the insurgency was from the outset intended, at least partly, to be a joint venture. It seems therefore, that we are still fighting remnants of Saddam’s jihad today. Effective policies need to combine the ideological with counterinsurgency and cooperation. They must, if possible, seek to emulate the successes of the Sunni ‘awakening’ that severely reduced the violence in Iraq by up to 90% by the decade’s end.
Though the foundations for ISIL’s insurgency can be sourced in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI- ISIL’s predecessor) was largely defeated by around 2010, some years before ISIL’s rise. The discontinuity in the strength from AQI to ISIL must mean that short term factors helped ISIL to recover the support lost by AQI. Sectarianism helps account for this. Discrimination by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki contributed to the alienation of Sunni factions in Iraq, some of whom had previously joined hands with the Government to defeat AQI. Arresting and executing ‘awakening’ leaders, firing and replacing generals with loyalists, and violently suppressing Sunni protests likely encouraged local Sunni support for ISIL, as a potential bulwark against the Government. Linking this with the instability in Syria, especially with Assad’s own actions in fostering perceived sectarianism gave ISIL adequate support to actualize its Salafist fantasy through implementing a cross-border Islamic State. Lavish funding through oil, foreign sources and by robbing Mosul Central Bank have further enabled it to afford its claim to be a functioning state. This coupled with the stability it has attempted to build in occupied territories may have encouraged further domestic support amongst Syrians, and especially the Iraqis who are sick and tired of chaos.
It seems that ISIL is the synthesized realization of a wide range of issues. There are certainly further factors in addition to those discussed, and it is challenging to account for every single factor that influences ISIL supporters. These further issues may be in the international sphere, from the spreading of radical ideologies, the external fostering of sectarianism, perceived inaction to stymie violence, or even other mismanaged interventions. They may include the failure to provide adequate opportunities, or the perceived injustices committed by Governments against populations. The fact that there are so many possible issues identified by experts, and cited by the individuals that support this movement, directly tells us that any attempt to reduce this issue to one, or two factors is highly flawed. Though some factors are undoubtedly more important than others, in order to truly overcome this problem, identifying and responding to each issue in turn is vital. ISIL is not one homogeneous group. Understanding the differences within the movement is an absolute imperative.
Rohan Khanna is a second year liberal arts undergraduate student at King’s majoring in politics. He is currently based in Singapore as part of an exchange programme with the National University of Singapore.
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