ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

What Is ISIS?

What is ISIS is a complicated question. It is safe to say that ISIS is not what is typically said about it in the nightly news. To understand ISIS at some level of completeness, it will be necessary to read the majority of this book. This chapter introduces the conceptual framework that helps a reader begin to grasp the meaning and objectives of the group. This chapter describes ISIS, but some of these descriptions apply to other groups against which the U.S. government has fought since 2001. ISIS is the only group that puts all of these ingredients together in this same combination and quantity.

The ISIS that is presented on the news as it operates in Iraq or Syria is more than a single group or organization. ISIS is an umbrella organization under which exist numerous other groups that follow the big dog because it is the big dog. In general, the groups that participate with ISIS tend to be former Ba’athists who want to return Iraq to the control of Sunni nationalists. Though they are less extreme in their religious faith than some other groups supporting ISIS, they are still religiously motivated. There are other Sunni nationalist groups—ones who want to return Iraq and Syria to the control of Sunni leadership and encourage Sunni dominance in Mesopotamia and Syria. There are also several different factions that are religiously motivated—salafi-jihadis. These are people and organizations that believe that they need to fight to cleanse Islam from the control of those who are not true believers. They accept a violent approach though they may not ascribe to all of the ideology expressed by ISIS in their most aggressive or extreme opinions. Some of those within ISIS are committed to a lifelong association with the caliphate, and others are committed to something like an adventure vacation of months or years, but with intent to return to their home country to be an old man or woman and enjoy having been a jihadi. The most important point to understand is that ISIS is not a monolithic organization where everyone has the same motivations or the same commitment to service.

As stated previously, ISIS is a Salafist organization. (See entry on Salafist later in this book.) By definition, a Salafist is a Sunni and more specifically one who believes that the correct way to practice Islam is as it was practiced by the first generations of Muslims. (See entry on Sunni later in this book.) To be Salafist does not equal violent action. There are numerous Salafist groups that are not inclined toward violence. Those who are labeled salafi-jihadis are those who subscribe to an interpretation of Islam that is both driven by a regressive interpretation of the faith and one that is enforced by violence. Violence, from their perspective, grants absolution from sin as well as the opportunity to gain honor in life and the promise of martyrdom if killed in battle.

ISIS is also anti-Shia. (See entry on Shia later in this book.) It is unyielding in its virulent hatred for those who subscribe to a variation on their religion. The Shias are the near enemy to ISIS and the most prevalent threat to the faith. The Iraqi soldiers and police, who are predominantly Shia, are often referred to as safawis in the organization’s literature and videos. This has reference to the Safavid Empire that espoused an aggressive expansionist Shia message from the 16th to the 18th century. (See entry on Safavid Empire later in this book.) Opposition to aggressive Shia expansion and control of the region is one of the primary animating beliefs of the group.

The group’s vehement anti-Shia mindset leads to a strict and limited interpretation of the Islamic faith. Associated with this interpretation is the assumption of the power to declare others—Muslims and non-Muslims—apostates and enemies of God. The designation in Arabic is kafr, which is often mistranslated as infidel or unbeliever. The real meaning is stronger and deeper. The word carries with it the association of being an enemy to God: one who is not simply to be avoided, but who must be confronted, returned to the proper path, or destroyed. The verbal noun in Arabic is takfir—meaning to declare one an apostate. ISIS believes that its leaders have the authority to declare others who do not subscribe to their interpretation of Islam as kafr and this is practicing takfir. Once so declared, the apostate needs to be sought out and reconverted or eliminated. Such a declaration leads to many of the atrocities accorded to the group including murder, assassinations, executions, slavery, and rape.

On October 15, 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq was declared, and in the process the group we call ISIS became a ruler of territory, thus distinguishing itself from al-Qaeda and numerous other salafi-jihadist groups. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan or the ruler of Sudan, it was declaring itself to be the ruler of a state that it did not control—Iraq. On April 8, 2013, it expanded its fictitious control by stating itself to be the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Then on June 29, 2014, it further declared itself the Islamic State and designated its leader as Caliph Ibrahim. It was a modern incarnation of the caliphate. (See entry on Caliphate later in this book.)

To understand the meaning of caliphate, it is important to understand the meaning of caliph. (See entry on Caliph later in this book.) The word caliph means successor, as in one who is the successor in leadership to the Prophet Mohamed. Muslims believe he was the last prophet and any other legitimate leader of Islam in the Sunni tradition is only designated as successor. The caliphate as declared by ISIS is the region that is governed by its version of true Islam. All Muslims are expected to give allegiance to the caliph and to support the caliphate. From the beginning, these declarations have fueled controversy both among the salafi-jihadi community and the broader Muslim community. The primary criticism is that it is not appropriate for a caliph to be self-declared or declared by a small group. The leader should be acclaimed by the ummah or community of believers. (See entry on Ummah later in this book.) At the very least, a large number of Muslims should be behind the naming of a caliph. In a faith counting more than a billion and a half people the acclaim of thousands, tens of thousands, or even a hundred thousand or more is not generally viewed as sufficient.

Despite this, ISIS declared the foundation of the modern caliphate and it is functioning as a state entity. It governs territory and seeks to develop and grow the state and the institutions of the state.

In addition to creating a state that it wants to see prosper, ISIS also has an apocalyptic vision. It is preparing for the end of days. In its interpretation of the end-of-days literature, it sees the final state rising in al-Sham (modern Syria) and spreading into Mesopotamia where it will fight many battles. Over time (it is never made clear how long), it may be pushed back into Syria. There it will either be forced into a valley called Dabiq (north of the modern city of Aleppo) or it will send its army to Dabiq to respond to the arrival of the Roman-Crusader army. (See entry on Dabiq, Battle of later in this book.) In this valley, Jesus (the Christ to Christians) will return to earth and both save the army from defeat and also lead the army of the righteous to victory in battle against the Dajjal (best interpreted as the anti-Christ) bringing about the final judgment. (See entry on Dajjal later in this book.) In these final battles, the army of the righteous will fight a group that is referred to in the modern literature as a Roman-Crusader army. This army includes nonbelieving Muslims—kafrs, Christians, Jews, and many other heathens and infidels. This is the Muslim equivalent of Armageddon.

In understanding the brief details of this chapter, it is important to know that the group referred to as ISIS is a multifaceted group that taps into Quranic and prophetic teachings to create a narrative aura in which it sees itself as the fighter for Islam—the real Islam. It is trying to create and lead pure warriors destined to prepare the world for the final battles in the final days and to face proudly the final judgment. In this belief, it is allowed to make bold, extreme, and exceptional decisions and actions. It can do things that other groups could not have done because it is the army of the righteous doing what no other group has done before. This distinction is crucial to understand what it is and why it behaves in a way that nearly all other Muslims reject.