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The Foreign Policy Essay: Calculated Caliphate

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Sunday, July 6, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The conquest of Mosul and other cities in Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has alarmed the United States and its allies and electrified the Sunni jihadist community. On Monday, ISIS went one step further, changing its name to the “Islamic State” and declaring a caliphate with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph. The implications of this decision, and the strategy behind it, remain uncertain. Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and a leading scholar of the jihadist movement, explores ISIS’s motivations, both strategic and ideological, and the effect this brazen move might have on both the group and the broader conflict. 

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On June 29, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared itself a caliphate with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph. The declaration struck the jihadi movement like a bombshell. Hani al-Siba’i, a radical ideologue based in the United Kingdom, said on Twitter that he nearly choked on his Ramadan breakfast when he heard the news.

The move is bold and unprecedented. The caliphate is a form of government associated with early Islam and with the successive Islamic empires that dominated the Muslim world until the early 1920s. While most Muslims today view the caliphate as a thing of the past, jihadis see it as an ideal form of government that ought to be reinstated. Still, jihadis have thus far viewed the caliphate as a utopia—much like Marxist groups viewed the perfect communist society—because the Islamic legal conditions for establishing a caliphate are difficult to meet in the modern international system. For decades, restoring the caliphate has been the declared end objective of all jihadi groups, but none of them has had the audacity to declare one—until now.

Hegghammer photo with borderFor “old” jihadi groups like al-Qaida, ISIS’s move is utterly preposterous. The veterans see themselves as having spent a lifetime fighting superpowers, all the while holding back on declaring a caliphate—only to see a bunch of newcomers come in from the sidelines and steal the trophy. Adding insult to injury, ISIS is now demanding that the veterans submit to the authority of a young, obscure (at least until yesterday) caliph. That demand comes because in theory, the leader of a caliphate rules all Muslims and has supreme executive authority in military matters. All this while ISIS supporters taunt the old guard on social media with comments such as: “If Al-Qaida and al-Taliban could not establish khilafah [caliphate] with all their power and territory for all these years, how can we expect them to suddenly unite upon haqq [truth] now? Al-Khilafah does not need them, rather, they need al-khilafah.”

As J.M. Berger has pointed out, ISIS’s strategy is a risky one. There is a very real chance that they will emerge from this verbal fistfight heavily bruised. A number of the world’s most senior jihadi ideologues have already come out against ISIS on the caliphate question, and the criticism from supporters of al-Qaida and groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida-anointed jihadi group in Syria, has been scathing. Meanwhile, ISIS has so far only received the pledge of allegiance (bay’a) from a small number of minor clerics, dissidents from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and groups in the Syrian-Iraqi theater that were at risk of being swallowed by ISIS anyway. To be sure, ISIS has also seen many declarations of support from grassroots sympathizers around the world, but it is unclear whether these are newly won adherents or people who were cheering on ISIS already. As Berger put it in another article, it looks like “ISIS threw a party and nobody came.”

This raises the question: why did they do it? It is hard to believe that ISIS simply miscalculated and genuinely thought the entire jihadi movement would submit to their authority. ISIS is not an isolated sect, but a tech-savvy bureaucracy that monitors enemy Twitter accounts and consumes academic literature (in fact, they will probably read this very article). They must have known the lay of the ideological land. We should therefore not dismiss the move as ideological excess, but rather assume it was based on a careful calculus.

It is possible, for example, that this was a bid for the youth vote in the jihadi movement. ISIS may have realized it was not going to win over the pro-al-Qaida old guard anyway, but that there was a potential to further increase its appeal among young recruits, especially abroad. Bear in mind that for the past three years, virtually all of the world’s new jihadi foreign fighters have gone to Syria, where a majority has joined ISIS. By comparison, only a handful have gone to Pakistan, Yemen, or Algeria to train with al-Qaida and its affiliates. Moreover, ISIS has arguably been the biggest game in town the past year in terms of visibility on the jihadi Internet. Finally, with its battlefield advances in Iraq over the past month, ISIS has demonstrated real-life impact that other jihadi groups can only dream of. New recruits—who tend to be young, male, and impatient—may be attracted to the group that gets things done. Declaring a caliphate consolidates this youth appeal by adding another element of bravado to the ISIS project. In such a context, heavy criticism from the ideological establishment may paradoxically bestow an underdog image on ISIS, which younger recruits may find attractive. What the older generation sees as youthful arrogance, the new generation often sees as legitimate opposition to the established order. We see examples of this attitude in recent Twitter messages from ISIS soldiers: one Twitter user who goes by the name “Abu Klashnikov” openly rejects the legitimacy of traditional religious authority figures, declaring, “I dont care for no shaykhs name stop namedropping me these so called big shaykhs.”

If the caliphate declaration was an attempt to drive a wedge in the jihadi generation gap, we may be looking in the wrong place when we take the reactions of so-called heavyweight ideologues as a measure of ISIS’s success. A better metric might be the response from low-level activists online and in the street. Another thing to watch is the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS in the months to come.

One might object that theology matters, and that young Islamists are in fact receptive to the scholarly arguments against the ISIS declaration. But we may be overestimating the sensitivity of younger generations of jihadists to the term “caliphate.” The past two decades have seen a trend toward increasingly bold statehood claims by jihadi groups, and this may have watered down the taboo associated with the modern use of the term caliphate. In the late 1990s, for example, Mullah Omar took the title “Commander of the Faithful” (Amir al-Mu’minin), a title traditionally reserved for the caliph. In addition, the past decade has seen the declaration of at least 15 different jihadi “emirates” in different parts of the Muslim world, a terminological development unthinkable thirty years earlier. Last but not least, ISIS itself has used the term “Islamic state” in its own name since 2006, and then-leader Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi also styled himself “Commander of the Faithful.” This caused some controversy at first, but people soon got used to it (the group’s decline in the late 2000s had little to do with the name). ISIS may therefore be calculating that younger Islamists do not see the liberal use of the word caliphate as such a big deal, and that their doctrinal doubts will be offset by the sense of achievement that comes with finally having a “real” Islamic state.

Another possibility, not incompatible with the preceding one, is that ISIS declared a caliphate in order to complicate U.S. plans to support an Iraqi counteroffensive against ISIS. A drone campaign against ISIS now would likely rally the jihadi movement behind the new caliphate and trigger a wave of terrorist attacks in the West. Of course, Western action against ISIS at any time would have an effect of this type, but the caliphate declaration likely increases its potential scale. This is partly because it would make it easier for ISIS to persuade other groups to act on its behalf, and partly because it would allow ISIS to exploit, for recruitment purposes, the widespread Islamist conviction that the West never tolerates Islamist governments.

It was probably no coincidence that two days before the caliphate declaration, ISIS launched a Twitter hashtag campaign titled “#CalamityWillBefallUS” that threatened the United States with terrorist attacks in the event of drone strikes. The campaign generated tens of thousands of tweets and was covered widely by international media. While the majority of tweets were probably automatically generated, there were several hundred unique messages, several of which were produced or retweeted by foreign fighters in the field. Of course, one might argue that such threats are common on the Internet and should therefore not be taken too seriously. However, this campaign differed from other online threats in both its scale (hundreds of unique messages) and specificity (being linked to drone attacks). Failure to implement such a widely publicized threat would mean a considerable loss of credibility for ISIS and its supporters. Besides, while many Internet threats are cases of intention without capability, ISIS may well have the capability to launch—or at least inspire—attacks in the West, given the many Western foreign fighters in its ranks.

In combination, the Twitter threat campaign and the caliphate declaration arguably constitute a certain deterrent against U.S. military operations against ISIS in Iraq, at least in the short term. To be clear, the threats alone do not make much difference, for U.S. military strategy is not guided by fear of terrorist reprisals (on the contrary, threats can make U.S. intervention more likely). However, the caliphate declaration has created a temporary political situation in which the entire jihadi movement is having to decide whether to support ISIS or not. A U.S. offensive in Iraq right now would force that decision in ISIS’s favor for many groups and individuals. Had the caliphate not been declared, a U.S. intervention would not have quite the same rallying effect. Of course, the U.S. may well choose to ignore these factors, but then at least ISIS has done what it could to maximize the cost for the United States associated with an offensive. If, on the other hand, the United States decides to postpone its contribution to the Iraqi counteroffensive, ISIS will temporarily face less resistance. The caliphate declaration may thus have been partly designed—or at least timed—to help ISIS consolidate its territorial gains in Iraq.

The caliphate declaration may thus produce two tangible strategic benefits for ISIS: greater recruitment appeal among young jihadists and a delayed U.S. intervention in Iraq. There may be other benefits too, not least increased morale in ISIS’s existing ranks.

But there are potential costs as well. In the short term, old-guard jihadi ideologues may persuade Gulf donors to give less money to ISIS. Other rebel groups in Syria may start collaborating even more closely to fight ISIS. Western governments may become more inclined to supply weapons to anti-ISIS rebel groups in Syria. In the longer term, ISIS’s appeal to jihadi youth may decline as the group is pushed on the defensive, the novelty factor wears off, and governance problems accumulate.

However, a closer look at these costs suggests they are not as large as they may seem. Recent evidence suggests that ISIS is less dependent on Gulf donors than previously assumed. As for the other negative developments, they probably would have occurred anyway. In other words, this was not a real gamble, because there was not much to lose. Let’s consider the counterfactual scenario in which ISIS did not declare the caliphate. By late June, the group had made too many advances in Iraq and too many enemies in Syria to be left alone. In Iraq it faced a government counteroffensive supported by U.S. drones and Special Forces. In Syria, it faced continued opposition from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front. And in the West, it faced increasingly strong measures against foreign fighter recruitment. With this scenario as the alternative, declaring a caliphate may well have been the slightly better option. Thus the caliphate declaration may have been arrogant, but it was not delusional, and we should continue to understand ISIS as a pragmatic, rational actor. Ideology and self-interest can go hand in hand, and sometimes the best thing and the right thing are the same.

At the same time, the caliphate declaration is probably not a game-changer. It spells neither boon nor disaster for ISIS. It is admittedly still early to draw conclusions about the effects of the declaration, because we do not know exactly how the jihadi grassroots will respond or what the U.S. role in the Iraqi counteroffensive will be. However, at this point it looks like the declaration made a marginally positive difference to ISIS’s situation.

How good that situation is depends on the reference point. Judged by the standards of transnational jihadi groups, ISIS is doing exceptionally well. Never before has an Islamist group this radical had so much territory, so much money, and so many Western recruits. Even if ISIS was literally decimated—that is, reduced to a tenth of its current size—it would still be one of the largest jihadi groups in the world. However, by the standards of national insurgencies, ISIS is in some trouble. Further expansion—to Baghdad, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan—is highly unlikely given the obstacles in their way. They may preserve much of their territorial gains in Iraq in the next few months, but within a year the Iraqi government should, with U.S. assistance, be able to push them back to where they were in early 2014. In the longer term, ISIS may face governance strain in its remaining areas as locals tire of strict moral policing and economic stagnation. In addition, they face a broad alliance of intelligence services that knows more and more about them. Three years from now, ISIS will probably be substantially weaker than it is today, but for reasons other than the caliphate declaration.

The bottom line is that business in the jihadi world will largely continue as usual after the declaration. Over time, the new caliphate will come to be seen as just another militant group, albeit a very presumptuous one. In the meantime, it is probably wise for Western governments to let the internal jihadi debate run its course. Premature military intervention will give the caliphate a jump start it does not deserve.

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Thomas Hegghammer is director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). A Middle East specialist by training, he has studied jihadi groups since before 9/11. He is the author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia and the coauthor of Al-Qaida in its Own Words and The Meccan Rebellion.

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