Misunderstanding IS, again

Replaying the theocratic analyses of al-Qaeda with IS is amnesic and short-sighted and misses the novelty of the group.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou
5 April 2015

Blood-red: the material network that is IS is not best understood by parsing its religious discourse. Flickr / Karl-Ludwig Poggemann. Some rights reserved.

The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Yet it is not so much history that repeats itself this time around, as Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, but rather its deciphering, as readings of Islamic State (IS) are rehashing all-too-familiar perspectives.

After al-Qaeda stormed on to the world stage that fateful Tuesday in September 2001, analyses systematically highlighted its religious fundamentalism, as well as its irrationality and barbarity. Amid emotional commentary, ideologically amplified, the study of al-Qaeda remained for a long time confined to journalism and policy planning. When academe fought its way in, it overwhelmingly erred too, with neo-Orientalist interpretations of an organisation for whom Islam not only was deployed instrumentally but always came second to its political and martial agenda.

Missed were the innovations in strategic displacement by the first transnational non-state armed group in history, its offsetting reinvention of political violence and its lasting influences on a new generation of individual violent actors (from Anders Breivik to the Kouachi brothers, by way of Malik Nidal Hassan and the Tsarnaevs) and self-empowered paramilitaries, which came to control vast territories in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. The Salafist ideology of al-Qaeda was endlessly dissected, while, under less scrutiny, its challenging modus operandi was altering the parameters of early 21st-century international relations.

Logics of eradication and termination dominated such hybrid, journalistic-policy-scholarly discourse. And inevitably, at the occasion of Osama Bin Laden’s anti-climactic disappearance—following the largest manhunt in history, his number two still on the run—al-Qaeda was decreed defeated and finished. Seldom had a narrative of closure been so misleading.


When, nine months ago, IS announced that it was becoming a latter-day ‘caliphate’, this sequence was readily rehearsed. Familiar arguments quickly reappeared, once again advancing savant theses about the motivations of this new entity and competitively gauging its ‘Islamicity’. For it is no small paradox that, after 14 years of planetary discussion of al-Qaeda and dozens of explicit discourses by its leaders, we are still asking the same, self-serving questions: What does al-Qaeda/IS ‘really want’? Does it even exist? Is this all about the ‘liberal west’?

The reification of the predictable maturation of a promethean al-Qaeda franchise gone local, before moving to surpass its begetter, into a fantasy of an inscrutable Islamist force smacks of avoidance. Confining analysis thus to the religious theatrics of the group provides the ‘expert’ with the convenience of the familiar, with a ready translation into mainstream narratives of that ever ‘problematic’ faith, Islam. Yet the insistent logic of al-Qaeda then and IS today is arguably not so much religion but the transformation of political violence, an eminently ‘post-modern’ shift made possible first and foremost by globalisation.

Yes, al-Qaeda spoke repeatedly of the ‘caliphate’ as a distant aspiration, and IS is formally pursuing it today, in statements and deeds. Yet if both are ‘religious’ groups, so are many other irredentist entities: beyond the Middle East and north Africa, religion has come to occupy a central place in today’s conflicts—one third of the countries of the world are experiencing, in one form or another, a ‘religious conflict’.

This intensified interface between religion and global politics is merely a historical phase resulting from cumulative specific episodes over the past 35 years: the decline and eventual end of the cold war, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the associated rise of transnational Islamism, ‘9/11’ and its international imprint, and the invasion of Iraq and the opening of Pandora’s box turning Sunna against Shia. If perceiving IS as a religious actor is therefore partially warranted, it is necessary to explain why this is a moment of increased visibility of religion-driven and religion-dominated conflicts, and also to connect the evolution of the ‘caliphate’ as a specific political project to larger post-colonial dynamics.


The importance of IS lies elsewhere, in three challenging features inviting modesty on the part of the analyst.

Familiar arguments quickly reappeared, once again advancing savant theses about the motivations of this new entity and competitively gauging its ‘Islamicity’.

First, the degenerate consequences of an Iraqi society preoccupied with and occupied by war for three decades since 1980—the combined aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s 1980s wars, the 1990s United Nations embargo and the US-led invasion of the 2000s have ‘monstered’ a generation, viscerally hitting out amid lasting social dystrophies. Secondly, the accelerated statisation of an armed group, inspiring others, and the concomitant swift destatisation of states is yielding a fluid state-society dialectic to which the ‘international community’ has so far unimaginatively responded by stubborn interventions, only making matters worse.

Finally, the ability of successively Jama’at al Tawhid wal Jihad (1999-2004), al-Qaeda in the Land of Mesopotamia (2004-06) and the Islamic State in Iraq (2006-13) to invoke and revoke al-Qaeda and be reborn as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (2013-14) and then the Islamic State (2014-), with an ambition to re-establish an Islamic caliphate defunct since 1924, is ushering in a second stage in the transnationalism pioneered by al-Qaeda. The paradoxically simultaneous pursuit of a territorial ambition (in the Levant) and a globalised influence (19 pledges of allegiance and/or support since July 2014) reveals a hybrid entity in the making—one continuously transformed internally by an open-ended interaction among radical Islamists, thousands of über-ideologised and disenfranchised youth coming from round the world, Syrian militants bent on bringing down Bashar al-Assad, former Ba’athist officers driven by Tikriti vengefulness and Baghdadi hoodlums tortured in US and Shia militia prisons, all sporadically allied with tribesmen with economics and social order on their minds.

In the prevailing discourse, however, such complexity is reduced to musings on the religiosity of the group, inconsequential debates about its appellation, conspiratorial thinking about its socio-genesis and premature announcements of its defeat. This all comes at an unaffordable cost, as we know—having played this game and intellectually lost once before.

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