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What is Islamic State?

November 19, 2015

Summary: Islamic State (IS) is an extreme military, political and religious organisation, with its origins in an Iraqi-based Al Qaeda movement and aspirations to create its own state, or “Caliphate” across the Mediterranean Basin, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia.  Islamic State is no simple terrorist organisation, but an unprecedented hybrid of convictions.  Its motivations are underpinned by very specific interpretations of Islamic history, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed.  Ultimately, IS appears to wish to bring about the “apocalypse” and the end of the world.

Islamic State (IS) is an extreme military, political and religious organisation, with its origins in an Iraqi-based Al Qaeda movement and aspirations to create its own state, or “Caliphate”.  It is also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Daesh (the Arabic equivalent of ISIL).

November 2015: Paris Attacks article here

March 2015: ISIS in Afghanistan article here

March 2015: US bombing campaign against ISIS article here

March 2015: ISIS Five Year Plan article here

January 2015: ISIS emerging in Afghanistan article here

October 2014: ISIS and propaganda article here

ISIS logo

The brand

Its motivations are underpinned by very specific interpretations of Islamic history, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. Islamic State seeks to carve its own territories out of the Iraq and Syria and aspires, ultimately, to extend these conquests much further, into North Africa, Southern Europe, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia. These territories are described by IS as the “Caliphate”, a deliberate reference to historic Islamic conquests.

Map ISIS expansionism

The aspiration

If its writings and statements are correctly understood, IS wants to create specific religious prophecies: to engineer or provoke a large military confrontation in the Middle East with non-believers (including Western infidels and Muslims of different persuasions). Ultimately, IS appears to wish to bring about the “apocalypse”, whatever this actually means, and to bring about the end of the world.

 

Al Qaeda 2.0?  New generation jihadis

Islamic State is no simple terrorist organisation, but an unprecedented hybrid of extreme religious, political, governmental, legal and military convictions. There are parallels with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, in terms of religious perspective. It is currently engaged in ground combat, with thousands of fighters under its control, for control and control and consolidation of Iraq and Syria as a stepping stone to further military conquests. Unlike Al Qaeda, which remains a series of franchised terrorist groups, IS is already in the process of setting itself up with a full and recognisable state structure: an economy, a currency, a legal system, social, educational and medical services. Some Islamist terrorist organisations in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are choosing to declare loyalty to IS – perhaps recognising the power and momentum IS has achieved in a relatively short period of time.

IS progress in Syria and Iraq, March 2015

Islamic State is hard to penetrate and to understand: journalists, politicians, NGOs, diplomats are all at extreme risk of death if they engage directly with IS. Even something simple as how to describe the organisation (IS? ISIS? ISIL? Daesh?).  The world struggles to understand what IS is, what its appeal is and what it really wants (and therefore how to deal with it).  At least Russia and President Putin are playing on the same chessboard as the West with the same broadly recognisable rulebook.  Will there ever be the equivalent of IS ambassadors or diplomats, with whom discussion and negotiation could take place?

With its rigid interpretation of Islam – rejected by millions of fellow Muslims – and its excessive willingness to employ butal and indiscriminate violence, torture and terror, it does not seek dialogue or compromise.  While IS continues to exist and even occasionally thrive in the ungoverned spaces of Syria and Iraq, attacks such as in Paris in November 2015 – and worse – look likely to continue.

Further reading:
Graeme Wood, March 2015 – What ISIS really wants

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