Colin Clarke, the author of After the Caliphate: The Islamic State & the Future Terrorist Diaspora, is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University as well as a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and an associate fellow at ICCT in the Hague.
Clarke received his PhD in international security from the University of Pittsburgh and has worked at the RAND Corporation. He already authored Terrorism, Inc.: The Financing of Terrorism, Insurgency, and Irregular Warfare (2015) and Terrorism: The Essential Reference Guide (2018).
The premise of Clarke’s latest book is that the experience of the Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate represented an uncommon peak for global jihadism and a very innovative phenomenon from several points of view. In order to analyze it and to envisage the future of ISIS after the caliphate, the author starts from a meticulous overview of Al-Qaeda’s strategy and a comparison with ISIS.
More generally, Clarke tries to define what jihadism is and poses several questions on its origins and evolution, its ideology, strategy and objectives, as well as its structure. He mentions Abdullah Azzam’s fatwa, titled “In defense of Muslim lands”, issued in 1984, which provided an ideological keystone for modern jihadism, laying out the differences between offensive and defensive jihad. Then Clarke asks himself what is the current Al-Qaeda: An organization? A movement? An ideology? The answer begins with the distinction of four dimensions: the so-called Al-Qaeda “Central”, Al-Qaeda affiliates and associates, Al-Qaeda locals, and Al-Qaeda’s Network.
Many scholars, Clarke recalls, agree on this partition with slight differences and assign specific roles and features to each of them. While the central leadership of Al-Qaeda used to be a very bureaucratic organizational structure, with several committees and procedures, its affiliates and inspired individuals often acted with great operational autonomy. This is also connected to the concept of leaderless jihad, elaborated by Al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri. Clarke concludes this part arguing that in many ways Al-Qaeda has been more an idea than an organization, a sort of paradox: “tightly supervised at the top but very loosely spread at the bottom”.
In this regard, Al-Qaeda significantly differs from ISIS, which adopted from the beginning a strict organizational discipline from the top leadership to the lower ranks. Also, the recruits have a different background compared to Qaedaist militants. ISIS attracted approximately 43,000 foreign fighters from more than 120 countries, yet, according to ISIS documents, a mere 5% of incoming recruits were judged to have an “advanced” knowledge of Islam, while 70% were described as having only a “basic” grasp of the religion. Clarke mentions the debate on the nature of ISIS recruits, including Rik Coolsaet, who has argued that “joining IS is merely a shift to another form of deviant behavior, next to membership of street gangs, rioting, drug trafficking and juvenile delinquency”. This was also the subject of an ongoing debate between two French scholars of Islam, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy.
Clarke highlights another distinction between Al-Qaeda and ISIS when it comes to violence and tactics. Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to learn the lesson from 9/11 and now is far more discerning in targeting, while the same cannot be said about ISIS. The two approaches have been described as “winning hearts and minds” (Al-Qaeda) versus “crushing necks and spines” (ISIS).
But what is more relevant in Clarke’s evaluation is the caliphate itself. No longer do jihadis have to point to a historical, idealized past of the original institution. They can point to one having been achieved within everybody’s living memory—and which will be within living memory for decades to come. The establishment of a caliphate in the heart of the Muslim world, the demonstration that it was possible, will be a source of fascination long into the future and it means the jihadists can work with nostalgia, rather than pure utopian fantasy, in motivating their forces. Veterans who served the ISIS caliphate will also be around to fuel the narrative of paradise lost.
The scale of what ISIS did, as mentioned by Clarke, is shocking: at the height of its territorial control in 2015, ISIS generated more than $6 billion from three primary sources: oil and gas, which generated about $500 million, primarily through internal sales; taxation and extortion, which garnered approximately $360 million; and the 2014 looting of Mosul, during which IS stole about $500 million from bank vaults, plus other revenues. At its peak, ISIS controlled more than 100,000 km2 of territory containing more than eleven million people, mostly in Iraq and Syria. The surviving leadership is alleged to have smuggled as much as $400 million out of the controlled territory. ISIS has, therefore, the potential to rise again in an insurgency scenario.
While Clarke tries to analyze possible alternative safe havens, including Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Afghanistan, South East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, in fact it seems doubtful that the “Syraq” experience can be replicated elsewhere since the circumstances that made the caliphate possible—failed states with huge oil reserves, the Arab (specifically Iraqi) hegemony of the group, the alliance with Sunni tribes from Anbar, the decisive role of former Ba’athists, the legacy of the founder (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), and the simple geography of Syria, with the long logistics corridor of Turkey, from Europe through to a porous border, that allowed the foreign fighter flow—are all unique, especially in combination.
Assessing how the relationship between the two main jihadist forces will play out, the author suggests three options. First, a continuation of the status quo, where ISIS and Al-Qaeda are at odds, yet both continue to exist. Second, a process of outbidding, where one or other is destroyed. Third, rapprochement, which Clarke deems unlikely, though adds that it cannot be ruled out in terms of tactical cooperation.
Clarke provides an overview of the existing academic literature about the whole jihadist phenomenon, from doctrinal aspects and tactics to issues of radicalization and foreign fighter returnees. The purpose of the book, he says, is to analyze what happens next with ISIS and to determine whether or not, and to what extent, it will manage to adapt and regroup after the fall of the caliphate. On that basis, the book must be judged a success.