This book highlights fifteen official texts by the most influential leaders of the Islamic State Movement (ISM), from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s text published in 1994 to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s last speech before his death in late 2019. The texts have mostly been transcribed, analyzed and contextualized. The book is extremely rich in details when recapping events. Also, the strategy, doctrine, and method — initially established by al-Zarqawi — have been repeatedly re-adapted and re-contextualized by successive ISM leaders.
When observing the life cycle of the movement a clear pattern emerges. In the initial period, the group focuses on establishing itself. Then, it focuses on maintaining itself. Finally, it moves to expand, where it goes back to phase one — establishment.
The book does a great job of documenting the resilience that ISM has shown during difficult times. It has been able to resist multiple challenges and enemies while remaining true to its method of brutal violence which seems calibrated to achieve specific goals. To defeat ISM, one must begin by truly understanding the concepts relayed in the book by the authors.
The Birth of the Islamic State Movement (ISM) – a New Offshoot of Salafi-Jihadism
The first part of the book tackles ISM strategy and doctrine led by al-Zarqawi and how the group was created. The authors note that many scholars believe that ISM was founded in 2013-2014. However, it was actually founded in the late 90s in a camp in Afghanistan where al-Zarqawi hosted displaced fighters and families from the Levant (areas that include Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan). In 2002, US forces ejected these fighters from Afghanistan and al-Zarqawi led them into the Kurdish region of Iraq. There, they were hosted by a group of Salafi-jihadis and al-Zarqawi worked to establish a network throughout the Sunni Arab part of Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, al-Zarqawi continued his efforts even after the US-led invasion of Iraq. In the summer of 2003, his group known as Tawhid wal-Jihad at the time launched its first attacks which targeted the UN, the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf.
The initial revolutionary goal of al-Zarqawi’s group was to replace the national government with a Salafi-influenced state run according to the Sunnah of Prophet Mohammad. Not only did ISM have to face off with American troops, but it also had to fight the Ba’athists who were trying to reorganize, rival Islamist groups and a fledging Iraqi government. The authors note that at this time ISM had five primary goals:
- To frustrate and weaken the government and its security forces
- To recruit fighters from rival jihadi groups
- To foster the feeling of alienation amongst Sunnis
- To provoke a reaction from Shi’a militias
- To convince the US to withdraw from Iraq
To achieve these goals, al-Zarqawi’s forces focused on high-visibility attacks against symbolic targets using precision-guided suicide bombers and special operations that attracted media attention and gained popularity among those who resisted American occupation.
In 1994, al-Zarqawi raised his profile by openly criticizing the secular Jordanian regime. In a letter entitled Deposition of a Captive: O My People, Why Am I Calling You to Salvation and You Are Calling Me to Hell he rails against the democratic system and man-made laws. He writes:
“Clearly, you are calling for democracy – a heretic modern religion. You kill people, permit alcohol, adultery and corruption, all in the name of democracy. In the name of this heretic democracy you throw people behind bars in the masses. These people have been accused of many things including ‘offensive speech’. Anyone who stands against your wrongdoings, you punish for ‘offensive speech’ against the regime and its evil followers. What is the definition of ‘offensive speech’ under your laws? … Is stating Allah’s laws and rules, as revealed in the Quran, considered ‘offensive speech’ under your man-made laws?”
Al-Zarqawi’s doctrine — considered a new offshoot of Salafi-jihadism — became known as Zarqawism. It was more ideologically pure than Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s pragmatic balancing act. In 2004, Zarqawism hardened its ideological and strategic stance even further, evidenced in a letter sent by al-Zarqawi to the al-Qa’ida leadership. In the letter al-Zarqawi gave a strategic assessment of Iraq where he presented a clear campaign to fuel a Sunni uprising fusing political, military and informational activities. His intent was to spark a Sunni-Shi’a war by carrying out extreme violence against the Shi’a in the hopes they would retaliate, further inciting the Sunni population.
Al-Zarqawi’s group launched two battles in Falluja in April-May 2004 and then later in October which led to a recruitment boom and an influx of foreign fighters. Al-Qa’ida accepted Tawhid wal-Jihad as an affiliate in Iraq allowing the group to gain international prominence and the group’s name was changed to al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI). After this, an unprecedented wave of suicide operations was unleashed.
The Birth of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI)
The second part of the book examines the challenges the Islamic State Movement experienced during the Sunni-dominated Sahwa uprising in Iraq. The Sahwa movement was declared in September 2006 by Abu Risha al-Rishawi, the leader of a small group of tribes. He created the force to counter Islamic State cells around Iraq. With US support, the Sahwa tribal forces defeated a commando unit of 100 highly-trained and heavily-equipped Islamic State fighters in Ramadi. This marked a turning point in which the group went from an expansive guerrilla army that controlled cities, to a retreating force who fled to the desert in order to regroup.
Prior to the launch of the Sahwa movement, al-Zarqawi died on June 7, 2006. On October 12, 2006 the group announced the Alliance of al-Mutayyabin, in which many insurgent groups and tribes joined — especially belonging to the Mujahidin Shura Council. The intent was to sublimate the prominence of al-Qa’ida, promote the joining of smaller Salafi-jihadi groups and shift the allegiance of tribal groups to a new Islamic State. Three days later the group was renamed the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
The strategy and doctrine of the new Islamic State during this period closely mirrors the Zarqawism doctrine. In 2007, Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir gave a speech entitled Advice for the Leaders and Soldiers of Islamic State. The speech was strikingly similar to doctrinal texts attribute to jihadis like Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, as well as the likes of Carlos Marighella and Ernesto Guevara. Throughout this text, Abu Hamzah borrows from and builds upon many long-established norms of symmetric and asymmetric warfare, demonstrating knowledge of major revolutionary texts. Interestingly, he also stresses the need for image management.
However, the most important and influential manifesto for the group’s strategy and doctrine came in December 18, 2009. The Fallujah Memorandum or Khoutah Istratigya li Ta’aziz al-Moqif al-Siyasi al-Dawlat al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq (A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq) came during a dark period when the group was heavily defeated by the Sahwa movement. It was divided into five chapters — each chapter addressing a different subject. The contents of the chapters focus on some fundamental points:
- the political unification of all Salafi-jihadi groups in Iraq under the ISI banner to fight occupying forces
- to disperse clandestine cells across Iraq, with the ultimate goal of obtaining political hegemony over Iraqi Sunnis
- expanding ISI control and domination by gaining the loyalty of tribal leaders and allowing them to play a role in building an Islamic State in Iraq
- groom other potential leaders who could take the place of the amir if he was killed
- the Islamic State could work with minorities in Iraq and offer protection in return for an alliance This was legally supported by Islamic customs of taxation and protection for non-Islamic citizens or ahl al-dhimmi.
The Rise of ISIS
In May 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the reins of ISI. Official texts and video messages during this time focus on the structure of the caliphate, how to market it, the role of women and the role of media. In January 2012, under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) — an al-Qa’ida affiliate — was sent to Syria to join the war there. After about a year, al-Baghdadi gave a speech entitled Give Good News to the Believers — The Declaration of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, in which he announced that JN was operating as an extension of ISI in Syria. He unified the two groups under a new group name al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al ‘Iraq wa al-Sham (Daesh is the abbreviated word for the group in Arabic), which translated to English becomes the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
The speech angered Al Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who did not want to give up control of JN. He tried to restore the name and affiliation of JN to his group. The dispute continued and a tit-for-tat propaganda war ensued between the two groups which led to violence and separation. On February 2, 2014, AQ formally disassociated itself from ISIS. Thus, on June 29, ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced that his group was now to be called Islamic State (IS) and that a caliphate had been established and al-Baghdadi was its caliph (ruler). On the same day, IS released a powerful and symbolic video in which al-Adnani and Abu Omar al-Shishani —the IS commander in Syria — bulldozed the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria, illustrating that the colonial-imposed boundaries no longer exist.
On July 1, 2014, al-Baghdadi released an audio message entitled A Message to the Mujahidin and Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan. In the message, he announced a new era in which the “world has been divided into two camps and two trenches: the camp of Islam and faith and the camp of kufr (infidels) and hypocrisy. He declares: “O Muslims everywhere… You have a state and a Khilafah so rush to your state”. He says that in the state “the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers” and can live together under the banner of Islam, he calls all Muslims to come to the Islamic State, specifying that it is obligatory. He extended his call to scholars, judges, doctors, engineers, and people with military, administrative and service expertise.
On July 4, a video message entitled Exclusive Coverage of the Friday Khutbah and Prayer in the Grand Masjid of Mosul was released where al-Baghdadi appeared to the public for the first time. In the following months, IS consolidated and expanded its territorial gains across Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, it began receiving pledges of allegiance from radical Muslims around the world. To counter this threat, the US formed a coalition with mainly Western and regional nations in September 2014 — the Global Coalition Against Daesh. By the end of 2015, the group’s momentum had stalled and the middle of 2016 marked its decline.
The Decline of IS
On May 21, 2016, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami released a speech entitled That They Live By Proof where he admits the movement was on the precipice of decline. However, he makes it a point to note that just because the group lost territority, it did not mean IS was finished. He writes:
“Indeed, victory is the defeat of one’s opponent. Or do you, O America, consider defeat to be the loss of a city or the loss of land? … True defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight.”
Victory — according to al-Adnani — meant remaining committed to its method or manhaj in Arabic. While the successes of IS had divine origins — he explained — the losses were Allah’s way of testing the fighters or mujahidin in Arabic. The Western definition of success and failure is drastically different from that of IS, he noted.
He then moves on to depict the global efforts to eliminate IS as a war against Islam. The use of violence is not only defense, but can be interpreted as IS’s own Responsibility to Protect (R2P) mandate. According to the authors, al-Adnani would use R2P and the principle of reciprocity to justify attacks on civilians in the West. He assigned Muslims living in the West to take on the task, positioning them as operatives behind enemy lines. This marked a stark contrast to earlier speeches where fighters were called to travel to IS territory. Now — as the territorial caliphate came to an end — its members should shift tactics and focus, carrying out terror attacks internationally.
By 2018, IS had lost 98 per cent of its territory after four years of intense and unrelenting pressure from the anti-Daesh coalition. On August 21, 2018, al-Baghdadi delivered a speech entitled And Give Glad Tidings to Those Who Are Patient. The mood of the speech was sombre and dark and al-Baghdadi calls on IS fighters to remain patient, committed and unified during this period of “purification”. He stressed that only during periods of tribulation are true believers separated from pretenders, so that the seeds of resurgence could be sown again. Only unwavering commitment to the movement’s goals would guarantee its survival and eventual success, al-Baghdadi explained.
On April 29, 2019, al-Baghdadi made his second and final appearance on video. In the speech entitled In the Hospitality of Amir al-Mu’minin, he reassures supporters and counters critics from within the group and the broader global jihadi milieu, affirming that he remained the leader of a global guerrilla insurgency. The authors of the book explain that al-Baghdadi was portraying himself as an engaged leader who was acutely aware of the strategic, organizational and contextual nuances of the campaign ahead. Six months later, he was killed. His death punctuated a devastating period for IS.
Al-Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, took the reigns during a period of profound decline. Unfortunately, this book does not address the passing of the torch or what happens next. However, the authors have done an impeccable job of providing the reader with a deep understanding of the Islamic State Movement. By analyzing 15 milestone ISM texts, the authors have shed light on the main characteristics of the movement including its strategy, doctrine and methodology. The authors explained everything using primary sources, providing the reader with many points of reflection — both in terms of strategic and historical analysis of ISM.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.