The re-emergence of Islamic State/ISIS


This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.

Issue: The re-emergence of Islamic State/ISIS


1. Key Facts

  • ‘Islamic State’ is the name taken by the terror organization ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’ (ISIS) in 2014 when it declared a new ‘Caliphate’ in the territory it had conquered in Iraq and Syria.
  • The new ‘Caliph’ was named as ‘Abu Omar ibn al-Baghdadi’ (almost certainly a pseudonym)
    • ‘The Caliph’ was the title given to the successors to Muhammad.
    • The name means ‘successor’, or ‘deputy’.
    • The title pre-existed Islam in Arabian culture.
    • The Caliphs were (at least in theory) the heads of the ummah, the community of all Muslim believers.
    • The title continued in unbroken succession up to 1258 when Baghdad was captured and the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Musta’sim Billah, was captured and executed by the Mongol invaders.
    • After this, many Muslim leaders claimed the title.
    • The Ottoman Emperors claimed the title and were the last to hold it up to their defeat in the First World War, when the Empire was broken up and the Turkish Secular Revolutionary Mustafa Kemal abolished the title in 1924.
    • The revival of the title (and the Islamic Empire) has remained an aspiration for Salafi Muslims ever since.
  • ISIS now has ‘franchises’ operating in Yemen, Tunisia, Libya and Afghanistan
  • ISIS emerged out of the al-Qa’ida franchise ‘Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad’ that was founded in 1999 and then pledged to fight in the insurgency post-2003 invasion of Iraq.
  • It was designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations along with individual states.
  • It is Sunni Salafist by doctrine and ideology.
    *Outside of their doctrinal motivations, the writings of the Egyptian jihadi Muhammad Abdul Salam Faraj ( The Neglected Duty, 1982) and Abdullah Azzam (Defence of Muslim Lands: The First Obligation after Faith, 1979) in addition to the writing of the Medieval jurist and scholar Ibn Taymiyya, d.1328 (known as ‘the Father of Revolutions’) are key texts.
  • One distinctive that differentiates it from al-Qa’ida is the group’s emphasis on eschatology and belief in the imminence of the apocalypse.
  • It published a magazine called Dabiq – the title of the magazine is named after the place where Muslims believe that the final battle at the Apocalypse will be fought between the forces of Islam and those of the non-believers.
  • The battle against IS was declared over on 23rd March 2019 when the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had captured the final remaining stronghold under IS control.
  • One month later in April, IS releases a new video message from al-Baghdadi.
  • 6th August 2019, the Pentagon declares that IS/ISIS is re-surging.

2. Data

  • At the height of its territorial power IS/ISIS controlled an area with a population over 10 million.
  • By 2016, IS had recruited just under 28,000 fighters from overseas, of whom the largest number (6,000) came from Tunisia and 5,000 came from Western Europe. Just 280 came from North America.
  • A number of polls of Muslims have shown that, whilst most Muslims do not support the methodology of IS/ISIS, the support for the doctrines and believes which IS/ISIS hold have far greater support
  • A survey of 38 Muslim populations across the world (Russia was added as well for some reason) found that an average of 75% supported making shari’a the official law in their country. (Pew, 2017)
    • 15% Turks said that suicide bombing was sometimes or often justified in defence of Islam; 39% Afghanis said the same thing and 29% also agreed with that statement. (Schmid, 2017)
    • 11% Malaysians, 14% Nigerians, 9% Pakistanis and 8% Turks expressed sympathy for IS. (Schmid, 2017)

3. Analysis

The Pentagon report of 6th August which observed that ISIS was re-surging (Finne, 2019) noted that ISIS had managed to re-establish a firm basis in Iraq and was gathering its strength in Syria. (Finne, 2019: 2) It highlighted that ISIS were, at present, unable to take and hold ground for only very limited periods, but that the current fighting strength of approximately 18,000 fighters (including 3,000 foreign fighters) was enough to be able launch targeted assassinations, suicide bombings as well as raids to destroy crops and buildings. In addition, it was using the internet to continue its recruitment drive internationally.

The concern expressed in news outlets and amongst political commentators was unsurprising and reasonable. President Trump had declared the task of defeating ISIS completed in March 2019, so the Pentagon evaluation undermined that categorical statement.

What is also not surprising is the resurrection of ISIS. Their strength came from the ideology from which it was drawn and the aspiration that it embodied. The Salafi-jihadi ideology has been a potent draw for more than two decades. Its growth long pre-dated 9/11, as the works by Faraj and Azzam cited earlier highlight. Moreover, it is drawn from a thread of doctrine which comes directly from the work of Medieval jurist Ibn Taymiyya and the literalist interpretations of the Hanbali shari’a code. That code, followers argue, is the purest interpretation of the faith that there is. For that reason, it is a natural magnet for Muslims who desire to live out their faith in a way that emulated Muhammad and his early followers. Furthermore, given that Muslims have no doctrine of salvation other than those who die fighting for the faith and that the visions of judgement of Hell are truly terrifying, the jihadi way becomes even more attractive for pious Muslims.

This potent mix is enhanced with the aspiration which differentiates ISIS from al-Qa’ida, for the Apocalyptic beliefs that ISIS have are fully in line with the febrile sense of Apocalypse that has been gripping the Middle East for well over a decade (McCants, 2017). Moreover, Rice University scholar of Islam, David Cook (who has spent his life’s work in researching apocalyptic literature in Islam) argues that Islam as a religion, from the very beginning, has been an Apocalyptic movement.

The combination of factors given above therefore leads to the observation that the surprise about the popularity of ISIS is that it is not greater given its doctrinal positions. For that, we should be very grateful.


[1] Cook, David, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008.

[2] Finne, Glenn, (2019) ‘Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress’ Department of Defense, Washington DC.

[3] Lipka, Michael, (2017) ‘Muslims and Islam: Key findings from around the World’ Pew Research Center, Washington DC.

[4] McCants, William, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. New York: PalgraveMacMillan, 2017.

[5] Schmid, Alex, (2017) ‘Public Opinion Survey Data to Measure Sympathy and Support for Islamist Terrorism’ International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague, Netherlands.