On Sunday 29 June, ISIS announced the restoration of the caliphate and changed its name to IS (Islamic State). Pieter Nanninga explores the meaning of ISIS’ announcement by relating it to the organisation’s media campaign.
ISIS. A few months ago, the group was hardly known in the West. Now, the name alone evokes a range of images. Explosions, beheadings, crucifixions. Masked fighters marching through conquered towns, the maps of Syria and Iraq being redrawn.
It is mainly through ISIS’ own media releases that these images have become commonplace. Since its establishment in April 2013, ISIS has developed a sophisticated media strategy. Through centralised Twitter accounts and specially developed apps it has regularly published updates about its successes. Further, it has produced dozens of feature-length films, which are increasingly well-made. These films often include action scenes depicting ISIS’ military triumphs, but also gruesome footage showing the execution of enemies, alleged collaborators and people not submitting to its rule. These films have contributed to establishing ISIS as a recognised name and actor in global politics. To put it bluntly, distributing these horrific videos have proven to be a successful way of branding the organisation.
This context is often overlooked when interpreting ISIS’ restoration of the caliphate, which was announced last week. ISIS claims to model its caliphate on the example of the first four caliphs (632-661): the rashidun (“rightly guided ones”), who should be followed as closely as possible according to the organisation. Accordingly, Western media typically turns to Islamic history to explain the meanings of the event, conceiving the caliphate as a logical outcome of ISIS’ attempts to restore the perceived pure Islam of the first generations of Muslims. Yet, I argue, ISIS’ caliphate is far from a seventh-century construct. Rather, it constitutes a new step in the organisation’s branding efforts – not in the first place vis-à-vis its enemies and the West, but vis-à-vis other jihadist groups and organisations.
To comprehend ISIS’ declaration it is necessary to have a look at the background of the organisation. ISIS was established in April 2013, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the then leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), declared that his organisation would extend its activities into Syria. He stated that his organisation would incorporate Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Support Front”), a jihadist group that had been established to fight the Assad regime in Syria in early 2012. As a consequence, ISI would change its name into The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Syria), hence, ISIS. However, Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani immediately rejected al-Baghdadi’s statement and denied a merger between the two groups. Besides, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a statement that he recognised Jabhat al-Nusra as al-Qaeda’s representative in the Syrian conflict, while ordering ISIS to return to Iraq. Both groups should focus on their own region, he stated. Al-Baghdadi, in his turn, rejected al-Zawahiri’s command. He had never pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda’s leader, he argued, and he would not submit to his authority. ISIS would stay in Syria, because it did not recognise the borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, referring to the deal between England and France of 1916 that divided the Ottoman Empire and would form the basis for the current borders in the region.
Since these chaotic events in the spring of 2013, both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have been fighting in Syria. Whereas the former has mainly focused on fighting the Assad regime while striving for an Islamic state in the longer term, the latter has concentrated more on taking territory and directly enforcing its rigid interpretation of the sharia. The result has been open fights between the rebel forces, reportedly causing thousands of deaths already.
This context of intra-jihadist competition between ISIS and al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra concerning issues of ideology, strategy and authority provides a necessary backdrop for grasping ISIS’ public actions. Since its emergence, ISIS has attempted to establish its name at the cost of its rivals. Its media usage has been central in this respect. Although ISIS’ media activities have evidently been aimed at spreading fear among its enemies in Syria and Iraq, they have also been crucial to ISIS’ development into one of the most highly regarded organisations among jihadists.
Through media, ISIS has been able to present itself as a powerful organisation. By issuing photos and videos of black flags at the top of minarets, fighters marching through towns and people being punished for disobeying its strict rules, it has contributed to spreading the idea that it has conquered and controls large parts of Syria and Iraq. Yet, in fact, ISIS’s fighters are too few in numbers to have actually conquered and controlled the areas attributed to it. Its recent advance in Iraq has been enabled by cooperating with local Sunni tribes that wanted to shed the yoke of the corrupt and oppressive Shia-dominated regime of al-Maliki. ISIS is a fragmented organisation, consisting of several groups, many of which are dominated by foreign fighters. The differences between their policies in the areas they control are numerous. Nevertheless, mainly through its media releases, ISIS has been able to convey the image of a powerful organisation that has conquered and controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, bringing justice to Sunni Muslims who have been oppressed by the Alawite and Shia regimes for years.
As a consequence of its successful “branding”, ISIS has outstripped Jabhat al-Nusra, while quickly gaining ground on the brand name that has occupied a leading position among jihadists since 9/11: al-Qaeda. Although jihadist leaders in the Maghreb and on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as some important ideologues such as the Jordanian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi have rejected ISIS’ policies and (implicitly or explicitly) chosen al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra’s side, ISIS has received increasing support of jihadists from all over the Muslim world, as well as from the West.
ISIS’ restoration of the caliphate can be seen as its next step in this intra-jihadist struggle for authority. The audio recording in which the caliphate was announced was shortly preceded by two videos entitled “Breaking the Borders” and “The End of Sykes-Picot”, which emphasise that ISIS does not recognise the national borders that al-Zawahiri wants them to take into account. ISIS represents the entire umma, the videos claim. This point is even more strongly underlined in the announcement of the caliphate itself. It is striking that the major part of the announcement is directed at “the mujahidun”, in this case referring to jihadists who have not joined ISIS. These fighters are called upon to follow the command of the new caliph. There is “no legal excuse for you justifying to hold back from supporting this state”, the statement claims. Therefore, “the legality of your groups and organisations have become invalid. (...) It is time for you to end this abhorrent partisanship, dispersion and division.” In other words, Jabhat al-Nusra should cease its activities and al-Zawahiri should support ISIS’ project.
Evidently, ISIS also realises that this appeal is not realistic. Yet it forces al-Zawahiri to formulate an answer, which he will probably do in the upcoming weeks. Again, the al-Qaeda leader who struggles to equal the appeal of his predecessor has to criticise the organisation that has supposedly liberated large parts of the Muslim lands over the last few weeks – quite a contrast with al-Zawahiri’s notable absence from the battlefields since 9/11. ISIS announcement forces other jihadist organisations to take a stance regarding the caliphate and, hence, the struggle for authority. Finally, it might provide a strong appeal to those sympathisers of the jihad that have not joined the struggles in Syria and Iraq yet. Its announcement once again suggests that ISIS is a powerful organisation that controls large parts of Syria and Iraq: “from Aleppo to Diyala” according to the statement. Additionally, it suggests that ISIS fights for the entire umma. It is no longer the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, it is the Islamic State. Al-Baghdadi is the true heir of the caliphate of the rashidun. And just as God had done in the seventh century, he will bring victory now. “Triumph looms over the horizon, the signs of victory have appeared.”
In short, ISIS’ caliphate is not merely a product of the organisation’s extremist interpretation of Islam. Although ISIS draws from Islamic sources, appropriates Islamic concepts and often expresses itself in Islamic terms, the use of these religious “tools” can only be understood in their specific context. As we have seen, central to the context of the re-establishment of the caliphate are intra-jihadist struggles for authority – struggles that are being fought in the most modern ways possible.
This post was published earlier at The Religion Factor (University of Groningen).