Caliphate at War: Islamic State Ideology, War Fighting and State Formation

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 24

A series of books that I remember from my teenage days when I was in school in France sought to provide a succinct explanation for a variety of phenomena. The series title was De Quoi S’Agit-Il? This roughly translates as “what does it mean or what is it all about?” in the deeper sense of explanation rather than mere description. Almost no day goes by without mention of Islamic State and dismay over its repertoire of actions on the ground in either Syria or Iraq ranging from military operations to something incontrovertibly barbaric as mass slaughter or nihilistic erasure of the historical past or mass terrorism as the Sinai, Beirut and Paris. This paper is a summary of my forthcoming book on Islamic State: its historical origins, its ideology and goals, its organization from early times to the present, its war-fighting styles and its war-formation and nation-building enterprise in Syria and Iraq. [1]

History Matters

A century and half ago, a brilliant thinker wrote some of the most profound words in political philosophy:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

The man was Karl Marx in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Mercifully, the political and socioeconomic system that was his legacy has been consigned to the “dustbin” of history, but this does not detract from his incisiveness and, in my view, the accuracy of his much of his observations.

History is very important. My historical approach towards what is going on in Iraq is one that lies firmly within the French historical school of la longue duree, which favors the study of long-term structural factors over “mere” events to understand what is happening. I am not denying the importance of personalities here in history in general or in Iraq specifically. It suffices to say that in order to understand modern and contemporary Iraq, “long-range” history is crucial. What we think is insignificant or of merely historical record is not in the region where, dare I sound “Orientalist,” memories are long and perceived historical injustices are never forgotten. However, while Iraq may be a vast and infinitely rich historical canvas, I want to make only two points here that should constitute food for thought as we address this seemingly peculiar apparition known as the Islamic State.

Two Historical Points to Ponder

First, the Sunni slander of Shi’as is not modern. I am not saying that sectarianism is ingrained or biological, rather it is constructed, but it certainly has a long pedigree. What struck me in the course of the research for my book was that Islamic State’s ideology—not really al-Qaeda since the leadership of that organization tried to tone down the Islamic State’s rhetoric and viciousness against Shi’as—drew on some interesting anti-Shi’a rhetoric going back centuries to Ibn Asakir al-Dimashqi and Ibn Taymiyyah. Al-Dimashqi lived a hundred years before Ibn Taymiyyah, also in the Fertile Crescent. His was also a time of turmoil, with the Crusader kingdoms seemingly ensconced in the region and myriad heterodox groups challenging mainstream Islam. Al-Dimashqi did what many people do when they are looking for scapegoats: he blamed the Shi’a.

A hundred years later, the much better known Ibn Taymiyyah was confronted with the existence of Crusaders and Mongols despoiling the umma, or land of Islam. Of course, these “infidels” bore much responsibility for the problems confronting Islam. However, the “internal enemy,” bore as much culpability in his eyes. He began his vituperative assault against what were in his time, the weakest and most despised heretical sects living within the umma and whose status as part of the faith was somewhat ambiguous, the Nusayris (today’s Alawites) and the Druzes: [they] “are not Muslims [kharijin an shiat al-Islam, they have come out of the party of Islam]…Fighting them is therefore lawful [qitaluhum kana ja’izan] … and others like them—who live in Muslim lands have aided the Mongols in their war against the Muslims.” Much of his ire—presumably because they were a greater danger—was reserved for the mainstream Shi’as whom he referred to as the rafidis, or rejectionists because of their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the first three caliphs or successors to Muhammad:

The Rafidis [al-Rafida] come next, for they ally themselves with whoever fights the Sunnis. They allied with the Mongols and with the Christians. Indeed, there was in the coastal areas [of the Fertile Crescent] a truce between the Rafidis and the Franks. The Rafidis would ship to Cyprus [Crusader bastion during the Crusades] Muslim horses [!] and armor, as well as captive soldiers of the sultan and other fighters and young warriors. When the Muslims defeat the Mongols, they mourn and are saddened, but when the Mongols defeat the Muslims, they celebrate and rejoice. They are the ones who advised the Mongols to kill the [last Abbasid] caliph and massacre the people of Baghdad. Indeed, it was the Rafidi vizier of Baghdad Ibn al-Alqami who, through deception and trickery, conspired against the Muslims and corresponded with the Mongols to incite them to conquer Iraq and instructed people not to fight them.

Now, I don’t know what a “Muslim horse” is. What I do know is that this sectarianism became part and parcel of the Ottoman struggle with the Iranians after the latter were forcibly converted to the Shi’a faith. Saddam Hussein could not use it during the first two decades of his rule over Iraq: he was secular, his country was 60 percent Shi’a and lastly he needed the support of the Iraqi Shi’a against Iran. After the 1991 rebellion in the south and the onset of the so-called “Return to Faith” Campaign, the Shi’a were viewed with suspicion as a “tabour khamis” for Iran. The Salafist-Jihadists, to whom Islamic State and its predecessors firmly belong, have firmly imbibed the hatred of the Shi’a that was in full display when a Saudi Wahhabi army invaded southern Iraq and slaughtered the inhabitants of the holy cities of the Shi’a faith.

Second, the other “long-range” historical factor that is critical to my story is this: modern state-formation and nation building efforts of both foreigners in Iraq and of Iraqis themselves to date have failed dismally. Neither the Ottomans nor the British succeeded for many reasons that we cannot explore here in any detail, tempting as that may be. It suffices to say that the raison d’etre of empires has never been to create states or nations out of peripheral areas of which they are in control. It simply defies imperial logic. The Iraqis themselves have made a mess of it, to be sure. They are not the only people who have made a mess of their state-formation and nation building enterprises, but Iraq (and Syria) right now is the country that the world is worried about because this twin failure—of state-formation and nation building—allows Islamic State to proffer its own alternative.

The American state building enterprise of 2003-2011 in Iraq was declared by its originators to have nothing to do with “empire” but everything to do with bringing “freedom” and democracy to a state and a people that had never known it before and simply did not have the wherewithal for it cognitively, materially or institutionally after having been crushed by three decades of brutal government and 12 years of unremitting sanctions imposed by the international community.

Following the departure of the Americans, the Iraqis once again snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory under the aegis of the underwhelming prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki fancied himself a revolutionary because he had spent much of his life as part of a conspiratorial and outlawed party, the Da’wa Party, running and hiding from the merciless Baathist regime. But this revolutionary was no Lenin; indeed, he was a mediocre revolutionary at best. Maybe he could have transformed himself into a statesman, one of historical import, after all many revolutionaries have done that. Al-Maliki did not transform into a statesman. He did not think in grand historical terms in the sense of leaving his mark on Iraq as its savior and the man who brought it out of its dark times. To paraphrase, the famous Senator Lloyd Bentsen, al-Maliki was no Bismarck and no Ataturk.

To be sure, the Americans left a fragile and unstable country in 2011. How fragile and unstable was reflected in the fact that contrary to popular perceptions, the extremist predecessor of the Islamic State, namely the Islamic State of Iraq, had not been convincingly defeated, either by the “Sahwa” (or Awakening) or by the “surge” of U.S. troops. Nor had the central government in Baghdad settled the matter of the integration of the Sunni community into the body politic. It was also reflected in the calamitous failure of the Iraqi military and security forces in the wake of Islamic State advances in 2014; this was not a mere “event,” it was yet another example of a structural failure of Iraqi state-making. While I have previously stated that history and structure are important, people are not mere prisoners of history, nor are they so constrained by structure that they cannot proceed to make their own history. Iraqis of all stripes bear much of the blame for what transpired between 2011 and the present.

There currently exists a cacophony of voices, views and ideas about the trajectory of the inexorably weakening Iraqi state. At one level is the Iraqi state, which is dominated now by the Shi’a. This state has little power to establish ideological hegemony over the rest of the other communities. It has little power of domination and coercion; look at what happened to its hapless security forces. Indeed, what can this state offer the Sunnis and Kurds as things stand now? Both Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds did hope that things would get better. They did not; things got worse.

At a second level, there are the Kurds. The Kurds have been seriously thinking about going their own way. While there are still some structural constraints in the way of the Kurds’ stealthy path towards independence, it has been clear for a while that the sentiment has steadily grown, and particularly more so since the events of 2014.

At the third level, are the Sunni Arabs, really the focus of all the attention given the Islamic State’s control over large swathes of Sunni territory. There is an interesting paradox here, which I am exploring in my forthcoming book The Caliphate At War. Until 2003, they were at the center of power, or elements of them. Precisely because of that, Saddam kept a close watch on them: Sunnis watched other Sunnis in a Byzantine web of competing security and intelligence services. His particular worry was that disgruntled Sunnis would use the military to shoot their way into power. He made sure that this would never happen, and successfully; after all, he was not overthrown by the Sunni-dominated army. The Sunnis had no alternative power centers; the Sunni Islamic parties had been weakened. The tribes had been strengthened at the local provincial level, but were not national players. The Shi’as and Kurds had alternatives: their alienation from power and exile for many of them allowed them to develop into parties; the Kurds in particular had their sanctuary, which gave them the opportunity to build political machinery. The Sunnis had the insurgency, which was frankly a dismal affair between 2003 and 2007 when many of the groups absconded and joined the Sahwa. The insurgent groups were fractious, did not have clearly defined political and military wings, were wedded to their “restorationist” agenda and were invariably defined by the barbaric AQI of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his successors. The situation did not improve for them after the temporary defeat of ISI in 2009, a defeat that has been overrated as the organization came back again and took advantage of the Sunni community’s weaknesses.

Exit, Voice and Loyalty Be Damned: The Theo-Totalitarian Alternative of Islamic State

Fifty years ago, the American economist, Albert Hirschman, wrote a book that has become a minor classic. The book was called Exit, Voice and Loyalty. The basic premise is that members of an organization, business or state have two possible responses when they perceive that the entity to which they belong is performing below par: they can exit (withdraw from the relationship), or they can voice (attempt to repair or improve the relationship through communication of the complaint, grievance and calls for change. If things get better, they would then demonstrate their loyalty anew. Iraq as a state is performing below par, and Islamic State has taken advantage of this with respect to the Sunni community. However, Islamic State does not want to exit from Iraq or Syria; it wants to seize both of them and beyond. Why and how are important issues to address briefly here by looking at its ideology, goals, organization, war fighting and governance or state-formation.


The goals of the Islamic State have been remarkably consistent since al-Zarqawi’s days. Almost ten years ago, al-Zarqawi stated that the political platform of his organization was clarified by the saying of the Prophet: “I was sent to the world with a sword in my hand until all worship would be devoted to Allah alone.” This principle, he tells the interviewer “determines our political program.” What is that political program? On numerous occasions from 2003 till his death in 2006, Zarqawi defined the group’s political program and provided justifications for its way of doing things. For example, he posted an extended statement in the organization’s first issue of the online magazine Dhurwat al-Sanam in the jihadist al-Ikhlas forum. The statement begins by asking and answering the question: what is the “Al-Qaeda of Jihad organization in the Land of the Two Rivers?” It is a group of Muslims “who seek God’s gratification by implementing God’s absolute authority for themselves and others in harmony with the principle that says: Nothing is dearer to me than man’s adherence to my commandments.” The group focuses on major, interrelated and thorough objectives as follows:

· Renewal of pure tawhid. Propagation of “there is no god but God alone” in countries where Islam did not reach.

· Jihad in the cause of God to exalt God’s word, liberate the entire Muslim territories from infidels, establish God’s Shari’a in these territories.

· Support for Muslims everywhere, reinstatement of their dignity, which the invaders and traitors have desecrated, reestablishment of the Muslims’ usurped rights and exertion of the efforts to improve the situation of Muslims.

· Reestablishment of a wise caliphate similar to the theocracy established by the Prophet. A person will die a pre-Islamic death if he does not have allegiance to a caliph.

The statement poses the question: Why do we carry out operations against the Americans and their agents, including the army and the police? The answers:

· To gratify God, save Muslims, their honor and property from assailants and expel the aggressor from the Land of the Two Rivers.

· To salvage the honor of our fraternal brothers, the chastity of our sisters and the innocence of the Muslim children who are killed by the Americans and their agents.

· To reestablish an Islamic caliphate in Baghdad that shines with the brightness of justice and prosperity reminiscent of the days of caliph Harun al-Rashid.

· To kill everyone whose soul is debased and who assists infidels in their war against Muslims in the territory of Iraq. Those include army personnel, policemen, agents and spies who help the Americans to commit crimes.

True, many things have changed since his death in 2006, but the Islamic State still clings to al-Zarqawi’s ideological legacy and his goals.


Organizationally, Islamic State is vastly more developed than its predecessors, though paradoxically this makes it more susceptible to destruction. In 2003, al-Zarqawi started with an organizational structure that is not based on a rational system of management and functional specialization. Rather it was based more on a circle of kin, family and friends, particularly of those who came from the Fertile Crescent—Jordanians, Lebanese (very few), Syrians and Palestinians. Some of them had been with him in Afghanistan in their own camp in Herat in Afghanistan and later followed him into Iraq.

The exigencies of war in Iraq against a wide-ranging group of enemies forced al-Zarqawi to develop a more formal structure. The group around al-Zarqawi, which was not really much of an organization to date but rather a group of like-minded individuals had to organize to organize, that is, they had to turn themselves into an organization with specific tasks and missions. It had to then establish a system of management, that is, a leadership that managed the organization as it set about its deadly business of bringing mayhem to Iraq. The organization’s tasks were numerous. First, such an organization needed to manage relations with the local population, the Iraqis and particularly the myriad of local insurgent groups. Relations with the Iraqis were not always smooth. Al-Zarqawi was suspicious of the Sunni Arabs, seeing them as one of the following: apathetic and indifferent, closet Baathists or worse, collaborators with the enemy. Nonetheless, since he was in their country, he began cooperating with insurgent groups like the group of Iraqi Islamist fighters in Fallujah led by Omar Hadid. Second, his organization recognized the value of recruiting the many Arab volunteers in Iraq who had been caught flat-footed by the downfall of the regime. Some chose to return home; others joined al-Zarqawi because the Iraqis did not want them. Third, the organization was going to be involved in fighting for the first time in a serious way. It needed to become functionally specialized with distinct expertise and skill levels. Al-Zarqawi’s successors sought to further build up the organization and were deluded into thinking that the time was ripe for an Islamic state under Abu Umar al-Baghdadi at the very time when the organization was being hollowed out by relentless U.S. operations and by the major assault on the jihadists by the thoroughly disgruntled Sunni insurgents.


The Islamic State and its predecessors had to set up a force structure or army that must be configured in such a way that it would not succumb easily to the more powerful forces of their state opponents. Islamic State as it currently stands is a terrorist outfit, a guerrilla organization and a quasi-conventional force. It has come a long way since al-Zarqawi’s day. His chief weapon was the suicide bombing campaign. Insight into the networks is difficult to gain, but they do have an infrastructure. The suicide bomber cannot do this alone: (a) there is a safe house; (b) the bomb-maker; (c) the spiritual handler and (d) the security and reconnaissance teams. Contrary to popular perceptions, a slight majority of the targets in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 were against government, police and military, that is the infrastructure of the state, not commercial and civilian targets. However, many of the killed were obviously Shi’a. The ratio changed after the campaigns of 2012 to the present. Many civilian areas were targeted, markets in particular.

It then progressed to a situation where the Islamic State has developed into something akin to a hybrid structure to borrow a term popularized by Frank Hoffmann. I use the term in two ways: (a) Islamic State has a range of capabilities spanning the fighting spectrum from terrorism to guerrilla war to semi-conventional war and (b) it can go back and forth along this spectrum depending on circumstances, environment and the nature and characteristics of the enemy it faces. When under immense pressure, it reverts back to its specialty: the suicide bombing campaign using either the solo suicide bomber or the more effective VBIED.

Islamic State “strategists” used to complain that Iraq was not suitable for classic guerrilla warfare in the rural areas because of the lack of sanctuaries, the absence of truly inhospitable terrain such as in Afghanistan or Yemen and because of the ability of U.S. forces to move rapidly anywhere and anytime in Iraq. The situation for the extremists was remedied to some extent by their determination to establish a sanctuary in Diyala province to the northeast of Baghdad. The terrain there enabled them to establish some training grounds to set up quite well-trained and disciplined small units that actually stood and fought U.S. combat forces in a significant battle in Diyala.

State-Formation and Nation Building

Since the Islamic State was also in the process of state-formation and nation building, they sought to develop governance and control structures that are more transparent than the leadership and bureaucratic structure at the first level (the level that “governs the organization,” as it were). This state infrastructure had to be developed and defended against both internal enemies and against the state or foreign forces with which the movement is in conflict. In short, a violent armed non-state actor is often engaged in both an orgy of destruction aimed at the state structure and administrative apparatus of its enemy (and often only secondly at its military forces), and an orgy of construction as it seeks to build its own counter-state.

The Future of Islamic State

Despite the Islamic State’s efforts to portray an image of success in its state-formation process, the consensus of opinion is that they are not doing a very good job. The effort is suffering from immense corruption, lack of bureaucratic and administrative capacity and it is reportedly facing dwindling support. State-formation requires financial resources, but it is still not clear whether finances are dwindling and how far. However, in my estimation the biggest problem that the Islamic State faces is a structural one that it will be incapable of resolving because of the logic of its ideology and the number of enemies it has created. To be more specific: the Islamic State spends considerably more time exerting domination within its restive domains and fighting its enemies—both constitute war-making—and is not able to spend enough time in state-formation and consolidation. Within its domains, such as they are, the Islamic State has not been able to move from the dynamic of domination—meaning always relying on the threat or use of coercion—to that of hegemony or establishment of legitimacy. What it has going for it so far is that the resistance to it within its domains is not solid, despite the existence of anti-Islamic State insurgents, because the captive populations have not been given hope or support from the outside. Many Sunnis are caught between Scylla—the Islamic State—and Charybdis—the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad and its vengeful militias. This provides the Islamic State with the legitimacy of the worst alternative.

Ahmed S. Hashim is the Associate Professor of Strategic Studies within the Military Studies Program at Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


1. Ahmed S. Hashim, The Caliphate at War: Ideological, Organizational, and Military Innovations of Islamic State, London: Hurst and Company, (May 2016). The paper is also based on my many observations and notes in a collection of diaries I maintained while on deployment with U.S. forces in Iraq between 2003-2004; 2005-2006 and in 2007.