Toward Understanding the Actions of the Islamic State and Other Jihadist Groups as Military Doctrine
After over a decade and a half of the “War on Terror,” the United States and its allies have discovered the difficulty of fighting insurgent terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Operating from hard-to-reach areas, such as mountains and deserts, exploiting lack of effective government control, and leveraging support from local populations, these organizations have developed a way of war that defies even U.S. military efforts.
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) over the past five years has posed a new jihadist approach to warfare. This new way of war directly translates the organization’s ideology, based on a radical interpretation of Islamic theology, into military strategy and does not differentiate between its political ends and military means. The IS approach poses a formidable new challenge to world security.
In this article, I conceptualize IS’s new way of war as “perpetual jihad” as opposed to the traditional “conventional jihad” practiced by other jihadist groups. I discuss the global jihadist movement to illuminate the actors involved in the development of jihadist ways of war. I then expound on conventional jihad before using it as a basis for understanding perpetual jihad. My analysis aims to understand the jihadist movement in general and IS in particular and set the groundwork for the composition of coherent jihadist military doctrines.
The Global Jihadist Movement
I use the term “jihad” as the employment of holy war to realize the perceived political goals of Islam, “jihadist” as one practicing or supporting jihad. In Arabic, jihad literally means “striving.” It is a major concept in Islamic theology, appearing repeatedly in the Qur’an and Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions). Jihad entails deep commitment to Islam and diligence in religious practice, and observers associate it with both violent and peaceful actions. In the past several decades, jihad has appeared prominently as the pursuit of a violent struggle toward the establishment of an Islamic state, or “caliphate.” Muslim jurists and historians studying jihad have articulated Islamic laws of war, the role of martyrdom, the “prophetic methodology” that supposedly led to the success of early Islamic armies, and disagreements between scholars over the best way to wage jihad.
The modern jihadist movement emerged in the latter half of the 20th century. Jihadist ideologists, notably Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam, responding to the rise of secular Arab nationalism and decline of religion, began calling for the overthrow of secular and supposedly corrupt regimes, ouster of Western forces from the Middle East, restoration of an Islamic empire (which disappeared with fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One), and creation of a global Islamic army to achieve these goals. The movement took on an international character in the 1980s, as Muslims from around the globe emigrated to Afghanistan to fight with the Afghan Mujahideen against invading Soviet forces. One emigrant was Osama bin-Laden, who soon after the Soviet withdrawal, founded al-Qaeda (AQ). AQ became the protagonist of the global jihadist movement, gathering funds and recruits, planning attacks and strategies, and providing sponsorship and training to other jihadist groups around the world.
Shi’a Islamic groups under the sponsorship of Iran have emerged as a second focal point of the global jihadist movement. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 ousted a secular pro-Western monarchy and replaced it with a religious regime under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini proclaimed his intention to export the revolution to other countries, establishing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) to conduct operations abroad toward this goal. Iran began founding and supporting “resistance” organizations, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, across the Middle East and Central Asia. Today, Iran arms, trains, and funds multiple groups forming its “resistance axis” while the IRGC-QF supports them logistically and operationally. While Iranian-backed groups have conducted attacks as far away from the Middle East as Argentina, these groups’ focuses remain the Middle East.
The rise of IS has posed a challenge to Iran’s and AQ’s leadership of the global jihadist movement. The notorious Jordanian jihadist Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi founded IS as an offshoot of AQ called “al-Qaeda in Iraq” whose goal was to oust U.S. forces from Iraq following the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. In 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader of the group and renamed it “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS). He finally severed ties with AQ and changed the name once more to simply “Islamic State” in 2014, when he proclaimed the reestablishment of the caliphate. IS embarked on a campaign of territorial conquest, taking over lands in Iraq and Syria amounting to the size of the UK, though it has since lost almost all of this territory to U.S.-backed local and international forces. IS achieved its territory with an army of tens of thousands of foreign fighters from numerous countries and today has dozens of affiliated organizations in the Sinai Peninsula, the Philippines, West Africa, and elsewhere. IS maintains as bases its enclaves in Syria and continues to wage insurgencies in its former territories.
The Conventional Jihadist Way of War
Before the rise of IS, AQ, its affiliates, Shi’a organizations, and other jihadist organizations have developed a jihadist approach to warfare. What most characterizes their doctrine is a separation between religiously inspired goals and mundane means. Scripture is primarily aspirational, outlining the long-term aims of a group and providing justification for its actions. A group may find inspiration in scripture, but in practice remains pragmatic, rationally pursuing beneficial courses of action with scripture as a guide. Strategies emanating from this doctrine include gradualism, opportunism, diplomacy, provocation, and attrition.
For AQ and its affiliates, this doctrine formed the basis for provocations, insurgencies, and exploitation of disorderly governments toward gradual accumulation of power. AQ outlined its campaign as a seven-phase, twenty-year plan:
- “Awakening” (2000-2003) – provoking the United States to war through the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist attacks.
- “Opening eyes” (2003-2006) – significantly boosting global recruitment to form an “Islamic army” based in Iraq.
- “Arising and standing up” (2006-2010) – increasing attacks against secular Arab regimes, Turkey, and Israel.
- Overthrow (2010-2013) – overthrowing secular Arab regimes.
- The caliphate (2013-2016) – declaring the caliphate once the Islamic army is strong enough to withstand resistance from the West, secular Arab forces, and Israel.
- “Total confrontation” (2016-2020) – entering an all-out war between “believers” and “nonbelievers.”
- “Definitive victory” (2020) – The complete victory of the Islamic army.
These phases run on a timeline and may even serve as a checklist, much like the campaign objectives of a conventional army. They prescribe gradually building up an Islamic army through provocation and attrition of the West, using it to cripple Arab regimes, and emerging from the rubble more powerful than AQ’s adversaries. The Taliban, an AQ ally, and Hamas, a Sunni jihadist organization based in the Gaza Strip, have even negotiated with their adversaries when they perceived some temporal benefit from doing so.
Hezbollah, a Shi’a Iran-backed jihadist group based in Lebanon, and Hamas display a conventional jihadist strategy emphasizing absorption, survivability, and deterrence. Studying Israel’s jihadist adversaries, Brun noted that Hezbollah, as well as Hamas, have had to adapt their organizations to coping with the militarily vastly superior Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Any provocation of Israel would come with a heavy cost to these organizations as the IDF could potentially use its military superiority to crush them. Hezbollah and Hamas came to recognize that Israel’s reliance on airpower and intelligence, its distaste for prolonged warfare, and the Israeli public’s casualty averseness constrained Israel where they did not need to make such considerations. Thus, they developed a military doctrine of minimally provocative attacks, dispersion and hiding of military assets, and deterring Israel with a threat of prolonged warfare and high casualties in the event of an all-out conflict. These measures effectively increased the organizations’ capacity to absorb attacks by militarily superior adversaries and make ensuing conflict increasingly disadvantageous to the latter.
The IS Ideology and the Perpetual Jihadist Way of War
IS has pioneered a new jihadist way of war that relies on scripture as military strategy in itself. For IS, separation of scripture and strategy amounts to deviancy. Jihad continues perpetually in this doctrine because IS maintains an apocalyptic interpretation of Islamic scripture. With the apocalypse supposedly at hand, IS acts swiftly to prepare the world for it, the struggle ending only when God brings about the Day of Judgement.
Hazim and Bunker used the term “perpetual jihad” to conceptualize AQ’s strategy as a military campaign based on eschatology that will end only with the establishment of a “just” caliphate that can set in motion the apocalypse. In fact, AQ itself seems mostly unconcerned with, even contemptuous of apocalypticism. As Wood points out in a seminal article on IS, AQ perceived the apocalypse as a far-off abstract concept irrelevant to strategic thinking.
However, Hazim’s and Bunker’s warning of “the threat of caliphate yearnings and the eschatology that spawns it,” has proven prescient. IS has embraced eschatology as a key component of its ideology and military doctrine, McCants noting that the IS flag was meant to be the “harbinger of the final battle at the End of Days.” Goldberg notes IS’s intense self-image as a protagonist of a rapidly closing “in-between time,” before a supposedly imminent apocalypse. Such urgency demands swift, brutal action in the present that will enable the quick restoration of the caliphate, the only structure through which IS can fulfill its role in the end times. To illustrate how IS perceives the coming apocalypse, let us consider this passage from the Qur’an: “[The Hour] will not come upon you except unexpectedly… Its knowledge is only with Allah, but most of the people do not know.” Indeed, IS has internalized this sense of suddenness, that the apocalypse may come at any moment, with only God knowing its precise time of arrival.
The caliphate, then, is a noble goal insofar as it enables IS to carry out what it sees as its divine apocalyptic mission. To be sure, IS believes not that it can bring about the apocalypse through its actions, but rather that the Day of Judgement, whose occurrence is in God’s hands alone, is imminent and it must do all it can to prepare the world for it. The caliphate is the principal mechanism for this preparation. As former IS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani proclaimed, the caliphate is a place where Muslims may have “faith in Allah, keeping far from the gateway of shirk (polytheism, a grievous sin)” whereas for the “infidels,” it provides “no similar infuriation.” In sum, the caliphate is where true Muslims – the forces of good – can lead moral lives and hone their strength before their imminent clash with the forces of evil. At the same time, the growing caliphate will petrify the nonbelievers. As the fight continues, increasing numbers of Muslims will join IS until the borders of the caliphate perfectly separate the forces of good from the evil.
This vision informs IS military strategy. It has inspired military operations that follow apocalyptic prophecies. For example, in 2014, IS took over Dabiq, a village outside Aleppo lacking any conventional strategic value. The battle to take Dabiq cost IS heavily. Nonetheless, the conquest of Dabiq elated IS supporters because of the village’s prominence in Islamic eschatology, designating it as the place where the jihadists will confront “Rome” (the West in jihadist imagination). Such operations help fulfill IS’s mission of forcing a division of the world into good and evil, inspiring joy in IS supporters and fear in its enemies.
IS’s operational brutality is another strategy it derives from apocalypticism. During and following its military actions, IS has committed numerous particularly cruel atrocities, including recorded beheading and immolation of captives, genocide, and enslavement of captured populations. These actions satisfy IS’s desire to both petrify its enemies and inspire its followers. Even further, IS supporters who cannot stomach this level of brutality reveal themselves as not committed enough to the cause and must either strengthen their resolve or be damned as apostates. IS’s development and use of chemical weapons is arguably a result of its desire to increase the brutality of its operations. Indeed, IS prides itself on this high level of brutality.
IS’s apocalypticism also determines military targeting. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, IS’s first leader when it was still allied with AQ, promoted a strategy in his group of targeting Shi’a and overthrowing local “deviant” regimes. AQ protested this policy, since it would antagonize Muslims and take attention away from what AQ saw as the paramount enemy, the United States. Nonetheless, al-Zarqawi and his successors insisted on attacking Shi’a and other Muslims it considered “deviant.” The Shi’a, contended the leaders of IS, will appear in the coming apocalypse as the agents of the Antichrist, al-Dejjal. Hence, IS primarily targets Muslims it considers deviant, only secondarily attacking non-Muslims. IS perceives the exposure and elimination of such deviants as paramount since they can cause severe damage to the Islamic army by posing as genuine supporters and setting back the jihad at important times.
Aggressive provocation comprises another strategy of IS doctrine. AQ has shown it prefers to act cautiously and provoke strategically. For example, it carefully planned 9/11 with the specific aim of provoking the United States to war. Several months after IS began its campaign of conquest, AQ, in fact, condemned IS’s indiscriminate methods as “un-Islamic.” In line with its intention of maximizing fear among the nonbelievers, IS has disregarded the longstanding AQ policy of caution in favor of indiscriminate, highly publicized operations and executions that killed Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Neither has IS hesitated to call out groups that claim allegiance to it, as it has done in June with the West African group Boko Haram. As a result of this, IS has made enemies of virtually all entities with which it has made contact. While this may seem a nonsensical strategy from a conventional military perspective, IS views this as a step toward a concrete division of the world between good and evil. Every group engaging in hostilities with IS exposes itself as deviant in IS’s view; those excited by its actions reveal themselves as on the side of the forces of good.
This article aims to understand jihadist operations on their own terms toward construction of jihadist military doctrines. Discerning the premises behind jihadist ways of war aids in developing better methods to combat them. The conventional jihadist doctrine is easier to understand, manage, and even defeat since it is grounded in pragmatism and uses theology as a guide for its long-term goals. Deterrence and counterinsurgency can establish at least temporary modi vivendi and perhaps even victory in the long-term. The perpetual jihadist approach of IS presents a more difficult foe, one that does not have goals in the material sense and that will continue aggressive hostile actions even when not pragmatic. IS’s apocalyptic interpretation of Islamic scripture obliges it to act brutally, irrationally, and ceaselessly. As a result, the IS insurgency in Iraq and Syria will constitute a constant burden on the Middle East and the world for years to come.
So, what can we do about it now? Carrying on counterinsurgency efforts and cooperation with anti-IS forces remains crucial. However, more important in the long-term is acquiring a fuller understanding of jihadist operations. This article has focused mostly on jihadist military strategies and has not considered how scripture and doctrine influence battlefield tactics or other aspects of jihadist warfare. Strategists, experts, and scholars must invest more seriously in understanding IS operations on its own terms in all these areas. It has become more important to have knowledge of Islamic scripture in general and jihadist teachings in particular, especially when it comes to IS. With a comprehensive doctrine of jihadist operations, we can make sounder policy prescriptions and prosecute more effective anti-IS operations.
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 I borrow the term “perpetual jihad” from Hakim Hazim and Robert J. Bunker, “Perpetual Jihad: Striving for a Caliphate,” Global Crime 7, no. 3-4 (2006): 428.
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