ISIS and the unbearable stateness of being

Within the quiet halls of the Brookings Institution, Will McCants’ recent essay on the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has occasioned quite a stir. This is in the first instance because it is the most-read Brookings foreign policy piece of the year and we all know a good thing when we see it.

But it is also because, just over a year after ISIS burst into the American consciousness with the seizure of Mosul, both Baghdadi and ISIS itself remain fascinating, mysterious, and scary. The combination of the group’s brutality, its territorial ambitions, its military effectiveness, and its apocalyptic ideology set it apart from anything that has come before it, including al-Qaida. Within this novel and confusing context, Will has become a critical interpreter of ISIS and its leader for the Brookings community and beyond. His background in Islamic theology and Arabic, his policy experience at the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, and his analytical insights have uniquely positioned him to understand and explain ISIS. But Will’s essay is only the beginning of the conversation that is taking place here about ISIS.

Why be a state?

Brookings’s Executive Vice President Martin Indyk was particularly intrigued by what he calls “a chillingly fascinating” essay. For him, the key issue that it raises is the question of the causes and consequences of ISIS leaders’ decision to seek a state: 

In the essay, Will notes that the idea of an Islamic state came from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS, but was implemented by Baghdadi. It is clearly a strategic decision that caused a deep schism among al-Qaida leaders. It is also a highly consequential decision because it forces the organization to take responsibility for actually controlling and defending a defined territory and the population within it. That means they not only have to police the millions of people they control, they also have to feed and care for them—to include an army, a judiciary, an internal revenue service, etc. (regardless of how revisionist the state might be). As Hamas discovered when it took control of Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians, it had to deal with an ongoing dilemma: whether to feed the people or fight the enemy.

Martin went on to ask whether there’s been discussion among the group’s leaders about the costs and benefits of controlling territory. He writes:

In the essay, it appears that it came out of the mind of one man (Zarqawi) and was adopted by another (Baghdadi). There’s also a hint that it might have been the influence of Saddam Hussein’s loyalists wanting to get back control of the Iraqi state. 

Will responds that “there was an intense debate within ISIS about the advisability of establishing a state,” adding:

As I document in my new book, “The ISIS Apocalypse,” this precise argument has raged between al-Qaida and its affiliates over the past decade. Osama bin Laden and his deputy and successor Ayman al-Zawahiri thought the Islamic State proclaimed itself prematurely, and they cautioned it against declaring a caliphate before it had strong popular support. The failure of the ISIS statebuilding project in Iraq in 2008, which nearly destroyed the group, further soured them on the idea of declaring a state. 

When al-Qaida’s affiliates began to copy the Islamic State by trying to establish emirates, bin Laden and then Zawahiri warned them against it for all the reasons Martin mentions. There’s a fascinating letter from bin Laden in which he says that Arabs expect their states to do too much and jihadists couldn’t possibly live up to those expectations. Better to focus on driving out the infidel, and then establish states when the jihadists are more capable. 

For Shadi Hamid, ISIS seems surprisingly committed to governing the territories it occupies, a fact that may seem incongruous with its apocalyptic world view. And its governance strategy has implications for all of political Islam:

ISIS takes governance and the provision of services relatively seriously and is better at it than one might expect. This is at the heart of what makes ISIS so distinctive in the world of not just jihadism, but also the world of political Islam more broadly. 

It was always mainstream Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood who claimed that they were the pragmatists who could deliver. This central claim has been undermined by their failure to govern in Egypt and elsewhere, provoking a crisis of confidence within these movements. Of course, the fact that Middle Eastern states have not been particularly good at law, order, or governance also lowers the bar considerably: Sunni constituents are comparing ISIS not to some abstract ideal of good governance but to the available alternatives. 

Will agrees that apocalypticism does seem incongruous with statebuilding. This is exactly is why ISIS’s apocalypticism has changed over time. He adds:

The Islamic State nearly destroyed itself in its first year because it was obsessed with the imminent appearance of a savior. Perhaps chastened, they began to focus more on statebuilding as the fulfillment of prophecy. That enabled them to prolong the apocalyptic moment, which was important for exciting recruits, while channeling their energy toward the more durable process of rebuilding God’s kingdom on earth. The same thing happened to other apocalyptic groups in medieval Islamic history that eventually came to power.

Finally, the statebuilding issue calls into question, in Shadi’s view, whether mainstream Islamists are actually well-positioned—either intellectually or theologically—to succeed at statebuilding in ungoverned spaces. Usually, he points out, statebuilding requires the use of violence. As a result: 

What mainstream Islamists usually do is work within existing state structures. But what happens, as in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, or Syria, when those structures disintegrate? This is where ISIS’s extremist interpretation of Islam seems to be useful, unfortunately, because it offers a purpose, vision, and coherence that give it an edge over its competitors in a political and power vacuum. 

Next stop Baghdad?

If ISIS is a state, it is an extraordinarily restless one. Its very legitimacy and certainly its attraction to the foreign fighters that flock to its ranks seem to rest on its continued battlefield success and territorial expansion. For Martin, this imperative for expansion raises the critical question of where it goes next:

As a state, do we know what its territorial intentions are? If you look at the map of the territory it controls, it suggests that its real ambition is to take Baghdad (indeed Baghdadi’s nom de guerre reinforces that interpretation). 

If they are a revisionist state, as they clearly imagine themselves to be, they must surely have the ambition not just to take more territory but to take a major Arab capital. Their aspiration of an Islamic caliphate will surely remain unfulfilled until and unless they do. Their rival, the Nusra Front, seems in a much better position to take Damascus, eventually. And ISIS’s three territorial tentacles in Iraq all point towards Baghdad, and control of Ramadi puts them awfully close. But of course taking Baghdad would mean an all-out confrontation with Iraq’s Shiites, backed by another state—Iran. Do they believe they could prevail there? If not, wouldn’t they be better off focusing on Damascus? 

Will responds:

ISIS is indeed dreaming of Baghdad. “Baghdad of al-Rashid” they call it, after the name of the Abbasid caliphate’s mightiest ruler, he of 1,001 Nights fame. Damascus would be a nice jewel in the crown and would fit with their apocalyptic narrative (Jesus is supposed to appear there to lead the Muslims in a fight with the Antichrist and his Jewish army). But it is Baghdad they want more than anything. Rather than risking an all-out confrontation with the Shiite militias ringed around it, they’ll likely keep softening it up until they believe they have the strength to take it.