State of Confusion: ISIS’ Strategy and How to Counter It

In 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy head of al Qaeda, had a killer idea: the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq (AQI) should declare an Islamic state. In a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the brutal leader of AQI, Zawahiri explained how it would work. The Islamic state, he wrote, would fill security vacuums around Iraq left by departing American forces. Once the Islamic state successfully fended off the attacks from neighboring countries that would undoubtedly follow, it could proclaim the reestablishment of the caliphate, the one-man institution that had ruled a vast empire in early Islamic history. For the scheme to succeed, Zawahiri warned Zarqawi, al Qaeda had to make sure that the Sunni masses supported the project.

Once it was loosed into the world, Zawahiri’s idea was too powerful for him or the al Qaeda leadership to control. By 2006, long before the American withdrawal and far too early to have built up much popular backing, AQI had established Zawahiri’s Islamic state. The new head of AQI after Zarqawi’s death, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, dissolved his organization and pledged his allegiance to a new “commander of the faithful,” Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who purportedly controlled the Dawlat al Iraq al Islamiyya, or the Islamic State.

Baghdadi’s title confused the jihadist community. In medieval Islam, “commander of the faithful” was usually reserved for the caliphs. Was Baghdadi claiming to be the caliph? And what of Mullah Omar, to whom al Qaeda’s leaders had aleady pledged allegiance? The name of the group was also puzzling. The word for “state” in Arabic is dawla. Was the new group claiming to be a dawla in the modern sense, an institution jihadists believe is un-Islamic? Or was the Dawlat al Iraq al Islamiyya simply an ode to the name of the man revered as the greatest caliphate, the Dawla Abbasiyya?

The Islamic State was not eager to dispel the ambiguity. It either liked implying that it had more power than it actually possessed or believed that the jihadist community was not ready to tolerate the full freight of its claims. Ambiguous audacity captured the imagination and was thus the key to the group’s power.

Although Zawahiri had first suggested the idea of establishing a state, he and the other al Qaeda leaders were blindsided by its early realization. Writing four years after the ISI was declared, Adam Gadahn, an American al Qaeda operative, confided in a private letter that “the decision to declare the State was taken without consultation from al’Qaida leadership,” a move that “caused a split in the Mujahidin ranks and their supporters inside and outside Iraq.”

Al Qaeda’s official position, nevertheless, was to endorse the fait accompli, probably in an effort to keep a hand in the Iraq game and avoid further dissension in the ranks. “I want to clarify that there is nothing in Iraq by the name of al Qaeda,” proclaimed Zawahiri in a December 2007 question-and-answer session. “Rather, the organization of [AQI] merged, by the grace of God, with other jihadi groups in the Islamic State of Iraq, may God protect it. It is a legitimate emirate established on a legitimate and sound method. It was established through consultation and won the oath of allegiance from most of the mujahids and tribes in Iraq.” But neither point was true, as al Qaeda leaders privately groused.

Al Qaeda may have ratified its affiliate’s decision to disband after the fact, but it was still an open question as to whether the Islamic State was subordinate to al Qaeda Central or an altogether independent entity. The state itself never addressed the question, again relying on ambiguity to imply greater power and independence than it actually possessed. And al Qaeda’s leaders made the fateful decision never to dispel that uncertainty.

From private documents, though, we know that al Qaeda Central believed that the Islamic State was under its authority. In his private letter, for one, Gadahn claims as much. The United States also uncovered a paper trail of documents from 2007 and 2008 attesting to that fact. Al Qaeda Central ordered the Islamic State of Iraq to carry out attacks, for example, against Halliburton in 2007 and the Danes in 2008. Al Qaeda Central also asked for information on the state’s personnel and expenditures. When the group refused to answer corruption charges leveled by one of its former officials, al Qaeda Central summoned Masri, the group’s war minister and previously the head of AQI, to the woodshed in “Khorasan” (Afghanistan or Pakistan).

Whatever control al Qaeda exercised over the Islamic State of Iraq had further eroded by 2011, either because the Islamic State rarely heard from al Qaeda Central owing to U.S. counterterrorism measures or because the state did not want to listen to its superior. As Gadahn put it in his letter, “Operational relations between the leadership of al-Qaeda and the State have been cut off for quite some time.”

Still, there was no formal break between the two organizations. Even Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s spokesman, who today denies that the Islamic State of Iraq ever pledged an oath to obey al Qaeda, acknowledges that it was “loyal” to al Qaeda’s commanders and addressed them as such, and that it continued to abide by al Qaeda’s guidance on attacks outside Iraq. For example, he says, the group refrained from ever attacking Iran (even though its soldiers demanded it) out of deference to al Qaeda’s desire to “protect its interests and its supply lines in Iran.” The Islamic State also held back from carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia because al Qaeda asked it to. But when it came to targeting decisions inside Iraq, the spokesman contends that it never followed al Qaeda’s “repeated request” to stop targeting Shiites. And, in his telling, al Qaeda Central never issued a direct command or asked about the disposition of its forces inside Iraq. When al Qaeda’s leaders expelled the group in 2014 for its disobedience, Adnani retorted that al Qaeda could not disown what had never belonged to it in the first place.

Adnani is lying, has a poor memory, or is unaware of high-level discussions between the Islamic State of Iraq and al Qaeda Central. Al Qaeda certainly inquired about the Islamic State’s troops and issued requests and demands for it to change its targets, modify its tactics, and reform its bureaucracy, as the documents from 2007 and 2008 demonstrate. That al Qaeda usually couched its instructions in polite language does not mean al Qaeda expected the Islamic State to ignore them.

There are many reasons the Islamic State grew unruly, some of them bureaucratic — it is hard to govern a terrorist group remotely, especially when even the local leader loses control of a corrupt faction of the group — others security related — many of al Qaeda Central’s messages were delayed or simply did not get through because of U.S. counterterrorism measures. But other al Qaeda affiliates bedeviled by the same infighting and hardships had never revolted. What separates them from the Islamic State of Iraq is also what explains its aberrant behavior: the group came to believe its own propaganda that it was, in fact, a state. Its flag — and not al Qaeda’s — had become the symbol of the global jihad. Even al Qaeda’s own affiliates flew it. Jihadist fanboys online counted the days since the state’s establishment. And after the Islamic State began to control territory in 2012, it could truly claim to be a state in fact and not just in theory.

When, in 2013, the Islamic State (now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) proclaimed its authority over Syria and Iraq, Zawahiri demanded that it renounce that claim and return to Iraq. The response of the ISIS’s emir was dismissive: “I have chosen the command of my Lord over the command in the message that contradicts it.” Months later, ISIS proclaimed itself the caliphate, rallying many in the global jihadist community to its side. It is far more exciting to be fighting for a caliphate that has returned than for a distant promise of its return under al Qaeda. Zawahiri’s killer idea had taken on a life of its own, dismembering al Qaeda and replacing it as leader of the global jihad.

Despite ISIS’ success in capturing jihadists’ imagination, the idea of an Islamic state has one fatal flaw: its physical incarnation makes it vulnerable to attack. Take away the state’s territory and expose its brutality and rapaciousness, and you discredit the standard-bearer of the idea. You may even discredit the idea itself. As Adnani prayed in a recent message, if this state is false, then may God “break its back . . . and guide its soldiers to the truth.” The United States and its allies should do everything they can to ensure that the higher power does indeed destroy the state — and expose the truth.

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.