ISIL is a complex group – it’s time we realised that

The mistake made in the fight against Al Qaeda in the past is being repeated today with ISIL, warns Hassan Hassan

An ISIL fighter waves their flag from inside a captured government fighter jet in Raqqa. (Raqqa Media Center / AP Photo)
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In the 1990s, a messianic Shia movement known as sulukiyya emerged in the Iraqi city of Najaf. Members of the sulukiyya movement, which derives its name from the Arabic words for behaviour or path-taking, believed in two things that members of ISIL today are also convinced by.

Its members accepted the idea that prophecies about the end of the world could be made to happen. Sulukiyya members suggested that a Mahdi figure would emerge before the end of the world to bring about absolute justice.

But they went further, believing that by spreading mischief in their areas they could speed up the process. Members were also opposed to the non-revolutionary clerical establishment of the time.

ISIL shares similar views. Characteristically, it is of the opinion that it is laying the groundwork for prophecies attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, such as an epic battle in Dabiq, an area in Aleppo, between the Christian and Muslim armies. According to the prophecy, the Muslim army would prevail and proceed to conquer Constantinople. Many Muslims believe the prophecy has either been fulfilled, with the conquest of Istanbul by Mehmet the Conqueror, or it has expired since Turkey is already a Muslim country.

Messianic ideas inspire unflinching dedication. But one thing about messianic movements is that they lose momentum. Similar movements in the West and in Iraq quickly declined and lost their followers.

But there is a catch. ISIL is not an apocalyptic cult as people tend to make it out to be. It employs Islamic eschatological ideas but only as part of its wider religious and political project. Messianic movements do not attract large followings in the way ISIL seems to.

The disproportionate focus on this part of its propaganda, which might be a result of familiarity with the concept in the West, risks misdiagnosis of the appeal of ISIL.

ISIL has a strategy for a clear religious and political project. Its focus on Dabiq is nothing new. Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, ISIL’s founding father, spoke about the prophecy during his jihadi operation in Iraq. According to Yaroslav Trofimov, author of Siege of Mecca, Al Zarqawi took the idea from his Jordanian mentor Abu Mohammed Al Maqdisi.

In its videos, ISIL refers to its fighters as the “soldiers of the caliphate”, not the soldiers of Dabiq. It is the caliphate, or the Islamic state, that draws the attention of new recruits and invigorates them to fight for the group. It claims to represent the interest of Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and beyond. So it is this idea that must be the focus of attention for those fighting ISIL.

Most ISIL members are fired up by the idea of “Al Dawla”, or the state. When members speak about their group, their tones become noticeably passionate when they use the word.

Many of them believe that they are a vehicle for the achievement of the political and religious project to gradually take control of Muslim countries and unify them, and so anything else, no matter how brutal, is justified.

They regard Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups as spent forces in global jihad and that radical religious movements are likewise spent forces in politics. ISIL presents itself as the only viable force that can achieve the goal of those who share its ideological orbit, from conservative Muslims currently active in a conflict, to jihadists.

ISIL uses messianic ideas to inspire its followers to look forward to future prophecies, but also uses Islamic events and ideas to encourage its members to look back at an imagined glorious past.

Its multidimensional ideology ensures that the group is grounded in the past, the present and the future at the same time. Its followers become immune to counter messaging from individuals and groups that ISIL claims are vehicles for the existing order in the first place, such as the clerical establishment.

The resilience of the group and its previous incarnations, combined with the series of successes over the past two years, make its project feasible in the eyes of its followers and sympathisers and therefore electrifying. Any losses suffered by the group are often interpreted as shortcoming on the part of the individuals rather than the project itself, since it had once been significantly weakened before it was resurrected again.

ISIL’s detractors often prefer not to deal with the complexity of the factors that create such groups. Why deal with the nitty-gritty stuff when there are mighty weapons and regional allies to defeat the group? That mistake was made in the fight against Al Qaeda in the past, and is being repeated today with ISIL.

Hassan Hassan is a Middle East analyst and co-author of the new book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan