ISIL’s rapid rise illustrates how far jihadism has evolved

The militant group has tapped into the desire of many Muslims for the return of the Caliphate, writes Hassan Hassan.

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant has declared its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi a caliph, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a couple of colleagues during my first year of university in Damascus in 2000. The school curriculum in Syria steered clear of almost all sensitive issues, and it was natural for new university students to find themselves exposed for the first time to “serious” issues such as the caliphate and sectarian divisions in the Muslim world. Such discussions were mostly hushed, often discussed in coded language among trusted colleagues or friends.

“Ana mubayi’,” or I have a pledge of fealty [to a caliph], said one of my colleagues. It was strange to hear such a sentence in a secular country like Syria. He added, with a smile that suggested a suddenly shaken certainty as to whether it was safe to have said it, that pledging allegiance to the caliph could be done without even meeting him because it would be deemed sinful if he didn’t declare allegiance. The supposed caliph was Mullah Omar, the Afghan spiritual leader of the Taliban.

That was around a year before the September 11 attacks in the US. This view of global jihadist groups was, I believe, pervasive within circles that were susceptible to foreign ideas and was being expressed at a time when satellite channels had just become popular in the region – especially Al Jazeera – that broadcast glimpses of jihadists in some mountains in Afghanistan, dressed in white and riding horses, reminiscent of a bygone period in Islamic history.

This story is relevant today, as some observers of jihadists in the region tend to play down the dangers of the ISIL announcement. The move is much more than whether the Islamic State, as it is known now, will hold on to the territories it currently controls or whether it will push into neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

A month ago, Barack Obama cited the weakening of “Al Qaeda central” as one of his administration’s achievements. Commentators then highlighted that while that may be true – a more dangerous trend has taken place during his presidency, the rise of local jihadi groups in many more countries than Al Qaeda ever operated. After the announcement of a caliph this week, the one thing Mr Obama bragged about has been rendered hollow, as the Islamic State has all but taken on Al Qaeda’s role as a leader of jihad. Some may celebrate the fact that the Islamic State has harmed Al Qaeda more than the war on terror has, but the only difference is that the Islamic State is the extreme of the extreme and is more invigorating for jihadists than Al Qaeda.

The announcement has already inspired jihadists previously aligned to Al Qaeda to join the Islamic State, including the spokesman of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, some members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in addition to members of Jabhat Al Nusra in Syria. Sympathisers with the announcement are likely to be far greater in numbers and range.

As it turns into a movement, rather than just a local faction, the Islamic State has many more advantages, and poses more danger than Al Qaeda. It is located in the heart of the traditional power centres of the Islamic world, Syria and Iraq. Its leader claims to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed’s family, and has religious credentials as a holder of a PhD in Islamic studies. These factors will help position him as a global leader.

Another advantage for the group is the fact that it is fighting a sectarian jihad, which tends to be more polarising than other forms of jihad. An indication of how this type of activism is popular is the fact that many groups and individuals who had previously fought ISIL or its precursors have praised its effort in fighting the Shiite-dominated Maliki government. Simply put, for many jihadists and Islamists, the wrong group is doing the right thing.

As I wrote in this space last month, the idea of an Islamic state has led many to support ISIL. The establishment of a caliphate will have an even wider effect on its popularity and relevance. A caliphate is the aspiration of most Islamists and many ordinary Muslims, and while many disapprove of the group that announced it because it has mainly killed fellow Sunnis since it was established, they approve of the move in principle.

The announcement, which has followed a striking success for the group in northern Iraq, has put subscribers of this ideology in an awkward position. Those who are not tied to the factions that have fought ISIL will likely sympathise with the move. After all, most of what the Islamic State is doing, in theory, can be justified in sharia terms.

It is not possible for me to know where my former colleague stands on the issue of the caliphate today. Another friend recently spoke of a conversation with his friend about the brutality of ISIL. He said that we are all perhaps paying the price of once supporting the jihadists who fought in Afghanistan.

Regardless, the whispers of support to a caliph in Afghanistan are now replaced by clear words and acts, amplified by social media. Jihadism has evolved significantly. It is no longer limited to narrow “elitists” who travel to distant countries to wage jihad. Today’s jihad is more sophisticated and individualised and can be waged everywhere.

Hassan Hassan is an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research centre in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: hhassan140