Although al-Qaeda officially cut all ties with ISIS in February 2014, the radical Sunni Islamic group now calling itself the Islamic State is often described as an al-Qaeda offshoot. The two groups have a troubled history and are currently in open competition for leadership of the global jihadi movement. But as ISIS carries the black flag so associated with al-Qaeda and uses much of the same rhetoric, what are the main differences between the two organisations?
One way of answering this is by examining how ISIS implements its strict interpretation of Islamic government in territories under its control. While al-Qaeda has been the flag-bearer of global jihad in the past two decades, bin Laden's organisation showed very little appetite for actually governing territories. It was much more focused on planning and executing spectacular terror attacks against the "infidel" West and its Arab allies than engaging in state-building efforts, though affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have had brief attempts at government. In contrast, ISIS seeks to seize and govern territory and to enforce an extreme interpretation of Sharia in territories under its control. And according to recent assessments of the Islamic State's present state, "it's clear that they [ISIS] have a state-building agenda and an understanding of the importance of effective governance."
"The pact shows the group's intentions of building an Islamic State."
In addition to the implementation of Sharia and the enforcement of public morality by special patrols known as the hisba, one of the clearest demonstrations of ISIS' idea of government is found in the group's treatment of non-Muslims. A pact detailing the conditions for Christian residents to remain in Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital in northern Syria, attests to the group's long-term intentions of building an Islamic State and consolidating its power. The format of the Dhimmi pact ISIS signed with the city's Christians shows an extensive knowledge of Islamic history and law – which maybe shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organisation's leader, is a trained religious scholar who allegedly holds a doctorate in Islamic law. The pact resembles two versions of the Pact of Umar, which is known from Islamic history books as the agreement which was signed between the second Muslim Caliph, Umar bin al-Khattab, and the population in the territories which the Muslim armies conquered under his rule, which spanned from Spain to India. The pact is considered by Muslim historians to be the model of ideal relations between Muslim rulers and their non-Muslim subjects.
The Raqqa pact, signed with representatives of the Christian community, has three sections. The first part is a preamble, in which ISIS introduces the choices facing the Christians of Raqqa: conversion to Islam, signing a Dhimmi pact with ISIS and paying a special tax for non-Muslims (jizyah), or death. The preamble states that when the Christians of Raqqa heard those choices, they decided to agree to the conditions of the Dhimmi pact with ISIS.
The second part of the pact is a guarantee by ISIS not to harm the Christians of Raqqa, steal their money, violate their churches or force them to convert to Islam. This part closely resembles the version of the Pact of Umar presented to the people of Jerusalem when Umar conquered the city in 638AD, as recorded by Tabari, one of the greatest Muslim historians of Medieval Islam.
Finally, the third part details what the Christians of Raqqa must do to enjoy the protection promised in the pact. These conditions include commitments on their behalf not to renovate their churches, not to use loudspeakers during prayers and not to prevent anyone from converting to Islam – in other words, to minimise the visibility and appeal of Christianity and maintain an inferior position vis-à-vis the city's Muslims. The most important clauses are a promise to pay the jizyah and not to do anything detrimental to the Islamic State, such as harbouring spies or failing to notify the authorities of plots against their rule.
These conditions closely echo those recorded in Ibn al-Muraja's and Ibn Asakir's histories narrating the conquest of Jerusalem and towns in Syria. However, there is a crucial difference between ISIS' Raqqa pact and the historical Pact of Umar: according to the Muslim histories, the Christians themselves proposed the humiliating conditions in a letter to the Caliph, in which they agreed to live under Muslim rule. In Raqqa, the conditions were forced upon them. ISIS' inspiration from early Muslim histories is evident in the format and contents of the Raqqa pact, but this difference emphasises its radicalism and brutality.
"We don't believe in countries ... What matters are Islam and a Sunni reign."
The Dhimmi pact signed in Raqqa shows a domestic aspect of ISIS' ambitions, but the Islamic State is appealing to ideas of the medieval caliphates in their territorial goals as well. A video released by the group prior to their declaration of a caliphatedemonstrates this. In the video, titled "The End of Sykes-Picot", a Chilean ISIS fighter says that "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the breaker of boundaries. We start with breaking the Sykes-Picot border [between Iraq and Syria], and later we will break all other borders." This intention was also stated by another ISIS foreign fighter, who said in an interview with Western journalists that "we don't believe in countries ... breaking and destroying all borders is our aim. What matters are Islam and a Sunni reign".
The political borders of the modern Middle East, constructed in the secret "Sykes-Picot" agreement between Britain and France in 1916, are perceived by many radical Islamists as a European attempt to divide the Muslim world. Bin Laden stated on several occasions that "it's incumbent on all the Muslims to ignore these borders and boundaries, which the infidels have laid down between Muslim lands... for the sole purpose of dividing us." But while bin Laden's al-Qaeda may have lamented the existence of the borders of the Middle East, it nonetheless waged its jihadagainst the United States within the framework of the modern world system. In contrast, ISIS literally bulldozed the border between Syria and Iraq and aims to breaks other political boundaries in the region, matching existing salafi-jihadi rhetoric with concrete and immediate action. The ambition to redraw the map of the modern Middle East and establish a modern day caliphate, coupled with an amazing array of military victories over Iraqi government forces and others, largely accounts for ISIS' appeal to many radical Islamists and its ability to attract significant numbers of foreign fighters.
The Islamic State's state-building effort is hardly the first recent effort to establish an Islamic government – indeed, al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Mali have made similar attempts over the past few years, and the Taliban's efforts in Afghanistan in the 1990s are well documented. But while these previous attempts largely failed amid counteroffensives and resulted in the alienation of the local population, ISIS may have a longer-term impact. It is possible that the organisation's aim of eliminating the borders of the modern Middle East is just tough talk aimed to attract recruits and funds – but these stated ambitions should nevertheless be taken seriously, as its successes so far have surprised many observers who had previously underestimated the group's capabilities, including President Obama. Considering that the Islamic State has eclipsed al-Qaeda in the last months with its territorial gains and the scale of its transnational ambitions, it may be here to stay – unless the West, Arab states and other local elements join forces to stop its advance.