Alongside its initial military success, ISIS’ claim to have established a caliphate, an Islamic state modelled on the example of Islam’s earliest rulers, set the group apart from jihadi rivals. But as the group loses territory across the Levant, how will ISIS’ depleted propaganda machine process it?
Two competing group identity dynamics for jihadi groups, that of divine favour and being against the odds, underpin this question. Research into jihadi material reveals that a strong identification as an underdog is prevalent in 22 per cent of propaganda across a sample of three groups. ISIS is under no illusions about its position of inferiority. A narrative of being humble in resources against a coalition of global powers plays into the binaries of the inevitable victory of good over and evil and truth over falsehood, which drives the group’s apocalyptic world view. Notably, this stands in contrast to a more prevalent theme of a movement being divinely predestined to triumph over its oppressors, found in 33 per cent of propaganda.
A view of predestination, which denotes God’s control over the course of history, means that the loss of ISIS’ ‘caliphate’ was divinely ordained in the group’s understanding. References to suffering and setbacks are common in jihadi propaganda, together with the narrative that, as all things are in God’s hands, such setbacks must be borne with patience. This is justified through emulating the practices of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca and Medina when the Quraish tribe faced trials and tribulations at the hands of its enemies.
Pre-ordaining of major defeat means that military setbacks do not impinge on the group’s sense of mission
Indeed, the group‘s eschatology requires defeat as a means to eventual victory, with some apocalyptic Hadith (the ascribed sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) prophesying near-annihilation for Muslim armies in Jerusalem before the arrival of Jesus in Damascus to lead the mujahidin to victory. It is worth noting that the authenticity of the Hadith, however, is open to differning degrees of acceptance. Graeme Wood’s interview with ISIS ideologue Musa Cerantonio showed that such pre-ordaining of major defeat means that military setbacks do not impinge on the group’s sense of mission. Cerantonio argues “The Prophet said that one sign of the imminent arrival of the End of Days is that people will for a long while stop talking about the End of Days… If you go to the mosques now, you’ll find the preachers are silent about this subject.”
Jihadism scholar Thomas Hegghammer has theorised that the group’s media has pre-empted its own downfall. “We’ll see [ISIS] flip into a lost caliphate narrative. They will say we had this amazing society and they came along and broke it again.” He compares the potential impact of such a narrative to communism nostalgia among some Eastern European youth, saying “in five or 10 years’ time 17-year-olds will look at pictures of the Islamic State and want to fight against the people who destroyed it.” This is layered over a broader historical ‘lost Caliphate’ narrative by jihadi groups, which includes the destruction of the Ottoman empire, the last to claim this title, as being part of an alleged grand anti-Muslim agenda. The Ottomans are spoken of by ISIS in both romanticised terms and criticized for their religious ‘deviation’. This is an emblematic example of jihadi groups’ selective usage of history to suit their own narratives.
The loss of ISIS’ final territorial strongholds in Iraq and Syria will likely cause the group’s jihadi rivals, including al-Qaeda, to double down on their narrative that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate prematurely. Al-Qaeda ideologue Saif al-Adel famously summarised the group’s approach as being in seven stages, with the declaration of a caliphate as stage five, after the destruction of Arab ‘apostate’ regimes, a condition which most al-Qaeda theorists do not think has yet been met (except perhaps in Syria).
Theological rejections of the legitimacy of the caliphate by rival jihadi groups are particularly rooted in Baghdadi’s lack of qualifications for declaring himself emir al-momineen (commander of the faithful). Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously Jabhat al-Nusra), claimed in its English-language magazine al-Risalah, that fighters “gave Bayah [declared allegiance] to Baghdadi based on emotions.” They also criticised the group’s brutality, saying a Caliph “should be the shield of the Ummah [global Muslim community], not the sword against it.”
However, all al-Qaeda’s franchiseshave the re-establishment of the caliphate at the heart of their long-term ideological aims, with the group’s Arabian Peninsula affiliate asking in its magazine Inspire, “Don’t you want to be a part of the armies that raises the banner of Tawhid [monotheism] and will, Inshallah, re-establish the Khilafah [caliphate]?” Both groups will have been studying the lessons of ISIS’ attempts closely.
The centrality of the caliphate to Salafi-jihadi ideology will not be compromised by the death of ISIS’ incarnation. The concept has a broader resonance than within jihadi circles – a 2007 study by the University of Maryland found that two thirds of respondents in Egypt, Pakistan, and Morocco believed that a caliphate should be established in order to unify the Islamic world. While for most of these respondents, this is a gradualist political and non-violent position, jihadis will continue their attempts to tap into nostalgia around an idealised Islamic society. Though most will hark back to the example of the Salaf (the first generations of Muslims), others will also now include a romanticised vision of three years of brutal ISIS rule over parts of Iraq and Syria in their conception of the ‘golden age’ of the caliphate.