Two years ago, the armies of the group that would soon call itself the Islamic State, a group that already controlled large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, entered Mosul, the second city of Iraq. The Iraqi Army, in which the United States had invested, or perhaps wasted, US$25 billion, fled in fear. Shortly after, the group announced the restoration of the Muslim caliphate, which had been dissolved in 1924 by the leader of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk.
Before these events in June 2014, virtually no one in the West had given the Islamic State a second thought, apart from a handful of scholars and intelligence officers. Six months before the fall of Mosul, US president Barack Obama dismissed the Islamic State, with a withering contempt, as the junior league partners of Al Qaeda. Since then, however, the proudly publicised dark deeds of the Islamic State – the beheadings, the stoning to death of adulterous wives, the immolations, the crucifixions, the mass slaughters, the killings of homosexual men, the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women – have become only too well known.
As an undergraduate seeking to understand the Holocaust, I read Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide. It is the history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document that “revealed” the Jewish plot for world conquest and became a fundamental element of the Nazi world view. Ever since, I have believed that there is nothing more dangerous in human affairs than beliefs capable of convincing their followers of the nobility of mass murder and other savage acts. For this reason, recently I set out to try to discover the thinking of the Islamic State’s leaders. The more I read the more convinced I became that the Islamic State’s barbarous behaviour could not possibly be grasped without some real familiarity with the character and content of their ideology. As so often in history, it is ideas that kill.
Political ideologies invariably take decades to crystallise. In the case of the Islamic State its world view is grounded in the thought of the Egyptian visionary Sayyid Qutb, whose Milestones is a seminal text for an understanding of both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Following Qutb’s execution and martyrdom in 1966, his thought was subject to a process best called, to borrow a phrase from the scholarly debate about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, “cumulative radicalisation”. This process occurred through the writings of a series of influential revolutionaries. The Egyptian engineer Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj, author of The Neglected Duty (referring to jihad), which inspired the 1981 assassination of his country’s president, Anwar Sadat, made Qutb’s thought operational. The Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam, who wrote Join the Caravan and inspired the first army of jihadists during the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979, made Qutb’s already operationalised vision global. The Saudi-Yemeni businessman Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, who, in combination, created Al Qaeda, converted Qutb’s vision into the ideology of the most consequential global jihadist movement prior to the emergence of the Islamic State.
With Al Qaeda, Qutb’s revolutionary movement underwent significant change, coming to reflect the confluence of two very different movements within radical political Islam: the minority extremist-assassination wing of Egypt’s jihadi movement that had broken with the Islamist party the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by Zawahiri, and the alienated and politicised tendency of the purist Wahhabist–Salafi movement of Saudi Arabia, represented by bin Laden. After a series of false starts – Islamism (too broad), radical Islamism (too vague), fundamentalist Islam (too Christian), Islamo-Fascism (too polemical) – eventually both Western scholars and members of the revolutionary movement itself settled on a name for the movement and the ideology: Salafi jihadism. This term accurately reflected both its inner content and its hybrid Egyptian–Saudi origins. The ideology of the Salafi jihadist movement by the time of September 11 was in detail rather complex. There were many significant disagreements between its adherents over theological niceties and strategy and tactics. However, its core, which consisted of several theologically freighted key political concepts, can be outlined relatively simply in the following way.
Since the Golden Age of the Prophet Muhammad, his “companions” and followers (the salaf ), the entire world had descended into the state of ignorance (jahiliyya) that had prevailed among the polytheist (shirk) Arab tribes before the victory of Islam. This state of ignorance was now found both among the People of the Book, namely Christians and Jews, who had rejected the message of the final prophet, and of course also among the followers of the two principal contemporary secular-materialist political ideologies, capitalism and communism. But ignorance’s dark shadow had spread much further, reaching all the tyrannical and apostate (taghut) rulers of the world’s supposedly Islamic regimes.
This state of near-universal ignorance was, according to Salafi jihadist ideology, a tragedy for humankind. Islam was the one and only religion of truth. Its restoration now relied upon a tiny revolutionary vanguard who understood the faith. Political and military struggle on behalf of the faith (the act of jihad) was the most profound duty Islam required of its followers. Jihad had to be waged to restore true Islam to the supposedly Muslim world and the lands the Muslims had lost during the long era of their decline, and then, at long last, to bring the blessings of Islam to the infidel (kuffar) world in its entirety. The meaning of all this could not have been clearer. The resurrection of humankind from the era of near-universal jahiliyya rested on the success of the jihad of the Islamic vanguard.
What tasks must they then accomplish? Most vital was the creation of a world where the Oneness of God (tawhid) – monotheism is too abstract a translation – was acknowledged by all peoples. All innovations (bida) in the religion of Islam that had corrupted the faith since the Golden Age of the two foundation cities, Mecca and Medina, had to be rejected. As did all the fundamental political convictions and institutions of the contemporary world. A single Islamic world community (the umma) had to triumph over the nation-state, that grotesque formation that had divided human beings since the Peace of Westphalia.
Sovereignty in the umma had to rest exclusively with God (the idea called hakimiyya). Democracy, representing the sovereignty of the people rather than the sovereignty of God, was an obscenity and an impertinence. The law in the umma was to follow the Shar’ia, dictated to Mohammad by God in the Qur’an. Laws made by men in parliaments or elsewhere were an abomination. The punishments (hudud) set out in the Qur’an had to be strictly enforced to the letter. The Qur’an, and the accounts of the life and sayings of the Prophet, as recorded in the authentic hadiths, contained almost everything that humans needed to know about how societies should be formed and how men and women should live. Only where there existed doubts might there be a need to consult the most reliable religious authorities, like the Salafi jihadists’ favourites, the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya or the 18th-century co-founder of Saudi Arabia Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
The ideology of Salafi jihadism also imprinted a tragic version of history on the minds of its followers. Once, expansionist Islam had represented the most glorious and powerful civilisation, ruling over the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe, including Spain. As the true faith was corrupted and forgotten, Islam had descended into its present state of abjection and humiliation. In the essentialised historical imagination of the Salafi jihadists – where the base motives and vicious characters of whole categories of people remained unchanged despite the passing of several centuries – the Crusaders (the Christian West) were the most enduring and dangerous enemy of Islam.
In the view of the Salafi jihadists, at the end of World War One, the Crusaders had carved the Ottoman Empire into a series of colonial states. The process was encoded in the ideology as the “Sykes-Picot conspiracy”. At the end of World War Two, the Crusaders had committed the most heinous crime and inflicted the most painful wound: the creation of a Jewish state at the very heart of historical Islam. The Salafi jihadists were convinced that the Jews controlled one of the postwar superpowers, the US. Because they believed that Islam was under direct attack from the Zionists and the Crusaders, they argued – according to the vital theological distinction between state responsibility for offensive jihad to expand the faith and individual responsibility for defensive jihad when the umma is under threat – that jihad had become a solemn and unavoidable duty (fard al-’ayn) for all Muslim men.
For many years, the Salafi jihadis argued with one another as to whether this jihad should first be waged against the “near enemy”, the apostate Muslim regimes, or the “far enemy”, Israel and the US. In the early 1990s the Salafi jihadists had suffered defeats – in Egypt and Algeria – in their struggles against the near enemy. They believed that they and God had been responsible not only for the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 but also for the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. They were appalled that, before the First Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia had permitted the US to station half a million troops near the site of the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. As a result of all this, in the mid 1990s the most important Salafi jihadist movement of that time, Al Qaeda, opted for jihad against the far enemy. Al Qaeda now called on its followers to kill Americans and Jews whenever the opportunity arose. As everyone knows, Al Qaeda’s overwhelmingly most significant success was the surprise attack on the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Center in September 2001.
Following September 11, to judge by his writings collected in Messages to the World, Osama bin Laden believed it only a matter of time before the great enemy of the umma, the US, would suffer total defeat. Bin Laden had witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union shortly after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was now “a figment of imagination”. He attributed its defeat to the courageous armed struggle of the mujahidin behind which stood the blessing and the guiding hand of God. Bin Laden was convinced that the Soviet Union had been a far more formidable superpower than the US. He believed the Americans were cowards, having observed their humiliating flight from Somalia in the early 1990s when opposed by a handful of courageous mujahidin. He also believed theirs was the most decadent culture in human history, obsessed by the pursuit of wealth and luxury, corrupted by a depth of moral licentiousness never before seen.
The myth of American power had been exposed to the world by 19 devout and courageous Muslim student martyrs. The greatest buildings of the Empire had fallen. Wall Street had been paralysed by panic. The fig leaf of human rights had been abandoned. Bin Laden was contemptuous of the argument put by the “gang of criminals in the White House … whose idiotic leader claims that we despise their way of life”. The action had been mounted because the Americans and Jews had believed they could inflict untold misery on the umma without fear of reprisal, or even any concern that the world would take notice of its suffering. Bin Laden’s most persistent examples were the oppression of the Palestinians and the murder of the million or more Iraqi children who had died as a result of US sanctions following the First Gulf War. Finally, with September 11, “the balance of terror” had to some extent been “evened out”. In fear of further strikes on their own soil, Americans, he hoped, would now find that life had become “an insupportable hell”.
After September 11 came the greatest Crusade in history. In reprisal for an action that had cost the mujahidin a paltry half a million dollars, the US had spent a trillion dollars or more, invading first Afghanistan and then, in March 2003, Iraq. Afghanistan, the world’s only true Islamic state, had been invaded to destroy the threat posed by the Taliban. Bin Laden believed, however, that the ultimate Crusader ambition was to take control of the entire Middle East – in part because it wanted the “black gold” on which the prosperity of the American Empire relied, but more deeply in pursuit of total victory in history’s final drama: the “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West. The victory of one civilisation would bring darkness to humankind. The victory of the other would bring liberation and light.
Bin Laden was convinced that Islam would prevail. He had personally witnessed how the might of the Americans’ air power had been incapable of overwhelming the Muslims in the battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. He was immensely encouraged by the quagmire the US had sunk into after its invasion of Iraq, “screaming at the top of its voice as it falls apart in front of the whole world”. He was certain that Islam would emerge victorious. God willed this victory. Moreover, at “the pinnacle” of Islam was the stipulation “You fight, so you exist.” Yet how exactly the victory of the mujahidin could be achieved was, to put it mildly, far from clear in the messages of Osama bin Laden. That explanation relied on the writings of other, more systematic, Salafi jihadist thinkers.
The Management of Savagery: The most critical stage through which the umma will pass was published online in 2004 under the nom de revolution Abu Bakr Naji. No one knows the true identity of the author. Most of the book appears to have been written following September 11, with a section added after the invasion of Iraq. It is in part military-cum-political science, in part history, in part theology. The argument is intricate and occasionally arcane; the style is sometimes forensic, sometimes poetic, sometimes prophetic. Many serious scholars of Salafi jihadism regard it as a vital source of inspiration in the creation of the Islamic State. Its translator, the American William McCants, describes it as a “blueprint”. So far as I am concerned, it is one of the most astonishing and terrifying political books that I have ever read.
The argument begins with an analysis of the geopolitical situation following World War Two, when the Soviet Union and the US took control of the world, forcing almost all countries to orbit around one superpower or the other. The superpowers dominated through their wealth and their weaponry, and through their pretence to both invincibility and benevolence, which Naji describes as their “deceptive media halo”.
The Soviet Union had now collapsed, however. Its prolonged and costly war in Afghanistan against the mujahidin had exposed the fraudulence of its media halo and the sources of internal vulnerability, like the spiritual death found in a materialist society and the danger it faced by relying on the distribution of “worldly pleasures” as its sole source of legitimacy.
Since September 11, the situation of the US had become similarly parlous. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the US had fallen into the trap set for it by the mujahidin. It was in danger of the “military overstretch” that American historian Paul Kennedy, who is cited, once warned it would be. The US was even more vulnerable than the Soviet Union had been in the 1980s. As a consequence of its cultural decadence, its soldiers were “effeminate”. As a consequence of its geographical distance from the Middle East, the wars it was fighting against the Muslims were more difficult and ruinously expensive.
The Americans’ media halo, first exposed by the “miracle” of September 11, would soon be utterly destroyed and the hatred of the slumbering Muslim masses finally aroused. Moreover, as the US lurched from one crisis to another, the helplessness and vulnerability of the Muslim taghut regimes in its orbit would become increasingly obvious. When the Americans withdraw from Iraq “the terror which will be in [these traitors’] hearts … will be indescribable”. The umma must grasp this historic opportunity. If the moment were to pass, “generations of Muslims will be lost in the mire of having to submit to Taghut courts of law and will drown in televised carnal appetites”. “If not now,” Naji asks, “then when?”
The Management of Savagery is a systematic exposition of what the mujahidin must now do so as not to squander the unique opportunity offered by September 11. Naji acknowledges that the mujahidin are presently only at the very beginning of their work. Salafi jihadist research undertaken before September 11 suggested that the most promising regions for activity were Jordan, North Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Gulf States. Other opportunities might suddenly arise. Where central power exists more or less intact, the mujahidin should involve themselves in what are called “vexation and exhaustion” operations whose aim is the creation of savage chaos. Where central power is non-existent or weak – as it was in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, and as it most likely will be in many other regions of opportunity as American power melts away – the condition of savage chaos already prevails or shortly will.
Naji’s book is principally an attempt to explain to the mujahidin how they can mount vexation and exhaustion operations to create regions of savage chaos; how they can then take control and manage the regions of savagery that have emerged; and how, from the consolidation of different regions of managed savagery, the next historic stage, the stage of the construction of Islamic states, can be accomplished. Eventually, all the lands once Muslim – “Jerusalem … Bukhara, Samarkand, Andalusia” – will be restored to Islam. Even so, the most vital ambition of the mujahidin will not yet have been realised. It is only then that the mujahidin will begin on their final task of “liberating the earth and humanity from the hegemony of unbelief and tyranny through the power of God”.
The heart of Naji’s treatise is his explanation of the military and political strategy and tactics by which the mujahidin can take the first step in this “long journey … of limbs, blood, and corpses”, to create and then manage the regions of savagery. The present era is primarily one of vexation and exhaustion operations against the taghut regimes or the Crusaders. Naji, who praises as exemplary the Bali operation that took the life of so many Australians in 2002, recommends attacks on tourist resorts, usurious banks or famous apostate authors. They will spread a more generalised fear in hundreds of similar sites or among corresponding human types.
Naji is particularly enthusiastic about attacks against the petroleum industry. Such attacks will force the enemy to concentrate its most loyal troops around oil fields and installations, leaving the remaining small numbers of soldiers isolated in peripheral regions increasingly vulnerable and therefore, through fear, forced “to choose between killing or joining us, or fleeing and abandoning their weapons”. He is very concerned that the mujahidin explain their actions and justify their consequences – the economic costs and the enemy’s counterattacks – with rational arguments and Shar’ia texts, communicated via plausible audio and video productions that appeal to the masses as well as the elites. He grasps the vital role played by mass media under contemporary conditions of war.
What is most chilling about The Management of Savagery are the very many passages advocating the infliction of extreme violence on the enemy. An explosion targeting one of their buildings must be of such ferocity that “it makes the earth completely swallow it up”. During the battles, hostages will be taken, and “if the demands are not met, the hostages should be liquidated in a terrifying manner”. On occasion, spies in the mujahidin’s ranks will be uncovered. Even the lowliest must be killed “with the utmost coarseness and ugliness”. Here the Friend of the Prophet, Abu Bakr, the most merciful of souls, is the great inspiration. Naji reminds his readers three times that Abu Bakr punished a traitor by burning him alive. One order he issued to his army “dealt only with the matter of severing the neck without clemency”.
For Naji, one of the vital methods for the conduct of the mujahidin is what he calls “paying the price”. Following each enemy action there must be retribution in at least equal measure, preferably in an unexpected region, even if it takes years. The enemy must know that every time it kills members of the mujahidin forces “vengeance for their blood will be undertaken” according to the principle “blood for blood and destruction for destruction”.
None of this violence is random or meaningless. Its simple purpose is to “fill [the enemy’s] hearts with fear” and to leave them with feelings of “hopelessness”. But there is another political end. As the war progresses, one of the most important ambitions of the mujahidin is to “polarise” society into two camps: the followers of falsity and the followers of truth. By making “this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away”, people will come to see that while one kind of death leads to Paradise the other leads to Hell. More prosaically, the ambition of the mujahidin is to use extreme violence to create conditions of savage chaos. In such conditions, people yearn for security, above all else. As the mujahidin gain the upper hand against the apostate regimes or the Crusaders, people will flock to them because of their strength.
As news of their victories spreads, the best potential recruits for jihad, “exuberant” youth in whom the human instinct is still most alive, will migrate from distant regions to join the jihadist caravan. They will need to learn from their elders whom they can rightly target. On the one hand, they should avoid the zealotry that tarnished the image of the mujahidin during the Algerian civil war, those who embraced the principle “everyone who is not with us is against us”; on the other hand, they should avoid the destructive humanitarianism of “the person of exaggerated erudition” who deplores the spilling of blood. The mujahidin will need to penetrate the ranks of the army, the police and the political parties of the apostate enemy with spies. Best suited for this work are those youthful mujahidin who can “fend off intellectual doubts and (bodily) desires”.
Not all youth, however, are suited for jihad, which those already hardened in battle know “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism … and massacring”. Naji is gravely concerned about the gentleness of his contemporaries. “The Arabs used to fight and know the nature of wars.” Many no longer do. “It is better for those who have the intention to begin a jihadi action and are also soft to sit in their homes.” The mujahidin must be able not only to inflict but also to endure extreme violence. Naji tells the story of an Afghan unmoved by a screaming child from his own family who had just witnessed an unspeakable horror. An Arab asked the Afghan, “Have you no feeling?” The Afghan replied, “This is war, and you and I will die like them some day.” This Afghan is Naji’s idea of the exemplary mujahidin, of the exemplary human being.
Naji believes the corrupt spirit of the taghut regimes renders them incapable of sustaining a long war. Instead, they will resort to mass arrests, hellish imprisonments and torture of the mujahidin. Nothing, however, better prepares young men for jihad and brutal killing than hatred for their torturers. With God’s grace, the wars of the mujahidin against the Crusaders and their taghut clients will succeed. One of the most exalted passages in The Management of Savagery concerns the progress of the mujahidin’s war against the occupiers of Iraq. The American soldiers have proven themselves to be cowardly and incompetent. Naji has even read newspaper reports of “epilepsy and madness” among them. God has shown his favour to the mujahidin by visiting upon the American troops a series of miraculous pestilences: “massive spiders … which spread terror in their hearts” and “mosquitoes which …cause the skin to swell and collapse, for which there is no cure”. He has also sent ghostly apparitions, fighting on the side of the mujahidin, which “the advanced weaponry of the Americans could not harm”.
According to Naji, if the Muslims now wish to create the Islamic State they must recognise the fundamental lesson of history: that all states, not merely Islamic ones, “are established after oceans of blood”. This is not in the slightest a melancholy and regrettable truth. Jihad “completely refashions the personality”. It alone provides the condition in which the human spirit is tested and perfected and where “altruism becomes easy and egotism falls away”.
Even more profoundly, only by participating in the most violent struggles will an individual have their eyes opened to the beauty of Islam. As Sayyid Qutb understood, the Qur’an delivers its secrets only to those whose frame of mind has been shaped in battle. Trials and tribulations remove “the darkness from the eyes and the dust from the heart”. “Terrible events … and the steadfastness of human exemplars in the face of the horrors … firmly roots ideas …which could not be taught to people in hundreds of years of peaceful education.” Naji compares the battle-hardened mujahidin to the Muslim man of peace who “cannot imagine himself outside of his air-conditioned mosque or outside of his office under the fans”.
The most startling section of The Management of Savagery comes at its conclusion, in the section entitled ‘Our Method Is a Mercy to All Beings’. It argues that at the time of Noah’s flood God destroyed all unbelievers. In the early days of Islam, the sword of God smote Arab polytheists, unconverted Jews and Christians, Muslims who sinned against the faith, apostates who abandoned their religion. Through jihad, God “does not give free rein to … people to corrupt the earth”. Jihad provides “a salvation from the fire for coming generations” by ensuring “that people come on the Day of Resurrection, dragged to Paradise in chains”. Jihad is, however, not merely an expression of God’s stern justice. “Despite the blood, corpses, and limbs which encompass it and the killing and fighting which its practice entails”, jihad, Naji tells us, is God’s “greatest mercy to man”. In George Orwell’s imagined totalitarian state, “War Is Peace” and “Slavery Is Freedom”. In Abu Bakr Naji’s blood-soaked Management of Savagery, “Slaughter Is Mercy”.
Someone, perhaps Talleyrand, once wrote of a political event, “It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.” This aphorism might have been coined for the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The disintegration of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime provided the opportunity for the Salafi jihadist movement to mount its greatest vexation and exhaustion operation thus far in history. Eventually it came to be led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the spiritual father of the Islamic State. With Naji in theory and Zarqawi in practice, Salafi jihadism entered a new, even more brutal, phase. There is some evidence of a direct connection. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, the authors of ISIS: Inside the army of terror, learned that The Management of Savagery circulated widely among the Islamic State’s “commanders” and its “rank-and-file fighters”.
Zarqawi, a Jordanian from a poor Bedouin family, graduated from a life of violent petty crime to jihadist Islam in his early 20s. In 1989 he travelled to Afghanistan, too late to participate in the anti-Soviet war. In 1992 he became a student of one of the influential and doctrinally extreme Salafi jihadists, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Zarqawi and Maqdisi returned to Jordan and shortly after were imprisoned together. The gentle, scholarly Maqdisi ceded leadership of their prison followers to his far tougher and more charismatic pupil. Zarqawi suffered prolonged torture. It appears to have had the kind of effect Naji described.
As soon as he was released from prison under the royal amnesty of 1999, Zarqawi quit Jordan for Afghanistan. Having met Osama bin Laden there briefly – reports suggest their encounter was frosty – he established his own jihadist training camp at Herat, close to the Iranian border, with no connection to Al Qaeda. Following September 11 and the US attack on Afghanistan, Zarqawi fled first to Pakistan and then to Iran before entering the Kurdish areas of Iraq shortly before the generally anticipated American invasion. Kurdish intelligence alerted the Americans to his presence. In his pre-invasion address to the United Nations of 5 February 2003, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, argued that Zarqawi had links to Saddam Hussein and was an agent of Al Qaeda. Both claims were entirely false.
When Zarqawi entered Iraq he called his group of some 30 mujahidin Tawhid and Jihad. In The Management of Savagery, perhaps coincidentally, the phrase “the people of tawhid and jihad” occurs repeatedly. Within two years or so, Zarqawi’s fighters numbered in the thousands. According to him, by January 2004 Tawhid and Jihad had conducted 25 operations, and was responsible for some of Iraq’s most notorious acts of terror, beginning in August 2003 with the bombings in Baghdad of the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations headquarters. In April 2004, the American Nick Berg was beheaded, probably by Zarqawi himself. A film of the killing was distributed widely. In February 2006, Zarqawi’s men destroyed the dome of the al-Askari mosque, one of the Shi’a Muslims’ most holy sites, in the central Iraqi city of Samarra.
Zarqawi was a man of action, not of words. There exists, however, one fascinating lengthy letter from him to the leaders of Al Qaeda, dated January 2004. In it, the future character of the Islamic State can be glimpsed. Zarqawi begins within an apocalyptic frame. In al-Sham (the ancient name for the region covering present-day Iraq and Syria) “the true decisive battle between the infidels and Islam is taking place”. As Al Qaeda no doubt already grasps, he continues, the Zionist-led American administration of George W Bush entered Iraq under “a contract to create the State of Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates”. Their purpose was “to hasten the arrival of the Messiah”.
What is the political situation following the invasion? The Kurds, in whom faith has died, “have given themselves over heart and soul to the Americans” and have “opened their land to the Jews”. The Sunni Muslim masses are in a desperate state. “More helpless than orphans at the table of the depraved … they have lost [their] leader” and are wandering in the desert, “divided and dispersed”. One of their political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, “trade[s] in the blood of martyrs” and changes sides “according to the way the political wind is blowing”. One source of their religious leadership, the Sufi sheikhs, “sing and dance under the leadership of a camel driver”. Even the timid Iraqi mujahidin are a grave disappointment. “Uneducated and inexperienced”, they have no political “vision” and do not grasp the central truth, that “safety and victory are incompatible”, that power cannot be attained “without dipping into blood and facing death”.
The treachery of the Kurds and the weakness of the Sunnis do not, however, constitute what Zarqawi regards as the greatest internal problem the mujahidin face during the American occupation. Their overwhelming problem is the evil enemy of the Sunnis, the Shi’ites. It is difficult to convey the depth of hatred for the Shi’a, Zarqawi’s letter reveals. They are “the most vile people in the human race”, “the insurmountable obstacle, the prowling serpent, the crafty, evil scorpion, the enemy lying in wait”. Throughout history, Zarqawi argues, the Shi’a have stabbed the Muslims in the back. As the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah understood, they served the Mongols when they subjugated Islam. When Islam stood at the gates of Vienna, Shi’a treachery at home forced the Muslim armies to retreat. Now they have allied with the Americans in their grasp for power. Their ultimate ambition is to create a great Shi’a state that includes Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. They cunningly hide their true nature with “honeyed” words, “exploiting the naiveté and goodness of many Sunnis”. Their religion “has nothing in common with Islam”. Perhaps worst of all, throughout history they have served the interests of the Jews.
What then is to be done? Zarqawi is convinced that the Americans are not the chief problem. “The battle we are waging [against the Americans] is an easy matter. We consider it a certainty that the Crusader will disappear in short order.” The key, according to Zarqawi, is to provoke a Sunni–Shi’a civil war. “We will trigger [Shi’a] rage against the Sunnis … [forcing them] to bare their fangs … If we manage to draw them onto the terrain of partisan war … soon the [Sunni] sleepers will awaken from their leaden slumber.” Prospects in this struggle are bright. “The Shi’ites are a nation of traitors and cowards.” Once aroused, the Sunnis will fight. Zarqawi concludes his letter by asking the leaders of Al Qaeda whether they accept his plan. If they do, he promises, they will have his allegiance.
Bin Laden and his second-in-command, Zawahiri, must have faced a difficult decision in pondering future relations with Zarqawi. On the one hand, the ferocious battle Zarqawi was leading in Iraq was the most promising ever mounted by the Salafi jihadist movement. On the other, it represented a radical break in the history of the mujahidin. As the pre-eminent scholar of Islamism, Bernard Haykel, has argued, there was nothing in the previous writings of either bin Laden or Zawahiri to suggest Shi’a hatred. Clearly, however, admiration for Zarqawi overcame concern. In October 2004, Al Qaeda accepted the formal allegiance (bay’at) Zarqawi offered. Tawhid and Jihad became Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers. Even though the movement was not yet the largest among the Iraqi Salafi jihadists, Osama bin Laden requested all groups of Iraqi mujahidin recognise Zarqawi as their leader.
In July 2005 another long letter between Al Qaeda and Zarqawi was intercepted, this one to Zarqawi from Zawahiri. It documents Al Qaeda’s ambivalence about their new supporter. Zawahiri begins by offering Zarqawi his congratulations, his regret that because he is hiding in Waziristan he is unable to travel to Iraq to join the jihad, and his acknowledgement that those in the heat of battle are better placed to judge military realities than those watching from afar. Despite this, it is not long before Zawahiri, in a rather condescending tone, begins to favour Zarqawi with his instructions. He must strive to expel the Americans from Iraq, establish an Iraqi emirate, extend the field of battle to neighbouring regions, and prepare for war with Israel.
Zawahiri arrives now at a series of harsh and fundamental criticisms of Zarqawi’s leadership. The battle for the Islamic State cannot succeed without the support of the Muslim masses. They will never understand the disrespect Zarqawi has shown for the Sunni religious leaders. Zarqawi must not think of ruling on the basis of the mujahidin alone. Zawahiri reminds Zarqawi of the isolation the Taliban faced in 2001 following the American invasion. He must work now to create a broad-based Shura Council, based on the precedent of the Golden Age.
Even more sternly, Zawahiri chides Zarqawi for his anti-Shi’a sectarianism. No doubt, he writes, many Shi’a have behaved treacherously during the American occupation. No doubt their understanding of Islam is deeply mistaken and will eventually have to be corrected. But the Muslim masses will never understand a program based on the destruction of holy sites or systematic killing, especially of ordinary Shi’a. They will ask: “Can the mujahidin kill all the Shi’a in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that? And why kill ordinary Shi’a considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance?” Zawahiri continues with a discussion of Zarqawi’s public beheading of hostages. They might “sow terror in the hearts of the Crusaders”. They might be a means of visiting upon the enemy a little of the suffering they have inflicted. But such scenes will never become “palatable” to the Muslim masses. Zawahiri urges Zarqawi not to be seduced by the praise of the zealous young who have described him as the “sheikh of the slaughterers”. He reminds Zarqawi that captives can be despatched by a bullet. He ends his letter vaingloriously with news about his many publications, and rather pitifully with a request for $100,000.
Clearly Zawahiri’s letter was ignored. Six months later, a senior Al Qaeda leader, Atiyatullah al-Libi, sent another, far blunter warning. If Zawahiri’s letter concerned Zarqawi’s political mistakes, al-Libi’s concerned the defects of his character. Although al-Libi’s letter is almost unknown in the scholarly literature, it is even more revealing about the future of the Islamic State than Zawahiri’s.
Al-Libi’s letter contains a devastating catalogue of the dangers of Zarqawi’s style of leadership. Zarqawi is warned he must treat religious leaders with respect. “We address them with utmost kindness … they are the keys to the Muslim community.” He must work with tribal leaders and try to convince them they are not “going over their heads”. If religious leaders or tribal leaders are “obeyed and of good repute”, on no account are they to be killed. Zarqawi must strive to win the love of the Muslim people. “[Do] not be harsh with them or degrade them or frighten them.” He must learn to accept disagreement. It does “not require hatred, clashing, hostility or enmity”. He must not become “arrogant” because of praise. He must show “affection … and absolute, true sympathy” for his inner circle and teach them to avoid “injustice, arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, superciliousness, excessive harshness and violence”.
Al-Libi reminds Zarqawi that Islam is a religion of “mercy, justice and good deeds”. A balance must be found “between severity and softness, between violence and gentleness”. “Let us not merely be people of killing, slaughter, blood, cursing, insult and harshness.” Al-Libi had seen such behaviour before with the Algerian mujahidin in the mid 1990s. “Their enemy did not defeat them, but rather they defeated themselves.” Zarqawi is warned: “You need to look deeply within yourself and your character.” If he fails to heed these warnings he will be replaced. How the Al Qaeda exiles hiding in Waziristan thought this might be achieved is very far from clear.
As it happened, Zarqawi was killed by the Americans on 7 June 2006. No one had been more responsible than him for the ferocious Sunni–Shi’a civil war that was by now pulling Iraq apart. Shortly after Zarqawi’s death, his successors fulfilled his wishes by announcing the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). For a time, the warnings al-Libi had issued about the dire political consequences of Zarqawi’s brutal behaviour seemed accurate. The Americans found eager partners among the Sunni tribes in the anti-insurgency movement called The Awakening. ISI was now forced to retreat to the arid lands of al-Anbar in the west. In 2008 the wife of one of the group’s new leaders, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, enquired, “Where is the Islamic State of Iraq you’re talking about? We’re living in the desert.”
In 2011, ISI, by now under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, emerged from the desert following the military and political withdrawal of the Americans from Iraq and the descent of Syria into civil war. ISI began taking territory in the Sunni triangle and despatched to Syria a small force, led by Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, that became known as the Nusra Front. In 2013 ISI and the Nusra Front fell out spectacularly and bloodily after Baghdadi’s unilateral announcement that the two organisations would merge, under his leadership, to become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). By this time, bin Laden had been killed by the Americans. Al Qaeda’s new leader, Zawahiri, attempted unsuccessfully to arbitrate the differences between Baghdadi and Jolani. In February 2014 a mediator appointed by Al Qaeda was assassinated by ISIS operatives, and in that same month Al Qaeda severed all links with ISIS. In early June, ISIS conquered Mosul. Controlling territory in the east of Syria and the west of Iraq, an area as large as Belgium, the group announced in late June that the long-awaited caliphate had been restored. It now styled itself simply as the Islamic State.
The Islamic State shortly after began publishing an elegant and glossy official online magazine, Dabiq, in several languages. (Dabiq is a town mentioned in one of the apocalyptic hadiths as the site of the final battle between the armies of the Crusaders and Islam.) Although no one appears to know who is responsible for the magazine’s production, its articles are obviously written by intellectuals steeped in the theological tradition of Islam, with a deep knowledge of the Qur’an, the hadiths and major Islamic scholars. Its spirit is murderous and martial. Each issue contains dozens of photographs that celebrate the despatching of enemies by knife or bullet, and the great military victories or the successful martyrdom operations of its noble mujahidin. At the time of writing, 14 issues have appeared, amounting to perhaps half a million words. Although Dabiq is an indispensable source for an understanding of the Islamic State’s ideology, so far as I am aware no systematic analysis of its content yet exists in either the scholarly or popular literature.
Dabiq is heir to the tradition of Salafi jihadism from Qutb to bin Laden and Zawahiri. Without some knowledge of that tradition, it cannot be understood. Yet what is most interesting about Dabiq is what it reveals about the changes in both the style and content of Salafi jihadism that have taken place in the years since the Iraq insurgency began. Zarqawi led the Iraq insurgency for only three years. He was not a theorist but a warrior, killed eight years before the declaration of the caliphate. Nonetheless, in a way that is difficult to understand or to explain, it is Zarqawi’s astonishingly brutal spirit and world view that shapes the ideology of the Islamic State. Zarqawism, as expressed in the pages of Dabiq, represents a new and perhaps final chapter in the ideological history of Salafi jihadism.
The influence of The Management of Savagery seems clear. The first issue of Dabiq contains a short official history of the Islamic State. Here we learn that
Shayk Abu Mus’ab implemented the strategy and required tactics to achieve the goal of Khilafah [Caliphate] … he strived to create as much chaos as possible with the means permitted by the Shari’ah, using attacks … that focus on causing the enemy death, injury, and damage. With chaos, he intended to prevent any taghut regime from ever achieving a degree of stability.
Later issues of Dabiq congratulate the mujahidin of Libya for the way they have created “mayhem”, an ideal condition for jihad, and report the words of a Tunisian supporter of the Islamic State: “We wanted to create chaos.” All this represents the revolutionary methodology of Naji in a nutshell: the creation of savage chaos through vexation and exhaustion operations aimed to destabilise and then destroy taghut regimes.
The influence of Naji is also obvious in the attitude taken towards “paying the price”, through the kind of exemplary punishments even Zawahiri, one of the architects of September 11, could not stomach. In Dabiq there are scores of examples. Chilling photos are reproduced of the beheadings of captured Crusaders following the decision of the US and its allies to mount airstrikes against the Islamic State. In issue 3 we see the American journalist James Wright Foley grimacing in terror at the moment before his head is removed. In issue 4 there is a photo of the severed head of another American journalist, the “Jewish-Crusader” Steven Sotloff, and, as proof of the special perfidy of this dual citizen, another of his Israeli passport. When Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, decided to donate US$200 million in non-military aid for countries fighting the Islamic State, in issue 7 Dabiq published a photo of a Japanese hostage on the point of his execution by beheading. Dabiq asks, was Abe so foolish as not to realise that, when he made his decision, the Islamic State held two Japanese prisoners?
Among those paying the price are the citizens in the countries at war with the Islamic State. On several occasions Dabiq has published a passage from its official spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adani:
If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging wars, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner.
Even though the Islamic State did not plan the Charlie Hebdo killings, it had a cover photo that mercilessly mocked those hypocritical imams who supported the kuffar value of freedom of speech by protesting in Paris with “Je suis Charlie” placards.
Dabiq of course cheered loudly the reprisal operations they did appear to plan: the downing of a Russian aircraft after its entry into the Syrian civil war, and the recent mass shootings and bombings in Paris and Belgium. It was also extremely enthusiastic about the Sydney siege of Man Haron Monis, especially delighting in the fact of his conversion from Shi’ism to Sunni Islam. No one should any longer describe these attacks as driven by envy of the Western way of life. They are acts of war. Citizens of countries not involved in the fight against the Islamic State are safe, unless of course one of them insults the Prophet.
Perhaps the most shocking issues of Dabiq concerning the “paying the price” punishments are the ones that cover the death of a captured Jordanian pilot, Mu’adh Safi Yusuf al-Kasasibah, who participated in the airstrikes against the Islamic State. In issue 6 Kasasibah is asked in interview if he knows his fate. He replies, “I will be killed.” Issue 7 has an article that begins with a large photo of him being burned alive in a cage and concludes with another of his charred body. The authors admit that in one text a hadith seems to make it clear that punishment by burning is forbidden. “None should punish with fire except Allah.” Against this, however, they quote another, “And if you punish [an enemy], punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed,” and several passages from the hadiths involving punishments by burning alive, including those concerning Abu Bakr cited in The Management of Savagery. All of this reveals the rather grotesque role played throughout the 14 issues of Dabiq by the authors’ undoubted scholarly credentials.
The extreme cruelty that Islamic State’s victims experience is announced proudly and is deliberately made conspicuous, unlike the partial cloud of secrecy that surrounded most of the worst crimes perpetrated by the 20th century’s most terrible regimes – led by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Take one example. In several issues of Dabiq there are photos of the political or religious enemies of the Islamic State, before or after the moment of their execution. They are described as being “harvested”. The political logic is clear. The fate of the Islamic State’s victims is meant to instil paralysing fear into the hearts of their enemies, as Naji taught that it should.
The turn to apocalyptic or eschatological themes is an even more significant Zarqawist addition to the Salafist jihadist tradition than the ones inspired by The Management of Savagery. According to the scholars of Islam, apocalyptic thinking is far more common among Shi’as than Sunnis and far more common on the Arab street than among the educated classes. Although brief apocalyptic references to the Day of Judgment can be found in the writings of bin Laden and Zawahiri, in the words of William McCants, the author of The ISIS Apocalypse, they are “languid” rather than “urgent”. By contrast, apocalyptic thinking is at the very heart of the Zarqawist version of Salafi jihadism.
Every issue of Dabiq begins with words of his: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” The reference here is to one of the Islamic State’s most favoured apocalyptic hadiths, whose first line reads: “The Hour [the Day of Judgment] will not be established until the Romans land at al-A’maq or Dabiq.” There are several similar hadiths, whose overall meaning is summarised in issue 4 of Dabiq. The Muslims will be at war with the Romans. There will be a truce. For a time they will fight a common enemy. The Romans will betray the Muslims and raise their cross. This will be followed by the final and bloodiest battle, known as al-Malhamah al-Kubra. The Muslims will be victorious. They will conquer Constantinople and then Rome. Islam will then rule the world. The mind of the Islamic State cannot be understood unless one accepts that its leaders believe that the historical moment before the Hour has now arrived, and that the war being fought between the Islamic State and the Crusaders is the final battle in which Islam is certain eventually to prevail.
A frozen mythic past centred on the medieval Crusades, and an imagined future foreseen in the apocalyptic hadiths concerning the final battle, provides the authors at Dabiq with a severely distorted grasp of reality in the present. Let one example suffice. In Dabiq there are several passages speculating on the possibility of a “truce” between the Islamic State and the US, a prospect about as likely as the caliph being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. There is only one reason the possibility is discussed: it is mentioned frequently in the favoured eschatological hadiths. Zarqawist thinking is indeed drenched in apocalyptic prophecies, frequently occurring in unexpected contexts. As is well known, after conquering Yazidi territories, the Islamic State took the women as sexual slaves. For Zarqawists, this is a highly favourable omen. In several obscure apocalyptic texts, the increasing prevalence of slavery is associated with the final battle of history. The leaders of the Islamic State believe that when Islam defeats “Rome” American women will be sold in their slave markets. In perhaps the only joke in 800 pages of Dabiq, it is said that Michelle Obama will be lucky if she fetches even one third of a dinar.
The attitude to non-Sunni Muslims is the second major addition Zarqawism has made to the tradition of Salafi jihadism. It is based on the introduction of two closely connected theological concepts: wala-and-bara and takfir. These concepts were of marginal significance to mainstream Salafi jihadism before the emergence of the Islamic State. They have now become central. While both wala-and-bara and takfir are subtle theological ideas with a long and complex history, in the world view of the Islamic State they have become exceedingly, indeed excruciatingly, simple. For Zarqawists, wala-and-bara means love of Muslims and hatred of non-Muslims, and takfir the belief that the fate of heretics and apostates should be death. The leaders of the Islamic State are frequently described by their Muslim enemies in a single word: takfiri.
The Islamic State inherited Zarqawi’s hatred of Shi’a as expressed in his letter to bin Laden of January 2004. On several occasions, Dabiq has published long extracts from it; it is clearly regarded as a foundational text. Dabiq replicates all Zarqawi’s claims, time and time again. The Shi’a, who are routinely called by the abusive name Rafidahs (rejectors of the first three caliphs), are apostates, polytheists, betrayers of Islam in the past, secret plotters in the present, morally degraded, friends of the Jews, and so on. It adds, however, to the by now familiar catalogue of charges a novel apocalyptic dimension. It has been observed by the authors at Dabiq that the Shi’a’s Mahdi, the prophesied redeemer, bears an uncanny resemblance to Dajjal, the Muslim version of the Antichrist, with reddish skin, big belly, curly hair, hiding his identity as a Jew. The conclusion they draw is straightforward. “The Rafidah are apostates who must be killed wherever they are to be found, until no Rafidi walks on the face of earth.”
The Shi’a (and its Syrian branch, the Alawites) are not the only people the Islamic State has destined for death. Issue 4 of Dabiq discusses the problem of the Yazidis, the worshippers of the fallen angel Iblis, whose “creed is so deviant from the truth that even cross-worshipping Christians for ages considered them devil worshippers and Satanists”. A Qur’anic verse is quoted: “Kill the mushrikin [polytheists] wherever you find them.” And a troubling matter of conscience is raised: “Their continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day.” Their fate is not in doubt. And not only theirs. Issue 10 of Dabiq discusses a recent massacre of Druze villagers by the Nusra Front, for which its leaders had apologised. The Druze are described as “worse than the Jews and the Christians”. The apology of the Nusra Front is mocked: “So … spilling the blood of the apostate and treacherous Druze is oppression!” And the opinion of the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah is endorsed: “[The Druze] are to be killed wherever they are found.” Without conversion to Islam, all the Druze must die.
Intentional killing of religious groups in whole or in part is one of the crimes covered by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide. Regarding Shi’as, Alawites, Yazidis and Druze, and also in reality Christians and Jews, the Islamic State has proudly announced its genocidal intent. The Islamic State does not care two hoots about a United Nations convention. It is, however, sensitive to the charge of Kharijism that Muslims increasingly have laid against it, a very serious accusation in the history of Islam. Named after an early Muslim sect, Kharijism now means fanatical and unjustified condemnation of fellow Muslims as heretics or apostates deserving of death. To refute this rather plausible and therefore damaging accusation, Dabiq announced in issue 6 the discovery of a secret Khawarij cell inside the Islamic State, whose members had pronounced takfir on the faithful Sunni masses of Syria and Iraq. The cell was said to be biding their time, waiting for successful enemy attacks before unleashing their plot to destroy the caliphate. It is the kind of discovery Stalin’s secret police routinely made.
Sigmund Freud once wrote about “the narcissism of small differences”, the exaggerated hostility of people sharing an almost identical world view. This idea helps explain relations between the Islamic State and the present leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The ideological attack on Zawahiri was first mounted systematically in issue 6 of Dabiq, where he is described as the Islamic State’s “most ardent opponent”. So savage was the attack that Dabiq published a clarification in its following issue, making it clear that its authors’ deep admiration for Osama bin Laden had not been affected by the sins of his successor and closest collaborator. The attack on Zawahiri intensified in subsequent issues. Zawahiri was accused of “senility” and of “twisted and deviant thinking”; of condoning the Nusra Front’s disgraceful political coalitions with apostates; of advancing the claims of the lying leader of the Taliban as a counter-caliph; of showing some sympathy for the despised Egyptian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammad Morsi. He was also condemned for the “feeble” and errant ‘Guidelines for the Conduct of Jihad’ he had recently published, and for being not a true jihadist but rather what was scathingly described on several occasions as a “jihad claimant”.
More than any other matter, however, it was Zawahiri’s opposition to the Zarqawist intention of killing all Shi’as and all members of other supposedly heretical or apostate Muslim sects that finalised the ideological breach between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda that had begun with Zawahiri’s letter to Zarqawi of July 2005. In his jihad guidelines, Zawahiri argues that members of non-Sunni sects should only be killed if they first attack Sunni Muslims. In response, Dabiq argued that the fundamental issue between the Islamic State and Zawahiri concerned his grave errors over the question of takfir. While Zarqawi rightly “considered the blood of the Rafidah obligatory to spill”, Zawahiri refused to take their “filthy blood” and “censure[d] any attempt at reviving jihad against these pagan apostates”. In tone and content, this story has an uncanny resemblance to Soviet politics of the 1930s. Zawahiri was in the process of becoming for the caliph Baghdadi what Trotsky had once been to Stalin.
The mood of the Islamic State has always been triumphalist: recording the joy of the Muslim masses as the liberating army of the Islamic State arrived, celebrating the journey (hijrah) of the Muslims as they make their way from the lands of infidelity to the land of Islam, cheering each new offer of allegiance from the four corners of the globe, congratulating each new martyr who has found his way to Paradise. Its message has also always been profoundly Manichaean. It believes the world is rapidly dividing into two camps, the camp of faith and the camp of unbelief. What the Islamic State calls “the grayzone” between these camps is on the edge of extinction.
The Islamic State recognises that it has waged war with a world that stretches from President Obama to Ayman al-Zawahiri. As Dabiq puts it:
[The Islamic State] will continue to wage war against the apostates until they repent from apostasy. It will continue to wage war against the pagans until they accept Islam. It will continue to wage war against the Jewish state until the Jews hide behind their gharqad trees [a hadith reference]. And it will continue to wage war against the Christians until the truce decreed sometime before the Malhamah.
It is because of this apocalyptic mindset that the leaders of the Islamic State believe, despite the rather formidable number of their enemies, that in that last great battle for the world before the Day of Judgment the armies of Islam and the armies of the Christians will do battle in Dabiq, that the Muslim armies will be victorious, and that they will then march upon and conquer Constantinople before raising the flag of Islam over Rome.
I began my work on the Islamic State thinking about Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide. I concluded it with thoughts of another of his books. The Pursuit of the Millennium is a history of the strange and often savage apocalyptic Christian sects that took hold of European cities during the Middle Ages in moments of distress. I am convinced that the mad and murderous Islamic State will eventually collapse, as did these sects. Unhappily, however, no one knows how many minds it will poison and how many lives, overwhelmingly those of innocent Muslims, it will destroy before we reach that day.
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.
Two years ago, the armies of the group that would soon call itself the Islamic State, a group that already controlled large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, entered Mosul, the second city of Iraq. The Iraqi Army, in which the United States had invested, or perhaps wasted, US$25 billion, fled in fear. Shortly after, the group announced the restoration of the Muslim caliphate, which had been dissolved in 1924 by the leader of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk.
Before these events in June 2014, virtually no one in the West had given the Islamic State a second thought, apart from a handful of scholars and intelligence officers. Six months before the fall of Mosul, US president Barack Obama dismissed the Islamic State, with a withering contempt, as the junior league partners of Al Qaeda. Since then, however, the proudly publicised dark deeds of the Islamic State...