Unlike al-Qaeda, which formed as a terrorist network, ISIS views itself as a new type of geopolitical actor that can use any means necessary to advance its anti-Western, anti-state goals.
An Indian Muslim man holds a banner during a protest against ISIS, an Islamic State group, and Friday's Paris attacks, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. Photo: AP
The monstrous Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Russian airliner in Egypt and for the terrorist attacks in Paris. It would seem that the activities of ISIS should find unconditional support from another monster – the largest network of terrorist organizations of the 2000s – al-Qaeda.
However, for the past year and a half, relations between the two terrorist organizations have been severed. As of February 2014, the High Command of al-Qaeda has refused to support ISIS, saying that it maintains no relations with the organization and cannot be held responsible for any of its actions. What do the largest terrorist organizations have in common, and in what do their strategies and worldviews diverge?
How 9/11 changed our view of non-state actors
The current international system for many years has been based on a simple axiom: threats to international peace and security can come only from states or combinations of states. The subject of all actions, which the UN General Assembly included in its well-known 1974 definition of aggression, is the state. And yes, all military blocs in the 20th century were created by some states in order to face perceived threats from other states or alliances.
The amazing paradox is – could the authors of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) even think that their Article 5, in terms of collective self-defense, would be applied for the first time after a few suicide bombers used passenger airliners as a weapon of attack against the United States – and NOT on a European member of NATO? Moreover, these attackers were not from the “East,” against which for decades the NATO bloc was focused.
It is unlikely, that half a century ago, military leaders and diplomats, even in their worst nightmares, could have foreseen that any private group or organization would be able, in the future, to measure its power and influence on world affairs on par with the major powers. States had no competitors in the sphere of international security.
However, over time, this well-established state of affairs changed. After 9/11, not only NATO, but also the UN Security Council – incidentally, the only body with the authority to qualify whether any situation is a threat to peace and security – has recognized that not only a state, but also non-state actors can create this kind of situation.
New realities have forced all countries to face the need to respond to the new challenges, which come not from other states – that can be easily seen on a map, have an army, parliaments, laws and public opinion – but come from non-state actors that traditionally have not been regarded as real opponents to traditional state institutions.
With resolutions 1368 and 1373 (2001), the Security Council opened a new page in history: states admitted that they could be threatened by private terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda.
Why has a perverted interpretation of Islam become the ideological foundation for terrorists?
It’s possible to put forward some cynical theses. The recognition of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as a threat by the leading nations of the world was the result of not only the barbaric attack perpetrated by the terrorist organization, but also the result of the ideas and strategies that were adopted by bin Laden and his supporters. They opposed the existing network structure of nation-states, declared the current idea of statehood as insolvent, the values of the “civilized world” (historically European) as worthless.
Why was it that the fundamentalist, perverted tenets of Islam have become the ideological base for terrorist attacks around the world – from the U.S. to Indonesia, from Afghanistan to Israel, from India to Russia? Is it possible that the thesis of Samuel Huntington, about the “clash of civilizations,” is really coming true?
One of the reasons is the Islamic world’s anti-Western and anti-state approach to such key concepts as “sovereignty” and “citizenship,” which are essential to modern states.
We know that both of these categories in Sharia law are superseded by the concept of the Ummah. Ummah is the Muslim community, the Muslim society in general. Strictly speaking, the Ummah, in the modern sense, is the term that refers to the entire worldwide Muslim population. The global concept of the Ummah erases all international borders, and, to a large degree, nullifies the concept of identity through citizenship.
It is no accident, as experts point out, that in the Arabic language a kind of “secularization” of this term has taken place. It signifies not only a religious community, but also, for example, the “Arab Nation.”
We know, that in particular, one of the official titles of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi sounded like “Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the Arab Nation” (as opposed to any particular state).
Islamic Ummah and the concept of the nation-state
Mutual relations within the Muslim Ummah overlap mutual relations of the citizen-nation-state type, because they are more voluminous and inclusive. From this, we get the very peculiar attitudes of Islamic fundamentalists towards the principle of inviolability of borders, and the ideas of the leaders of al-Qaeda on the “Great Islamic Caliphate.”
It is necessary to stress once more that this is the outlook of a terrorist organization – and not Islam. This is a perverse, sectarian interpretation by terrorists. Global terrorist ideology of the “jihad” is disguised as fundamentalist Islam, but in fact, this is not jihad in its classic Qur’anic understanding.
However, in his time, Osama bin Laden had declared himself a sheikh, that is, a spiritual authority across the entire Ummah. Confidants, according to numerous testimonies, called him “Sheikh Osama” or “Emir bin Laden.” And his missives – fatwas – if we follow this logic, should have become guidelines to action for all of the faithful, again, regardless of borders and citizenship.
That is to say, exploiting for his own criminal purposes the traditional Islamic concept of Ummah, the self-proclaimed Sheikh bin Laden was trying to lift himself above any state framework, and above the framework of conventional political relations.
Thus, it would be wrong to say that al-Qaeda, and similar structures, are positioning themselves as being equivalent to states, and that they consider Western state institutions as their peers. Such terrorist organizations, operating on a global scale, place themselves above any state or society.
First of all, as we have already noted, the concept of citizenship and sovereignty are alien to their understanding of the law and, consequently, a society cannot be built on the basis of these concepts.
Secondly, modern societies are depriving themselves of the right to exist, because they do not recognize their ideology. And pluralism – in the worldview of ideologues of terrorism – is a thing totally unacceptable. In their point of view, alternatives to their worldview and understanding of the world simply cannot be.
Incidentally, such positioning unites terrorists and adherents of totalitarian sects: for the first, and for the second, are characterized by the same conviction that only they possess true knowledge and understanding, which place them above the rules generally accepted by the “uninitiated.”
The idea of the “chosen people” is one of the favorite philosophical postulates of terrorists of all stripes. Hence, we see why it is easy for these “chosen ones” to use brutal misanthropic means and methods for the realization of their own ideas.
The above, no doubt, applies to the ideology of ISIS. What are the specifics of the strategy and the outlook of its supporters?
What is the key difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda?
Let’s start with the names. Right here, it becomes clear that the militants fighting in Syria, Iraq and other countries, are declaring themselves as representatives of a “state.” The Russian language Wikipedia pages dedicated to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are fundamentally different.
Al-Qaeda is described as a private terrorist organization, while the Islamic State is described as a quasi-state with its own “capital city,” “currency,” “official language,” etc. (Notably, this type of distinction is not found in the English and French language pages of Wikipedia).
In actual fact, the ideological orientation of the leaders of ISIS and al-Qaeda are the same - creating a “caliphate.” The tactics are the same – terrorist attacks, hostage taking, and the terrorizing of local populations. However, between the two, there are serious strategic differences.
We should note that in their descriptions of ISIS, experts and journalists almost never use the terms such as “network,” “network structure,” or “network principle of organization,” which were previously applied to the descriptions of al-Qaeda. All this is because the management of ISIS is built on a strict hierarchical principle.
This quasi-state establishes control over territory, expanding “its borders,” introducing “laws” and a system of administration. The Taliban did roughly the same thing, proclaiming the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (in fact, the Taliban tried to stand on a par with member states of the United Nations, having established formal “diplomatic relations” with a number of Arab governments).
The strategy of ISIS, in comparison to al-Qaeda, is more pragmatic and tied to the ground. The organization is not abstracting itself from the concepts of “state” and “national territory” – since these still dominate the modern world. It uses for its own purposes ancient traditions and customs, as well as the achievements of Western management.
Eyewitnesses have noted that in areas under their control, the insurgents have repaired the infrastructure – many people in the territories controlled by ISIS were supplied with clean water, electricity, fuel, and given access to health care in hospitals – that has not been working for many years.
ISIS leaders are adopting management practices that appear to be the most effective – and not just those that should be implemented due to fundamentalism and “true custom.” Against the background of an ideological screen, being built is a cynical and pragmatic practice of public service.
In this lies the particular danger of the Islamic State, which, unfortunately, increases the prospects for survival of this regime, and makes destroying it more difficult.