The IS is more modest than al-Qaeda, in the sense that its goal is to install Islam in one country in the form of a state institution. Until ten or twelve years ago this would have been impossible, but it became a reality when the US no longer had the will or the power to conduct a ground war that did not fit their political objectives.
The other difference between the two is that IS is rooted in the long history of the Muslim world and the Arab Middle East: the issue was the restoration of the caliphate, held by the Turks from 1453 to its abolition in 1924. The IS thus takes us back to Abbasid caliphate, with its capital at Baghdad, destroyed in 1258 by the Mongols. The idea is that this state, with a firm territorial basis, will expand and create vassal emirates in Mali, Nigeria, Libya and the Russian Caucasus. Benefitting from the resentment of Iraqi Sunnis, for a time dominant but until yesterday dominated, IS has won over the support of Iraqi Sunni groups and the old Ba’ath ruling clique, especially the military. It provides the Sunni people with a power in which they recognize themselves and which protects them.
The IS has a leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ‘caliph’. Successor of the Prophet, religious, political and military leader, is surrounded by a group of vassals and devoted warriors struggling to construct a State in which the Law of God will be applied and the oneness of God will be confessed, with Muhammad as His Prophet. Al-Baghdadi is a powerful person, uniting classical Arab culture, political astuteness and fierce ruthlessness. He is 43 and was in prison from 2006 to 2009 (the beginning of the Arab Spring), when for unknown reasons he was released and later turned up in Syria. It is very likely that someone noted his intellectual breadth, that his liberation was the outcome of a calculation and the recent progress of his career were not just the result of chance or the will of Allah. If his fundamental loyalty is to religion, the caliph is certainly not a fool and knows where he might get and under what conditions.
There are three political consequences of the caliphate. First: with the military advance on Baghdad, the caliph first of all sanctioned the exclusion of the Shi‘ite dictator al-Maliki, under whose government China became the principal client and investor in Iraq. The Chinese would also be the first victims of the Jihadist emirates in Africa.
Second: the caliphate, which seems at the same time to threaten Saudis and Shi‘ites, has become their common enemy, allowing the US to approach Iran to disengage it from the Russian-Chinese alliance, without alienating the Saudis. Furthermore, by means of his barbaric acts, the caliph is allowing American and European opinions on a common struggle to converge. The military means used are meant to satisfy western opinion and they slow the caliphate down rather than threaten his existence.
Third: once al-Maliki had fallen, the troops of al-Baghdadi turned against the Kurds. Christians were collateral damage, because it was necessary to use them to get to the Kurds. Why attack principally Sunnis ? Washington wants to keep a Kurdistan strong enough to secure a docile Turkey, but not strong enough to alienate it. The policy of Assad and the Russians, on the other hand, is to abandon Syrian Kurdistan and facilitate the rise of a Great Kurdistan. This has paralyzed the Turks and allowed the survival of Assad. The action of the caliphate is intended to make the Kurds strong enough to undertake a joint Western-Sunni offensive against Assad. Ultimately the Turks are letting the caliphate survive, by authorizing the smuggling of oil that will guarantee their financing.
The caliphate puts Washington in a difficult position, but at the same time allows it once again to seize the political initiative and harm the Chinese. Their de facto support of the caliphate does not exclude secret antiterrorist action on a large scale, and actions for limiting its expansion and that of other actors (like the Turks), who might benefit from the situation. The US, which had believed for a long time in transforming Islam, probably no longer believes in this. Perhaps they have opted for a politics of secularization ? In this sense support for the IS would be a cultural policy of the ‘worst’, to which the caliphate lends itself. Will the global enactment of so much horror perhaps engineer the progressive discrediting of Islam, even in those same Muslim countries ?
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal