The deadly terror attack in Brussels has again raised the issue of safety and security at airports. But expanding the “security bubble” around airports might not be the best response.
Europe barely had the time to recover from the horror of the Paris attacks last November before another of its capital cities was hit at its heart, presumably by ISIS terrorists.
In a devastated Brussels, investigations are running at full speed and authorities are already flooded with questions about the vulnerability of their critical infrastructure.
Unfortunately, this refrain seems to resurface every time a terrorist attack achieves its goals.
Traditionally, governments respond to these events by setting higher security standards. In this sense, modern airports epitomise the significant improvements that have been achieved in security over the past decades, especially after the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001.
Security screening has proved to be an effective deterrent against acts of terror such as hijacking and bombing. Following a procedure that is typical of security risk management, the security bubble around the vulnerable element – in this case, the airplane – has been progressively expanded in order to keep malicious individuals out.
The sterile area in a modern airport is among the most secure places on Earth. However, the terminal buildings can still be threatened, such as when the Glasgow airport was hit by a vehicle ramming attack in 2007.
In the aftermath, more stringent regulations were put into place to prevent vehicles from getting too close to the terminal buildings. Thus the security bubble was further expanded.
Even so, in 2011 two suicide bombers managed to kill more than 30 people at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport by walking into the baggage claim area and activating their Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This was an act strikingly similar to what just happened in Brussels.
What should be our response to the latest attack? In the next few days we will probably hear more requests for strengthened airport security. Some might argue for a further expansion of the security bubble in order to cover the check-in area or entrance of the terminal buildings.
Would that be an effective solution? I don’t think so, for three main reasons.
First, the costs associated with the implementation of such a security system would largely outweigh the benefits; the bigger the area, the more expensive its protection.
Second, the associated operational disruptions would require some time (and a lot of patience) to be contained. When the perceived threats are low, people tend to consider security measures as an annoyance rather than a safeguard. Most of time, security awareness is not an ingrained mindset.
Third, and most important, the effectiveness of this new security system would still be questionable. Expanding the bubble would just move its boundaries outwards, with no guarantee that a new attack won’t happen on its edge.
For example, if security were increased before reaching the check-in at the airport, that might cause crowds to gather outside the main doors, and this would present a new target for terrorist attack.
So expanding the bubble would be just another symmetric response to an issue that has proven highly asymmetric.
This last point, in particular, emphasises that the Brussels’ airport attacks are not just a matter of airport security. They involve the need to reconsider our perception of modern security risks.
Where people gather
Airport security works very well these days. The problem is that, especially in some countries, any gathering involving more or less large crowds is a vulnerable target for terrorist attack.
Sport events, public transport, concerts, and even the queue in front of a museum, constitute a potential target for malicious individuals.
This requires governments to adopt a different approach to security. Security management needs to be performed at an asymmetric level, penetrating our societies and engaging terrorists at the individual level.
Random security checkpoints, enhanced intelligence networks and additional investments in street-level security technologies are some examples of asymmetric countermeasures that should be strengthened.
Technology, in particular, seems to be a powerful ally in our fight against terrorism. Especially when technological development is associated with the reduction of security costs.
With attacks like these, the group is seeking to sow fear among its enemies, maintain itself as the forerunner in the global jihadi brand war with al-Qaeda, and maintain the veneer of organisational vigour and vitalism it established with its stunning victories in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
But while the Brussels bombings may have wreaked carnage, they have failed to replicate IS’s triumphalism of 2014. Although not an intuitive conclusion, the attacks are in reality indicative of the group’s growing decline and desperation.
The imperative of now
Motivations behind the bombings are likely to be found in the tactical and strategic strains currently being exerted on IS and its wider global network.
The recent arrest of Paris terror attack suspect Salah Abdeslam in Brussels was likely seen as an existential threat to IS-linked cells inside Belgium. The perception of a breach may have driven planners to accelerate operations, for fear that the European authorities could employ critical intelligence gained from Abdeslam to disrupt future attacks.
Such a ticking clock may explain why the terrorists opted for a crude dual-bombing in place of a more sophisticated and co-ordinated hybrid assault similar to that undertaken in Paris in late 2015.
At a broader level, the attacks may also be linked to the immense pressures placed on IS by an array of local, regional and international actors. Collectively, the actions of Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and many other players have translated into a loss of around one-quarter of the group’s territory over the last year.
Kurdish and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias have, in many cases, actively routed the group from its territorial holdings over the last year. Thanks to Iranian and Russian backing, the Syrian army is also exerting increasing pressure on IS. The Syrian army has made recent advances in areas such as Tabqa and Palmyra, signalling a significant shift in the regime’s willingness and capacity to combat IS.
All this has served to dispel much of IS’s mystique and the viability of its mission. In 2014, the group’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could point to IS’s many and exceptional successes to make the case that it was clearly on track to establishing its Islamist utopian ideal. Such apparent evidence in turn allowed the group to garner legitimacy, support, and recruit new members.
Today, such successes are few and far between. Some are now questioning whether IS will even be a significant insurgent player in the Syrian conflict by 2017.
Terror, weakness and desperation
As IS stunned the world with its blitzkrieg across eastern Iraq in 2014, there was little need for it to conduct attacks outside the Middle East. Its apparent success and superiority over its local rivals was more than enough to draw large amounts of external support and recruits for its cause.
But as IS has weakened over the past two years, its popularity and freedom of action have become increasingly constrained within its immediacy. In such circumstances, insurgent groups often seek to strike outside their own borders as both a punitive measure and a demonstration of strength to potential supporters.
This was precisely Somalian terrorist group al-Shabaab’s logic when it assaulted Kenya’s Westgate mall in 2013. This story echoes much of what IS is experiencing now.
Under increasing pressure from an African Union occupation force that included large contingents from the Kenyan army, al-Shabaab found itself pushed from its seat of power in Mogadishu into Somalia’s south. Unable to mount a serious offensive on the occupiers, the group opted to strike in Kenya itself. This sent a message that Kenya could not expect to safeguard its own territory as long as it engaged in such perilous dalliances abroad.
We can only expect more such attacks as IS continues to decline and lash out. Some will invariably foil the various security establishments arrayed against them.
But, it is crucial to remember that this type of terrorism is aimed at sowing discord, chaos, suspicion and divisiveness among the multicultural societies it targets. In doing so, IS is seeking to create the conditions in which its message finds more willing supporters among those disenfranchised by such division.
What goes on in the mind of a suicide bomber? What motivates someone to spend their last day on the planet blowing up complete strangers? Bad enough, perhaps, if the strangers in question are soldiers, police, or other representatives of the state. But holidaymakers and commuters?
It takes a special sort of alienation, radicalisation and dehumanisation to think that the people standing next to you in the check-in queue merit being randomly dismembered.
One assumes that the growing number of people who volunteer for these sorts of missions are confident that they are off to paradise. Given that they won’t live to see the results of their zealotry, the logic must be in some way transcendental, and not one available to rational scrutiny or dissuasion by the rest of us.
Either way, if paradise is going to be full of ex-jihadists I’m rather glad I’m not going.
In the meantime, back on earth, the effectiveness of this suicidal strategy is all too clear and painful, especially for those directly affected. Even for the rest of us, the net result is to add yet another level of depressing tedium to our day-to-day existence, as security is increased to ever-higher levels.
No doubt we ought to be grateful to have the opportunity to travel around Europe or spend a long lunch enjoying a bit of intellectual chit-chat in a Parisian café, as I did today. I am – very.
This is, as they say, just about as good as it gets. And that is rather the point of the attacks on the symbolic heartland of Europe as a civilisation and – in today’s case – as an institution.
The freedom of association, expression and thought that is such a distinctive feature of European intellectual and social life is clearly resented by an alarmingly large group of people. Such hitherto taken for granted freedoms are directly threatened by the randomness of terrorism. Last week, for example, I had to queue to have my passport checked on re-entering France – despite arriving from another Schengen area country.
Yes, I realise this is an especially privileged sort of problem and one that evokes little sympathy. But it is another very real manifestation of Europe’s steadily shrinking public space. One doesn’t need to be a starry-eyed cosmopolitan to recognise that passport-free travel is one of Europe’s greatest practical and symbolic achievements.
It takes a particular sort of confidence in one’s neighbours to make such an idea feasible. The Schengen agreement was unlikely to survive the migration crisis; terrorist outrages may seal its fate.
What this suggests is that noble ideas, admirable principles and feelings of human solidarity may only be possible under particular, possibly unique and historically unrepeatable circumstances.
The European project emerged from the greatest trauma that continent has ever known. It ought to be remembered that today’s problems pale into insignificance beside them. Europeans have made remarkable progress over the last 50 years or so – in every sense of the term. It is no wonder so many people want to live there.
And yet it is also painfully apparent that such achievements are being steadily eroded and undermined. EU President Donald Tusk’s suggestion that European solidarity will be a vital part of the response to these events looks like well-intentioned wishful thinking.
The reality seems to be that there are sufficiently large numbers of people in Europe who are prepared to die and slaughter others in an effort to undermine Europe’s greatest achievements. There is, it seems, very little that can be done to stop them.
Depressingly, there is also no basis for negation with zealots who think they are on a mission from God. It’s not even clear – to me, at least – quite what the suicide bombers hope their deaths will actually achieve or what the big plan is.
It’s hard not to think that some of the animus directed toward European civilisation is fuelled by a resentment of just how agreeable and successful it has been for those fortunate enough to be part of it.
No doubt some will consider such views as naïve and Eurocentric. Yes, the French did dreadful things in Algeria, and the Belgians did worse in the Congo.
But even if this is construed as some sort of post-imperial blowback, it looks a bit late, ludicrously out of proportion, and unlikely to do anything other than to make life in Europe miserable, too. But perhaps that’s ultimately the point.
Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.
Do the answers lie in the 20th century, which saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of new nations in its wake and their struggle for independence as well as articulation of national identities? Is it hidden in the debris of the Gulf and the Iraq Wars? Or do we have to look deeper in history – to the fundamental tenets of Islam, the Crusades, or the so-called Assassins of the 11th to 13th centuries?
It is far better to look at the interplay of historical and social forces, as well as recognising that outfits such as Islamic State often cherry-pick ideas to justify their beliefs and behaviours.
Heeding his advice, our series on understanding Islamic State attempts, in a dispassionate way, to catalogue many of the forces and events that can arguably have played a part in creating the conditions necessary for these jihadists to emerge. We have tried to spread the net wide, but make no claim to being comprehensive or having the final word on Islamic State’s origins.
Next, we turn to medieval history, as both the Crusades and the so-called cult of Assassins have been linked to Islamic State.
Farhad Daftary discusses the Nizari Ismailis – romanticised as Assassins by the Crusaders and in The Travels of Marco Polo – who killed, among others, two early caliphs. Could they really be thought of as an earlier incarnation of the most vicious terrorists in recent history?
Leaping to the 20th century, we start looking at the more proximate causes of the group’s rise.
First, a look at the fateful Sykes-Picot agreement, which craved up the Middle East into English and French spheres of influence, and was denounced by Islamic State in the first video it released. James Renton argues the group’s self-declared political aim in establishing its caliphate speaks directly to the deal, and is an attempt at post-colonial emancipation.
Addressing an issue raised in the comments to the articles in the series, Harith Bin Ramli considers the long 20th century endured by the Middle East. He explains how the crisis of political authority in the Muslim world between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the 1991 Gulf War contributed to Islamic State’s rise.
Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.
Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? In the final article of our series examining this question, Greg Barton shows the role recent Western intervention in the Middle East played in the group’s inexorable rise.
Despite precious little certainty in the “what ifs” of history, it’s clear the rise of Islamic State (IS) wouldn’t have been possible without the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without these Western interventions, al-Qaeda would never have gained the foothold it did, and IS would not have emerged to take charge of northern Iraq.
Whether or not the Arab Spring, and the consequent civil war in Syria, would still have occurred is much less clear.
But even if war hadn’t broken out in Syria, it’s unlikely an al-Qaeda spin-off such as IS would have become such a decisive actor without launching an insurgency in Iraq. For an opportunistic infection to take hold so comprehensively, as IS clearly has, requires a severely weakened body politic and a profoundly compromised immune system.
Such were the conditions in Goodluck Jonathan’s Nigeria from 2010 to 2015 and in conflict-riven Somalia after the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. And it was so in Afghanistan for the four decades after conflict broke out in 1978 and in Pakistan after General Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in 1977.
Sadly, but even more clearly, such are the circumstances in Iraq and Syria today. And that’s the reason around 80% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks in recent years have occurred in five of the six countries discussed here, where such conditions still prevail.
An unique opportunity
The myth of modern international terrorist movements, and particularly of al-Qaeda and its outgrowths such as IS (which really is a third-generation al-Qaeda movement), is that they’re inherently potent and have a natural power of attraction.
The reality is that while modern terrorist groups can and do operate all around the globe to the point where no country can consider itself completely safe, they can only build a base when local issues attract on-the-ground support.
Consider al-Qaeda, which is in the business of global struggle. It wants to unite a transnational ummah to take on far-off enemies. But it has only ever really enjoyed substantial success when it has happened across conducive local circumstances.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s provided an opportunity uniquely suited to the rise of al-Qaeda and associated movements. It provided plausible justification for a defensive jihad – a just war – that garnered broad international support and allowed the group to coalesce in 1989 out of the Arab fighters who had rallied to support the Afghans in their fight against the Soviets.
Further opportunities emerged in the Northern Caucasus, where local ethno-national grievances were eventually transformed into the basis for a more global struggle.
The declaration of independence by Chechnya in 1991 led to all-out war with the Soviet military between 1994 and 1996, when tens of thousands were killed. After a short, uneasy peace, a decade-long second civil war started in 1999 following the invasion of neighbouring Dagestan by the International Islamic Brigade.
The second civil war began with an intense campaign to seize control of the Chechen capital, Grozny. But it became dominated by years of fighting jihadi and other insurgents in the Caucus mountains and dealing with related terrorist attacks in Russia.
In Nigeria and Somalia, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab now share many of the key attributes of al-Qaeda, with whom they have forged nascent links. But they too emerged primarily because of the failure of governance and the persistence of deep-seated local grievances.
Even in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda struggled to transform itself into a convincing champion of local interests in the 1990s. After becoming increasingly isolated following the September 11 attacks on the US, it failed to gain support from the Afghan Taliban for its global struggle.
But something new happened in Iraq beginning in 2003. The Jordanian street thug Musab al-Zarqawi correctly intuited that the impending Western invasion and occupation of Iraq would provide the perfect conditions for the emergence of insurgencies.
Al-Zarqawi positioned himself in Iraq ahead of the invasion and deftly rode a wave of anger and despair to initiate and grow an insurgency that in time came to dominate the broken nation.
Initially, al-Zarqawi was only one of many insurgent leaders intent on destabilising Iraq. But, in October 2004, after years of uneasy relations with the al-Qaeda leader during two tours in Afghanistan, he finally yielded to Osama bin Laden’s request that he swear on oath of loyalty (bayat) to him. And so al-Zarqawi’s notorious network of insurgents became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
From the ashes
Iraq’s de-Ba’athification process of May 2003 to June 2004, during which senior technocrats and military officers linked to the Ba’ath party (the vehicle of the Saddam Hussein regime) were removed from office, set the stage for many to join counter-occupation insurgent groups – including AQI.
Without the sacking of a large portion of Iraq’s military and security leaders, its technocrats and productive middle-class professionals, it’s not clear whether this group would have come to dominate so comprehensively. These alienated Sunni professionals gave AQI, as well as IS, much of its core military and strategic competency.
But even with the windfall opportunity presented to al-Zarqawi by the wilful frustration of Sunni interests by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government from 2006 to 2014, which deprived them of any immediate hope for the future and confidence in protecting their families and communities, AQI was almost totally destroyed after the Sunni awakening began in 2006.
The Sunni awakening forces, or “Sons of Iraq”, began with tribal leaders in Anbar province forming an alliance with the US military. For almost three years, tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen were paid directly to fight AQI, but the Maliki government refused to incorporate them into the regular Iraqi Security Force. And, after October 2008 – when management of these forces was handed over by the US military – he refused to support them.
The death of al-Zarqawi in June 2006 contributed to the profound weakening of the strongest of all post-invasion insurgent groups. AQI’s force strength was reduced to several hundred fighters and it lost the capacity to dominate the insurgency.
Then, in 2010 and 2011, circumstances combined to blow oxygen onto the smouldering coals.
In 2010, the greatly underestimated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a local Iraqi cleric with serious religious scholarly credentials, took charge of AQI and began working to a sophisticated long-term plan.
Elements of the strategy went by the name “breaking the walls”. In the 12 months to July 2013, this entailed the movement literally breaking down the prison walls in compounds around Baghdad that held hundreds of hardcore al-Qaeda fighters.
Islamic State, as the group now called itself, also benefited from the inflow of former Iraqi intelligence officers and senior military leaders. This had begun with de-Ba’athification in 2003 and continued after the collapse of the Sunni awakening and the increasingly overt sectarianism of the Maliki government.
Together, they developed tactics based on vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and the strategic use of suicide bombers. These were deployed not in the passionate but often undirected fashion of al-Qaeda but much more like smart bombs in the hands of a modern army.
And the US military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, well telegraphed ahead of time, provided an excellent opportunity for the struggling insurgency to rebuild. As did the outbreak of civil war in Syria.
A helping hand
Al-Baghdadi initially dispatched his trusted Syrian lieutenant, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, to form a separate organisation in Syria: the al-Nusra front.
Jabhat al-Nusra quickly established itself in northern Syria. But when al-Julani refused to fold his organisation in under his command, al-Baghdadi rebranded AQI (or Islamic State in Iraq) Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
Then, a series of events turned IS from an insurgency employing terrorist methods to becoming a nascent rogue state. These included the occupation of Raqqa on the Syrian Euphrates in December 2013; the taking of Ramadi a month later; consolidation of IS control throughout Iraq’s western Anbar province; and, finally, a sudden surge down the river Tigris in June 2014 that took Mosul and most of the towns and cities along the river north of Baghdad within less than a week.
IS’s declaration of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, was a watershed moment that is only now being properly understood.
In its ground operations, including the governing of aggrieved Sunni communities, IS moved well beyond being simply a terrorist movement. It came to function as a nascent rogue state ruling over around 5 million people in the northern cities of the Euphrates and the Tigris, and defending its territory through conventional military means.
At the same time, it skilfully exploited the internet and social media in ways the old al-Qaeda could not do – and that its second-generation offshoot, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), had only partially achieved.
This allowed IS to draw in tens of thousands of foreign fighters. Most came from the Middle East and Northern Africa, but as many as 5000 came from Europe, with thousands more from the Caucusus and from Asia.
Unlike the case in Afghanistan in the 1980s, these foreign fighters have played a key role in providing sufficient strength to take and hold territory while also building a global network of support.
But without the perfect-storm conditions of post-invasion insurgency, this most potent expression of al-Qaedaism yet would never have risen to dominate both the region and the world in the way that it does.
Even in its wildest dreams, al-Qaeda could never have imagined that Western miscalculations post-9/11 could have led to such foolhardy engagements – not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq.
Were it not for these miscalculations, 9/11 might well have precipitated the decline of al-Qaeda. Instead, with our help, it spawned a global jihadi movement with a territorial base far more powerful than al-Qaeda ever had.
How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.
In the penultimate article of the series, Harith Bin Ramli traces the Muslim world’s growing disaffection with its rulers through the 20th century and how it created the climate for both the genesis of Islamic State and its continuing success in recruiting followers.
Islamic State (IS) declared its re-establishment of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, almost exactly 100 years after the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated. Ferdinand’s death set off a series of events that would lead to the first world war and the fall of three great multinational world empires: Austro-Hungary (1867-1918), Russian (1721-1917) and the Ottoman Sultanate (1299-1922).
That IS’s leadership chose to declare its caliphate so close to the anniversary of Ferdinand’s assassination may not entirely be a coincidence. In a sense, the two events are connected.
In declaring the resurrection of a medieval political institution almost exactly 100 years later, IS was announcing its explicit rejection of the modern international system based on that very idea of sovereignty.
Other than the Ottoman dynasty’s very late and disputed claim to the title, no attempt has been made to re-establish a caliphate since the fall of the Abbasid dynasty at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. In other words, Sunni Islam has carried on for hundreds of years since the 13th century without the need for a central political figurehead.
The Abbasid caliphs began to lose power from the mid-ninth century, effectively becoming puppets of various warlords by the tenth. And the caliphate underwent a serious process of decentralisation at the same time.
Key contemporary texts on statecraft, such as Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi’s (952-1058) Ordinances of Government (al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya), described the caliph as the necessary symbolic figurehead providing constitutional legitimacy for the real rulers – emirs or sultans – whose power was based on military might.
As in the case of the Shi’i Buyid dynasty (934-1048), these rulers didn’t even have to be Sunni. And they were often expected to provide legislation based on practical and functional, rather than religious, considerations.
The Muslim world, then, had arguably already experienced secularisation of sorts before the modern age. Or, at the very least, it had for quite some time existed within a political system that balanced power between religious and worldly interests.
And when the caliphate came to an end in the 13th century, both the institutions of kingship and the religious courts (run by the scholar-jurists) were able to carry on functioning without difficulty.
It was the 19th-century Muslim revivalist and anti-colonial movement known as Pan-Islamism that was responsible for reviving the Ottoman claim to the caliphate. And the idea was revived again briefly in early 20th-century British India as the anti-colonial Khilafat movement.
But anti-colonial efforts after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, even those primarily based on religious beliefs, have rarely called for a return of the caliphate.
If anything, successors of Pan-Islamism, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have generally worked within the framework of nation states. Putting aside doubts about their actual ability to commit to democracy and secularism, such movements have generally envisioned an Islamic state along more modern lines, with room for political participation and elections.
Modern utopias and old dynasties
So why evoke the caliphate in the first place? The simple answer is that it has never been completely dismissed as an option.
In Sunni law and political theology, once consensus over an issue has been reached, it is hard for later generations to go against it. This was why Egyptian scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq was removed from his post at Al-Azhar University and attacked for introducing a deviant interpretation after he wrote an argument for a secular interpretation of the caliphate in 1925.
As manyrecentstudies show, the idea of the caliphate and its revival has had a certain utopian appeal for a wide spectrum of modern Muslim thinkers. And not just those with authoritarian or militant inclinations.
But, in practice, the dominant tendency here too has really been to seek the liberation or revival of Muslim societies within the nation-state framework.
If anything, national aspirations and the desire to modernise society existed before the formation of the new political order after the first world war. The majority of the populations of Muslim lands welcomed the fall of the three empires, or at least didn’t feel very strongly about the survival of traditional ruling dynasties.
And, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, most dynasties that stayed in power did so by reinventing their states along modern, mainly secular, models.
But this did not always succeed. The waves of revolutions and military coups that swept the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world throughout the 1950s and 1960s amply illustrate that popular sentiment identified traditional dynasties with the continuing influence of colonial powers.
In Egypt, under the Muhammad Ali dynasty (1805-1952), for example, the control of the then-French Canal epitomised the interdependent relationship between the dynasty and Western power. This was why Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) made great efforts to regain it in the name of Egyptian sovereignty when he became the country’s second president in 1956.
Dissolving political legitimacy
Either way, the success of the new Muslim nation states could be said to be predicated on two major expectations. The first was improvement of citizens’ lives – not only in terms of material progress, but also the benefits of freedom and the ability to represent the popular will through participatory politics.
The second was the ability of Muslim nations to unite against outside interference and commit to the liberation of Palestine. On both counts, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed abysmal failures and an increasing sense of frustration with Muslim leaders.
In many places, populism eventually gave way to authoritarianism. And the loss of further lands to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War revealed the inherent weakness and lack of unity among the new Muslim nations.
Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War was widely seen as an act of betrayal, for breaking ranks in what should have been a united front. His decision to do so despite lacking popular support in Egypt only revealed the extent to which the country had evolved into a dictatorship.
Sadat’s consequent assassination at the hands of a small radical splinter group of religious militants acted as a warning to other Muslim leaders. Now they couldn’t simply ignore or lock away religious critics, even if the majority of the population still subscribed to the secular nation-state model.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Muslim leaders around the world increasingly made compromises with religious reactionary forces, allowing them to expand influence in the public sphere. In many cases, these leaders increasingly adopted religious rhetoric themselves.
Showing support for fellow Muslims in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1987) or the First Palestinian Intifada provided an opportunity to manage the threat of religious radicalism. National leaders probably also saw this as an effective way to deflect attention from the authoritarian nature of many Muslim states.
The Gulf War also brought non-Muslim troops to Arabian soil, inspiring Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad against the Western nations that participated in it. And it eventually led to the US invasion of Iraq. That set off a chain of events that created in the country the chaotic conditions that enabled the rise of Islamic State.
If IS’s leadership is really an alliance between ex-Ba’athist generals and an offshoot of al-Qaeda, as has often been depicted, then we don’t have to go far beyond the events of this war to explain how the group formed. But the rise of Islamic State and its declaration of the caliphate can also be read as part of a wider story that has unfolded since the formation of modern nation states in the Muslim world.
As some commentators have pointed out, it’s not so much the Sykes-Picot agreement and the drawing of artificial national borders by colonial powers that brought about IS.
The modern nation-state model – as much as it’s based on a kind of fiction – is still strong in most parts of the Muslim world. And, I believe, it’s still the preferred option for most Muslims today.
But the long century that has passed since the first world war has been increasingly marked by frustration. It’s littered with the broken promises of Muslim rulers to bring about a transition to more representative forms of government. And it has been marked by a sense that Western powers continue to control and manipulate events in the region, in a way that doesn’t always represent the best interests of Muslim societies.
An extreme high point of frustration was reached in the events of the so-called Arab Spring. The wave of popular demonstrations against the autocratic regimes of the Arab world were seen as the first winds of change that would bring about democracy to the region.
But, with the possible exception of Tunisia, all of these countries underwent either destabilisation (Libya, Syria), the return of military rule (Egypt) or the further clamping down on civil rights (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies).
I would hesitate to describe IS’s declaration of a caliphate as a serious challenge to the modern nation-state model. But the small, albeit substantial, stream of followers it manages to recruit daily shows it would be wrong to take for granted that the terms of the international order can simply be dictated from above forever.
When brute force increasingly has the final say over how people live their lives, it becomes harder for them to differentiate between the lesser of two evils.
Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.
Much of the discussion has concentrated on the IS leadership’s theology – an apocalyptic philosophy that seeks a return to an imagined pristine Islam of the religion’s founders. But this focus has led to a neglect of the group’s self-declared political aims.
For all the importance of religion in the way IS functions and justifies itself, we can fully understand the caliphate only if we pay close attention to the public explanations – the modernist manifestos – of those at the helm of its overall political purpose.
Viewed from this perspective, the caliphate appears primarily as an attempt to free the ummah – the global Muslim community – from the legacies of European colonialism.
The leaders of IS do not see their caliphate as an exercise in theocracy for its own sake, but as an attempt at post-colonial emancipation.
Looking right back
Certainly, the very name adopted by the declared leader of the caliphate suggests an acute preoccupation with a specifically religious mission that harks back to the early years of Islam.
Originally known as Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarra’i (or variations thereof), he took on, long before the summer of 2014, the pseudonym Abu Bakr, the name of the first caliph (the successor to Muhammad as the religious and political leader of the ummah).
Ruling in the years 632-4, Abu Bakr put an end to dissent against the new Islamic system in its Arabian heartlands. He established the caliphate as an expansionist Muslim empire with military campaigns in, the sources suggest, present-day Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Israel-Palestine.
As a declaration of intent, this choice of name by IS’s leader – whose full moniker became, alongside the title Caliph Ibrahim, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi – seems to encapsulate much of what we need to know about the new caliphate’s ambitions.
Al-Adnani’s founding proclamation made a point of celebrating the military victories of the first decades of Islam and how the ummah then “filled the earth with justice … and ruled the world for centuries”. This success, he argued, was the result of nothing more than faith in Allah and the ummah’s adherence to the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad.
But the conquest of land and the establishment of a Muslim empire – or state, as those behind the new caliphate prefer to call it – is a means to a very specific end. It is not an end in itself.
According to al-Adnani, the caliphate is needed to take the ummah out of a condition of disgrace, humiliation and rule under the “vilest of all people”. Al-Baghdadi, speaking two days after he was pronounced caliph, was much more specific.
The fall of the last caliphate – and, with it, the loss of a state – led to the humiliation and disempowerment of Muslims around the globe, he said. And this condition of statelessness allowed “the disbelievers” to occupy Muslim lands, install their agents as authoritarian rulers and spread false Western doctrines.
Al-Baghdadi’s vague narrative refers to the story of the dissolution after the first world war of the Ottoman Empire, which had governed much of Western Asia for four centuries.
In its stead, the British and French empires took over significant parts of the region and remained for decades. When their rule came to an end, these colonial states did their best to leave behind successor regimes that would serve British and French interests and those of the wider West.
For IS leaders, these colonial machinations have left the ummah floundering ever since because they took away the essence of power in the contemporary world: sovereignty – territorially based political independence.
The caliphate is urgently needed, al-Baghdadi argues, to rectify this harmful absence. A similar argument for a caliphate, though made with a very different type of state in mind, was articulated by the UK-based scholar S. Sayyid in 2014.
The most explicit evidence of this political objective’s primacy is to be found in the new caliphate’s propaganda, which has been such an important part of the IS project.
To coincide with the announcement of the caliphate, IS released a video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot”. Signed in May 1916, the Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret Anglo-French plan for dividing the Asian Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence and zones of direct rule for the two European empires.
The Bolsheviks discovered the agreement in the Russian state archives soon after they took power in November 1917 and revealed its contents to the world.
The Sykes-Picot agreement
The Sykes-Picot agreement did not set out the borders of the states that replaced the Ottoman Empire, as the video suggests. But this error is beside the point if we want to understand the significance of the agreement for IS, and what it tells us about its caliphate.
In the Middle East, Sykes-Picot became shorthand for a whole narrative of Western betrayal and conspiracy in the region. But it also came to stand for the specific European colonial process of robbing the peoples of the region of their sovereignty.
And it is IS’s declared goal to undo this process. This is why “The End of Sykes-Picot”, above any other possible subject matter for an inaugural film, had to accompany the declaration of the caliphate.
For al-Baghdadi, sovereignty and Islam cannot be separated; thus the need for an Islamic state. He cannot use the term empire, even though it more accurately describes the global expansionist aims of his caliphate.
This is not just a question of semantics; it goes to the heart of the purpose of IS. The caliphate is needed, its leadership contends, to end the consequences of European empire, of colonialism. It is an effort to finally break away from the colonial condition; an attempt at a new post-colonial ummah.
Liberty from colonialism and sovereignty go hand in hand. The post-1918 world order embodied in the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, places the idea of sovereignty at the centre of how we understand power today. Within this system, the absence of a state is the absence of power.
The military defeat of IS and its loss of territory would, of course, make sovereignty, and thus the caliphate, impossible. But this defeat will not solve the problem of the sense of powerlessness that fuelled the 2014 caliphate in the first place; it will only compound it.
The real long-term challenge that faces opponents of IS, therefore, is not the overthrow of the caliphate – as difficult as that might be – or even to defeat “extremism”. It is, rather, to overcome the narrative at the centre of IS’s call to arms: Muslim alienation from the world system.