ISIS is a descendant of an Islamic revival which took place in the 17th century. Over time this contributed to the establishment of today’s Saudi Arabian Islamic fundamentalism through which its rulers promote primitive and barbaric laws. That revival and the current religious foundation for Saudi Arabia and other countries is Wahhabism, sometimes called Salafism. Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi nurtured in that fundamentalism, birthed al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. However, al-Qaeda was seen as too moderate by the Iraqi Sunnis who had been brutalized by the Shia majority who assumed power after Saddam Hussein was taken out. In 2006, ISIS was declared in Iraq. The collapse of the Syrian government opened up space in which ISIS could freely roam and claim territory, “returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.” (G. Wood, The Atlantic).

In the crisscross of Middle East people, movements, doctrines, national egos and tribal instincts, there is just too much to try to know. This Dispatch will attempt to answer four questions at play in the ongoing saga.

How are al-Qaeda and ISIS related?
Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi, founded al-Qaeda after going to Afghanistan in the 1980s to oust the Soviet invaders. Al-Qaeda is stateless and operates ideologically much like the Islamic fundamentalist movement called Wahhabism — with no seeming interest to control land and run as a state, at least up to now. Its attacks have been aimed at the West, including the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi, the 9/11 attacks, and the 2002 Bali bombings. Its aims have been to remove any presence of the West in the region, to restore a fundamentalist Islam, to destroy Western influence in Muslim countries and, in time, to realize the formation of a caliphate. The use of suicide bombers has made al-Qaeda a dangerous force beyond the Mid East. Al-Qaeda provided training for destructive jihad militia and established affiliates in many countries. Because Bin Laden was its commander and chief architect, his death brought internal changes, and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, seems to lack the charisma to fire up his forces, as did his predecessor.

  • Al-Qaeda views the United States as the prime “apostate” country.
  • Christians and Jews are seen as conspiring to destroy Islam.
  • The aim is to impose sharia law in Muslim countries, and to expand its influence wherever it can, including the sub-Saharan countries.
  • While strict in its view of other religions, including Muslims who are not in line with its theology, Al-Qaeda has been tolerant with Shia.

ISIS* (or Da’ish) is a child of al-Qaeda, beginning in Iraq and led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian. After the U.S. invasion, many groups sought to drive the U.S. out. In 2004, Bin Laden funded Zarqawi who launched an al-Qaeda group in Iraqi that in short time “out-violenced” Bin Laden. Internal disagreements led Zarqawi in 2006 to form ISIS. As Syria was crumbling, the two groups fought over who would represent the jihadist presence there. In time ISIS won out. In 2014, its new leader, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi (now caliph), declared it to be a caliphate.

  • ISIS uses violence as its way to shock, an extreme form of killing that caused Bin Laden to call for a more moderate approach
  • While al-Qaeda worked to enlist support of Muslim citizens, ISIS does the opposite, killing and destroying everything in its path
  • ISIS sees the enemy as Muslim countries not living up to the standards of sharia law.
  • They attack Shia in Iraq, the Hezbollah in Syria (who are funded by the Shia Iranians), Yazidis, the Kurds, Christians, and Jews.
  • They can’t hide as al-Qaeda does in their caves and mountains. ISIS now has territory that it must protect to keep up its credibility with its base, which means its location is out in the open and therefore more open to attack.
  • The prophetic vision is an important part of ISIS’ wider narrative

In short, al-Qaeda tries to play it safe with Muslims of various religious stripes, seeking means of cooperation instead of resorting to maiming and killing. ISIS seems to be engaged in a blood sport. Anyone outside of his or her definitions and doctrines is to be subjugated or obliterated. Their fight for power against al-Qaeda within the jihadist community leads to ferocious battles in countries throughout the region.

What is the meaning and importance of a “caliphate?”
By definition it means “succession,” that is, a successor to Muhammad.
A caliphate is an Islamic form of government led by a caliph – a religious and political leader deemed worthy by the Muslim community to lead a land in which Islamic law (sharia) is enforced. On June 29, 2014, after taking large areas of land in Iraq and in the Syrian heartland, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a worldwide caliphate. All Muslims are to give obedience to him as caliph. A caliph is a religious and political leader without physical blemish and from the Quraysh tribe, who are from the Arabian Peninsula. The last caliphate was under the Ottoman Empire, 1299 to 1924.

Why such use of violence, bloodletting and killing?
While al-Qaeda had little compunction in wanton killing of Muslims or Christians, combatants or noncombatants, ISIS raised the furor and viciousness to new forms, primarily to terrorize. It is a deliberately designed strategy. The beheadings, crucifixions, burnings alive, openly taking women and girls as sex slaves, is so numbing to the West that it gets our attention and, as noted by Wood, it “hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.” In 2004, an online book was released: The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass. (Umma means the worldwide collective Muslim community.) This became the manual for field operation for al-Qaeda and especially for ISIS, a working plan for establishing a caliphate, purifying Muslims worldwide, and creating fear by use of violence. Not only is it designed to shock the world, but also to suck the West into battle.

Does prophecy fit into their narrative?
Muslims, to varying degrees of intensity, look forward to the arrival of the Mahdi, a messianic figure who will lead Muslims in their takeover of the world. Called “End of Days,” this event is shaped by prophetic language, which calls for 12 caliphs (those deemed truly chosen to lead) over their history, beginning with Muhammad. ISIS claims that Baghdadi was the eighth. Islamic armies will take on “Rome” (thought to mean Istanbul, where the last caliph was cancelled by the Turk government in 1924). The prophecy is somewhat similar to the Christian teaching of the last days and the battle in Megiddo (Armageddon) in Israel. ISIS propaganda videos are filled with images and references to End of Days. While Al-Qaeda is also apocalyptic, it tends to lowball these scenarios while ISIS hypes them.

The clash between al-Qaeda and ISIS is enormously problematic as each competes for affiliates: al-Qaeda is linked to jihadist groups in Yemen and Syria, while ISIS has Boko Haram in Nigeria and fighting militia in Syria and Yemen.

The history of the two movements is fluid, zigzagging its way through the Middle East. While we are caught up in trying to help settle four million Syrians, Islamic jihadists, be they al-Qaeda or ISIS, see this as of little consequence. Mayhem and conquest is their goal. What has been revealing is the number of recruits from Western Europe and North America attracted by malicious and virulent videos. Young men or women unmotivated in their own lives, and seeing the possibility of being part of a world-changing movement, latch on to glossy promises, mesmerized by dreams of ruling in the Last of Days. They lose rational mind function and leave all to follow these violent armies.

* I’ve used the better-known acronyms: ISIS, meaning Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. Levant is an ancient term referring to the eastern Mediterranean. IS, as it is now used, means Islamic State. Da’ish is a pejorative term formed by an acronym in Arabic from Islamic Resistance Movement.

Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance
November 2015


Photo Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

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