Islamic State stunned the world when it overran an area the size of Great Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in a matter of weeks and proclaimed the birth of a new Caliphate. In his timely book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, one of the Arab world’s most respected journalists Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics. Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, the book outlines the group’s leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. He also shows how the group’s rapid growth has been facilitated by its masterful command of social media platforms, the “dark web,” Hollywood blockbuster-style videos, and even jihadi computer games, producing a powerful paradox where the ambitions of the Middle Ages have reemerged in cyberspace. Islamic State has to be increasingly understood as a nation. Atwan draws a convincing picture of the Islamic State as a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.
As Islamic State continues to dominate the world’s media headlines with horrific acts of ruthless violence, Atwan considers the movement’s chances of survival and expansion and offers indispensable insights on potential government responses to contain the IS threat.
For security reasons, and to enhance his mystique, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph, rarely appears in public. Baghdadi first attended the Islamic University of Baghdad, where he studied Islamic jurisprudence, during Saddam Hussein’s “Faith Campaign,” when the Iraqi dictator encouraged Islamic religiosity as a way of rousing national feeling against the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the US liberated Kuwait from Saddam’s occupation in 1991.
As Atwan explains, ISIS is a “highly centralized and disciplined organization” with a sophisticated security apparatus and capacity for delegating power. The caliph—as “successor” of the Prophet—is the ultimate authority; but despite his sermon exhorting believers to “advise me when I err,” any threat, opposition, or even contradiction is instantly eradicated. Baghdadi has two deputies—both former members of the Iraqi Baath Party. Both were his fellow prisoners in Camp Bucca, the sprawling American detention center in southern Iraq now seen as the “jihadist university” where former Baathists and Sunni insurgents were able to form ideological and religious bonds. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Baghdadi’s second-in-command, was a member of Saddam’s feared military intelligence. Baghdadi’s second deputy, Abu Ali al-Anbari, was a major general in the Iraqi army.
Baghdadi and his deputies set the group’s overall objectives, which are then communicated down the hierarchy, with local commanders and administrators allowed to fulfill their tasks at their own discretion in territories under ISIS control. There are advisory councils and several departments run by committees, with leaders of each department sitting in Baghdadi’s “cabinet.”
The most powerful of these is the Sharia Council, which oversees draconian implementation of the penalties for “crimes against God’s limits” (called hudud), which include amputations and capital punishment, as well as the punishments for other crimes (called tazir), largely aimed at shaming offenders and inducing repentance. The Islamic State has also established a sharia police force (similar to the religious police in Saudi Arabia) tasked with enforcing religious observance. Regular police are brought under ISIS administration, and wear new black uniforms. Police cars are resprayed with the ISIS insignia.
“Sharia courts deal with all complaints, whether religious or civil, and cases can be brought by individuals as well as the police,” Atwan writes.
In areas and situations where there has been no policing and no judiciary owing to the collapse of central government, these courts are largely popular; citizens can bring cases directly to the courts, which are able to process cases quickly and, in most cases, reasonably.
The Education Council oversees the provision of education and the curriculum, based on the strict Salafist, or ultra-orthodox, interpretation of the Koran and sharia law. In many cases the curriculum used in Saudi schools—especially at the middle and high school levels—has been adopted in its entirety. Several subjects are banned, including evolutionary biology. Contrary to some media reports, girls are not deprived of education. Indeed ISIS in its online magazines makes a feature of its all-female schools and universities. While gender segregation is rigorously enforced, women are not forbidden by law to drive, as in Saudi Arabia.
As The New York Times observed in its review of The Digital Caliphate, the jihadists of ISIS may be terrorists—to use an imprecise, catch-all term—but as Atwan explains, they are both well paid and disciplined, and the atrocities they commit and upload on the Internet are part of a coherent strategy:
Crucifixions, beheadings, the hearts of rape victims cut out and placed upon their chests, mass executions, homosexuals being pushed from high buildings, severed heads impaled on railings or brandished by grinning “jihadist” children—who have latterly taken to shooting prisoners in the head themselves—these gruesome images of brutal violence are carefully packaged and distributed via Islamic State’s media department. As each new atrocity outdoes the last, front-page headlines across the world’s media are guaranteed.
Far from being an undisciplined orgy of sadism, ISIS terror is a systematically applied policy that follows the ideas put forward in jihadist literature, notably in an online tract, The Management of Savagery, by the al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji. This treatise, posted in 2004 and widely cited by jihadists, is both a rationale for violence and a blueprint for the Caliphate. It draws heavily on the writings of Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328), the medieval theologian who inspired the Arabian Wahhabi movement and is highly regarded by Islamists for holding rulers to account in the practice of true religion.
Naji, who was killed in a US drone strike in Waziristan in 2008, considers the violence inherent in conflict a necessary stage in the establishment of the Caliphate. He refers in particular to the campaigns of Muhammad and the “Wars of Apostasy” fought by the first caliph, Abu Bakr, who reigned 632–634 and fought the tribes that had abandoned Islam after the death of Muhammad when they no longer considered themselves bound by their bayat (oath of allegiance). Naji sees the coming period of savagery as a time of “vexation and exhaustion” when, as Atwan summarizes, “the superpowers will be worn down militarily by constant threat…from the jihadists.” The Americans, he writes, “have reached a stage of effeminacy which makes them unable to sustain battles for a long period of time.” Naji’s aim here—as Atwan explains—is “to provoke the US to ‘abandon its war against Islam by proxy…and the media psychological war…and to force it to fight directly.’”
While the inspiration for the “savagery” detailed by Naji relies on transplanting the early battles of Islam and projecting them forward in an apocalyptic showdown in northwest Syria, ISIS maximizes the impact of its terror strategy by encouraging scenes of violence and death to be shown on screens and phones.* Brutality, however, is only one element in the stream of images uploaded by its sophisticated media outlets. The Islamic State, according to Atwan, is also presented as an emotionally attractive place where people “belong,” where everyone is a “brother” or “sister.” A kind of slang, melding adaptations or shortenings of Islamic terms with street language, is evolving among the English-language fraternity on social media platforms in an attempt to create a “jihadi cool.” A jolly home life is portrayed via Instagram images where fighters play with fluffy kittens and jihadist “poster-girls” proudly display the dishes they have created.
The idea of the “restored Caliphate” has been the dream of Islamic revivalists since the formal abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate by Kemal Atatürk in 1924. The appeal, carefully fostered by Baghdadi and his cohorts by means of the Internet and social media, is for a transnational body that stands above the various tribes or communities making up the Muslim world. They are achieving impressive results, with pledges of allegiance (bayat) from militants in places as far removed from one another as Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen, and in Libya ISIS now has an airbase in Sirte, the hometown of former leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Fear-inducing terror is also personal. Naji writes that hostages whose ransoms have not been paid should be “liquidated in the most terrifying manner which will send fear into the hearts of the enemy and his supporters.” American citizens—James Foley and Steven Sotloff—were executed, on camera, in the orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. The online theatricals serve to legitimize murder as a type of qisas—“retaliation in kind”—which is one of the well-known punishments in Islamic law.
As Atwan points out, these horrifying scenes are expertly disseminated by the ISIS media department, which is run by a French-born Syrian-American trained in Massachusetts. The public information department is led by a Syrian, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, whom Atwan describes as “the most significant figure in Islamic State after Caliph Ibrahim and his deputies.” This Goebbels of the Islamic State has been responsible for some of its most inflammatory propaganda, including an online speech urging “lone-wolf” jihadists living in the West to kill “citizens of countries which have entered into a coalition against Islamic State” by “any means you chose,” such as deliberately running over people with vehicles. His speech was followed in quick succession by hit-and-run attacks in Canada, France, and Israel.
Atwan explains how the Islamic State’s media department employs an army of journalists, photographers, and editors to produce slick videos with high production values that are disseminated on the Internet without their source being detected. Activists use “virtual private networks” that conceal a user’s IP address, in conjunction with browsers—including one originally developed for US Navy intelligence—that enable the viewer to access the “dark Internet,” the anonymous zone frequented by child pornographers and other criminals.
In 2014 the US State Department’s intelligence unit oversaw the removal of 45,000 jihadist items from the Internet, while Britain’s Metropolitan Police deleted some 1,100 items per week. It seems doubtful, however, that this “electronic counter-jihad” will prove any more successful than efforts to abolish Internet fraud or close down pedophile rings. Like other criminals the “cyber-jihadists” keep one step of ahead of the government agencies and service providers seeking to close them down.
Atwan, who visited the area in late 2014, considers the number of fighters for the Islamic State considerably larger than the 100,000 or so usually cited by the Western media, a third of whom—at least 30,000—are foreigners. “Australian authorities were shocked to discover” that some two hundred of their nationals had joined ISIS, “making the country the biggest per capita exporter of foreign jihadists.”
In an online poll conducted in July 2014, a formidable 92 percent of Saudi citizens agreed that ISIS “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”