Raqqa Media Center / AP

Islamic State seeks to be Al-Qaeda for a post-9/11 generation

The extremist group has inspired a new generation of radicals in its bid to conquer the region but has taken huge risks

For the first time since Al-Qaeda executed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the world’s most feared extremist network saw its pre-eminence challenged last weekend when an Al-Qaeda-breakaway group renamed itself the Islamic State and declared its vast holdings in Syria and Iraq the beginnings of a restored Islamic caliphate, calling on like-minded Muslims the world over to rally behind its flag.

The strategy of trying to capture and hold territory on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border was an enormous gamble for the movement formerly known as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant); powerful enemies bear down on the new “caliphate” from all sides, and extremist cells are divided over whether to pledge allegiance to a group that readily slaughters not only Shia but also fellow Sunnis who stand in its way.

But in just a matter of weeks, the Islamic State has netted $2 billion and seized huge swaths of land in an astonishing takeover of northern Iraq, stirring excitement in a new generation of radicalized young men on a level not seen since Al-Qaeda’s spectacular strikes on the U.S. To them — just children when Al-Qaeda made a name for itself 13 years ago — the declaration of an Islamic caliphate, however improbable, has been something of a watershed moment.

“People are really watching with great interest what is unfolding,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College who heads a European Union working group on foreign extremist fighters. “They haven’t seen anything like this before. It’s ignited their imagination.”

The Islamic State movement has its roots in Syria, where it seized control in the power vacuum in the rebel-held north and began to impose a system of local governance based on its radical interpretation of Islamic law. Then in early Juneit shocked the world by mounting a lightning offensive across Sunni regions of northern and western Iraq, exploiting resentment of Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to partner with an awkward alliance of secular and Islamist Sunni militias.

Like Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State wants to establish a viable caliphate in the Middle East where Muslims might find refuge from global oppression. But the group has painted itself as a more traditional insurgency (albeit with a proclivity for indiscriminate violence that even Al-Qaeda has condemned), with an aim of immediately wresting land from crumbling governments and laying the foundation for its rule.

The group’s split from Al-Qaeda was hastened by leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s refusal to share power with other Syrian factions — including the Syrian Al-Qaeda chapter, Jabhat al-Nusra — and its insistence on imposing severe hudud punishments, such as public crucifixions of non-Muslims and summary executions of its enemies, even as the war to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still rages. Whereas Al-Qaeda has always emphasized a long game, using spectacular attacks to rally a broader Salafist movement behind its goals and expose the vulnerability of its enemies near and far, the Islamic State seeks to build its vision of a Sharia-based system of governance today.

As the group’s supporters put it: Al-Qaeda is an organization; the ISIL is a state.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, whose strategy was premised on striking blows against “the far enemy” (the United States), the new movement has fixed its sights on local enemies such as Assad and Maliki. The United States, in fact, does not figure much in the Islamic State’s propaganda. In a 20-minute address — his first since declaring himself caliph — Baghdadi made just one offhand reference to the U.S., looped into a diatribe about Jews and Russia.

“[Al-Qaeda’s] is obviously a more sophisticated plan, but I can see why it isn’t quite as appealing to the angry-young-man demographic that both groups are courting,” said Aron Lund, an expert on the ISIL and the Syrian rebellion. “If Al-Qaeda was actually launching a new September 11–style attack every year or so, it might be another matter. But it’s been 13 years now, and the Al-Qaeda core hasn’t achieved much of anything since.”

That could give the Islamic State an edge in the competition with Al-Qaeda for recruits and funding.

Still, as impressive as Baghdadi’s surge has been, there are many who feel the Islamic State is squandering an opportunity to become an even more powerful version of Al-Qaeda. The group is hardly the first to declare its version of jihad the solution to global Muslim suffering, and like the caliphates declared by the Caucasus insurgency in Russia or the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State will immediately become a very visible target for regional and global powers dead set on stamping out extremism.

Baghdadi has huge amounts of cash at his disposal, much of it looted from the Mosul central bank, and he has large stores of weapons captured from the Syrian and Iraqi militaries. His surge in Iraq is likely to attract both scores of recruits and even greater investment from wealthy sympathizers in the Gulf.

“Baghdadi can turn ISIS [another acronym for ISIL] into the most powerful terrorist organization the world has ever known. He could inherit the world of jihadist terrorism … He can recruit, train and plan for the next 9/11 and even more,” wrote Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for international security at the Atlantic Council. “But there is only one condition: [He] would have to give up statehood and go underground.”

According to Saab, “The historical record shows that extremist Islamic groups are only good at killing people who don’t agree with them — and nothing else. It’s one thing to set up a state, but maintaining it is another thing altogether.”

The pitfalls facing the caliphate are many. For one, the Islamic State does not appear to have a viable economic model. Even though it has laid claim to oil wealth and huge tracts of arable land, with whom will it trade? Certainly not the neighboring countries it explicitly seeks to wipe off the map.

In its de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria, the Islamic State has imposed its harsh brand of Sharia on largely unwilling residents for over a year now. The group has earned the reputation of being too brutal even for Al-Qaeda’s taste, crucifying or summarily executing its enemies and bragging about it on social media. This propensity for severely enforcing its notion of justice — even slaughtering fellow Muslims if need be — has appealed to the Islamic State’s radicalized supporters, but it has seeded hatred among its subject populace.

There are also questions whether the Islamic State will be able to persuade other extremist cells around the world to bend a knee to what Baghdadi insists is the one true caliphate. A prominent Jordanian extremist leader, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, praised Baghdadi’s audacity but said, “The fear is for the consequences of these victories and how the Sunnis and the other preaching or jihadi groups and Muslim masses will be treated in the liberated areas.”

Experience suggests that local Sunni actors who have partnered with the Islamic State against Assad and Maliki are prone to defect once they come to terms with the reality of IS rule. The reason many Sunni militias have fought alongside IS in Iraq and new Sunni subjects living in the caliphate have tolerated the group’s extremism is that it is their best shot at toppling the hated Shia government in Baghdad.

Al-Qaeda’s strategic preference for fighting directly against the West may yet be vindicated, experts say, if the Islamic State finds itself in conflict with the very Muslim populations it seeks to fold into its caliphate.

“When it’s Muslim on Muslim, the message these organizations have about Muslims fighting Western encroachment will get lost in internecine fighting,” said Olivier Roy, an expert on political Islam and a professor at the European University Institute in Italy. “It’s only a question of when.”

And the whole project could be wiped out in its infancy should regional forces and global powers manage to overcome their trepidations about intervention in Iraq. Though Assad is struggling to bat down a three-year rebellion and Iraq’s security forces have proved anemic, Shia militias and Kurdish fighters have already begun to confront the extremist fighters, who number no more than 10,000. Iran has vowed retribution if Islamic State lays a finger on Iraq’s Shia holy sites, and even Saudi Arabia has denounced the Sunni insurgents — whom Maliki accuses Riyadh of backing, though with no evidence — as having gone too far.

But many analysts believe that as long as Baghdadi steers clear of Baghdad — a Shia stronghold where the Iraqi military is strongest — and Jordan, which would almost certainly draw the United States and perhaps Israel into the fight, the Islamic State could have a chance.

The West is already on edge, even as Al-Qaeda sees its influence challenged in the region. The Islamic State marks a shift in extremist tactics but not goals. As Hassan Hassan put it in a column for the UAE-based daily The National, “Some may celebrate the fact that the Islamic State has harmed Al-Qaeda [even] more than the war on terror has, but the difference is that the Islamic State is the extreme of the extreme and is more invigorating for jihadists than Al-Qaeda.”

Says Lund, “It’s a given for anyone who shares the Islamic State’s worldview that the U.S. is an utterly evil power that needs to be fought. But they’ve also just decided to go global in the past few months, and it might take some time before they can pull off significant attacks abroad. I’m sure they’ll try their best.”

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