The ideology of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that conquered substantial parts of Syria and Iraq has been described as based on Salafi-jihadism. The group has rapidly become a security threat to Middle Eastern countries, as it has challenged the Middle Eastern order and attempted to redraw the map of the region. Additionally, it has threatened Western countries, encouraging murders, suicide killings, and spreading fear among the their respective populations.
These actions were encouraged by the group’s ideology, as its long-term goal was to build a global Caliphate to implement Islamic law (“Sharia rule”). Consequently, ISIL formed an aggressive foreign policy towards Middle Eastern countries and international community to establish a global Caliphate and implement Sharia rule in areas under its control. Although ISIL military strategy has been consistently defensive for the past year at least, ISIL has worked primarily on trying to hold territory or make it costly for Iraqi/Syrian forces to retake. Ideologically, ISIL believed in an offensive military strategy to achieve its own long-term goal, which is the creation of a global caliphate. The question here is that why did the Islamic State believe in an offensive security strategy and aggressive foreign policy? How far has such a strategy been successful?
Aggressive Foreign Policy Strategy
Why has ISIL foreign policy towards other entities been entirely shaped by jihad? Ibn Taymiyyah, a medieval Sunni Muslim theologian and the leader of Salafism in his time, believed that war with disbelievers emerged because of the disbelievers’ aggression. In other words, Ibn Taymiyyah taught that Muslims should follow a defensive strategy and that war was only permissible in self-defence. This approach, however, is not a common understanding of Salafi-jihadism. Instead, the mainstream understanding of Salafi-jihadism owes the emergence of the concept of jihad against disbelievers not only to disbelievers’ aggression, but also to their “disbelief” itself. For example, in his book The Collections of Messages and Fatwas of the Scholar Uthaymin, Muhammad Salih Al-Uthaymin, one of the most famous Sunni scholars in Saudi Arabia and a giant within Salafism, said that nonbelievers’ kufr (disbelief) and shirk (polytheism) legitimize the spilling of their blood, not only their aggression and enmity. According to Muhammad Salih Al-Uthaymin, every disbeliever must be killed because of shirk and kufr, even if they are not aggressive and invasive. Based on this fatwa, an authoritative legal opinion given by an Islamic legal scholar, ISIL formed its own foreign policy towards the world.
In its 15th issue of Dabiq Magazine, ISIL published a section titled “why we hate you and why we fight you”, listing six reasons for Muslim animosity towards the West. The reasons read as follows:
“We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah – whether you realize it or not – by making partners for Him in worship, you blaspheme against Him, claiming that He has a son, you fabricate lies against His prophets and messengers, and you indulge in all manner of devilish practices. It is for this reason that we were commanded to openly declare our hatred for you and our enmity towards you. We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted, a matter that doesn’t concern you because you separate between religion and state, thereby granting supreme authority to your whims and desires via the legislators you vote into power. In the case of the atheist fringe, we hate you and wage war against you because you disbelieve in the existence of your Lord and Creator. We hate you for your crimes against Islam and wage war against you to punish you for your transgressions against our religion. We hate you for your crimes against the Muslims; your drones and fighter jets bomb, kill, and maim our people around the world, and your puppets in the usurped lands of the Muslims oppress, torture, and wage war against anyone who calls to the truth. We hate you for invading our lands and fight you to repel you and drive you out”.
Obviously, the actions of ISIL militants fully stem from their own radical ideology. This extreme ideology has no room for negotiation and peaceful dialogue with others, as any negotiation with the camp of disbelief is interpreted by ISIL followers as a threat to their ideology of Salafism. Moreover, ISIL is not a nationalist movement and thus has no political dispute with other actors on the ground. If a political dispute ensues, it is more likely to be resolved. Consequently, ISIL would stop fighting. However, ISIL attempts to push towards a “religious end” in order to restore the rule of Islam. This belief encourages ISIL militants to continue fighting until the creation of a Caliphate. And this is the political extent of its ideology.
An Assessment of ISIL Foreign Policy
ISIL’s aggressive foreign policy has been largely unsuccessful and self-defeating for a number of reasons. Although ISIL claims it is waging jihad to liberate humans from the darkness of kufr and transform them to the light of Islam, the means to liberate human kind have been traditional, brutal, and bloody. ISIL uses hard power understanding of Islam to convert infidels into Islam. Instead of using soft power means to attract the attention of nonbelievers to Islam through focusing on justice, equality, and honesty, ISIL believes that Islam is a religion of the sword rather than a religion of peace. Consequently, ISIL militants’ perception of security not only lacks a human understanding, but also is against human security. This is because that perception sacrifices human security for the security of religious texts (restoration the rule of Islam). In other words, ISIL attempts to restore the Islamic rule through bloodshed, which is not that appealing to the overwhelming majority of Muslims on the one hand and to nonbelievers on the other.
Finally, the strategy that ISIL follows in its foreign policy towards the world is unsuccessful and self- defeating. ISIL’s aim was to change international politics and replace it with a global Caliphate. On one hand, this strategy required ISIL to have an offensive capability enough to invade the whole world, but in reality, ISIL did not have enough defensive capability to defend its small captured territory. On the other hand, the strategy is irrational and self-defeating, as it aims to destroy the world order and the state system. ISIL has caused such severe international security concerns that it attracted more military intervention to the region.
Hawre Hasan Hama is an expert on Kurdistan security affairs and a university teacher.