An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on June 11, 2014 by jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly shows ISIL militants gathering at an undisclosed location in Iraq's Nineveh province. (AFP Photo) © AFP
The New War: The Islamic State As a Case Study - MPC Journal - An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on June 11, 2014 by jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly shows ISIL militants gathering at an undisclosed location in Iraq's Nineveh province. (AFP Photo) © AFP
An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on June 11, 2014 by jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly shows ISIL militants gathering at an undisclosed location in Iraq’s Nineveh province. (AFP Photo) © AFP

The collapse of the bipolar international order of the Cold War period and the start of the unipolar international order under the United States has transformed the nature of military conflict around the world. After this transition, the majority of wars around the globe became civil conflicts confined within states rather than wars fought between nations. For example, in the period between 1991 and 2001, the world witnessed 57-armed conflicts. Of these 57, only three of them were between nation states with the rest being civil conflicts[1]. This phenomenon was a primary motivation for theorists of war and conflict to search for new theories to explain this new global reality. There was a demand for these new theories as the majority of Cold War era theories assumed that conflicts would only occur between two or more states. Following the collapse of the Cold War international order, theorists answered the call for new theories of war and conflict with new publications, ideas and approaches. The most important theoretical framework that discussed the new nature of conflict in the post-Cold War era came from Mary Kaldor.   

Therefore, this paper will analyse the theory of ‘new wars’ as observed and prepared by Mary Kaldor and then will use the approach as a tool to understand the Islamic State’s military conflict in Iraqi and Syria. The primary research questions of this paper are: Can the Islamic State’s conflict be described as a ‘new war’? And, can the Islamic State’s violent actions be described as actions of war or should they be categorised as crimes? The paper will assess whether Kaldor’s theory helps to explain the nature of the Islamic State’s conflict and will analyse the extent to which the violent military actions of the Islamic State are actions of war or criminal actions.

The paper is divided into two sections: The first explores Mary Kaldor’s theory of ‘new wars’ and the second discusses the violent actions of the Islamic State through the scope of Kaldor’s theoretical framework.

Mary Kaldor’s Theory of New Wars 

Mary Kaldor, a professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, believes that there are four fundamental differences between ‘old’ and ‘new’ wars. These differences are: (1) the primary actors involved; (2) the aims pursued; (3) the methods used, and (4) the means of financing.

1) Actors involved: Kaldor explains that in ‘old wars’ the primary actors (those who started and fought conflicts) were the official military forces of the states involved in the dispute.  The actors involved in ‘new wars’ are often a mix of state actors, non-state actors, private security companies, jihadists, tribal leaders, and militias. Hence, in ‘new wars’ states share the battlefield with multiple other non-state actors. These actors often cause difficulty for their host states as they present an internal challenge to their host governments and often become a rival to it [2].

2) Aims perused:  While ‘old wars’ broke out as a result of geopolitical or ideological interests (democracy/ socialism), ‘new wars’ are more likely to erupt in the name of identity. Kaldor names this wartime phenomenon ‘identity politics’. Moreover, Kaldor argues that groups within ‘new wars’ use ‘identity politics’ to create political conflict. In essence, she argues that groups use identity politics in ‘new wars’ to gather individuals and groups around themselves.  This method is particularly successful in those states, which have ‘crisis legitimacy’ in their governing structures [3].

3) Methods used: According to Kaldor, in ‘old wars’ the primary enemy was the opposing state’s military. So, if state A initiates a war with state B, the army of state A would target that of State B. Moreover, the method of war would have been to capture territory militarily.  In contrast, Kaldor explains that in ‘new wars’ state militaries are not the primary enemy and, therefore, not targeted as such. Rather, she argues, that in ‘new wars’ civilians are the targets of war and territory is no longer fought over as they are captured through political means and through control of the territories respected populations. A typical technique used to control territory in ‘new wars’ is population displacement or the forcible migration of those with different identities or opinions.

4) Means of finance: Kaldor explains that in ‘old wars’, states were the primary actors and, as a result, states started wars. In weak countries, tax revenue is limited, so new forms of financing have come to the fore including kidnapping, or the smuggling of oil and drugs.  Kaldor also argues that economic gain is a motivating factor in ‘new wars’, but that it is difficult to differentiate between those who use the cover of political violence for financial reasons and those who engage in predatory economic activities to finance their political cause[4].

In the end, it is important to note that Kaldor’s ‘new wars’ refers to wars fought within states and that states hosting such conflicts risk dismantlement. Moreover, Kaldor explains that the primary difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ wars is that former were fought until one side could overcome the other, whereas the latter spread, erupt and protract with each side achieving its economic and political objectives through violence and not through the overcoming of the opposing military force. Moreover, ‘old wars’ were aimed to establish states but ‘new wars’ are fought to dismantle them.

In an interview with Alan Johnson Kaldor, he explains that there are two more specific characteristics of ‘new wars’, which are; first, ‘new wars’ can quickly spread beyond the borders of the state hosting the conflict to neighbouring and regional ones.  Second, that ‘new wars’ are international. Kaldor believes that these two characteristics make controlling or resolving ‘new wars’ extremely difficult.  The second part of this paper will utilise Mary Kaldor’s theoretical framework to understand the nature and means of the Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria [5].

Islamic State As a Case Study for Kaldor’s ‘New War’

This part of the paper utilizes Mary Kaldor’s theoretical framework to understand the nature and means of the Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria. The aim of this section is to identify the extent to which the Islamic State’s conflict can be classified as a ‘new war’.

As mentioned above, Kaldor believes that ‘new wars’ occur in states, which have issues of legitimacy. Kaldor’s belief holds true for the Islamic State as the group established in Syria in 2013 against the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad. By 2013, the Syrian regime had lost its legitimacy to govern and was utilising authoritarian methods to remain in power for an extended period. In 2014, following their establishment in Syria, the Islamic State exported their conflict to neighbouring Iraq. Iraq is also considered to be a state with problems of legitimacy. Observers also widely recognised both Syria and Iraq as failed states. Hence, the establishment and spread of the Islamic State occurred under the conditions described by Mary Kaldor.

What is more, one interpretation of the Islamic State’s conflict against the Syrian and Iraqi states is that the war is rooted in identity politics as both Iraq and Syria are governed by members of the Shi’a Islamic sect, whereas the Islamic State ascribes to the Sunni sect of Islam. An analysis of the emergence of the Islamic State that is in line with Kaldor’s theory is that the Iraqi Sunni community has, since 2003, found itself on the periphery of the country’s political process, while Iraq’s Shi’a community has found itself at the top of power pyramid in the country. Moreover, over this period the Shi’a politicians of Iraq governed the country without regard for the interests of the Sunni community. What is clear is that a guarantee of minorities’ needs requires democratic systems that can protect diversity and not one that strengthens societal divisions. Hence, it is only the favourable administration of difference in populations that can work to prevent sectarian conflict, but for Iraq, the opposite has been the case. For example, in the Iraqi elections in 2010, the party of Ayad Allawi was able to beat Nuri Al-Maliki’s party by two parliamentary seats. But as expressed by Ayad Allawi himself “Tehran was interfering in the election process in Iraq, where his Iraqiya blocwon 91 seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives, two more than Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance” [6]. Therefore, there seems to be a clear link between the alienation of the Iraqi Sunni community from the Iraqi political process and the establishment of the Islamic State. Moreover, in the pre-Islamic State period, both discontent and power vacuum were apparent in the Sunni provinces of Iraq, and as a result, the Islamic State was able to deploy in Iraq in a manner that filled this vacuum.

These events also reveal that the actors involved in the Islamic State’s military campaign in Iraq were not only state actors. Instead, the conflict was made up of a web of actors including state actors, quasi states, armed militia groups and violent jihadist groups. State actors are Syrian Regime (The Syrian army and its allied militias primarily fighting the Sunni-majority opposition), Iraqi State (Iraqi armed forces fighting ISIS), Iran (defending Assad regime), Turkey (fighting Kurdish forces in Syria and Turkey), Gulf countries, the United States and Russia. However, none-state actors consisted of free Syrian Army, Nationalist Jihadis in Syria, Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra), Kurdish People’s Protection Units, Popular Mobilization Frontsfighting in Iraq, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) fighting ISIS in Iraq.

While it is clear that the Jihadist group was the Islamic State, what may not be clear is that the Iraqi state represents the Shia groups in Iraq and not the whole of the Iraqi citizenry.  A single united Iraqi force did not (and does not) exist in Iraq that can confront a group like the Islamic State and protect Iraqis. The Iraqi military force is made up of some Shia groups that are only interested in preserving the Shia body in Iraq. Furthermore, the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the Kurdish forces in Syria, the Sunni forces, and the Kurdistan Regional Government, who were all engaged in the conflict, do not have international sovereignty, meaning they do not fall into the category of a state actor. These groups only have internal autonomy. Hence, these groups are just internal actors within states. Therefore, because the actors involved in this conflict are a mix of actor types, the war is not one of one state against another [7].

Regarding the aims of the Islamic State, the group has crafted an image that portrays their war as a defence of Islam and has formally established that their overall objective is to create an Islamic Caliphate. This single objective has resulted in many other jihadist groups joining the Islamic State and pledging allegiance to its leader Abu Bakir Al-Baghdadi and also has worked to attract solidarity from extremist Muslims across the globe. For example, the Islamic State has been able to use its position to motivate ‘lone wolf’ jihadists in Europe to carry out terrorist acts in European states, such as those took place in France and Belgium.  These actions and events reveal that the Islamic State has utilised an Islamic Salafi Jihadist identity to gather other Jihadist individuals and groups across the globe under its Islamic umbrella. Moreover, those who are fighting against the Islamic State also present their aims in the frame of identity.  For example, all Kurdish groups in the region fight in the name of the Kurdish identity and all the Shia groups from Iraq and Iran fight against the Islamic State under the same Shia identity, believing that the Islamic State is a direct threat to Shi’a Islam.

These issues of identity raise the question of whether Identity should be considered an objective of war or a tool of war when it comes to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. In truth, identity politics has played a significant role in bringing together peoples and having them take part in armed conflict. Hence, one can argue that the role played by identity politics is that it gathers people together and motivates them to go to war under the given identity. However, the same is not true when it comes to political elites. Political elites often use identity as a tool to achieve political and economic objectives [8]. For example, the political elite of the Islamic State mainly consists of former Iraq Ba’ath party members. These individuals present their war as being driven by deep-rooted issues of identity in that they want to bring about an Islamic State in the region to do away with the rule of the ‘unbelievers’. However, at the core of their religious campaign, issues of identity have been utilised as a tool to enlist members in order to achieve their political objective of ridding Iraq of its Shi’a government. What is more important in this regard is to understand that the conditions that made the formation of the Islamic State possible were the side-lining of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni community from power and as a consequence impacting their collective identity negatively. Hence, the Islamic State follows the pattern that Kaldor put forward in the sense that the aim of non-state actors in ‘new wars’ is the defeat of governments that exercise power over them. Furthermore, the Islamic State uses Islamic symbolism to mobilise public opinion and attract new members to the group. For example, the decision to take the name Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as Caliph is a throwback to Abu Bakr Al-Sadiq, the first Muslim Caliph and best friend of the prophet Mohammad. This name choosing is one of many other symbols.

In the same manner, the other elites in Syria and Iraq who were leading the battle against the Islamic State used the war to protect and further their political and economic interests. For instance, Bashar Al-Assad presented the threat against his regime as a threat to the Shi’a Allawi identity and other minority groups in Syria. Another example is Iran’s foreign policy, which some argue was motivated by Iranian religious solidarity with other regional Shia groups. In reality, the Iranian strategy of protecting and assisting the Assad regime was not driven by issues of identity but issues to do with Iranian regional power. Iran’s primary reason for defending the Assad regime was to shield Iran from its Sunni enemies and to allow Iran easy access to Hezbollah in Lebanon [9].

Regarding the methods of war, the Islamic State uses some of the most violent methods in modern warfare. They use them for the most part against innocent civilian populations. The reason behind the Islamic State’s methodology unequivocally corresponds to Kaldor’s theory in the sense that the Islamic State’s forces cannot control territory that it has captured. Violence against civilians gives the Islamic State space to establish its military and administrative control over those territories.  The Islamic State’s violent methods include beheadings, killings, sexual assault, and mass killings of Yezidi’s among other violent methods, of which, all were used for achieving political aims. For example, their genocide against Iraq’s Yezidi population was primarily motivated by the fact that they held a different identity to that of the Islamic State, and therefore, the Islamic State was uncertain of the intentions of the Yezidis. In short, the Islamic State feared that the Yezidi community would make political problems for them. Moreover, Kaldor’s theory makes clear that the aim of all of the atrocities that the Islamic State had committed against the Yezidi population was to establish a state based on its own identity and as a result, the Islamic State could not tolerate diversity in their new region in Iraq and Syria [10].

Another characteristic that Kaldor associates with ‘new wars’ is that they target civilians. This characteristic holds true for the Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria as the civilian death toll from direct Islamic State actions was far higher than the military casualties they inflicted on an opposing army. The UN monitors recorded at least 55,047 civilian casualties as a result of the conflict between 01 January 2014 and 31 October 2015, with 18,802 people killed and 36,245 wounded [11].

There is a wealth of evidence that demonstrates that this same characteristic has been prevalent in most conflicts since 1991 on the part of the forces that were involved. For example in Ruwanda in 1994, almost a million people were killed as a result of armed conflict [12]with 250.000-500.000 women also falling victim to sexual assault [13]. Furthermore, while most of the Islamic State’s fighters are referred to as Jihadists, it must also be understood that a large number of its militants are involved in the conflict for material gain, and a further number are forced into fighting (e.g. child soldiers). This characteristic of armed forces is again similar to those forces that have arisen since 1991. For example, as John Millar explains, the decision makers in Yugoslavia relied on criminals, mafias, and prisoners to assist its weak armed forces. Motivated by material gain, it was these groups of individuals who carried out much of the massacres in that region [14]. BBC News has highlighted another example of South Sudan, which has enlisted almost 9000 child soldiers into its military [15].

Concerning the financing of their cause, the Islamic State once again conforms to Kaldor’s theory.  The Islamic State raises funds through the sale of oil, sex trafficking of Yezidi females, sale of human organs, and sale of grain (among other resources). According to the ‘Iraqi Oil Magazine,’ the Islamic State was able to raise daily funds of a million US dollars through the sale of oil alone.  Also, the Islamic State was known for looting those territories that fell under its control. For example, when the group invaded Mosul, they were able to steal 500 billion Iraqi Dinars from the central bank of Mosul [16].

It is clear then that the Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria contains all of the characteristics of ‘new wars’ as put forward by Kaldor. Therefore, the Islamic State’s conflict in these countries is an example of a ‘new war’.

At this stage, a reasonable observer would argue that the violence carried out by groups in ‘new wars’ appear to be crimes and not acts of war. In this regard, Kaldor contends that the actions of these groups are a mix of war acts and war crimes, in that the definition of a war crime is the utilisation of organised violence to achieve a particular aim, whereas, the meaning of an act of war is the utilisation of organised violence for political ends. So, where a violent act assists in reaching a particular aim that act is no longer considered one of war.  The same observation is evident in the famous definition of war by Clausewitz, who defined war as consisting of the use of military tools to achieve political objectives [17]. So, the violent actions of the Islamic State can be considered acts of war as they seek political objectives, but at the same time, they can also be regarded as crimes as the actions also have specific aims.

Another issue put forward by Kaldor regarding  ‘new wars’ and that is, they are difficult to control as they often have an international dimension and spill over into multiple states. In line with this issue, the Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria is fought by proxies of different Middle Eastern states and, as a result, has split those states into two distinct camps; a Sunni camp ( Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar etc.) and a Shi’a Camp (Iran). Hence, the war is an extension of the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Islamic State’s war has also taken on an international dimension as it is being fought in the Middle East, which holds 60% of global oil supplies [18]. Furthermore, western states have always had a particular interest in the region or as it has been said that, “whoever controls the Middle East can control the world”. Therefore, western states will not be satisfied with observing the regional conflict from afar. They would want a deciding role in it. It is important to also remember that western states, in particular the United States, are engaged in the conflict as they have deep-seated interests in the region. These interests go further than their interests in Middle Eastern oil. For instance, the OPEC states are potent customers in the western arms trade and that the decision of these states to keep the United States Dollar as their reserve currency keeps that currency competitive in the face of its international rivals.

These factors aside, western states have another motive to enter the conflict, as they need to counter Iran’s increasing hegemony in the Middle East and its interference in the affairs of other regional states such as Iraq. The primary motivation of the United States decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was the fact that that country holds the second largest oil reserves in the world. It is this same reason that the United States is dissatisfied with Iran’s interference in Iraq. US policymakers often refer to this interference as Iran’s take over of Iraq, a point that only serves to reveal that the US has failed in its objectives in the 2003 Iraq Invasion [19]. Moreover, it also shows the truth that the US military hegemony in the Middle East is in crisis when military size is compared with its effectiveness. Therefore, while the Islamic State’s war is localised to Syria and Iraq, it also has broader regional and international dimensions.


Since the end of the Cold War, the nature of warfare has changed from international conflict to internal conflicts. This change has resulted in new theories to deal with armed conflicts. Previous theories engaged in traditional discussion around armed conflicts and warfare, which only took into consideration interstate warfare have become insufficient in the academic field. The theory of ‘new wars’ as proposed by Mary Kaldor remains significant in explaining the post-Cold War conflicts. This research paper has used the theory as a framework for understanding the Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria. Based on this theoretical framework, the Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria conforms to the characteristics of a ‘new war’ and therefore, can be categorised as a ‘new war’. Moreover, the paper concluded that the violent actions committed by the Islamic State were both acts of war and crimes. In all, Kaldor’s theory proves to be a useful framework for understanding the Islamic State’s conflict in Iraq and Syria. However, this war has other characteristics on top of those put forward by Kaldor. It is proxy war of identity between multiple states. Perhaps, this unique international dimension of the conflict owes to the Middle East’s geopolitical status.

  © Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal

Cited Works

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[10]“Almost 10,000 Yazidis ‘killed or kidnapped in Isis genocide but true scale of horror may never be known”, Independent, 2017 available at:.

[11]Alastair Jamieson,. ISIS Death Toll: 18,800 Killed in Iraq in 2 Years, U.N. Says. Jan.19.2016. News.

[12]“Portraits of Reconciliation: 20 years after the genocide in Rwanda, reconciliation still happens one encounter at a time”, The New York Times Magazine, available at:

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By Hawre Hasan Hama

Hawre Hasan Hama is an associate research fellow at Mashreq Politics & and Culture Journal. He obtained his MA in International Studies at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Hawre is currently a lecturer at University of Sulaimani, College of Political Science. He is a Kurdish security expert whose research and publication focus on security studies, security sector reform, media representation, and party politics in the post-conflict context, especially in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He is currently the director of Security Studies program at Kurdistan Conflict and Crisis Research Center and also editor-in-chief of the English section of Kurdistan Conflict and Crisis Research Center.