The Caliphate: the persistence of a brutal ideology

  • Themes: Jihadism

Radical Islamism remains a potent threat. Despite the military defeat of ISIS, the idea of the Caliphate, with its programme of terror and violence, endures.

Undated propaganda video released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant showing a group of foreign ISIS fighters holding up their passports as they pledge allegiance to the caliphate in Anbar Province, Iraq.
Undated propaganda video released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant showing a group of foreign ISIS fighters holding up their passports as they pledge allegiance to the caliphate in Anbar Province, Iraq. Credit: Handout / Alamy Stock Photo

It has been a decade since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released one of its most brazen pieces of propaganda. For a group known to produce filmic scenes of sadistic, macabre theatre this was something entirely different. It was the first Friday of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, prayer, and penance. As is common in Ramadan, the mosque was busier than usual, with people pouring in to hear the sermon before congregational prayers. A man dressed in simple black robes arrived unannounced and ascended the pulpit, carefully leading with his right foot on each step before finally turning to address the room.

‘Your brothers, the mujahideen, were blessed with victory by Allah,’ he said. ‘After long years of jihad, patience, and fighting the enemies of Allah, he guided them and strengthened them to achieve this goal. Therefore, they rushed to establish the Caliphate.’ Speaking in classical Arabic, this sermon was delivered by the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Mosul’s historic 12th-century al-Nuri mosque in July 2014. His spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, had echoed similar sentiments in an official ISIS communiqué issued a few days earlier. ‘Today the flag of tawhid [monotheism] rises with its people. Today the Muslims are honoured,’ he declared. ‘Now the khilafa [Caliphate] has returned, humbling the necks of the enemy. Now the khilafa has returned in spite of its opponents. Now the khilafa has returned.’

Tens of thousands from across the world mobilised in response to Baghdadi’s claims to the Caliphate, although many hundreds of thousands – if not millions – more have mobilised around the idea of a Caliphate in one form or another, over the last century. Its revival has dominated the thinking of Islamists since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, with no group having had any greater claim to the restoration than ISIS. Indeed, these were the themes their propaganda aligned itself with. Scores of videos depicted images of Muslims creating new history, in a new society, built in opposition to the prevailing nomenclature of modernity and all its associated frivolities. The Caliphate would represent a new paradigm within the international system, rejecting Westphalian notions of the nation state and civic identity. Instead, it would establish a fraternity of the faithful, in which the only distinction between citizens was based on their piety.

The fervour this romantic vision inspired in its emigres is captured in the story of Abu Rumaysah (born Siddhartha Dhar), a convert to Islam who established himself as a prominent member of London’s radical Islamist scene before departing for Syria. Along with some of his associates, Abu Rumaysah had attracted police attention by the autumn of 2014 and was ordered to surrender his passport to authorities before fleeing the country. Taking a coach from London’s Victoria Station, he headed for Paris with his heavily pregnant wife and their four children before flying to Turkey and then crossing the border into Syria. Within days of doing so, his fifth child was born.

‘Alhamdulillah [thank God], Allah blessed me with a healthy baby boy in the Islamic State’, he wrote on Twitter in November 2014. ‘And he’s definitely not British.’ The following day, Abu Rumaysah posted a picture of himself posing in front of a flatbed truck with his newborn in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. The picture accompanied a hashtag: ‘#GenerationKhilafah’.

Efforts aimed at reviving a Caliphate accelerated in the years after 9/11, with different groups enjoying uneven fortunes during that time. The ISIS Caliphate expanded wildly and then collapsed after local forces backed by the West reclaimed territory in Syria and Iraq. Elsewhere in Syria, an al-Qaeda offshoot known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (‘Levant Liberation Committee’) continues to control the north-western territories of Idlib province with an administration known as the Salvation Government. In Somalia, another jihadist group called al-Shabaab exerts considerable control in the south, governs the Middle Juba region, and can even boast influence into parts of neighbouring Kenya. More broadly, an alphabet soup of different groups hold territory – with varying degrees of control – in Mali and Burkina Faso, across Mozambique, and around the Lake Chad basin.

Most dramatically, the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American forces after two decades of war. ‘We would like to congratulate the mujahid nation of Afghanistan’, read a communiqué from the Taliban celebrating the second anniversary of the group’s return to power in August 2023. ‘The entire territory of the country is managed under a single leadership, [an] Islamic system is in place, and everything is explained from the angle of shariah.’

Although all of these very different movements aspire to an Islamic polity of some kind, their idea of how such an entity should be governed differs wildly. Yes, ISIS did more than most to both popularise and skew the idea of a Caliphate in recent times, but it is also a relatively new movement within the broader spectrum of political Islam, and somewhat of an outlier even among this heterodox cohort. Almost all of them see the dramatic rise and fall of Baghdadi’s Islamic State as a distraction, a noisy aberration that drew focus from its own aspirations. Indeed, groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban have publicly condemned ISIS for using what they regarded as esoteric Islamic precepts over more mainstream ones.

Yet, despite its ideological splintering and fluvial fortunes, the appeal of political Islam remains a highly seductive force for many who long for the restoration of God’s vice-regent on earth. Buoyed by a variety of factors, including doctrinal belief, social, cultural and moral panic, and political realism, the picture of #GenerationKhilafah is now a complicated one: defiant, stubborn, constantly metastasising, sometimes pragmatic, sometimes doctrinaire.

Many of Islamism’s most devout adherents believe that God has obligated the creation of a caliphate in which all forms of governance, economics, social order, and the judiciary are informed by scriptural diktat. To support this view, they point to verse 12:40 of the Quran, which states ‘the rule is for none but Allah’. They interpret the ‘rule being for Allah’ as an invocation to establish a society in which Islamic precepts and God’s rights are secured through the political system. All other political systems are an affront to God’s sovereignty and usurp his status as a lawgiver, thereby exposing those who participate in such political systems to heresy.

These doctrinaire theorists argue that the absence of a caliph and, by extension, of a Caliphate that establishes God’s sovereignty negates one of the attributes of his monotheistic qualities known as tawhid al-hakimiyya (unity of governance). This is a neologism found in more contemporary texts from scholars associated with groups as diverse as the Saudi sahwa (awakening) movement and al-Qaeda and ISIS. It centres on the concept of tawhid, which is arguably the core message of Islam and certainly its more important lesson, relating to the monotheism of Allah. This is because Islam’s self-proclaimed raison d’être – the story believers tell themselves about why the religion exists – is that it came to challenge the prevailing culture of polytheism in the Arabian Peninsula, and Makkah in particular, after the Arabs had fallen into paganism, thereby losing the original message of Abraham.

Muslims therefore obsess with trying to satisfy the various conditions of God’s unity which, in normative scripture, includes things like unity of lordship (tawhid al-rububiyyah), recognising God as the supreme being; the unity of divinity (tawhid al-uluhiyyah), worshipping God devotionally; and the unity of God’s names, qualities, and attributes (tawhid al-asma wa-l-sifat), recognising his unique attributes such omnipotence or being self-sustaining and eternal. It is the second of those concepts, tawhid al-uluhiyyah, which political Islamists argue is linked to the idea of tawhid al-hakimiyya. The unspoken corollary is clear: without some form of Islamic governance, God cannot be worshipped in all his myriad forms, Muslims are deficient in satisfying the conditions of tawhid, and thus the monotheism of Allah remains unfulfilled.

It underscores the near-obsessive focus that groups such as ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Shabaab, among others, have placed on trying to realise an Islamic state. Yet, even among these militant groups, conceptions on how to satisfy the conditions of tawhid al-uluhiyyah differ dramatically. The Taliban’s return to power has been marked by military adaptation and ideological pragmatism. Examining various revisions of the group’s code of conduct handbook, known as the lahya, reveals that they previously only conceived of social issues in broad, overarching abstractions. Thus, earlier iterations of the lahya were tightly focused on jihad as the sole means of realising an Islamic state and achieving Islamic governance. Their guidelines, too, were almost exclusively focused on military matters, advising fighters to avoid smoking, stealing, and extortion. Later versions, by contrast, began issuing tentative outlines for regulating education, the operation of NGOs, and private companies.

Al-Shabaab, a Somali insurgency linked to al-Qaeda, similarly launched its own social initiatives based on the Quranic injunction to ‘command good and forbid evil’ from 2008 onwards. Unencumbered by the privations of war, the group wanted to portray itself as a transparent authority by establishing a mazalim court system – a judicial tool historically used by ordinary people to hold those in power accountable for acting ultra vires. By mid-2012 the group claimed to have heard dozens of cases brought against itself.

The most developed case of a functioning state based on these conceptions of tawhid, however, came with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The group not only created a series of ministries managing everything from health to education, to social order, but also attempted to base their economy on the gold standard. This fed into the group’s overarching aims of rejecting everything to do with the established order, both domestic and international. Fiat money is meaningless, unbacked by any commodity, and represents an artificial construct subject to whimsical boom-bust cycles. That much became clear not just by ISIS’s introduction of coins, but also by the maxim they chose to emblazon them with: ‘upon the Prophetic method’.

The approach of these groups did not emerge from a vacuum. Its antecedents lie in the mid-20th century when Muslim thinkers primarily concerned with anti-colonial struggles first began reflecting moral panics through their writings. A prominent example of this is found in the trajectory and writings of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most famous son, Sayyid Qutb, who studied at the Colorado College of Education from 1949-50.

Over a two-year period, Qutb grew increasingly disillusioned with what he regarded as the decadence of American culture, which, despite its ostensible progress, seemed to be devoid of any morality. ‘I fear that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of its people,’ he wrote. Qutb was repulsed by witnessing a church dance in Greeley, Colorado, where men and women danced together late into the evening. ‘They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests,’ he recalled. ‘The atmosphere was full of desire.’

The experience left an indelible mark on Qutb, who expressed his concern through a series of letters, which were later published in a pamphlet called The America I Have Seen. The danger was that this culture could be grafted onto the Muslim world, with imams soon hosting dances in their mosques, preoccupying themselves with the frivolities of the ambience, mood music, and lighting. Qutb had been primarily writing as a cultural and literary critic up to this point – often drawing criticism for being too deferential to Western culture – now began writing more as a Muslim concerned with social and moral reform.

These concerns over cultural erosion were not limited to Egypt, and first originated in the anti-colonial campaigns of British India. One of the most prominent public intellectuals involved with the creation of Pakistan, Syed Abul A’la Maududi (1903-79), began spreading fears of the West’s secular culture, which he associated with decadence and decay. ‘Society and particularly its politically active elements [in the West] have ceased to attach much, or any, importance to morality and ethics,’ he wrote.

What Maududi shared in common with Qutb was that he was not a classically trained religious scholar, but was instead a journalist, allowing both men to convey complex ideas to wider audiences than imams might otherwise have done. Indeed, Maududi’s writings were so influential that one of his associates, Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, translated most of them into Arabic, which is how Qutb encountered the intellectual trends dominating Muslim thought in late colonial India. He even wrote the foreword to an Arabic edition of one of Nadwi’s books, around the time he began recasting himself as a Muslim thinker, rather than literary critic.

For political movements buoyed by these kinds of views it seemed as if their moment had arrived in 2011, after millions took to the streets in North Africa and swept away seemingly immovable regimes. After decades of repression and delegitimisation, constitutional Islamist groups, such as Ennahda in Tunisia and local chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood in both Libya and Egypt, sought to capitalise on the newfound realities of the Arab uprisings. Indeed, Ennahda rose to ascendancy in Tunisia whilst the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood dramatically seized the levers of power in Egypt.

Yet, while the optimism of the 2011 uprisings reverberated across the world – so, too, did the brutal response from vested power structures. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, which came second in the 2012 parliamentary elections, had their ambitions continually frustrated by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who claimed he was tempering their demands against those of secular parties and regionalist groups. By January 2014 the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood had resigned all their cabinet seats in protest after failing to pass a motion of no confidence against him.

The previous summer, the electoral success of the Brotherhood’s counterparts in Egypt had also been unpicked by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a military coup. A month later, the country’s security forces massacred more than 1,150 protestors, who had occupied Rabaa Square in Cairo for weeks to signal their discontent at the Brotherhood’s ouster.

It was a watershed moment for those who came-of-age amid this reconfiguring of the region’s power structures in often splenetic bursts of violence. Consider the case of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a 24-year-old food production executive from Bangalore, India. Known as ‘Shami Witness’ on Twitter, he was a prolific and potent social media user, having established one of the most influential English-language accounts supporting ISIS. Yet, this was not always the case. He had previously been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but became increasingly disillusioned by the unfolding realities in Egypt. ‘Biggest “radicaliser” of last two years was the 2013 Egypt coup’, he tweeted in November 2014, a month before Indian authorities discovered his identity and arrested him. ‘The enemy does not understand it. But when they do, it will be too late for them.’

His trajectory perfectly captures the jihadist worldview. Yes, they argued in 2011, there might be a time for peaceful political activism – but there must also be an option of violence when such methods fail. By the start of 2014, that moment had arrived. Democracy appeared to be a chimera, with the Muslim Brotherhood finding itself frozen out of politics, despite having worked within the political system. Meanwhile, in Syria, the open sore of the 2011 uprisings, ISIS was bold, empowered, seizing ever more territory, and readying itself to declare a Caliphate. It seemed to underscore the idea that for political Islam to be successful, it needed to be militarised too.

This was not an entirely novel idea. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as leader of al-Qaeda, had previously written a long book condemning the Muslim Brotherhood’s pursuit of electoral politics over armed insurrection. Branding the efforts a ‘bitter harvest’, he argued that only a jihadist vanguard would secure Muslim interests – not just by striving for a Caliphate, but also by violently confronting those who sought to thwart it.

Surveying the landscape of Islamist fortunes today from Afghanistan to Syria, to the Sahel, suggests that those who have favoured the bullet over ballot have been more successful. While the collapse of ISIS can be attributed to their barbarism, which alienated local populations and their constant attacks against Western targets, a more subtle form of jihadist governance has also emerged from the privations of the last two decades. North-western Syria is governed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) through a civil administration known as the Salvation Government, which has, partially, attempted to govern by consent. ‘There is an entire [independent] government here’, the group’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, told PBS News in 2022. The reason this administration has survived for so long is because it consciously tried to learn from the failures of al-Qaeda in Iraq (from which ISIS later emerged). Their emphasis on ruling by an iron-first, brutalising people into accepting their authority, was deemed to be counter-productive. ‘The Iraq experience should not be repeated,’ Jolani said. His idea was to learn from the excesses of previous jihadist campaigns and to build a smarter governing model in order to ensure its durability. Moreover, Jolani has also ensured that HTS territory is not used as a springboard for attacks against Western targets, recognising that such a move would galvanise international military efforts against his nascent statelet.

That has allowed Idlib to become the last redoubt for anti-government factions in Syria, which include the revolution’s original protesters, a raft of civil society groups, competing jihadist factions, and secular militants. This divergent tapestry placed Jolani’s administration under increasing pressure and prompted it to adopt ever more authoritarian tendencies. It has been accused of appointing corrupt judges, installing lackeys in key positions, arresting dissidents, and torturing prisoners. In recent months, the friends and families of detainees have even staged demonstrations against Jolani and organised a sit-in outside the courthouse before it was violently dispersed. For some, it epitomises how the revolution has gone full-circle and begun to devour itself, with the Salvation Government now being accused of mirroring the crimes of Assad himself.

To understand just how fraught the challenge of power can be, consider the various tensions surrounding what is known as the Taliban’s ‘Doha Agreement.’ That is the colloquial term for what is officially the ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,’ the deal brokered by Qatar between Taliban and American officials. Although there has been much joy within jihadist circles at the prospect of bringing U.S. power to heel after more than two decades of fighting, it has also exposed divisions within the Taliban. After all, whose victory is it really?

Negotiations in Doha were led by Abdul Ghani Baradar who can be considered among the more pragmatic elements of the Taliban – to the extent such a thing can exist. He long championed a diplomatic end to the conflict and, along with his team of negotiators, regards their efforts as having secured the diplomatic victory, which paved the way for America’s eventual withdrawal from the country. To appreciate just how far Baradar had gone to build ties with his American counterparts, consider that the CIA’s director, William Burns, flew to Kabul in August 2021 to personally discuss the withdrawal with him.

For the Taliban’s infamous Haqqani network, these negotiations were only made possible because of their efforts. They had done the bulk of the battlefield fighting, sacrificing both blood and treasure in the pursuit of their goals. If anyone had demonstrated the value of a jihadist insurrection, it was them. Indeed, not only had they succeeded in forcing America’s hand, bringing it to the negotiating table and expelling them from the country, but all this had also paved the way for the Taliban’s ultimate return to power.

When it happened, it was as dramatic as it was resounding. Yes, a resurgence and regaining of territorial control had been expected, but not even the most pessimistic of Beltway officials had foreseen just how swift or comprehensive the Taliban’s revival would be. Just consider that in a period of two weeks they went from holding Kunduz, the only major city under their control, to taking almost the entire country. What jihadist governance efforts in Idlib and Afghanistan reveal is that, although such movements are capable of seizing the levers of power, their ability to administer a coherent administration thereafter is not without its challenges.

It may seem like we’ve passed the highwater mark of Islamic political movements, with the most splenetic convulsions of the last two decades behind us. In some respects, it seems like not much has changed. The West has not imploded, constitutional Islamists continue to tussle against the entrenched structures of the state, and jihadists have not disappeared. Indeed, the authoritarians are back and more empowered than ever before across North Africa and the Levant. Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, even died in prison in 2019 following his ouster. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch argues that Sisi, who led the coup against him, is currently presiding over ‘Egypt’s worst human rights crises in many decades’. Elsewhere, regional leaders have turned a Nelsonian eye to the medieval barbarism president Bashar al-Assad visited upon his countrymen for more than a decade. In the last two years he has been received by Emirati officials at the Qasr Al-Watan presidential palace in Abu Dhabi and was also allowed to speak at the 32nd Summit of the Arab League hosted by Saudi Arabia in May 2023.

The international agenda also seems to have moved on. The urgencies of Covid-19 were quickly replaced by those emanating from the war in Ukraine, which now dominates the foreign policy landscape alongside increasing challenges from Beijing, most acutely in cyberspace and the South China Sea. Yet, political Islam has proven to be an amorphous, constantly mutating phenomenon. It has a durable and almost inherent survival instinct along with a dogged will to power.

Its resilience has allowed it to sustain all forms of assault, while the movement continues in one form or another. To do this, it has had to adapt to survive. Islamism is therefore a dynamic, kaleidoscopic ideology, whose durability is borne of its ability to react and respond. Despite all the rigid doctrine espoused by its adherents, Islamism is a highly malleable worldview, finding itself shaped by the anvil of events. What emerges, then, is a picture of a real-time ideology which adapts in one form or another to the environment in which it finds itself.

The fourth leader of the Islamic State group, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi, was killed in April 2024, just five months after assuming the leadership. Shortly afterwards, the Global Coalition against Daesh (the preferred term used by governments for ISIS), circulated an infographic celebrating the news. ‘Daesh leadership is a revolving door,’ read their accompanying post on Twitter. ‘Each leader has met their end faster than the last, a testament to their strategic weakness and the Global Coalition’s conviction to #DefeatDaesh.’

Yet, ISIS is not defeated despite its territorial collapse. It is hurt, degraded, on the defensive, but nonetheless remains capable of launching modest revanchist campaigns across Syria and Iraq. This is hardly new. Consider the statement issued by al-Qaeda after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He had not only led the movement in Iraq, spearheading the fight against Western troops following the 2003 invasion, but is also seen as the intellectual godfather of ISIS who set-in-motion the sequence of events that would ultimately lead to the group’s emergence. ‘Even if they [the American Armed Forces] managed to reach Zarqawi,’ read the group’s announcement of his death. ‘We have a million more Zarqawis because our Ummah is the Ummah of jihad and jihad is at the top of our religious hierarchy.’


Shiraz Maher & Joana Cook