What the Islamic State “Caliphate” Means in Reality


Over the past few weeks, the world has gotten its first look at how the Islamic State (IS) Caliphate would function, and it has not been a pretty sight.

The bad news began with the destruction of shrines, mosques, tombs, and other parts of Iraq’s cultural heritage.  Even worse news was to come as the extremists turned to the slaughter of captured Iraqi soldiers and the ethnic cleansing of minority and Shi’a Iraqis.  Last week, IS went further in its descent into Nazi-like behavior with the kidnapping of large numbers of women for sex slavery and the mass murder of religious minorities such as the Yazidis, the practitioners of the pre-Islamic religion of the Kurds.

This ideology, while related to the jihadi-salafism practiced by al-Qaeda (AQ), is far more extreme...

The massacres carried out by IS are an integral expression of the organization’s worldview and not random atrocities.  This ideology, while related to the jihadi-salafism practiced by al-Qaeda (AQ), is far more extreme, leading the Islamic State to claim that it is AQ that has altered the original creed and methodology of Usama bin Ladin.  Among the specific aspects that set it apart from al-Qaeda’s belief system are a requirement of absolute obedience to their so-called “caliph” with no dissention and no organizations that are separate from his control; a demand for constant warfare against anyone who supports the “apostate” regimes; and a focus on wiping out entire cultures and people groups, including Yazidis, Christians, Sabaeans, and all Shi’a.

Each piece of this abhorrent ideology comes with deliberate planning and purpose-built organizations designed to realize the new “caliph’s” vision.  For instance, in order to impose their horrific vision of society on the people of Syria, the Caliphate is forcibly inculcating ordinary Muslims, especially the young, into the Islamic State’s version of Islam.  Recent reporting from Raqqa, Syria, by Vice News, an edgy group of journalists known for their work in dangerous spots around the world, shows the use of indoctrination centers (some in former churches), mobile proselytization vans, and outdoor propaganda gatherings to introduce unwilling citizens of Raqqa to the Islamic State’s ideology and way of life.  There is also video footage of strangely compliant prisoners, all calmly agreeing that they have sinned and deserve their punishment of death or beatings.

To coerce conquered populations into living out IS’s vision, the groups has set up “shari’a police,” or the Hisba.  Based on a medieval institution sometimes known as the “Body to Command Right and Forbid Wrong,” the Hisba enforces compliance with the group’s extremist version of Islamic law.  AQ affiliates like Shabaab have set up similar units that have the authority to arrest anyone caught committing infractions against that group’s stringent legal code.  But captured documents from Mali show that there has been pushback within the AQ network against imposing their version of shari’a too quickly.  The Islamic State has specifically criticized not implementing all the “limits of God” (the hudud) immediately and their actions in places like Raqqa show that they are committed to imposing their extremist law without delay.

b2ap3_thumbnail_IS-Caliphate-4.jpgTo carry out their warfare and expansion, IS has raised and trained armies that are capable of holding territory, integrating modern technology (like mechanized forces) into their ranks, and fighting a conventional war.  But IS has also created an ideologically motivated force, similar to the Nazi SS troops, to act as their shock forces in this fight.  The units, known as the “Inghimasiyun,” or “those who plunge [into battle],” recall a concept of warfare from the early days of Islam, when the most ardent of the believers would rush into the enemies’ ranks without taking care for their own lives.  In a similar fashion, accounts from Iraq and Syria suggest that the Inghimasiyun often carry out suicide bombings either as part of the planned assault or as a way to avoid capture.  They are also used, like Nazi SS troops, against the enemy’s center of gravity and the most difficult points of opposition in an offensive.

Even more disturbing than the Inghimasiyun are the so-called “Dhabiha” (or “Slaughterers”), which constitute what would be the Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads) of IS.  The purpose of these units, as with the Nazi “task forces,” is to carry out the massacre of enemies of the state in an organized fashion.  Unlike the Nazi units, however, the Dhabiha take care to film themselves carrying out their atrocities and post photos and videos to social media in order to terrify others into obedience.  The recent beheading of 700 tribal members involved in an attempted uprising in Dayr al-Zawr, Syria against IS fits the modus operandi of the Dhabiha, as does the posting online soon afterward of videos of the carnage.

Taken together, the proselytizing organizations, Hisba, Inghimasiyun, and Dhabiha show that the Caliphate of IS is following in the footsteps of the worst totalitarian states of the last century.

Taken together, the proselytizing organizations, Hisba, Inghimasiyun, and Dhabiha show that the Caliphate of IS is following in the footsteps of the worst totalitarian states of the last century.  This new totalizing regime also wants to take territory without end and then control—through propaganda, intimidation, and outright terror—the public behavior of populations in the areas that they have conquered.  If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that ignoring genocidal regimes or pretending that their evil will not, eventually, reach us, is foolhardy.  In the case of IS, this is especially valid, since the leader for the state has already made a direct threat against the U.S.  The actions taken by the Obama administration are good first steps, and ones that have prevented further slaughter.  In my next post I’ll show, however, that they will not defeat this determined and bloody group.  And until we take the action necessary not just to damage IS, but to terminate its existence as an organization, their threat to us and to the world will not be ended.

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