Analysing the Rise of the 'Islamic State'


Analysing the Rise of the 'Islamic State'

06 Nov 2014

The exploitation of religion as a tool for motivation and indoctrination is the focus of a new report examining the emergence of ISIS from the Soufan Group. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics draws out some of the report's key findings on ISIS' ideological evolution.

The Islamic State, a new report from Richard Barrett, Senior Vice President of The Soufan Group, looks in depth at the social, political, and religious tension that led to the group's emergence. 

The report identifies a number of key factors aiding ISIS' survival including their perceived religious legitimacy, the group's manipulation of regional sectarian faultlines and adoption of a 'Clash of Civilisations' narrative, as well the failure of any substantive ideological counter narratives to penetrate their ideological bubble.

The report identifies several important factors aiding ISIS' survival.

Barrett argues that supporters are generally insufficiently knowledgeable about their religion to challenge the distortions of Islam preached by the ideologues of ISIS, accepting at face value the literalist justifications used for its brutal actions. Rather, individual motivation for joining has more to do with identity, belonging and excitement, than it does with religious understanding.

The report also notes the power of the imagery employed in Baghdadi's declaration of a Caliphate in June 2014 by linking to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics article 'Most Muslims don't care about the Isis Caliphate', featured in The Telegraph

Highlights from the report are featured below:

Religious Legitimacy

Even a self-declared Caliphate must project a strong ideological-religious appeal, and ISIS taps into the widespread belief of Salafis that the Muslim world can and should return to the simplicity and unity that they believe existed in the earliest days of Islam.

ISIS claims religious legitimacy for its actions based on an extreme salafi/takfiri interpretation of Islam that essentially means that anyone who opposes its rule is by definition either an apostate (murtad) or an infidel (kafir). To back up its claims of legitimacy, ISIS has sought endorsement from religious scholars elsewhere and is reported to have recruited a Saudi national, Bandar bin Sha'alan, to enlist respected preachers on its behalf.

ISIS draws on a narrative common to global terrorism - that the governments in the Muslim countries of the Middle East are corrupt, irreligious, and heavily influenced by the United States and other Western powers - as well as exacerbating the sectarian fault line within Islam between Shia and Sunni traditions. This divide is a major determinant of Middle East politics and despite the menace of ISIS to the stability of the whole region, states on either side of the sectarian divide continue to see it as a lesser danger than the regional dominance of their rivals.

The international coalition led by the United States against ISIS, provides evidence for many Muslims around the world that there is a Western-led onslaught on their religion and independence. ISIS uses attacks by the US and other Western powers to reinforce their recruiting narrative that non-Muslim majority states are ganging up to protect corrupt regimes in the Muslim world and that their own fight is in defense of Islam.

Caliphate Declaration

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's 'Caliphate' declaration was intended as a rallying call to all observant Muslims - particularly those who shared the salafi/takfiri views expressed by ISIS - in order to draw away support from like-minded groups in Syria that might compete for recruits and resources.

Baghdadi claimed to have reluctantly accepted the title 'Caliph' from Islamic scholars.

By his self-appointment as Caliph, he has claimed leadership not just of ISIS, but also of all Muslims. His position has been disputed by the vast majority outside ISIS including fellow salafi/takfiris. Abu Bakr Baghdadi claimed that he had reluctantly accepted the title at the behest of the community of Islamic scholars, although they remain unidentified and silent.

Although Abu Bakr has failed to achieve a significant number of pledges of allegiance to the Caliphate, even from salafi/takfiri groups, that does not mean that they all oppose him. His dramatic appearance in Mosul on 4 July, heavy with symbolism that will have impressed some Muslims who watched his performance, has at the very least attracted worldwide interest and admiration among extremists.

The removal of the geographic limitations in the name of his group reinforced his challenge to al-Qaeda as the leader of global jihadi movement and gave further reasons for foreign fighters to join him. The mixture of apparent religious legitimacy and military success has proved an inspiration that has drawn recruits and funds from at least 81 countries.

There is great religious significance for salafi/takfiris in declaring an Islamic State, whether geographically limited or not. From a religious point of view ISIS should have as an early objective the conquest of the Hejaz as the location of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina, but it has not given this as its aim. The challenge to the religious authority of the king of Saudi Arabia is clear enough, but in purely political terms, Baghdadi's group still reflects its origins as an Iraqi movement with Iraqi objectives though now with an increasing stake in Syria.


Aside from a lust for power, the driving ideological force behind ISIS comes from two very different directions, an "unholy alliance" of Baathism and salafism/takfirism.

The now dominant strand is the fundamentalist canon of Islamic opinion that stretches from the 14th Century scholar Ibn Taymiyya through Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al Wahhab, who died in 1792, to modern day salafi ideologues. Essentially, their interpretation of Islam demands the harsh and absolute rejection of any innovation (Bid'ah) since the times of the Prophet.

They argue that any diversion from puritanical precepts that they draw from a literal reading of the Quran and the Hadith is blasphemy, and must be eradicated. It follows therefore that Shi'ism, Sufism or essentially anything - and anyone - that does not conform to their interpretation of Islam, should be destroyed. ISIS therefore claims legitimacy for its violence by arguing that all its actions are in the interest of reviving Islam, returning it to its pure form, uniting all Muslims under truly Islamic rule, and so restoring the dignity and greatness of its people while fulfilling the orders of God.

Salafi/takfirism proved a much better motivator among the masses.

Both the salafi/takfiri approach and the theory of Baathism share a vision of a new beginning through a return to the past. Salafi/takfirism resonated far more strongly and proved a much better motivator among the masses than Baathism ever could, with every political movement needing an ideological glue to succeed. The growth of this salafi/takfiri strain also reflects the hardening of sectarianism as an issue of belief rather than one of group identity, which has resulted in a wider range of Sunnis outside Iraq joining or supporting ISIS. The Shia reaction has been to see ISIS as part of an unholy alliance against them of Sunni and Baathist groups, so compounding the sectarian divide.

Baathism in its original form sought the revival of the Arab race by rescuing it from the corruption of its values and the legacy of colonialism. Although Baathism was a secularist movement and argued for the separation of government from religion, and although Iraq and Syria remained secular states under Baathist government, the development of Islam was seen by Baathist theoreticians as evidence of the greatness of Arab culture and of the intellectual vitality of its people.

This influence is reflected in Abu Bakr's rejection of the colonial boundaries established by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, calculated to appeal to three separate constituencies: local tribes who span the border, Arab nationalists who resent the continued colonial legacy, and those members of Muslims worldwide who believe that they should form one nation based on their shared faith.


The exploitation of religion both as a tool for indoctrination and motivation, and as a means of control, is an essential part of the administrative model of ISIS.

Beyond increasing its territory, ISIS aims to consolidate its rule through proselytising its salafi/takfiri creed (dawa), imposing Sharia-based rule in order to enhance its authority and build its apparent legitimacy, providing education as a form of indoctrination and recruitment, and offering public services and humanitarian assistance in order to win public support.

ISIS has two objectives in the administration of territory it holds: to establish its salafi/takfiri concept of perfect government, and to win more support for its project. Taking every advantage of the widespread disaffection in the Sunni areas of the country with the discriminatory practices of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. ISIS have been ransacking and appropriating the wealth of entire neighborhoods if they are occupied by Shia', Christians, Yazidis, or anyone else that ISIS decides is an enemy. The few non-Muslim 'People of the Book' who continue to live in areas under the control of ISIS are obliged under a Dhimmi Pact to pay jizya, a head tax of approximately $720 per adult male.

A focus on religion is evident in the education system, so far as it exists.

The imposition and enforcement of religious observance in behaviour and appearance is both a symbol and instrument of ISIS power. One of its first objectives in a newly secured area is to establish a Sharia police force, the sole purpose of which is to supervise the Islamic conduct of the region. The focus on religion is also evident in the education system, so far as it exists. Schools teach little more than the main Islamic subjects of aqida (belief), fiqh (jurisprudence), and sira (life of the Prophet). There appears to be no provision for general education or vocational training, with ISIS appearing keener to ensure that the next generation is fully indoctrinated into its salafi/takfiri interpretation of Islam, than it is capable of performing any useful function in society.


ISIS's powerful media operation is designed to attract recruits and contains lengthy exegeses of Islamic texts to justify its actions. Despite the many weaknesses of the literal approach to religious texts adopted by ISIS, including its apocalyptic vision of the imminent end times, its message is stronger, clearer and more consistent than that of its opponents. The little being done to counter the narrative of ISIS does not penetrate the information bubble created by its actual or potential supporters. ISIS devotes a great deal of time and effort to propagating a positive image of itself, reinforced by a strong ideology.

The report may be read in full here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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