Islamic State: More Extreme Than Al-Qaeda, Says Scholar

Based on primary sources, speeches and essays, Brookings scholar says Islamic State leaders are immersed in Islamic theology
March 16, 2015 Updated: March 16, 2015

WASHINGTON—When the Islamic State suddenly emerged on the world stage in April 2013, it seemingly came out of nowhere. The international community took notice when it won military victories in taking over most of the Sunni areas in Iraq in June 2014 and expanded into Syria.

Known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) since 2006, it proclaimed itself the caliphate with the Caliphate Declaration on June 29, 2014. Henceforth, it wanted to be known as “the Islamic State,” without particular reference to Iraq and Syria. As the caliphate, it claimed jurisdiction over all Muslims in the tradition of political-religious states, which followed the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632. The ruler, the caliph, translated from the Arabic means “successor.”

It is apparent now that the Islamic State is not al-Qaeda. Outwardly, it differs from al-Qaeda in a number of respects, particularly in its greater cruelty displayed in the public beheadings of innocent victims, and the targeting of Shi’a Muslims.

The sudden appearance of the Islamic State was a surprise to most observers. We could have anticipated its claims and objectives had more attention been given to Islamic State leaders, their statements, and their own sources, says Cole Bunzel, who is the author of a Brookings Institution analysis paper, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” published this month.

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Brunzel is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He discussed his 45-page paper and answered questions at the Brookings Institution, on March 11.

To understand the Islamic State and its attraction to potential recruits, Brunzel strongly recommends examining its doctrine and official statements. The senior leaders are “highly ideologically driven,” he says in the paper. The primary sources and discussions by supporters also explain the divergent paths that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have taken.

Brunzel said at Brookings that it was a mistake in his view for the U.S. Government to attempt to discredit their Islamic credentials, given their scholarship, prolific output of analysis, and frequent references to Islamic tradition. Ever since President Obama declared on Sept. 10, 2014 that the Islamic State was neither a religion nor a state, ISIS supporters want to challenge him in that regard, said Brunzel.

Not Just a Name Change

Though we were surprised when it appeared, Brunzel points out that the Islamic State was not new at all. It didn’t begin in 2013, when we first take note, but had actually existed—on paper at least—since Oct. 2006. In fact, the Islamic State keeps track of the number of days old it is, and proclaims online in a banner the precise number, dating from Oct. 15, 2006. Nonetheless, in the first eight years, even Jihadists would ridicule its backers for being merely a “paper state.”

We called it al-Qaeda in Iraq, and thought that it had just changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006, serving as a front for al-Qaeda. But its leaders, beginning in 2006 to 2013, considered themselves as establishing a state.

The person who is credited with promoting the idea of a caliphate state in Iraq in late 2001 was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—either alone or in discussion with al-Qaeda counterparts. It had the support of Zawahiri, the number two-in-command of al-Qaeda. Bunzel stresses that while Zarqawi coordinated with al-Qaeda, he never gave Bin Laden the oath of fealty (bay’a).

Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in June 2006, a few months before the Islamic State was declared. His legacy may have been his theological and political attacks on Shi’a. Citing historical events going back centuries, Zarqawi warned against a Shi’ite super-state, reaching from Iran across Iraq and Syria and Lebanon.

Today, the Islamic State is directed against Sh’ite expansion from Tehran to Beirut, according to Brunzel. The United States is seen as complicit in turning Iraq into a Shi’te state. Their view is that the “region’s Shi’a are conspiring with the United States and secular Arab rulers to limit Sunni power in the Middle East. The U.S. pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran contributes to this perception.”

[The Islamic State leaders] perceive the United States to be bombing, exclusively Sunni militants, but never, ever bombing a Shi’a
— Cole Brunzel, Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

At Brookings, he said, “They perceive the United States to be bombing, exclusively Sunni militants, but never, ever bombing a Shi’a.”

Al-Qaeda leaders frequently ordered the Islamic State to desist from targeting Shi’a masses, which the Islamic State ignored. This was a major factor in their split.

Jihad scholars with sympathies toward al-Qaeda, “object to the Islamic State’s inclination toward extreme and arbitrary violence including gruesome beheadings and its perceived excess in …declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers,” writes Brunzel.

“Today the Islamic State claims and possibly with justification that it never pledged fealty to al-Qaeda or bay’a,” states Bunzel.

Killing Shi’a

The Islamic State and al-Qaeda identify with Jihadi-Salafism, or simply jihadism, which is a distinct religious ideological movement in Sunni Islam, with a global network of scholars and media outlets. “They identify as the only true Salafi Muslims,” he said.

Although both groups adhere to a Salafi theology, “the Islamic State does so with greater severity. In contrast with al-Qaeda, it is absolutely uncompromising on doctrinal matters,” he writes.

The Islamic State’s texts are extreme even for jihadists. For example, “All Shi’a Muslims are apostates deserving of death; and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are traitors against Islam…”

In contrast with al-Qaeda, [the Islamic State] is absolutely uncompromising on doctrinal matters
— Cole Brunzel, Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

The Islamic State leaders justify the killing fellow Muslims by applying the Salafi texts in a more dogmatic fashion, states Bunzel. He quotes an Islamic leader that said that the rulers of Muslim lands are “traitors” and “unbelievers” and that a higher priority is necessary to fight them than “the occupying crusader.” (It is amusing to see how militant Islamists are always bringing up the Christian Crusades, the military religious campaigns that happened nearly a millennium ago.)

Taking its cues from Wahhabi tradition—a branch of Salafism founded on the Arabian Peninsula—the Islamic State’s creed says in a 2007 statement, “We believe in the necessity of destroying and eradicating all manifestations of idolatry (‘shirk’).” The destruction of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq and the statues at the Mosul Museum are recent examples of their zeal to eradicate idols.

At Brookings, Bunzel said that the ISIS believers are very prolific in producing books, essays and poems, defending their acts of brutality. He said he counted 12 essays in defense of the immolation of the Jordanian pilot. They searched through 14 centuries of Islam to find texts favorable to what they believe, in this case, of immolation.

 Break with al-Qaeda

The primary sources and discussions also explain well why the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have gone their separate paths.

Due to the attacks on Shi’a communities, extreme interpretations of doctrine, and insubordination on battlefield matters, on Feb. 2, 2014, al-Qaeda officially terminated its association with the Islamic State.