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Deep roots of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and the Levant

Cahiers de la pensée mili-Terre No. 43
History & strategy
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On 29 June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Head of the Islamic State (EI), conferred on himself the title of Caliph, a term that has been unusual for almost a century. The author searches the history of the Arab-Muslim world for precedents that shed light on the actions of the Islamic state. He wishes to show that this self-proclaimed caliphate is more in line with the radicalization of political Islam than with the caliphate tradition.

EI was at first considered as a straw fire. However, this terrorist group is today increasing its hold against all expectations and even sees itself as a threat to the West. It is therefore necessary to seek the deep sources of this actor of major geostrategic importance.

Indeed, since 1924, the date of the abolition of the Caliphate by Atatürk and the overthrow of Sheriff Hussein by Ibn Saud, no one had claimed the title of Caliph until the self-proclamation of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State on 29 June 2014 [1].

Let us recall that since the death of Muhammed in 632 A.D., the Caliph has been the lieutenant of the Prophet, his successor, a title applied by the Koran to Adam and King David (Daoud in Arabic). The Caliph is in a way invested with a divine viceroyalty over the universe, a pope who would also be a universal emperor. Successor to the Prophet, he is the temporal and spiritual leader of Islam. The first four caliphs, Muhammad and, after him, Abu Bakr (632-634), Omar, Othman and Ali (656-661), are the so-called orthodox caliphs. The great schism of legitimacy will come next, separating the Shiites, faithful to the assassinated Caliph Ali, and the Sunnis.

The French Academy defines Islamism as a "political and religious movement advocating the expansion of Islam and the strict observance of Koranic law in all areas of public and private life. Today, it refers more particularly to a political and ideological movement that claims to be based on the foundations of Islam and which may take on an extremist character".

Are there any precedents in the history of the Arab-Muslim sphere that shed light on the actions of the Islamic State? It seems that, while the EI claims to belong to the Caliphate tradition, it only takes on the worst aspects of it and is more classically part of the phenomenon of radicalisation of political Islam.

To ascertain this, we will review two historical antecedents of the EI: the Almohad state in the medieval Muslim West and, closer to us in time, the Wahhabi state in Arabia. Finally, we will identify the major geostrategic challenges posed by the latter self-proclaimed caliphate.

The Almohad state: from emergence to decline via the Spanish apogee

Of Berber origin, the Almohads formed a Muslim dynasty that extended its domination over North Africa and Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Almohad state was founded by Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd ʾAllāh Ibn Tūmart. After studies in the East, he returned to Morocco around 1110 and denounced the morals deemed contrary to Muslim law and the "clergy" of fuqahā mālikites, these doctors of religious science, the backbone of the Almoravid dynasty.

Ibn Tūmart preaches reformist ideas directed especially against the release of the Almoravids. His intransigence earned him enemies, but his persuasive words, knowledge and piety touched hearts. In many ways, the attitude and actions of the present EI leader can be compared to those of Ibn Tūmart.

The Arabic word al-muwaḥḥidūn, which gave "almohads", means "those who profess the oneness of God". It illustrates the rigorous ideal of Ibn's theology Tūmart which, through faith in a single god, wants to create the temporal unity of believers united by the sole law of Islam. Ibn Tūmart knew how to model his doctrine in a judicious manner because, for him, "practical imperatives command theoretical approaches" [2].

Above all, Ibn Tūmart borrows from Shiism the notion of mahdī (which means "well guided by Allāh"). The mahdī is the one whose actions are replicas of those of the Prophet. "The impassioned return to the religious ideal of ǧihād, a war directed against the enemies of the true faith, even if they were Muslims by name, clearly marks the character of mahdīsme, a movement [...] concerned above all with reconstructing the conditions of the warlike as well as missionary activity of the Prophet Muḥammed" [3]. Taking Muhammed as an example, Ibn Tūmart proclaims himself the mahdī of a community whose unity he constantly consolidates by iron discipline and the elimination of dissidents.

On the death of mahdī, his faithful disciple ʿAbd al-Muʾmin Ibn ʿAlī (1094-1163) succeeded him and continued his will to conquer: after Morocco, the whole of central and eastern Maghreb was conquered. An immense figure of the Muslim West, his psychology is complex, his political intelligence unquestionable: "reserve and piety, a sense of compromise and a spirit of conservation, but also energy, determination and cruelty" [4].

  • The Almohads in Spain. Called from 1145 to the north of the Mediterranean, ʿAbd al-Muʾmin Ibn ʿAlī installed his power in western Andalusia. He decided to break with the collegiate system of mahdī and thus profoundly transformed his empire. He established a dynasty, took the title of Commander of the Believers, "amīr al-muʾminīn" and established an Almohad caliphate that rejected the suzerainty of the "central" caliphate of ʿabbāsides in Baghdad.

The transformation of the Almohad state into a caliphate was accompanied by a rejection of the puritanism of mahdī in favour of a marked attraction to luxury and the arts. Culture had its moment of glory: philosophy with Ibn Ṭufayl and Ibn Rušd (Averroes), music and architecture. Some masterpieces still impress, such as the fortress in Rabat, the Kutubiyya and the Kasbah Mosque in Marrakech, the Giralda in Seville or the Alhambra in Granada.

  • The Almohad decline. After a phase of persecution against the jurists mālikites, Jews and philosophers (of which Averroes, exiled by the guardians of tradition, was the victim), the empire gradually collapsed. Almoravid pirates from the Balearic Islands joined forces with Arab pastoral tribes and fomented a broad-based opposition until around 1226. For their part, the Christians of Spain led the Reconquista. Weakened by the Christian successes, the Almohad power in Spain was replaced by small Muslim kingdoms. In Morocco, Merinid Berbers progressed until the capture of Marrakech in 1269.

Closer to home, in the mid-18th century, the alliance between a preacher and a political-military leader gave birth to another Islamic state, this time on the Arabian Peninsula.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi preaching

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is "Wahhabi", i.e. it is a follower of the Islamic reform preachede in the 18th century by Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1720 - 1792) advocating a rigorous and literal return to the Sharia. But the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not claim to be a caliphate. It is the custodian of Medina and Mecca, two of the three holy places of Sunnism, along with Jerusalem.

The disciples of Muḥammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb prefer the name Ahl al-Tawḥīd, which means "people of the oneness" [of God] to Wahhabi. The orientalist Henri Laoust defines Wahhabism as "a movement, both religious and political, Arab and Muslim, [which] has set itself the essential goal ... to build a Sunni state that would have expanded .......] to restore Islam to its original purity, fighting against all innovations and ... allowing itself wide scope for expansion as in the time of the companions [of the Prophet]" [5].

On these fringes of the Ottoman Empire and Persia, Muḥammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb judges that Islam has become perverted among sedentary and superstitious populations and aristocracies attracted to luxury. Through his oratorical qualities and his constant Koranic references, Muḥammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb spreads his word rapidly. He was very severe in his condemnation of all forms of worship invoking intercessors, such as meetings around the tombs of holy men and ceremonies of mystical exaltation of Shi'ism and Sufism. He had sacred trees cut down and the domes of venerated tombs destroyed.

  • "The sword and the Koran". To reduce resistance, Muḥammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb rallies Muḥammad Ibn Suūd, the Emir of Riyadh. This alliance has so far enabled the Saud dynasty to legitimise its authority: "In 1744, the amīr andthe theologian swore a mutual fidelity to each other in order to make the reign of the word of God triumph, even if by arms" [6]. 6] This pact, always observed, thus marks the birth of the Wahhabi State and erected a small Bedouin principality into a legally instituted theocracy.

In 1801, the Wahhabites plundered the Shiite sanctuary of Karbalā, seized Medina in 1805 and then Mecca in 1806, to the detriment of the authority of the Ottoman sultan, "protector and servant" of the holy places of Islam. From 1811 to 1818, the troops of Mehmet Ali, Pasha of Egypt, regained control of the Hijaz and Mecca in the name of the Sultan, driving the Saud back to Riyadh.

  • The present Saudi Arabia. It was in this city of Riyadh that Ibn Saud, the founder of present-day Saudi Arabia, was born in 1879. In 1901, Ibn Saud carried out his first raid with fighters of the Islamic faith. He took back the oasis of Riyadh and its family and tribal area. Allied with neighbouring tribes, he gradually wove a network of solidarity reinforced by the transcendent and unitary message of Islam.

From 1926, he bears the title of King of Hijaz and Najd. The Islamic Congress in Mecca on 7 June 1926 emphasised the new king's duty to ensure the unity of Islam. The attribution of this religious function underpins a worldwide political ambition, and reaffirms that Arabia is indeed the centre of the community of Muslim believers. Since 1932 and the proclamation of the unified kingdom under the name of Saudi Arabia, the law of the new State has been the Shariah and the Koran as its constitution. Since the death of Ibn Saud in 1954, his successors have always been chosen from among his sons. The family of Al al-Sheikh, religious descendants of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, also continues to enjoy great influence in ruling the kingdom alongside the Saudis. Wahhabism, advocated by this theocratic monarchy, which itself draws power and prosperity from oil revenues, is also supported by the Saudis. It feeds the currents of Sunni fundamentalism within Muslim communities around the world.

Geostrategic issues of the Islamic state, a self-proclaimed caliphate

On 13 October 2006, reacting to the project of a federal state in Iraq, Sunni insurgents close to the terrorist organisation al-Qaʿida announced the creation, in the "Sunni triangle" located in the centre of the country, of an "Islamic State of Iraq".

Like al-Qaeda and many Islamist movements, the EI is developing in a social terrain marked by popular disappointment at the lack of economic development, corruption, clientelism and repeated wars. It also exploits the strong resentment of the populations towards the West, accused of imposing its models of economic organisation and ideologies contrary to the perceptions of Islam. Advocating a spiritual rebirth or doctrinal reform, the objective of these Islamist militants is to regain control of a Muslim society in the process of acculturation and westernization.

The "Caliphate" of Al-Baghdadi, for its part, interprets the Koran in a crude, violent and absolutely literal manner. It wants to impose Sunnism and a totalitarian order on religious minorities such as the Yaziris and Christians, whom it does not hesitate to persecute. Moreover, he seeks to break the Shiite alliance, described in the form of a "Shiite arc" that unites the Lebanese Hezbollah with the Iran - Islamic republic from 1979 -, through the Alawites of Assad in Syria and through Iraq.

Its universalism is a major characteristic: de facto installed in a well-identified region, it claims to grow to constitute a universal empire, which is covered by the notion of caliphate. It proceeds in a very efficient and modern way to recruit its soldiers through a perfectly controlled media coverage. Coalition air strikes, however useful they may be at the tactical and operational levels, must therefore be coupled with politico-strategic actions with local and international actors. Opposing the IA thus necessarily means supporting its Iraqi, but also Syrian and Kurdish adversaries.

Lessons to be learnt

The role of the Gulf petro-monarchies can be described as ambiguous to say the least. Initially financial backers and suppliers to the jihadists, they currently seem worried by the prospect of a caliphate competing with their interests and their Islamist legitimacy. Similarly, Erdogan's Islamist and Ottoman Turkey seems to want to awaken the historical memory of the Caliphate of Constantinople.

These stakes of power are not only regional, but also ideological and ingrained in minds. The strength of the discourse of Ibn Tumart in the 12th century or of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century is found in the strength of today's EI leaders and in their capacity for propaganda and recruitment in countries with strong Muslim minorities. It is therefore necessary to avoid short-sighted considerations, comparable to the cynical question asked by Stalin: "The Vatican, how many divisions?".

Finally, the Islamic state and al-Qaeda reflect the divorce between the puritanical preachers of Islam and princes who have been hijacked by power and luxury from the founding alliance, both among the Almohads and the Wahhabi. For the supporters and leaders of EI, the Almohad dynasty, as well as the Saudi royal family, gradually turned away from the initial link with the religious. Born like them around a political project based on a rigorous vision of Islam, the Islamic state could thus end up turning against its former allies.

1] It is also on June 29, 2014 that the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" will be transformed into an "Islamic State".

2] Roger Arnaldez, "Ibn Tūmart Muhammad Ibn Abdallāh - (1080-1130) , Encyclopædia Universalis consulted on Nov. 23, 2014. url: http: //

3] Id.

4] Jean-Louis Miège, "Abd Al-Mu'min (between 1094 and 1106-1163)," Encyclopædia Universalis [online], accessed Nov. 24, 2014. url: http: //

5] Laoust, H. "Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb", Encyclopedia of Islam. Brill Online, 2014. University of Strasbourg. 23 November 2014

[6] Laoust, H. op cit.

Saint-cyrien of the promotion "General Vanbremeersch", the Chief of Battalion TRÉGUIER served in the 1st infantry regiment then in ENSOA. Unit commander in the 110th infantry regiment, he served as a treating officer in the 2nd armoured brigade staff. Laureate of the 2013 competitive examination of the War School, he began his studies in Arabic at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) in September 2014.

Title : Deep roots of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and the Levant
Author (s) : le Chef de bataillon TRÉGUIER