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What Could Happen if the Islamic State Breaks Apart?

What Could Happen if the Islamic State Breaks Apart?

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By James Hess, Ph.D.
Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Foreign Affairs magazine recently published an article on the possibility of ISIS breaking apart. One of the arguments authors Charlie Winter and Colin P. Clarke put forth is that if ISIS — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – were to break apart, it would create smaller, more provincial networks. A breakup into more regional groups is possible. That would be very similar to how Al Qaida established itself – as an umbrella entity for other groups to join.

Changes in Structure Would Hurt the Islamic State

It is fair to assume that ISIL would emulate how Al Qaida operates, especially since ISIL (as Al Qaida in Iraq [AQI]) was once part of the Al Qaida network. However, the creation of a network of groups supporting a larger entity could hurt ISIL.

While sharing the overall religious ideology of Jihadi Salafism with Al Qaida, ISIL has made a point of establishing its own caliphate to demonstrate its specific difference from Al Qaida. By declaring Abu Baghdadi as its caliph, ISIL leaders attempted to circumvent the role of Al Qaida through the caliphate to add relevance to attract recruits and financiers.

Al Qaida has struggled with the specific challenge of maintaining its ideology among new groups that align themselves with the larger network. ISIL will also face this test if it moves toward a more decentralized organization.

The ideology of rejecting the traditional jurists of Islam is challenging because most would-be recruits will have more exposure to the teachings of Hanafi or Maliki than to Abu Baghdadi’s interpretation of the Salaf.

In the first generation of Islam, after the prophet’s death, the struggle for succession often preoccupied the Islamic faith. Serious study of the Qur’an and the Hadiths occurred during the era of the jurists, the century after the Golden Age of the Salaf (the first 40 years). The interpretations of the jurists and the consensus of the ummah, the people, essentially established a normative belief for Sunni Muslims.

It is too early to tell if ISIL will splinter into multiple sub-groups. But it is not too early to consider how to tailor strategies to combat provincial or regional terrorist cells.

One strategy that should be considered is to look at predominant jurisprudential beliefs in a specific area.  Since the ideology is what fuels terrorism, combating ideologies is key, and given the potential for various conflicts between traditional Islam and provincial networks from ISIL that may not be fully familiar with the teachings of Jihadi Salafism, focusing on these jurisprudential beliefs becomes very important to consider as part of a strategy.  When opposing forces seek to combat ISIL recruiting efforts, it is important to take advantage of the differences between, for example, the laws established in Egypt and those created in Pakistan.

About the Author

Dr. James Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism environments. He is currently studying the relationship between Islamic jurisprudence and terrorism as an International Relations Research Fellow with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

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