While the beheading of US photo journalist James Foley has rightly drawn global attention to the violence of Salafi jihadi groups, the successes of the Islamic State (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS) are being exploited by various actors to score political points.
To get the murder of Foley in perspective: ISIS’s precursor which took several names under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, including al-Qa’ida in Iraq and the Islamic State in Iraq, engaged in a series of videotaped beheadings of foreign hostages in 2004 and 2005. Some of them were Westerners, they were always clad in the orange jumpsuit that Foley wore as a reference to the extrajudicial treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The murders were public spectacles extraordinaire, designed to have maximum political impact in the United States and other Western countries. One of those thus executed was Paul Johnson, an American helicopter engineer who lived in Saudi Arabia. Murdered by the group calling itself al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, his head was finally found in a fridge.
The difference between the murder of Foley and those killed in the aftermath of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq is that most of those beheadings were shown in their gruesome totality. The revolution in smart phone technology and social media platforms had not quite taken off yet at that time, limiting the effect that these media spectaculars were intended to have. The image of Foley’s decapitated head spread around the world in a short time, but the act of decapitation was performed off-camera. Further, it was hardly the first time for ISIS, or jihadi groups involved in the Syrian civil war, to engage in beheading – hundreds if not thousands have been carried out in the past three years. The decapitation cult in its ISIS guise has thus far been more focussed on frightening enemies on the battlefield. The more the United States becomes a clearly identifiable party to the conflict the more we will see a return to the mediatised murders of the Zarqawi era.
While acknowledging the successes of ISIS, it remains a group that operates in ungoverned spaces, where the state’s will or ability to govern is seriously impinged. As such in terms of territories physically threatened, its limits are clear: they cannot take Baghdad, and their problems with others among the insurgents in Syria hardly give rise to the expectation that they could manage Damascus. Their chances in Lebanon are limited: Arsal has not worked out, and access to the Sunni areas in the north is tough if not impossible. The threat that has moved the Obama administration to consider special operations targeting the group is to Irbil and the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are territories that have long dealt with the spread of jihadi thought but whose regimes, secure in the backing of American power, have been able to manage it, in the first case, or craft and send it abroad, in the second.
At the same time, ISIS has been advantageous for some regional powers. The removal of Nouri al-Maliki had been a Saudi goal since 2006. In the first days of ISIS’s success in Mosul, a celebratory tone dominated in social media while Gulf governments were silent: ISIS represented Sunni Iraqis fighting back against a Shi’ite sectarian government. Even this week Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel ran a report on ISIS in the Syrian town of Raqqa whose barely concealed celebratory tone only lacked the word “revolutionaries”. Saudi Arabia issued early statements regarding securing its northern border and oilfields that were intended to demonstrate utility and responsibility to the United States, while maintaining the official discourse of distance from radical anti-Western religious groups.
During the Gaza war, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu found the Islamic State a useful rhetorical device with his narrative that “ISIS is Hamas, Hamas is ISIS” – even tweeting the infamous image of Foley minutes before his death to ram home the point – while Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah chose a keynote speech over Gaza to make public comments condemning the ISIS, implying (without naming any party) that it was on the same level as Hamas, its undeclared adversary. A speech presented by Saudi media as upbraiding Israel for death and destruction in Gaza was in fact a broadside against Hamas and ISIS together while selling the kingdom as a force for Islamic moderation.
Since Foley’s death, Gulf countries who have supported jihadi extremism for political gain in Syria have been running to disassociate themselves from radicalism, in a show reminiscent of the fear of American wrath following 9/11. Yet even then the positions taken reflect conflicts amongst Gulf states rather than express a real fear of ISIS: while Qatar negotiated the release of another US hostage from another jihadi group in Syria, Saudi Arabia suddenly declared it had uncovered eight recruiters for ISIS. Earlier this year Riyadh equated ISIS and the Nusra Front as terrorist organisations with the Muslim Brotherhood – its true foe because the model of an electoral politics with an Islamic reference is attractive in the Saudi context.
There have been other axes to grind in the commentaries on the Islamic State provoked by the murder of Foley – from quests to locate the origins of such uber violence in dysfunctional Arab politics (Saudi Arabia’s Arab media empire propagates this discourse to deflect attention from its Wahhabi ideology) or Islam itself (more echoes of post-9/11), to the Syria war aficionados’ obsession with getting the Obama administration to help take out Assad, if not do it itself (“US didn’t invade=ISIS”). Some have even used the resentment and marginalisation of Sunni Iraqis specifically to argue that the historical discourse of oppression in Shi’ite political discourse is now owned by Sunni Islam.
That ISIS is a hybrid of various pathologies is clear: it is a Salafi jihadist group within the al-Qa’ida stream of thought that superimposes Qutbist activism against an unjust ruler on a Wahhabi ideological base of demolishing shrines, persecuting minorities, enforced covering of women and gender segregation, treating women as legal minors (while facing full force of criminal law), and a longer tradition that goes beyond Wahhabi and Islamic culture generally of spectacular death-in-your-face to assert authority.
The use of the office of the caliphate, as I have argued before, is not an automatic ticket to winning the allegiance of millions of Muslims. Within Saudi Arabia, where some have argued there is a well of public support beyond kneejerk joy at Shi’ite setbacks in Iraq, the clerical establishment, even among its more independent elements, is given enough leeway in legal and other spheres to guarantee their support for Al Saud over ISIS. Wahhabi ideology has never cared for the authority of caliphal figures claiming Prophetic descent, as ISIS leader Baghdadi does: neither during the Ottoman empire, nor in the Hejaz, whose Sherifian rulers were deposed and exiled by Saudi-Wahhabi forces in the 1920s.
The recent ramping up of Saudi rhetoric against the Islamic State on the public orders of the king is to a certain degree a show, and a rehash of state policy against the last al-Qa’ida threat a decade ago: for the moment there is little reason to believe that the iron grip of Saudi security forces (with support from Western agencies) plus fine-tuning of Saudi-Wahhabi ideological control will be any less successful now in managing radicalism at home than it was before. This isn’t to say that a sense of nihilistic despair in many areas across the region could not inspire the creation of copycat groups (as Peter Harling argues), or that fighters from beyond the Arab region will not pose a danger back in their own countries if they return. These are more plausible concerns than the Islamic State expanding its writ through conquest into surrounding countries.