In Defence of Liberty

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The Motivations of the Islamic State

What are the motivations of the Islamic State? (Edited: The Guardian)

What are the motivations of the Islamic State? (Edited: The Guardian)

129 lie dead in Paris. 19 were killed by explosions in Baghdad. 43 were murdered by suicide bombings in Beirut. All these deaths occurred in attacks by the Islamic State (IS) since the 12th November [1, 2, 3]. In October this year, Islamic State attacked Iraq, Yemen and Turkey in terrorist assaults [4, 5, 6]. Islamic State also claimed responsibility for an attempted Texan shooting in May, but only the two gunmen were killed [7].

It is a regular response, particularly among political commentators, to assert that foreign policy is the primary or substantive motivation of the Paris attacks. The key question is: what are the motivations of the Islamic State?

The Origins of Islamic State

As reported by the BBC [8], the origins of IS lie in the group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden’s cause. In the shadow of Zarqawi’s 2006 death, AQI formed an umbrella organisation, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).

Baghdadi, who had previously been detained by the United States, became the leader of the ISI. Baghdadi rebuilt its capacity, after years of weakening by US troops, before becoming part of the al-Nusra front against President Assad in Syria. The forces in Iraq and Syria were merged in 2013, creating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS or ISIL.

The area and influence of Islamic State has recently expanded. (Source: BBC)

The area and influence of Islamic State has recently expanded. (Source: BBC)

By June 2014, ISIS had control of Falluja and Mosul in Iraq. Its brutality crushes the adversaries of ISIS on its march to Baghdad. ISIS then declared the creation of a caliphate across various cities and towns, changing its name to Islamic State.

“Jayvee Team”

Graeme Wood, in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic [9], investigated the motivations of Islamic State. It is a mistake to see terrorism as homogeneous and monolithic, as the ideological differences between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State help explain the differences in their tactics and behaviour. Despite US President Obama referring to Islamic State as the “jayvee team” (Junior Varsity) to al-Qaeda, Islamic State has eclipsed the terrorist group in both capacity and barbarity [10].

Sheikh Abu Mhammad al-Adnani, the chief spokesperson for the Islamic State, said in 2013 that the movement was “ready to redraw the world upon the Prophetic methodology of the caliphate”, creating “an Islamic state that doesn’t recognise borders, on the Prophetic methodology”. Graeme Wood wrote:

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology”, which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.

A common refrain, particularly from political leaders, is that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. When taken literally, this is nonsensical, and denies the religious cloak to the Islamic State’s expansionism and terrorism. What is meant is that the benign following of Islam by citizens bears no resemblance to the barbarism — slavery, crucifixion, beheadings — perpetrated by the Islamic State. Overarching religions — such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism — are really boiler-plate terms, that shield the division and sectarianism bubbling underneath.


A principal tenet of Islamic State is a very wide definition of apostasy. Mr Wood wrote:

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhummad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election — even for a Muslim candidate — and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs, meets the standard as well, as because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection.

This belief is combined with the belief that apostates must be put to death.

“Armies of Rome”

Another principal tenet is that the Islamic State can bring about the apocalypse. Whilst al-Qaeda acts as an international terrorist organisation, with stated geo-political objectives, the Islamic State wants territory, upon which to expand, to draw in the “armies of Rome” and conjure the apocalypse. Mr Wood wrote:

During the last years of the US occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers, by contrast [to al-Qaeda], saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi — as messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. McCants says a group was being led by millenarians who were “talking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisions” based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. “Al-Qaeda had to wrote to [these leaders] to say ‘Cut it out.'”

Mr Wood continues on the Islamic State’s pronouncements:

These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

What is meant by the armies of Rome, given the Pope no longer has an army to call upon, is yet to be decided. The Islamic State may be happy with any infidel army. It should be noted that only “around 30%” of the Islamic State’s forces are “ideologues”, according to ISIS expert Dr Hisham al-Hasimi, with the rest held by coercion or fear [11].

The crisis with the Islamic State may last for 15 more years, experts say. (Source: ITV/Reuters)

The crisis with the Islamic State may last for 15 more years, experts say. (Source: ITV/Reuters)

Given these stated motivations, the available military options are limited: either the claimed caliphate is extinguished by swiftly and potently removing its territory in direct military combat on behalf of, and in combination with, legitimate governments in the region; or the Islamic State is bled and eroded through air-strikes and other means, its zeal for expansion withered. The risks from either path are enormous.

Rock Concerts in Paris

Islamic State must also be vanquished ideologically. Its appeal comes from a particular religious worldview that cannot be defeated if it is not understood or actively denied. The Islamic State believes in the imminent fulfillment of an apocalyptic prophecy, where its own armies will be saved by divine assistance. The appeal of a secular and liberal democracy, bound by its laws decided by elected parliamentarians, and enacted by an independent judiciary, is usually clear. These moss-laden arguments must be reforged, resharpened and restated for this latest threat to societies.

The reactive connection between Western foreign policy, or prominent concerns such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the actions of Islamic State fails to adequately explain their choice of targets and behaviour, whether rock concerts in Paris or the streets in Yemen.


[1] BBC, 2015. Paris attacks: who were the victims? Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[2] Yahoo, 2015. IS bombing targeting Shiites kill 19 in Baghdad. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[3] Bassam, L. and Karouny, M., 2015. Two suicide bombers hit Hezbollah bastion in Lebanon, 43 killed. Reuters. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[4] Yahoo, 2015. Car bomb attack kills 57 people in Iraq: police. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[5] Gulf Times, 2015. Suicide bombing kills in rebel-held Sanaa. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[6] Hurriyet Daily News, 2015. Ankara Bombing death toll rises to 102: Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[7] Yan, H., 2015. ISIS claims responsibility for Texas shooting but offers no proof. CNN. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[8] BBC, 2015. What is ‘Islamic State’? Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[9] Wood, G., 2015. What ISIS really wants. The Atlantic. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[10] Cortorno, S., 2014. What Obama said about Islamic State as a ‘JV’ team. Politifact. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]

[11] Chulov, M., 2014. 40,000 Iraqis stranded on mountains as Isis jihadis threaten death. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 15th November 2015]



This entry was posted on November 16, 2015 by in International Politics and tagged .
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