The challenge posed by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is different. These groups have many more state enemies than most terrorist groups, and they challenge the practical sovereignty of their target states in more fundamental ways that constitute threats to the international society as a whole. They do not seek a limited fix to particular problems in the international system, but to overthrow the state-based Westphalian order and establish an alternative order in its stead.
Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are unusual not only in the landscape of terrorist entities: They are also unique among Islamist groups. In theory all religious armed groups must address the relationship between two competing sources of authority, state and God. But most religious terrorist groups strike a compromise by seeking to shape the particular identity and ruling system of the state they inhabit but accepting the state-based order, including its rules for conducting international relations. Armed Islamist groups in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s waged deadly fights in the name of religion, but they focused on domestic change, prioritizing the establishment of sharia law in their countries over revolt against the state-based order.
But global jihadism, epitomized by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, goes further by emphasizing what it sees as the incompatibility between religious and state-based logic. Consequently, it seeks more than change in particular countries, promoting as a central goal the destruction of the existing order and its substitution by a universal Islamic one, mirroring these groups’ particular, highly contested views of Islam.
This is why despite the word “State” in its name, the Islamic State is not an ordinary state and does not reinforce the norms of international order. It constitutes a fundamental threat to sovereignty because it rejects the central principles and institutions of the international society and outlines an alternative way of organizing the world that is not based on states. Thus, the empirical measures of statehood documented by Brigham Young University’s Quinn Mecham do not challenge this argument. MIT’s Richard Nielsen was on track when he suggested that the Islamic State is different because its ideology puts it at odds with the norms and rules of Westphalian sovereignty. When states are understood as members of an international society, bounded by norms and rules for interstate relations and appropriate state behavior, the Islamic State’s distinctiveness becomes evident.
Self-styled as a caliphate, the Islamic State is viewed by its supporters not as the odd one out, but as the only legitimate political entity. Its expansionism differs from that of other revisionary states that challenge the status quo in an attempt to increase their power and territorial possessions because the Islamic State aspires for more than power redistribution within the existing state system. When, with great fanfare, it destroyed a border crossing between Syria and Iraq, it did not seek only to abolish a particular arbitrary border and put it elsewhere, but to reject “the borders of Sykes-Picot” and by extension the notion of legitimate inter-state borders.
Al-Qaeda’s strategy, in contrast, postpones the establishment of the caliphate until after the defeat of the United States. That is only tactical, though. Its rejection of the international order is clear in its discourse and behavior. One indication that it does not view the world through a state-based map is the way in which it names its franchises, tying them to geographical anchors instead of the names of the states in which they operate (for example, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula instead of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia or Yemen; and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb instead of al-Qaeda in Algeria). It is striking that al-Qaeda avoids names that could be interpreted as granting legitimacy to the Westphalian system and to authorities in target states.
I see seven distinctive areas where we can observe the jihadist challenge to international society:
1. Sovereignty and authority: In the jihadi view, a system based on the division of the world into states is an inherently defective secular institution predicated on nonreligious precepts. The divine is the only legitimate source of authority, and world order must reflect God’s will, not the choices made by mundane entities such as states and people. States are not sovereign; only God is sovereign, and any claims to sovereignty detached from the religious scriptures are attempts to subvert the divine authority. From this perspective, the anchoring of political order in territoriality cannot be legitimate because God’s authority knows no boundaries.
That Muslims live in states, despite Islam’s universal mission, is seen by these jihadi groups as the product of non-Muslims’ designs to prevent the emergence of a just Islamic order. In their view, the state-based order, particularly in the Middle East, is a conspiracy of the Christian West, which divided the Muslim umma into separate states to sow discord among Muslims and to weaken the umma, so that Muslims will not realize their potential – rather, their destiny – to lead humanity.
2. State equality: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State oppose the fundamental role of the state-based order in promoting peace and stability between state actors of equal legal standing. According to the jihadis, there cannot be equality between Muslim and non-Muslim states, as there cannot be equality between Muslim and non-Muslim people. And peace and stability will be achieved only after the umma triumphs and a global Islamic order is established.
3. International law: The groups adhering to an ideology of global jihad also reject international law. Central to international order, international law was created as a way to regulate states’ behavior, reduce inter-state friction and mitigate war. In the jihadis’ view, however, man-made law subverts the principle of tawhid (God’s unity). Since they view legislation as the prerogative of God alone, international law formulated by humans and secular institutions (states and international organizations) defies tawhid. Moreover, emanating from the most powerful states, international law reflects the norms of the “Crusader West,” which are arguably foreign and hostile to Islam.
4. The United Nations: Although they often share other actors’ grievances about the performance of the United Nations, denouncing double standards in its actions and the privileged position of the powerful states, jihadis’ grievances cannot be addressed by reforming the U.N. in a way more compatible with the international body’s declared objectives. Their objection to the U.N. is based on their rejection of the international order and refusal to legitimize man-made law. In their opinion, Islamic principles dictate that no legitimate Islamic state would ever participate in the U.N. Recently the Islamic State went as far as challenging the Islamic credential of the Taliban rule over Afghanistan (1996-2001) because the Taliban allegedly sought to join the U.N.
5. Rules for war initiation (jus ad bellum): Whereas the international society allows states to fight in self-defense or under the authorization of the U.N. Security Council, jihadis emphasize Islamic rules for the initiation of violence. As Abu Yahya al-Libi asserted, when such criteria are met actors must fight, regardless of what international law may suggest or whether there is a broad international legitimacy for fighting. Moreover, while the Westphalian order empowers only state authorities to engage in interstate war, in an attempt to regulate and limit war, jihadis see it as their duty to appropriate state authority and launch jihad when Muslim rulers fail to do so. Thus, an aggression (which jihadis define very broadly) against Muslims requires a defensive jihad, in which even many of the Islamic restrictions on fighting are lifted. The Islamic State goes even further, promoting offensive jihad to expand the territory controlled by Islam, in complete contradiction to the rules of international society.
6. Restrictions on the application of force in warfare (jus in bello): Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State also ignore rules for wartime conduct. Their understanding of who may gain protection as a noncombatant is based on radical interpretation of the sharia. As such, they deem numerous people who should enjoy some immunity as legitimate targets. Jihadis’ sensitivity to human lives is particularly low when it comes to non-Muslims in the West. Osama bin Laden promoted a theory that civilians in democracies are not innocent noncombatants because, as voters and taxpayers, they are involved in their states’ affairs and can be held accountable for their governments’ “crimes.” Harsh criticism from Muslims that, despite all its claims to fight the Crusader West, al-Qaeda has killed primarily innocent Muslims led al-Qaeda to present a “human shield” ruling that allegedly legitimized the inadvertent killing of Muslims as a collateral damage. When criticism did not subside, al-Qaeda sought to recover its tarnished image by instructing its operatives to avoid attacking places where common Muslims gather.
The Islamic State also ignores international restrictions on the treatment of civilians but legitimizes its extreme violence by declaring all Shiite and even many Sunni Muslims who refuse to accept its authority as apostates whose blood is permissible. With no respect for international human rights laws, the Islamic State goes even further, taking noncombatant captives as war prizes and sex slaves in a blatant violation of international norms and universal human rights treaties. Adamant that it has the right to do so, it even offered Islamic justification for reviving the institution of slavery.
7. Independent foreign policy: In al-Qaeda’s view, Muslim states are not allowed to recognize (even indirectly) the independence of states, and Israel above all, in territories once under Muslim control. Muslim states are also prohibited from hosting Western bases and forces on their territory. This prohibition is directed in particular at Saudi Arabia, which hosted U.S. forces despite a decree from the prophet himself that non-Muslims should not reside in the land – understood very broadly by jihadis to include not only Mecca and Medina but the entire Arabian Peninsula. Jihadis further limit Muslim states’ freedom when, relying on the doctrine of “loyalty and disavowal,” they maintain that Muslims are forbidden from allying with non-Muslims. Al-Qaeda’s list of restrictions on states’ foreign policy is not limited to Muslim states. The restrictions are especially extensive when it comes to the United States, practically encompassing any action – even actions based on diplomacy – that could be construed as an attempt to influence Muslim states’ actions.
That’s what these jihadist groups want, but can they achieve it? Material power, including the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and willingness to use them, is an indicator of the magnitude of the threat. This is also the factor that makes the Islamic State a graver danger to international order than al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda secured a fatwa authorizing the use of WMD from one of its prominent supporters in Saudi Arabia, Nasir al-Hamad al-Fahd. However, it never obtained WMD that it could use against its enemies. In the case of the Islamic State, there is a much greater threat that it could access chemical and biological weapons and little doubt that it wouldn’t hesitate to use them. Moreover, its threat to international order goes beyond WMDs; the Islamic State demonstrated its prowess by conquering a vast territory.
The level of threat the Islamic State and al-Qaeda pose is also a product of the specific circumstances in which they emerged and the way particular ideological commitments shaped their operational strategies. Al-Qaeda emerged against the background of U.S. primacy and prioritized fighting the United States before bringing about change to the Middle East and reintroducing the caliphate. As a result, al-Qaeda quickly found that it exaggerated its ability to promote its objectives, though by provoking the United States to overreach (in particular, the Iraq war and treatment of detainees) it indirectly contributed to undermining the international society.
The Islamic State, on the other hand, reached prominence in the chaotic aftermath of the Arab uprisings and at a time of great U.S. reluctance to intervene in the Middle East. It focused on gaining territory and establishing a caliphate as measures that would further increase its power as it attempts to remake the international system. The Islamic State also promoted a particularly radical ideology, genocidal toward Shiites and other Middle Eastern minorities and ruthless toward Sunnis who refuse to submit to its authority. As a result, not only does it manifest an even more expansive challenge to the international order, it is also better equipped to threaten this order.
Although this analysis paints an alarming picture, one must remember that the international society is highly resilient and that it has triumphed in the face of earlier challengers (e.g., universal Communism). Its socialization power is remarkable and puts it in a strong position to quell threats. Moreover, as both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have found, threatening entities must provide services to the people under their control. Al-Qaeda’s understanding of the magnitude of the task caused aversion to establishing emirates before it succeeds in bringing the United States down. The Islamic State, on the other hand, gambled on quick expansion as a way to overcome this problem. But this is based on the assumption that stateness could actually increase its power, and consequently its ability to overthrow the Westphalian order before the group is forced to dedicate the bulk of its resources to governance instead of territorial expansion.
Barak Mendelsohn is an associate professor of political science at Haverford College, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of “The al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and Its Consequences” (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) and “Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Intertstae Cooperation in the War on Terrorism” (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Follow him @BarakMendelsohn.