You'd be forgiven for thinking that the Islamic State sprang out of nowhere last year. The extremist group's brutal tactics and surreal rhetoric seemed like a leap beyond most other extremist Islamist groups, if not wholly unprecedented. Yet research has shown time and again that much of the group's rise was slow and gradual, with many important seeds planted years ago, and only becoming apparent more recently.
In a new paper for the Brookings Institution, Cole Bunzel, an expert on the Islamic State at Princeton University, shows how one of the most powerful and evocative concepts for the group – their self-proclaimed, Iraq-centered "caliphate" – stretched back more than a decade and was informed as much by the modern context within which 21st century jihadist groups operate as it was Islamic history.
Crucially, Bunzel finds that three actions of recent United State foreign policy inadvertently helped create the conditions that would allow a self-proclaimed "caliphate" in the Middle East to come into existence. Here's how the Islamic State's caliphate went from a dim idea to a grim reality in a little over a decade.
1. The war in Afghanistan
Bunzel's paper, titled "From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State," shows that as far back as late 2001 or early 2002, members of al-Qaeda were discussing the idea of an Iraq-based "caliphate" with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who founded al-Qaeda in Iraq – a key precursor to the Islamic State.
Al-Qaeda military strategist Sayf-al'Adl claims to have discussed the idea while both he and Zarqawi were in Iran, where they had fled following the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan. "This [would be] our historic opportunity by the means of which perhaps we would be able to establish the Islamic State, which would have the main role in eradicating oppression and helping establish the Truth in the world, god willing," Adl wrote of Zarqawi's plan to relocate to Iraq.
As the paper notes, at this point Zarqawi had not yet pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda (his notable hatred for Shiite Muslims was a source of disagreement with the group), and it isn't clear whether the plan for an Iraq-based caliphate came from Zarqawi or al-Qaeda itself. What is important, Bunzel explains in an e-mail, is that the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan shaped this plan: Until 2001, al-Qaeda had viewed Afghanistan and Taliban leader Mullah Omar as the future of an Islamic caliphate. "With the loss of Afghanistan in 2001, [Adl] and others were looking for a new host for the caliphate project," Bunzel says.
Al-Qaeda members would later admit that the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan would force them to change their plans. "Had this emirate [the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] persisted, it would have been the beginning of the desired caliphal Islamic state for all the world's Muslims," Adl later wrote in a 2005 letter to Zarqawi.
2. The war in Iraq
While the Afghanistan war sparked a new search for a potential caliphate, it was another war that made that candidate actually look realistic. "In 2001/2, the Iraq-based caliphate was just an ambition," Bunzel explains, "but after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it appeared to al-Qaeda to be a serious possibility now."
After the Iraq war in March 2003, Zarqawi began to focus his attention on the country. In 2004, he pledged fealty to Osama bin Laden, renaming his group from Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad to Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn ("al-Qaeda in Iraq"). In 2005, Bunzel's paper shows how three separate al-Qaeda leaders wrote to Zarqawi in 2005, urging him to set up an Islamic state in Iraq. Notably, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the al-Qaeda's second in command, told Zarqawi that he hoped such a state would "reach the status of the caliphate."
Despite the shared aim, from the start the relationship between al-Qaeda's core and al-Qaeda in Iraq had its problems. In one noteworthy exchange, after a series of beheadings were carried out by Zarqawi's group and released on videotape, Zawahiri wrote to him to urge him to stop the practice because other Muslims "will never find [the images] palatable."
However, the rising power of the Shiite majority in post-war Iraq seems to have been a boon for Zarqawi's extreme sectarian viewpoint, and by 2006 al-Qaeda in Iraq looked close to establishing its own Sunni state.
Then, on June 7, a U.S. airstrike killed Zarqawi. Al-Qaeda in Iraq soon stopped existing in any official strategy.
Instead, a group of Sunni jihadist groups rebranded themselves under a new title: "The Islamic State of Iraq." Here, the idea of a Middle East-based caliphate proposed in 2001/2002 became a core idea. Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi, a former Iraqi policeman whose real name was Hamid Dawud Khalil al-Zawi, was announced as its "Commander of the Faithful" – the title officially given to leaders of the caliphate in Islamic history and traced him to the lineage of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (this man in turn was killed in 2010, though the U.S. government had tried to cast doubt on whether he actually existed).
Bunzel's report notes that while the founding of "The Islamic State of Iraq" was greeted as big news on jihadi online forums, it struggled to unite Sunni Islamist groups in Iraq, and had a fraught relationship with al-Qaeda. For years after its founding in 2006, this "Islamic State" failed to materialize in any practical terms, instead turning into what Bunzel describes as a "paper state." But the foundations for the next stage of caliphate were being created at this point, often in American-run prisons like Camp Bucca, where extremist Islamists mixed with ex-members of Iraq's Baath party, combing their religious fervor with military know-how.
3. The death of Osama bin Laden
One of the men held at Camp Bucca was Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, who was held there in 2004 but later released as he was not seen as a high level threat. After Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi was killed in 2010, Badri was named the new leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, given the title of "commander of the faithful" and tied to Muhammad's bloodline. His new name was Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
For a while, this new Baghdadi didn't really do much. It took him two years to publish an audio address, and official statements didn't appear from the Islamic State of Iraq's new leaders until mid-2011. This wasn't because they were inept (in fact, Bunzel argues that they were clearly far more talented than the previous leaders). Instead, it looks a lot like they were waiting for a perfect opportunity.
It was only in 2012 the group suddenly announced their return. And the next year, on April 9, 2013, Baghdadi announced the expansion of the Islamic State to Sham -- the Arabic word for greater Syria. Baghdadi went so far as to say that Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria's brutal civil war, was now part of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Sham," what soon become known as "ISIS."
The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, issued his own statement denying this and saying that his group remained under the authority of al-Qaeda, while al-Qaeda called on the Islamic State of Iraq to remain in Iraq. Regardless, thousands of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters joined ISIS and the two groups became rivals. Relations between ISIS and al-Qaeda became poor until finally, on Feb. 2, 2014, al-Qaeda issued a statement that officially disavowed any ties with ISIS.
What made Baghdadi act so brashly? Bunzel suggests a key act of U.S. foreign policy: The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces. "The death of bin Laden in May 2011 created a vacuum of authority in the world of jihadism that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi managed to fill," Bunzel suggests. "When Zawahiri [then bin Laden's successor] told Baghdadi to retreat from Syria to Iraq in May 2013, Baghdadi outright defied him, and was able to because Zawahiri is a dweebish man with little charisma. "
"Baghdadi would have had a much harder time defying bin Laden," Bunzel adds. "I doubt he would have even tried."
Without the magnetic leadership of bin Laden, Baghadi felt comfortable resisting Zawahiri and the rest of al-Qaeda. His plan for a new Islamic State, and, in turn, an Islamic caliphate (self-proclaimed on June 29, 2014), captured the imagination of younger jihadists. And without al-Qaeda's intervention, his group's ambition and sectarian zeal no longer had outside limits. Neither did their brutality: The videos of beheadings that had occurred almost a decade before soon became prominent.
In the end, the caliphate discussed by Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in 2001/2002 had come to pass, but with neither of their involvement. Zarqawi was, of course, long dead, and, as Bunzel's report points out, al-Qaeda's hopeful plan for a "caliphate" has now returned to its original locale of Afghanistan.
U.S. military intervention inadvertently helped create this situation, but at this point it's unclear what other option there is going forward. Bunzel himself suggests that the total military destruction of the Islamic State's structure and its charismatic leader would cripple the caliphate. "A withering statelet with an unremarkable leader ... makes for poor propaganda," his report ends. But ultimately Bunzel argues that the U.S. should step back from military intervention, and let regional Sunni powers take the lead. Given the history of the Islamic State, it's an understandable suggestion.