Opinion: a brief history of so-called Islamic State (ISIL)

Opinion: a brief history of so-called Islamic State (ISIL)
By Euronews
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For two months, the international coalition in Iraq has battled to reclaim the city of Mosul from so-called Islamic State (ISIL).


For two months, the international coalition in Iraq has battled to reclaim the city of Mosul from so-called Islamic State (ISIL). The aim of this military offensive, distinguished from all other operations by its symbolic and strategic dimension, is to put an end to the caliphate of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

By Mohamed Abdel Azim

In neighbouring Syria, ISIL regained control of Palmyra despite Russian airstrikes which failed to prevent ISIL jihadists from entering the city previously occupied in March 2016. Where does ISIL get its combat resources?

The state according to Al-Baghdadi

Aristotle built the foundation of public affairs on a strong idea: every city is a community. But in the lexicon of the “Islamic” state, this formula becomes “every city is a submission of the community”. In its city, ISIL’s intention is to build the community (oumma), with a propagandist objective: to restore purity and greatness to Islam.

Seen from a Durkheimian angle, the matter of “daechienne” is new in the academic fields and has not yet had the space necessary for its comprehension.

Based on the notion of jihad, ISIL’s strategy is the continuation of extremist and destructive thinking which dates back to the 13th century. On the international stage, ISIL is surprised by its polymorphic shape and its media striking forces via its Aamaq press agency. Its resonance challenges both political and strategic fields. Since 2013, this terrorist organisation has imposed itself on the agenda of the international powers and sowed terror in Europe.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Syrian city of Raqqa, enjoys his role as an idol for terrorists. He demands allegiance and obedience. Al-Baghdadi established a link with the rare thinkers of the jihad, once fought by the use of armed force. These movements have reappeared periodically since the 11th century, but in each epoch, the use of force has always failed in its desire to neutralise the capacity of historical nuisance. This solution has been a failure for centuries.

Today, there is a profound historical misunderstanding of Al-Baghdadi, who uses the fundamental aspect of the continual break with any will to reform (Islaah) in Arab-Muslim thought. Al-Baghdadi, however, forgets the principle of shura (concertation) and appeals to the use of the notion of conspiracy (fitna). For him, countering revolts and reforms is part of a plot against Islam, and the solution passes through jihad against others (Muslims and Christians), designated as the source of disbelief (kofr).

“The Other”, by Ibn Taymiyah

Al-Baghdadi relies heavily on Bush’s intervention in Iraq as a starting point for mobilising his disciples. To do this, it is based in particular on a method already used in the 11th, 13th and 18th centuries.

In the 11th century, Omar El-Khayyam, wrote poems, singing the praises of wine and women in his verses which remain immortal (Les Roubaeyaat). In front Ibn Al-Sabbah forms his militias, sows terror and harasses the viziers. He sends his killers to poison and strangle senior officials. These consumers of hachich (hachachines in Arabic) are referred to by Westerners as “assassins”.

In the middle of the 13th century, a Mongolian army arrived from southeast Asia and occupied Persia. In 1258, the Mongols, from the southern region of Russia and northern China, seized Baghdad and threatened Damascus and Cairo. In executing the last caliph, they put an end to the dynasty of the Abbasids (which had been in place since the year 750).

During the reign of the Abbasids, Arab culture was immense, integrating the Persian and Greek cultures. When Baghdad yielded to the Mongols, the army of General Hulagou, the grandson of Genghis Khan, finally put an end to the intellectual prosperity which lasted five centuries. Indeed, Ibn Taymiyah, stood up against this methodological advance and took advantage of the Mongol invasion to spread his doctrine of single reading.

The Abbasids struggled to mobilise forces against the Mongols. They appealed to the Mamelukes (militia in the service of the sovereigns). Ibn Taymiyah, who left Turkey and settled in Damascus, took advantage of the conflict between the Mamluks and the Mongols.

The Mamluks, who aspired to power, used the influence of Ibn Taymiyah’s preaching and his use of the notion of jihad. Mameluk Saif El-Din Qoutoz, imprisoned in his youth and sold into slavery in Syria by the Mongols, returned from Cairo with a large army and won the first victory against the Mongols. It was on the soil of present-day Syria that the first great defeat of the Mongols took place, followed by the retreat of their empire.

This victory helped spread the teachings of Ibn Taymiyah, which advocated the denial of everything he considered as innovation in religious practice. He advocated obedience to sovereigns, advanced the notion of “the other” (Al-Aakhar) and authorised the elimination of everybody who opposed it (Muslims or Christians).

Ibn Taymiyah began a wave of rejection of the group of great thinkers of the 9th and 10th centuries, such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Al-Razi and Avicenna. Thereafter, he mobilised against one of the great thinkers of his time: Ibn Arabi (considered the son of Plato).

The radicalism of Ibn Taymiyah contrasted with the thought of Ibn Arabi who questioned the rational and wondered whether reason could escape the limits of matter. However, the radical positions of Ibn Taymiyah caused him to be incarcerated several times by the Mamluk authorities and he was killed in prison. This is the end of the first wave of Jihadist thought in the 13th century.

The era of Arab intellectual prosperity was then undermined by the Mamelukes over the course of two centuries, and strengthened following the domination of the Ottoman Empire from 1517.


Under the Ottomans, the Arab world stagnated in all areas for five centuries. Fragile and fragmented, Arab thought folded back on itself. Following the wave of independence in the mid-20th century, Arab capitals were in the hands of monarchical families or closed or dictatorial regimes. They adopted models based on Western democracies, bred by Athens and Rome, without having passed through the conceptual experiences of Hobbes, Lock or Rousseaux.

The martyrdom of Ibn Abdel-Wahhab

The jihad of Ibn Taymiyah led to a retreat within the Arab capitals including Cairo; under the Mamelukes first, then during the Ottoman Empire. This stagnation opened the way to the religious charlatanism which gives rise to the appearance in Arabia of Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab (founding father of Wahhabism in the 18th century).

Born in 1703, Muhammad ibn Abdel-Wahhab advocated returning to Islam’s roots and refused practices he called polytheist (Shirk). For political reasons, the founder of the first Saudi state, Mohamed Ibn-Saoud, relied on this new wave of religious withdrawal. He aspired to found a state, but his approach did not mobilise the masses. To do this, Ibn Saoud relied on the preaching (daawa) of Abdel-Wahhab, who advocated the return to the precepts of the jihad against the appearance of the premises of intellectual emancipation. Saoud promised to spread the new preaching (daawa jadidah) and the political aims incited him to improve the new version by adding the term “martyrdom”. It was the emergence of political Islam and the birth of the Wahhabi doctrine, according to which there is only one possible interpretation of religious texts and obedience is sacred to the governance of a person or a family.

The Wahhabi revived the ideas of Ibn Taymiyah, which allowed an individual or group to ex-communicate anyone who did not follow Islamic law. In 1802, they entered Karbala, Iraq, killing the majority of its inhabitants, destroying the mosques and plundering everything inside.

A year later, they entered the town of Taief, in Arabia, massacred the male population and enslaved the women and children.


Between 1811 and 1818, an army left Cairo and confronted the Wahhabis in their capital Dereiyah (east of Arabia). The city was destroyed and the army of Mehmet Ali, who executed the Emir Al-Saud, put an end to the first Wahhabi wave.

There is a temptation to draw an analogy between the international coalition’s mission to liberate Mosul, and the army of the Sultan of Egypt in 1811, to destroy Dereiyah, in order to put an end to a thought of mass destruction.

The Resurrection of Ibn Al-Sabbah

The absence of a model of solid political pluralism in the Arab countries weakened its capacity to resist extremist thinking. Islamist thought often advanced the notion of jihad, emphasising the use of violence and ignoring another equally important notion. This is the ijtihad (initiative through the effort of reflection and knowledge), a concept which has been absent from the Islamic vocabulary for centuries.

The jihadism of the 21st century benefited from the same channels of propagation of preaching during the 13th and 18th centuries. But alongside mosques and Koranic schools, this third millennium is part of a new dimension of communication: the web. ISIL led its war for the establishment of a caliphate and appealed to the unifying concept: jihad.

In contrast to secularism, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIL in 2014) found flaws and revived the version of Ibn Tymiyah and that of Ibn Abdel-Wahhab: the jihad against the “other”. With the notion of martyrdom, suicide then became the ultimate objective of the “ISILists”.


Wearing a Rolex watch on his right wrist, Al Baghdadi advocated the end of the conspiracy threatening his community (Oumma) by the resurrection of the resurrections (qiyamat al-qiyamah). He initiated his disciples in the hidden meaning (makhfi) of revelation, in order to reveal the truth (Al-Haquiqah). But the truth of Al-Baghdadi was that defined by Hassan Ibn Al-Sabbah, leader of a movement born in the 11th century around Baghdad. This sect of plunderers practiced the most horrendous acts, publicly assassinated its opponents and carried out suicide missions. ISIL is the resurrection of the terror practiced by the cannabis users of the 11th century, which the Arab world names as: the slaughterers (zabbahounes).

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