Even in defeat the terrorist group will look to paint a rose-tinted image of its so-called caliphate.
In the summer of 2014 Daesh took Mosul and declared a caliphate ruling over an “Islamic State,” reshaping the history of an entire region.
Fast forward to 2019 when Daesh lost control of its last piece of territory in the Syrian town of Baghouz and the focus of analyses has turned to the terrorist group’s future. However, what’s missing is how Daesh will view its past.
The history of the region has demonstrably affected Daesh and how it crafted its narrative. Now, Daesh will reflect back on its own history, situating its rise and then loss of territory into its own version of history.
The terrorist organisation has emerged as part of historical trajectories that included the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of Arab nationalism, and the Islamist alternative. To understand the future of the terrorist group one must understand how the past shaped it, and how Daesh itself makes sense of the past.
The Collapse of the Ottoman Empire
In the 1880s the pan-Islamist foreign policy of the Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Hamid threatened to cause unrest among the large Muslim population in India, then part of the British Empire.
When the Ottoman Empire allied with Germany and the central powers during World War One, a secret Allied agreement involving Britain, France, and Russia was drawn up to divide Ottoman lands - the infamous “Sykes-Picot” Treaty.
While Russia withdrew from the war and the treaty as a result of its Communist revolution, Sykes-Picot served as the precursor to the Mandate system. In actuality the Arab state system actually came into formation after the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and the later 1920 San Remo conference.
These treaties were perceived by Arab nationalists and Islamists alike as the process that carved up the organic Arab core of the Islamic world, the historical Levant and Fertile Crescent.
During this period Mustafa Kemal Ataturk successfully led a war of independence and emerged as the post-War leader of a secular Republic of Turkey, which emerged from the remaining territory of the defeated Ottomans. In 1924 he dissolved the Caliphate, a centuries-old institution of the Empire.
Daesh’s narrative was that 2014 rectified the two traumatic historic events that resulted from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. When its forces took control of the Syrian-Iraqi border post on the way to Mosul in 2014, it crafted a well-publicised spectacle dismantlement of what it deemed the “Sykes-Picot” border. Second, ISIS’s declaration of a new Caliphate represented the first attempt to resuscitate this institution within the borders of a new state.
The Heyday of Arab Nationalism
After 1920, the second event that significantly transformed boundaries in the region was the formation of Israel in 1948, emerging out of the British mandate of Palestine.
This event, along with Anglo-French influence in the region after World War One, led to the rise of Arab nationalists, such as Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser to the Ba’ath Party of Michel Aflaq. Nasser succeeded in unifying Egypt and Syria in 1958 for three years before this project collapsed. The Ba’ath took root in Iraq and Syria in the sixties but an attempt at uniting the two states never advanced beyond the discussion stage.
Muammar Gaddafi of Libya sought the union of Libya and Tunisia, and Libya and Algeria. Both attempts failed.
Saddam Hussein justified the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 as an attempt to undo the border established by the British.
All leaders used Arab nationalism to justify altering borders within this system and failed. Over one summer in 2014 ISIS achieved victory in this regard while these secular leaders and ideologies failed to erase boundaries established by European powers.
The Islamist Alternative
In 1953 The Liberation Party (Hizb ut-Tahrir) was founded in Jerusalem, as a global movement to restore the Caliphate. Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda that formed in the nineties also sought this as the ultimate culmination of its violent teleological vision.
Another factor is the US invasion of Iraq, which led to the decade-long rule of Iraq’s first Twelver Shia-led government, the first state led by the sect in the entire Arab world. This combined with the revolt against the Alawi-Shia led state in Syria has led to anti-Shia Salafi sentiments which have benefitted Daesh.
As a result of these trajectories, Daesh inherited a Salafi-Jihadist ideology that developed over the last thirty years to restore the Caliphate, appealing to an Islamic imaginary across borders. Its self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was able to claim both religious and temporal authority among believers within his state and globally.
The Daesh Version of History
Despite its loss of territory, Daesh will claim that it scored a religious victory that other regional and Islamic actors have failed to achieve. Daesh will continue to declare that Al-Qaida and the various Muslim Brotherhood movements are irrelevant as it alone achieved an idealised Islamic state, resuscitating an authentic Islamic source of authority, the caliphate.
For close to four years this state withstood the military might of the US and its coalition. Even though it might have dwindled down to a relatively small number of motivated followers, it will argue that this vanguard will be enough for another resurgence.
To some degree, Daesh’s version of history is not delusional. The Daesh phenomenon had been unprecedented in the history of the region. For the first time an Islamist non-state actor, which was simultaneously national and transnational, carved out a new state in the Arab world, a system of states whose borders have remained relatively unchanged over the last century.
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