Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Roots of the Islamic State

By Morgan GreenePublished October 24, 2014

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The ideology and history underlying the Islamic State are crucial to understanding the actions of this new terrorist organization. In addressing this threat, Middle Eastern and international powers must work in concert to undermine its ideology, semblance of legitimacy and military force.
By Morgan Greene, 10/24/14

The dramatic rise to power of the Islamic State over the past few months has been met with a mixture of fear, confusion, and interest in the West. The seemingly mystifying actions of this extremist state must be traced back to roots in the 18th century Arabian Peninsula and Salafism (often know as Wahhabism in the West).  Only by comprehending Salafism and the Islamic State's Saudi Arabian ties can we begin to understand its intentions and predict future actions.  

Salafism is a conservative or puritan form of Islam established by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the Nejd, the central region of Saudi Arabia. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab gained power through an alliance with Muhammad bin Saud, a connection that remains in modern day Saudi Arabia

While the Islamic State may claim legitimacy through Salafism and Saudi Arabia, it is important to acknowledge Saudi Arabia's disdain for the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia views the Islamic State as a serious threat especially due to their intentions to occupy the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia has taken a series of actions against the Islamic State including arresting Islamic State supporters and advocating for international action. 

Violence is a crucial aspect of religion and ideology for the Islamic State. While the Islamic State attempts to justify their extremism through Salafism, it more closely follows a sect known as the Kharijites. Violence is viewed as a means of purifying the community. This brand of Islamic extremism is more concerning and more difficult to comprehend than movements such as Al Qaeda that stem from jihadist theory. According to Professor Haykel, an Islamic studies scholar at Princeton University, for the Islamic State, "violence is part of their ideology, for Al Qaeda, violence is a means to an ends; for ISIS, it is an end in itself." In this way the Islamic State may be impossible to appease; even the creation of an internationally acknowledge Islamic State would not fully achieve their purposes. 

In some ways the Islamic State may be less dangerous for Westerners than Al Qaeda, as targets are predominately within the Islamic community. In other ways, the Islamic State is potentially far more dangerous than Al Qaeda if it were to turn fully towards the West, as it is highly organized and has significantly more capital and resources. Recently, there has been speculation with regard to the Islamic State's potential to acquire nuclear weapons due to the vast amounts of territory it now possesses, billions in oil related assets, and a web of global recruits. 

A major part of Saudi identity is ingrained in ibn Abd al-Wahhab's ideology and reinforced by the Salafist resurgence lead by King Abd-al Aziz's in the 1920s. The Islamic State follows some of Salafism's tenants closely, using Salafi religious texts and propaganda.  However, the Islamic State has been called "untamed Wahhabism" because it does not consent to the three pillars of "One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque." The close connection between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State cannot be overlooked. The Islamic State has gained a semblance of legitimacy and recruits due to similarities with mainstream Saudi Arabian religious tradition. Many in the British Secret Intelligence Service MI6 believe that the Islamic State has received crucial and constant funding from donors within Saudi Arabia and Qatar that favors the Salafism tradition and anti-Shiite jihad. 

In sum, while the Islamic State is widely acknowledged as an intolerably extremist group, its roots in mainstream Sunni Islam Salafism promoted by Saudi Arabia give legitimacy to their claim for Sunni youth in Iraq and beyond. Despite surface similarities, Saudi Arabia adamantly opposes the Islamic State. To bring down the Islamic State it will be necessary take a page from their book, fighting with both ideology and force. Saudi Arabia must use its position of religious credibility to undermine the Islamic States's ideology and recruitment base. Threats of force from within the Middle East and abroad must be used simultaneously to coerce a withdrawal of the Islamic State.