In July 2014, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of the Islamic State, which politically controlled 100,000 km2 of territories in Iraq and Syria (Walker, 2017). It resulted from the widespread chaos in the Middle East post the Arab spring, followed by the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, along with the power vacuum in Iraq since the withdrawal of US forces. This enabled IS to militarily and geographically expand (Gunaratna, 2016). In addition, al-Baghdadi called Muslims worldwide to join IS’ agenda; either by travelling to IS’ territory or becoming lone-wolves in their home countries, as a strategy of fighting the far enemy (i.e. the West) (Speckhard, Shajkovci and Yayla, 2017). Since then, the West has declared IS a global security threat (International Crisis Group, 2016). In response, in August 2014, the US launched unilateral airstrikes against IS territories and called for a US-Western coalition during the NATO summit on September 4th and 5th to combat IS’ threat (EPRS, 2018). This was followed by a series of deadly conflicts between IS and Western countries (Al-Mohammad, 2019).
To be able to combat terrorism, it is essential to understand how its supporters think and translate their beliefs into actions. Thus, using the main assumptions of constructivism, this article analyzes how IS, as the leading actor in this international security dilemma, portrayed its ideology, interests and identity versus the West; to justify its behaviour with other actors on the international stage. For analytical purposes, the article refers to some phrases from issues 2, 3 and 15 from IS’ English magazine, Al-Dabiq.
Constructivism, Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism
As the social theory of international politics, constructivism investigates the different modes of interactions between states and non-state actors (e.g. terrorist organizations); by examining immaterial rather than material power (Theys, 2019). It, as Wendt explained, investigates actors’ Identities, Interests and Actions/Behaviour, which are inter-connected and construct social reality (Krishnaswamy, 2012).
Constructivists highlight the importance of ideas/ideologies, which reflect how actors perceive the world and conceptualize what is right and wrong (Schild, 2011, p.40). They are cognition plans or mental frameworks that create actors’ identities, determine their interests and influence their actions/behaviour (Valensi, 2015). Consequently, actors identify who they are (i.e. self-recognition) and who the other actors are. Then, influenced by ideas/ideologies and self-other perceptions, actors’ interests (i.e. what they want) and course of actions/behaviour are defined (Schild, 2011, p.41). Besides, constructivists argue that norms, which are the actors’ social values, are shaped by ideologies/ideas and play a vital role in predicting how actors might act/behave in a given situation or pursue a specific goal (Schild, 2011, p.40). This introduces the “logic of appropriateness”; whereas actors are expected to comply with the norms/values that match their ideologies and identities; for their actions to be justified/legitimized (Grafelman, 2015).
As part of reality, conflicts are socially constructed; actors define/articulate “security dilemmas/threats” based on their ideas and self-other perceptions (Schuringa, 2016). Consequently, both terrorism and counter-terrorism lie within the scope of constructivism, emphasizing the importance of examining states and terrorist groups/organizations (i.e. non-state actors). This is besides the belief that “one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”. This means that the definition of terrorism and the strategy for dealing with it are not fixed among actors. Constructivism, thus, helps understand the identities and interests of terrorist groups and states and how they perceive each other; to find out what influences their behaviour (Grafelman, 2015). In doing so, Onuf introduced the importance of analyzing how actors framed/portrayed the self and the other (i.e. Mutual Other-ing), their cause, and the perceived threat (Kubalkova, 2019, p.27); to justify their actions in deterring that threat. Hence, framing helps actors to achieve their goals while seeming ideologically reasonable strategically (Schuringa, 2016).
Constructivism and IS’
This section examines IS’ ideology and interests and how it identifies itself versus the West to legitimize its cause and justify its terrorist attacks.
IS’ Ideology and Identity
It is important to understand IS’ ideology because it is what attracts its supporters and members around the world, especially in the West (Yesevi, 2014; Chan, 2015). IS follows a fundamentalist, Jihadi-Salafi and a Takfiri version of Sunni-Islam (McCauley, 2016, p.63; al-Istrabadi & Ganguly, 2018, p.7). This ideology is based on apostasy. This is because, following IS’ religious interpretations, Sunni Islam is the “true” and “ultimate” religion. Besides, all individuals should accept IS’ religious principles; otherwise, they would be considered God’s enemies and hypocrites. Consequently, they should either be converted or killed (Grafelman, 2015; Kobs, 2016, p.41). In other words, based on IS’ ideology, it is the right thing to kill both: non-Muslims and Muslims who do not follow IS’ vision of Sunni Islam; for it is religiously forbidden to be tolerant of, or accept, the existence of “non-true” believers (Armendariz, 2017).
Moreover, IS identified itself as the bearer of the Muslims’ cause and the defender of the Muslim community (Schmid, 2015, p.10). This was evident in how it constructed its identity versus the West in its magazine, Al-Dabiq. IS portrayed Western values of liberty and democracy as “complete falsehood” and that those living in Western countries are “void of faith” (Dabiq: 2: p. 5; Dabiq: 15, p.20); living in “Dar al-Kufr” (i.e. the source of blasphemy) (Dabiq: 2, p.5). Besides, those living and working there are, in fact, enslaved people and subordinates, not freemen as they believe, to a “Kafir (i.e. infidel) master” (Dabiq: 3: p.29).
On the contrary, IS identified itself as “Dar al-Islam”, which is where justice, peace and true faith exist, and the source of salvation for “true” believers (Dabiq: 2, p.5; Dabiq: 3: p.10). In that sense, IS promised its supporters justice and more decent life in the new Caliphate, a life blessed by God, unlike the infidel life in the West (Heck, 2017, p.249). Thus, IS portrayed joining its cause and waging a Jihadi war against the “infidel” west as a “religious duty” that should be fulfilled for being a “good” Muslim (Dabiq: 3, p.27).
IS’ ideology and identity are reflected in its interests in reviving Islam. It aims to create a Caliphate ruled by Shari’a law derived from its interpretation of Sunni Islam (Gunaratna, 2016). This Caliphate is to be of a global reach, unifying Sunni Muslims, of any gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality, under one political unit (Al-Istrabadi and Ganguly, 2018). Proclaiming itself as a “Caliphate” has historical and political indications with a religious justification. It gives an impression of IS’ desire to return to the time of the righteous caliphs when “real” Islam was strictly applied on personal and political issues and when Islamic conquests and Jihad were a religious duty and accepted by Muslims everywhere (El Damanhoury, 2020). Consequently, it is a religious duty to revive Islam and apply Shari’a law, which would not be done without the efforts of the “Divine Authority on Earth”, as IS declared itself in one of its published YouTube videos “, This is the Promise of Allah” (Valensi, 2015; Kobs, 2016, p.42).
Building on the above discussion, IS could legitimately wage its Jihadi war on the West on ideological and military fronts. IS launched a series of terrorist attacks in Western Europe, as in UK (2014), Paris and Copenhagen (2015) and Brussels (2016) (Global Terrorist Index, 2016; European Parliament, 2017). However, IS still attracted supporters and sympathizers worldwide, especially from Western European countries. Statistics show that more than 2,500 and 5,000 Europeans joined IS in the Middle East in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Besides those who have been radicalized to become recruiters and lone-wolves in their homelands (European Parliament, 2017; Campelo et. al, 2018).
This is because IS’ behaviour, based on the assumptions of constructivism, although violent, is justified by its ideology and self-other perceptions. Hence, IS’ members believe that they must rescue non-believers from infidelity because it is a “religious duty”. Furthermore, those who did not convert or join its cause deserve to be killed, following IS’ religious interpretations.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to understand what influences its course of action against other actors in the international arena. This is essential not only to predict its future actions but also to design effective counter-terrorism policies. This is because not all conflicts and wars are waged on military fronts. On the contrary, the ideational aspects are of significant importance as well. Intellectual terrorism is today’s national security threat to many states. Hence, to mobilize supporters in the West, IS relied on the careful use of words in its magazine, Al-Dabiq. This is to convince its target audience that it is in their best interest to join the fight against IS’ enemy, which should be the enemy of all “true Muslims”. In response, European governments should investigate the push factors that encourage IS’ supporters to get convinced and join the fight. This is more important for preserving national security than killing or prosecuting IS members.