The Islamic State’s ideology is rooted in jihadi-salafism, a distinct movement in Sunni Islam, according to a new report by Cole Bunzel at the Brookings Institution. Although the group rose to prominence in 2013, it had been articulating its goals since 2006. “The presentation was not oblique; the ideology of the Islamic State was, and remains, on full display,” the report states. The following are excerpts from the full publication.

For all the headlines surrounding the Islamic State on a daily basis, the group remains for many shrouded in mystery. As Major General Michael K. Nagata, special operations commander for U.S. Central Command, confessed in late December 2014: “We do not understand the movement [i.e., the Islamic State], and until we do, we are not going to defeat it.” Of the group’s ideology he said: “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

It is this idea—the ideology of the Islamic State—that forms the subject of this paper.

The pervasive sense of mystery about the group is in a way understandable. While by no means new—it was founded in 2006—the Islamic State seemed to come out of nowhere in 2013–2014. Only in April 2013 did the group, known officially as the Islamic State of Iraq, draw international attention as something more than a mere front for al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch. Announcing its expansion to Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq rechristened itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), and so reintroduced itself to the world. After gaining resources, recruits, and momentum, the group redoubled its efforts in Iraq, capturing most of the Sunni areas of that country in June 2014. It then declared itself the caliphate, or the global Islamic empire, nixing the “Iraq and Sham” part of its name in a nod to its extraterritorial ambitions.

The events marking the Islamic State’s dramatic rise from obscurity were sudden and unforeseen. The group and its ideology, however, were well within view for nearly eight years. Frequent, lengthy audio addresses from its senior leaders, on numerous political and theological subjects, were broadcast ad nauseam between 2006 and 2010. This self-marketing campaign laid bare what the Islamic State stood for and what it intended to accomplish. The presentation was not oblique; the ideology of the Islamic State was, and remains, on full display.

The air of mystery about the Islamic State derives from the lack of attention prior to 2013. Conventional wisdom, both in the Middle East and the West, held that al-Qaeda in Iraq had merely changed its name in October 2006 to the Islamic State of Iraq. As is now known, the significance of the “name change” was much greater than was appreciated at the time. It signaled the start of an ambitious political project: the founding of a state in Iraq—a proto-caliphate—that would ultimately expand across the region, proclaim itself the full-fledged caliphate, and go on to conquer the rest of the world. The extent of these ambitions went largely unnoticed.

The first iteration of the Islamic State project was a dismal failure. Founded by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State emerged at a time when Iraq’s Sunni insurgency was fast losing momentum. The announcement of the state, meant to concentrate the energies of the insurgents, met with little enthusiasm. The Islamic State of Iraq would linger, but it was in disrepair for years. By the time the last U.S. forces left Iraq at the end of 2011, it was a seemingly negligible political actor. But in 2012 the Islamic State resurfaced in a bold attempt finally to implement the plan that it had embarked upon six years earlier.

This paper sets forth the main lines of the ideology of the Islamic State and carefully follows its historical trajectory. Part I, Doctrines, takes up the group’s fundamental religious and political beliefs and places them in the broader context of Islamic political thought. Part II, Development, examines the ideological history of the Islamic State, including the jihadis’ own debates surrounding it, in four discernible stages. The first is that of the genesis of the Islamic State idea in what is called the Zarqawi prelude (2002–2006), the period of jihadism’s initial rise in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (d. 2006). The second is that of the Islamic State of Iraq (2006–2013), a largely failed attempt at state formation coinciding with jihadism’s decline in the country. The third is that of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (2013–2014), which saw the much-delayed success of the Islamic State idea in the group’s expansion to Syria. The fourth is that of the Islamic State as the outright caliphate (2014–present).

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