Yaakov Lappin is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post. His groundbreaking and exclusive coverage of jihadi activity on the Internet has appeared in the London Times, Jerusalem Post, and Ynetnews, among other media outlets. A number of the author’s reports for the London Times focused on an online declaration of war issued by notorious Islamist leaders in Britain six months before the July 7, 2005, London Underground bombings. He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel. His book, Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet, was published in 2011. Follow him on Twitter:
The dramatic and rapid takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria by Islamic State forces may seem sudden, but these events are in fact the latest phase in a disturbing and dangerous process, which has been brewing for many years.
At its core, this process began with the rise and spread of a virulent, Islamist-jihad ideology in the 20th century. The ideology survived—and flourished—despite many setbacks, largely thanks to its marriage to the internet at the start of the 21st century, which served the caliphate-jihad ideology in the same way that air travel could serve a virus seeking to spread around the world.
In recent years, the organizations created by this ideology were most prepared and motivated to fill vacuums created by the collapse of Arab state sovereignty and sectarian warfare, resulting in the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in 2014.
Today, the soldiers, commanders, ideologues, and financers of the Islamic State are putting into action a plan—and an alternative identity—that has been developing steadily for years. Their actions come as no surprise to anyone who listened to their openly stated intentions, and observed the determination with which they work to achieve them.
In 2005, I found myself in an internet chatroom, run by an exiled Syrian Islamist cleric named Omar Bkari Muhammad, who had taken refuge in Britain [before leaving for Lebanon].
“We have lost the caliphate in 1924, but continue the victorious group into today,” Bakri told young British Muslims in an audio chat room. “If you want to be killed, you’ve got to have fire. Fight until Allah’s law is dominant or until you become a martyr,” he said with a charismatic voice that emerged from my computer speakers.
Bakri’s message was met with enthusiasm by his online listeners, and prompted a six-year research project on my part, to map out the presence of online radical jihadis. The result of my efforts was a book called Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet, published in 2011.
Towards the end of my book, under a chapter dealing with future scenarios, I postulated that not long after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the Iraqi state would collapse. Pro-Al-Qaeda forces [the Islamic State had not yet splinted off from Al-Qaeda at the time of writing] will sweep into Sunni areas of central Iraq and converge on Baghdad, declaring the establishment of an Islamic state, I wrote three years ago.
I envisaged the triumphant calls made by jihadi leaders to celebrate this development, and suggested that “the nascent Islamist state would come under immediate attack by Iraqi Shiite militias backed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards units.
I did not have a crystal ball at my disposal when writing the book or that chapter; I had merely internalized the seriousness of those seeking to create a state they called “the caliphate,” and observed how they had begun brainwashing online followers into becoming its future supporters and soldiers.
In my book, I simulated an Al-Qaeda takeover of Baghdad, which might result in millions of Shi’ites fleeing the city, and could result in thousands being killed trying to escape the newly established Islamic state.
None of these developments today would be possible without the calls for war left behind in the 20th century by ideologues such as Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian cleric who mentored Osama Bin-Laden, and who wrote a set of orders that are now bouncing around the internet in the form of an ebook.
In his work, Azzam defined the establishment of a caliphate as the only way to save humanity from its own ignorance and degeneracy. He said that jihad is the only way to establish this state.
Azzam also issued a guideline saying that jihadis should focus on the territory most likely to fall to them. This edict enabled the mobilization of foreign jihadi volunteers to Afghanistan in the 1980s, in the same way that foreign volunteers are now pouring into Syria.
Works by the Egyptian jihadi theorist, Sayyid Qutb, are also key to understanding the Islamic State today. Qutb’s 1964 book, Milestones, is a key text of the modern jihad movement. Qutb divided the world into a “house of Islam,” where the most stringent and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam reigns as law, and the rest of the world, which is a “land of war.”
The purpose of the jihad is to set up a house of Islam, and broaden its borders until the whole of the planet is under its sovereignty.
In Qutb’s view, secular or traditional Arab governments are Western puppets that promote a fake version of Islam, a view that helped Qutb find an untimely death through execution in Egypt in 1966. Nevertheless, he had planted a seed of radicalism, whose branches and leaves are visible all over the Middle East, and beyond, today.
So long as the ideology of global jihad and “caliphate” continue to infect the minds of young Muslims, and so long as moderate Muslim ideas remain weak and defensive, the danger posed by this dark vision will continue to cast a shadow on our times.
A critical aspect of winning this struggle is to understand what motivates those who fight in the ranks of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, to be aware of the power within their hate and calls to violence, and to use that knowledge to thwart their nefarious designs.