Executive Summary

This report differentiates itself from other analyses of Islamic State (IS) in two ways. Firstly, it takes a broader historical and ideological lens to contextualise the rise of the terrorist organisation and understand why it has been able to amass strength so effectively. Secondly, this report assesses why IS represents something of a game-changer in the global jihadist arena and what this means for Islamist-motivated terrorism in the years to come.

Key Findings

• Despite current enmity, al-Qaeda and IS are intrinsically tied by a similar jihadist ideology and violent interpretation of Islam. However, while al-Qaeda developed an outward-looking strategy under Osama bin Laden that focussed on destabilising the West before trying to establish a “caliphate”, Islamic State has looked inwards first in establishing a state, as part of a strategy championed by the group’s deceased spiritual ideologue, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

• As airstrikes against IS continue, we cannot rule out future coordination between al-Qaeda and IS. The international onslaught on IS is being used by certain jihadist ideologues as yet more evidence of the global conspiracy against Islam, a rallying call to unite against the West and foreign ‘crusaders’. Hence, coordination between terrorist groups otherwise considered irreconcilable is a real possibility.

• IS was able to accelerate its rise to power in light of the Syrian war and has now positioned itself as the strongest opposition force to the Assad government. A ‘humanitarian’ angle of IS propaganda has been a leading factor in cultivating local allegiances as well as attracting a large number of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF), not to mention young women travelling to become wives of jihadists. IS is now channelling a similarly effective narrative in Iraq.

• IS has rapidly become economically resilient through a sophisticated financial model which, unlike al-Qaeda, stresses the importance of autonomy. IS has developed self-sustainability mainly through resource production and sales of oil and water reserves.

• The complexity of IS media strategy – using online tools to circulate multidimensional propaganda in coordination with sympathisers around the world – is something unprecedented for a terrorist organisation. The group has developed its own smart phone apps and distinctive online messaging system, not to mention benefited greatly from a strong unofficial network of support from around the world. Counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts to confront IS’ online presence remain inadequate.

Based on the key findings of this report, Quilliam has developed some recommendations for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policymakers, summarised below:

Since it is likely that further jihadist splinter groups will converge with IS, a longer-term strategy needs to be developed which includes prevention of further proliferation of IS and affiliates within the Middle East. This approach needs to address ways of decreasing jihadist appeal in the region on the whole, particularly among those that have experienced barbaric and violent treatment at the hands of Syrian and Iraqi governments.

• The means by which IS has built up its oil and resource capacities for needs to be addressed and stopped. IS funding streams need to be addressed directly. In particular, the group needs to be stopped from having the ability to purchase the loyalty of the people whose territories they conquer.

• The new frontline of the crisis, the Internet, needs to be better defended. Censoring unwanted extremist content and propaganda materials is not only ineffective, but often counter-productive. It attacks a symptom rather than its cause. The online space needs to be better contested; community-led counter-speech initiatives and critical engagement strategies need to be developed and facilitated.

• Throughout Europe and elsewhere, there is a need to address the roots of radicalisation based on the ideological appeal being cultivated by violent and non-violent extremist groups, online and offline. Extremist groups that recruit and indoctrinate young individuals remain active and are not currently being effectively countered in much of the world, particularly in vulnerable environments such as educational institutions, prison systems and local communities.

• The reality of the threat posed by returning and potential FTFs needs to be better addressed and countered. Governments must identify prospective recruits and prevent them from travelling to join terrorist organisations abroad while also promoting the return of citizens. Returning FTFs should all face due process combined with a statutory de-radicalisation programme that addresses the post-traumatic stress disorder that many returnees will doubtless suffer from. De-radicalisation programmes should also provide tangible deliverables for eventual reintroduction into greater society while addressing the risk of an individual’s backsliding into extremist networks.

• Al-Qaeda’s recent establishment of AQIS demonstrates that it has no intention of being obscured by IS. While its affiliates may have demonstrated more localist ambitions of late, this is more out of pragmatism than anything else. Hence, if circumstances allowed, al-Qaeda would likely refocus its attention west, again. Security services must remain vigilant to this very real possibility.

The full report is available here.