The Islamic State of Decline: Anticipating the Paper Caliphate

It is still too early to predict the collapse of the Islamic State, but it is telling that the group’s own media, which usually keep to a narrative of unstoppable progress and battlefield success, have begun signaling decline. Last week, an editorial in the most recent issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter, al-Naba’ (“News”), well captured this new outlook. Titled “The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate,” it offers a grim view of the future, both for the Islamic State and for those seeking to destroy it. I provide a full translation below.

Much of the editorial echoes the downbeat sentiments expressed by the Islamic State’s official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, in his recent audio statement of May 21 of this year. While in that statement ‘Adnani was sure to project a measure of confidence, remarking that the Islamic State is “becoming stronger with each passing day,” some of his comments betrayed the starker reality of a caliphate under siege. This was clear in the following queries: “Do you think, America, that victory will come by killing one or more leaders?” “Do you reckon, America, that defeat is the loss of a city or the loss of territory?” Responding to his own questions, ‘Adnani declared that killing the Islamic State’s leaders would not defeat the greater “adversary”—the group itself—and that taking its land would not eliminate its “will” to fight. Even if the Islamic State were to lose all its territories, he said, it could still go back to the way it was “at the beginning,” when it was “in the desert without cities and without territory.” The allusion here is to the experience of the Islamic State of Iraq, which between 2006 and 2012 held no significant territory despite its claim to statehood. For this reason it was derided as a “paper state.” ‘Adnani is thus suggesting that even if defeated the Islamic State could take refuge in the desert, rebuild, and return anew.

The editorial in al-Naba’ emphasizes the same themes. Like ‘Adnani’s speech, it suggests that the Islamic State could soon degenerate into a paper caliphate bereft of its land and leadership. And yet, it adds, this is no matter, for the cycle of Islamic State decline and revival will simply recur. America’s victory will once again prove illusory. If America seeks to claim real victory, it will have to eliminate an “entire generation” of caliphate supporters the world over.

These prognostications offer a striking contrast with those of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from just two years ago. Back then, in an audio address commemorating the start of the holy month of Ramadan, Baghdadi proclaimed the dawn of “a new age,” telling his supporters to “rejoice, take heart, and hold your heads high.” Today, it is Ramadan again, but the once proud and tall Baghdadi is nowhere to be seen. His last audio address was in December 2015. It has been left to ‘Adnani and the editorial team at al-Naba’ to deliver the bad news. The message of these sources could be summed up in the phrase, “brace yourselves for a long and difficult ride.” There remains, however, a hopeful sense that Baghdadi’s “new age” will endure—an age in which the caliphate may rise and fall, but will never truly be erased.

“The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate”

The warriors of jihad did not lie against God or against the Muslims when they announced the establishment of the Islamic State. Nor did they lie when they said it would remain, God willing. And they did not lie against God or against the Muslims when they announced the return of the caliphate and chose an imam [viz., caliph] for the Muslims, as they did not lie when they said it would remain, God willing.

The crusaders and their apostates clients are under the illusion that, by expanding the scope of their military campaign to include, in addition to the provinces of Iraq and Sham, the provinces of Khurasan, the Sinai, and West Africa, as well as the Libyan provinces, they will be able to eliminate all of the Islamic State’s provinces at once, such that it will be completely wiped out and no trace of it will be left. In this they are neglecting an important fact, which is that the whole world after the announcement of the caliphate’s return has changed from how it was before its return, and that by building plans and developing strategies in view of a previous reality, they are making plans for a world that no longer exists at present, and will not exist in the future, God willing.

Just as the Iraq war before exposed the truth of the power of the world-dominating crusaders, demonstrating the possibility of defeating them and showing Muslims that jihad is the only way to establish the state and implement the sharia, so the establishment of the Islamic State revealed to them that the return of the caliphate is something possible without first having to adopt the enfeebling ideas developed by factions and parties claiming to be Islamic, which parties with their ideas sowed hopelessness in Muslims’ hearts about the possibility of establishing the religion before the appearance of the Mahdi and the descent of Jesus, on whom be peace.

Therefore, the polytheists everywhere ought to be sure that the caliphate will remain, God willing, and that they will not be able to eliminate it by destroying one of its cities or besieging another of them, or by killing a soldier, an emir, or an imam—we ask God to protect them all and maintain them as a thorn in the eyes of the polytheists and apostates. For the Muslims after today will not accept to live without an imam guiding them upon the prophetic path: an imam around whom they can gather, behind whom they can wage jihad, to whom they can deliver a fifth of the booty and pay the zakat tax, following thereby the practice of the companions, may God be pleased with them, whom the death of the Prophet, may God bless and save him, did not prevent from choosing for themselves someone to succeed him in establishing the religion and implementing the sharia.

They ought to know that after today they will not be able to deceive the Muslims with idolatrous regimes ascribing sharia qualities to themselves, or with wayward parties and organizations claiming to raise the banner of Islam, while these adopt the pagan beliefs of democracy, patriotism, and others, and make war on those who call to God’s pure oneness and seek to unite the community of Muslims.

The State of the Caliphate has shown all mankind what the true Islamic state is like, how the sharia is applied in full and not in part, how polytheism is destroyed from the earth in which God establishes the monotheists, and how “the religion is God’s entirely” (Q. 8:39). It has thus done away with all the myths of popular support, all the lies of gradualism, and all the fears of the revenge of the crusaders.

They ought to be sure that their terrorizing of Muslims will no longer be effective, that their scaring them from establishing the religion will no longer be effective either, and that the jihad warriors have rejected the argument of the unbelievers when they said, “If we follow the guidance that is with you [O Muhammad], we will be snatched away from our land” (Q. 28:57), as they have rejected their fear of those other than God and their dread of them. What their actions have begun to say is: “We will follow the guidance, establish the religion, compel the community, and fight for this till our heads are cracked open and our limbs are torn apart. Then we will meet God, having been deprived of excuse.” There is no greater evidence of this than the pledges of allegiance, one after the other, to the Commander of the Believers, in spite of the vicious crusader campaign against the Islamic State and its soldiers, to which thousands of jihad warriors have rushed from east and west to throw themselves into the furnace of this war, preferring death under the banner of the community to life in the shadow of the ignorance of factions and parties.

They ought to reevaluate and redesign their plans on this basis. If they want to achieve true victory—and they will not, God willing—then they will have to wait a long while: till an entire generation of Muslims that was witness to the establishment of the Islamic State and the return of the caliphate, and that followed the story of its standing firm against all the nations of unbelief, is wiped out—a generation that knew God’s oneness and saw its adherents, that learned how to make of the doctrine of association and dissociation a lived reality, and how to make of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s practice, and adherence to the ancestors a path of life.

They will have to wait till this entire generation is over to reproduce the generation that was raised at the hands of idolatrous rulers, that grew up under the care of wayward parties and at the hands of evil shaykhs and palace scholars. For the generation that has lived in the shadow of the caliphate, or has lived during its great battles, will be able—God willing—to keep its banner aloft, as was the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Islamic State of Iraq able to bring it back in a stronger form than before, after the crusaders and their clients thought that it had been eliminated and that its trace had vanished from the earth.

The Islamic State will remain, God willing, and the caliphate will remain, God willing, upon the prophetic method, “till there is no persecution [viz., polytheism] and the religion is God’s entirely” (Q. 8:39).

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Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel, the editor of Jihadica, is a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of "Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement."

28 Responses

  1. I don’t think they are “signaling decline”, offering a “grim view of the future” or expressing “downbeat sentiments”. They are merely being realistic and pragmatic; their supporters are not stupid, they can see themselves what the conditions are, and these statements are merely an explanation of the present situation. It is not a shift in message nor a new narrative. You are creating a false contrast by buying into the nonsense idea that IS have been selling “a narrative of unstoppable progress and battlefield success” when IS messaging has always been based on the reality of the present situation.

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