Isis, a year of the caliphate: What is it that the so-called 'Islamic State' really wants?

In the third instalment of our series, we ask a panel of experts what are the group’s short, medium and long-term goals

Adam Withnall,Danny Romero
Monday 29 June 2015 18:45 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When it declared its territories as a caliphate one year ago, Isis stated its ultimate aim as the establishment of a single, global state under its interpretation of Islamic rule.

Conquering the whole world is clearly a target for the extreme long term – particularly for a group which appears to be struggling to advance much beyond its swathe of northern Syria and Iraq.

So what does Isis really want? Here we ask a panel of leading experts what goals the militants claim to have – and how much of that they can practically achieve.

To expand like the Nazis did in Europe

Joseph Willits is an official with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) and a former teacher based in Syria

Isis’s main goal is create a state under a Caliph in Muslim-majority lands. Its expansion should be regarded in similar terms to that of the Nazis in Europe, and the ambitions it has on the key capitals of the region; namely Baghdad and Damascus.

Isis has already begun the eradication of the borders of Iraq and Syria and would like to do the same elsewhere. It will focus on the most tempting targets where similar conditions existed prior to their takeover in much of Iraq and Syria. The weakening of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could allow for expansion there.

To consolidate their rule

Daniel Koehler is the director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Studies (Girds)

Their ultimate goal has ever been the establishment of the caliphate, i.e. controlling a certain geographical area and turning into a “real” state. This is the ultimate goal for all jihadist groups.

Practically, right now it is to hold their territory and consolidate their rule, while they also have to push away competing jihadist groups. I also think that after thinking they could overrun Iraq they are concentrating more on Syria and Assad right now.

To establish an effective state

Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, via a spokesperson

What is abundantly clear is that Isil (another name for Isis) falsely uses the name of Islam to commit barbaric atrocities against Muslims and non-Muslims.

Isil claims to have established an effective state for Iraqis and all Sunni Muslims. But the reality is the reverse – people face hunger, disease and violence. Our focus is on keeping the British people safe from the threat posed by Isil. If we allow Isil to grow, the level of threat to this country would increase.”

To rule all the world

Patrick Cockburn is The Independent’s Middle East correspondent

Isis wants all Muslims to declare allegiance to its caliphate and the caliphate to rule all the world. Its more practical objectives are to survive and expand which it has so far succeeded in doing.

To challenge the great enemies of the past

Peter Welby is an analyst for Religion & Geopolitics, part of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation

The final aspect of the Isis narrative is a focus on the end times, drawing extensively on Hadith literature, selectively (and occasionally figuratively, in contrast to the group’s claims to literalism) applied.

This explains the focus on ‘Rome’ (or Byzantium, read: the United States) and ‘Persia’ (Iran), the two great enemies of the growing Islamic empire in the eighth century and beyond. It also draws on the location of the battle.

The town of Dabiq, in northern Syria, features in some prophecies as the location of one of the great battles of the end times. In every issue of the propaganda magazine of the same name, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is quoted: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah's permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

To top the ‘pyramid of terror’

Dr Natasha Underhill is an expert on terrorism in the Middle East at Nottingham Trent University and author of Countering Global Terrorism and Insurgency

The goal of achieving a caliphate is one shared by many extremist Islamic organisations, al-Qaeda included. The aim of Isis is to actually reach this goal and it is well on its way to doing so.

The group is also extremely intelligent in terms of expanding its remit and as we may see in the coming months, political objectives will begin to come more to the forefront than ever before.

Its first goal would be to control as much of the Middle East as physically possible. This would provide it with legitimacy and give it more credence in the eyes of its followers.

The second goal would be to carry off a spectacular attack against the West. A 9/11-esque attack would once and for all place Isis on the top of the 'terrorist pyramid' and for it and its followers signal the death knell for al-Qaeda.

To reach a generation of Muslims

Farah Pandith is a former Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the US State Department and senior fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics

Isis has stated that it wants to build a caliphate, and they have a careful, steady and organised plan to demonstrate the strength of their conviction and purpose, their military strength and the strength of their right to be the saviours of what they see as Islam.

So while they are aiming towards a long-term strategy, they have very specific ways in which they’re doing it.

I think that their ability to get to their goals will only be prevented if we understand that we all need to believe and act. A quarter of the planet is Muslim. That’s 1.6 billion people, 62 per cent of that number is under the age of 30. So that matters to us and we need to understand that the threat is not just Isis but the demographic that is being affected, and the virtual armies that will be around long after Isis is gone.

The sky is the limit

Hassan Hassan is the co-author of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror and associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House

The group is expansionist and thrives on gaining more territory. The sky is the limit for it, unless it is forced to remain in its territories and then shrink. Its ideology is global and inspires like-minded adherents throughout the world.

Just to survive

Charlie Winter is an analyst with the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam

Being a cynic I think Isis’s goal is quite simple – just to survive.

That survival comes through the perception of momentum and expansion, but at the same time Isis’s narrative only works if it is seen to ensure stability and consolidation.

That means its appeal doesn’t just extend to ideological supporters of jihad – it also draws in those who are sick and tired of war.

In the next few months Isis will be trying to establish a sense of stability, then publicise it. Because everything – their brand, recruitment, attacks abroad – all of it is geared towards increasing their relevance.

They talk about the apocalypse, taking Rome, raising the black flag over Buckingham Palace, but I think that’s all just rhetoric. There may be those in their ranks who want to do that. But for the group it is a way of drawing in new recruits – just to survive.

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