In this section of our series on the Islamic State, we seek to assess the Islamic State’s ability to create a real and sustainable polity. The capture of Ramadi (Iraq, Anbar, e.g. Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy DC, 17 May 2015) on 17 May and Palmyra (Tadmur, Syria, Homs) three days later on 20 May 2015 (e.g. Oryx blog, 21 May 2015) by the Islamic State – showing among others the ability to win against two different governmental armies, one supported by the US-led coalition of 60 plus states (U.S. Gov) plus Shi’a militia and probably Iran, the other by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, two strategic cities on two fronts separated by 620km – the sudden acknowledgement by U.S. officials, that no, the war against the Islamic State is not so successful (Hannah Allam, McClatchy DC, 21 May 2015), only reinforces the vital importance to answer in-depth questions such as: Is the Islamic State about to collapse (obviously no, but the next battle(s) won will most probably generate again this type of gratuitous assertions)? Is it strengthening? Will it last one, two, or ten years? How far will it expand?
Meanwhile we shall develop a better understanding of the type of polity created, which is indispensable to create a proper strategy to oppose an enemy. Previously, we focused focus on the overall structure of the Islamic State and its Khilafah, which can meaningfully be understood through the wilayat system, each wilayat being characterized by the degree of Islamic State-like administrative and military control over the population and the territory.
Here we shall focus on the top of the hierarchical structure – or rather part of it – through which the Islamic State, declared as Khilafah, is ruled, namely the Calif, the Shura Council and the Sharia Council (the military and security Councils will be addressed in forthcoming post). We shall notably synthesise research made at different points in time and from different perspective, top down and bottom up. What shall concerns us most here is the extent of legitimacy, which may be separated in two components: the legitimacy of this specific type of Calif as office and the legitimacy of the specific individual who became the Calif, i.e. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is necessary to focus on legitimacy in the Islamic State’s own terms because it is a novel type of polity that is engineered, which does not recognise any other system (see previous articles).
The second part will be seen from the point of view of the possibility and impact of a change of Calif. It is indeed crucial to understand this aspect because it will have direct bearings on the efficiency of the policy offering bounties for al-Baghdadi and others within the Islamic State, as done by the U.S. State department (e.g. Meg Wagner, “U.S. State Department sets $20 million bounty for 4 wanted ISIS terrorists“, New York Daily News, 7 May 2015). It would also relativise repeated rumours regarding al-Baghdadi’s death, now temporarily stopped since its latest radio message (see “A New Audio Message by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ~ March Forth Whether Light or Heavy“, al-Furqan Media, May 14, 2015, Pietervanostayen).
The Calif, the Shura Council and the Sharia Council
As seen (H.Lavoix, “Structure and Wilayat”), according to a July 2014 source, then used in multiple reports (The Telegraph, 9 July 2015; Barrett, The Soufan Group; possibly Al Akhbar?; CNN), the Islamic State and its Khilafah are ruled by a highly organised and hierarchical structure, topped by the Calif (Khalif, Khalifa), the Shura Council and the Sharia Council. The BBC (3 September 2014), relying on documents provided by “international investigators funded by the British government” working in secrecy, suggests that right below the Calif are four councils: the Sharia Council, the Shura council, the Military Council and the Security Council, the structure then being reproduced at wilayat then quitahaat (local) level. The sources used by the investigators are unknown. However, considering the dates and reference to “a Sharia Triad” (see BBC, diagram), as mentioned first by Suhaib Anjarini (Alakhbar English, July 10, 2014 – see below Sharia Council), we may wonder if the source used by the investigation team is not here again the same. The Military and Security Councils, as well as the lower levels structure will be analysed in forthcoming posts.
The Calif, currently Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al Badri al Samarrai), leads the Islamic State and its Khilafah. According to Barrett (2014: 24, 29-31), he was chosen by the Sharia Council, and approved by the Shura Council, while Haji Bakr (the man behind the documents on security and military organisation unveiled by Der Spiegel) had been instrumental in engineering this choice .
The Shura and Sharia councils are two essential bodies of the Islamic State for the legitimacy of both the Khilafah and the Calif, legitimacy which is closely entwined with the practical operation of the polity, as we shall see.
Although it is difficult if not impossible to find a single, unified model of what a Khilafah should be, and although each scholar and related political group will have its own interpretation, it would seem that we may nevertheless find enough similarities among some of them to at least draw a general broad framework.
According to Reza Pankhurst, an “Islamist ideologue”, member of radical party Hizb-ut-Tharir, which promotes the implementation of a “pure Khilafah” where the Calif has sole authority (29 Jul 2014; El-Affendi, 2007: 236-237), a Calif’s legitimacy derives from a contract (pledge of allegiance, bay’a), which includes three elements: the leader, the consultation and consent of the people who will be led, and who can be represented by “ahlul halli wal aqd – in the literature the people who bind and tie matters, meaning people of influence and power in a particular society – who collectively represent the will of that society and whose decisions are meaningful and widely accepted as authority”, and the pledge itself.
If we turn to South Asian Islamist scholar Maududi, as explained by El-Affendi of the University of Westminster (2007: 238), focusing on an Islamic state (which El-Affendi differentiates from a Khilafah), “an Islamic state should consist mainly of the leader (imam, khalifah, or amir) and a Shura council. Both the leader and the members of the Shura council should be individuals of high integrity, learning and commitment to shari’a.” (Note “Islamic state” (s with a lower case) will be used as generic for the political form, Islamic State (S with upper case) will be used for the specific political entity also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh etc.)
Assuming both statements hold true for this Islamic State, as it seems they do, then, we find the raison d’être of the two Shura and Sharia Councils. The Shura Council represents the consultation and consent of the people. Meanwhile, the Sharia Council represents ruling according and in obedience to Islamic law.
The Shura Council
The Shura Council thus represents the ruled and, as a result, should, ideally, for Maududi, “also be broadly representative” (El-Affendi quoting Adams, 1983: 123-124).
It should thus first be consulted for the selection of the ruler. Then, it should accept (consent) whoever has been selected as Calif. This corresponds to Barrett’s explanation (p.29). This is a crucial role in matters of succession, should the Calif come to die.
Outside those exceptional circumstances, the Shura Council has mainly a consultative role, assuming the Islamic State follows Pankhurst’s focus on the Calif, Mauduri’s approach, or current Saudi Arabia’s Majlis-ash-Shura consultative system: “It is the leader however who is the final arbitrer on what the shari’a says. He should consult with members of the Shura Council and others, but is not bound by their opinion (El-Affendi: 238 using Adams: 126).” However, according to El-Affendi (p.238), still using Maududi’s understanding, “the Council may dismiss the Khalifa if it is determined that he was no longer competent to do his job.” This possibility to dismiss the Calif is also found in Suhaib Anjarini analysis of the Islamic State (Alakhbar English, July 10, 2014), although underlined as theoretical.
The Shura Council of the Islamic State would have counted between 9 and 11 members by July 2014 (Anjarini, Ibid). Barrett (p. 24) had possibly identified seven of them. However, a reference to the early system of shura during Muhammad’s era, by Khilafah.com (most probably the website of party Hizb-ut-Tharir), points out that the Shura Council was then constituted of fourteen members, seven among the first followers and seven among those who helped at the arrival in Medina. It is thus not impossible, considering the Islamic State’s emphasis on original texts that, similarly, the current Islamic State’s Shura Council could count also 14 members, or could aim at reaching this number, maybe integrating new leaders having pledged allegiance.
The Shura Council would also be tasked, according to Barrett (p.29), with being “responsible for conveying directives from Abu Bakr (the Calif) down the chain of command and for ensuring that they are carried out”. However, this does not fit with the “consultative and consent” role of the Shura Council we saw, and the absence of source does not help us assessing the analysis. What we may have here, is that members of the Shura Council may also hold other positions of responsibility in terms of governance (see Khilafah.com), and it might be through these roles that directives are carried out.
The Sharia Council
The Sharia council, headed by the Calif, is the supreme judiciary body of the Islamic State (Barrett: 30; March & Revkin, “Caliphate of Law”, Foreign Affairs, 15 April 2015; Anjarini, Ibid). It would count six members (Anjarini, Ibid), and would be responsible to choose a new Calif should the actual one die (Ibid).
According to March and Revkin, “Under the authority of the Sharia Council, each wali (the governor of a regional administrative division called a wilaya) oversees a sharia deputy who in turn supervises the wilaya-level sharia commission. The sharia commissions (hayʾat al-shari‘a) are responsible for overseeing courts and the work of judges.” If we follow Barrett (p.30), the Sharia Council would also, through the sharia commissions, oversee the Islamic police, as well as Islamic outreach (da’wa).
However, even though March and Revkin’s work was published in April 2015, for the part above it relies on Anjarini analysis, which dates July 2014. Thus, if we compare with Al-Tamimi “Aspects of Islamic State (IS) Administration in Ninawa Province” January 2015 analysis (part 1, 2, 3) using more recent documents – thus also a more evolved type of administration, it would appear that the sharia commissions (called committees by Al-Tamimi, part 3) are, in fact, the predecessor to the newer and more administratively evolved Diwan al-Hisba (responsible for the enforcement of public morality, includes the Islamic police) and Diwan (al-Awqaf wa) al-Masajid (responsible for dealing with waqf property endowments, management of mosques and religious institutions; in charge of sharia institutes and probably of da’wa).
We can thus make as hypothesis that the Sharia Council, through each wali and its sharia deputy (the process for the sharia deputy’s selection and appointment still being unknown) oversees both the Diwan al-Hisba and Diwan (al-Awqaf wa) al-Masajid. It is, however, not immediately clear if it also oversees the Islamic courts mentioned by March and Revkin but not by Al-Tamimi, as well as the Diwan al-Qaḍa wa al-Maẓālim (‘Judgements and Injustices Administration’) identified by both Al-Tamimi and March and Revkin.
The Sharia Council thus, somehow, represents both the judiciary as well as a kind of legislative body, however not completely as far as legislation is concerned. Indeed, interestingly, March and Revkin (Ibid.) show that the Islamic State would be following the “classical Islamic theory of statecraft known as siyasa sharʿiyya“, where it is recognized that “rules do not exist for every conceivable matter” and rather than trying to create them all, “legitimate authorities—from market inspectors to military commanders and governors up to the caliph himself—[that] have the right to make lawlike decisions as long as those decisions are issued solely with the welfare (maslaha) of the Muslim community in mind and do not violate known laws.” All “legitimate authorities” would thus constitute the Islamic State legislative body. The criteria for legitimacy of these authorities is left unexplained. We may however assume they are appointed hierarchically (note, that all officials can also be tried and convicted of crime, as shown by the various campaigns of purge, e.g. Ali Mamouri, “IS uses intelligence to purge opponents“, Al Monitor, 28 October 2014).
Finally three Sharia learned scholars would also assist the Calif, according to Anjarini (Ibid), but we do not know if they are part or not of the Sharia Council (the way the article is written let assume they are not, but there is no further evidence).
What does this structure implies in terms of legitimacy?
Legitimacy of the office: The Calif of the Khilafah of the current Islamic State
Consent and dynamic legitimacy
The question regarding the legitimacy of the office of Calif can be split in two. The first series of argument will revolve around the idea of consent: is there the consent which is necessary to see a legitimate Calif? The legitimacy of the Calif of the Khilafah of the current Islamic State is indeed questioned, or there would be no war, currently, within the Sunni world. Being questioned, then it means there is no total consent, thus that the legitimacy is questionable.
Yet, as we saw previously (see Structure and Wilayat), the Islamic State, the Khilafah and its Calif have also gained in terms of legitimacy since July 2014, notably each time a new group pledges allegiance. The latest pledges of allegiance were done on 9 May 2015 by Algeria’s Battalion Skikda and by the Tunisian Mujahideen of Kairouan on 18 May 2015, (Williams, Breibart, 19 May 2015). Meanwhile, allegedly but not confirmed by the Islamic State, one part of al-Mourabitoun, Saharan Islamist group would have pledged allegiance, although Mokhtar Belmokhtar – co-founder of the group – declared the pledge invalid because not authorised by their own Shura Council (Reuters, 17 May 2015).
Pledges of allegiance made within existing wilayat in Mesopotamia are also recorded and used as psyops products. Here, however, the sad, crushed and desperate look of the Tribes Sheiks can be neither missed nor understated. Similar emotions can be read on the faces of many in those Islamic State psyops photo reports (another new type of psyops products started on 11 June 2014) involving Tribes. The same fear and despair may be read in the eyes of some people in those cities recently captured, in raw footage, possibly now published as new psyops product by “In-Depth Agency” (وكالة أعماق) since 18 May 2015. We chose neither to specify which video or report, nor to display pictures to ensure as much as possible this could not be used against those people.
Consent is thus obviously also obtained under duress. This type of consent seems to be also allowed by Khilafah texts, which, meanwhile, explain how Salafi legitimacy can be gained, and how it is related to the rule of consent
“The actual viewpoint is that if after an aspiring ruler takes power by force and is subsequently accepted by the people, at the point of being accepted and taking a pledge of allegiance from the people he can be considered the legitimate ruler, despite his actions in coming to power remaining sinful. In other words, his legitimacy is not a result of power projection, but rather is derived from the resulting consent of the people.” Pankhurst (Interview)
We are thus faced – as for all systems – with a dynamic legitimacy, which may increase and decrease according to actions and interactions with other actors, across space. From the point of view of those opposing the rule of the Islamic State, this is a crucial point to consider. Indeed, the more groups – wherever they are located – pledge allegiance, the stronger a legitimacy that may have been initially fledgling, and this, again, across territories. And the more consent is gained, the more likely consent may also be obtained, including because people, groups and tribes have no other choice. The feeling of an absence of choice, implied by control and coercion, but also enhanced by an apparent failure of other actors to bring meaningful change, would most probably rule out any possibility of rebellion.
Hence, once more, this implies that a war strategy against the Islamic State needs to be designed globally and systematically and not be solely compartmentalized according to specific territories, the focus being on Iraq and Syria. This is not to deny the specificity of each situation, for example the diplomatic quagmire in Syria, but to emphasise nonetheless that the whole of the Islamic State must be understood and considered. Libya, the Sinai or Afghanistan, may be as important to win the war against the Islamic State as Syria or Iraq. Similarly, for the coalition, thinking only in terms of air strikes (or special operations as we shall see below) does not make sense and a comprehensive strategy must be created, involving and considering all actors, as well as all political tensions and grievances as soon as possible.
Depending upon a Khilafah, sustainable and truly Islamic
The second series of argument according to Pankhurst – true enough supporting a Khilafah that would be implemented by his own political party – questions the legitimacy of the Khilafah itself, either because it would not be viable as a state or because it would fail to properly apply Sharia – knowing that this is open to interpretation according to where those making the evaluation stand. Indeed an illegitimate Khilafah would de facto rule out the legitimacy of the Calif.
We have already seen the importance of establishing a sustainable state prior to declaration of a Khilafah, as argued by the Islamic State itself (see H Lavoix, The Islamic State psyops – Words War, part “The Islamic State and the Khilafah”) . This makes our efforts in this series at understanding the Islamic State system, notably in view to evaluate its strength and sustainability even more important because it will also contribute to answer, albeit partially, to the legitimacy of the Khilafah. However, we must differ our answer and wait for the end of the assessment.
As far as obedience to the sharia is concerned, the existence of the Sharia Council and the way the Islamic State is organised administratively around the Sharia, as seen above, would tend to answer positively to this part of the legitimacy of the Khilafah and its Calif.
The Calif and the man
Let us now turn to second element of legitimacy, the legitimacy of a specific individual to hold the position of Khalif. Considering the current emphasis in believing that it is foremost in winning a war to target and killing specific leaders, as again exemplified in the U.S. special forces operation that succeeded in killing Abu Sayyaf (Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan, The Washington Post, 16 May 2015) and the related constant rumours according to which al-Baghdadi has been killed, or is so severely injured that he cannot be the Calif anymore, understanding these elements is absolutely crucial.
The legitimacy of the Calif as man would depend upon “classical conditions of eligibility”, which, according to March and Revkin (ibid., using the Islamic State document “Madd al-ayadi li-bayʿat al-Baghdadi,”) were explained as fulfilled by Al-Baghdadi, as soon as 22 July 2013. Enrico Galoppini (“Considerations over the institution of the Caliphate and the “Justice” in Islam“, Il Discrimine, 16 December 2014: fn 15) lists those conditions as:”1) Justice; 2) Science of the governmental and administrative matters; 3) senses in good condition: hearing, sight and speech; 4) Healthy parts of body: able to move and stand up; 5) Know how to administer the subjects and take measures of general interest (maslaha); 6) Courage and bravery in protecting the watan (the “Homeland”, the “Fatherland”, but also the place where you reside) and lead the jihad against the enemy; 7) descent from Banû Quraysh (the clan to which Muhammad also belonged): for some theorists it became an exceeded condition, although rarely some spoke of a‘jâm (“non-Arab”).” Further, El-Affendi (2007: 238) explains “The ruler is to be selected on the basis of his qualifications and it is not important how this selection takes place as long as it commands the assent of the community as a whole.”
If the current Calif is considered as legitimate, then what will happen if it were to die? Would that mean that the Islamic State would immediately crumble or, to the least, start unraveling? Al-Tamimi argues that “IS’s basis for claiming to be a state and caliphate is closely tied to Baghdadi’s persona”, and that no one else has been properly “groomed” as a successor (“Can Islamic State survive without Baghdadi?, BBC, 10 November 2014).
Yet, as evidenced by March and Revkin (Ibid.), rules for allegiance exist in case of succession, as planned when the Islamic State was still the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS – see text). We may assume that similar rules have been stipulated for the Khilafah, considering the importance of having a legitimate Calif for the whole endeavour. Furthermore, all senior leadership and sympathisers risk their lives in the survival of the Khilafah: should the Khilafah collapse, it would be very surprising that various tribes, factions, armed groups and governments in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, grant Islamic State’s officials fair trial and a peaceful life in a prison, while no one would probably accept them for golden retirement. It is thus highly probable that this senior leadership has prepared for this eventuality. This might even entail a pre-designation by Al-Baghdadi of a potential successor, that could be known solely to the Shura and Sharia Councils.
As a result, the death of the current Calif would most probably be turned into an event where mourning but also martyrdom and revenge would be emphasised. A new man would then be presented then approved by the Shura Council. The conditions of eligibility of this man would then be revealed, from his impeccable faith, his justice, valour, courage, and strength, his history within the context of the current struggle to his lineage from the Prophet’s family.
As al-Tamimi underlines, Al-Baghdadi initial grooming was made through radio statements. Thus, the current Calif could be, for many or most, mainly a voice and a representation, whatever each wants to project upon this ever-present yet actually so remote Calif, of course within the bound of what an ideal Calif ought to be. In this context, changing individual may not be that difficult.
As far as the practical operations of state are concerned, the structures that are currently created would be tested but would help absorbing the change of leadership.
The possibility to see a change of Calif without it implying automatically the end of the Khilafah would be supported by history throughout space and systems. Everything being equal, the Ottoman empire did not disappear each time a Sultan died, nor the European Kingdoms each time a King died, nor the Chinese Middle Kingdom when emperors passed away, nor the South East Asian polities each time a ruler disappeared, etc.
It is the “rulership” that imbues the man with the qualities needed, including in terms of sacredness, whatever its form according to the system, not the other way round. True enough, some rulers are better than others, and, ideally, the ruler must also avoid being obviously too untrue to its mandate, but legitimacy systems have been designed and constructed over time for this very reason: allowing systems to continue beyond mere human mortality.
Historical and recent facts, furthermore, also support the continuation of the Islamic State beyond the death of its leader: the death of Bin Laden (e.g. BBC, 10 Sept 2012) did not imply the end of Al Qaeda. Nazi Germany did not collapse because Hitler died, but Hitler committed suicide because Nazi Germany was collapsing (e.g. Wikipedia). In the world of private corporations, the death of de Marjorie did not mean the bankruptcy and disappearance of Total (21 October 2014, Total).
Similarly, at lower levels in the hierarchy of the Islamic State, it is not because Abu Sayyaf was killed that the Islamic State will be stopped selling its oil. As underlined by Steven Bucci (“Don’t Be Fooled: America’s ISIS Crisis Is Just Beginning“, National Interest, 20 May 2015), precious intelligence will be gathered, but “unfortunately, Special Mission units seldom win wars.” The system may also be temporarily disrupted, but, most probably, nothing more. An interesting question would be to know if the temporary disruption added to intelligence are sufficient to carry out other successful operations and are part of a larger strategy, designed across the three levels of analysis (individual, state (or more largely polity) – adapted to the specific polity which is the Islamic State – and system, see Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, 1954). The need for secrecy related to war makes it impossible to answer this question. It is, nonetheless, considering the current narcissistic heavy trend at work in Western societies, imperative to underline the need not to think solely in terms of operations against individuals.
Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.
Featured image: From Dabiq 8, p.49 “Go and read the Quran” Ayyun As-Sikhtyyani.
Abedin, Mahan, “Interview with Reza Pankhurst”, Religioscope, 29 Jul 2014.
Adams, CharlesJ. 1983. “Mawdudi and the Islamic State.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, ed. John L. Esposito, 99–133.
Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “Aspects of Islamic State (IS) Administration in Ninawa Province” 1, 2, 3, January 2015.
Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “Can Islamic State survive without Baghdadi?, BBC, 10 November 2014.
Anjarini, Suhaib, “The Islamic State: from Baghdadi the founder to Baghdadi the “caliph”, Alakhbar English, July 10, 2014.
Barrett, Richard, The Islamic State, The Soufan Group, November 2014.
Bucci, Steven, “Don’t Be Fooled: America’s ISIS Crisis Is Just Beginning”, National Interest, 20 May 2015.
El-Affendi, Abdelwahab, “Democracy and its (Muslim) critics: an Islamic Alternative to Democracy?”, in Islamic Democratic Discourse: Theory, Debates, and Philosophical Perspectives, ed. M. A. Muqtedar Khan, 2006.
Galoppini, Enrico, “Considerations over the institution of the Caliphate and the “Justice” in Islam”, Il Discrimine, 16 December 2014
Lavoix, Helene, “The Islamic State psyops – Words War”, Red (Team) Analysis, 16 January 2015.
March, Andrew, & Mara Revkin, “Caliphate of Law”, Foreign Affairs, 15 April 2015.
Reuter, Christoph, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State”, Der Spiegel, 18 April 2015.
Sherlock, Ruth, “Inside the leadership of Islamic State: how the new ‘caliphate’ is run”, The Telegraph, 9 Jul 2014.
Waltz, Kenneth, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, Columbia University Press, 1954.