Legitimacy, Strategy, and the Islamic State

The recent wave of international terror attacks committed by the Islamic State (IS) — in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and France — mark a significant departure from the group’s past strategic approach. For much of its existence, most notably under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s overriding priority has been state-building. Localized terrorism in Iraq and Syria, widely used by the organization as it transitioned from an insurgency to a proto-state, has been employed as a method of population control. Through coercion and fear, IS has been able to force the compliance of the majority of the populace residing in its areas of operation while killing off those who might pose a challenge to its territorial holdings. While never viewing external terrorist attacks against enemies far and near as undesirable per se, IS leaders dedicated themselves principally to the construction of a caliphate in the Sunni Arab heartland. Strategic priorities dictated its behavioral choices and allocation of resources.

As such, IS’s turn toward international terrorism should be viewed as a break with its past modus operandi. The questions are: why, and why now? While no single approach will adequately answer these questions, there is a framework that can go a long way toward triangulating IS’s goals, current situation, and strategic choices. This analytical approach focuses on the ways in which IS seeks legitimacy among the individuals and groups it purports to represent, over which it endeavors to achieve authority.

“… ISIS’s core message is about raw power and revenge, not legitimacy.”

The question of IS’s legitimacy seems an odd one on numerous levels. First, it is difficult to reconcile the behavior and professed ideology of Baghdadi and his lieutenants with modern understandings of legitimacy which are grounded in democratic theory. Second, if we grant that IS is a “pseudo-state,” as Audrey Kurth Cronin argues persuasively, then methods of legitimization should be central to the group’s longevity. Yet, IS appears to have no desire to win over the Sunni Arab population’s allegiance. Rather, Cronin argues, “… ISIS’s core message is about raw power and revenge, not legitimacy.” Third, if IS’s state-ness is in doubt, as per Kai Bird and Susan Goldmark’s labeling of Baghdadi and company as a “criminal mafia,” then efforts to assess the group’s claims to legitimate authority over those it governs is premature at best. (Then again, it was the great Charles Tilly who likened the state to a protection racket.)

Legitimization of the Islamic State is, however, a core objective of its leaders and the struggle for legitimacy affects their strategic choices regarding international terrorism. To understand how legitimacy matters to IS, it is necessary to grapple with what IS is. Conceptually, the Islamic State is an apocalyptic proto-state and leader of the global jihadist movement. On both sides of the ledger, in terms of its state-building efforts and its place in the movement, the issue of legitimacy is central.

The Ideological Context of State Building

The Islamic State emerged in an ideologically-charged environment. As with all ideological contests, the stakes are nothing short of how to best order society politically, economically, and socially. There are three ideological contests that overlay IS’s emergence and behavior. The first is a contest between secularism and Islamism, one analogous to the Wars of Religion which ripped apart Europe centuries ago. In this context, the central issue is whether state-society relations should be structured according to the dictates of “human reason and experience,” or whether Islam should be the guiding force behind politics, law, and the economy. The second is a contest within Islamism between Sunnis and Shia, a sectarian divide whose origins center on a dispute over who could claim the mantle of authority after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The reality of this dispute in the lives of Muslims around the world is visceral — for many it is a core aspect to their identity. For Islamists of all stripes (who make up majorities in Middle Eastern and North African countries), politics and religion are co-extensive and inseparable.

The vast majority of Sunni states in the region are, of course, worldly in their outlook.

But there is a third ideological division, and it is the factor that animates the Islamic State most directly: the split within Sunni Islamism between those who view the state as a temporal entity and those for whom the state is a mechanism to bring about the apocalypse. The vast majority of Sunni states in the region are, of course, worldly in their outlook. Despite the differences in regime type, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey are all states whose central political questions involve matters that are bound to recognizable political time.

Not so with the Islamic State. Rather, apocalyptic expectation guides IS’s strategy — its means, ways, and ends. As Graeme Wood, William McCants, and others have argued, state-building is a central component to IS’s medieval ideology. The restoration of the caliphate is paramount because it is the vehicle that will deliver salvation to the community of true believers. To achieve this objective, moreover, territory must be acquired, institutions must be fashioned, and citizens must be kept. No state, apocalyptic or otherwise, can exist without territory. Strong institutions are necessary for the enforcement of sharia. And, because it is the duty of Muslims to immigrate to the caliphate, its appeal must be clear. Yet, the distinguishing characteristic of the Islamic State is its brutality. Rape, slavery, maiming, and death are produced by Baghdadi’s organization on an industrial scale; norms of warfare deemed essential to the facilitation of the apocalypse. Whence the legitimacy?

Prospective Citizens of the Islamic State

The answer cannot be that IS seeks to win the hearts and minds of the population that happened to be living on the territory that IS managed to capture. That population is the subject of coercion and repressive forms of control. Nor can the answer be the broader region’s Sunni populace that rejects IS’s actions and ideology. Rather, its target “citizenry,” the population who can grant the Islamic State the legitimacy it needs to survive as a caliphate, are those Muslims from around the world who elect to immigrate to the swath of territory held by IS to actively participate in this cosmic political construction effort. By targeting those who can “vote with their feet” and join in Baghdadi’s enterprise, legitimacy can be claimed. And, because radicalization is a necessary condition to make that choice, violence — propaganda by the deed — is the preferred method of recruitment.

As the anti-IS coalition strips territory away from the group, it thus incentivizes IS to engage in actions that compensate for its losses.

This logic of legitimization of IS’s state-building effort (engaging in brutal acts to attract radicalized individuals from within and outside the region) is largely performance-based. So long as the state continues to expand its territory, it can reasonably expect a steady stream of newly radicalized “citizens.” If, however, territorial acquisition slows or reverses, then IS’s logic of legitimization requires an alternative means of demonstrating success. International terrorism fits the bill nicely. Not only does it reinforce IS’s violent identity, but it has the benefit of showcasing IS’s power projection capacity and will to carry on the fight. As the anti-IS coalition strips territoryaway from the group, it thus incentivizes IS to engage in actions that compensate for its losses.

Leadership in the Global Jihadist Movement

As its territory expanded, institutional capacities grew, and willingness to engage in the most horrific acts of violence became clear, the Islamic State eclipsed al Qaeda as the leader of the global jihadist movement. In so doing, IS changed the structure of that movement. Under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda served as the central node in a distributed transnational terrorist network. It was, in other words, the hub in a network whose structure depended not on territorial control, but on the connections between it and disparate local jihadist struggles. To maintain its position in this network, al Qaeda had to be fully engaged in the enterprise of transnational terrorism — either independently, or through its network of affiliates.

What is new is the nexus between the jihadist network and a state.

IS’s role in this movement is different to the extent that it has convinced the organizations within the movement of its claims to authority as the caliphate. Rather than being a central node in a distributed network, IS anchors the movement to a particular place and to a specific set of political-religious institutions. As such, the more oaths of allegiance that Baghdadi receives from around the world, the broader and more diverse the groupswho view IS as the legitimate head of the movement, the more the caliphate is seen as having global hegemonic reach. That individuals and groups far and wide spiritually commit themselves to a single individual isn’t new; bay’ah is as old as Islam itself. What is new is the nexus between the jihadist network and a state. And, the success of the state is the source of IS’s legitimacy in the jihadist movement. Without territory to control and institutions to enforce sharia, Baghdadi cannot be considered the caliph. Should the state fail, then the oaths received from groups across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa would be non-binding.

Within this context, IS’s struggles to expand its territorial reach make the turn to international terrorism a logical choice. Spectacular attacks like those in Paris have a dual pronged effect. First, they distract attention away from IS’s territorial losses. Second, they show that IS can outbid any potential challengers to IS’s leadership position in the global jihadist movement. The latter is likely the more powerful rationale: while al Qaeda has taken a backseat to IS, it is nevertheless active and remains deadly, as the attacks in Mali demonstrate. Surpassing al Qaeda in the scale and scope of international terrorism would thus buttress IS’s position in the movement at a time when its hold on territory is being degraded.


Engaging in international terrorism is a strategic choice for the Islamic State. Neither its ultimate objective nor its core identity requires that it directly perpetrate terrorist attacks around the world. At the same time, IS is motivated by legitimacy concerns among the two groups that constitute its core constituency: radicalized individuals (the would-be citizens likely to join the state-building project) and the groups that make up the global jihadist movement. Examining IS’s behavior through the lens of legitimacy suggests that the turn to international terrorism is motivated by three potential strategic logics: recruitment, outbidding, and distraction (though the last is the least compelling). Alternative rationales are possible, however, and the legitimacy framework should not be pushed too far. For example, Baghdadi could be motivated by the dictates of his apocalyptic ideology directly, in ways not mediated by legitimacy concerns. In this case, the logic suggests that provoking the West into a major war is best achieved by international terrorist attacks.

It would be folly to predicate America’s strategic responses on such false dichotomies as, “fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here.”

In either case, the discomfiting conclusion is that the Islamic State will more actively engage in acts of international terrorism. If legitimacy concerns are at the forefront of Baghdadi’s strategic calculations, then the group’s efforts in this domain are likely to increase with whatever successes the anti-IS coalition wracks up. It would be folly to predicate America’s strategic responses on such false dichotomies as, “fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here.” IS cannot be seen as simply one type of threat in one part of the world. The imperative for the anti-IS coalition, then, is to ensure that robust international counter-terrorism efforts go hand in hand with the efforts to contain and strangle the group on its own territory.

Spencer Bakich is an associate professor of political science and the Director of the National Security Program at the Virginia Military Institute.  He is the author of “Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars.”

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