As its territorial losses continued, ISIS replaced its narrative of tamkin with an emphasis on the centrality of Islamic beliefs, attempting to boost the morale of its fighters in Mosul, Raqqa and other areas of strategic importance.

In early 2014, cities and towns in Iraq and Syria were falling like dominoes into the hands of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In June that year, the group proclaimed itself a ‘caliphate’, a global ‘Islamic state’, dropping ‘Iraq’ and ‘the Levant’ from its name. However, the size of the territory controlled by ISIS peaked before the group celebrated its first anniversary. During its winning streak, ISIS held to a narrative that claimed that its tamkin (territorial strength) was a product of wa’du Allah (God’s Promise); its deeds were such that this narrative appeared plausible to many. Yet as it began to incur losses, the group modified its narrative, promising – or, perhaps, praying for – a return to tamkin. As such, it has struggled to deliver on the propaganda of the (divine) deed that marked its claim to legitimacy as it expanded. Moreover, territorial losses are having a negative impact on the flow of foreign fighters joining the group, while eroding its online empire. Although the jihadist rivals of ISIS are savouring the opportunity to ridicule its early claims of divine legitimacy, they are not gaining from the group’s change of fortune. In Syria, these rival groups have failed to form a unified front against the regime: in early 2017, they began to turn their guns on one another, possibly paving their path towards self-destruction.

In April 2014, two months before the proclamation of the caliphate, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani concluded his public statement with a mubahala, a public supplication that echoes a verse in the Koran (3:61). He beseeched God to furnish His worshippers with proof concerning the legitimacy of ISIS. Adnani implored God that if ISIS is the true Islamic State, may He reward the group with victory against its enemies; and if it is not, he prayed that God should defeat it and kill its leaders.1 At that time, ISIS was on its ascent and on its path to capture Mosul and link its territories in Iraq with some of those it had captured in Syria. When this happened, Adnani proclaimed the caliphate, the global Islamic State, in June 2014, claiming that the legitimacy of ISIS is premised on God’s Promise, echoing the Koranic verse 24:55 in which God promises true believers tamkin so that they may implement His Law. 

Yet the size of the global caliphate peaked before it celebrated its first anniversary, and by the end of 2016 it had reportedly lost a quarter of its territories.2 Adnani was killed in August 2016, and several other ISIS leaders have met the same fate. If assessing this change of fortune through a religious prism, one would likely conclude not that God had changed His mind about ISIS, for divine wisdom is not vulnerable to the whims of mortals. Instead, a religious person would likely conclude that ISIS is not after all the state that God promised.

Nelly Lahoud is IISS Senior Fellow for Political Islamism.

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Armed Conflict Survey 2017