On 29 June 2014, the Sunni Salafist group the Islamic State (abbreviated IS, ad-Dawlah l-ʾIslāmiyyah in Arabic) declared an Islamic caliphate in areas they had conquered in Syria and Iraq. They also dropped the geographic designation of Iraq and Levant (al-Sham) from their name, signalling their expanded ambitions. Whereas ten years ago al-Qaeda was the trademark that struck the most fear into the hearts of the West, now the most worrying brand is the Islamic State. I don’t use the word “brand” frivolously – the success of the Islamic state is not only the consequence of successful warfare but also skilful manipulation of the Western media and communication networks, including the social media, in the interests of jihadism, one of the most extremist ideological currents of Salafism. The appalling videos of public executions of Western journalists and aid workers serve their media campaign and are intended to sow fear among potential adversaries, communicating: we are strong and dangerous, don’t interfere in our affairs, hands off of us. The image of Islamists as being stuck in the Middle Ages is outdated: today’s Islamic extremists are quite at home with the latest technology.

The Islamic State is descended from the onetime Iraqi offshoot of al-Qaeda, emerging in Iraq in 2004 after the American-led coalition’s intervention and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. It was led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (born Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh), who established the predecessor of the Islamic State near Herat, Afghanistan – the jihadist group Jama’at al-Tawhidwal-Jihad. It is believed that al-Zarqawi came to northern Iraq from Afghanistan back in 2002. Jihadis of different ethnicities from the world have come to fight for the Islamic State and a number of them are of Western origin, both Muslims born in Western countries and Westerners who have converted to Islam. Since 2010, the Islamic State has been led by the Caliph Ibrahim – full name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samar-rai. Before the Western coalition intervened, he was a cleric in his hometown of Samarra in central Iraq. According to some sources, the future Caliph had been held by the Americans at Camp Bucca near Umm Qasri, but the Americans did not consider him a threat and released him. As a theorist, Caliph Ibrahim is not on the same order as al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In terms of leadership style, he is a commander-warrior who has served a field commander in combat and still takes part in planning military operations. This has increased his personal popularity among fellow fighters.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said: “The real face of Islam is a peaceful religion based on the dignity of all human beings.” Kerry argues that the Islamic State does not share much in common with the religion it uses as its emblem.(1) Salafis are a conservative Sunni sect that advocates a return to the original Islam (salafi is Arabic for forebears) and have particular influence in the Persian Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It isn’t quite accurate to equate the different branches of Salafism and jihadism, but at least three branches of Salafism can be distinguished: non-violent Salafism – madkhalists; political, aka mainstream Salafism; and militant Salafism – jihadists (Qutbists).(2) The Islamic State represents the adherents of the most extremist offshoot of Salafism – the jihadist factions. Ideologically, in Islamic countries gripped by an identity crisis, Salafism offers a certain clearly defined alternative to Western influences, which in the Syrian context can be linked with resistance to the secular Assad regime, while in Iraq it takes the form of resistance to the Shiite-led government, which Salafis consider usurpers.

The civil war in Afghanistan and the fight against the Soviet occupation consolidated the Sunnis’ sense of unity and strengthened their religion-based identity. The roots of many of today’s Jihadist groups (including Al Qaeda, The Islamic State and others) stem from Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the “Father of Global Jihad,” the Palestinian Abdullah Yusum Azzami and his young protégé Osama bin Laden organized assistance for Islamic militants. When Azzami was killed in 1989, bin Laden assumed the mantle as leader of Al Qaeda. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, they sought a new enemy and turned their gaze westward. In the 1990s, the leader of the Qutbist group Egypt Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, decided that it was time to think bigger and shift the focus from fighting secular authorities in Egypt to the Western world and the United States. To achieve the bigger goal, they joined forces with al-Qae-da, which had gained much experience in the Afghanistan war in organizing international networks for supporting Islamist militants.

The American and NATO-led operations in the Middle East – in Iraq and Afghanistan – have proved that international crises cannot be resolved only with military force but that effective peace-building programme must also be involved. US President Barack Obama kept his election promise and withdrew American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. That same year, Public Enemy number one Osama bin Laden was found and killed. Bin Laden was succeeded as al- Qaeda leader by al-Zawahiri. At the end of this year, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force will close and responsibility for ensuring national security will pass to local security forces. All this could be taken for signs of stabilization in the Middle East, but in fact the news coming out of the region is still very worrisome. In autumn 2013, the US was not far from attacking Assad’s regime in Syria and intervening in the civil war on the opposition side, when Syrian government forces were caught using chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus, Ghouta, in August 2013. In many respects, the decisive factor here was that British Parliament voted against military attack, which resulted in one of the US’s most solid allies having to take a step back.

The opposition from Russia and the West over Ukraine has had a stimulating effect on the ambitions of the Islamic State, as the focus has moved away from the Middle East and they have been able to strengthen their grip, occupying extensive areas of Sunni settled territory in Iraq and many areas in Syria, controlling the expansive Raqqa province in eastern Syria. Today we are facing the fact that the greatest threat to international security is posed by President Assad’s enemies from the Salafist factions the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra and the West may be forced to work with the old enemies Syria and Iran. Iran has significant influence on the governments of Syria and Iraq. In this struggle, the West is in the same camp as Russia, which has otherwise turned its back on the West. Islamic terrorists have threatened to bring the fight to the northern Caucasus, which cannot be ignored, considering that many northern Caucasians are fighting in the Islamic State’s ranks. The Georgian born Islamic State field commander and belie-ved military leader Abu Omar al-Shisha-ni (born Tarkhan Batirashvili) served in the Georgian armed forces up until 2010 and took part in the Russia-Georgia War in 2008. He was later placed under arrest on charges of arms smuggling. After his release he left the country and reportedly joined Islamic warriors in Syria.

Three years after the pullout, the US is back in Iraq, even though deployment of ground troops appears not to be in the plans (3) and Iraq’s government army is being supported by airstrikes on the Islamic State positions. The Americans will presumably try to use the same tactics in Iraq that worked in toppling Gaddafi, where NATO air power provided support for anti-government operations on the ground. Deployment of ground troops would mean Obama would go back on his popular election pledge, which could negatively impact the Democrats’ 2016 presidential election campaign. Australia has already rushed to support of the Americans, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott announcing deployment of a 600-strong contingent to the US bases in the UAE.

France has vowed support for airstrikes against the Islamic State positions in Iraq and made reconnaissance flights above Islamic State-occupied areas. But there is much more caution with regard to any actions on Syrian soil, even though Obama has warned that airstrikes may be unleashed against Islamic State bases in Syria.

Youths carry banners during a protest against the U.S. airstrikes on the Islamic State (IS) in Raqqa September 26, 2014. The banners in Arabic read, "By the soul, by the blood, we sacrifice ourselves oh state. by the soul, by the blood, we sacrifice ourselves oh Baghdad" (centre),"Who did not die by Assad s planes, died by Saudi family planes, The planes became many, but the strikes are one" (left) Photo: Scanpix

During September, the Iraqi government managed to stabilize its positions somewhat and the progress made by the Islamic State has slowed. It’s hard to say how large a share of the supporters of the Islamic State are militants from Iraq’s Sunni opposition, as there are a number of other Sunni factions fighting against government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters – for instance, the Naqshbandi army led by Saddam Hussein’s vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who helped the Islamic State conquer Mosul and Tikrit but later is said to have declared war on the Islamic State. The cooperation between the Islamic State and other opposition factions, even with those who share the same philosophy as the Islamic State, has suffered due to the extremist and brutal methods employed. The actions of the Islamic State have been condemned by many prominent Salafist clerics in the Persian Gulf states (for example, Adnan al-Anoor). In Syria, the Islamic State has fallen out with another influential Islamic extremist organization, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the latter was supported in its conflict with the Islamic State by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The increase in tensions in many places around the world has made the strategic endgame on the chessboard of global politics nearly unpredictable, because the interests and conflicts between parties are not as clear as they were during the Cold War. The forces aligned against each other over Ukraine are on the same side of the battle lines in the Middle East. In September, representatives of 30 countries gathered in Paris to discuss how to fight the Islamic State. Among them were the US, Russia, China and many Arab countries. The strengthening of the Islamic extremists could offer Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin a major opportunity to reconcile with the West as their interests and fears in the Middle East are similar. We don’t know how well

Putin understands chess – to this point he has tried to play checkers using chess pieces. But should the Islamic State carry out its plans, and consolidate power in the Middle East and, as said, take the fight to the Caucasus, control over eastern Ukraine could be a Pyrrhic victory for Russia. The converging interests in the Middle East may provide a way for Russia to escape Western sanctions and leave their last loyal ally in the Middle East – Syrian President Assad’s regime – in power in the Middle East as well as strengthen Russian influence in Iraq and Egypt. Another prospective partner for the West against the Islamic State is Iran, which could also emerge victorious from the chess match in the Middle East if it succeeds in normalizing its relations with the West and retains key allies among the Arab countries – Iraq and Syria. In addition, Iran could bargain for concessions regarding international control over their nuclear programme, offering in return a more lasting partnership. However, the 35-year-long standoff with the West makes progress on the western front difficult for Iran. Iran’s political leaders, led by President Rouhani, are open to cooperation, but the religious leaders led by Ayatollah Khamenei have tended to be dismissive.

(1) Brittany M. Hughes. „Kerry: ‘The Real Face of Islam is a Peaceful Religion’.” CNSNews, September 3, 2014. http:// www.cnsnews.com/news/article/brittany-m-hughes/kerry-real-face-islam-peaceful-religion (11.09.2014)

(2) Other spellings are also encountered. Named after Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), who was one of the leaders of the Moslem Brotherhood in 1950s and 1960s Egypt. His brother Muhammad Qutb (1919–2014) was later the teacher of al-Qaeda leaders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden.

(3) Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has not completely ruled out this possibility.

Holger Mölder is an Associate Professor in Security Policy and Strategic Studies at the Estonian National Defence College