In the second year of its caliphate, will IS try to set up official relations and seek international recognition?

Since its inception, news of Islamic State (IS) has splashed across global newspapers. The nascent entity emerged suddenly and quickly expanded. Its brutality has commanded widespread attention and generated mounting concern. A few months ago, IS entered its second year, demonstrating a unique ability to survive despite being targeted by joint international efforts and military campaigns. This article takes a deep look at the life of IS, assesses its achievements and attempts to answer the question: will IS seek official relations and international recognition?

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Islamic movements have a deeprooted history in the Middle East. They took on a mature political form with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, five years after the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate. The failure of the Brotherhood to master challenges and to fulfil the aspirations of its supporters led to the emergence of numerous other movements with an Islamic orientation. This trend escalated with the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, resulting in the birth of the Jama’at al-Tawhidwal-Jihad (JTJ).

In 2004, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, JTJ swore allegiance to the al-Qaeda network – becoming Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Following al-Zarqawi’s death in 2006, AQI became the Islamic State in Iraq – the forerunner of IS.

History aside, IS (an acronym for “Islamic State”) or DAESH (an abbreviation of the group’s name in Arabic, ad-Dawla al-Islamiyyafil-Iraq wa-Sham) has become one of the most influential and controversial forces to penetrate the Middle East. Dramatic victories and the control of Mosul in summer 2014 were stepping stones that ushered in and solidified IS’ rule, hence its declaration of a caliphate. Intriguingly, the group has succeeded in morphing from a non-state actor into a quasi state.

At this point, IS’ territory consists of a decentralised system of 16 provinces, each one further divided into districts. Every province is controlled by an emir (a governor), who manages the emirs of his districts. These district emirs, in turn, micromanage their populations and maintain control of oil fields. The IS caliphate has a Shura Council (a parliament), but its role remains consultative. The final word rests with the so-called caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The caliphate has also developed several departments including media, justice and security as well as its own education system (based on an austere interpretation of Islam).

IS has demonstrated a powerful capacity to attract the support of ideological and real-world fighters and to cultivate terrorist cells around the world. Experts have highlighted IS’ propaganda machine as the key to its recruitment success. With as many as 90,000 Twitter accounts globally, IS’ virtual online army has proven adept at the use of technology – especially social media platforms. The recent, flagrant call for Sudanese youth to join the group is a salient example of IS’ ability to run a sophisticated propaganda campaign.

In battle, IS has employed tactics so brutal that even al-Qaeda has denounced them. Their methods involve the destruction of property, torture and execution in the crudest fashion, all intended to terrorize and intimidate their enemies. Nevertheless, according to The New York Times, IS has outpaced the Syrian and Iraqi regimes in administrating the cities it controls. After years of civil war, chaos and instability, things are now in order; streets are cleaner, businesses are more organized and, if you follow their dictates, you can live in safety.

The same conclusion was reached by other western sources who emphasise that IS runs life in the cities it controls as any other state would: issuing identity cards, driving licenses and work permits. It develops infrastructure and fights corruption. IS’ swift occupation of a large swathe of Iraq and Syria and its ability to stretch its tentacles in ten countries through "either IS or affiliated groups" – Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan – highlights the group’s ambition and its capacity to control and manage large territories.

According to security experts, IS’ strategy is based on survival followed by expansion. After the initial survival phase, IS began to create provinces and districts. The group then started to expand its sphere of influence into other regions. In his book Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State, Andrew Hosken uncovers a five-year plan designed by IS. Hosken outlines IS’ map of a new world order that includes Spain, Greece, the rest of the Balkans, India and the top half of Africa in a greater, ultra-strict caliphate or Islamic State.

After more than two years, IS is continuing its campaign while regional and global powers lack a common vision on how to respond. The Saudis are busy with their southern front, which they consider to be their greatest existential threat. And it has become obvious that Turkey’s principal objective is not fighting IS but rather preventing the Kurds from gaining ground.

And while the international community certainly dreads the prospect of any further IS expansion, it is distracted by other matters and continues to misjudge the menace posed by that ‘distant’ region.

In sum, considering the regional and international conditions outlined above and in light of their achievements on the ground, it is clear that IS is within striking distance of further stabilizing its rule. The situation is defined by IS’ dogma, strategic goals and atrocities on the one side, and the international community’s inability to respond to this state of affairs on the other. Thus the answer to our original question is clear, at least in the near term: IS will not pursue official international relations, and the intentional community will not accept this entity’s recognition.

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