In June 2014, a small force of Islamic extremists routed the Iraqi army and seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The militants then swept south, capturing Tikrit, until they occupied an area the size of the United Kingdom stretching across eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. The militants, who had previously called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, declared themselves the Islamic State and pledged allegiance to a mysterious figure named Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi. Clad in a black turban and flowing black robes, Baghdadi addressed the world for the first time that July and announced the reestablishment of the caliphate, the kingdom of God on earth.
The speed of the Islamic State’s advance stunned onlookers and appeared to herald the collapse of the state system in the Levant after generations of autocracy, economic mismanagement, and political oppression. The Western powers, including those that had drawn the very borders the Islamic State was so gleefully dismantling, seemed paralyzed by the group’s sheer violence. With its mass executions documented in high-resolution video, its enslavement of women and children belonging to the non-Muslim Yazidi community, and its filmed beheadings of hostages, the Islamic State seemed intent on setting a brutal new standard for terrorist violence.
Yet just how new a phenomenon is the Islamic State? Terrorists have been waging violent insurgencies in various forms at least as far back as ancient Greece. Some have been motivated by political causes and have deployed indiscriminate violence in struggles for independence, in national resistance movements, or in pursuit of utopian secular ambitions. Others have been driven by religious fervor, inspired by apocalyptic visions, and led by charismatic prophets. The Islamic State’s rhetoric, filled with references to the end times and the fulfillment of messianic prophecies, may baffle most observers, but it is merely the latest expression of a long tradition of absolutist extremism. Within Islam, this tradition reaches back past al Qaeda and the twentieth-century theoreticians of jihad, through
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