Since early September, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has repeatedly referred to the Islamic State jihadi group (also called ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) as a “death cult”. He’s fond of the phrase, pulling it out almost every time he answers questions about IS — which is often. In a year that brought civil war in Ukraine, a devastating Ebola outbreak in Africa and two catastrophic air disasters, IS has managed to dominate the headlines. One reason is the effectiveness of the group’s propaganda. The stark images of orange-clad victims murdered on their knees on hot desert sand are not easily forgotten, and much has been written about the group’s Al Hayat media centre, which creates and distributes high-quality and multi-language videos, online publications and newsletters. In mid-September, announcing Australia’s military would be mobilised against the group, Abbott’s rhetoric cranked it up a notch. “This death cult is uniquely evil in that it does not simply do evil, it exults in evil,” he said. “This death cult has ambitions way beyond those of any previous terrorist group.” But what does IS actually want?

In a video released in July, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said it was incumbent on all Muslims to establish a caliphate, or an Islamic theocratic state. “This is an obligation on the Muslims. An obligation that was abandoned for centuries and disappeared off the face of the Earth,” al-Baghdadi said. Osama bin Laden had argued for the formation of an Islamic state before 9/11, telling a Pakistani newspaper in 1997 that Muslims must find a leader and create a “pious caliphate” governed by Islamic law. IS, in its previous incarnation as an al-Qaeda partner in Iraq, was also clear about its goal of establishing a new caliphate even a decade ago.

Essentially, a caliphate is an Islamic state that unites Muslims under the rule of a caliph — a supreme ruler and “successor” to the prophet Muhammad. The Rashidun Caliphate, which emerged following Muhammad’s death in 632, covered 31 modern-day countries across North Africa and the Middle East. The caliphates that followed are regarded as Islam’s golden age, but since 1258, when Baghdad fell to the Mongols, no caliph has been universally accepted.

The term was largely irrelevant until the 1800s, when Ottoman sultans styled themselves as caliphs to gain influence and legitimacy. In modern times, various Islamic rebel states have been established (with IS’s iteration the most recent), though most have failed to establish stability and quickly dissolved. While conceptually the caliphate unites all Muslims, under leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the IS caliphate does not recognise Shiite Muslims or moderate Sunnis. IS’s fanaticism is often linked to the Saudi Wahhabi movement of the 18th century, which sought to purge Islam of impurities and branded non-followers as apostates. The Wahhabis wield considerable influence in Saudi Arabia, where sharia law is most closely followed, though their relationship with IS is murky at best. IS has said it wants to spread the caliphate beyond Iraq and Syria into Jordan, Kuwait and even Israel, but it is unlikely to try to get that far for the moment.


Source: ISIS/Ali Soufan

The two challenges for IS are stability and support — and the group is well aware of this. The group is the most dominant militant group in the region, meaning challenges from rival factions are unlikely. It also helps when the Iraqi army, which contains some soldiers not all that keen on fighting fellow Sunnis, abandons its posts — as in Mosul and other cities. Meanwhile, there are reports that al-Nusra Front, a rival Sunni jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaeda, wants to reconcile with IS in the face of US airstrikes. Meanwhile, IS understands that to keep support from the public they need to look after civilians, or at least be seen to. Some Sunnis are resentful of the harsh treatment by outgoing Shiite Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as their loss of power, and are already sympathetic to IS as a result. IS has been keen to establish the legitimacy of its “state” through governance, setting up police forces, collecting taxes, controlling schools, and even delivering welfare and aid. As shown in Vice’s now infamous documentary, the group also encourages light-hearted activities to endear themselves to the public. In one scene from the film, IS fighters are even seen bathing in a river, laughing and splashing in glistening afternoon sunlight.

IS’s own “documentary” — The Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun — was released online last month. Detailing the group’s military achievements, it contains more slow motion shots of rocket-propelled grenades being fired than you could count, but also plenty of insight into the group’s aims. The most obvious is recruitment: the film uses the stylistic accoutrements of Hollywood blockbusters to create a package that’s instantly familiar to young Western men. It presents IS fighters as brave and heroic, able to overthrow whole cities with ease, and features dozens of shots of IS convoys rolling through Iraqi and Syrian towns, black flags fluttering in triumph. “It’s as if Allah has blessed the Islamic State,” says a captured Syrian regime soldier in Raqqa. “They defeated 800 of us with just a few dozen fighters.” A few moments later he is shot in the head by an IS fighter, along with others, and kicked into a grave he had been forced to dig himself.

That the film ends with the murder of Assad-regime soldiers is perhaps instructive. While the film continually baits and mocks the United States and the West, inviting Western countries to battle, much of its invective is directed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fighters, rival jihadi factions, and assorted “secularists”. The taunts towards the US give supporters a focal point to unite against, but ultimately the film wants to create fear closer to home. Making an enemy too scared to fight is a good tactic — and it’s worked in some of IS’s battles — but as we’ve seen in Kobane, the IS forces are not invincible. The city has been under siege for weeks now, yet under-equipped Kurdish fighters have held strong even as IS sends in heavy reinforcements. The struggle to take Kobane is hardly the work of an indomitable organisation. But as some have pointed out, it helps the IS cause immensely if we continue to talk about the group as great conquerors rather than just a mid-sized militia with a knack for ultra-violence.