The fragile state concept and the emergence of the caliphate

The IS and al-Qaeda in comparison

Bachelor Thesis, 2015

21 Pages, Grade: C


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical background
a. The Islamic State
b. Al-Qaeda
c. Iraq
i. 2000-2001
ii. 2013-2014

3. Concept and Theory of Fragile States

4. Caliphate

5. Method

6. Discussion
a. A fragile state?
b. The loss of physical control of its territory or monopoly on the legitimate use of force
c. The erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions and the inability to provide reasonable public services
d. The inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community
e. Al-Qaeda

7. Conclusion

8. Literature list

“For terrorists are strongest where states are weakest.”- Jack Straw (2002, 98)

1. Introduction

The Islamic State´s [IS][1] establishment of a caliphate in 2014 received massive media coverage worldwide. The media has primarily focused on how IS use mass media, the Internet, extreme violence and lately, the terrorist attacks in Paris. Terrorists who want to establish a caliphate is not new. Why exactly did IS establish a caliphate? Also, why didn´t al-Qaeda? This will be the main questions I want to explore in this essay. To answer these questions, I will utilize the fragile state concept.

Edward Newman (2007, 470) connects state fragility in Indonesia to the unsuccessful elimination of the Jamaah Islamiya group. Like IS and al-Qaeda, Jamaah Islamiya has an agenda to establish a caliphate. Another example was Somalia in 1991 when an authoritarian leader was overthrown and replaced by several different warlords controlling different parts of Somalia (Newman 2007, 468). The Somalian example has similarities with Iraq regarding the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein and the power vacuum in the aftermath. It is, therefore, interesting to take a closer look at the assumed connection between the fragile state of Iraq and the emergence of the caliphate.

Both al-Qaeda and IS have presented the establishment of a caliphate as one of their ultimate goals. Both organizations belong to the same Islamic school of theology: jihadist-Salafism[2]. Both organizations have had success and become dominant groups in the jihadi cause. Therefore, it is interesting to compare the two groups in light of the status of Iraqi state to see if the fragile state concept can explain anything. In this essay, I will compare 2000-2001 al-Qaeda with 2013-2014 IS. I have chosen two different periods in time because after 9/11 al-Qaeda was quickly reduced in terms of operational capabilities and changed its strategy from direct action to controlling and advising other affiliate groups (Thomas Hegghammer 2006, 14). Thus, the assumed best chances for al-Qaeda’s ability to establish a caliphate was before 9/11. IS have fluctuated somewhat more regarding size and power but arguably increased in strength after US troops left Iraq in 2011 and the Syrian civil war erupted. As the caliphate was declared in 2014, this marks the time span that it is interesting to analyse IS.

The research question for this essay is:

“Can the concept of ‘fragile state’ provide an explanation to why IS established a caliphate in 2014, and not the pre 9/11 2001 al-Qaeda?”

This essay consists of five parts: a brief history of IS, al-Qaeda and Iraq, the concept and theory of fragile states and definitions, method, an analysis of the variables and a conclusion.

2. Historical background

a. The Islamic State

According to Cole Bunzel (2015, 4) IS is not a new phenomenon. IS was founded in 2006. Already from the beginning an important part of IS’s goal has been the establishment of a caliphate (Ahmed S. Hashim 2014, 73).

In understanding IS, one has to look at its early leaders. The first leader of IS was the Jordanian Abu Mus´ab al-Zarqawi (Bunzel 2015, 13; Hashim, 69). As the first leader, he had an important influence on IS ideology. His experience during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan with other Jihad-Salafists formed him in terms of religious and ideologically views that would later come to form IS (Bunzel 2015, 13). Following Jihadi-Salafism and influenced by al-Qaeda, he introduced two important beliefs: “[…] an extreme anti-Shi’ism and a focus on restoring the caliphate” (Bunzel 2015, 13).

Between 2000 and 2002 he moved, together with associates, to northern Iraq where they established Jama`at al-Tawhid wa`l-Jihad (Bunzel 2015, 14; Hashim, 69; Stephan Rosiny 2015, 95). The group was a part of the insurgency in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 In 2004 Zarqawi gave bay`a[3] to Osama Bin Laden and renamed the group to al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] (Bunzel 2015, 14; Hashim 2014, 71; Rosiny 2015, 95).

In 2006, AQI established the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI] with Ramadi as the capital and formed the Mujahidin Shura Council with five other jihadist groups in Iraq (Bunzel 2015, 16; Rosiny 2015, 96; Vernie Liebl 2009, 373). As the planning ended, Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike (Bunzel 2015, 16).

Abu Hamza al-Muhajir was announced as the new leader of AQI (Bunzel 2015, 17). Abu “Umar al-Baghdadi” was chosen to be the state leader, effectively replacing AQI with ISI (Bunzel 2015, 17).

The once enthusiastic al-Qaeda leadership showed little interest in the new caliphate. According to Bunzel (2015, 17) this had to do with it had “[…] lost control of the state-building process and tired of the hardline ideology disposing the Islamic State to ignore orders from the al-Qaeda leadership” (Bunzel 2015, 17).

After a U.S. lead alliance forced al-Qaeda to hide in 2008, al-Qaeda and its affiliates halted their activities (Rosiny 2015, 95-96). When Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al-Masri were killed in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed the position as the new leader of ISI (Rosiny 2015, 96). The Islamic State established in 2006 and was, according to William McCants (2015, 124) “[…] nearly destroyed in 2008 because it tolerated no challenge to its authority as a state.”

In 2011, al-Baghdadi established a new affiliate in Syria; Jabhat al-Nusra (Rosiny 2015, 97; Charles Lister 2014, 12). The Syrian group gained popularity by supporting opposition forces in Syria during the civil war. The same year the U.S. withdrew most of its military forces from Iraq.

In 2013, al-Baghdadi wanted to merge the two groups into The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria [ISIS] (Rosiny 2015, 98; Lister 2014, 13). Al-Baghdadi’s plan did not go as planned. Jabhat al-Nusra leader, Al-Jawlani, made it clear that his group had no interest in merging under ISIS and al-Baghdadi (Lister 2014, 12). The conflict escalated between the groups and even al-Qaeda second-in-command al-Zawahiri demanded that ISIS withdrew from Syria.

In 2014, ISIS shifted its focus to Iraq as they occupied several Iraqi cities (Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul) (Lister 2014, 14). In the aftermath of the conquest of Iraq, ISIS declared “…the formation of a transnational entity infinite in its claim to territory and power: the Islamic State.” (Rosiny 2015, 99-100). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became Caliph Ibrahim (Rosiny 2015, 99-100).

The proclamation of a caliphate by IS in 2014 did not impress al-Qaeda, and it's like-minded who believed the timing and the means in which it was established by was wrong (Hashim 2014, 79). IS, on the other hand, “[…] declared that the military success of ISIS provided both the legitimacy and opportunity to declare a caliphate.” (Hashim 2014, 79).

b. Al-Qaeda

It is difficult to pinpoint an exact date in time were al-Qaeda came to be, as the organization has evolved over time. According to Fawaz A. Gerges (2011, 33) al-Qaeda was not fully established as a functional terror organization before the 1990s.

Gerges (2011, 38) argues that it was the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan that fused together what was to become al-Qaeda. This view is supported by John Rollins (2010, 4) who adds that Osama Bin Laden himself went to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The primary focus then was fundraising and recruiting as Bin Laden was a man of means and education. It is not until later in the 1980’s that Bin Laden participate in battles (Rollins 2010, 5).

It was first in 1988 that the first thoughts of al-Qaeda became evident in the aftermath of the success against the Soviets (Rollins 2010, 5). Bin Laden and associates did not agree on the use and strategy of al-Qaeda. In this argument, Bin Laden wanted to use al-Qaeda as a militia against pro-western Arab countries to bring these regimes to an end (Rollins 2010, 5). Others, especially the Egyptians, wanted to use the network to establish a caliphate in Egypt. After the other members of the group either died or were imprisoned, only Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri remained. Consequently, they won the argument, the funds and the control over the organization (Rollins 2010, 5).

In contrast to Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri was not a supporter of transnational jihad targeting the West (Gerges 2011, 41). Al-Zawahiri was an admirer of Sayyid Qutb’s teachings and focused especially on the establishment of a caliphate (Gerges 2011, 41 and 50).

After Afghanistan Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1989 and quickly engaged in security issues (Rollins 2010, 6). The fear of an Iraqi invasion had made the Saudi royal family appeal to the U.S. to station troops in Saudi Arabia (Rollins 2010, 6). Bin Laden insisted on recruiting a “mujahedin” security force rather than an American military force (Rollins 2010, 6). The Saudi royal family did not agree with Bin Laden’s view and decided to have 500.000 U.S. stationed in the country (Rollins 2010, 6). After Operation Desert Strom in 1991, the U.S. kept about 6.000 troops in Saudi Arabia. Even though these troops were limited to military facilities and used for operations outside Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden saw them as occupiers (Rollins 2010, 6). He had now lost all trust in the Saudi royal family (Rollins 2010, 6).

In 1991, Bin Laden established himself in Sudan where installations for the training of al-Qaeda members started (Rollins 2010, 6). From Sudan, al-Qaeda started to support and fund operations in other areas of the world until Bin Laden were expelled in 1996 from diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese government (Rollins 2010, 6; Gerges 2011, 60). From Sudan, he returned to Afghanistan to help the Taliban take control after the power vacuum left from the Soviet war (Rollins 2010, 6). The relationship with the Taliban was not especially good as the two groups had in a sense opposite strategies: the Taliban wanted to consolidate its control on Afghanistan while al-Qaeda wanted to use Afghanistan as a base to attack the United States (Gerges 2011, 64-65). These two strategies did not go hand in hand, as al-Qaeda’s strategy attracted U.S. attention on Afghanistan (Gerges 2011, 64-65).

It was in Afghanistan Bin Laden could start formulating al-Qaeda into the organization it was to become to be (Gerges 2011, 61).

Together with al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden formulated a strategy on how to fight secular or Western-oriented Arab regimes; they would target the backer of such regimes, the United States (Rollins 2010, 6). From 1992-2000, al-Qaeda was involved in about 11 attacks against the U.S (the involvement of al-Qaeda is not certain in all attacks) (Rollins 2010, 6). By the end of the 1990’s and beginning of 2001 al-Qaeda evolved from a small support group to “[…] an efficient structure with decision-making capabilities. Designed like a corporation, al-Qaeda was distinctive for its collective corporate ethos […]” (Gerges 2011, 62). The organization consisted by 2001 of around 3.000 men (Gerges 2011, 63).

As al-Qaeda evolved, it also gained a number of affiliate groups around the world. The groups could, according to Marc Sageman (2010, 273-289), be classified as either “AQ Core” (directly controlled by al-Qaeda central [AQC]), “AQ Affiliated” of the AQC “brand” or “AQ Inspired” operating autonomously. One of these groups was AQI.

c. Iraq

i. 2000-2001

Iraq had been under Saddam Hussein’s rule since 1979 (Charles Tripp 2007, xv). A minority, Sunni Muslims predominantly from Northern Iraq, dominated the important Iraqi state functions (Tripp 2007, 259). The Shia majority in Iraq had little to say and were swiftly dealt with when trying to uproar. Iraq’s economy was strained after three wars in the last 20 years, UN sanctions and difficulties with the Shia Muslim and Kurdish population (Toby Dodge and Becca Wasser 2014, 21). However, troubled times had an effect on the Iraqi population Saddam still had the country under control and might even increase his power (Dodge and Wasser 2014, 21 and Tripp 2007, 259). For some time Saddam had been viewed by the international world as necessary to keep Iraq in balance:

“It was clear that the United States and others in the region and beyond were as fearful about the possible fragmentation of Iraq as many in Iraq itself. They may have viewed Saddam Hussein with distaste, but they still favoured the idea of a strong leader, backed by the bulk of Iraq’s armed forces, over a possible breakdown of order, a general civil war or the intervention of regional powers, especially Iran.” (Tripp 2007, 248).

ii. 2013-2014

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 Iraq had fallen into a state of anarchy (Kenneth M. Pollack 2013, 3). It was not until 2007, when the Bush administration applied “the surge” where the number of American troops in Iraq was heavily increased, that some stabilization took place (Pollack 2013, 3). The fall of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, and the following democratization process leads to a Shia majority in government functions. Civil war struggle followed with Iran supporting Shia groups and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni states supported the Sunni minority. The violence and the absence of law and order looked out of hand until the provincial elections in 2009 and the national elections in 2010. “[The] […] parties considered the most secular, the most vested in improving governance and services, the least tied to the militias and the least sectarian.” won the elections (Pollack 2013, 13).

The combination of a heavy US military presence and a new government gave faith to the Iraqi people of a brighter future.

In 2011 the US withdrew its troops from Iraq and, according to Pollack (2013, 15), “[…] re-opened Iraq’s security vacuum.”. The violence and protests quickly erupted as Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki targeted the Sunni finance minister (Pollack 2013, 16; Dodge and Wasser 2014, 29).

The re-opened conflict resulted in Sunni tribal leaders to seek aid from Sunni militant groups. As a result, groups like al-Qaeda could now legitimate its violence as they were merely defending the Sunni minority (Pollack 2013, 17). Dodge and Wasser (2014, 29) argues; “The profound sense of alienation felt by Iraqi Sunnis is the major driver of the ISIS revolt.” Pollack (2013, 19) gives this description of 2013 Iraq: “Iraq is now back on its downward path although it is unclear just how steep or how long that path will prove.”. Only a year later, in 2014, IS attacks and capture Mosul (Stern and Berger 2015, XX).

3. Concept and Theory of Fragile States

The concept and definition of what a fragile state is, have proved difficult, as there exists some disagreement on this (Bridget L. Coggins 2015, 467; Newman 2007, 464). Even when agreeing on a definition, it is difficult to determine on what level the state is fragile, as some states that are seen as more fragile than others are in the same category (Derick W. Brinkerhoff 2007, 2-3). Others argue that there is no use for the concept at all since it is too controversial (Sonja Grimm, Nicolas Lemay-Hébert and Oliver Nay 2014, 202).

To define the criteria for what characteristics a fragile state have been a highly political process as different states have different agendas (Grimm, Lemay-Hébert and Nay 2014, 205).

Also, different scholars use different terms interchangeably; weak states and failed states are sometimes used to describe the same conditions as fragile states – and other times to describe other separate aspects. In this essay, I will use the term fragile state.

Traditionally, state fragility was a useful selection criterion for the UN aid donors (Grimm, Lemay-Hébert and Nay (2014, 198-199). In the aftermath of 9/11 fragile states was given new attention. Fragile states now became important in international security politics because of the assumption of how terrorist groups could use the fragile state of Afghanistan to attack the West, (Grimm, Lemay-Hébert and Nay 2014, 199-200).

Different definitions are available and emphasize different aspects and factors; Eghosa E. Osaghae (2007, 692-693), Brinkerhoff (2007, 2), Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] and Development Assistance Committee [DAC] (2009, 76).

The limits of this essay do not allow for an analysis of all of them. For this reason, I will use a definition formulated by the independent non-profit organization Fund For Peace [FFP] which publish the Fragile State Index [FSI]. According to FFP fragile states have some or all of these attributes (FFP 2015):

- The loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force;
- The erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions;
- An inability to provide reasonable public services;
- The inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.


[1] The Islamic State has during its existence had many names and is referred to by different names by different scholars and the media. It can be called ISI, AQI, IS, ISIL, ISIS or Daesh. I will use “IS” to refer to the Islamic State.

[2] Jihadist-Salafism: “[…] Sunni Muslims who want to establish and govern Islamic states based solely on the first generation of interpretation of the teachings of the Prophet and the Qu’ran, and to abandon modern secular governments.” (Brian M. Drinkwine 2010, 58).

[3] Bay`a: “A religious binding oath of loyalty” (Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger 2015, x)

Excerpt out of 21 pages


The fragile state concept and the emergence of the caliphate
The IS and al-Qaeda in comparison
University of Bergen  (Department of Comparative Politcs)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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IS, ISIS, al-qaeda, fragile state, political science, caliphate, islam, iraq, syria
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Aleksander Bjelland Koldingsnes (Author), 2015, The fragile state concept and the emergence of the caliphate, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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