We interviewed a man claiming to be a fighter for "Islamic State". But how can we know if there is truth behind his words? An expert on comparative religious studies gives us his take.
Dr. Nathan S. French is assistant professor at the Department of Comparative Religion, Miami University, Ohio, United States.
In my estimation, the subject has shown an intermediate knowledge of the writings, theories, and propaganda of the "Islamic State". There is little within this interview, however, that would singularly validate his claims to being a frontline fighter. Much of what he has discussed in this interview could be readily sourced online from pro-"Islamic State" forums, Twitter accounts, digital publications, and YouTube videos.
The self-fashioned caliphate of the "Islamic State", formerly the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham", is one movement within the broader trend of jihadi-salafism in contemporary Islamist thought. The "Islamic State" arose out of the chaotic U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq starting in 2003 and, most recently, the chaos of the Syrian Civil War. Jihadi-salafis believe that the failure of contemporary secular and Islamic groups to realize their political and social objectives are two-fold.
First, jihadi-salafis believe that the only authentic observance of Islam is the Islam practiced by the prophet Muhammad, his companions, and his followers - all collectively referred to as the Salaf. To understand this practice, jihadi-salafis turn to Sunni interpretations of the Koran and Sunna and hadith - the narrations transmitting Muhammad’s precedent to later generations. Second, jihadi-salafis believe that the only way of attaining what they feel is the most authentic expression of Islam is through the usage of both offensive and defensive warfare - which they fashion as a jihad, struggle in the path of God.
Several observations by the subject suggest that if questioned, he might identify as part of this broader jihadi-salafi trend. First, at the close of the interview, he writes that he borrows widely from the Hanbali, Shafiʾi, Maliki, Hanafi, and Zahiri schools - all Sunni schools of jurisprudence (fiqh) - provided they possess the strongest evidence. This borrowing from schools, at times referred to as istihsan by some Sunni legal scholars, is a hallmark of jihadi-salafi jurists who often make their rulings in what they deem is the public interest (maslaha). Such jurists refuse to follow a single school, much as the subject does here.
The interview subject also seems familiar with the arguments made by the "Islamic State" in favor of its caliphate. Throughout the interview, the subject draws a stark line between what he sees as the failures of democratic liberalism in the West and the divinely established mandate for the Caliphate given by God in the estimation of the fighters for the "Islamic State". The subject mentions the rejection of the "Islamic State" by a few “’Islamic’ scholars,” as he put it. Presumably, he is here referring not only to the overwhelming condemnation of the "Islamic State" by well-established Islamic authorities, but is also referring to the rejection of the "Islamic State" by jihadi-salafi jurists such as Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Like many "Islamic State" authors, the subject elides centuries of debate within Islamic thought on the legitimacy of a caliphate and he issues criteria - such as the Caliph being Muslim, male, sound of mind, of the tribe Quraysh, etc. - that align with many of the public arguments made online by the Islamic State in defense of the Caliphate. Equally, his claims that the usage of force is essential to ensuring and securing the rule of the Islamic State parallels large amounts of their strategic and political literature. Further, much as the Islamic State does in its publications, the subject is quick to point out the charitable works claimed by the Islamic State in the regions under its control (e.g. provision of food, water, and electricity; crackdown on the drug trade; regulation of business). All of this knowledge, however, is readily available in online "Islamic State" publications, such as the English-language Dabiq magazine.
The pattern of his recruitment and training parallels much of what we know of the "Islamic State". One odd observation is that he claimed to have had no contact with "Islamic State" recruiters until his arrival to the region. Often, those hoping to join make contact with recruiters online or are in contact with family members and friends also considering joining. His claims to have been trained by experienced fighters from Chechnya and elsewhere are plausible.
Interestingly, the subject makes no reference to taking a pledge or oath (bay’a) to the "Islamic State". Across its history, this pledge has often been insisted upon by "Islamic State" authorities to ensure loyalty and camaraderie.
From a theological perspective, the subject discusses personal beliefs that would align with the broader expectations of a believer following the "Islamic State’s" creed (ʿaqida) and methodology (minhaj). The idea of the predestination of all human affairs, and the need for the believer to submit in sincereity to God’s predestined fate for him or her, is a position held by the "Islamic State" but by no means unique to it. Many Muslims, almost all of whom are non-violent, would profess a similar idea of belief in God’s sovereignty over human affairs.