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Know your enemy: the three pillars of Islamic State

By David Harding - posted Friday, 14 November 2014

As Australia slowly gets drawn into another war in the Middle East, this time against Islamic State, it may be prudent for the Australian public to be aware of the makeup of the foe. Because by having an understanding of the foundations of the foe, an insight can be gained into the level of commitment that the foe has, and what Australia will need in the years, and perhaps decades to come.

The Islamic State development rests on a combination of three separate but interconnected pillars that consist of the group's concept of operations, a system of interrelated honor and loyalty, and a common ideology. Together these three pillars have formed an ideological following that crosses borders, and combines centuries old cultures and religion with modern technology.

The First Pillar

The First Pillar, the concept of operations and organizational structure, is comprised of a central authority and 4 prongs. The central authority is responsible for strategic development and planning, and in the Islamic State's case, this is the core leadership group comprising Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his deputy leaders, local governors and councils of finance, leadership, military and Sharr'iah law enforcers. From this central authority, four prongs emerge.


The first prong is the locally-based grass roots insurgencies that have sworn allegiance to the central group's commander. In the Islamic State's case, these include the Indonesian Jemaah Islmiyah, the former al Qaeda affiliate al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Chechen Army of the Emigrants and Helpers.

The next prong in the system is the network of allied groups. These groups are not under specific organisational control of the central authority, but they do share the Salifit worldview. In the Islamic State's case, examples of those with similar worldviews include the Kurdish Ansar al Islam, al Nusra from Syria, reportedly some Taliban leaders in Pakistan, and Boko Haram from Nigeria. These groups are able to aid and combine operational resources to achieve similar goals.

The third prong is a network of individuals that have direct connections back to the central authority. These individuals are capable of conducting operations across multiple countries. Although the Islamic State seems to limit its terrorist operations to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, it has reportedly utilized its network of individuals to conducted attacks in Lebanon and Turkey.

The final prong is made up of what has become known as the lone wolves. These individuals or small cells subscribe to the Salifit worldview but do not have any direct connection to any particular organised group. Some of these individuals have been responsible for planning or conducting recent attacks in Canada, the United States and Australia.

This concept of operations allows the Islamic State to conduct both coordinated and random attacks within its own specific area of operations, and across varying national borders.

The Second Pillar

The Second Pillar consists of the ethnic cultural influence of interrelated group loyalty and honor. Tribalism is prominent throughout Iraq, especially in times of troubles and lack of government control. Ultimately, the Islamic State is a culturally Arab group. As such, the Islamic State relies on strong family, tribal and clan confederations, affiliations and networks. These networks influence matrimonial, business and governance workings. Their system of management is based on honor, kinship and allegiance. It is because of these tribal affiliations and networks that the Islamic State's leader has been able to attract the powerful tribal Sheiks of Iraq's al Anbar province. Many of the tribal Sheiks that were influential in the Awakening Councils responsible for the reduction of al Qaeda in 2008, have now joined forces with the Islamic State.


The Third Pillar

The Third Pillar is the ideology that the Islamic State follows violent jihad Salifism. The Salifit worldview follows the fundamentalist and literal translation of the Islamic Koran and other early Islamic texts. Some Salifits believe that war is the only way to achieve their aims. With this in mind, it should also be remembered that as a religion, Islam has not gone through its own form of reformation. So the concept of State and Religion being separate is foreign to the Salifit worldview. Ultimately, adaptation to modern times has not been universally accepted across Islam. The Salifit's do not want this adaptation to occur. So countries/regions where God and State are separate provide futile ground for Salifit attacks.

In combination, these three pillars have allowed the Islamic State to expand at a rapid rate and gain control of interrelated tribal lands, conduct attacks in Western and Middle Eastern countries, and gain the allegiance of varying terrorist groups across the globe. Islamic State and what it represents will not just go away, or be defeated by fighter planes or even "boots on the ground". If Australia is to get involved, Australians must understand that they will be in for the long and likely very bloody, war.

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About the Author

David Harding is a director of Anshin Consultants, a threat management consultancy, and holds a Masters degree, and has lectured, written, and blogged about international risk, threat and security management.

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