ISIL fighters are not the new Assassins

The debate making sense of ISIL will continue and the past will be used as a convenient crutch.

The early 12th century seat of the Order of the Assassins in Syria [Getty]
The early 12th-century seat of the Order of the Assassins in Syria [Getty]

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, a flurry of pieces emerged in the media, situating how the incidents fitted into ISIL’s mission and vision of itself. One of the persistent attempts in the Western media and public discourse has been to situate ISIL as on outgrowth of the Islamic past.

History is often attributed as the casual determinant in the rise of ISIL, as a reaction to the “ancient Shia-Sunni conflict”, or overemphasising its resurrection of the medieval caliphate. ISIL has also taken part in this exercise, situating its violence as a continuation of the Crusades. All of this links ISIL to the oft-repeated trope of violence as endemic to the Middle East and Islam as a faith since time immemorial.  

ISIL is a complex, hybrid 21st-century organisation that poses challenges conceptually as a political unit in the international system, and it is precisely this hybridity that constitutes a virulent and violent challenge to the region and global order.

Inside Story – ‘Islamic caliphate’: Blessing or threat?

What makes ISIL so difficult to comprehend, particularly in the recent aftermath of the Paris attacks, is how it operates on both national and transnational levels. The recent past does more to explain the rise of ISIL than the deep past.

The national dimension of ISIL

ISIL emerged owing to a confluence of events on the national level within Iraq since 2003. On this level, ISIL is:

1) An intractable insurgent group born under the leadership of Jordan-born Abu Musab al Zarqawi during Iraq’s insurgency as of 2003, which was defeated by Arab Sunni tribes in Iraq in 2008, but which then gained momentum when it withdrew to Syria as its state collapsed in 2011.

Also read: Why the caliphate survives

2) An organisational shell for former Iraqi Baathists and career military and intelligence officers under Saddam Hussein, as well as large sections of the Iraqi Arab Sunni population, who lost their jobs and prospects for the future after Iraq’s armed forces were disbanded by the Coalitional Provisional Authority in 2003 or denied employment because of de-Baathification.

The Western orientalist image of the Assassins has been internalised by the Orient, in a case of reflexive orientalism.

3) A functioning, violent, revolutionary state that emerged in 2014 in both Iraq and Syria, which governs in regions where governance has collapsed, collecting taxes and providing services.

4) A state that seeks to create a homogenous space in the north of Iraq and Syria as of 2014 through the expulsion of heterodox Muslims and non-Muslims and destroying their sites of worship.

5) A concurrent economic network based on warlordism, with an extractive economy generating revenues from illicit sales of oil and antiquities, a practice which began during the Syrian civil war.

The transnational dimension of ISIL

ISIL’s behaviour on the transnational level provides the context in which the Paris attacks emerged. On this level ISIL is:

6) A transnational terrorist organisation, which merged with al-Qaeda in 2004, but split off from it in 2014, and serves as a rival to al-Qaeda, but differs in that it maintains a standing, mass-mobilisation army and seeks to create a state.

7) An organisation based on a transnational constituency, including foreign fighters from the Muslim World and the West, which can conduct terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East.

8) A fulfillment of the desire to see the pre-modern institution of the caliphate resurrected in 2014, yet embraces the tools of post-modernity to communicate that caliphate in a globalised world.

ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [AP]ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [AP]

9) An institutional culmination of a violent Salafi trend within Islam, with anti-Shiism at its core

10) An organisation since 2014 that has set up “franchise” Islamic States, including Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

It is number 7 in my list, which is now generating most of the attention in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. I acknowledge the medieval past in number 8, but it does not explain the confluence of all of these 10 aspects. Not one describes ISIL as an “apocalyptic death cult”. These 10 dimensions are evident of ISIL’s intent to endure rather than implode.

The debate on ISIL and the past

The way both the national and transnational have come together is not a product of the medieval past, but a culmination of events that marked the beginning of the 21st century, such as 9/11, the Afghanistan war of 2001, and the Iraq war of 2003.

Also read: Why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an impostor

These 10 aspects, which I argue define ISIL, is part of the debate that has raged since the group entered the global imagination in summer 2014. In a highly debated Atlantic article entitled “What ISIS Really Wants, Graeme Wood argues that ISIL is an apocalyptic terrorist organisation, practising a version of the faith grounded in Islamic sacred texts.

Attempts were made to link the groups to an endemically violent Middle Eastern past.

On the other hand, the venerable international relations scholar Stephen Walt argues that ISIL is a revolutionary state, regardless of its Islamic pretentions, on a par with revolutionary groups such as the Bolsheviks and the Khmer Rouge. Both pieces situate ISIL within time, whether it is the foundational period of Islam beginning in the 7th century, or a secular past situated within the revolutionary history of the 20th century. 

This debate, which has intensified since the Paris attacks, serves as the challenge of conceptualising ISIL, a debate that resonates with what al-Qaeda essentially represented after 2001. 

In both cases, attempts were made to link the groups to an endemically violent Middle Eastern past. For example on September 13, 2001, just two days after 9/11, an article in was published, entitled “The Changing Face of Terrorism: It’s Becoming Something Fundamentally Different”.

It said: “Likewise, from about 1090 to 1275, a [Shia] Muslim sect called the Assassins [from the Arabic for ‘hashish eaters’) tried to purify Islam with surprise killings of their Sunni rivals. After committing their crimes, the Assassins would assent in their own capture and execution, taking pride in martyrdom. [Osama bin Laden says he takes Hasan ibn al-Sabah, the Assassins’ founder, as a hero.]”

Osama bin Laden, 1998 [Getty]Osama bin Laden, 1998 [Getty]

Seductive comparisons

I found this piece relevant, because I anticipated articles that would try to make this link. It is seductive to make a comparison between a medieval Old Man on a Mountain, ordering assassinations of political leaders in the early medieval Middle East. It chimes with another Old Man, Osama bin Laden, in the mountains of Afghanistan, ordering attacks on planes in New York and Washington DC.

It is doubtful that Bin Laden, a Sunni, would have found an Ismaili Shia as a hero. However, the historical myths in the article are not as important as how the authors forge a continuity that falls into the trap of historical determinism.

Also read: The Angel of Death is coming for you, ISIL

Furthermore, his image of the Assassins, primarily based on hearsay Marco Polo heard in his lifetime, falls into the old orientalist trope of this “drug-consuming”, violent, Ismaili Shia community, ignoring the fact that they were also a scholarly community as well.

What is interesting in the age of ISIL is that the same dynamic of using the past, like the Assassins, to explain the present occurs but, in this case, from within the Middle East. In a Saudi newspaper, one writer penned a piece “Daesh…The New Assassins“. This writer invokes the same violent myths of this medieval community and conflates them with ISIL. In this case, the Western orientalist image of the Assassins has been internalised by the Orient, in a case of reflexive orientalism. 

The debate making sense of ISIL will continue, and the past will be used as a convenient crutch. History’s value is not in the mistaken notion of the past repeating itself, but how as a discipline it forms linkages of cause and effect.

By highlighting the 10 dimensions of ISIL, I elucidate the cause and effect from the past, not in the medieval Middle East, but the 2003 Iraq war, a 21st-century conflict that spawned the complex 21st-century hybrid entity that ISIL is.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.