Analysis - Security Studies

Withdrawal from Society

Will Isolationist Takfiri Groups Spread after ISIS Retreat?
Thursday، December 01، 2016
Withdrawal from Society

The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) represented a more radical shift in the structure of present-day terrorism. Likewise, the organization's retreat and withdrawal into seclusion in Libya, Syria, and Iraq can hold essential implications for the nature and future of the terrorism phenomenon. The discovery of such a future will be associated with the model presented by ISIS, where it sought to institutionalize its own state to sustain the traditional constituents on which al-Qaeda was built where the organization continued, for decades, to avoid transforming itself into a state.  

This blending of ideology and reality in the self-proclaimed caliphate declared by ISIS in June 2014 earned it central legitimacy in the global structure of terrorism that improved its chances of recruiting new elements. The recruited militants considered the desired state as an opportunity to invoke the past, in present time, and escape from the shackles of history to live in a utopia that they have long dreamed of. Moreover, this state has provided an exit for extremists to address the problem of alienation they suffer from.

However, the viability of this state is now highly questioned due to the current military pressures under which ISIS is facing in Mosul, its strategic stronghold. That is because losing Mosul would mean that a new reality will be unfolding where the organization loses its state. At the same time, frustration would grow at high rates among terrorist groups forcing them to embrace a more isolationist takfiri (excommunication of followers of other faiths) pattern. The assumption about the future in this context is that the retrogression of ISIS’ experience will lead to an increasing number of isolationist takfiri groups, thus making the approach of takfirism and isolation one of the most prominent terrorist patterns in the post-ISIS phase. 

Isolation as Popular Perception

Referring to the body of literature created by ideologues of extremist religious movements reveals the prevalence of the idea of isolation in their radical perceptions. A large part of said literature addresses the idea of isolation and withdrawal from society as a prerequisite for belonging to an organizational structure and forming a group of true believers. The formation of this group is a necessary measure in countering “Jahiliyyah” represented in societies through an organic and fully-integrated system that moves consciously or unconsciously to defend its existence, according to renowned Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb in his book The Shade of the Quraan. To resist and change said jahili society, an alternative society should be created with the same but deeper and stronger characteristics, where the core of this community consists of this group of believers, Qutb notes in his work titled Milestones.

For Qutb, it is, therefore, necessary, in the way of the Islamic movements, that in the early stages of training and education should isolate themselves from all the influences of the so-called jahili society in which they live in and from which they derive benefits. They must return to the pure source from which those individuals obtained their guidance. Accordingly, relationships with jahili societies should be cut off, and these groups should become superior to it in order to change it.

Over time, the perception of isolation and moving to remote areas far away from the authority of the state gained more momentum, especially after the Takfir Wal-Hijra group ("Excommunication and Exodus") founded by Shukri Mustafa in Egypt, during the 1960s. The core of the group's ideology revolves around the excommunication of existing societies and the establishment of an Islamic state through withdrawing from society and migration. According to this ideology, such a group goes through two phases, the first being the state of weakness (being oppressed, deemed weak and vulnerable by others and precisely, being the underdog), where followers withdraw, seclude themselves from society to caves, mountains, and the desert. The second phase is that of empowerment, embodied in clashes with the “kafirs,” or disbelievers.

These ideological preambles constitute a solid background for terrorist organizations now, and even in the future, to withdraw from society and resort to isolationism and settle in remote, rugged areas and deserts. Al-Qaeda pursues this approach whenever possible, especially after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Moreover, the organization’s unique educational curricula emphasize the importance of isolationism.

In the Al-Qaeda training manual and guide to radicalization called A Course in the Art of Recruitment, the author, Abu Amro Al-Qaedi, points out that the process of isolating recruits is achieved through two phases, with the first being sentimental isolation through particular online educational resources that help immunize the recruits ideologically against the influences of their social surroundings. The second stage is physical isolation and withdrawal from society. The primary goal here is to isolate the potential recruit from the corrupt environment in which he lives and place him in a virtuous environment designed to improve his faith.

Mechanisms used by terrorist organizations also ensure organizational isolation even in an indirect manner. Violence, for instance, is functional and serves radical isolation. ISIS utilizes violence as a tool to filter recruits. In Management of Savagery, Abu Bakr Naji argues that “Dragging the masses into the battle requires more actions which will inflame opposition and which will make people enter into the battle, willing or unwilling. . . . We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away.” 

After ISIS

In May 2016, the former ISIS spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani released an audio statement in which he asks: “Do you think, America, that defeat is by the loss of towns or territory? Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and retreated to the desert without a city or a land?  No, true defeat is losing the will and desire to fight.”

Al-Adnani was preparing the group's militants for a possible defeat and a loss of territories under their control. In this release, the idea of isolation and retreating to the desert and areas that are not held by ISIS seems to be one possible scenario for the group's members. Based on Al-Adnani's statement and the historical background of radical isolation perhaps suggests that the post-ISIS era will witness an escalation in the pattern of isolationist takfiri groups, driven by its self-proclaimed concepts as well as the facts of reality and frustrations fueled by the failure of the ISIS model. Generally speaking, the phenomenon of isolationist takfiri groups will hinge on the following factors: 

1. Homogeneous Society. The theory of Jeffrey Kaplan, a recently retired Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, about the fifth wave of modern international terrorism,  founded upon the physical withdrawal into wilderness areas. This is based on a dual vision of a filthy and ugly world that needs to be purified. Amid the confrontation with this contaminated world which is responsible for burying the Islamic state experience, the process of creating a new isolated and homogeneous world that is purer becomes even more necessary. The method relies on the existence of women and children as members of the pure society, because children, in particular, are the most important product of the would-be state as they are being raised up in isolation from any external influences. 

The Fifth Wave of Modern Terrorism theory has connected the concept of tribalism to radical movements which are seen as being driven by tribal mechanisms that support belonging, internal cohesion, and enhance their isolation and power against the outside world. For their members, such a movement becomes the core center of life and the source of thought and perception. This was clearly stated by Abu Musab al-Suri, a prominent jihadist theorist, in his book The Global Islamic Resistance Call, where he argues that those involved in resistance, jihad and direct military action against the enemies of Allah should have their own scholars, thinkers, intellectuals as well as their own intellectual and methodological tools and media in order to incite  the emotions of their believers.

Based on the preceding assumptions, isolation would become more attractive for terrorist organizations, whether they agree or disagree with ISIS, in the post-ISIS era. Isolation will ensure a degree of ideological and societal purity, especially because the experience of ISIS' proved that mixing with societies not upholding the same ideology was unrealistic. 

That is why the failure of the experience would imply growing frustration among ISIS members and inability to coexist with societies that, for them, are responsible for the failure. Consequently, taking the path of takfir and isolation would be the best option for them. From another perspective, terrorist organizations that disagree with ISIS, including al-Qaeda, would become more convinced to pursue the path of isolation after experiences proved that the cost would be enormous and unbearable. 

2. Crisis and Vulnerability. The traditional rhetoric upheld by terrorist movements seeks to conjure up crisis and vulnerability as a central narrative/ discourse, representing an intersection between history and the present. Events and problematics riddling these movements can be explained through this narrative. Moreover, this approach manifests itself in the work of terrorist theorists such as Abu Musab al-Suri who argues, in his book The Global Islamic Resistance Call, that failed experiences or attempts are very expensive, but failure can, quite often, enrich the path more than triumph because it identifies the experience with whoever is performing it; and if he is meant to resist and hold out, he will be on a solid ground for a decisive and inevitable triumph.

Based on that argument, suffering a setback at present will make a significant number of members of these movements to believe that it is only a crisis and a test of the strength of their faith in the idea, which then requires a return to the stage of vulnerability and consequently isolation and withdrawal from societies whilst  awaiting the stage of empowerment. 

3. Radical Innovation. Martha Crenshaw argues that innovation can provide a terrorist organization with a mechanism for finding solutions to problems and countering failures. Based on this, pursuing a path to isolation gives terrorist movements a larger space to think and devise new mechanisms to adapt to the post-ISIS reality, as well as develop their ability to carry out more effective terrorist attacks, especially because ISIS' experience revealed broad capabilities for radical innovation. This is evidenced by the group's recent use of bombs attached to drones to attack the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in October 2016 in Iraq.

4. Crisis of Statehood. The shrinking power of nation states in the Middle East has led to large swathes of land becoming stateless areas within these countries. Moreover, the policies pursued by the states of the region, and their failure to perform their essential functions has resulted in an endless series of material and human grievances.

Such an aggravated context for the state serves terrorist organizations according to two main perspectives. Firstly, it provides these organizations with a larger space for movement and settlement in remote areas away from the authorities of the state where they can avoid a crackdown by military and security apparatus, which consequently enhances their chances of producing new and more extreme generations that are raised up on their own educational and training curricula. Secondly, the context improves the terrorist organizations' ability to recruit new elements that feel alienated and estranged in their societies, which means that joining an organization becomes a way out of alienation for prospective recruits.


The rise of isolationist takfiri movements will not mean that terrorist threat will disappear. Rather, notably, they will be exacerbated for several reasons the most important of which is that isolation will hinge on hatred of others on whom the failure of the experience of the ISIS will be blamed. This requires a takfiri view that is wider in scope and more extreme towards the outside world, which means all societies could be exposed to random terrorist attacks, described by Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, as "retail of terrorism actions" that could be carried out by individuals and small groups, and that could happen anywhere at any time using all tools and mechanisms, from sharp tools to the most sophisticated and destructive weaponry. 

The other trajectory of the growing takfiri isolationist groups features the crime-terrorism nexus, where terrorist organizations in remote and border areas seek to find possible sources of funding in relying on organized crime. This involvement will likely take two main shapes based on the crime-terror continuum, according to Tamara Makarenko. The first reflects the level of cooperation between terrorist organizations and crime groups, while the second is related to a deeper level of mutual benefits which brings about hybrid organizations using illegal methods along with terrorist tactics to ultimately serve their goals. 

Keywords: TerrorismISISAl-QaedaSecuritySocietyTakfiriIsolationIslamic State

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