On 19 June 2016, the York Festival of Ideas held a focus day on Fragile Heritage.  I was invited to deliver the keynote address, the text of which is included below.

“Our darkest predictions are unfortunately taking place”, said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, after images were posted online, of ISIL militants blowing up the temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra. For the destruction of this, and other cultural heritage sites, UNESCO accused ISIL of committing war crimes.

The atrocities ISIL perpetrates against Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a Turkmen – as such, by virtue of their ethnic or religious group – are also well-known, and, in March, the Obama administration finally referred to these practices as genocide.

This past Thursday, the UN released its report into the plight of Iraq’s Yezidi community in particular, determining that ISIS are seeking to permanently erase Yezidis – one of Iraq’s oldest minority groups, which practices an ancient syncretic religion – through mass executions, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment. “The genocide of the Yezidis is ongoing”, the report said.

At times, and I can’t quite explain why, the deliberate nature and shocking ferocity of these crimes suggests to me a certain inevitability – a culmination of radical Islamist politics from the twentieth century, that was, one way or another, always coming. After all, this decade-long horror show – jihadism on the march with increasingly thunderous footsteps after 9/11 – couldn’t have happened by accident. Or could it?

It’s not historically contingent. Or is it?

Indeed, it is almost harder to accept that one policy choice, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, could be linked so fundamentally to the intense terror and darkly inventive savagery now threatening millions of souls – and, in fact, talking about ISIS in these terms forces me uncomfortably outside of the realm of balanced and reasoned analysis, and sounds to my own ear to be distastefully polemical.

Yet, in my humble experience, many roads of enquiry into ISIL’s present destruction wind their way back to the Iraq war – in particular, two key features.


The first is the way in which the Iraq war and its effects fundamentally altered the nature of radical Islam. ISIS and its predecessor groups approached jihadism as a state-building enterprise. This was driven by their participation in the post-2003 insurgency and the tactical alliances they made with former Ba’athist officials, who knew a lot about building strong, chokehold states.

While Osama bin Laden and his band of itinerant global jihadists understood the ideal order of the caliphate in a way that was almost metaphysical, Baghdadi and his followers lived through a bitter local struggle in which survival and victory were geared towards capturing territory.

Given ISIL’s resilience and relative success, the ISIS paradigm of jihad is now widely invoked, from Borno state in Nigeria to Baghlan province in Afghanistan, from the Mindano Islands in the Phillipines to Mukalla in Yemen. It involves seizing territory from weak governments, and brutally imposing a vision for society.

Now, this state-building model had a dramatic impact on jihadist ideas, actors and spaces – and evolving technologies, particularly social media tools, connect these changing ideas, actors and spaces like never before.

  1. Ideas. In terms of ideas and ideology, it has led to an obsession with local enemies. We will later return to this theme in a few minutes.But, also, in order to run a functioning state and maintain control over local populations, ISIS must continually instill fear. This imperative has led to an ever more fanatical jihadist discourse, in which the camp of ‘the enemy’ is continually expanding. At the same time, engagement with theological nuance is far more limited than in previous years, and mass casualty attacks against any civilian targets are now depicted as self-evidently justified.
  2. Actors. Jihadist actors have also changed. The scale of foreign fighter flows to the ‘Islamic state’ is overwhelming. Nationals from more than 86 countries have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq – including 6,000 citizens from western countries, more than double the total in 2014. Across the board, security services are therefore straining to keep track of who is going to fight, who has returned and, most importantly, what their intentions are.Beyond fighters who physically join jihadist ranks, ISIS’s territorial vision of jihad, with the attendant declaration of a caliphate, has enabled its sympathisers worldwide to conceive of themselves as soldiers waging war on behalf of a state – a tangible community – rather than as lone actors carrying out terrorist attacks in the service of an ill-defined end, as was the case for al-Qaeda.And so, Omar Mateen – who last weekend killed 49 people in the Orlando nightclub shooting, and who had previously affiliated himself with Hizbullah, a Shi’a group, to co-workers as well as al-Qaeda — called 911 while perpetrating the mass shooting to declare allegiance to ISIS. Not a sexually conflicted and psychologically disturbed hater, but a soldier waging war on behalf of a state.
  3. Spaces. Alongside active jihadist theatres in Iraq and Syria, permissive operating spaces for extremists are proliferating, particularly in North and West Africa. ISIS and allied ‘provinces’ do not merely seek to exploit chaos, but also, through the establishment of proto-states, to impose a long-term order. Thus, jihadist spaces are not only geographically expanding, but also systematically deepening. As a result, the scope for secure training bases, far beyond the reaches of western intelligence services, has really been unprecedented.

So my point is that ISIL’s threat to cultural heritage and its activities in this regard largely take place within the relatively secure confines of proto-states – and that this trend of state-building emerged, in many ways, from the Iraq war.


The second significant outcome of the Iraq war, and its impact on the genesis of ISIS, is the marked sectarian environment which followed the invasion. This involved:

  1. A major reconfiguration of the local and regional balance of power – in geopolitical terms, the main beneficiary of the Iraq invasion was undoubtedly Iran. That reality reinvigorated sectarian narratives, intensified pre-existing Saudi-Iranian competition, and exacerbated Sunni-Shia rivalry in the region;
  2. A dangerous and prolonged security vacuum which became the womb for a virulently sectarian strain of jihadism;
  3. The post-Saddam political order attendant to the invasion, had and still has many pronounced sectarian characteristics, particularly under the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki. And so we saw the wholesale disenfranchisement and brutalisation of the Sunni population, almost overnight.

So significant was this sectarian dynamic, which suddenly thrust communal differentiation to the fore – remember the centuries-long norm of inter-marriage and peaceful coexistence in Iraq – that it was seen as a new and exciting opportunity for ISIL and its predecessor groups. It deeply informed their military and political strategy.

For Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), for example, the aim was to coopt the Sunni population of Iraq by waging war on the Shia. This plan was laid out by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in 2004, when he described his strategy of

  • Striking at the heart of the Shi’a’s religious, civilian, political and military structures, thus “drawing the Shi’a into battle”
  • This would then trigger their rage against the Sunnis, forcing them to bare their fangs and retaliate indiscriminately against Sunni targets
  • “If we manage to draw the Shi’a onto the terrain of partisan war”, wrote Zarqawi, “it will be possible to tear the Sunnis away from their heedlessness, for they will feel the weight of imminent danger”. Through fear and othering, then, the Sunni would be forced to side with the jihadis.

So after 2003, jihadist leaders saw great strategic opportunity for themselves in sectarian war among local populations – essentially, to ‘awaken’ and galvanise a natural support base.

All of this, however, is not to diminish the significance of the ideological shift represented by ISIS. In particular, (i) the vision of society and (ii) the vision of history.

Vision of society

Indeed, the destruction of cultural heritage is an integral part of the ISIS vision for society.

We’ve touched upon the fierce anti-Shi’a component of ISIS’s ideological basis, which essentially has replaced fighting the west as a raison d’etre for jihadism.

ISIS has built on the worldview elaborated by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who described the Shi’a in genocidal terms – as “the most vile people in the human race”, “prowling serpents” and “evil scorpions”, “the worm in the apple” and “gangrene”. ISIS literature dehumanises the Shi’a as “filthy mushrikin”, and regularly derides them as rafidah (rejecters of the truth), Sabeans, Magians, Safavids, Nusayriyyeh (for the Alawi). In an audio address in November 2014, the ISIS leader identified the Shi’a as the primary enemy.

This ideological hatred of the Shi’a, which ISIS inherited from its predecessor groups AQI and ISI, is based on, firstly, their theological deviance and supposed rejectionism; and secondly, the assertion that they are traitors and collaborators. In fact AQI levied the charge of takfir against the Shi’a population in Iraq in its entirety, because the Shi’a had collaborated with the US occupation after the invasion.

It’s worth mentioning that this was not a road that bin Laden and al-Qaeda central wanted to go down for practical reasons – i.e. that level of intolerance would alienate the Muslim masses – and also moral reasons – because if these people are ignorant about the true nature of Islam it’s not really their fault, and forgiveness is important.

But this preoccupation with the Shi’a is ultimately part of the gradual localization of jihad which began in Iraq after 2003.

Whereas bin Laden had for years tried very hard to mobilise globalized identities, ISIS has focused for the most part on local identity politics. While bin Laden took great pains to de-territorialise jihad and make it universal, ISIS has aggressively linked jihad to the acquisition and administration of territory, as we discussed. This territorial project ties the group to a vision of society that makes dealing with ‘bad Muslims’ more fundamental than attacking the West, if not more urgent.

And, on account of this localisation, the main targets of global jihad have changed – the enemies are new, and they’re right here, among us. They’re what I call, the nearer enemies: elements of impure society. Alongside its decalred war on the Shi’a, ISIS has pursued savage policies towards Yezidis, Christians, and other minorities. It also doesn’t even try to conceal its harsh treatment of Sunnis – whether from other hardline jihadi groups, ordinary civilians, tribes like the Albu Nimr, or dissenters within its own ranks including leaders. The reality is that ISIS has probably killed more Sunnis than Shi’a.

So the destruction of cultural heritage is part of ISIS’s project for society, which involves realizing a uniquely puritanical Sunni vision and extirpating deviance and idolatry in the process.

And it seems to me that

  • Bin Laden believed that if you go out and change the world around you, out there, you will eventually change society so that it more closely complies with “God’s vision”
  • But ISIS on the other hand believe that, if you want to change the world, you must first change society – and that’s what they’re setting about doing in Iraq and Syria – whether by hurling homosexuals from rooftops, meting out horrific punishments to Yezidi women and girls – because, of course, this fixation on the purity of society inevitably yields a brutal obsession with sex and sexuality – or blowing up shrines and temples in Palmyra.

The final point I’d like to make about this, in many ways new, jihadist preoccupation with society is the way in which it’s also influencing the direction of other groups and actors, particularly Islamists – who are of a different breed. It’s a similar dynamic to UKIP and the Conservative party, where the former has forced the latter to the right.

Take Hamas, for example, which is essentially at war with ISIS in the Gaza strip. Operating under the name of the Sheikh Hadid group, ISIS has targeted Hamas leaders and their families with car bombs, and an ISIS video statement vowed to topple ‘the tyrants of Hamas’.

But last month, Hamas’ attorney general announced plans to carry out a string of public executions of murderers and robbers. “Capital punishments will be implemented soon in Gaza”, declared Ismail Jaber. “I ask that they take place before a large crowd”. I believe that, at least in part, this decision could reflect a subtle shift where ISIS’ opponents feel that they have to ‘out-ISIS’ ISIS, particularly on social issues. ISIS is pushing everyone to the right. In this way, ISIS influences the behaviours of other political actors, by narrowing their perceived policy choices – and ultimately encouraging a race to the bottom.

Another example which springs to mind is the recent spate of targeted killings in Bangladesh. By and large, these murders were not committed by ISIS but by (i) groups that traditionally affiliate with al-Qaeda (ii) or individuals linked to Islamist parties. Who are their targets? Elements of ‘impure’ society: an editor of an LGBT magazine, prominent atheist intellectuals, liberal bloggers, gay rights campaigners, Christians, Hindus, and members of minority sects. In the last two years, more than 30 individuals have been targeted and killed in this context.

This isn’t about repelling the invasion of Muslim lands, or avenging the blood of Palestinian children, or the ‘legitimate’ targeting of combatants – I’m thinking of all the main Ladenese themes. It’s about the vision of society, right here and right now, with highly localized and particularized individual responsibility – indeed, most victims were cut down by men on motorcycles using swords and machetes.

Vision of history

So, what about the vision of history I mentioned? Well, a very striking aspect of ISIS ideology is its powerful eschatological component. Although many other radical Islamist belief systems have included a millenarian strain, ISIS pushes to the fore the view of violence as hastening a new millennium.

While Osama bin Laden rarely made direct reference to the end times, a hallmark of ISIS ideology is an explicit preoccupation with the coming apocalypse and the Redeemer.

In particular, ISIS’ messianic expectations are geographically focused on its heartlands in the Levant.

One lengthy hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammad references Dabiq, a town in northern Syria, where an apocalyptic battle will occur between the armies of Islam and Rome. The struggle ends with the arrival of the Redeemer, and “when the enemy of Allah sees him, he will melt as salt melts in water”.

  • ISIS propagandists named their recruitment magazine after the town
  • They regularly employed a 2004 quotation from Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq”
  • In 2014, ISIS fighters battled ferociously with other Syrian rebels to capture the strategically insignificant town, and then took to staging their beheadings of western hostages there. “Here we are burning the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive”, one British executioner said to the camera.

There’s an article in Dabiq magazine which explores a series of quotations from the founders of ISIS and its predecessor groups on signs of the Hour. Certainly, it was under the leadership of Zarqawi and men like Abu Ayyub al-Masri that this millenarianism became a defining characteristic of the predecessor groups to IS. Towards the end of the US occupation of Iraq, they saw signs of the end times everywhere and were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi, the Redeemer [Wood, 2015].

When ISIS was founded, this anticipation carried over. The official ISIS spokesman, Adnani, promised that the “Crusader” armies will be defeated in Dabiq and ISIS “will then have a meeting in Jerusalem and an appointment in Rome”.

Here, he may well have been referring to the belief, common in ISIS circles, that after the decisive battle in Dabiq, IS fighters will capture Jerusalem. The Antichrist will then appear and slaughter all but 5000 of ISIS’s men, who will ultimately be rescued by Jesus, before conquering the world. Indeed, the seventh edition of Dabiq notes that “the sword will continue to be drawn, raised and swung until Jesus kills the Antichrist… [Thereafter] Islam and justice will prevail on the entire Earth”.

Even the horrific practice of enslaving Yezidi women and children is directly justified with reference to the coming apocalypse. Another marginal hadith is invoked, which counts as one of the signs of the Hour a situation where “a slave girl gives birth to her master”.

I’m wary of over-dramatising the cultish component of ISIS, or downplaying the reality that it’s led by highly rational demagogues who seek to grab and hold on to power.

But I do think this pronounced apocalyptic element is (a) quite new and (b) a very important enabler of ISIS’s destruction, by virtue of the belief – even if it’s only shared by a small wing of ISIS – that the most profound devastation creates new hope, by hastening Messianic intervention.

And I think that, here, it’s worth noting the parallels between ISIS and some Christian and Jewish terrorism.

  • Christian terrorism tends to be related to a vision for the Second Coming as it is described in The Book of Revelation. For example, proselytizers of Dominion theology in the US asserted that everyone had to work to ensure the return of the Messiah, thus ending the burdens afflicting the American Christian white male: “the apocalypse will be followed by a thousand-year period of rule by Christians, at the end of which Christ will return to earth”.
  • Centuries before, in A.D. 66-73 a Jewish sect known as the “Zealots-Sicarii” launched a vicious campaign of assassination and hostage-taking, which aimed at expelling the Roman occupiers from present-day Israel. Many of the actions of the Zealots, including the decision to burn their own food supply during the long siege of Jerusalem, are only intelligible in the context of their search for the signs of Messianic intervention.
  • This same preoccupation with a divine audience is evidenced in modern Jewish terrorism. In 1984, an ultra-Zionist settler movement, Gush Emunim, plotted to blow up one of the holiest shrines in Islam, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, with twenty eight precision bombs. The aim was to provoke a war between Palestinians and Israelis which would end with the triumph of the Jews, the expulsion of Palestinians, and the return of the Messiah.
  • Thirty years later, in August 2015, the Israeli authorities disrupted a cell which was responsible for an uptick in hate crimes, including the death of a Palestinian infant in a Molotov cocktail attack on his home. The suspects are thought to belong to a shadowy youth network known as “the Revolt”, which seeks to bring down the Israeli state. “They want the Messiah to come, to bring back the Kingdom of Israel, like in the days of King David, to rebuild the temple and drive out all idolaters, meaning Muslims and Christians”, explained one former Shin Bet officer.
  • In terms of Islam, the most legendary millenarian sect is the Ismaili “assassins”, which survived for two centuries. The assassins’ weapon of choice was the dagger, which, beginning in 1090, their agents would plunge into the backs of the senior religious and political figures who interfered with their missionaries and obstructed their preaching. Always aiming to be captured or killed (and thereby martyred), the goal of the assassins’ violence was to purify Islam in order to expedite the return of the Mahdi (Redeemer).

Indeed, this concept is ingrained into the fabric of Shi’a Islam, the largest school of which believes that the last of the twelve Imams (the rightful successors of the Prophet) went into occultation in the tenth century but will eventually re-emerge.

So, in many ways, when some radical Sunni groups started to dwell upon the ideas of a messianic deliverer (not mentioned in the Quran) and the imminence of the end times, they were using ideas and symbols which are more readily associated with Shi’a Islam. The same, of course, can be said for the “cult of martyrdom” – a recent development in Sunni Islam, which has spawned the trend of suicide bombing: the ideas of redemption, repentance and an imitation of suffering are markedly Shi’a characteristics [Kermani, 2002].

So much, then, for that pure society.


Much of the cultural destruction you’ll hear about for the reminder of the day occurs in the context of these ideological developments. These particular visions of society and history mean that fanatics aim at extirpating deviance and purifying society, and their actions sometimes take place for the benefit of a divine rather than an earthly audience.

I began these thirty minutes by discussing the policy developments and human choices which led to the rise of ISIS, whether on the part of the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003, and subsequently the authorities in Iraq and Syria, who together provided the space for the murderous opportunism of jihadi leaders based in those two countries.

The point of this recognition is not to encourage anger or despondency, but rather optimism. The struggle is as much about what we do, as what they do. Every day, in the campaign against ISIS, there are a host of factors that our representatives and allies and the international community can control.

We’ve made progress. ISIS has faced a stream of territorial losses in Iraq, and some in Syria, and has been pushed out of eastern and central Libya. Airstrikes have killed 25,000 fighters and destroyed $800 worth of cash and oil stores. The Turkish authorities have clamped down on its smuggling economy, and the foreign fighter flow has been dramatically stemmed – from 1500 arrivals a month down to 200. In the next session, you’ll also hear about the world’s positive response to the destruction of cultural heritage.

But, scanning the region right now, there’s a whole lot that can be done better.

  • In Iraq, the anti-ISIS coalition really is in crisis. Reports are emerging on social media of the grave abuses committed against civilians by sectarian, government-linked militia in the campaign to recapture Fallujah. Supposedly allied fighting groups have engaged in deadly clashes. At the same time, in Baghdad, parliament is paralysed and the government faces collapse. In Iraq, as in Syria, much more work has to be done on the political level to translate ISIS’s battlefield losses into meaningful victory.
  • There are also much smaller policy areas that unnecessarily hamper the daily effort against ISIS, ranging from the standoff between Algeria and Morocco on the Western Sahara issue which obstructs meaningful counter-terrorism cooperation across North Africa, to the current dispute in Lebanon over the President – Lebanon’s been without a president for more than 700 days – that prevents different factions from working together to build the Lebanese army at this critical time.
  • There’s also a question of political will. The UN’s report on the genocide of Iraq’s Yezidis called on major powers to rescue the roughly 3,200 Yezidi women and children still being held by ISIS, mainly as slaves. “The crime of genocide must trigger much more assertive action at the political level, including the Security Council”, the chairman of the enquiry panel said. “Nothing has been done to save these people”. As with the kidnap and sexual enslavement of women and girls elsewhere, including the 218 schoolgirls from Chibok, these issues can’t be consigned to hashtags or routine news items. They are surely moral emergencies that shock the conscience, and we should move heaven and earth. When the international community doesn’t throw its kitchen sink at these emergencies, its sometime complacency gives space for these crimes to be routinized or repeated.
  • Finally, in dealing with the refugee crisis in Europe, we do have to ask ourselves whether our limited and conditional compassion forms a milder counterpoint to the savagery that refugees from Iraq and Syria are fleeing – suspending millions of innocents tragically in between determined brutality and casual indifference.

I’ve got a bit preachy, I know, but my point is only that we do have agency in the face of the destruction you’ll hear about today. Whether we like it or not, in big and small ways, we are a part of the larger story.