As others have noted, perhaps the most striking thing about the rise of ISIS (aka the Islamic State) is that it is fundamentally motivated by territorial, rather than merely terrorist ambitions. While Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda have, as Stuart Elden has shown in his indispensable Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, always demonstrated sophisticated territorial strategies in linking specific operations with a larger thematics of an aggressive Caliphate (see especially chapter two), the Islamic State is remarkable in being singularly devoted to explicit state-construction in a militarily expanding zone. ISIS seems to me to be combining the expansive energies of conquest that we normally associate with empire with the efforts to stabilize and legitimize a territory that we associate with nation-building.
ISIS’s original name, as I have discussed here before, strikingly reveals its territorial ambitions by localizing its proto-state in a space that defies the boundaries of the currently accepted nation-states of at least Syria and Iraq, with the ambiguity of the Arabic term “al-Sham” possibly signifying the much larger area understood in the West as “the Levant.” The movement to the name of Islamic State radically intensifies the possible territorial ambition of the group, since it suggests that its caliphate may well be an expanding entity limited only by the ambitions of its militarized version of Islam (see, for example, Al Jazeera’s reporting on this ambitious name-change; I also discuss this here).
Recent reports of ISIS celebrating the one-year anniversary of their taking of Mosul hammers the organization’s territorial ambitions home, indeed. As the BBC reports, ISIS has organized banners throughout the city, decorating buildings—and in so doing highlighting not just its control of the city, but also projecting a sense of long duration—of the kind of permanent holding of territory that we associate with nation-states. While ISIS may well not, as Liz Sly reports in the Washington Post, be effective in actually running a state, it is remarkable that such state-building remains a key part, if not indeed the raison d’être of the group: while Quinn Mecham’s systematic study of state-like development by ISIS in the Washington Post highlights many of the organization’s limits, it also shows clearly the group’s ambitions to create a stable, working state that would become part of the static collection of world nations.
When it comes to projecting an image of permanence that defies the previous trend of the chances that ISIS may soon take over Aleppo—which, Wikipedia informs us, is “one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world”—is especially striking. (See Lina Sinjab’s BBC reporting on ISIS’s current chances in taking Aleppo.) ISIS appears to be more poised than ever to make a play for Aleppo, with, as Anne Barnard of the New York Times reports, possible support from Syrian government forces. The profound antiquity and cultural richness of Aleppo may make one worry, given ISIS’s predilection for the iconoclastic destruction of historical objects and even sites about which I have written here and here, that much of the rich “world heritage” in the World Heritage http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/21 city of Aleppo will be destroyed (or, as Heather Pringle’s National Geographic suggests, sold off) by ISIS (though, given the fact that the Battle of Aleppo has been raging on since July 19, 2012, it is not clear how much of Aleppo’s archaeological and artistic treasures are currently left to destroy or sell).
However, simply holding Aleppo might be the most symbolically powerful move made by ISIS. Aleppo, after all, has been held by numerous groups: as the UNESCO site tells us, “Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks and Ottomans” have all “left their stamp on the city.” In adding its name to that UNESCO list of temporary—if however long-lived masters of Aleppo, ISIS may doing its most significant work yet in installing itself in world consciousness as a state rather than an insurgency.