Caliphate’s modus operandi in foreign affairs

Il frame tratto da Youtube mostra il califfo dello “stato islamico” tra Iraq e Siria, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, mentre recita la preghiera quotidiana in una moschea di Mosul, Beirut, 5 Luglio 2014. ANSA/ WEB/ YOUTUBE

TheA�emergence of the Islamic State (IS) can mainly be traced back to two intertwined situations: the political turmoil which followed the demise of Saddam Hussein (2003) and the regional instability caused by the Syrian Civil War (2011). This complex scenario was essentially the “perfect storm” which allowed for IS to emerge and establish a de facto state, seizing vast swathes of territory precisely at the detriment of Iraq and Syria. In late June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even appointed himself Caliph, thus reviving an old Islamic institution, the Caliphate.

Abu Bakr did not declare a kingdom or a republic; nor he did not appoint himself King or President. For those who are not familiar with Islamic studies, this decision may appear rather empty of significance. Nevertheless, as the term a�?Calipha�? historically implies both temporal and spiritual authority, the implications of this choice should not be underestimated, since the Caliph is considered the ruler of the Ummah, the Muslim community. However, in order to sustain its claims it creates a necessity for IS to achieve a state of legitimacy in which both the Caliph and the Caliphate are deemed legitimate from an Islamic perspective.

Legitimacy is an achieved condition, ultimately the consequence of the process of legitimation (Kurtz 1984: 302).

IS seeks religious legitimacy, unlike states like Italy or the UK which derive their legitimacy from international recognition: while the former concept entails collective agreement on a religious basis, the latter has more to do with Western secularized diplomatic practice based on mutual recognition of sovereignty, a concept at the basis of the international society of states. Hence legitimacy becomes essential in the explanation of IS conduct in foreign affairs, since from an Islamic perspective the legitimization of the Calipha��s authority requires the shared agreement of the Ummah regarding his election. Thus, the yearning of IS for religious legitimacy holds sway insofar as it condemns IS to the pursuit of a particular conduct in international affairs. So far, the grim reality for the men of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is that their claims have been widely rejected by the Muslim community.

By and large, diplomacy is usually conceived as a�?a response to the possibility of violencea�� (Constantinou 2013: 142), or latu senso a�?the conduct of relations between States and other entities with standing in world politics by official agents and by peaceful meansa�� (Bull, 1995: 156-7). However, to what extent could the behaviour of IS be deemed diplomatic? Perhaps its conduct in international affairs is best described as anti-diplomatic. IS openly shuns the Western-like secularized practice of diplomacy, banned as idolatrous, choosing instead the way prescribed by al-Qutb and al-Faraj, that is why IS does not abide by international agreement regarding diplomatic immunity and the law of war. In fact, IS anti-diplomacy is geared towards convincing the Muslim community of the legitimacy of the Caliphate and entails an utter rejection of the official (and secularized) mainstream channels of communication.

When the terrorist group Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) released a photo of the kidnapped Aldo Moro – at the time one of the most influential personalities in the Italian government – it appeared the following day on the front pages of 45 major newspapers worldwide (Der Derian 1992). Therefore, the Brigate Rosse were able to reach distant territories without ever leaving home turf: so does IS nowadays at a larger scale. Plus, having no embassies or officially appointed diplomats, IS establishes direct communication through the far less controlled conduits of TV and Internet. The threat a�?is not territorial, as in the case of conventional war, but temporal: its power is increasingly derived from the instantaneous representation and diffusion of violence by a global communication networka�� (Der Derian 1992: 116). In this regard, Amaq and Dabiq1 played a pivotal role spreading IS propaganda and messages through the virtual domain. The shrewd use of technology allows IS to bypass traditional channels of official communication, making IS anti-diplomacy fast and far-reaching, having thus the capacity to circumvent physical distance.

IS strategy entails carefully planned ruthlessness and logic. Being diplomacy the management of international relations by negotiation (Nicolson, 1950: 15) the antidiplomatic modus operandi deployed by IS where mainstream diplomatic channels of communication are bypassed and ridiculed on a religious basis is thus antithetic to the Western conception of diplomatic practice, developed as a mediation of mutual estrangements between states (Der Derian 1992: 110).

Davide Zurlo (born February 2, 1991) received his MA in International Relations from the University of Kent in 2015.

In 2017 he joined VDS as a partner and his research focuses on EU affairs and water diplomacy, with secondary interests in Iran’s foreign policies and Islamic jurisprudence.

He is also interested in projects exploring Islam and IR, post-structuralist IR theory and the work of certain philosophers whose work applies to IR, e.g. Foucault, Hume, Machiavelli.

In 2014 he won the a�?Ibn Battuta Full Merit Scholarship for Peace and Diplomacya�? at the Qalam wa Lawh Center for Arabic Studies in Rabat, Morocco.


1- The Amaq News Agency is an outlet launched in 2014 and it is linked to IS. Dabiq was an online magazine expression of IS propaganda.



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Constantinou, Costas M. (2013) Between Statecraft and Humanism: Diplomacy and Its Forms of Knowledge. International Studies Review.

Der Drian, J. (1992) Antidiplomacy. Wiley-Blackwell.

Kurtz, D. (1984) Strategies of Legitimation and the Aztec State. Ethnology 23: 301-314.

Nicolson, Sir Harold George. (1950) Diplomacy. A�Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.