The precise point at which Islamic State – or ISIS, or Daesh, or simply IS – emerged as an organisation in its own right presents a complicated yet important question. Although its backstory is frequently traced to 2003 and the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the moment at which Islamic State definitively split from its apparent progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, is often less precisely drawn. This is understandable: human institutions and organisations seldom have a single, uncontested, point of origins to which their existence might be traced.
Questions such as these are undoubtedly important to historians and others with an interest in the rise and decline of so-called ‘terrorist’ groups. Indeed, the temporal or historical rhythms of terrorism have become a productive research area within scholarship on terrorism in recent years: witness the pervasiveness of claims around terrorism’s ‘waves’, ‘cycles’ or ‘old’ and ‘new’ manifestations.
These questions also matter, however, in a very real and immediate sense to those tasked with arresting the terrorist threat.
In the United Kingdom, such questions came to a head in a House of Commons debate of 16 June 2014. This debate saw James Brokenshire – Minister for Security and Immigration – seeking approval for the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2014.
With the passage of this amendment, the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’ was added to the United Kingdom’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations, along with four other groups: Turkiye Halk Kurtulus Partisi-Cephesi; Kateeba al-Kawthar, known as KAK; Abdallah Azzam Brigades, known as AAB, including the Ziyad al-Jarrah Battalions; and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
Under powers laid out in the Terrorism Act 2000, this amendment meant that it was now illegal to belong to, or support, any of these five organisations. It is also a criminal activity to ‘wear clothing or carry articles in public which arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member or supporter of a proscribed organization’. As of March 2015, there were 67 international terrorist organisations on the UK’s list – maintained by the Home Office – with a further 14 organisations in Northern Ireland proscribed under earlier legislation.
The Parliamentary debate that enabled the Islamic State’s addition to the Home Office’s list was marked by particularly interesting discussions of timing. First, in the House of Commons, the Labour Party MP Diana Johnson noted that:
‘The proscription of ISIS is unusual, because it is rare for an organisation to get so large and well funded before a proscription order is imposed. The US State Department proscribed ISIS in 2004, when ISIS was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Will the Minister confirm whether it was regarded as a proscribed group at that time because it was an affiliate of al-Qaeda? In 2013, ISIS attempted to merge with the al-Nusra Front, another affiliate of al-Qaeda. That merger seemed to prompt the United Kingdom Government to list the al-Nusra Front as an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and therefore as a proscribed organisation. Will the Minister be clear about the status of ISIS at that time and why it was not specifically listed?’
Johnson’s intervention is illustrative of some of the challenges that accompany the use of proscription as a technique of counter-terrorism. First, a necessary condition of the successful proscription of any terrorist organisation is an ability to name that organisation. Although seemingly straightforward – and mitigated, in part, by the listing of current and future aliases – this need to name is complicated by the amorphous nature of contemporary terrorist groups, and their tendency to splinter, fragment and evolve over time.
Second, is the extent to which the mechanics and consequences of proscription are themselves often less than perfectly understood, including amongst those who must decide whether or not to apply this power. As Baroness Smith – in the House of Lords debate on the same amendment – asked:
‘I am trying to understand how such proscription orders work in practice. Was there a gap during which ISIL was neither proscribed as being part of al-Qaeda nor, until Friday, proscribed in its own right?’
As this suggests, identifying the moment at which Islamic State separated from al Qaeda – (as well as understanding its relationship to al Nusra which was also discussed) – has consequences far beyond the veracity or otherwise of the historical record.
All of this would, perhaps, be of limited interest were the power of proscription not a matter of such importance. On one level, this power represents simply the most recent incarnation of outlawry practices in which the borders of a political community are simultaneously imagined and governed through the banning of undesirables. In at least one translation of Friedrich von Schiller’s William Tell, for instance, we find our eponymous protagonist cautioning the newly outlawed Duke Johann of Swabia with the words:
Along with its antecedents, proscription – of Islamic State, or al Qaeda, or any other group – raises considerable strategic, political and ethical questions. As we’ve explored elsewhere, these include, inter alia: the potential for proscription to serve foreign policy or other interests unrelated to counter-terrorism; a risk that the outcomes of proscription efforts are subject to the financial or political clout of their would-be targets; a lack of parliamentary or other scrutiny around the addition of new organisations to the UK’s list, with much relevant intelligence withheld on grounds of national security; a real danger of potentially significant incursions on rights of association, speech, and resistance; and, the questionable efficacy of this power given how little is known about counter-terrorism effectiveness more generally.
Given the global proliferation of proscription as a counter-terrorism tool, these are questions of increasing urgency. Although they might appear more germane, or more pronounced, for groups lacking the Islamic State’s reputation for wanton violence, their political, normative and strategic importance should not be overlooked. Not only for societies seeking an end to violent extremism, but also for groups whose genuine struggles for freedoms may be stifled by proscriptions emanating from, or supported by, liberal democracies of the west.
Lee Jarvis is Reader in International Security at the University of East Anglia, and convenes UEA’s Critical Global Politics research group. Follow him on Twitter @LeeJarvisPols. Tim Legrand is Lecturer in the National Security College, Crawford School of Public Policy, at the Australian National University. Follow him on Twitter @timlegrand. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.
This piece forms part of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism‘s research program on the role of the Islamic State in the contemporary security environment.