All terrorist groups challenge state sovereignty and the international order. However, this challenge is usually of limited scope, with political objectives confined to such conventional goals as assuming power in a state or gaining independence. Their violence, however disruptive, still accepts the state-based international order as an organizing principle. One might even claim that by aspiring to eventually become recognized state authorities, most terrorist groups reaffirm and strengthen an international order that is based on states.
The challenge posed by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is different. These groups have many more state enemies than most terrorist groups, and they challenge the practical sovereignty of their target states in more fundamental ways that constitute threats to the international society as a whole. They do not seek a limited fix to particular problems in the international system, but to overthrow the state-based Westphalian order and establish an alternative order in its stead.
Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are unusual not only in the landscape of terrorist entities: They are also unique among Islamist groups. In theory all religious armed groups must address the relationship between two competing sources of authority, state and God. But most religious terrorist groups strike a compromise by seeking to shape the particular identity and ruling system of the state they inhabit but accepting the state-based order, including its rules for conducting international relations. Armed Islamist groups in Egypt and Algeria in the 1990s waged deadly fights in the name of religion, but they focused on domestic change, prioritizing the establishment of sharia law in their countries over revolt against the state-based order.
But global jihadism, epitomized by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, goes further by emphasizing what it sees as the incompatibility between religious and state-based logic. Consequently, it seeks more than change in particular countries, promoting as a central goal the destruction of the existing order and its substitution by a universal Islamic one, mirroring these groups’ particular, highly contested views of Islam.
This is why despite the word “State” in its name, the Islamic State is not an ordinary state and does not…