By Georgina McDonald
Cementing and expanding the Islamic State is of the utmost importance to its leaders and supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who, broadly, advocate for the destruction of the West, a return to traditional Wahhabism for all Muslims and the restoration of an Islamic caliphate to unite Muslims worldwide under their leadership. ISIL rejects traditional nation-state identities, instead favouring an absolutist Islamist identity. This was reflected in a 2014 speech by former ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi upon the declaration of the Caliphate, who exclaimed ‘Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis’. Consequently, multiple branches of ISIL have emerged across the world. Most recently and ferociously in Africa, where the Islamic State of the Central African Province, Islamic State of Somalia, and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, for example, have appeared to spread their influence. However, if ISIL yearns for a restoration of the Caliphate, then why has Andalusia, or Al-Andalus, the region which holds the ‘Ka’aba of the West’, been neglected from this vision? Why have we not seen an ‘Islamic State of Al-Andalus’?
The region of Andalusia spans nearly 90,000 square kilometres across the southern most land of Spain. It boasts incredible mountain ranges such as the Sierra Nevada and stunning beaches along the Costa del Sol. However, it is in the architecture in the cities of Seville, Granada and Córdoba where the history of the region comes to light. This history is rich in culture and by walking the city streets one is easily able to identify Andalusia’s historic rulers.
In 711 CE, under the leadership of Tariq ibn Ziyad, an Islamic army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Tangier. Within seven years they had conquered the region of Andalusia, ending Visigoth rule, and beginning an 800-year Muslim rule which eventually expanded as far as the borders of León, Castille, Navarra and Barcelona. During this period, the region became known as Al-Andalus. The invasion is generally viewed as an extension of the Muslim conquest of North Africa and a successful attempt to expand territory and influence.
Stability was henceforth brought to the region by the Umayyad Caliphate in 756 CE. Amir Abd al-Rahman I had travelled from Damascus to Córdoba where he united the various Iberian Islamic factions under his rule. Later, in 929 CE, Abd al-Rahman III became Caliph and so, the Caliphate of Córdoba emerged. Arabic architecture and influence can be found in almost every city and town in Andalusia as a result. In Córdoba, the mosque, or mezquita, was converted from a Visigoth place of worship by al-Rahman in 786 CE, and is the main tourist attraction, known for its hidden Christian cathedral within. In Seville and Granada, the Giralda and the Alhambra respectively, evidence the intensifying rule which swept through Al-Andalus.
The significance of Al-Andalus to the Islamic State has not been completely lost, however. After the 2017 Barcelona attacks claimed by the Islamic State, for the first time the terrorist organisation released a propaganda video in Spanish. One of the men in the video identifies himself as Al Qurtubí, the Arabic name for ‘the Córdoban’. Al Qurtubí threatened Spanish Christians, claiming that Al-Andalus will once again belong to the caliphate. Despite this acknowledgement, ISIL and its affiliates have not used terrorist tactics in the major cities of the region such as Seville, Málaga, Granada or Córdoba. Instead, their attacks have been focused on Barcelona and Madrid.
Barriers to retaking Al-Andalus
Theoretically, and historically, Andalusia should have great significance for Islamists. Reconquering the region would represent a remarkable step towards the return to the caliphate to unite Muslims worldwide. However, there are significant barriers to this vision. Firstly, the reason that ISIL was able to gain such large ground in Iraq and Syria was a direct result of existing political instability in the region. ISIL remarkably exploited the power vacuum which the US invasion and the capture of Saddam Hussein created in Iraq. Similarly, post-2011 saw ISIL exploit the collapse of the Assad regime and eventually control an area larger than the size of Great Britain. However, as an economically stable, democratic, western nation, Spain and the Spanish government have fortunately not experienced political strife on the level of that in Iraq and Syria. Without a power vacuum, ISIL could not take advantage of a lack of stable government in the same way it has done previously. Furthermore, many Iraqis and Syrians joined the ISIL citing economic reasons. In their war-torn communities where work was scarce, and with ISIL paying recruits, some felt they had no option. And some did not have an option at all. Many men were forced to join the terrorist organisation or face certain death. Fortunately, the inhabitants of Andalusia do not face the same difficulties, therefore are less likely to feel forced to seek aid from a terrorist organisation.
In Europe, ISIL has mainly targeted major cities such as London, Paris, Barcelona and Brussels. This is more than likely a strategic move, to attract attention to their cause from politicians, the press and the public. Due to not being capital cities, the cities of Andalusia are less likely to draw as much attention. However, if ISIL was to attack Córdoba, for example, and it was framed in such a way that the attack indicated a resurgence of the old Muslim Caliphate, this then may draw more European eyes and instil more fear than any attack on London or Paris. Using a historical connection to the region as reasoning for attacks would potentially add legitimacy to their stake in the land in the eyes of their believers. Fortunately, this would not stand with the Spanish government nor with any Muslim who did not hold extremist Islamist views in Spain. Therefore, any attempt at resurgence into the area would undoubtedly be suppressed by Spanish civil and military authorities.
Finally, Andalusia, while once a flourishing Muslim Caliphate, today does not have a large Muslim community in comparison to countries where ISIL thrived at its peak. In 2020, out of a total 8.4 million inhabitants in Andalusia, there were approximately 149,000 Muslims in the region with Spanish nationality, and a further 145,000 with Moroccan nationality. While a large Muslim population is of course not necessary for ISIL to commit terror attacks, it is perhaps more necessary, or at least helpful, for a realistic takeover of the region and formation of an Islamic State as seen in Iraq and Syria. ISIL attempts to use Islamic teachings in order to justify its actions, and while it could encourage a minority of those of the Muslim faith to join the cause, it is more likely fall on deaf ears of Andalusians as the majority are of different faiths or no faith at all.
Despite the fact that the region of Andalusia in the past has flourished under Muslim rule for an 800-year long period, it seems today that the Islamic State are not interested in developing an ‘Islamic State of Al-Andalus’. Perhaps they do not see the value of expending resources to commit terror attacks in a region in order to reclaim it as they know the Spanish civil and military authorities would quickly thwart their efforts. In addition, committing attacks in major European capital cities draws more attention to their cause. At this stage in the Islamic State’s existence, perhaps just gaining attention from the western world is more important than attacking with the aim to conquer. And in order to rule, having the popular support of the population, or at least marginal support, is significantly beneficial. Spain’s stable economy means its inhabitants are not forced to turn to extreme ideas and with only a marginal Muslim population, the Islamic States reliance on old Islamic scripture will not persuade the numbers they need to succeed in a resurgence. For these reasons, it seems an ‘Islamic State of Al-Andalus’ will likely remain a distant dream for Al Qurtubí and the Islamic State.
Georgina is a recent graduate of King’s College, London where she studied for an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society, for which she achieved a Distinction. This article is Georgina’s first contribution to Strife but she hopes to write further blogs on topics including terrorism, international relations and foreign and domestic policy.