History shows us that totalitarian movements, like the newly established Islamic State, very frequently turn on themselves, slaughtering thousands of their own members. Some Muslims from outside Iraq and Syria are traveling to the Islamic State to serve as soldiers. The historical pattern of totalitarian self-slaughter ought to (but probably won’t) lead these “foreign Jihadis” to expect to be executed by the Islamic State itself if they manage not to be killed in combat.

A history of violence

One of the tragic ironies of totalitarian movements is that they often turn on members of their own ranks. Some prominent examples of totalitarian movements that ended up killing members of the ruling party (all of these regimes killed far, far more people in total – the victims listed here are interesting because they were supporters of the movement):

  • In the French revolution, the Jacobins, turned on their erstwhile allies, the Girondins, beheading all of those who did not flee fast enough in the “reign of terror” of 1793. This is perhaps the mildest case cited in this article because the Girondins were arguably not a part of the “totalitarian” arm of the French revolutionary movement.
  • Not only did the ruling Bolsheviks of the early USSR (1917’s-50’s) kill their Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary allies, they then turned on many other groups within the Bolshevik movement – including Bolshevik leaders, party delegates and Red Army officers. Among the victims were Genrikh Yagoda, and Nikolai Yezhov, both heads of the NKVD (the repressive arm of the state) as well as 3,000 of Yagoda’s NKVD supporters – even the executioners were themselves liquidated!
  • In the famous “Night of the long knives” (30 June 1934), in Nazi Germany, the entire senior leadership of the paramilitary “Sturmabteilung” or SA wing of the Nazi party were arrested and subsequently executed on Hitler’s orders. Some of these men had themselves carried out assassinations and executions of political enemies for the Nazi movement.
  • The “Cultural revolution” of Mao Zedong’s Communist China (1966-1976) saw the executions of thousands of party officials, including members of the leadership group.
  • The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia began killing its’ own members within two years of seizing power in 1975. In all, thousands of members were systematically tortured and murdered with their entire families. As in Soviet Russia, some of the victims were former members of the repression arm, including an administrator of Tuol Sleng, the prison used to interrogate and kill party traitors. There were plans in motion to liquidate the head of the repression arm, Son Sen, shortly before the regime fell.


Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the feared NKVD, was himself murdered by the regime and then “disappeared” from official Soviet history.

The totalitarian Islamic State

It’s already clear that the Islamic state shares many features with other totalitarian historical movements. Totalitarian movements are characterised by the central, overarching role of the state in the ideology of the movement. This ideology justifies and urges state control in all aspects of life, and the total crowding out of individual rights, freedoms and civil society. The state demands complete loyalty and obedience from the people. Totalitarian movements will often “wage war” on social problems and dissent within their society, using brutal methods to create a new society on their model. Another prominent feature of totalitarian movements is the ‘leadership principle’ – the idea that a leader or small leadership group has the right to make unilateral decisions to control the state that must be followed unquestionably. These movements have often adopted these extreme ideologies in the face of a militant struggle where moderates have been marginalised, exiled or liquidated, leaving a hard core of committed extremists in charge.

All of these features were present in the ideology of the totalitarian movements listed earlier: the French revolutionary committee for public safety (during the Jacobin period), the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, Nazi Germany, Chinese Communism under Mao and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Total control

Reports from inside the Islamic State confirm that it has many similarities with these movements. (a particularly good source on this topic is the series of short documentaries from inside the state by Vice News “The Islamic State”). The Islamic State identifies itself as a revival of the theocratic state of the prophet Mohammed (Islamic State is an English translation of the term ‘Caliphate’, the name of the Arabian state founded by Mohammed) – in this ideology there is no distinction between church and state and no distinction between religious impropriety and criminal behaviour. A fundamentalist approach to religion means that there is little conduct left to the conscience of the individual – clothing, smoking, observance of many religious rituals (including praying five times daily) are all heavily regulated. Alcohol and drugs are banned altogether, women are banned from any form of public life and there is no freedom of political expression.

Brutal repression

The methods of the Islamic State are brutal and such a focus of contemporary reporting that I don’t need to go into much detail; It is worth noting the beheadings and summary executions of enemy combatants and civilians are not just a feature of the movement but an actively pursued and publicised terror strategy on the part of the IS. This repression is already being directed against the region’s most important civil institution – tribes. In early August the Sheitat tribe was subjected to collective punishment – hundreds of men who were members of the tribe were swept up and beheaded when IS and the tribe became embroiled in a dispute. Totalitarian movements cannot tolerate any other locus of power and will seek to destroy civil institutions that they cannot co-opt and subsume. Within IS controlled towns, extreme corporal punishment like lashings and amputations are administered as part of the religious-criminal justice system.

Cult of the leader

As with many other totalitarian movements, a leadership cult has begun to develop around the all-powerful leader, the ‘Caliph’. Citizens are encouraged to pledge allegiance not just to the State but to the ‘Caliph’ himself. The ‘Caliph’, in keeping with the practice of the Islamic state of Mohammed and his successors, is a theocratic dictator with absolute power in all matters that don’t directly contradict established Islamic law as defined in the time of the prophet. The Caliph exercises complete administrative control of the combined church and state.


The Islamic State also has a well-established militant history – the present movement known as the Islamic State has existed in some form since shortly after the Iraq invasion of 2003. For 10 years the movement has nurtured militant traditions and methods as it battled occupation forces and the American backed Iraqi government. A history of violent struggle for control often “turns up the volume” on totalitarian movements, priming them for brutality when they begin to achieve territorial control. This is particularly true of Soviet Russia and Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Apocalypse now

One additional and particularly disturbing feature of the Islamic State is their promotion of eschatological Islamic passages in their official literature. The Islamic State’s first English language publication, Dabiq (aimed at recruiting foreign Muslims) emphasises an Islamic religious passage that predicts a great conflict between Islam and “Rome” (which can be read as the Christian West) that has apocalyptic overtones. The passages suggest that the re-establishment of the Islamic State is part of a process of provoking a great battle with “Rome” in which the Islamic State will be ultimately victorious. The apocalyptic overtones are a very radical ideological element that is a strong sign that a movement will be utterly ruthless in pursuit of their goals, having little to fear in death (an imminent apocalypse necessarily reduces the perceived value of all life). This is a fascinating aspect of some totalitarian religious movements that really begins to blur the distinction between a political movement and a religious cult. Murray N. Rothbard wrote an excellent essay on this topic and the links between socialism and the apocalyptic worldview (for a typically disastrous example, see the sections on the Munster Anabaptists).

Holiday from hell?

Whilst there is a general tendency of totalitarian movements to turn on their own supporters, foreign Jihadis have a particular reason to think that they will eventually be lined up against the wall. As outsiders who cannot speak the local language and don’t know the local customs, they will be strangers in a strange land. They will begin at the absolute periphery of the movement and have little chance of penetrating the central leadership group, composed of hardened veterans who have spent a decade in combat or incarcerated by the enemy. This leadership group will trust members of their own families and ethnic group with power much more readily than the assorted group of foreigners arriving from all corners of the globe. As such, even those foreign Jihadis who manage to survive being used as expendable troops are in a very precarious situation.

It is a position broadly analogous to that of another group in history, the USSR’s “foreign engineers”. In the 1920’s and 30’s, following the establishment of the USSR, there was great optimism at what would be achieved in the new Soviet state. Thousands of communist/socialist engineers and technicians from the west emigrated to Soviet Russia to “help build Communism” by contributing to its industrial development. When the Soviet purges began, these emigrants, many of them naïve and genuine supporters of the Communist cause, were almost all executed. Despite posing no threat to the regime, their status as foreigners made them both suspect and expendable.

It is hard to imagine that, in the unlikely situation that the Islamic State manages to establish stable borders and some kind of ceasefire, the IS will have much more use for the foreign Jihadis, who have little to offer other than military service. The foreign Jihadis would do well to heed the lesson of history and stay well away from the flames of totalitarianism, lest they themselves be consumed by the fire.