Until the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS), jihadism led an asymmetric life: using improvised explosive devices and drive-by shootings, funnelling money through illegal channels and hiding from government forces. This guerrilla existence stood in stark contrast with its grand vision: to establish a state on the territories inhabited mainly by Muslims, and govern according to its own interpretation of Sharia law.
What stood between the reality and the vision was the lack of capabilities needed to first achieve territorial conquest and subsequently governance. In that sense, IS faced the traditional dilemma of all non-state actors: breaking into the monopoly of states requires certain state-like features in the first place. For non-state actors to mobilise the strategic resources necessary and then to translate them into effective military capabilities is only the first (and difficult enough) step; they then have to be ready to hold, and govern the conquered territory when they normally have no governance experience. The formidable challenges they face in this process mean that they normally never achieve either – with the exception of IS, which turned out to be the first non-state actor successfully to turn its concept of statehood into matching capabilities. How did it do that?