ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is, according to Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, authors of the new book, “ISIS: The State of Terror,” “the crack cocaine of violent extremism, all the elements that make it so alluring and so addictive purified into a crystallized form.” To Western readers baffled and horrified by the jihadist group’s extravagant and relentlessly spectacular brutality, that statement may sound senseless. As a crucial part of the intended audience for ISIS’ cruelty, we’re meant only to be frightened and outraged. Understanding ISIS, who it appeals to and why, as well as how it sees itself, isn’t something we’re supposed to do. One purpose of ISIS’ savagery is to make us react without thinking, to compel us to view the world as it does, as a stark conflict between good and evil demanding immediate, dramatic action. In that light, consider “ISIS: The State of Terror,” a profound act of counterterrorism.
Stern and Berger are two widely respected authorities on Islamist extremism and its mindset, but unlike a lot of their colleagues, they’re able to express themselves lucidly and without a lot of misleading axe-grinding. Although the situation in Iraq and Syria is constantly changing, and the authors acknowledge that ISIS might have suffered a decisive setback or achieved a significant victory by the time their book hits stores this week (it hasn’t), “ISIS: The State of Terror,” is remarkably current, referring to events as recent as January 2015. More important, Stern and Berger offer a framework in which to make some kind of sense of the kidnappings, the beheadings, the massacres, the rape, the enslavement and the brutalizing of children currently being perpetrated in the the territory ISIS controls. It’s an essential primer and antidote to the mindlessness that ISIS wants to foment, as well as a damning indictment of the U.S. policies that have enabled it to flourish.
The conventional line on ISIS is that it is so violent that al Qaida, its former affiliate, formally disavowed it in early 2014. That’s only partly true. As Stern and Berger explain it, ISIS is al Qaida’s rival for the allegiance of jihadists throughout the world, a rival that is “rewriting the playbook for extremism.” Barack Obama once likened the group to the “jayvee” version of al Qaida, but in truth it has stolen the older group’s thunder and followers by deploying several key innovations. ISIS’ blithe willingness to slaughter Muslim civilians is one of the few forms of barbarism Osama bin Laden objected to, but it was ISIS’ “outright defiance” of current al Qaida chief Ayman al Zawahiri that precipitated the break, far more any of ISIS’ war crimes.
Where did the group come from? “ISIS: The State of Terror” recounts its origins in al Qaida in Iraq, a faction that, despite its name, was run by a man, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who initially “was neither collaborating with Saddam nor a member of al Qaida.” Rather, Zarqawi was a Jordanian thug who become the most notorious of the many foreign militants who flooded into Iraq after the U.S. invasion of that country in 2003. At that time, the jihadist movement was faltering in the aftermath of the destruction of al Qaida’s base in Afghanistan. Fortunately for them, the feckless and delusional Bush administration decided to parlay American paranoia about terrorism into an essentially unrelated military adventure. According to Stern and Berger, jihadi leaders and strategists claim that “the war in Iraq single-handedly rescued the movement.”
Zarqawi, influenced by a tract titled “The Management of Savagery,” was behind AQI’s escalation of violence, including the targeting of Muslim civilians and what Zawahiri censured as excessive displays of “scenes of slaughter.” He also embraced the Internet as a propaganda and recruitment tool at a time when al Qaida saw it primarily as a way to communicate with the initiated. By the time Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, AQI, renamed the Islamic State of Iraq, had formed an uneasy alliance with al Qaida that continued under Zarqawi’s successor, who was himself killed in 2010.
It is the group’s current leader, an Iraqi using the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who took ISIS to the next level, beginning with the implementation of an organization he constructed while imprisoned in the U.S. detention facility, Camp Bucca. According to one expert, at least eight of the senior leaders of ISIS are former inmates of Camp Bucca. The leadership is also, for the most part, former Ba’ath Party members, skilled and disaffected Sunni Muslims who were ejected from the Iraqi civil service and military as part of Paul Bremer’s disastrous “de-Ba’athification” policy. The group launched devastating attacks on Iraq’s Shia-dominated government and, in 2013, took advantage of the uprising in Syria to seize control of the Syrian city of Raqqa, then took even more territory in Syria and Iraq, including the city of Mosul.
Much of “ISIS: The State of Terror” describes how ISIS overtook al Qaida as the foremost jihadist movement in the Mideast; ISIS is now where the action is for both homicidal militants and zealots seeking to live under a “purified” form of Shariah law. Where al Qaida is a vanguard movement, run by an educated elite that operates in hiding, ISIS takes a more populist approach. It thrives in an age of social media, and retains a corps of well-organized digital operatives who engineer Twitter storms designed to make the group appear to enjoy more popular support than it does. (Some of the rare flashes of dark, ironic humor in this book come from the discovery that even fanatical jihadists get into pissy catfights and air their dirty laundry on Twitter.) Perhaps even more effective are ISIS’ expertly produced web videos, a weird blend of ultraviolence, inspirational storytelling and gauzy idealism.
The idealism is Baghdadi’s other bold innovation. He declared the territory in his possession to be the new caliphate, an Islamic government infused with historical import and prophetic destiny. He commanded all true militants to swear loyalty to him and the purported paradise of the faithful that ISIS was creating. “Its propaganda is not simply a call to arms,” the authors write, “it is also a call for noncombatants, men and women alike, to build a nation-state alongside the warriors, with a role for engineers, doctors, filmmakers, sysadmins and even traffic cops.” Muslims disgusted with corrupt, secularized and/or oppressive regimes in their homelands, or those feeling marginalized in Western nations, are encouraged to relocate to a new society that promises piety and “food aplenty, industry, banks, schools, healthcare, social services, pothole repair.” This is a far cry from the nihilistic rallying cries of al Qaida, whose fighters are expected to give their lives for a cause that may not see fruition for generations, if ever.
It’s this bizarre fusion of brutality, pitched to “the target demographic for foreign fighters — angry, maladjusted young men whose blood stirred at images of grisly beheadings and the crucifixion of so-called apostates,” and a meaningful communal project that explains the breadth of ISIS’ appeal to the disillusioned young, including women. Although reliable information about conditions inside ISIS-controlled territory is very difficult to obtain, the rosy picture offered in ISIS videos is almost certainly completely false. But good luck getting out again if you’re foolish enough to go there in search of it.
ISIS’ most headline-grabbing atrocity videos, particularly those in which Western hostages are beheaded, began to appear last year. They are, in the view of Stern and Berger, both bloody recruitment ploys and calculated attempts to lure the West into armed conflict in the region. “ISIS: The State of Terror,” outlines the apocalyptic mythology and predictions espoused by some Muslims. In this end-times scenario, a fateful battle will be fought over the strategically insignificant Syrian town of Dabiq. (ISIS’ official magazine is titled Dabiq.)
Stern and Berger strongly feel, and persuasively argue, that Western nations should not allow themselves to be drawn into such a conflict. “Certainly, the history of ISIS and al Qaida before it show that overwhelming military force is not a solution to hybrid organizations that straddle the line between terrorism and insurgency,” they write. A better strategy would be “focused on containment and constriction, rather than simply smashing ISIS into ever more virulent bits.” Instead of allowing ISIS’ monstrous propaganda to fuel a self-defeating Western overreaction to the threat it poses, they recommend “efforts to cut off its ability to move fighters, propaganda and money in and out of the regions it controls, weakening its ability to use brute force and extreme violence to keep the local population in check.” This “would also force ISIS to fail based on its own actions instead of being displaced by outsiders, which would do much over the long run to discredit future efforts at jihadist nation building.”
This is a bitter pill to swallow, given that Stern and Berger also believe that the people who have come under ISIS’ power, including large numbers of children who have been enlisted as fighters, are suffering traumas that will redound for generations to come. There is, however, one arena where the authors see an opening for aggressive Western action: “message distribution.” As odd as it may sound, Twitter and other services are important fronts in this war: “ISIS has chosen to fight much of its battle with the West on social media.” After dragging its feet for a few years, Twitter finally began an aggressive shutdown of accounts run by jihadis and their supporters in 2014, presumably in response to government demands. Although the militants can, of course, simply open new accounts under different names, the authors argue that keeping up the pressure has nevertheless deprived them of much time, energy and reach.
Last but far from least, they recommend “taking a closer look at our strategies and tactics, and asking how they can better reflect our values.” From our government’s use of torture and drones to its support for anti-democratic leaders to the colossal ineptitude and dishonesty of the Iraq War, the West has failed to live up to its own rhetoric as flagrantly as ISIS has. Furthermore, ISIS would not exist in the first place if we had not succumbed to greed, impatience and simplistic, vainglorious notions about our role in the world and our ability to impose our wishes on other peoples. ISIS may be a living nightmare, but it’s a nightmare at least partly of our own making.