"The end of the world": Why America misunderstands ISIS -- and what you really need to know

Your conception of ISIS is scarily -- and dangerously -- incomplete, expert Charles Lister tells Salon. Here's why

Published April 1, 2015 5:15PM (EDT)


For a little more than six months, the United States has effectively been at war with the Islamic State (aka, ISIL or ISIS). Yet despite the country having committed significant resources already to "degrading" and defeating the group, with more likely to come, ISIS itself remains little understood. Is it a terrorist group? Is it a paramilitary organization? Is it the next iteration of al-Qaida in Iraq? Is it even Islamic?

The lack of clarity is at once strange and unnerving, considering the possible stakes. And that's why a new book from Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution, the esteemed and centrist think tank, is so welcome. Straightforwardly titled "The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction," Lister's book is an in-depth look at the organization — its roots, its practices and its goals — from an expert journalist with years of experience in the Middle East.

On Tuesday morning, Salon spoke over the phone with Lister, who is currently at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

It seems like we still aren't quite sure what to make of ISIS. How do you conceive of the group?

I think in many respects this is the most important question that needs to be asked about this whole issue. Fundamentally, ISIS is a transnational terrorist organization but there's another level of nuance or analysis to that. There's an extent to which, as an organization in Iraq and Syria, it has presented itself almost as a Sunni nationalist movement, in the sense that it presents itself as a supporter of Sunni Arab rights and representation in predominantly Sunni areas of those countries. In that sense, it has presented itself as a protector against repression from perceived enemies to Sunni Islam— in Iraq, the Shia, and in Syria, the Alawi and Iranian militia groups.

There's a number of different levels you can look at the organization but fundamentally they are a terrorist organization in the way they're structured, in the way they operate, and in terms of their objectives. They have a more effective way of reaching out to their potential support base on a local basis that can sometimes present almost as a Sunni Arab nationalist line. With regards to their international support base, the image is very, very different and in that respect, ISIS then presents itself as an almost apocalyptic international Jihadist organization whereby it recruits fighters to join its cause. Specifically, on a territorial basis, the cause is the establishment of an Islamic state, a caliphate, and a new 21st century Islamic movement.

They do operate on an apocalyptic level. When you look at ISIS literature and their public rhetoric and their videos, they talk very specifically about how their actions and strategies are directed specifically to bringing about the end of the world. They quite particularly believe that their actions in fighting against their perceived enemies to Islam will bring about the End of Days, and it is in many respects that kind of apocalyptic rhetoric which appears to have been quite successful in recruiting individuals from around the world. In that respect, it is worth noting that they have attracted totally unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters flying into Syria and Iraq.

Is there a difference between the group's capacity within Syria and Iraq and its capacity on the international stage?

Iraq is obviously where the organization has had its longest amount of history; it's where it has managed to grow the most sustainable roots. Of course, very famously, it has fought against the United States and its various international allies in the mid-2000s, so in that respect it has a very considerable foundation that lends it an element of sustainability in Iraq.

By extension, in Syria, the sheer chaos and brutality of the conflict we've seen develop there over the last four years has meant that it has managed to establish similarly sustainable roots in Syria as well, and those roots are the most important thing for securing the sustainability of an organization like this. These roots aren't necessarily always visible, but they're very tangible on the ground, especially when you speak to Syrians and Iraqis on the ground in Sunni areas. In those countries, it's quite clear that frustration is an element that ISIS not only feeds upon but that has actually been a critical element in creating those conditions of acceptance. That lends it a real element of power and long-term sustainability.

On an international level, it's a very different picture. ISIS has relied upon the shock factor it established when it announced the caliphate, when it took over Mosul in June last year. That shock factor was highly significant in terms of attracting attention from smaller jihadist cells across the Middle East and North Africa as well as further afield, and it was that kind of attention that, over a period of months, led to some of these small cells and factions officially pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and to its leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi. Many of those pledges of allegiance have been accepted within ISIS's senior leadership but a few of them haven't; most specifically, a few in Malaysia and the Philippines have gone kind of unanswered. Nonetheless, it did show that, to a certain extent, ISIS was successful in attracting global attention and allegiance from many areas of the world.

Has ISIS been able to achieve its goals?  

It hasn't reached the level of success it has aimed for— total global allegiance from the entire Islamic community— and for very obvious reasons, that's never going to happen, but looking back at the kind of analysis that came out shortly after it established the caliphate, it has managed to acquire more pledges of allegiance than perhaps was initially expected. What we're looking at now is a pretty serious element of competition between ISIS and Al Qaeda for global superiority within the jihadist community, and it will be that competition that, arguably, will come to define the most concerning and destabilizing dynamics of international security in years to come.

A lot of people in the West have referred to ISIS as if it were an analogue to the Bolsheviks. Obviously no historical analysis is perfect, but is that one useful or does it obscure more than it reveals?

In terms of capitalizing a revolution in other parts of the world? Clearly, ISIS perceives itself as the leader of the Islamic world, despite the fact that they are not recognized broadly as such. They perceive themselves as the leaders of the Islamic world and, as such, their ideology aims to attract as broad a following as possible. It's not always only the ideology. ISIS rules by fear on a local level; fear and intimidation and the shock factor I mentioned earlier.

That has played a dominant role in their propaganda and their media materials, and the kind of shocking levels of violence and brutality we've seen the group mete out do partially sit within the group's broader ideological underpinnings, but it is also aimed at having that sheer shock impact on a global level. They feed off of tension and they need to be on the front pages and in the headlines; they need to be on everyone's agendas all the time. In many respects, their strategy has succeeded so far in securing that.

How does ISIS differ from Al Qaeda? How are they similar?

In terms of comparing them to Al Qaeda, realistically speaking, both organizations have remarkably similar ideologies. Going back over the years, senior Al Qaeda leaders have talked apocalyptically; in history, Al Qaeda leaders have seen the Shia community as one of the most important enemies of their cause; and, very clearly, they have aimed at being a transnational organization. The key distinction between the two organizations is that ISIS is inherently an impatient organization. It seeks to secure its ultimate objective as quickly and as shockingly as possible. Al Qaeda, in many respects, has actually adopted a very different strategy, whereby their global affiliates around the world are more willing to play a much longer game and, in some ways, a more pragmatic one.

In Syria, that probably has been represented the most clearly, where Al Qaeda's affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra have been willing for a very long time to align themselves with other organizations that, on an ideological level, it should not be getting along with. In many respects, that has secured the long-term sustainability of the Al Qaeda affiliates, whereas ISIS has made many more enemies and is more reliant on military momentum on their fear and intimidation factor for securing their survival. I would say it's questionable whether or not that will necessarily secure its survival forever; there will come a point where a sufficiently large number of local populations will turn against them, and it will be at that point that we'll see its real vulnerabilities begin to emerge.

There has been a debate over whether ISIS is or is not truly Islamic. Where do you land on that?

I think it's a fascinating issue, and I think the Atlantic article engendered a really important debate within the area of people who look at the subject. At the same time, I don't necessarily entirely agree with the argument it makes; looking at ISIS on a really big picture. Yes, of course ISIS presents itself as an Islamic organization, it presents itself as acting according to strict Islamic ideals and laws, and a great deal of its official propaganda presents exactly that argument. In one of its editions of Dabiq, its English-language magazine, it explains the justification for its enslavement of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, which was apparently entirely based on the Quran and the Hadiths and Islamic scripture. From a big picture, you could make the argument that, at least from ISIS's perspective, they see themselves as an inherently Islamic organization.

Of course, that ignores the fact that the entire Islamic infrastructure and leadership around the world have condemned ISIS as inherently un-Islamic. That must be born in mind, too. There are many Islamic scholars around the world who make a very convincing and, I think, legitimate argument that ISIS selectively chooses readings to justify its cause and ignores others that would otherwise condemn its actions on the ground. That's a very important point to note.

Do you think ISIS is Islamic? And does it particularly matter?

I think we should not be looking at ISIS as a religious movement altogether. Fundamentally, it is motivated by politics and by being a social movement. It presents itself as a protector of Sunni Muslims not just for their religion but for being individuals, and this has proven so far to be a dramatically successful strategy in both Iraq and Syria. It has, at least in the immediate term, allowed the organization to present itself as expanding across the Middle East and North Africa and potentially further afield, and it is that political aspect which I think really rules the organization in terms of who its enemies are, how it operates on the ground, and how it tries to acquire support on the ground. Fundamentally, it is all of those elements that will determine whether or not it continues to be a success or failure.

In that respect, if we're looking at potential ways to counter and possibly even defeat ISIS as an organization, the only solutions are political. That is, solving the political crisis in Baghdad, pushing out the Iranian expansionist policies we've seen in Iraq in recent years. Similarly in Syria, that means forcing an end to the Assad regime, as Bashar al-Assad has certainly not proven to be a unifying factor in Syria, replacing him with a more representative government, and allowing the Sunni majority in Syria to represent itself within the national government. It is those kinds of political solutions which will totally take away the ground upon which ISIS is currently standing, so in many respects, the debate over the legitimacy of their apparent Islamic ideology is of secondary importance.

Some people have argued that ISIS is trying to bait the West into sending troops into the region. Is that true? Or do they have more pressing concerns right now?

In terms of immediate concerns, ISIS is clearly focused on consolidating control over the territory that it does have, defending against attacks in Iraq by the Iraqi military, attempting to continue an element of military momentum in Syria, and continuing to acquire new territory. At the same time, there is an international element to this. Both al Qaeda and ISIS have displayed an ability to read and analyze the political environment that exists in the West, and there was a recognition during the first two or three years of the Syrian crisis that the United States and its various European allies were not in a political position to be able to launch another military engagement in the Middle East. That kind of space allows groups like ISIS to expand and to establish a concrete presence on the ground and an element of territorial control.

As time continues and as these groups continue to expand in Syria and Iraq, the political environment in the US and Europe continues to be unfavorable to launching any kind of intervention. Of course, as we all know, it was only the threat to the Yazidis in Iraq and the potential for a genocide there as well as the public beheadings of American and British hostages that really brought the international community into launching what I would call a limited intervention.

 If ISIS is trying to provoke Western intervention, why haven't they been successful?

I think these organizations continue to display an ability to read political environments in the West, and I think  they realize that they have the capacity to sort of toe the line, especially in America. You see this play out on social media and in the longer pieces of political analysis that ISIS releases in some of its magazines. The political environment in America is focused on the Iranian nuclear negotiations and with nonintervention and with not deploying military forces on the ground in the Middle East. I think that gives ISIS space to continue to operate the way it has and to play on the divisive dynamics of the continually expanding role of Iran in Syria and Iraq that fosters frustration within Sunni communities in both of those countries and disaffection in the international community. It's those emotions that jihadist organizations can play upon so successfully.

Fundamentally, ISIS feeds off of violence, and not just military momentum on the ground but public media momentum and attention, which they have proven themselves very successful in acquiring. So long as the Western world fails to grasp the real solutions on the ground, I fear ISIS will be able to survive.

Do you think ISIS will still be around in, say, 10 years? Will it collapse under its own weight, as many have predicted? Or will it perhaps transform into something else?

As is very clear to even the most casual observer, current conditions in the Middle East are extremely unstable. Instability provides very significant openings to all jihadist organizations and many other kinds of armed groups like this, so in that respect, the current dynamics in the Middle East don't look to be changing any time soon. That does provide an opportunity for a group like ISIS to continue to survive, but I would emphasize "survive." I wouldn't necessarily suggest that ISIS, as an organization 10 years down the line, will continue to govern over the kinds of swathes of populations it currently does today in Syria and Iraq. I don't think, necessarily, that that is sustainable.

I do think we will come to a time in the next year or two where a sufficient number of people will begin to turn against them within their areas of control. That will open up a real vulnerability within ISIS.On the other hand, the kind of instabilities that look set to continue in the Middle East will provide opportunities for other organizations which haven't carried out such a rushed path towards their goals. In that respect, I would point more specifically to organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra— the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate— which haven't been in such a rush to unilaterally establish control over territory and have so far been willing to cooperate with other groups.

That being said, ISIS is not going anywhere. it will always exist. The question is whether or not it will continue to control large amounts of territory. If ISIS can survive against 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq and an entire Sunni tribal awakening in Iraq, it can certainly survive facing off against Iranian, backed militias and profoundly weak national armies in both Syria and Iraq. I find it very hard to believe that it will be entirely defeated, but I do think it will be a weaker organization than the one we see today

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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