Can We Stop the Islamist Army of Terror?
On Nov. 16, 2014, the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State released a graphic video depicting a masked jihadist standing over the severed head of U.S. citizen Peter Kassig. The filmed execution of Kassig, who had been captured the previous year in Syria, was just the latest in a growing collection of horrific videos uploaded and disseminated around the Internet by the group.
His Islamic State captors cared little that Kassig had dedicated the final years of his life to humanitarian work in Lebanon and Syria, or that he had converted to Islam during his time in captivity. What mattered most to his killers was that Kassig had served as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq, and thus his death not only represented a blow to the "infidel" army of the West, but a step toward the fulfillment of a prophecy.
"Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive," recited Kassig's anglophone executioner.
Beheadings, burnings, and systematic executions have become commonplace since this jihadist organization seized control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The rapidity of its advance and the savagery of its practices have left many outside observers aghast and grasping at any available explanation for why such barbarity exists in the 21st Century. But to stop the Islamic State, it is important first to understand and explain the method to its unconscionable madness.
Middle East analysts Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan endeavor to do just that in their new book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. The authors provide a comprehensive account of how the Islamic State came to be, who is to blame for its emergence, and why world leaders should be worried about its expansion.
The New Stewards of Sunnistan
At once bureaucratic and brutal, the organization Weiss and Hassan detail represents an evolution in global jihadism. Less a terrorist formation in the mold of al Qaeda, the Islamic State emerged as the end result of years of bad policy and Salafist infighting. Though its incubation dates back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - as well as the Sunni insurgency that plagued U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion of Iraq - its departure from al Qaeda's message and methods is what truly distinguishes the Islamic State's reign of terror from the rest.
"For ISIS, theocratic legitimacy follows the seizure and administration of terrain. First you ‘liberate' the people, then you found a government," write Weiss and Hassan. This difference of approach, according to the authors, marks a departure from the modus operandi of groups such as al Qaeda that prefer to impose their brand of Sharia prior to the defeat of apostate regimes and invaders. This isn't just a misunderstanding over Quranic interpretation - it is a fundamental disagreement over the right and wrong way to build the caliphate.
The Islamic State is a problem with many midwives, and according to Weiss and Hassan it represents the logical next step in the development of a deep state designed to settle old historical scores and defend the Sunni heartland against all enemies.
Mixed among the Islamic State's rank-and-file jihadists is the detritus of Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship. These ex-cronies and military commanders give the organization a rather secular and terrestrial complexion that runs athwart the Islamic State's apocalyptic rhetoric. The Bush administration failed to anticipate the full ramifications of its efforts to purge Saddam's loyalists from post-war Iraq - a process often referred to as "de-Baathification." The Obama administration followed with an error of its own, hastily withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq without developing a serious strategy to counter Iranian meddling in the capital and Syrian subversion in the countryside.
"What Saddam, al Assad, [deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, and bin Laden all understood," explain Weiss and Hassan, "was that the gravest threat posed to a democratic government in Baghdad was not necessarily jihadism or even disenfranchised Baathism; it was Sunni revanchism."
The uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, combined with the sickly and sectarian state of affairs in Baghdad, provided the Islamic State with an opening to step in and pose as the steward of Sunnistan - much as its forefathers had done during the Iraq War.
More Islamic, or more State?
The dragons the Islamic State would slay are not all of its own imagination, nor of its own making. At its horrid apex, the insurgency in Iraq resembled a civilizational clash, pitting Iraq's (and Iran's) Shiite majority against the country's Sunni minority. Tehran-backed militias, often referred to as "Special Groups," roamed the country committing acts of reprisal and ethnic cleansing. The return of these Shiite militias in the war against the Islamic State has left Iraq's Sunnis with a terrible choice: Risk persecution at the hands of violent pro-Iran militias, or acquiesce to the rule of a Salafist army with a bull's-eye on its back. Many have chosen the latter.
This dynamic suits the Islamic State just fine, and it has provided the jihadist organization with a laboratory in which to test its draconian interpretation of Islamic scripture and history. But the group has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors. Unlike al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State has gone to great lengths to navigate tribal politics, present itself as an objective arbiter in local disputes, and shrewdly pit younger tribal leaders against their elders. Moreover, the Islamic State has learned how to stay at a distance from its subjects and delegate power while retaining political and military control over its territory.
The reasons for this "everywhere-but-nowhere" strategy, explain Weiss and Hassan, are twofold: to maintain the pretense of an objective, appellate overlord, and to prevent the kind of tribal rebellion that led to al Qaeda's undoing during the so-called Sunni Awakening. Well organized and very political, the Islamic State is learning from the errors of jihadis past.
The Islamic State thus poses a paradoxical threat to the Middle East and beyond. Is the Islamic State millenarian, or is it practical? Is it comprised of brainwashed religious fanatics, or of cynical, and secular, opportunists?
Is the Islamic State, in other words, more Islamic or more state?
"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic," writes journalist Graeme Wood in the March 2015 cover story of The Atlantic Monthly. The Islamic State, argues Wood, is clearly driven by an obsessive devotion to its own strict rendition of Islamic teaching, or Takfirism, and is intent on imposing it on all those it conquers and kills.
"When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he's doing so for religious reasons."
However, to emphasize what makes the group so Islamic and ignore what also makes it so Sunni, so Baathist, and so tribal, seems insufficient. Depicting a potpourri of Salafism and "Saddamism," the portrait of the Islamic State painted by Weiss and Hassan is more complete - and perhaps more encouraging. If, after all, Baathist relics and tribal elements populate the ranks of the Islamic State, then there is hope that these factions can be culled from the herd of true believers for the right price.
The region's false choice
Buying off Saddamists and secular foes will not, however, fully address the many systemic problems that plague the Middle East. U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf recently came under criticism for suggesting that the United States must complement its military efforts against Islamic terrorism with the promotion of better, more accountable Middle Eastern governments. "We cannot kill our way out of this war," Harf said.
Harf's comments, though inexact and ill-timed, were not entirely without merit. Dissatisfaction with government runs rampant throughout the Middle East, and the prisons of U.S.-backed regimes in the region - from Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's Egypt to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan - are filled with dissidents and Islamists. The false choice between anarchy and autocracy has limited American options in the region, and, as Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution posits, it has removed a viable option for reconciling Islam with governance in the region.
"If ISIS and what will surely be a growing number of imitators are to be defeated," argues Hamid, "then statehood - and, more importantly, states that are inclusive and accountable to their own people - are essential."
But any effort to nudge the Middle East's monarchies and autocracies toward pluralism would require time and a great deal of funds - more than most Americans are now willing to spend on the Middle East. This means that the current combination of airstrikes and proxy warfare will likely remain the course of action going forward. And it could work.
"If [the Islamic State] loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate," writes Wood. "Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding."
But bombs from above cannot change the sectarian makeup of the forces on the ground, and proxy armies can only push so far. "Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland," concedes Wood.
That leaves an adaptable and battle-tested core of next-generation jihadis in control of their own Sunni fiefdom. And so long as the Islamic State is allowed that breathing space, it will continue, conclude Weiss and Hassan, to inspire horrible acts of terror the world over.