COVER: Enemy at the gates: ISIS: The State of Terror

Published October 11, 2015
IS fighters take part in a military-style parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, Syria. 	— Reuters
IS fighters take part in a military-style parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, Syria. — Reuters
ISIS: The State of Terror 

By Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger
ISIS: The State of Terror By Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

RENOWNED American scholar Jessica Stern along with J.M. Berger has tried to understand the evolution of the self-styled Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) in their recently published book, ISIS: The State of Terror. The book provides a comprehensive account of factors which have contributed to the genesis and transformation of the IS. Stern is a leading expert on terrorism and has authored many books on the subject. Berger has similar credentials, but his focus has largely remained on the US. Their collaborative effort provides an analysis of the emerging threats in Iraq and Syria, where Islamist ‘jihadists’ have not only captured certain territories but are also front runners on the social media. The IS has expanded the war from physical to virtual spaces, which has made the challenge of terrorism more complex.

The Jihadist movements have evolved to a level where establishing a state does not seem like an ambitious goal, at least for some of them. The IS is an advanced-level jihadist movement. The group has crossed all limits of brutality by using the act of beheading as a means of marketing, manipulation, and recruitment.

The initial chapters focus on the circumstances which provided a favourable environment to jihadists in Iraq to form the terrorist group. The IS was the brainchild of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jorda-nian thug-turned-terrorist. The 2003 invasion of Iraq provided him the reason to establish the group. The book provides a background of the events which nurtured the character of Zarqawi and his movement. However, the US and its Western allies, who continued to downplay the role of the upstart jihadists for months, are also blamed. According to the authors, this downplay came as most Americans and other Westerners were disillusioned and exhausted by more than 10 years of a costly ‘war on terror’.

Paul Bremer, the former head of the coalition provisional authority in Iraq, was the man behind the assessment of the Iraqi situation after the eruption of civil war and policy decisions complicated the scenario. The initiatives taken in the name of state-building proved fatal and widened the sectarian divide in Iraq, which was exploited by Zarqawi. The authors believe that Bremer’s decisions of disbanding the military and firing all members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Ba’ath Party from civil service positions proved counter-productive. More than 100,000 Sunni Ba’athists were removed from the government and military, leaving them unemployed, angry, and in the case of military personnel, armed.

These policies triggered sectarian tensions, which were intensely mixed with local and regional politics. Post-war Iraq was a recipe for sectarian conflict and Zarqawi wasted little time in exploiting the situation and intensifying these tensions. Later, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exploited the same tendencies in Syria.

The second factor which contributed to the formation of the IS was the growing ideological radicalisation in Iraqi prisons. The prisons facilitated radicalisation among the prisoners, many among whom were not jihadists but were unemployed citizens and were either paid or coerced into the resistance movement. The head of the IS, Baghdadi, exploited the situation when he was in Camp Bucca prison. The prison also proved to be a key transformative agent for Zarqawi.

The book also discusses the factors which contributed in developing the ideological perspective of Zarqawi: a Jordanian jihadist scholar, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, shaped the mindset of the ter-rorist. Maqdisi was the “bookish fatwah monk, and Zarqawi was the man who tested his theories in real time and a real war”. Apart from Maqdisi, two other jihadist ideologues had contributed in developing the contours of the IS: Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri.

Naji’s book The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma Will Pass was a compilation of lessons learned from previous jihadist failures, as well as advancement in thinking about the movement’s future direction. Written in 2004, the book outlined the following stages of the jihadist struggle:

“Disruption and exhaustion: in which terrorist attacks damage the economy of the enemy power and demoralise their population; Management of savagery: a phase of violent resistance with an em-phasis on carrying out acts of highly visible violence, intended to send a message to both allies and enemies and; Empowerment: the establishment of regions controlled by jihadists that can subse-quently grow and unite towards the goal of re-creation of the ‘Caliphate’.”

The IS has adopted the same strategy for the future. Suri’s 1,600-page book The Call to a Global Islamic Resistance was the second book which influenced Zarqawi. In this book, Suri advocates leaderless jihad and strategies such as the use of the so-called lone-wolf attacks.

The book describes the background of the differences between Al Qaeda and Zarqawi, which later caused a permanent division between two camps. Al Qaeda top leaders were never happy with Zarqawi’s ‘ultra radical’ views, but ironically, it was the invasion of Iraq that pushed Zarqawi into an alliance with Osama bin Laden and led to Al Qaeda’s enduring presence in Iraq. The alliance could not be converted into a long-term relationship and cracks appeared again when Zarqawi announced the establishment of the IS.

While describing the cognitive relationship between Al Qaeda and the IS, the authors see Al Qaeda as the intellectual side of the jihadist movement, which was the spark, and the IS provided gaso-line to give the flame. The Al Qaeda model is based on a framework of attracting fighters first and radicalising them later, but the IS sought recruits and supporters who are further down the path toward ideological radicalisation or more inclined by personal disposition towards violence. “Al Qaeda’s vision is — often explicitly — nihilistic. The IS, for all its barbarity, is both more pragmatic and more utopian,” the book says. The authors see differences between the two jihadist movements as the conflict of visions and their assessment is that the winner of the war between Al Qaeda and the IS will wield tremendous influence over the tactics and goals of the next generation of jihadists.

In fact, Al Qaeda itself was the beneficiary of the resistance and separatist movements of Muslim countries and territories, from Philippines to Kashmir and Palestine to Bosnia. These movements were ‘Islamised’ in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda had absorbed the human resources while connecting them in a brotherhood relationship. The IS has further transformed the jihadist movements and provided a new model, which is broad in ideological and political perspectives and diverse in its war and communication strategies and tactics. The authors argue that the IS’s accomplishments will have long-term ramifications for jihadists and other extremist movements that may learn from its tactics.

The most important part of the book is about the propaganda wars which the IS is fighting in virtual spaces, getting results in physical form. The IS has learned from the ineffective communication struggles of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Al Qaeda chapters and affiliates had very loose and unreliable communication networks and the group was following Suri’s strategy of leaderless resistance.

A few chapters of the book are devoted to analysing the communication and propaganda strategies of the IS. The chapter titled ‘From Vanguard to Smart Mob’ describes how Al Qaeda affiliates were trying to convey their messages to their top leadership; successful attempts nurtured well-crafted communication strategies focused on the use of the social media. The authors say: “Offline, ISIS followed the model of a functional-if-limited government. Online, it played a different game. It amassed and empowered a ‘smart mob’ of thousands of individuals, which shared its ideology and cheered its success.”

Since the war against the Soviets, jihadists have been using video and print media in sophisticated ways, but the IS has successfully managed to enter the burgeoning world of the social media. The writers say that killing civilians and destroying infrastructure are not typically a terrorist organisation’s end goals. Rather, they are a means to provoke a political reaction; the social media, too, help achieve that purpose. In this perspective, the book also refers to a study conducted by Google Ideas which estimated that at least 45,000 pro-IS accounts were online between September and November 2014, along with thousands more pro-IS bot and spam accounts.

A chapter is devoted to psychological warfare. The authors state: “Terror can make us strike back at the wrong enemy, for the wrong reasons or both”. The perceptions matter in risk assessments and the IS, through its brutal acts, has expanded the limits of risks. The authors raise the question: “Is ISIS deliberately trying to create a society with an appetite for violent aggression?” And they come up with the answer: “It is impossible to know ISIS’s conscious intentions in this regard, but either way, the result of its rule in Syria and Iraq will no doubt be a deeply traumatised generation and a host of new challenges from within.”

There are some solutions and strategies suggested on developing counter-narratives. Most of these suggestions are already known. Different nations are trying to respond in their own way, but what is missing is a collective response. In this context, the book recommends a conference be dedicated to airing IS strategies publically, with participation from both the public and private sector, with an eye towards establishing some consistent, reasonable practices and clearly defined areas that require more study on the resolution of more complicated questions. The Summit on Countering Violent Extremism early this year in the White House was an attempt in this direction, but nothing concrete was achieved. It seems the international community is still underplaying the threat.

Overall the book provides a good narration and explanation of events from 2003 onwards to the inception of the IS. This is an essential read for those who deal with security issues; the book also has a lot to offer to students of religious studies and radical movements.

ISIS: The State of Terror


By Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

Ecco, USA

ISBN 978-0062395542




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