Unravelling the mystery of ISIS

Reply to the article ’The Mystery of ISIS’ from The New York Review of Books

ISIS has proven more than adept at confounding critics, bamboozling experts and making a fool of those rash enough to write them off after a seemingly catastrophic setback. Their tactics are unconventional to say the least and their ability to recruit, despite offering some fairly solid odds that said recruit will not survive their first six months, remains undimmed. In the article ‘The Mystery of ISIS’ penned by an anonymous author noted to be a former official of a NATO country with wide Middle East experience, published in the New York Review of Books, the rise and continued success of ISIS as an organisation was investigated. The author offered a detailed look at the contradictions of the group that, from the outside, appears almost completely disorganized The article reveals a group who’s success is built on several counter intuitive strategis such as opening front against virtually every possible enemy simultaneously (ISIS currently find themselves aligned against Turkey, the Kurds, Syria’s government, their former Al-Qaeda counterparts in al-Nursa, the Syrian Rebels, Iran and the United States’ alliance which contains much of Europe and the Middle East), alienating potential allies and brashly facing down some of the world’s largest most tactically advanced armies in open warfare.

The article also notes that ISIS has ignored the basic tenants of fighting an insurgency which it records as the avoidance of “holding ground, fighting pitched battles, and alienating the cultural and religious sensibilities of the local population”. A quick look at the redrawn map of the Middle East would quickly assuage any doubt that ISIS is working from their own playbook, controlling vast swathes of land, including several major cities; fighting costly pitched battles in places such as Kobane; and subjecting the local populations to the rigours of their stark perspective of Islam (which includes slavery as the article points out). This movement away from the standard playbook has left planners and experts scrambling to both anticipate the groups moves and find the right course of action to engage them. Thus far the group has been impervious to all attempts aimed at its destruction.

Throughout the article the author attempts to consolidate what we know about the ISIS, how it came to be, the people behind it, the events building up to its remarkable expansion and in the end surmises that “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS”, the puzzle of this group appears too difficult, too different from what has come before to properly understand.

While appreciating the sentiment behind this, there are several key areas that the author appears to have either overlooked or misunderstood when looking into the rise and continued success of ISIS. The first area to look at is its initial expansion from an organisation based in Iraq, severely depleted after the Iraq surge and Sunni awakening wiped out much of its leadership and base. The author notes at this juncture that “after the US left in 2011, instead of rebuilding its networks in Iraq, the battered remnants chose to launch an invasion of Syria, and took on not just the regime, but also the well-established Free Syrian Army.”

This so-called ‘invasion’ of Syria was more akin to a relocation of operations, as ISIS initially joined the massed ranks of militant groups already there, having already established a quasi presence as part of al-Nursa. The move itself is not so surprising, for a group stripped of numbers and recovering from a prolonged decline what better place to re-establish yourself than in a country torn by ethnic strife. It offered recruits, weapons and opportunity, without having the heat and oversight that remained in Iraq.

Once inside their new area of operations things moved quickly. ISIS soon gained a reputation on the ground for being horribly effective. While other groups were hamstrung by divided leadership, mixed objectives, political infighting, shaky alliances and an over reliance on the whims for foreign support to proceed, ISIS kept it simple. For them there appears only one objective. They were a Sunni jihadist group bent on reviving the caliphate and all others were infidels who needed to be crushed. There is no waivers or addendum to that. The goal was pure and simple. Crucially they were also determined to do it without the key support of any nation states.

In the article the author notes that several other groups were in a much stronger position to take on the mantel of dominant force in the Syrian conflict citing the former Baathists in 2003, the ‘Sunni Awakening’ militias in 2009, the west backed ‘Free Syrian Army’  and the former ISIS brothers of Jabhat-al-Nursa. But each of these alternative forces either did not want to, or were not in a position to take up this mantle. The Baathists were fighting an insurgent rear guard after they were left defeated and jobless by poorly advised policy, namely the decision to break up the Iraqi army, whilst also fighting to restore the pride they had lost after the humiliating fall of the Saddam’s regime. They were fighting at a time when America had masses of boots on the ground, and despite fighting fiercely never came out as a force that was working to any real common goal other than establishing themselves in their traditional areas. The Sunni Awakening Militias were a force bought together by the tribes to reign in the insurgency but once this was done they returned to their homes in the belief they would be taken care of by the government. There is no doubt however, that their poor treatment from the Iraqi government would assist in making the advance of ISIS much easier as well as providing them with a sizeable pool of disgruntled men to recruit from. As a force though they never seemed to have a unified ambition of conquest. The Free Syrian Army was always riven by politics and internal division. As a force there is doubt that it was more than a Western invention designed to be similar to the ‘so-called’ Free Libyan army which had been so successful and media friendly (although the true nature of this united ‘army’ has been revealed as little more than a shaky alliance of rebel groups united to gain assistance from the West if the current civil war in their country is anything to go by). The group’s leadership of exiled politicians and Syrian figures who lived comfortable lives abroad, and who relied on various Western and Arab lands for patronage never felt like it had the support it needed on the ground to be truely successful. The FSA appeared more a convenient umbrella headline for the numerous small militias that were fighting on the ground, enabling them to get the supplies and funds they needed, rather than a singular united fighting force. As for al-Nursa, it was eclipsed somewhat by ISIS and once it began to suffer defeats at the hands of their more extreme counterparts they would always struggle to get the level of recruits needed to be the dominant force.

This brings takes us to the vital questions. How did ISIS grow so fast and become so successful once entering the Syrian war? And why do they get such high levels of support when they doctrine appeared to alienate so many?

As the article’s author states the reasons are many and nuanced. One area that he focus’ on is the ideology of ISIS, the way it inspires Sunni Nationalism to draw recruits, particularly in its savvy use of modern media sources. The author partially dismisses the importance of ideology arguing that Al-Qaeda also drew on similar thoughts to both legitimize their mission and draw in recruits. I believe that it deserves a closer look however, as the conditions in Syria were very unusual at the time when ISIS exploded.

When the civil war in Syria broke out it did not take long before the global media took a strong bias toward the Syrian rebels. Reports of numerous Syrian government atrocities, often based solely on the word of the rebels themselves were taken without supplementary evidence as fact and broadcast around the world on 24 hour news channels which were eager to get the latest information. As the war crept on the bias held firm but unlike in Libya this bias was not tempered by the intervention of foreign forces. In Syria the carnage was allowed to continue alongside the blatantly lopsided reporting which drew enormous sympathy toward the rebel forces while ignoring the numerous atrocities they were themselves conducting. This all reached its peak with video of chemical weapon attacks which, in this writers opinion, still appear to lack absolute evidential confirmation, and came shortly after President Obama’s declaration that chemical attacks would warrant the crossing of a Red Line on intervention. With said intervention never occurring the image of the brutal, oppressive Assad government brutally slaughtering his own people while plucky freedom fighters battled the odds continued to be broadcast across the world.

This naturally caused consternation amongst many, particularly young, Muslims around the world who felt the need to take up the fight against this brutal regime as their own governments would not. This sense of mislaid social justice was exacerbated by the advent of social media which allows access to people capable of facilitating movement. In another time eager souls may have been waylaid in their efforts to join a cause such as this by the logistics but with recruiters stalking the shadows of Twitter and Facebook waiting to turn innocent interest into a very real trip to Turkey the ability for citizens of the global community to join the battle has been greatly enhanced.

Coupled to this is the ever-growing disillusionment in the secular, consumer lifestyle that leaves many searching for the opportunity to join a higher cause. It is the same drive that sees doctors give up lucrative careers to join NPO’s or lawyers offer their time for social justice cases. The chance to do something more and for a higher good.

Put these three things together and you have created a veritable perfect storm of sympathetic media espousing the cause of innocent rebels against a powerful, corrupt government, disillusioned youth looking for something to give their life meaning and the ability to communicate easily with people involved in the conflict.

But this doesn’t explain why ISIS rose so quickly above the other group involved in the conflict. A simple reason for this is that people are drawn to both success and the pursuit of a higher cause and pure beliefs. No one can doubt that the dramatic gains made by ISIS across Iraq and Syria cast it as the dominant force amongst the rebel forces. They were the most aggressive, the most determined and the most successful in capturing territory. This naturally made them very attractive to many who were fighting on the ground, after all ‘everyone wants to be a winner’ as the saying goes. So while the ‘Free Syrian Army’ laboured under the weight of a fractured leadership, splintered tactical planning and confused politics, ISIS flourished with clear, simple plans; We advance, we conquer, we succeed.

Perhaps the most critical point in establishing ISIS in the Syrian arena was the early days of its dispute with al-Nursa. At that point the Al-Qaeda representatives, and indeed original IS of Iraq offshoots, were the most feared rebel group and attracting all the recruits and attention. Once they had refused to become part of ISIS and remain aligned with Al-Qaeda, Baghdadi was forced into a decision. Try to work alongside al-Nursa as an ally or assert dominance over them. ISIS chose the latter and was soon attacking al-Nursa as well as any other group that defied them. By coming out on top in this conflict they not only gained recruits from the al-Qaeda affiliates but on the ground became the most attractive group because of their successes.

Their hardline, uncompromising attitudes also gave them a distinct advantage over their rivals. They naturally attracted the extremists drawn to the war from across the globe to sate their appetite for blood lust but also many Muslims drawn to their strict no exceptions view of Islam. Here was a group that seemingly would not alter their beliefs for international backers and here was a group whose success was drawn from their belief in Islam not Saudi kings or Pakistani special agents. It is a powerful recruitment tool. A comparison can be made to the Taliban who, although perhaps lacking in the pure brutality that ISIS have come to represent, still achieved remarkable success on the back of a puritanical view of Islam and the offer of eliminating corruption.

It is perhaps then no surprise that virtually all of ISIS’ success has been achieved in Sunni areas sympathetic to their cause. It would no doubt be more difficult for them to subdue areas not traditionally aligned to their view of Islam.

Which brings us to the tactics that have allowed them to be so successful. In the article the author exclaims that ISIS appears “haphazard, reckless, even preposterous” in their actions. No doubt this is the case. The ill-fated siege of Kobane “in the face of over six hundred US air strikes” saw ISIS “losing many thousands of….fighters and gaining no ground” appeared both an unmitigated disaster for the group and a turning point in their successful run but it was soon to be overshadowed by the capture of Anbar province in the face of a much stronger (on paper) military force.

The flip side to Kobane however, it that this same suicidal mentality that saw ISIS lose thousands for a small town on the Turkish border is also the same one that saw them capture Mosul, Raqqa and numerous other cities throughout Iraq and Syria. It is the mentality of fanaticism and in far too many cases the defenders have wilted in the face of such relentless determination. In the Iraqi army ISIS came up against an enemy who was at best reluctant to fight, particularly in Sunni areas. All it took was for few shaky nerves to appear before the dam bursts and it is every man for himself. ISIS have been incredibly successful at exploiting this. Whether they have managed to infiltrate cities prior to attacking or simply giving the impression of being more powerful than in reality they are, they have managed to manipulate the minds of those who stand against them. When faced with the possibility of being captured and burnt alive or fleeing in their vehicle to Baghdad and facing a stern talking most have decided on the latter.

In Syria and faced with fractured enemies things have been different. ISIS were able to take advantage of areas already weakened by several years of brutal struggle. It is quite obvious that Kobane only survived because of its proximity to Turkey which kept supply lines open and the unrelenting attacks by Allied forces. In other areas ISIS has been able to take advantage of both the rebels and Syrian government being focused on each other to pick and choose engagements.

Although it would be easy to say that ISIS and its swift rise to prominence is unprecedented and entirely unexpected but a quick look at history would prove this untrue. In regards to recruitment one need only look back to 1096 when some 40,000 men, mostly peasants joined the call to the cross in what became known as the ‘People’s Crusade’. This was an example, prior to social media and mass media, of large groups of people taking part in something for the sake of either beliefs, the opportunity of a life greater than that currently possible, or simply for adventure. Young men from throughout the world have been drawn to the same lethal combination in Syria and although much of the focus is on the Westerners who have joined ISIS the large influx of Arabs to the cause is of greater concern.

The rapid seemingly inexplicable expansion of ISIS is also not historically unprecedented and is in fact rather common in areas lacking strong leadership and stability. The rise of the Mongols against the mighty but creaking Chinese was both rapid and unexpected, the rise of the Greek empire under Alexander the Great at the expense of the powerful but fragmented Persian empire is another, while Islam’s own Prophet Mohamed took it from a small localised religion to one of the predominant faiths globally on the back of lightning quick expansion and conversion. In more modern times one can look to the expansion of the Taliban in Afghanistan as a group that started off small and disenfranchised in a politically fragmented country which was able to expand and conquer in a short period based on religious beliefs and the promise of removing corruption.

History is littered with example of groups like ISIS taking advantage of unstable situations and through concrete and uncompromising belief forcing their will on much larger populations. Even though the weaponry involved gets bigger and more powerful the mentality of those fighting is still the same as it was a thousand years ago.

ISIS appeals to those on the fringes. From the Australian who hates Australian culture and enjoys taking photos of his kids holding severed heads, to the disenfranchised French teenagers living on the outskirts of Paris and feeling like they don’t belong. They appeal to the Saudi who has been bought up to believe that Jihad is the ultimate way to find a place in Paradise and see ISIS, a group seemingly devoid of the political conflict and corruption and with a strict view of Islam, as the ideal vehicle to achieve this. ISIS confounds all the critics because they appeal to the base instincts, not the politically correct, modern ones. They appeal to the thoughts and beliefs that far too many people have but would never admit. For every person who joins ISIS there is probably another hundred who secretly have thought about doing so and admire at least aspects of what they have done.

Although ISIS does many mysterious things, there is nothing mysterious about its rise, success or continued appeal. ISIS is simply a manifestation of mankind, the dark thoughts that everyone has but rarely admits. It is a vehicle for those sick of Western consumerism, political correctness, corruption of traditional Islamic ideals, the weakness of the Arab state, and the subjugation of the inner beast, and even if ISIS is stopped the ailments that feed it will ensure something similar arises in its place until they too are sated.

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