The Islamic State celebrated its one-year anniversary in customary fashion. Other organizations might sponsor parades and make speeches. ISIS spilled blood.
A beheading in France, the murder of 38 tourists at a resort in Tunisia, and a bomb blast at a mosque in Kuwait all reminded the world, if it had somehow forgotten, that ISIS isn’t merely interested in securing sovereignty over a particular stretch of territory. It has much grander ambitions.
At the moment, it doesn’t have the means to take on the world or take over even a single country. But that could change.
In a recent article in Foreign Policy, analyst Stephen Walt writes that the international community should basically learn to live with the Islamic State if it “becomes a real state and demonstrates real staying power.” Other brutal proto-states in history — colonial America, marauding Brits — eventually settled down and acted like more-or-less responsible international actors, he points out. The IRA in Northern Ireland and the ANC in South Africa have channeled their more violent tendencies into the more mundane tasks of statecraft. So, why not expect the Islamic State to do the same?
Walt, usually quite astute, is wrong on this occasion. ISIS isn’t like previous proto-states or liberation movements. It’s a fundamentally different creature. I share Walt’s skepticism about the U.S. ability to “degrade and destroy” the entity, as President Obama proposes. But devising an effective strategy for countering the Islamic State requires a clear-eyed understanding of why this apparently medieval phenomenon is in fact a very new and very dangerous development.
What ISIS Wants
Most modern liberation movements have very traditional perspectives on the international system. They want to seize the machinery of the state, assert sovereignty over a particular patch of territory, and then sit in the UN General Assembly alongside other nations. In this sense, movements of stateless peoples like the Kurds or the Karen have the same aspirations as rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army or the FARC in Colombia.
Walt’s arguments certainly apply to these groups. No matter how violently they pursue their goals, they generally sober up when tasked with administering a state. They’re like volatile and unpredictable young men who suddenly must assume the mantle of fatherhood and become responsible adults. They put away childish things and start taking care of their children.
Liberation movements want a place at the table. The Islamic State, on the other hand, wants to destroy the table.
The Islamic State isn’t simply an insurgency. Though it certainly aspires to overthrow the current regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, it doesn’t have any particular attachment to this territory. If there had been the requisite chaos and a critical mass of committed fighters, it would have declared a caliphate in Yemen or Egypt or Somalia. It maintains a warm spot in its cold heart for the holy sites in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, it doesn’t care about national boundaries. It has a 100-year plan for taking over the world and imposing its own version of Islamic orthodoxy.
ISIS has already established a state apparatus in the territory it has carved out of Syria and Iraq. But the mechanisms of the state only interest it to the degree that it must raise revenue, impose hierarchical control, and regulate social affairs. It has not created a state in order to participate in inter-state affairs. It has no interest in diplomacy. Despite its name, it’s not a state like other states.
Think of ISIS as a computer virus. It aspires to infect computers and websites wherever code is vulnerable and bring the entire system crashing down. The machete-wielding militants of ISIS are hackers in more ways than one.
ISIS Versus Iran
In an interesting way, Walt’s misunderstanding intersects with the hyperbole of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. As the negotiations on a nuclear agreement with Iran approach their deadline, which was recently moved to July 7, the Israeli government continues to try to disrupt the proceedings in an effort to keep Iran internationally isolated. A recent tweet from the prime minister’s account argued that: “The Islamic State of Iran — like ISIS. Just much bigger.”
Israel might dislike Iran as much as it dislikes the Islamic State. Perhaps Netanyahu sees Iran as a greater existential risk than the would-be caliphate. But the two are not at all identical. For one thing, ISIS has laid out a very specific plan for taking over Iran and seizing its nuclear program, according to a manifesto that the Iraqi army captured in the fall. Iran is particularly worried about the Sunni radicals operating in areas close to Iranian territory.
More importantly, Iran and ISIS are fundamentally different creatures. Iran is a state that engages in diplomacy, trade, and the expansion of soft power, all things that ISIS disdains. Iran is the perfect example of a revolutionary religious movement that has adjusted to life in the international community. Iran hopes that a nuclear agreement will function like an invitation back into the international community. ISIS looks at the example of Iran and shudders.
Saudi Arabia, interestingly, shares the same warped perspective as Israel. The Saudis are so fixated on the threat of Shia Iran that they’re blind to the far more immediate challenge of their Sunni co-religionists in ISIS. But Salafist chickens are just as prone to come home to roost as their haram cousins.
The Years Ahead
We may well look back at the first year of the Islamic State and wax nostalgic about how comparatively placid it was. Sure, it kept us up at night with all its crying and demands for attention. It certainly experienced a rather dramatic growth spurt. And it continued to resist potty training.
But brace yourself for the terrible twos. That’s when an infant organization becomes truly defiant.
The Obama administration, along with its allies in the region like the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army, thought that the coordinated air campaign had knocked the stuffing out of ISIS. As journalist Patrick Cockburn explains, the bombings began last August in Iraq and were extended to Syria in October, with U.S. officials recently claiming that 4,000 air strikes had killed 10,000 ISIS fighters. Certainly, the air campaign has inflicted heavy losses on ISIS, but it has made up for these casualties by conscripting recruits within the self-declared caliphate, an area the size of Great Britain with a population of five or six million.
Most recently, ISIS demonstrated the inadequacy of bombing campaign by seizing Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. It clearly has the capacity to fight and win on two fronts.
My fear is not so much that ISIS will topple the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. It faces considerable resistance, both confessional and nationalist, in these two countries. A more serious concern would be ISIS taking root in Sunni-majority countries where Salafist teachings already have currency.
In Saudi Arabia, for instance, ISIS suicide bombers have already targeted the Shi’ite minority. ISIS militants attacked a Saudi post along the border with Iraq back in January, and many supporters are lurking throughout the conservative society. In Libya, meanwhile, ISIS seized two oil fields a few months back and paraded through the streets of Sirte. The turmoil in that country offers an enormous opportunity to a ruthless few.
But the real threat from ISIS is not territorial but ideological. Fighters are flocking to the fledgling caliphate because they are attracted to the notion that violence and bloodshed can create a space of totalitarian homogeneity. It’s not simply the attraction of a particular religious interpretation. ISIS offers a counter-narrative to the particularism of nationalism and what it argues is the emptiness of godless globalization. The society that the caliphate has created is multiethnic, transnational, and fully conversant in the latest technology. And yet it also offers a very specific, historically grounded identity.
Walt argues that all revolutionary movements that aspire to take over the world eventually fall back onto building “socialism in one country,” as Stalin eventually settled for. Perhaps, too, ISIS will give up its dream of a global caliphate and settle down to cultivate its own oasis of sharia law. Walt recommends the Cold War strategy of containment to restrict the growth of ISIS and indirectly encourage it to mind its own business.
But ISIS was never about building a state. It is a movement composed of high priests and low brigands. Neither of these actors is interested in setting up a pension system or a civil service. They are interested in the propagation of ideas and the accumulation of power. Despite its insistence, we should not think of ISIS as a state or a movement that will one day act like a state. States are part of the world that ISIS rejects.
By all means, the international community should try to contain ISIS. But it’s the idea of the Islamic State that needs countering. That can best be done by Islamic movements and organizations that are woven into the very fabric of modern society. They offer both a particular identity and a way of interacting with the institutions of the modern state. The best response to the divisiveness of ISIS is the inclusiveness of multiculturalism. Sponsoring Muhammad cartoon contests, protesting mosque construction, deriding the cornerstones of mainstream Islam — such exercises in Islamophobia are probably more effective than ISIS manifestos in recruiting future militants.
If we continue to think about ISIS as a force to be fought on the battlefield or a state like any other state, the caliphate will only grow stronger, buoyed by its freshman successes. We have to beat ISIS in the battle of ideas. Or else its sophomore year will be a much bloodier and more terrible sequel.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.