There has been considerable misinformation and confusion over the rise of the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS as it is commonly called). In order to demystify the organization the following is a backgrounder on its heritage, ideology and methods. The Islamic State has its origins in Al-Qaeda. It developed in Syria and Iraq, especially early under the leadership of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi is often considered the founding father of IS. Hence, it may be argued that the organization had ‘bin-Ladin-style Sunni’ roots that originated during the anti-Soviet jihadist movement in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
Today the group has developed well beyond the organization that was headed by Zarqawi. He was killed in 2006. The group evolved in Iraq and Syria, until its emergence under its current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who claims historical legitimacy through the lineage of the great mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul (Salafism). He delivered a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations with the aim of establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and beyond.
After its various formulations and fluctuating fortunes IS split from al-Qaeda and has risen to independent prominence as arguably the most disciplined and well-organized jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. As described by Gary LaFree the group is born of traditional political grievances. It was in the mosque that al-Zarqawi first discovered Salafism, a doctrine that in its contemporary form advocates a return to theological purity and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Salafists deem western-style democracy and modernity not only fundamentally irreconcilable with Islam, but the main pollutants of Arab civilization, which after World War I stagnated under the “illegitimate” and “apostate” regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. At the most extreme end of their continuum, Salafists are also adherents to jihad, a word that denotes “struggle” in Arabic and contains a multitude of definitions. However, since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, its primary definition has been violent armed resistance and struggle.
This overarching ideology is used as the pretext to attract recruits who have both personal and political grievances, are vulnerable, and may be easily swayed by a ‘quest for significance’ etc. Having appealed to, or sold, the segue of grievance and created a cognitive opening in the individual, IS the organization uses the ideology delivered through its propaganda, via agents, social media, news media, social coalitions and recruiters via militant organizations to mobilize the recruit to violence by joining the group and fighting.
In examining the organizational structure that best describes the Islamic State it is reasonable to look at why the organization has been misunderstood by the west. First, it is noteworthy that bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate which he did not expect to see in his lifetime. Jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership. The west has tended to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al Qaeda to IS, an organization that it has decisively eclipsed.
The Islamic State has become much more sophisticated and technologically savvy than al-Qaeda, and is much better equipped and organized. The Islamic State may best be described as a hierarchical organization, with elements of networked and cellular organizations. By comparison to its antecedents and other groups it is sophisticated in its capability which is specialized and defined by units of expertise to draw upon in a vertically and horizontally integrated organization. As such IS demonstrates a very highly sophisticated operational capacity. The features of this are its ability to mobilize and focus resources, conduct complex and destructive attacks, and campaigns of violence over time.
However, as a result of IS’s decision to pursue this greater ‘operational capacity’ its ‘operational security’ is lower. This means that its ability to conduct operations without law enforcement intervention, disruption and interdiction is relatively poor. This follows a strategic decision made by IS leaders who have chosen to engage in a more conventional form of terrorist conflict, in which commanders praise and laud the ‘rank and file’ fighters rather than the ‘heroic elites.’ Other features include: more formalized units; high division of labour; strict chain of command; and a higher degree of safe haven.
The overarching goal of the the Islamic State is to create a so-called “theologically pure” Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and ultimately beyond, in order to defeat infidels, apostates (Takfir), and mohareb. This fulfils a requirement, as they interpret it, the will of Allah in accordance with their interpretation of the prophecy of the apocalypse.
Of the five strategies most often deployed by terrorist organizations the strategy that most closely fits IS operation is that of attrition and, to a lesser extent this is complemented by outbidding and intimidation. IS has extended and superseded AQ’s attrition strategy against the Iraqi Shia government and the Syrian Alawite regime. The Islamic State is pursuing the visionary goal of establishing a ‘New Islamic’ - ‘pure’ caliphate in the tradition of al-Baghdadi’s claim to legitimacy through Salafism. Additionally, IS has leveraged the myth that the US delivered Iraq into the hands of Iranian Shia vassals via the 2003 war. It is oft perceived and touted as a grievance against the west that the Iraq war upset the balance of power in the region in Iran’s favour. The Arab world talks of secret deals between Iran and the United States, and laments that the US ‘gave Iraq to Iran.’ This geopolitical perception somewhat accounts for one of the primary reasons that Sunnis have been attracted to IS.
As Syria was engaged Iraq was but one more staging ground in the fight against “western ideology worldwide.” In this respect, al-Masri was closer to al-Zawahiri as a grand strategist. “He came from [the] outside, he was the agent provocateur sent by al-Zawahiri and bin Laden to be their man in Iraq…But instead he joined with al-Baghdadi, who as we know was an Iraqi Salafist, so there existed a type of inside-outside partnership. Al-Baghdadi lent the street credibility to the operation and al-Masri was the supervisory mujahid supporting them.” Under the current leadership the attrition campaign against the west and other combatants continues as the US’s and coalition’s war ‘weariness’ and ‘wariness’ take their toll and the campaign continues to cost lives, exhaust resources and causes alarm and fear globally. Within the strategic logic demonstrated by IS the attrition strategy and its complements fit well with the ‘rational actor’ theory as it is applied to terrorist organizations and individuals. The strategic logic and narrative created and usurped, the ideology, the logic, recruitment, propaganda and channels for radicalization and recruitment all support the strategy of the organization.
Recruits believe in the cause and the rewards in this life and the next that await them as fighters and martyrs. They believe in the righteousness of their ideals and ideology as do members of cult organizations who are coopted and indoctrinated by the dominant logic and their cognitive opening is exploited by defining rewards and incentives that are promised thus perpetuating the cycle. The aim of all this is to achieve the territorial claims that the caliphate requires. As well as attrition, IS has certainly escalated violence and horrific spectacles, atrocities that are exposed to the world to outbid its progenitor AQ. Along with intimidation used to control local populations under threat of death and torture if they do not comply and adhere to their form of Islam, such as in Diyala province (Iraq), recently where Sunni inhabitants are afraid to go outdoors after IS occupation. The group’s operation in conventional fighting, holding ground, organization, war-fighting capabilities, use of multi-media for propaganda, creating fear and using social media, ethno-cultural groups and agents to radicalize then mobilize recruits - support and suborn off-shoots and promote idealized violence around the globe (e.g. in Australia). They use the internet and online jihadist magazines to inspire, motivate and teach disaffected prospective recruits. All this speaks to the strategy of attrition. In concert with intimidation and outbidding (via violent burnings, crucifixions, beheadings and genocidal mass murders that are widely disseminated via all forms of media, as well as rape, religious policing and intimidation) the IS strategy and its strategic logic is demonstrated. The aforementioned are tactical features of the group and its modus operandi.
In my view IS is organizationally and tactically effective albeit not strategically effective. The central aspect of counter-terrorism with respect to IS, given its highly complex, sophisticated operational capacity but low operational security, is to focus on degrading its ability to radicalize, recruit and fund itself. Demythologizing and de-romanticizing the group and making it less appealing from the ideological perspective at the same time as addressing the perceived grievances that are exploited by IS in its narrative and story-telling to help radicalize and recruit the vulnerable. Financing and supply-chain interdiction in all forms is another aspect of a coordinated approach to denying IS its legitimacy and resource based capability that must be pursued.
As with any counter-terrorism campaign it must be multi-faceted and relentless. Future questions may best examine how the global community will respond through a combination of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power measures to the threat and real issues posed by IS in the near, medium and long term. The issue of stopping the flow of foreign fighters and defeating the militant jihadist ideology is of special significance to counter-terrorism and specifically to defeating IS. I contend that the ideology is, and will be, the most difficult issue to address, combat and ultimately defeat given its mass appeal and deep historical roots of violent jihad prevalent today.