The latest high visibility atrocity committed by the “Islamic State” (IS or ISIS) is the public beheading of 21 Egyptians — because they were Coptic Christians. ISIS was the obvious, if largely unstated, reason the White House convened a two-day conference on “international extremism.” It is also the focus of ongoing efforts of U.S. military trainers to reconstitute the Iraqi army — while airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq are ongoing.
The dictum “know your enemy” has been fundamental to effective military strategy for millennia. Yet real knowledge of ISIS — what it actually is, what it wants and why it appeals to a growing number of young recruits from Europe especially — has been largely missing. The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East recently confessed that he and his staff simply did not understand ISIS. Consequently, an article in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine by Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” is timely and important. At the conclusion of World War II, the United States expected an era of peace and security, but was confronted instead with Stalin’s threat to the future of Europe — and more. In those early days, few comprehended the magnitude of Stalin’s ambition. The task of explicating the Soviet threat and devising a strategy to counter it fell to a brilliant scholar-diplomat, George Kennan. His strategy was called “Containment” and it worked. Graeme Wood is no Kennan, but he has provided some useful insights where few existed.
The thrust of his analysis is that the leaders of ISIS are not simply a band of psychotic killers mouthing religious justifications, but men who are consumed with a particular understanding of what being a Muslim requires. They are fundamentalists and literalists determined to recreate the world and practices of the time of the Prophet — the 7th century — as depicted in the Koran. That was a violent era as the new faith sought to establish itself in the face of hostility and resistance. As a result, there are numerous Koranic verses justifying crucifixion, slavery, maiming and killing. For ISIS, if slavery is justified in the Koran, it not only is acceptable, it is a religious duty. This all is coupled to a fierce distinction between those who hold precisely correct beliefs — and everyone else. Even other Muslims who do not adhere to the exact same catechism as ISIS must die. Thus 200 million Shiites are marked for extermination.
The political form of human society depicted in the Koran is the Caliphate. The leader of ISIS has pronounced himself Caliph — and accepted the Koranic responsibility to ceaselessly expand the territorial control of the Caliphate through jihad. This fusion of religious zeal and political imperative has produced waves of ISIS fighters occupying large swaths of Iraq and Syria. What particularly alarms U.S., European and many other security officials is the magnetic attraction ISIS has for young men (and some women) mesmerized by a sophisticated Internet recruitment effort including videos of ISIS fighters sitting astride captured tanks, arms raised in triumph, and black flags flying. And then there are the scenes of ISIS fighters sitting at a banquet table served by female slaves.
It is all heady stuff and clearly appeals to a marginalized segment of society. Here is a chance to go from being a nobody to being part of something great and exciting. Buy into the religious narrative and you are guaranteed paradise for eternity. It is reminiscent of the appeal that Nazism had for dead-end youth in interwar Germany who joined the Brown Shirts and then the SS. Thousands have responded to the ISIS clarion call.
For America and its allies, the overriding question is how to respond to the ISIS challenge. Wood’s article suggests three vulnerabilities of the “Caliphate” that can be exploited. First, because these are rigid religious ideologues, they define everyone outside their narrow orthodoxy as an enemy — including all the Arab regimes in the Middle East. In the course of a few days, they managed to provoke both Jordan and Egypt into joining the air war against ISIS. Second, the Caliphate is required by the Koran to expand its territorial control. If it fails to do so — if it loses ground — the very legitimacy of this Caliph is put into serious question. This mindset has led to ISIS attacks on objectives that made little sense militarily — including a huge effort to take the strategically insignificant border town of Kobane that required fighting over open terrain leaving their forces highly vulnerable to U.S. airstrikes. ISIS lost perhaps a thousand fighters before finally withdrawing. This leads to a third observation analogous to Kennan’s assessment that Stalin’s USSR had to expand territorially. If prevented from doing so, internal factors would start to destroy the monolith from within. The same appears to be true of ISIS. If the Caliphate’s fighters are stymied, the entire religious rationale upon which ISIS is based will start to unravel.
All this suggests the critical importance of the military campaign against ISIS. It is routinely stated that an idea like ISIS cannot be defeated with just military means. But that may not be true of this particular idea. The best way to reduce the allure of ISIS to rootless young Europeans (and marginalized Arab youth) is to destroy the myth of inevitability and invincibility. When a potential recruit realizes he may be joining a losing cause — no banquets, no female slaves, only an early death — the allure will fade.