It’s had some military success, but the Islamic State is no existential threat

By Rosa Brooks
Washington Post
April 16 2015

ISIS -The State of Terror

By Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

It is dangerous to underestimate your enemies — or overestimate them. The United States has an uncanny knack for doing both, often at the same time.

Take the self-proclaimed Islamic State. On the one hand, President Obama tells us that the group, also known by the acronym ISIS,“has no vision other than . . . slaughter” and “can never possibly win [anyone] over by its ideas or its ideology — because it offers nothing.” There is no need to send U.S. ground troops into combat against the militants: “It’s not necessary to defeat [them].”

On the other hand, former defense secretary Chuck Hagel insists that the Islamic State is an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) says the group is “a clear and present danger,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) urges the president to deploy U.S. ground troops to fight the extremists in Iraq and Syria “before we all get killed here at home.”

Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s new book, “ISIS,” should be required reading for every politician and policymaker. Though it bears some of the inevitable scars characteristic of books written in a great hurry — it is uneven and a bit rough around the edges — their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations.

Berger and Stern paint a picture of the Islamic State as a sophisticated, adaptive organization with a clear blueprint for the future, an elaborate internal administrative structure and strong millenarian appeal. Yes, it employs extreme violence and brutality — but it does so with deliberation and purpose. However, Stern and Berger also remind us that while the group’s “military successes are formidable,” it is not “an existential threat to any Western country.”

Stern and Berger offer a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group, emphasizing the early fault lines between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the Islamic State’s precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Even before 9/11, they note, bin Laden mistrusted Zarqawi’s embrace of extreme violence, particularly against Muslim civilians. But Zarqawi and his inner circle were heavily influenced by a 2004 tract called “The Management of Savagery,” by Abu Bakr Naji. The book urged jihadists to draw “the United States into a continual series of conflicts in the Middle East to destroy its image of invincibility,” Berger and Stern explain. It also advocated what became the Islamic State’s hallmark: the “embrace and wide broadcast of unvarnished violence as a tool to motivate would-be recruits and demoralize enemies.”

After Zarqawi’s death, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was formed with support from al-Qaeda leaders. In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a veteran of the U.S. detention facility at Camp Bucca, became ISI’s leader. Baghdadi understood instinctively that ISI would eventually need shrewd managers and planners as much as charismatic ideologues, and he recruited into its leadership a number of secular former Iraqi Baathists he had come to know at Camp Bucca. Their military, technical and administrative skills proved invaluable.

In 2011, Baghdadi sent a deputy to establish an offshoot in Syria. This group “came to be known as Jabhat al Nusra, which . . . positioned itself as an independent entity.” Baghdadi sought to reestablish direct control by declaring in April 2013 that the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra would merge to form a new Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. But the Syrian group instead broke away from the Islamic State and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State were soon fighting each other as well as the forces of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and in February 2014, the Islamic State was formally disavowed by al-Qaeda.

This didn’t slow the group, which steadily gained in military strength and media sophistication, producing an increasingly professional series of videos distributed via YouTube and a growing stream of pro-Islamic State tweets. By mid-2014, the militants had captured enough money and equipment from conquered territories and the disintegrating Iraqi army to become “the richest terrorist organization in the world.” In June 2014, the Islamic State declared itself a caliphate, with dominion over Muslims worldwide.

The proclamation struck many as laughable, but the group was dead serious. Baghdadi was intent not simply on terrorizing Iraq and Syria, but also on remaking civic order, Islamic State-style. Even as the extremists posted graphic videos of beheaded Western hostages and massacres of hundreds of unarmed prisoners, they also focused on the nitty-gritty of municipal administration. The group actively recruited foreign technocrats, engineers and doctors, and soon it possessed all the trappings of governance, from a detainee-affairs office and a consumer protection bureau to nursing homes for the elderly. The Islamic State, Stern and Berger note, “was offering something novel” by “emphasizing two seemingly disparate themes — ultraviolence and civil society. They were unexpectedly potent when combined.”

I would quibble here with the authors, who view this combination of ultraviolence and civil order as “strange” and “unprecedented.” Hardly: Historically, societies around the world have found spectacles of extreme violence essential to the consolidation of power and the maintenance of civic order. Consider the Roman games, the public burnings of heretics in England, the ritual violence of the Spanish Inquisition or the more than 15,000 enemies of the revolution sent to the guillotine during the reign of terror following the French Revolution. In Europe, public executions attracted mobs of revelers. In the American South, lynchings of African Americans drew rowdy crowds well into the 20th century.

Gruesome public executions served to display and consolidate the power of those capable of inflicting such atrocities upon their opponents. Such spectacles were, as Michel Foucault famously put it, the “ritual destruction of infamy by omnipotence.” In the longer term, however, such public ultraviolence often became self-defeating: As Foucault also noted, the bloodthirsty crowds gathered to witness public executions sometimes developed a dangerous tendency to turn upon the executioners. Awakened bloodlust is difficult to control. Wise leaders eventually learn to dispense with spectacles of ultraviolence; unwise leaders may find themselves eventually dispensed with in their turn.

In the end, however, this strengthens rather than weakens Stern and Berger’s conclusions. “A first step to countering ISIS is to put it in perspective,” they note. “We should not downplay its threat below a realistic level. But neither should we inflate it.” If we exaggerate the threat, characterize “our conflict with ISIS in stark ideological terms,” and allow ourselves to be drawn into an escalating but poorly thought-through series of military confrontations, we risk reinforcing the militants’ apocalyptic narrative “of an all-consuming battle between true believers and apostates.”

Better, they suggest, to contain and undermine the group. While it is impossible to eliminate all jihadist propaganda, anti-Islamic State authorities and companies such as Twitter can, at a minimum, “rais[e] the cost of participation and reduc[e] the reach of radicalizers.” Stern and Berger also urge exposing the group’s vulnerabilities and failures by documenting atrocities against Sunni Muslims and publicizing the poverty and corruption that remain rampant in areas under the Islamic State’s control.

Ultimately, the book is also a cautionary tale about unintended consequences and self-fulfilling prophesies. False U.S. assumptions about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda led to the Iraq war, which turned Iraq into the very terrorist hotbed we had imagined it already to be; similarly, U.S. detention camps for those suspected of terrorist links became potent radicalization centers for ordinary Iraqis. Today, Stern and Berger warn, “we in the West must continually ask if we are living up to our own values of human rights and the importance of self-determination, and we must correct our course if we go astray” — for like al-Qaeda before it, “ISIS derives far more strength from our response to its provocation than from the twisted values it promotes.”

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