October 31, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State: An Accident of History


From late 2011 up to today, The Islamic State has shown itself both tactically and strategically adept. After years of surviving as a persistently violent criminal/terrorist gang able to mount multiple synchronized attacks in urban areas in Iraq but little more, it achieved unparalleled gains when the collapse of government in northern and eastern Syria allowed it to expand across the border. At the same time, the sectarian approach of then-Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki had made the Sunni minority in Iraq ready to support any group that appeared to have the potential to reverse its increasing marginalization. It’s accurate to say the group would still exist—but in nothing like its current form—had only one of those two catastrophes—Syria and Maliki—occurred; that both played out as they did made what has happened seem an almost inevitable accident of history.

The rapid expansion of The Islamic State on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border after 2011 pushed it along the continuum from terrorism to insurgency. Its underground cells became military divisions and its hit-and-run tactics became campaigns to conquer and hold territory. These changes required leaders with different skills, and it is fortunate for The Islamic State that many in its top echelons are ex-Ba’athists who had held senior positions under Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, military leaders do not necessarily make good civilian administrators, and the challenge of governing territory is likely to prove the group’s undoing.

Despite the original secularism of its Ba’athist leaders, The Islamic State claims religious legitimacy for its actions. This is based on an extreme salafist/takfiri interpretation of Islam that dictates that anyone who opposes its rule is by definition either an apostate (murtad) or an infidel (kafir). Although much of the Muslim Middle East is salafist, takfirism is widely considered a step too far, and the absolutism of The Islamic State has already attracted criticism, even from ideologues who support al Qaeda. Nonetheless, though The Islamic State is not winning friends, the systemic rot in the politics and governments of the region ensure at least tacit support among those with only bad options.

All of this leads to an uncertain future. The Islamic State is an alarming phenomenon. It may wither and die as quickly as it has emerged, or it may prove to be the catalyst for major change within the region and beyond; in any case, it will take some time before its full impact is determined. However, in the meantime, the remarkable ability of a relatively weak and largely marginalized group of violent individuals, numbering in the hundreds, to establish themselves as a threat to international peace and security in command of an army of more than 30,000 fighters and controlling territory over a substantial area of two existing countries, is unprecedented in the modern age.

After spending so much time analyzing the successes and strengths of the group it is still hard to escape the conclusion that it is not so much that The Islamic State is strong than that the governments of Iraq and Syria are weak, not necessarily in terms of their financial and military resources, but in their ability to govern. The Arab Spring, which had already led to the downfall of the governments of four countries before allowing The Islamic State to take root in Syria, is only part of the context for this accident of history. Beyond that is the exponential spread of social media and the empowerment and connectivity that it has provided to people whose lives might otherwise have remained circumscribed by the traditions of their families and the practices of their communities. This has been equally as true in the West as it has been in the Arab world, and it is increasingly true elsewhere as well. It is a trend that will not reverse and so inevitably will lead to new concepts of normality.

This is where The Islamic State faces its biggest challenge. It is all about the past without much realistic vision for the future. It will be no more able to harness the social, economic, and political forces around it than were the states that, through their failure, allowed the space for The Islamic State to grow. The thirst for change that The Islamic State has managed to exploit will not be quenched by its totalitarian approach towards its subjects. In today’s world, no state, however removed from the rest of the world, can hope to control its population by limiting its access to information or suppressing its ability to think.

The question remains therefore as to how much damage The Islamic State will be able to inflict before it dies away. Military action will limit its physical reach but will not destroy its appeal, either in Iraq and Syria or further afield, unless there is something available to take its place. There is no going back to how things were. The dynamics of the Middle East, and its social and political development, will all look quite different by the time The Islamic State disappears, and it is up to the regional powers, helped by the international community, to ensure that what comes afterwards harnesses the energy of dissent in a more positive direction.


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