In recent months, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has succeeded in positioning itself as a significant threat to the regional security of the Middle East. The organization has transformed into a notorious global brand synonymous with terrorism. By doing this, it has overtaken al-Qaida as the most prominent terrorist organization in the world, and has marked itself as the main target of the international coalition fighting it. Aside from its specific accomplishments, the activities of the group and its leader carry within them the seeds of its own destruction.
The brutal actions of ISIS are not new to those who have followed its exploits since its establishment was announced over a year ago. However, the powerful image it has cultivated for itself, together with widespread global media coverage, has given it renewed momentum since June of this year, when its forces succeeded in occupying large regions in Iraq, beyond Anbar province in western Iraq which it took over previously. It has threatened to attack and conquer the capital Baghdad, on the way to ruling all of Iraq, accompanied by pictures of summary executions, rapes, and massacres of the defenseless Yazidi minority.
Without underestimating ISIS’ accomplishments, its military achievements have been limited to two countries, Iraq and Syria, both of which are failed states whose governments have lost legitimacy in the eyes of their residents, and whose militaries have lost their grasp over their sovereign territories. Likewise, ISIS has not yet attempted to confront other states in the region with strong, organized and trained militaries, and it can be estimated/assumed/forecast that if ISIS does attempt to confront them, it will be defeated or at least halted.
Its accomplishments and the power it projects attract new recruits who want to experience jihad and enjoy a feeling of victory, but on the other hand, its murderous actions antagonize large parts of the population in the territories it occupies. The population is forced to submit to ISIS rule due to weakness and lack of effective military protection. The cruel coercion of the Salafi lifestyle, with the imposition of extreme, brutal punishment on opponents, creates hatred and desire for revenge. This is likely to erupt against ISIS in the future.
MOREOVER, THROUGH its way of operating, ISIS has managed to differentiate itself from other global jihad organizations. Most of them support al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in his bitter conflict with ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and are rebelling against ISIS’s actions. This can be seen in Syria in the clashes between the Al Nusra Front, a part of al-Qaida’s camp, and ISIS. Even Baghdadi’s appointment of himself as Caliph, effectively the successor of the Prophet Mohammed, and declaration that all those who disobey his orders are heretics, may bring about his own downfall.
However, the danger of the ISIS phenomenon is significant and exceeds the organization itself.
Its actions have broken customary limits and practices and brought about murderous and destructive practices which are likely to transform the norms of this type of conflict and serve as a source of inspiration and imitation for other organizations identifying with the idea of global jihad. The vast financial resources and advanced weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles, held by ISIS are likely to be transferred to other terror organizations operating in the Middle East and beyond.
Also, ISIS’s rule over the territory which connects western Iraq with northern and eastern Syria has turned it into a safe haven which could be used as a base for advancing subversive operations and spreading terrorism, which could further destabilize the region. Such a territory, controlled by an extreme factor with messianic tendencies, will allow Salafi jihad terrorists from around the world to find refuge, use it as an exit point for terrorist activity and return to it again as a safe point afterwards. It will serve as a base for training, transfer of people and weapons, and turn al-Qaida’s vision from two decades ago into a nightmarish reality.
Therefore, it seems preferable that the international coalition which was prompted to act against al-Qaida and its partners after the September 11 attacks now wake up, not only to stop ISIS, but also to neutralize the ISIS phenomenon and its malignant satellites at the beginning, and nip it in the bud. The sooner, the better.
The author is the head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at The Institute for National Security Studies.