Behind the rhetoric of ISIS: Frustration and a fear of increased intervention

The organization's promises to attack capital cities worldwide - following the horrifying Paris attacks - do not mean that it already has a plan.

By YARON SCHNEIDER
December 11, 2015 07:01
isis

ISIS sets sites on Washington in new video. (photo credit: ISLAMIC SOCIAL MEDIA)

 
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No doubt about it - Islamic State (ISIS) is the most dangerous and sophisticated terror organization to date. As of November 2015, with the Russian airplane detonation and Paris terror attacks on its resume, ISIS can no longer be considered a local threat to some Middle Eastern countries. It is a global threat. However, the ambitious vision of the organization's leaders is far from being implemented in practice.

To evaluate Islamic State's achievements, we should first ask whether the "Caliphate" is real, or yet another fantasy (just like Pan-Islamic or Pan-Arab ideologies, which had their periods of glory back in the 20th century). Islamic State's strength rests mainly on its persuasive extremist ideology that helps recruit supporters worldwide. However, the military gains of the organization reflect the weakness of the states that it has exploited - not superior strategy or intelligence gathering abilities. Islamic State commanders have understood the domestic ramifications of Arab unrest, and conquered all that they could have, at the expanse of states that have collapsed.

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A year-and-a-half after the fall of Mosul in northern Iraq to ISIS, some observers see similarity between the so-called "Islamic State" and standard states. Indeed, the organization has managed to take control over vast areas with millions of citizens in Iraq, in Syria - along the valley of the Euphrates, in Northern Sinai, and most recently in the area of Sirte, a central port city of Libya.

It has also managed to take control over oil facilities and subordinate the population to its tax system. All this was economically wise of ISIS, for the purpose of its survival in the short term. But conquering, looting and terrorizing people is not equal to building a viable state.  The strategy of Islamic State's expansion - named in one of its most famous video productions, "Breaking the borders of Sykes-Picot" - means being on the run from one shelter to another, across the MENA region. In fact, Islamic State leaders are not so sure now that their stronghold in Raqqa, eastern Syria, will survive, and their burgeoning branch in Libya might be the next shelter for them.

What keeps the integrity of ISIS is not a state-system structure, comprised of its numerous branches, it is a state of mind: the idea of reviving the historical entity of an Islamic Caliphate, hundreds of years after it ceased to exist as an authority for all Muslims. The Caliphate is not only a form of political structure, but also a glorious façade, with self-proclaimed religious justification for barbarian acts of man slaughter, theft, rape, slavery etc.

Indeed, the idea of reviving the Caliphate speaks to the hearts and minds of many young Muslims who were caught in the false promise of the Arab Spring and disappointed by the revolutions of 2011 (soon to become civil wars), and eventually became frustrated with the political chaos and violence.

All in all, it enables ISIS to expand its control over millions of people and their properties.  As experienced before with al- Qaida, the jihadi ideology also appeals to "lone wolves"- some Muslim citizens of Western states, most of whom have visited and trained in Syria, and then gone back home, fueled with fanatic ideas and hatred toward the "infidels," as some of them admitted. The ISIS state of mind has triggered them to make their own contribution to the jihad of the Islamic State, as seen in Paris at the beginning of this year, and this month in San Bernardino, CA.



Lately, Islamic State's industry of terror documentation shows nothing but tactical advancements, taking advantage of state-vacuums in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Perhaps the greatest enemy of ISIS is state rehabilitation- as we can witness these days in Ramadi (western Iraq) where the Iraqi army, assisted by US aircraft and Iranian ground forces, regains from Islamic State territories it lost several months ago.  Another process that probably intimidates ISIS is the creation of a counterbalance on the ground.  The Kurdish fighters in Northern Iraq and Northern Syria, yearning for their own independent state, have so far managed to beat back ISIS at several strategic points it took control of, including Mount Sinjar, on the main road between its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.      

What might become a turning point for the worse for ISIS in Syria is the emerging cooperation between Russia and Western coalition states, led by the US, in order to stop the Syrian civil war and fight terrorism. So far, there are many obstacles that block the road to cease-fire and political settlement between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebels, but the first outcome of such cooperation would be more available forces for the fight against ISIS. No wonder ISIS feels intimidated by the international moves, and subsequently threatens to hit Western states and Russia. It obviously wants to create a balance of threats for the purpose of deterrence: "messing with us in Syria means messing with you at home."

As investigations reveal, the Paris attacks were probably planned months before they took place, and were waiting for a "green light" from Islamic State command. Since the attacks, ISIS propaganda has continually threatened to attack various locations worldwide every few days. The organization's command is probably convinced that the detonation of the Russian plane in Sinai and the Paris attacks alone cannot deter states from operating against it. On the contrary - in the last few weeks, ISIS found out that it will shortly need to deal with a reality of increased international intervention in the heart of its so called Caliphate, which might end in a major blow. The instinctive response came through in Islamic State's rhetoric, while its actual capability to "strike back," as it promises, remains doubtful for now. When considering the new threats from ISIS and its verbal offensive, we should be aware of that.   

Yaron Schneider is an Arab affairs reporter for Channel 2 news.


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