Fear and Faith: The strengths, weaknesses and delusions of ISIS

The chimera of might that ISIS has crafted relies on our psychological tendency to confound fear with power.

‘ITS BRUTAL approach to the inhabitants of newly conquered regions may achieve certain goals in the short term, but has made it difficult for ISIS to retain control over time.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘ITS BRUTAL approach to the inhabitants of newly conquered regions may achieve certain goals in the short term, but has made it difficult for ISIS to retain control over time.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The claim made by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria media that the “lone wolf” attack in Nice was carried out by “a soldier of the Islamic State” reveals just how this organization sustains its most remarkable achievement: painting itself as victorious while losing territories in the Middle East.
Evidence that this deceit has left its mark on Western thinking is an article with the title “Islamic State is winning, America must soon use its one remaining option,” posted in August 2015 by ex-CIA intelligence officer Michael Scheuer, who called for a US reckoning over its misguided policy concerning ISIS. Scheuer, who led the investigation team that monitored Osama bin Laden, wrote: “The only effective US-NATO defense against the Islamists is to stop all intervention and let the Sunnis, Shias, and Israelis settle their differences in whatever merrily murderous manner pleases them.”
The questionable choice to tie Israel to the Sunni-Shi’ite death orgy aside, Scheuer’s basic assumption highlights a common misconception: ISIS is winning and the US can do nothing about it.
The post, which ISIS republished that month in its English-language mouthpiece Dabiq, attests to its extraordinary ability to mislead both friends and foes. For three years, ISIS has built up an image of strength far greater than its actual power.
While it had hoped to conquer vast areas and establish a new caliphate, in early 2014 it was ousted from several areas by local Syrian rebel groups, and in 2015 lost battles in Ramadi, Tikrit, Sinjar and Kobani.
Recently the organization shrank further after losing Palmyra in Syria and Fallujah in Iraq. If counterterrorism specialists such as Scheuer still think ISIS is “winning” after such stinging defeats, we are truly dealing with a master of illusion.
The chimera of might that ISIS has crafted relies on our psychological tendency to confound fear with power. ISIS has horrified the world with its image of pure evil, cultivated through unfathomable acts of cruelty and destruction of cultural relics.
For many, this dread translates into an assumption of strength that vastly surpasses the organization’s actual military ability.
The implications are massive: adversaries sometimes avoid or minimize confrontation with ISIS; people living in areas captured by members of the organization do its bidding; and pundits such as Scheuer, along with certain politicians have convinced audiences that ISIS is winning.
Worst of all, new recruits join ISIS out of fascination with its sway over the global agenda.
Failure and delusions of grandeur
The ability of the Islamic State to rattle its opponents is evident, for example, in a Time magazine interview with Michael Morell, former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, which ISIS chose to republish. In the interview, Morell states that “ISIS poses a major threat to the US and to US interests abroad and that threat is growing every day.” He lists successful attacks and emphasizes ISIS’s ability to take over many parts of the world. Unfortunately, he overlooks the organization’s failures.
Gauging ISIS’s ability solely on the basis of its successes is a questionable choice, since assessing an adversary requires looking at the full picture: strengths, achievements, weaknesses and failures.
Despite the ominous picture painted by numerous experts and politicians, Sunni terrorist organizations actually have a dismal track record. For 50 years, they have repeatedly tried and failed to overthrow regimes in various Muslim countries. As far back as the 1970s and 1980s, organizations such as Al-Takfir wa-al-Hijra (Excommunication and Migration) in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria tried to act against their respective governments and were eliminated.
In the following decades, several Middle Eastern rulers were overthrown, but these groups had little – if any – impact on the events leading up to the regime change.
For example, in the late 1970s, the Afghan Communist Party took over Afghanistan with the aid of Soviet forces. Only later did Islamist forces enter Afghanistan’s political arena, fighting the Soviets with US and Pakistani backing. In the 21st century, popular uprisings rocked the regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, and despite the impression ISIS would like to create, neither it nor other Islamist movements were involved in the initial stages of these uprisings.
Even in Iraq, birthplace of ISIS, it was the US and not Islamists that toppled Saddam Hussein. Only after the Americans destroyed Saddam’s institutions of government in 2003 did jihadists start trickling into the crumbling state. Meanwhile, ISIS’s military accomplishments in Iraq were few and far between. They hoped to induce chaos, which could then be used to establish a Muslim state. However, despite the heavy losses that American forces and the Iraqi population suffered, ISIS failed to overthrow the government and create the political vacuum that would serve as a springboard for building the caliphate.
On the contrary: From 2006 to 2010, when the US clamped down on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s followers, ISIS lost military capacity and initiated fewer terrorist attacks.
The failure in Iraq was repeated wherever al-Qaida and ISIS turned. In the Arabian Peninsula, and especially in Yemen, al-Qaida carried out dozens of attacks yet, just like in Iraq, the high number of civilian casualties did not shake the regime.
Where al-Qaida failed, however, the Yemeni people succeeded: a popular uprising led to the resignation of president Ali Abdullah Saleh in January 2011.
It appears, therefore, that despite their capacity to carry out painful attacks in the West, in the Middle East ISIS and al-Qaida were “serial losers.”
They recovered only in 2011, when the masses filled the streets and toppled dictators.
What Islamist movements had failed to achieve in decades of bloody struggles, angry citizens accomplished within weeks.
So what can ISIS actually do? It can enter areas where central governments have collapsed and take control of fragmented local populations that are at war with each other. In both Iraq and Syria, ISIS was too weak to overthrow the regime, but was shrewd enough to exploit the lack of strong government, social fragmentation and frustration of oppressed groups.
Having penetrated regions with a power vacuum, ISIS cemented its control with psychological means – primarily by terrorizing the population. However, its brutal approach to the inhabitants of newly conquered regions may achieve certain goals in the short term, but has made it difficult for ISIS to retain control over time.
The psychological warfare that ISIS uses was articulated and promoted by several of its leaders and thinkers, including Zarqawi, who “[strove] to create as much chaos as possible with the means... that focus on causing the enemy death, injury, and damage. With chaos, he intended to prevent any [enemy] regime from ever achieving a degree of stability” (Dabiq, 1:36). Destabilizing regimes until they topple is the first stage of Zarqawi’s chaos strategy; the second is inserting Islamist forces into the newly created political vacuum and establishing an Islamic state. Like many revolutionaries, Zarqawi believed that the old world had to be destroyed to make way for the new.
Like justice, terrorism must be seen to be done. That is why Zarqawi and his men amplified their actions by documenting and broadcasting them. Their macabre performances – decapitations, mass executions, the Jordanian pilot burned alive – were filmed and shown by media around the world. The goal of these snuff movies is to warn Western leaders against considering military intervention in ISIS-controlled areas and to deter Iraqi youngsters from joining the security forces gaining power under American supervision. They also serve to recruit Muslims craving power and a confrontation with the West.
The strengths and weaknesses of the chaos strategy, and its dependence on political terrorism, came to light when ISIS entered Syria. There, Zarqawi’s doctrine was applied by Haji Bakr, an intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein who had joined radical Islamists after the US expelled Ba’ath Party members from the army. In 2012, Haji Bakr left for Syria in order to tilt the power vacuum created there in favor of ISIS. To do so, he used two methods: gathering intelligence and terrorizing residents.
Intelligence was obtained by pitting locals against each other. Like many secret services, especially in Eastern Europe, Haji Bakr’s men established spy networks that drove locals to report on their neighbors. Spies were recruited with the usual means: ideological affiliation, revenge against institutions, family feuds, communal conflicts, lust for money and a yearning for adventure.
Very quickly, every community had a network of spies reporting on organizations and militias operating in the area, on rich families that could be extorted, and on people suspected of criminal offenses ranging from theft to vice.
However, the mistreatment of local populations has had a boomerang effect by generating violent opposition to ISIS. This peaked in January 2014 after ISIS went on a killing spree, galvanizing several militias in northern Syrian including the Army of Mujahideen, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian Islamic Front into joint action against the organization.
This combined force managed to drive ISIS out of many villages in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib, and even out of Raqqa. Although backup forces enabled ISIS to regain control of the city of Raqqa, it lost the adjoining areas.
Another failure of ISIS is massive emigration from areas under its control. This desertion is a blow to the organization’s image, since it is purportedly establishing a true Islamic state that should be drawing in droves of believers, not chasing them away. To make matters worse, residents who remain in these areas have formed groups that risk their lives to serve as local informants for the West.
Demonstrations against ISIS have recently been held in several cities.
Although ISIS has been losing numerous battles during the last two years, Western politicians and media continue to depict it as a major success story that is threatening the world order. Not only do they play up its successes and downplay its failures, they often lump ISIS together with its enemies, and in so doing ascribe to it much more influence than it really has. A case in point is Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the 2014 UN General Assembly: “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree. ISIS and Hamas share a fanatical creed, which they both seek to impose well beyond the territory under their control.”
Yet, the fact is that ISIS and Hamas do not share a creed. ISIS’s ideology is unique, as it stands apart from all other Islamist movements.
Confusing between these two movements, who are fighting each other for control over Gaza, strengthens ISIS’s image and frustrates its enemies. The fact is that Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements who are on the front lines in the battle against ISIS, are the West’s allies in this struggle. Alienating them would mean losing the most important partner the West has in this war. Furthermore, they challenge ISIS’s religious vision. On ISIS’s distinctive interpretation of Islam, that alienates most of the Muslims, yet attracts and recruits a few of them, see in next week’s article. ■ The writer is an historian of Islamic movements, medieval and contemporary. He teaches in the Department of Middle East Studies in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and is a co-founder of the Forum for Regional Thinking at the Molad Institute. A full version of this article appears in the Forum's web-site (http://www.regthink.org/).
Translated by Michelle Bubis