Have We Got ISIS All Wrong?

02/21/2015 11:47 am ET | Updated Feb 23, 2015
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Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Dr. Hussein Ibish about the Islamic State group's ideology.

American media has been dominated this week by a renewed debate over the way we should understand the Islamic State group. The brutal militant group also known as ISIS has claimed control over parts of Syria and Iraq and was behind the beheadings of 21 Christian Egyptians in Libya this weekend. In part spawned by the cover story of this month's issue of The Atlantic, titled "What ISIS Really Wants," there has been much hand-wringing over whether journalists and policy makers have got the militants' ideology all wrong.

At the heart of this argument are conflicting views on the group's relationship to Islam, the role religion plays in its success and the best way of analyzing it in order to guarantee its defeat. The WorldPost discussed the issue with Dr. Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. Ibish published an op-ed on the group in the New York Times this week, titled "The ISIS Theater Of Cruelty."

What are some of the key ideas that the Islamic State group stands for and how should we understand their ideology?

The way to understand them is by looking at where they converge and where they diverge from the more familiar violent radical Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda. What ISIS shares with Al Qaeda is the basics of its take on Islam. This is a very strict, literalistic and harsh interpretation, influenced by Saudi Wahhabism but taken to an extreme. Theirs is a narrative about Muslims and the rest of humanity that emphasizes a kind of paranoid and chauvinistic reading of the world. It asserts that Muslims are under attack from Christian, Jewish and atheist forces and that Muslims have to organize to fight back.

The idea is that through massive violence, Muslims can change the regional and global order to their benefit, that they don't have a stake at all in the regional and global order as it is and can create radical change on religious grounds. That’s what ISIS shares with the other groups that call themselves Salafists and radical jihadists -- the typical Muslim terrorist groups we’ve been familiar with since 9/11 and before.

Where does the group diverge from others?

They diverge on three key points. First is ISIS's emphasis on the end of time and their millenarian streak. This is much stronger in ISIS than it is in Al Qaeda or other Salafist groups. They really believe, or at least they argue, that they are God's chosen instrument for cleansing history and bringing about the end times, which they feel is rapidly approaching. This is not rhetoric you ever got out of Al Qaeda.

The second big difference is that Al Qaeda's beliefs were informed by the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and having understood the role of outside powers in the Middle East. The founding Al Qaeda belief was the need for extreme Muslims to drive the West, in particular the United States, out of the Arab world so that regional governments, especially Saudi Arabia, could be overthrown and replaced with pure Islamic regimes. The founding argument of Al Qaeda, the Bin Laden argument, is to attack the so-called ‘far enemy,' the United States, in order to clear the decks to attack the 'near enemy.'

ISIS, to the contrary, has argued that radical Muslims need to ignore the West as much as possible. They need to put off that fight as long as they can in order to gain strength and establish a caliphate, a state, and build their strength within that state. It’s kind of a Maoist interpretation of insurgency, where an organization would come out of the hinterland and establish a base in a fixed area and use that base to project power outward. Had they been allowed to, I think ISIS would have preferred not to confront the West for a much greater period of time.

The final dispute between the more traditional groups and ISIS has to do with the caliphate. ISIS has declared its leader to be the caliph, the leader of all of the world's Muslims. It’s a very radical, hubristic thing to claim leadership and authority over everybody. The scope of their ambition is really much greater than traditional groups.

Had they been allowed to, I think ISIS would have preferred not to confront the West for a much greater period of time.

Going back to the Islamic State group's ideology and the notion of Millenarianism -- the kind of apocalyptic belief espoused by the group –- how sincerely is that belief among its members and what importance should we place on these beliefs?

I think one has to take them extremely seriously. These ideological terms -- its millenarianism, so-called prophetic method and apocalyptic bent -- are the competitive advantage ISIS has over its rivals in the violent, crazy Muslim extremist constituency.

This ideological message is unique and has proven very appealing and effective. It also has a sort of vicious cycle on the ground. If you filter ISIS’s success -- sweeping out of Syria into Iraq and rapidly taking territory -- through the lens of that prophetic and apocalyptic narrative it would seem to confirm the claim that ISIS is indeed god’s anointed weapon for bringing forward end times.

So their apocalyptic beliefs are useful to create an identity-based extremist group, and then it’s also a valuable propaganda tool?

Yes, it’s a great motivating factor. People tend to join extremist groups or movements out of a sense of profound conviction. I mention in my piece for the New York Times that I think this is the biggest volunteer recruitment drive since the Spanish Civil War. The analogy is sound in terms of size and the cosmopolitan nature of if, but also because of the extreme idealism that draws people.

It is true that ISIS promises all sorts of profane pleasures like sex slaves and booty and plunder and martyrdom, so there is that very direct profane appeal, but there’s also a sort of high-minded appeal, a kind of fantasy of wanting to be part of that redemption of time and the glorious end days.

There are people who have left ISIS saying "It's not like we thought." But ISIS propaganda is powerful in conveying to potential recruits they are joining something glorious. Just by the numbers, it appears appealing to a certain mindset.

The group's propaganda videos are notorious for their brutality. What purpose do those videos serve?

It's a recruiting drive more than anything else. It’s aimed at recruits -– young men all over the world who may try and join them.

Many people argue that with these snuff videos, ISIS is trying to draw in countries like Egypt, Jordan and the United States. But based on their history, I argue that they’re trying to use these videos to deter further engagement, that they’re trying to exact a price. I don’t think they’re goading.

Is there data on how effective these videos have been as recruitment tools?

Yes and no. There are two metrics that can provide some indication of the videos' success, but neither will show a one-to-one correlation. The first metric is social media penetration; how much attention the videos are getting on social media and on forums. The reach of ISIS's videos has been much wider than those of other groups.

The other metric is more distant, and has to do with the recruitment. According to intelligence reports, ISIS has been able to recruit internationally and locally at a faster pace than coalition bombing raids have been able to decimate their forces. It's estimated that coalition bombings have killed between 4,000 to 5,000 fighters in the last months, while it's estimated that at least 6,000 new foreign recruits have come into Syria and Iraq in the same period of time.

That doesn't take into account local residents who have joined up. So if you were to look at recruitment, and particularly international recruitment, and make a correlation between that recruitment effort and its success and the power of the propaganda, you'd have to say it's been very successful.

In terms of these videos being deterrents, that hasn’t had the intended effect. For example, after the group killed a kidnapped Jordanian pilot, Jordan launched a wave of airstrikes against its positions. Is this just bad policy making on the group's part?

I’m willing to accept that there’s a real question mark over my interpretation of ISIS’s intention to deter potential foes with these videos. It could be that they are actually hoping to draw foes in, and if so then they’ve been successful. I stick with my idea, however, that their main intention is a deterrent effect because of their main approach to fighting enemies -- to postpone the battle so they can consolidate territory. They clearly would not have wanted to engage regional governments and the international community yet. But it's possible that some people in ISIS may want to draw forces in and others may think they can deter them.

To understand whether or not ISIS miscalculated, it's important to understand the group's experience. They are rooted in the wider Salafist jihadist movement, which has its origins in the Afghan-Soviet war. Obviously I don’t want to oversimplify things, we did not create ISIS, but the war did certainly set the groundwork for these groups and the notion that it's possible to defeat great powers comes from there.

ISIS has been dealing with a post-Bush United States, a government that wants to leave conflicts in the Middle East and not come back. So if ISIS has the sense that the U.S. deterrable, it doesn't shock me that some of them may believe that if you raise the price enough people in the U.S. will say "the hell with it." To some extent that is what happened with the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Of course they misunderstood the United States, you don’t deter the country or the American people by killing Americans. That just doesn't work.

They misunderstood the United States, you don’t deter the country or the American people by killing Americans.

What kind of a lens should we be viewing the group through?

This religion aspect is overwrought and there’s way too much investment in it on all sides of the argument. Some people say "they’re not Islamic at all, this has nothing to do with religion, it’s purely about opportunism, power, extremist ideology." I understand what they’re trying to say, but the entire framework of ISIS’s ideology and rhetoric and language and worldview is based in a certain interpretation of Islam.

On the other hand, there are people who turn around and say "this is only Islamic, this is just purely an extreme version of Islam and that’s all you need to understand it," and I think that’s completely wrong. First of all, from a historic standpoint, this is a very strange interpretation of Islam. You can find almost anything you want if you mine the enormous kaleidoscope of human history that is the incredible heterogeneity of the Islamic world through this swath of time.

This religion aspect is overwrought and there’s way too much investment in it on all sides of the argument.

Neither is ISIS authentically Islamic, nor is it in any meaningful sense not Islamic. It is a bizarre interpretation of Islam yoked to a political agenda which is very modern. If we just stop fretting about the relationship of ISIS to the religious base of its ideology and accept that it's a bunch of extremists who come out of a tradition that they manipulate to justify their crimes and their ambitions, it’s not so complicated.

I do strongly think that the best framework for understanding them is as a millenarian identity group, but at the same time I don’t see anything to be gained by dismissing the Islamic component in this.

You mentioned in your piece in the New York Times that there is a lack of counter-narratives. Are there precedents for something like this or will it have to be thought up?

I think largely it has to be thought up. If Sunnis believe that ISIS is the best bet of protecting themselves from Syrian President Assad or defeating Assad they will have a powerful recruiting tool. The same goes in Iraq, where people in the Sunni areas need to feel they can empower themselves without ISIS, but it’s very hard to do that when Shiite militias are conducting massacres.

It's more complicated on the level of the international recruitment drive, where ISIS propaganda becomes more important. This is where I think we certainly need a counter-narrative, and it’s going to take a good deal of planning and coordination to come up with it.

Ultimately, though, I think you need a different political reality for the region. As long as the politics of the region are as dysfunctional and bleak as they are now, it’s going to be hard to look forward to a day without ISIS or ISIS-like groups. Much better functioning polities and governments in the region is something that is going to take decades, but it’s necessary.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It has also been updated to address an error in word choice regarding the "heterogeneity" of Islam.

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