As war escalates between the United States and its allies against ISIS, we should understand why ISIS is so significant and how it attempts to terrorize with political message making. This is especially important within the context of the beheadings of American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the recent threat in Australia to conduct mass decapitations in solidarity with ISIS efforts in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) is part of what scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have called "Jihad 3.0." The evolution of ISIS showcases the importance of the terrorist group "splintering" and "spinoff" processes that produce new strains of terrorist groups oftentimes associated with lethal assaults and copious bloodletting as they try to make a name for themselves and essentially compete with other terrorist groups for status, funding, and recruits in ways that closely parallel market dynamics.
The rationale here is that what Bruce Hoffman calls "al-Qaeda central" that was decimated in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan in December 2001 and in Pakistan is "Jihad 1.0." Presumably, the emergence of al-Qaeda "affiliate groups" such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, constituted "Jihad 2.0. it follows that "splinter groups" such as the AQIM derivative, the "Battalion of Blood" that is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar would comprise a "Jihad 2.5." In turn, ISIS signifies the emergence of what CSIS experts call "Jihad 3.0" but at a recent CSIS symposium, neither Juan C. Zarate, one time national security advisor to president George W. Bush nor Jon B. Alterman attempted to define what "Jihad 3.0" means.
The distinguishing characteristics of "Jihad 3.0" are primarily threefold: first, is the fusion of guerrilla warfare, with its almost singular focus on efforts to take and hold land and simultaneously to win the "hearts and minds," of the populace by means of terrorism. While the use of terror by guerrilla organizations is neither a new nor original idea, the wide-spread, systematic, and seemingly predominant use of terror as a pacification method seems to be a watershed event in the modern terrorism experience.
Second, is the refined "follow-up" capacity of the terrorist group to exploit marginalized elements of the ancient regime and integrate those elements into its structure. Scripted accounts report that ISIS forces have in some cases, been trained by former Sunni Baathist military officers who are themselves infuriated by the systemic discrimination against Sunnis experienced under the Nouri al-Maliki government. It is possible that in addition to kinetic warfare, those acquired skills might include cybercrime and even cyber war capabilities. Still another reason why ISIS connections to former Iraqi military officers is noteworthy is because those highlight the importance of political, religious, and historical "contextual factors" that help fashion the constituency groups critical to guerilla warfare and terrorist group success. In turn, those constituency groups help to determine the attributes of terrorist assaults as Rosemary Harris suggests in her work ("Anthropological Views on 'Violence' in Northern Ireland").
Third, ISIS demonstrates a more profound understanding the Internet and its value and other "social media" platforms than did its predecessors. In a thoughtfully written article in the New York Times, David Carr reports that ISIS films are the modern equivalent of "drawing and Quartering" for mass effect ("Medieval Message, Modern Delivery," New York Times, September 8, 2013, B-1, B-4) and his is right that the red jumpsuits ISIS victims wear before decapitation reflect and ISIS morality tale: the "role reversal" in Carr's words, of terrorist once imprisoned in places like Camp X-Ray now relish their role as captors. In contrast what is consistent with this new strain of al-Qaeda with what has come before, its is reliance on independent finances that have their origins in a multiplicity of sources.
What these ISIS films reflect is what I have called the "esthetic component" of terrorism, where extremely stark and graphic images of violence are used to strengthen, uplift, and essentially empower terrorist perpetrators, while the target population, what Martha Crenshaw would call the "secondary audience," is simultaneously denigrated, emasculated, and made powerless to control events. The end result of this is abject fear and other similar sentiments for the victims. In addition to the more proximate visceral reactions to the brutality of the event, what videoed terrorist events attempt is to inflict deeper psychological disruption on target populations by conjuring up historical and cultural references to the powerlessness of ethnic and racial groups.
This "historical reading" of terrorism is a powerful undercurrent or riptide to the act itself. Perhaps the most vivid example was the murder of Leon Klinghoffer in 1985 on board the Achille Lauro. That terrorist event evoked the deepest reaction in the Jewish community because the killing of a helpless, elderly wheel chair bound Jewish man, killed only because he was Jewish, tapped into the deepest feelings about the tragic historical legacy of the Jewish people.
Another problem with this CSIS event was that while experts did talk about the importance of an American strategic approach to combat ISIS, there was little if any in the ways of specifics offered. First, what American policymakers must do is isolate and identify differences in Syrian and Iranian national interest objectives that conflict and work to exploit them. If U.S. policymakers can develop a "triangular relationship" between the United States, Syria, and Iran in the "short-run and perhaps "middle-run" time frames, it can play off the national interests of Syrian and Iranian leadership putting a wedge between both Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rohani and Bashar al-Assad that would allow the policymakers to disrupt political, economic and materiel flows between those two countries that would give the U.S. policymakers flexibility and maneuverability to fight ISIS. In the case of Iran, it would be prudent to employ what David A. Baldwin describes as "positive inducements," coupled with negative sanctions to compel Iranian leaders to more readily conform to American foreign policy objectives Those efforts would perhaps also work to disrupt Iran's continued support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Moreover, such efforts would also signal a new engagement with Iran where their status in the Middle East is recognized at some level; that might have its own positive spillover effects.
Clearly an understanding of what constitute al-Qaeda 3.0 and what methods they use to achieve particular objectives contributes to our fight against ISIS. American leaders need to identify a set of Iranian and Syrian national interests that conflict with each other as the basis for a policy that manipulates those interests to our advantage. For the rest of us, we need to understand the "esthetic component" of terrorism and what it attempts to accomplish for these images of murder are in fact terrorist events in their own right. If political leaders and the American populace can work on those areas respectively, those efforts are a good first step in our fight against ISIS.
The author's views are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Walsh College.