ISIS: the State of Terror

A review of ISIS: the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM Berger.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are filled with passionate intensity.
 – WB Yeats, The Second Coming

In the closing pages of ISIS: the State of Terror, Jessica Stern and JM Berger quote Yeats’ celebrated poem and comment: “It is hard to imagine a terrible avatar of passionate intensity more purified than the ISIS. More than even al Qaeda, the first terror of the twenty-first century, ISIS exists as an outlet for the worst — the most base an horrific impulses of humanity, dressed in fanatic pretexts of religiosity that have been gutted of all nuance and complexity. And yet, if we lay claim to the role of ‘best’, then Yeats condemns us as well, and rightly so. It is difficult to detect a trace of conviction in the world’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war and the events that followed in Iraq…”

Stern and Berger suggest that in Yeats’ poem, “the reality of the world is distilled to the razor-sharp essence that the best poetry provides”. Indeed the poem and their comments on it, captures the essence of both their book and of the situation we find ourselves in.

Yeats in his poem writes “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”. It would be hard to find a more apt description for the IS’ video of the twenty-one Coptic Christians beheaded on the Libyan shores of the Mediterranean, their blood mingling with the tide, than these few words written a century earlier. Yeats writes “The worst are filled with passionate intensity”. This intensity is something we need to come to terms with. And how better explain the increasing sectarianism in the Middle East, than with the simple words, “The centre cannot hold?” Finally, Yeats’ vision is an overtly apocalyptic one, as the poem’s title, The Second Coming, eloquently testifies.

In understanding that intensity, three words describe the major strands with respect to the ISIS: barbaric, viral, and eschatological. The barbaric nature of IS behavior is not a spontaneous eruption, but a calculated move away from al Qaeda’s more subdued approach, premised on Abu Bakr al-Naji’s book, The Management of Savagery, which describes, according to its subtitle, “the most critical stage through which the Ummah will pass”. Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the revered forerunner of today’s Islamic State, was heavily influenced by Naji’s tract, as is IS to this day, as Stern and Berger make clear. Indeed, to quote a phrase from within the book, their book itself might have been subtitled The Marketing of Savagery.

If brutality is the most obvious characteristic of IS on the level of individual violent acts, it has the effect amongst others of striking fear into the heart of its adversaries, thus allowing it to capture terrain when defending troops “vanish away” before them, and thus achieve their aim of state-building — the global Islamic Caliphate being the ultimate goal. It also, perhaps not so surprisingly, serves the purpose of recruitment — the opportunity to act out one’s frustrations and sadistic impulses (the Freudian id) in pursuit of purity under supposed divine sanction (the superego) proving irresistible to some who might not otherwise feel that freedom.

Virality is the second key term describing IS strategy. The use of the internet to distribute their propaganda materials has been enormously successful, because they have continuously built their capacity to “go viral” with videos of beheadings, crucifixions, and the training of child soldiers — and also with scenes representing IS-controlled territory as a quasi-utopia. One recent offering, for instance, showed a cluster of black-shrouded women crowded around a white BMW M5 executive sedan.

JM Berger is the authority on online activities. He published with Jonathan Morgan a study, The ISIS Twitter census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter, between completing the manuscript and publication of his book with Jessica Stern. While lacking the detailed analysis of 20,000 twitter accounts analysed in the report, however, the book offers a less fine-grained account of the phenomenon, including a film-critical appraisal of a series of IS videos, The Clanging of the Swords, noting for instance that, “Some scenes were shot with multiple cameras, allowing the action to unfold from different angles. Others continued the verité style … with handheld footage of live combat operations.” At one point, the video displayed a sly and unexpected sense of humor, showing ISI members to rescue a camel that had fallen into a pit. A caption described it as an operation to “liberate a prisoner in the desert.”

There’s a dark poetry, too, to the IS message – a poetry of swords, blood, and vengeance, of death, martyrdom and paradise. Or some, it’s a potent brew — and if we wish to understand IS, we need to be able to ‘read’ and understand it.

Third, it is important to recognise that IS is openly, defiantly eschatological – it views itself as engaged in a prophesied end-times war. It was already apparent at least since the publication of Syed Saleem Shahzad’s Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban and Ali Soufan’s The Black Banners that AQ was riding a wave of “end times” expectation of the Mahdi, and the popularity of that current was attested by a 2012 Pew research poll which found that 83 percent of Afghans and half or more Muslims in nine other nations expect the coming of the Mahdi in their lifetimes. Al Qaeda, however, didn’t make a big fuss about Mahdism in its official pronouncements, and indeed published a tract in 2003 rebuking those who did – and who by implication might wish to see in bin Laden himself a potential candidate for the position of Mahdi.

With the coming of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, all that changed. This became clear when IS published its magazine, Dabiq, its very name indicating an eschatological intent: “As for the name of the magazine, then it is taken from the area named Dabiq in the northern countryside of Halab (Aleppo) in Sham. This place was mentioned in a Hadith describing some of the events of the Malahim (what is sometimes referred to as Armageddon in English). One of the greatest battles between the Muslims and the crusaders will take place near Dabiq.”

As Stern and Berger point out, the Islamic State is indebted not just to Naji’s Management of Savagery, but also to Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s Call to Global Islamic Resistance. This 1,600 page manifesto lays out al-Zawahiri’s mentor al-Suri’s “end times” thinking in detail in its concluding hundred pages, with Sham (“Greater Syria”) as the centre stage. As the French scholar J-P Filiu remarks in his book, Apocalypse in Islam, “there is nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action”.

Last August, Martin Dempsey, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, mentioned IS’apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”. In March, Graeme Wood spread the meme widely in an Atlantic article, What ISIS Really Wants. Stern and Berger now offer to reinforce the point with examples of comparable millenarian movements, and this fall, Will McCants of Brookings will have a book titled The ISIS Apocalypse. In this as in much else, Stern and Berger are pointing the way ahead.

A suggestive insight Stern and Berger offer is that the transition between dictatorship and democracy is more perilous than either dictatorship or democracy. Economist Alberto Abadie found that countries with intermediate levels of political freedom are even more vulnerable (to terrorism) than those with the highest or lowest levels, which suggests that the transition from authoritarian rule is a particularly dangerous period.

That’s an insight paralleled by Berger’s observation in a recent blog post, “If the insurgency fails but is not definitively crushed, it can free up potentially thousands of experienced fighters for terrorist activities. It only takes a handful of fighters to create a tragedy of massive proportions. Even a small insurgency, transformed, makes for a huge terrorist capability.”

In both cases it is the liminal or between state, the condition during the overthrow of an existing system, which is most dangerous – even though the existing system may be hateful to us, and our reasons for overthrowing it or encouraging its overthrow seem both morally and politically obvious. 

Jessica Stern’s earlier book, Terror in the Name of God, was notable for her in person research with terrorists from around the globe, and JM Berger, whose book Jihad Joe is the definitive account of American recruits to Al-Qaeda. Together, they have a formidable insight into the motivations and means of the Islamic State – motives and means which we will still need to face, even if IS itself goes into decline.

What al-Zarqawi and al-Baghdadi have started has turned the jihadist mode of success on its head, leaving violent online incitement and apocalyptic excitation as the new, brutal and viral route to terror.