The Soufan Group’s 66-page Special Report on ISIS makes the following observations: From late 2011 The Islamic State has shown itself both tactically and strategically adept. After years of surviving as a persistently violent criminal/terrorist gang able to mount multiple synchronized attacks in-built up areas in Iraq but little more, it managed to break into the big time when the collapse of government in northern and eastern Syria allowed it to expand across the border. At the same time, the sectarian approach of the then Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had made the Sunni minority in Iraq ready to support any group that appeared to have the potential to reverse its increasing marginalization. Sunni tribal support continues to be essential to the viability of The Islamic State.
The rapid expansion of The Islamic State on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border after 2011 pushed it along the continuum from terrorism to insurgency. Its underground cells became military divisions and its hit-and-run tactics became campaigns to conquer and hold territory. These changes required leaders with different skills, and it was fortunate for The Islamic State that many in its top echelons were ex-Ba’athists who had held senior positions under Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, military leaders do not necessarily make good civilian administrators, and the challenge of governing territory is likely to prove the State’s undoing, unless it can temper the ruthless totalitarianism that appears to motivate its core fighters with a degree of tolerance and pragmatism that might reassure its unwilling subjects.
Despite the original secularism of its Ba’athist leaders, The Islamic State claims religious legitimacy for its actions. This is based on an extreme salafist/takfiri interpretation of Islam that essentially means that anyone who opposes its rule is by definition either an apostate (murtad) or an infidel (kafir). Although much of the Muslim Middle East is salafist, takfirism is widely considered a step too far, and the absolutism of The Islamic State has already attracted criticism, even from ideologues who support al Qaeda. Nonetheless, although The Islamic State is not exactly winning friends, various factors help it to survive, and will continue to do so for so long as they exist.
The first is the deep sectarian fault line that has been a major determinant of Middle East politics since the Iranian revolution of 1979, but of particular importance since the growth of Iranian regional influence following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite the menace of The Islamic State to the stability of the whole region, states on either side of the sectarian divide continue to see it as a lesser danger than the regional dominance of their rivals. Until this calculation changes, The Islamic State will not face major regional opposition.
The second is the complete lack of confidence in the Arab world of the ruled in the capacity of their rulers to treat them fairly. This extends beyond Iraq and Syria to the many countries of the Middle East and North Africa where the idea of government according to the teachings of the Quran is hugely appealing – at least until it comes up against the reality of The Islamic State. For so long as governance in so many countries fails to meet the expectations of the people, there will be a steady flow of hopeful recruits to the ranks of The Islamic State; and many others who lack the means or opportunity to travel may be tempted to follow its directives within their own countries. The consequent fear of terrorism, whether domestic or imported, is likely to lead to further repression and other
deficiencies in governance in all but the most confident and forward looking states.
The third is that the international coalition led by the United States of over 60 partners and nations who oppose the practices and objectives of The Islamic State, provides further evidence for many Muslims around the world that there is a Western-led onslaught on their religion and independence. The Islamic State itself is incandescent with rage that the West will not just leave it alone to establish the Utopia that it believes within its reach. It is hard at work persuading potential supporters that the non-Muslim world will do whatever it can to protect local rulers and so ensure that their discriminatory and irreligious polices remain in force. Not enough is being done on the ground to counter this narrative.
The fourth is that the little being done to counter the narrative of The Islamic State does not penetrate the information bubble created by its actual or potential supporters. The State devotes a great deal of time and effort to propagating a positive image of itself, reinforced by a strong ideology. Despite the many weaknesses of the literal approach to religious texts adopted by The Islamic State, including its apocalyptic vision of the imminent end of times, its message is stronger, clearer and more consistent than that of its opponents. It offers a complete break with what has gone before as opposed to its enemies who just offer more of the same. For all its violence, The Islamic State promises its recruits adventure and intense engagement with an exciting new venture. There are no competing voices offering anything comparable.
The fifth, also connected with the narrative promoted by The Islamic State, is the lack of attractive alternatives for local and foreign fighters who decide to join The Islamic State as a way to find identity, purpose, belonging or spiritual fulfillment. Thus both the pull and push factors that motivate foreign fighters remain unaddressed. Furthermore, the lack of a positive counter narrative that also exploits the negative aspects of the propaganda of The Islamic State, leaves those who are attracted by its message – but concerned about its activities – without a clear understanding that it is just not possible to engage with the State without also signing up to its worst aspects.
The sixth is that despite the international opposition to the discriminatory and repressive practices of the Syrian and, to a lesser extent, the Iraqi Governments, nothing convincing is being done to force a change. In this respect, The Islamic State appears more effective and better motivated than any actor on the other side. Unless political reform is able to draw away this soft support, The Islamic State will over time bring it closer by entwining the fortunes of the local population and tribal leaders with its own.
Finally, the cultural, educational and religious stagnation evident in so much of the Middle East and North Africa does not encourage any new way of thinking about the future beyond a desire to return to the past and start again.