The fight against ISIS and the wider war

Hassan Hassan writes: Savagery is part of Isis’s ideological DNA. The danger of the group lies in its effort to transform the concept of jihad not through individual fatwas, as al-Qaida does to justify suicide bombing in civilian areas, but through a fully fledged ideology. To do so, Isis uses stories from Islamic history and modern jihadi texts to change the paradigm of how to understand and conduct jihad.

One of the most prominent of those jihadi texts is a book called Idarat al-Tawahush, or Management of Savagery, by an anonymous jihadi ideologue who calls himself Abu Bakr Naji. The book, translated by William McCants of the US Brookings Institution in 2006, has been widely distributed on jihadist online forums. But for the first time, Isis members have confirmed that the book is part of the organisation’s curriculum. As part of research for a book I co-wrote, one Isis-affiliated cleric said that Naji’s book is widely read among provisional commanders and some rank-and-file fighters as a way to justify beheadings as not only religiously permissible but recommended by God and Muhammad. Another member gave a list of books and ideologues that influence Isis, including Naji’s book.

The Management of Savagery’s greatest contribution lies in its differentiation between the meaning of jihad and other religious tenets. The author argues that the way jihad is taught “on paper” makes it harder for young mujahideen and Muslims to grasp the true meaning of the concept. “One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, [deterrence] and massacring,” Naji writes, as translated by McCants. “I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them. He cannot continue to fight and move from one stage to another unless the beginning state contains a stage of massacring the enemy and deterring him.”

The concept Isis used to justify the massacre of hundreds of Shaitat tribesmen in Deir Ezzor, Syria, in August was tashreed, a word that can be translated as “deterrence”, as mentioned in the quoted text. “That is the true jihad,” said Abu Moussa, an Isis-affiliated religious cleric, echoing Naji’s text. “The layman who learned some of his religion from [mainstream] clerics think of jihad as a fanciful act, conducted far away from him. In reality, jihad is a heavy responsibility and requires toughness.”

Naji’s book offers practical tips on how to fill the power vacuum left by what he calls the retreating armies of the west and its regional agent regimes, as a result of gradual violence applied by the mujahideen. He says that the defeat of the crusaders in the past was not a result of decisive battles between the Muslim and Christian armies, but was a process of exhaustion and depletion. He argues that the Muslim victory in the 12th-century Battle of Hattin, when crusaders led by the king of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan, were defeated by the Muslim army, led by Saladin, was possible only because of previous small-scale skirmishes in a variety of locations. Such small acts, Naji writes, include “hitting a crusader with a stick on his head”, a statement echoed by Isis’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in the wake of the air strikes in Syria.

Naji says that people think of Muslims at the time of the crusaders as one state, led by Saladin al-Ayubi and Nouradin Zinki, but “the fact is they were small families controlling citadels and fighting jihad against crusaders on a low level, in a hard hitting way. What Zinki and Ayubi did was to bring together those small blocs into one big organisation but the largest role was played by those small blocs.” According to Isis, violence has to be steady and escalatory to continue to shock and deter. Random acts of violence are not enough in this context. Brutality has to be ever more savage, creative and shocking. So if the immolation of the pilot is more savage than previous murders, Isis will undoubtedly be searching for an even more savage method to carry out its violent punishments.

J.M. Berger notes that following the release of the video of Muath al-Kasaesbeh’s murder, many commentators suggested that this time ISIS’s brutality may have been so extreme that it will provoke a backlash, potentially leading to the group’s downfall. Berger cautioned against jumping to this conclusion:

When ISIS publicizes its inhuman horrors, its goal is to infuriate and horrify its enemies, to create divisions within the coalition fighting it, and to draw more and more countries ever deeper into the conflict. The “gone too far” theme may be reassuring, but it’s dangerous. We shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves for reacting to ISIS propaganda exactly as ISIS intends.

This is a popular idea: that if we react the way the terrorists want us to react, then we have given in to terrorism. We have allowed ourselves to bend to their will.

Emotionally, this makes sense. Provocation is an exercise in attempting to hijack agency. So refusing to be provoked in the desired way seems like the best way of avoiding losing control.

But on Twitter, @kufr666 says: “It’s a mistake to take IS ‘intentions’ into account at all when measuring our response to their provocations.” I’m inclined to agree with him.

This isn’t a game in which the winner turns out to be simply whoever succeeds in the exercise of their will. Outcomes matter more.

When ISIS launched its assault on Kobane, the small Kurdish town on the Syrian side of the Turkish border held little strategic value. What it offered instead was an opportunity for the media to have a grandstand view of ISIS in action and a demonstration that they are an unstoppable force. ISIS expressed no doubt about how swiftly or decisively it could accomplish its goal.

Initially, the U.S. deployed its “strategic patience,” responded cautiously to the provocation of ISIS’s muscle-flexing and was willing to allow Kobane to fall under the jihadists’ control.

It turned out, however, that when YPG fighters declared they were willing to fight to their last drop of blood, they really meant it.

The U.S. then faced a dilemma. It could either sit on the sidelines with Turkey and watch the Kurds getting slaughtered, or it could step in and provide air support and hopefully help demonstrate that ISIS is not an unstoppable force.

Some may argue that Kobane ended up being destroyed in order to save it, but the town’s residents were in no doubt that they could claim victory. It was ISIS which sustained the heaviest losses while Kobane itself can be rebuilt.

While the savagery of ISIS is indeed calculated to intimidate those who would stand in its way, the danger for its opponents seems to come less from the risk of overreacting than it does from viewing a small irregular army as a global terrorist organization.

ISIS will succeed or fail based on its ability to conquer and govern territory. It can’t be sustained on propaganda victories alone.

ISIS has staked its credibility on its ability to create a caliphate. It can’t survive as nothing more than a network and an ideology. Ultimately, without land, populations, and resources under its control, it has nothing.

Paradoxically, what some would like to characterize as the greatest terrorist threat in human history, might be better viewed through the prism of conventional warfare with potential winners and losers. ISIS is unlikely to ever surrender, but that does not preclude the possibility of its defeat.

Nevertheless, even if it turned out that the fall of ISIS were to come as rapidly as its rise, the consequences of such a victory would likely have a limited impact on the wider conflict — a conflict currently seen through multiple fractures that span all the way from Pakistan to Libya, but which when history is written may eventually come to be seen as a single war: the Greater Middle East War of the 21st century.

In that war, the fight against ISIS is just one battle. And in that war, ultimately either everyone finds a way of coexisting or everyone continues losing.

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