Beware the staying power of ISIS

Rajan Menon writes: Despite its losses, IS’s destruction is scarcely imminent. Though damaged, it retains important sources of strength and resilience, even appeal.

To begin with, unlike al-Qaeda, it has by any reasonable definition established a state. With its capital in Raqqa, Syria, and a population of about eight million, the Caliphate extends from northwestern Syria to the western approaches of Baghdad and protrudes northward toward the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. Estimates of its size range from 11,000 square miles (equivalent to Belgium) to an implausible 81,000 square miles (approximating Britain minus Northern Ireland), the variance depending on what’s counted: populated lands in Syria and Iraq, or those plus uninhabited terrain in these two countries and the dozen or so other places further afield where militant Islamist groups have aligned with IS. But even the smaller approximation is impressive given that IS emerged only in 2013 and Baghdadi proclaimed his Caliphate a little more than a year ago.

IS has also created governing institutions, central and provincial, that run the gamut. Shari’a law is interpreted and enforced (aided by blood-chilling forms of punishment). Taxes are collected. Schooling—based on Wahhabi precepts — is provided, as are various social services. Intelligence is gathered, soldiers recruited and trained. An apparatus of horror is tasked with kidnappings, beheadings and forced amputations, mass atrocities, and sexual slavery — all justified by bizarre theological pronouncements.

But the Caliphate would never have achieved what it has were it led by a small band of sociopaths that relied solely on brutality to extract obedience. There’s more to IS than its horrendous cruelties would suggest. In anarchic, violent Syria and Iraq, it has acquired a social base by providing people—more precisely, those who adhere to its draconian theological rules, don’t rebel, and refrain from aiding and abetting its enemies — security, functional institutions, and basic economic necessities. Many of those living under IS rule doubtless have no choice, but others are drawn to its mission of building an Islamic polity and restoring the pieties and glories of old. [Continue reading…]

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