Deconstructing ISIS

UT professors discuss the rise of the Islamic state

UT Professor Yoav Di-Capua
UT Professor Yoav Di-Capua (Courtesy of Yoav Di-Capua)

It took the world by surprise when ISIS announced the establishment of a caliphate (Islamic state) in 2014; ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared the caliph, “Islamic leader.”

The group rebranded themselves as the “Islamic State,” not ISIS or ISIL, and pledged, according to an official document that they “will defend it (Islamic state) – if Allah wills – as long as it exists and as long as one of us remains, and [if it vanishes] we will bring it back.”

While it might seem that ISIS appeared on the world stage all of a sudden, the group’s rise is inevitable given the regional circumstances that paved the way for their emergence, explained Yoav Di-Capua, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, in the “UT on ISIS” panel that was held at the university on Jan. 28 to discuss the rise of ISIS and the U.S. strategy in countering it. Organized by UT’s Middle Eastern Studies Department, the panel also included Jeremi Suri, professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and Stephennie Mulder, associate professor of Islamic art and architecture.

Since the Eighties, jihadists have been attempting to take control of the Middle East, but in the past they were often fought back by authoritarian regimes, Di-Capua said. The situation in Iraq after the war created a recipe for extremism: weak government, sectarian strife, and extremist organizations that fled from Afghanistan to Iraq. In addition, after 2003 any force that could have quelled terrorism no longer existed. The Iraqi society was destroyed, and the population was falling on tribal structures that have positioned themselves against the government.

By 2014, ISIS had inherited the capabilities of a state, including infrastructure, banks, oil fields, and military equipment, all of which helped the group to expand. The Syrian civil war offered another landscape for ISIS that was up for grabs.

Ideologically speaking, ISIS is deemed as an extension of the legacy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in 2006. ISIS follows al-Zarqawi’s approach in using systemic shocking violence and public executions that even the current al Qaeda views as “too much,” Di-Capua said.

Suri explained how the US contributed to the rise of ISIS leaders. A high proportion of ISIS leaders were imprisoned either in a U.S. military prison or an Iraqi military prison set up by the U.S. Similar to how gangs are formed in prisons, prisoners get radicalized in camps. Suri said that al-Baghdadi transformed from being a largely unknown person with no religious authority to a leader with a whole following within Camp Bucca in Iraq. “The making of al-Baghdadi unfolded before the eyes of the American military personnel who were few in number and did not speak the language,” said Suri.

In branding itself, ISIS creates a self-image that gets reproduced to make the group appear more powerful than what it is, Suri explained. They leverage this image through a precise, thoughtful media strategy. “Their media strategy is better than ours. They know what they are selling and how to sell it. They have gained experience watching others (al Qaeda) in the business of terrorism marketing a certain image,” Suri said. ISIS has also adopted unique approaches in the way they do their business. They established a new brand of jihad, that is not only directed against the West but also happening inside the West. “They globalized jihad,” Di-Capua said. ISIS was also able to transcend its ideology beyond its geographical borders; creating a fan base across the globe that subscribes to ISIS’ ideology without necessarily being ISIS members. Commenting on the case of Terry Loewen, an American citizen who was radicalized online and was accused of plotting an attack on Wichita Airport in Kansas in 2013, FBI Director James Comey was quoted in a 2015 report, “ISIS on the West: The New Faces of Extremism,” as saying, “We have made it so hard for people to get into this country, bad guys, but they can enter as a photon and radicalize somebody in Wichita, Kansas.”

ISIS has been successful in attracting youth from various western communities and the Middle East.

ISIS has appealed to the second and third generations of Muslims in Europe; attracting youth who feel alienated and cannot influence the structure of their societies; those young people who experience a schism between their heritage and what they are asked to become. “For dozen of years, they were asked to become European citizens and take their heritage and put it in a garbage bag, which has created a schizophrenic cultural situation,” Di-Capua said. Furthermore, “Those youth want an authentic experience. They want to feel powerful and overcome the humiliation and poverty their parents experienced in countries like France and Belgium.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) estimated that, as of July 2015, as many as 25,000 individuals have traveled to Syria from more than 100 countries to engage in combat with various groups since 2011.

ISIS has also been able to identify with marginalized young people from the Middle East by catering to their economic and psychological needs. Besides offering arranged marriages for people who have limited interactions with the other sex, ISIS provides monthly income and apartments. Di-Capua explained that the availability of sex is a major factor in ISIS recruitment as well as in the way the group conducts business more generally. Besides providing normative sex through arranged marriages, ISIS normalized a culture of rape that is organized and religiously justified. Baghdadi himself took a sex slave as spoils of war; setting an example for the rest to follow. The wartime rape and killing are done under the influence of Captagon, a cheap drug that increases alertness, allowing people to stay awake for days.

ISIS’ digital abilities are key to the group’s recruitment and marketing efforts. Di-Capua explained that ISIS recruited top-notch IT personnel and hackers, such as a teenager who hacked Tony Blair’s Gmail account in 2012. Showcasing their technical capabilities, ISIS hacked the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Twitter and YouTube accounts last year. CENTCOM’s Twitter avatar was replaced with an image of a masked militant accompanied with a few words: “Cyber Caliphate” and “I love you ISIS.” During the short period of Oct. 4 through Nov. 27, 2014, the Brookings Institute found at least 46,000 Twitter accounts supporting ISIS.

Twitter published that since the middle of 2015, it has suspended 125,000 accounts “for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS.” In 2014, then-CEO Dick Costolo received death threats from ISIS for deleting the group-affiliated Twitter accounts. To help in broadening their Twitter presence, ISIS has often incorporated trending hashtags in their own tweets, such as #Ferguson, tricking people into reading their content.

In addition, the group developed an Arabic-language Twitter application, which posts content created by ISIS on subscribers’ personal twitter accounts once they sign up for the application, as J.M. Berger reported in a 2014 Atlantic article.

In 2014, President Obama announced the formation of a global coalition to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic state. Sixty countries and partner organizations agreed to take part, contributing either military forces or resources to the campaign. In December 2014, in Brussels, the collation countries agreed to organize themselves along five “lines of effort:” 1) supporting military operations, capacity building, and training; 2) stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fighters; 3) cutting off the Islamic state's access to financing and funding; 4) addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises; and 5) exposing the Islamic state’s true nature. (See “Coalition Contributions to Countering the Islamic State.”)

Defeating ISIS requires providing an “alternative” by seeding and supporting institutions that have legitimacy on the ground that can provide alternative authority structures, Suri said. “Fighting an ideological struggle is not about simply saying, ‘they are evil, go kill them,’ it is done by providing an alternative. The problem in fighting ‘the bad guys,’ such as ISIS, is that we exaggerate who they are, and we become less of what we want to defend, such as our values as a liberal society in which cultural and religious differences are respected.”

The coalition’s airstrikes in fighting ISIS have been successful in containing ISIS, preventing the group from seizing new territories in Syria and Iraq. However, “The fight against ISIS has been unsuccessful largely because it has failed to address the conflict’s underlying causes: a bloody ongoing civil war between rebel forces and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the involvement of various regional proxies in funding and arming militias, and the Iraqi army’s inability – despite a decade of U.S. training and funding – to provide a feasible on-the-ground counterpart to U.S. airstrikes,” wrote Emma Ashford in a 2015 essay for Time. “As a nation we should not have the conversation that exaggerates and reproduces the propaganda of a small threating group and make them into a mountain of threat. Instead, we need to address why people feel alienated and get mobilized into terrorist groups,” Suri said.

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