by Rick Love
In part one of this series I mentioned 6 historical reasons for the rise of ISIS. In short, ISIS came about due to a confluence of political instability brought on by war and human rights abuses and by a vision of a purified Islamic caliphate. Here we will look at 6 reasons for the expansion of ISIS.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, “has surpassed his two mentors, Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in strategic cunning, organizational skills, and mobilizational outreach” (Gerges p. 143). One thing that his friends and foes agree on is that Baghdadi is more ruthless than either Bin Laden or Zaraqawi. He is the most bloodthirsty of all.
So why has ISIS experienced unprecedented success in recruiting Muslims to join the cause of the Caliphate?
6 REASONS FOR THE EXPANSION OF ISIS
1. They want to “make Islam great again” — hearkening back to the days when Islamic empires were powerful forces in world politics. “ISIS’s propagandists offer alienated Muslim youths a utopian worldview and a political project: resurrecting the last caliphate (Gerges p. 46). This has “increasing allure in a broken Middle East dominated by repressive, illegitimate, minority-based regimes” (Gerges p. 11). (The last Islamic caliphate came to an end in the 1924 following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of modern-day Turkey.)
As a follower of Jesus, I want to see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, so I can appreciate the fact that they want to establish their Islamic version of this. But there’s one big difference. As Christians, we seek to influence through acts of love and respectful verbal persuasion, whereas ISIS seeks to establish its kingdom through acts of violence and social media propaganda. It is worth noting here that mainstream devout Muslims, in contrast to ISIS, also share their faith through acts of love and respectful verbal persuasion.
2. They have mastered the power of social media to recruit for their cause and communicate their message. Hassan describes it as “the management of hype” and “glossy jihad.” ISIS has “professionally produced blockbusters of propaganda and disinformation. So prized is its media operation that those in charge… are given the title of emir, making them equal in rank to ISIS commanders on the battlefield” (Hassan p 173).
3. They have demonstrated success on the battlefield. ISIS became a formidable fighting force primarily because former Baathist military and police joined their movement. Other terrorist groups talk about revolution and the establishment of a Caliphate, but to-date only ISIS seems to be making it happen (albeit in a very minimal way).
4. They recruit disenfranchised youth with a minimal knowledge of Islam. The book Islam for Dummies has been found in the suitcases of recruits who have been captured on the way to the battlefield. Many ISIS recruits are “young men who’ve never held power, a job, or a girl’s hand and joined ISIS to get all three.” Thus, these recruits are driven not only by ISIS’s violent interpretation of Islam, but also by political grievance, economic gain and even sexual pleasure. (ISIS has “a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery” – Gerges p. 31). See this New York Times article for more.
5. They have secured massive financial resources from criminal enterprises such as smuggling oil, stealing and selling US military weapons, kidnapping and ransoming hostages. “ISIS managed to produce as much as $40 million per month from the sale of crude oil” (Hassan p. 212). This enables them to function much like a state.
6. They have an apocalyptic vision of the end times that motivates their efforts. ISIS is obsessed with the End Times. One hadith (a saying of Muhammad not in the Qur’an) speaks of an end time battle that will take place in Dabiq, Syria against Rome (interpreted by ISIS primarily as the US and its allies). Muslims will defeat Rome according to this hadith, so ISIS does all it can to goad the West into a boots-on-the-ground confrontation.
A comparative analysis of Al Qaeda with ISIS highlights the present evolution of terrorism. Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda had a fighting force of about 3,000 and no territory. It was a transnational terrorist movement focused on the “far enemy” – the US and the West.
By contrast, ISIS once controlled a swath of territory in Iraq and Syria comparable in size to the United Kingdom with a population of about 5 million people. Baghdadi led a force of more than 30,000 fighters and focused primarily on the “near enemy” – the Muslim Shia of Iraq and Syria, and anyone else who got in their way.
The good news is that ISIS has suffered defeats at the hands of the US-led coalition and has lost over a quarter of the territory they once held.
But military might alone (or “hard power”) will not stop ISIS or ISIS-like terrorists. A long-term strategy must also include “soft power” – the power of attraction and persuasion, diplomacy, and the kind of bridge-building work we do in PCI (See this previous blog post for more).
So … stay tuned for Part 3: What you can DO about ISIS: The Army of Terror and Error.