The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been all over the headlines lately – fighting the Assad regime in Syria, capturing cities in northwestern Iraq, and driving toward Baghdad while committing atrocities along the way (more info). This has alarmed most Western observers and prompted debate over whether the U.S. should re-intervene to stop their advance in Iraq (one of the subjects of a post yesterday). This interview with a Canadian-born member of the organization (yes there are many Westerners and English-speakers in their camp) provokes a certain kind of disturbed fascination. This line really got me:
During our wide-ranging interview on the chat platform Kik Messenger, he came across as relatively casual, using words like “no problemo,” “homie,” and even at one point telling me to “holla” at one of his boys if I needed more information.
As did this:
[W]hen prospective members do arrive on the Syrian front, he says ISIS places them into skill-specific trades supporting their overall war machine. In other words, there are fighters, there are thinkers, and there are even propagandists for the outfit now carving out a new state in northern Iraq and Syria.
It’s clear this is no mindless rabble of orcs, but rather an organized and professional group with a goal to “re-establish the Islamic Caliphate.” Their sophistication seems to give more weight to those who want U.S. military intervention. The fear is that they will be victorious and create a functioning state that will harbor terrorists and be even more of a danger to U.S. interests than Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. While this fear is valid and memories of 9/11 remain fresh, this outcome seems unlikely and the analogy is problematic. However, should ISIS be victorious and establish their caliphate it still might prove, strategically, to favor the U.S. The most difficult thing about fighting terrorism is that it is very often impossible to trace its true source. Osama bin Laden was one of the most hunted men in the world before 9/11 and after he was pursued with near-unprecedented determination, yet he hid for almost a decade. U.S. soldiers patrolling the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan often had no idea who was an insurgent until too late. And still it wasn’t as if killing him won the “War on Terror.” There are no indispensable leaders and one person can plan an attack just as deadly as a group. Terrorists blend easily into the crowd. This is what makes them so terrifying and what has us flinching every time we see an Arab at the airport. It conditions us to fear the people around us and judge them to protect ourselves.
ISIS is a non-governmental organization, but right now they function a lot like a state. Should they continue to do so and even attempt to form a state of their own we will have much less trouble recognizing them than most of our other terrorist enemies. And should we need to enter into direct conflict with them I think we can take them. They have little international support from current states (even Iran is contesting them), despite all the U.S. weaponry they’ve seized their arsenal still pales in comparison to ours, they are relatively small compared to most conventional armies, and lack the ability to project hard power beyond their region. Plus my guess is that if they keep massacring civilians their welcome amongst the bystanders will wear out. Strong support for them will likely remain in some areas, but it will be factional and dependent on fear, plus a common enemy, to last. We should keep the most careful on them, heighten intelligence gathering, and ensure military preparedness, but we should be confident in our strength and not get hysterical.
Another aspect of ISIS we should all take note of is their impressive adeptness at using social media to propagate their mission. This story covers it for us:
The ISIS social media rollout in Iraq included thousands of Twitter mentions — 67,000 and counting in the last week alone. It also waged a campaign of retweets that catapulted an image of the group’s flag flying over Baghdad, with the ominous warning, “Baghdad, we’re coming,” to the top of Twitter’s Arabic search results for the city, according to CBS News. In yet another sign of its social media smarts, ISIS even put out an Android app — called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or simply Dawn — which allows the group to tweet through the personal accounts of its growing base of online fans.
I love Twitter, and so many of us love to give it credit for giving voices to the people and aiding revolutions like those of the Arab Spring, but let’s take note here that it, along with the rest of the internet, is a phenomenal tool for organizations like ISIS. Without the internet many of these people wouldn’t have public voices and, just as importantly, wouldn’t be able to connect with likeminded others. In fact, using the internet intelligently may be their best hope for success, just like many startups these days. Entrepreneurs in Indonesia and Turkey are opening up ISIS clothing outlets. It’s a brave new world.