Ted Robert Gurr
How to Explain the Islamic State
The Islamic State's toxic combination of salafist doctrine and jihadist strategy is not unique. It is the most visible instance of a transnational movement that is attracting adherents throughout the Muslim world. Its metastasis is analogous to historical waves of militancy like the anti-colonial rebellions inspired by the Algerian Revolution and the 1960s wave of rural guerrilla wars in Latin America that sought to replicate the Cuban revolution.
What do we understand about the rise of the Islamic State, aka Daesh, ISIS, or ISIL? An explosion of new studies examines its origins and dynamics (for example Cockburn 2015, Filiu 2015, Weiss and Hassan 2015). These writings are enormously informative about how the Islamic State capitalized on Sunnis' resentment against Shiite domination (in Iraq) and state repression (in Syria). Its historical roots and the jihadist and salafist bases of its operating doctrine are increasingly well understood. Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, "draws a convincing picture of the Islamic State as a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology" (Ruthven 2015: 74).
These new studies provide an in-depth understanding of IS, but not a nomothetic or generalizable one. And here is a good opportunity for comparative analysis because the Islamic State is not unique. It is one of at least five violent jihadist efforts to establish a militant, geographically grounded Islamic state in the last two decades. First was the Pashtun-based Taliban, which did precisely that by taking power in 1996 and governing as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan until it was ousted from power by its local ethnopolitical rivals, with US backing, in 2001. It continues to be a viable movement that may enter a coalition government with the current Afghan government.
Second in point of time was the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) which in 2006 formally aligned with al-Qaida and rebadged as al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM). In retreat from Algerian counterinsurgency tactics, the GSPC/AQIM moved into the Sahara and established a large if amorphous area of operation that included parts of Mali, Mauritania and Niger. In 2012 a revolt by Tuareg nationalists, in temporary alliance with the Algerian GSPC, gave it temporary control of a substantial part of Mali and threatened to overthrow the coup- and corruption-weakened Malian regime.
Next is Somalia, where the jihadist Islamic Courts movement established control of significant areas in the 1990s. Marginalized by Ethiopian and other intervening military forces, they were succeeded by Al-Shabaad, an even more militant Islamist movement that by 2011 controlled most of southern Somalia, including the environs of Mogadishu.
Most recent of the five major movements is Boko Haram of northern Nigeria, led by a stridently fundamentalist young preacher from Bornu. By 2015 it was firmly based in northeast Nigeria, had murdered an estimated 23,000 people in establishing its hegemony by terror - some Christian victims but many of them Muslims who rejected the movement - and announced its allegiance to the Islamic State (a recent study is Smith 2015). It is said to have the tacit support of some local and regional officials.
A new background report on global terrorism in 2014 by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START 2015) identifies the total numbers of attacks and fatalities by each major perpetrator organization. The most deadly perpetrators of terrorism globally are four of the above five jihadist organizations: the Islamic State (9,596 fatalities in 2014), the Taliban (4,914), Al-Shabaab (1,783) and Boko Haram (7,112). AQIM is the only one of the five that is not among the top 20 on the 2014 terrorist hit parade.
What is to be learned from comparative study of these five movements and attempts to contain them? First, at the ideological level their blend of salafist and jihadist doctrines justify rebellions in the name of Islam against grossly corrupt governments and regional impoverishment. Second, all take advantage of geopolitical opportunities. They have established themselves in badly and weakly governed areas of existing states, or in IS's case contested areas of two adjacent states. For example, NE Nigeria is the poorest of the country's regions and until recently has had neither competent civil administration nor effective security and military forces. Southern Somalia has had no working central government since the late 1970s. Northern Somalia is equally poor but by contrast has had effective governance by clan coalitions and is almost entirely free of al-Shabaad activities. Third, IS had the additional advantage that it came to represent Sunnis who were marginalized by the Iraqi government. Poverty and communal resentments provided a stream of recruits from the region and elsewhere. Fourth, the strategy of coercion through terror cowed some observers and compelled others to support these movements. In military terms IS probably would be judged to be most effective. Disaffected Sunni officers from Iraq, some who had served Saddam Hussein, are said to have been instrumental. Hoards of US-supplied military equipment, abandoned by the Iraqi army, provided material means for rapid conquest. The success of IS is due in part to external support, or tacit toleration, by conservative Sunni states.
One important characteristic of both the Taliban and Islamic State is that they restored governance in chaotically ungoverned regions. The Taliban gained widespread acquiescence in Afghanistan because it ended corruption and established predictable order, albeit based on harshly implemented, traditional Islamic law. Islamic State is said to be "putting in place the kinds of measures associated with governance: Issuing identification cards for residents, promulgating fishing guidelines to preserve stocks, requiring that cars carry tool kits for emergencies" (Arango 2015). Stephen Walt has recently argued that by establishing order out of chaos, IS may be accepted by many people under its control. Journalists' accounts of conversations with IS subjects lead to the same conclusion. Acceptance of stable government may well prove more enduring than resentment against the terror used to promote its cause and to establish order. In short the Islamic State is in fact a state in becoming, not an ephemeral and easily-defeated jihadist movement (Walt 2015). Jihadist movements' track record, at least in these two states, of establishing public order in anarchic conditions helps to explain their growing appeal in Libya and Yemen and the potential emergence of salafist states there.
The Role of Ideology and Terror
Comparative analysis of the doctrines and practices of jihadist movements similar to the Islamic State should give us a general understanding of why and how they emerge, organize, and command or lose support. Of particular concern is the role of ideology and ideological manipulation in inspiring and sustaining the movements. We know that jihadist movements have attracted significant support from Muslims elsewhere. A theme that runs through their recruitment propaganda is the military and political success of some movements, not just their ideology. Or more precisely, ideology is used to justify actions, including acts of terrorism, while successful actions reinforce the credibility of the ideology and the movement that embodies it.
A common-place about contemporary jihadist movements is that their leaders use derivations of Islamic doctrine in the service of their political agendas - to topple corrupt rulers, create a just Islamic social order, and establish a new caliphate. But why do these appeals attract followers in an increasingly modernized and interconnected world? Two themes are especially important:
Culture clash: There is a deep cultural divide between the societies and intellects who promote the values of individualism and personal freedom, protected and promoted by democratic states, versus those who advocate and maintain doctrines of communalism and self-discipline in the service of the collectivity - however defined. This is one basis of contention between Western societies and salafists, and between Western democratic and Asian communist doctrines. This echoes and updates Huntington's clash-of-civilization thesis (1993).
The Western assault on Islam: A long-term comparative study of suicide terrorism by Robert Pape and colleagues at the University of Chicago highlights the importance of this fundamental grievance. Their in-depth analysis of the seven most deadly campaigns of suicide terrorism from the 1980s through 2009 - six of them by Islamic groups - show clearly that they were responses to the presence and influence of foreign forces, military and political, in the attackers' homelands. The militants directing these suicide campaigns justified the strategy because they saw it as an effective means for inducing the occupiers - for example the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israelis in Lebanon and Gaza and the West Bank - to withdraw. The testimony of suiciders, and interviews with their friends and families, repeatedly shows that martyrdom was a way to attack hated occupiers of their lands. Sometimes there were also personal motives of revenge because friends and family members had been killed by occupying forces, events that precipitated their conversion to jihadist ideology, and willingness to sacrifice their lives to its cause (Pape and Feldman 2012).
Salafist ideologies as propagated by jihadist movements need to be analyzed, disaggregated, and countered with information and educational campaigns that weaken their messages. See Barbara Harff's paper for these meetings, "A Strategy for Countering ISIL Propaganda," on how this might be done, and the central role of moderate voices of Islamic scholars and leaders.
1) To what imagined community do movement ideologies appeal?
2) What issues do they address, and how plausible are they to the target audience? Which group(s) are in fact mobilized in significant numbers because of these appeals?
3) What large strategies of action do they lay out? How do they connect aggrieved actors to those strategies?
4) What mix of individual and collective incentives do they offer? By joining a group, one can gain respect of one's fellows; by leading, actors can enjoy the perquisites of success; by risking and sacrificing their lives they can win the adulation of their communities and glory in the afterlife.
5) What are the long-term expectations of gains for the collectivity?
6) How plausible are expectations of gain in view of the situations of the potential actors?
7) How are ideologies propagated?
8) How important is the role of heroic, visible leaders in attracting followers? How important are victories or other successes?
The uses and misuses of terror also require analysis. Within their realms of operation these jihadist movements use terror tactics to recruit followers, to deter potential opponents, and to enforce their codes of behavior. Their choices of terror tactics no doubt depend on immediate circumstances and rationalistic calculations about which immediate objectives they hope to achieve. Outside their operating areas the consequences of terror are far more problematic. Dramatic executions may attract some distant recruits, but the more gruesome the acts the more likely they are to repel observers and to create support for coercive responses. The backlash effects of militant terrorism on uncommitted audiences are well documented in Western democracies and likely have similar effects elsewhere (see Gurr 1990).
Most of these issues are likely to be addressed in descriptive analyses of specific political movements. What I urge here is that analysts need to accumulate comparative information on them. And to what purpose? Not just academic understanding, but practical theory about how this information can shape policies for undercutting the appeal of jihadist and salafist doctrines, countering their recruitment efforts, and encouraging resistance to them on the ground.
International Responses to Jihadist Movements
Long-term preemptive strategies should focus international aid and support for institution-building on weakly and badly governed regions of Muslim countries. The aid strategies most likely to undercut the appeal of jihadist movements are those that provide pathways out of poverty for young people who might otherwise be mobilized by radical movements.
Countering the ideological appeal of jihadist movements is a greater and more immediate challenge. Some specific aspects of jihadist doctrine, for example torture and killing of nonbelievers, are contrary to principles of the Koran and the Hadith. A concerted campaign to discredit the movements' ideologies by reference to Islamic religious principles should be constructed. Might sophisticated hackers fight a digital war against jihadist propaganda by inserting Koranic challenges into the militants' texts? Eyal Mayroz (personal communication) says cyber warfare against radical Islam has been waged by Western agencies since 2011, perhaps earlier, but the efforts are mostly secret and their scope and impact cannot be assessed. Barbara Harff in her paper for this meeting advocates a different "Voice of Islam" approach whose content is based on mainstream Islamic doctrine and voiced by prominent moderate religious authorities. Moroccans have already begun such an effort.
Military strategies have been used to counter all the jihadist movements discussed here. They have had uncertain outcomes. The Algerian AQIM failed to capture the government of Mali because of French intervention but continues to destabilize the larger region. In Somalia Al-Shaabad has been under heavy pressure from forces of the African Union, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia, but remains a viable fighting force, capable of striking even in Mogadishu. Boko Haram is now the target of joint military action by a reinvigorated Nigerian military in coalition with forces from Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, all of which have suffered from the rebels' incursions. Outcomes unknown. But military offensives alone are not likely to succeed in the longer run if they fail to deal with the local grievances that provide the combustible fuel for these movements: pervasive poverty, and corrupt, incompetent, and repressive government.
Negotiated settlements have also been attempted, or at least proposed, to contain some jihadist conflicts. After 20 years of civil and international warfare in Afghanistan, there are recent attempts to engage the Taliban in discussions for some kind of power-sharing with the Kabul government. The Syrian civil war and genocide might conceivably have been contained at an earlier stage by a negotiated settlement. But Hugh Roberts (2015) shows how international engagement, or meddling, has confounded efforts to promote negotiations between the Assad regime and its non-jihadist opposition, thus giving more space for the Islamic State to expand its control. The essential contested issue internationally is whether Assad might retain a share of power in a coalition government: Russia and Iran say yes, the US is adamantly opposed.
It is highly unlikely that the true believers of salafi jihadist movements would compromise their principles to engage in power-sharing arrangements. The longer they persist without experiencing military defeat, the more resistant they are likely to become to any outside influences. Containment then may be the only feasible international strategy, including safe havens for refugees and quarantines to block the influx of recruits, money and material support. The leaders of established Islamic states need to commit to common regional policies of containment and suspend all forms of clandestine support, or tolerance, for Islamic State and its spawn.
Atwan, A. B. (2015) Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate. London: Saqi.
Arango, T. (2015) "ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as Tool," New York Times, July 22.
Cockburn, P. (2015) The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. London and New York: Verso.
Filiu, J-P. (2015) From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy. London: Hurst.
Gurr, T. R. (1990) "Terrorism in Democracies: Its Social and Political Bases," pp. 86-102 in Walter Reich (ed.), The Psychology of Terrorism. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pape, R. A., and J. K. Feldman (2012) Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press for the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.
Roberts, H. (2015) "The Hijackers." London Review of Books, 16 July: 5-10.
Ruthven, M. (2015) "Inside the Islamic State." New York Review, July 9: 74-77.
Smith, M. (2015) Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria's Unholy War. London: Tauris.
START (2015) Background Report. Overview: Terrorism in 2014. College Park, MD: National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
Walt, S. (2015) "What Should We Do if the Islamic State Wins?" Foreign Policy, June 10.
Weis, M. and H. Hassan (2015) ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. New York: Regan Arts.
After this essay was drafted, but before it was widely circulated, a self-described hacker collective calling itself Anonymous said - in response to terrorist bombings in Paris on Nov 13 - that they would launch a major cyber attack on IS-related accounts. "Expect massive cyberattacks. War is declared."