international analysis and commentary

The horrors of ISIS: How did we get to this point?


We are bewildered and disoriented by the brutality: headlines warn of systematic beheadings of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, evidence of Christian genocide, men being burned alive, mass executions on the beaches of the Mediterranean – a sea that touches the West. These are acts far from the reality of most people living in the 21st century, and more like something out of a Hollywood movie portraying horror plots or times long past. Yet ISIS is very real and those of us who spend a lot of time in front of those headlines are becoming hostage to a very heavy question: how will it be stopped? While no one knows the answer quite yet, we need to understand what triggered this phenomenon and how our world has changed in a way to permit the existence of a movement like ISIS.

The main factor in the rise of the jihadist group is hard for many Westerners to swallow; however it would be dishonest to neglect that in the post-Great Recession era, and after the two disastrous Bush wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), the West is simply reluctant to intervene abroad militarily. Under Barack Obama’s administration, the US has relaxed its role of policing the world and Europe (never enthusiastic about it, at least in the aggregate) has followed in its footsteps. While some may welcome this trend with a sigh of relief, there is no denying that it has created an opportunity for extremist groups like ISIS to get away with murder – literally.

The second, and related, factor in the rise of ISIS is the collapse of governance. It is no coincidence that the jihadist military group laid its foundations in Syria and Iraq, then attempted to do the same in Libya and extended its tentacles to places like Nigeria and Somalia. Analysts are now watching areas where ISIS may grow in the future: other unstable and internally divided countries, like Yemen. This trigger is closely linked to the first factor as it may be argued that the lack of Western intervention allowed for or worsened these state collapses: as such, it is a multiplier as the problems on the ground are greatly complicated by the mix between the lack governance and the presence of the extremist group.

The third catalyst in ISIS’s success is the deep intellectual element in its doctrine, which, when watered down for the masses, seems to be highly attractive. The group’s scholars and researchers have been very keen on creating an atmosphere in which followers feel that the survival of (certain types of) Muslims depends on the reinstatement of the Islamic State. Also, very importantly, this intellectual input is not only based on thought, it is based on physical terrain. The Islamic State exists as a place at this point in the game, so followers have not only something to believe in, but somewhere to go: this is a real game changer.

The fourth trigger that opened up the door for a group like ISIS is the possibility to spread its ideology via the web. A decade ago we watched grainy videos of Osama bin Laden that gave hints of three spans of time: he spoke in classical Arabic (ancient), flanked by a Kalashnikov (weapon of the weak, dating back to the late 1940s), and appeared on the web (post-modern). Those mysterious videos laced with subtleties are the equivalent to vinyl now as we see ISIS diffuse its doctrine and recruit through high-quality and very modern communications materials and techniques. And, for the audience they are trying to reach (dissatisfied youth who spend a lot of time on the web), it works.

That takes us to the fifth point: failed urbanization. In the post-industrial era, people continue to flock to cities. However, there are fewer jobs and greater disillusionment in respect to the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution as we have experienced it in the West. Many of these new city dwellers are unable to assimilate and this creates a hotbed for extremism where young people have little satisfaction in life. The Islamic State often gives them something to believe in and to fight for. This is a problem also in the West where intelligence agencies have taken on the full-time job of tracking citizens who travel to the affected areas and return home – obviously a huge challenge, also given the porous nature of the borders in war-torn zones.

Finally, a sixth point, brought forth very insightfully by Walter Russell Mead, Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, during a recent lecture at the American Studies Center in Rome, is that there are many extremist and Islamist groups out there competing for resources and members. This creates a place for a Darwinian natural selection process in which the group that survives is extremely fit, fine-tuned and efficient – that being ISIS at this point in history.

While these triggers are a reality and impossible to reverse in the short term, some hold hope in some 60 countries that have formed the anti-ISIS coalition (despite doubts about the real commitment of some participants to the supposedly common fight), as well as in the local forces working around the clock to stamp out the group. Meanwhile, others predict that ISIS’s very nature will create its own doom. A recent brief published by The Economist pointed out that ISIS is “losing ground, money and the consent of the people it rules.” Besides reports that the appalling brutality has resulted in internal defection and disaffection among locals, we also know that due to foreign airstrikes and lost local battles, ISIS is in retreat in many areas. Plus there is evidence of internal tensions and dwindling funds – and this is a serious problem for the physical Islamist State that by some counts has eight million people under its rule. The Economist report makes an important distinction in this respect, “the needs of a statehood that has to be expansionist make continued success harder. IS needs to go on growing both to raise money and because the caliphate has to become universal. At the same time it must govern what it holds in order to prove it is not just another bunch of terrorists.” The publication notes that ISIS’s territory has shrunk by 25% recently and its financial resources may be down by as much as 75% according to some analysts.

Even if ISIS dooms itself, the conditions listed above will still exist, leaving room (in Darwinian fashion), for the many other extremist movements to evolve, mutate and step in – as has happened various times already in recent history. The real question we may need to ask in our pursuit for a definitive answer may not be only how to defeat ISIS specifically, but how to bring prosperity and accountable state authority to the MENA region which could significantly curb the general problem of extremism. While this is a generations-old question that no one can completely answer, one missed point may not be in economics, rather in sociology. As Professor Mead thoughtfully highlighted in his lecture, a key reason Western-style prosperity is unreachable is because the masses in the MENA region are very traditional, and we are not. With few exceptions (interestingly, one being most Iranian youth) they see Westerners as almost alien due to dramatic social advances (women’s emancipation, gay rights, etc.) that the MENA region has not experienced in large scale. The West has completed these changes quite recently and in a relatively short span of time. The result: we reject the lack of change in them without fully realizing how quickly and dramatically we have changed, how difficult the process has been, and how we may be seen from afar through the eyes of members of a traditional society. The gap here is actually getting wider rather than narrower, which portends more trouble.

Until both East and West understand this gap, it will be hard to even approach, much less propose and help implement solutions – for both extremism and the broader need for prosperity.