Watching our PM and his cabinet talking about ISIS, one can be forgiven for thinking that they have absolutely no idea what it actually is. Is it a state? A death cult? An Islamist movement or a nihilist anomaly?
It’s highly unlikely, however, that our PM, with his advisers, security agencies and privileged access to US and UK intelligence, is actually confused about what’s going on over in Syria and Iraq. He couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to have all this information without gaining a more or less clear picture of the events that he and his government are determined to obfuscate. If he was, he wouldn’t be the head of a major institution, he’d be committed to one.
But this isn’t as reassuring as it might superficially sound. While we can be fairly well convinced that they have some sort of idea of what it is we’re supposed to be fighting over there, their standard failure in communicating intelligently to the public leaves me wondering how much the electorate actually knows about ISIS. Not only are the government and local media apparently conspiring to say nothing that cannot be reduced to a catchphrase of five words or less, the movement itself has been through a bewildering series of evolutions and permutations resulting in a bewildering alphabet soup that continues to confuse to this day.
Given that a large amount of what the government is pleased to call ‘policy’ these days is predicated on the notion that fighting ‘Daesh’ is one of this country’s most urgent priorities, it is vital that the public be aware of who and what they actually are. Recognising this, Mr Abbott has helpfully provided the information that they are an ‘evil death cult’. Apparently, we are required to be satisfied with that. I, for one, am not. How does an evil death cult work? What resources, materiel and future potential does it have? In what way specifically does it represent a threat to our country and its interests? What is the best way to fight it? And most importantly, what the hell is it? All that this description does for us is point to an inexplicable phenomenon and identify it as ‘the enemy’.
And this is key – to most people, I believe, this phenomenon is just that: inexplicable. We have a hazy, back of the mind notion that every moslem is one short step away from being a bomb-strapped crazy, which leads us to the uncomfortable belief that organisations like ISIS are an inevitable result of the existence of a faith that the left dare not criticise and that the right blames for every evil currently not attributable to the left.
All of which is, of course, unadulterated bull excrement.
It is ironic that some of the clearest and most coherent branding for ISIS has come from our own government. The movement itself has shown scant regard for this side of things. It markets itself under a bewildering alphabet soup of brand names with reckless abandon, having changed its name at least seven times in the past fifteen or so years. Its history and the history and identity of its founders are enigmatic and contentious, but the official line tells a story of a nihilistic, grassroots offshoot of the classical, intellectually elitist Al Qaeda. More of this in another post. For now, though, I think it’s important to have clarity on what ISIS is in the here and now.
Put simply, it’s an international movement holding a base territory straddling Syria and Iraq, including a handful of major cities, but with affiliates in Libya and other parts of Africa. This basic footprint of its influence has been virtually unchanged through its days as AQI, AQIM, ISIL, etc., because this is a movement that is now and always has been focussed on jihad in Iraq, Syria, the Levant and the Maghreb. Popular to contrary belief, their activities are not confined to raping slaves and beheading people on the internet. Their brutality, while public and ubiquitous, is far from being chaotic or random. It is a targeted exercise in public relations and intimidation, inspiring the disaffected and terrifying everyone else. Their territories are run with varying degrees of efficiency but, most importantly, they are run. Reports from Raqqa indicate the implementation of complex civil service systems and the delivery of services such as education and garbage collection. The education is reportedly modelled pretty well exactly on the Saudi secondary school curriculum and is delivered to children of both sexes. Taxes are collected, licit and illicit businesses are supported and conducted by both the movement itself and the people living within its territories. In true nation state style, ISIS appears to be selling oil to the Assad regime, one of its declared enemies. These activities produce an estimated revenue stream of about two billion dollars per year. Reports from other, less securely held centres would indicate that the ISIS local leadership is either unable or unwilling to govern effectively. This inconsistency is unsurprising, given the volatile state of its ‘borders’ and the wild variations in the quality, competence and intelligence of its leaders and fighters on the ground.
On a military level, even the most casual observation reveals that they are strategically and tactically shambolic and reckless. Their decision making is difficult to fathom because they appear to have been unable to read or understand the insurgent playbook. They hold territory, fight pitched battles that they cannot hope to win and throw the lives of their fighters away on lost causes. Their entire military strategy appears to be predicated on keeping recruitment numbers above casualty numbers. To this end, practically every ISIS fighter is also an online recruiter and propagandist – a bottomless pool of volunteers and the sophisticated marketing of brutality are the keys to their military successes.
So no, this is not a ‘death cult’. Or rather, it is, in that it is a movement with a violently nihilistic ideology, but that’s purely on a moral level. As an entity viewed in military and foreign policy terms, it simply cannot be reduced to the status of a frothy-mouthed anomaly. It calls itself a state and, in some ways, functions very much like one. It also transcends borders because of the universality of the appeal of nihilistic revolution amongst the poor, the angry and the oppressed. Knowing what ISIS is, it is difficult to understand why our government has chosen the approach that it has. Alienating the Islamic minority in order to fight an organisation that recruits from alienated Islamic minorities? Understating the local effect of an organisation whose chief appeal seems to be the possession of a territory to house its followers? Disincentivising the return of people who have gone to this territory, seen the reality of its operation and now no longer wish to participate? If our government were a recruiting branch for ISIS, they could hardly do a better job of funnelling fighters to them and guaranteeing their retention. Let’s get real, drop the slogans and the pig-headed refusal to acknowledge the realities of their existence. That way, we might be able to formulate a realistic, multi-layered approach to wiping this abomination off the face of the long-suffering Earth.