The Rise of the Islamic State and the Evolution of Violent Extremism.
By Steven Metz, Aug. 13, 2014, Column
For Islamic extremists, particularly the most angry and violent ones, al-Qaida is yesterday's news. From Yemen to Africa, fighters are leaving al-Qaida-affiliated groups and joining the ultra-radical and violent movement now known as the Islamic State. This gives some worrisome hints about the future of extremism in the Islamic world.
The ascendance of the Islamic State, initially known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is due in part to al-Qaida's failures. Over the years much of the funding al-Qaida used to energize and stoke militant movements was cut off or dried up. Pummeled by the United States and its allies, al-Qaida's leaders hunkered down in a desperate and sometimes futile attempt to stay alive or avoid capture. The best they could do was to push out an occasional manifesto or vainglorious video. Hidden deep in Pakistan's tribal areas, al-Qaida's leaders lost touch with the new generation of militants that saw the group’s ideas and ideology as "stale, tired, and ineffectual." Al-Qaida’s focus on the "far enemy," as it called the United States, rather than on the Islamic governments that it called the "near enemy" backfired: Rather than deterring the United States through terrorism or insurgency as planned, Osama bin Laden and his cohorts inflamed American passions and brought destruction to their organization.
The Islamic State, under the leadership of a militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, adroitly filled the vacuum left by al-Qaida's stumbling. It proved skilled at appealing to angry young Muslims though social media and was better than al-Qaida at generating its own resources, thus avoiding one of the vulnerabilities of bin Laden's group. The Islamic State's extreme violence proved a powerful recruitment tool for sociopaths willing to kill and die. In this sense, the Islamic State was more attuned to the modern world where only shrill radicalism attracts attention. Moderation and patience are boring, particularly to impassioned young militants hungry for attention. The Islamic State instinctively understood this, exploiting the brutality pioneered by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, perhaps the most pathological of bin Laden's followers.
But as much as anything, the Islamic State has moved to the fore of transnational Islamic extremism because it appears successful. While al-Qaida had no major victories after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Islamic State fighters, steeled by combat against the Syrian regime, launched a lightning-quick conventional military attack in northern Iraq that seized Mosul and several other cities, crushed Iraqi security forces and captured huge stockpiles of weapons. It then declared the creation of a "caliphate," something al-Qaida promised for years but never delivered. Each victory increased its appeal and drew more followers frustrated by the lack of success elsewhere.
Unintentionally, America's counterterrorism strategy helped the Islamic State trump al-Qaida. For all of bin Laden's murderous intent, he did think strategically. Al-Qaida used violence to attain specific political outcomes. There was a rationality to its calculations, however repugnant. The Islamic State uses violence more astrategically, as an expression of primal rage and a way to draw supporters from the world’s indignant misfits rather than as a means to a strategic end.
The Obama administration's hesitation to become involved in the Syrian civil war made it easier for the Islamic State to coalesce and gain combat experience. And now the administration's decision to launch military strikes against the group, while necessary and morally justified, is further burnishing its image. That American aircraft and drones are attacking the Islamic State rather than al-Qaida shows militants and potential militants exactly who Washington considers to be the largest threat and how seriously it takes the leader of the movement that would guide them.
What, then, does the Islamic State's rise suggest about the evolution of such violent Islamic extremism? For starters, al-Qaida may not willingly cede its leadership in the transnational jihadist movement. To regain the luster it feels it deserves, al-Qaida may attempt a spectacular attack on the United States or some other vulnerable target to show that it still carries weight among extremists. Al-Qaida is also trying to deepen its involvement in Syria, even talking of committing Taliban fighters to the conflict.
The Islamic State itself has probably reached what strategists call its culminating point: the time when an offensive has run out of steam. When conventional militaries hit their culminating point they pause, rest, bring up additional troops and material, then try to restart the attack. It is doubtful, though, that the Islamic State can do this. In the face of U.S. air strikes, international assistance to Kurdish forces and Iranian involvement in bolstering the Iraqi government, the Islamic State is unlikely to take any more major cities. Soon it is likely to repeat the mistakes of early al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq, alienating the local people and facing outright opposition, possibly abetted by the United States. Once this happens it will be hard-pressed to defend its newly declared "caliphate," much less expand it.
When the Islamic State's advance stops and the challenges of administering what it has seized mount, it will face infighting. U.S. attacks may force its leaders to hunker down just like al-Qaida's. In response, the group may try to attack the United States. But it shows no sign of the careful, long-term planning and preparation that allowed al-Qaida to do this, particularly given heightened American vigilance, so its chances of success are slim.
The Islamic State may soon devolve into simply one more terrorist group that can murder almost at will but not govern or administer anything. But there is the chance that some new, perhaps even more violent successor will then emerge. While the United States and its allies have damaged, perhaps even smashed the authority structure of Islamic extremism represented by al-Qaida, no one has addressed the anger, frustration and sense of injustice that fuels it. There is little sign that the governments of Islamic nations or organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood can do so, as least in the short term. Until the Islamic world generates effective and just systems of authority that can mute the anger of young men and channel their energy into productive and nonviolent endeavors, it is likely that one violent extremist movement after the other will peak and then decline, only to see a new one take its place. Since there is no sign that will happen soon, all the United States can do is redouble its defense against each new wave of embittered terrorists.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.