The Islamic State’s Brutality May Not Be Its Undoing
Steven Metz |Friday, Aug. 28, 2015
Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part column on the Islamic State’s use of extreme brutality as part of its strategy. Part I looks at the roots and intended effects of that brutality. Part II will examine whether extreme brutality is sustainable or will be the group’s downfall, and what that means for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
The group's rap sheet goes on and on. It includes beheadings, crucifixions, stonings, burnings, burying victims alive, institutionalized rape and slavery—all to an expansive degree. In June 2014 it executed 1,700 young, mostly Shiite military recruits near Tikrit in Iraq. Last year in Syria the Islamic State murdered 700 members of the Sunni Shaitat tribe. It killed 5,000 Yazidi men and enslaved their women and children. Seldom does a week or even day pass without a new atrocity. And unlike recent genocidal dictators and movements, the Islamic State does not attempt to hide its violence, but revels in it. This is significant.
For many Americans, this brutality fuels rage and a desire to strike at the barbaric organization in any way possible. While sharing the anger, some security experts see it a bit differently, reminding us that violent organizations can overplay their hand and suffer the consequences. As Stathis Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale, has pointed out, violence may turn local populations against the extremists. Perhaps this will be the Islamic State’s undoing—but only perhaps.
To assess where brutality might lead the group and what the United States can do about it requires working through the anger and disgust to understand brutality’s purpose. This can be challenging. Like many insurgent groups, the Islamic State is speaking to several audiences simultaneously. Brutality plays a part in all these messages, but does so in different ways and with different intended effects.
For starters, the Islamic State uses brutality for external intimidation. Like barbarian warriors pressing against the edge of civilization—Mongols, Huns and so forth—the Islamic State hopes that word of its viciousness will deter resistance and make new conquests easier. But it has failed at that. The Mongols, who were masters at intimidation by extreme violence, treated cities that did not resist with leniency. The Islamic State is not clever enough to realize that it needs both carrots and sticks, believing fear alone is enough. And while the group may think it can deter the U.S. and other advanced nations by threats, it is wrong. In the crucial psychological dimension of strategy, the Islamic State is simultaneously skilled and inept.
It also uses violence much like a common criminal gang to attract recruits and create internal solidarity. Its well-publicized brutality draws alienated, angry, often mentally unbalanced young Muslims from outside Syria and Iraq. This is what Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group called “a kind of ritualization of violence, even pornographic violence,” which has a mesmerizing effect on the psychologically vulnerable.
Once the recruits arrive in Islamic State-controlled territory, participating in violence symbolically severs their ties to the outside, civilized world and binds them to the movement. This is an old trick of sociopathic criminal gangs and insurgent movements. As a former child soldier for the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda explained, “When you kill for the first time, automatically, you change. Out of being innocent, you’ve now become guilty. You feel like you’re becoming part of them, part of the rebels.” The Islamic State understands that.
But its brutality also plays a role in internal power struggles. Various wannabe leaders and factions feel the need to top each other in violence to intimidate rivals and demonstrate that they have the most intense commitment to the cause. Again, this is nothing new. In ritual warfare among Native Americans, for instance, bravery and brutality added to a warrior's personal prestige. It probably does the same within the Islamic State’s benighted “caliphate.”
The group also uses brutality to deter internal opposition in the area it controls. In this it is more like modern repressive dictators than marauding barbarians or criminal gangs. From Stalin to Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez in Syria and North Korea’s Kim dynasty, totalitarians have built secret police and intelligence services that used violence—both publicized and unpublicized, but widely understood—to send a message that the costs of opposing them were unbearable. Many of these dictators were able to sustain their brutality for decades. Their people got the intended message and concluded that if they did not exhibit the slightest whiff of opposition or disloyalty, they would not suffer violence from the state. To work, the brutality had to appear as something that the victims brought on themselves. And this had to be done in a way that instilled a sense of hopelessness among the population. Punishment had to be fearsome and certain.
Finally, the Islamic State uses brutality specifically to provoke its opponents, believing that the more it is attacked by Shiites or non-Muslims, the more that Sunnis on the fence will flock to its cause. Again this is nothing new: Insurgents often use violence to provoke a reaction from the government that they can use to portray themselves as acting defensively and as protectors of the people. The Islamic State simply picked this up from insurgents past.
With all these different intended audiences and purposes, will such brutality work for the Islamic State, and can it be sustained? What, if anything, can the U.S. and its partners in the coalition fighting the group do about its brutality? The second part of this essay will address those key questions next week.
Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.