By Abhinav Pandya
ISIS represents the third phase in terrorism stemming from religious extremism. Unlike its predecessors and contemporaries like LeT and Al Qaeda, it functions like a state, exerting control over vast swathes of the two former sovereign states of Iraq and Syria and about 10 million people (by some estimates). It is putting immense effort in building administrative, legal and financial structures. In terms of its objectives, it is not just a reactionary organization fighting to avenge injustices done to Muslims or against foreign occupation armies; instead, it envisions bringing back the Islamic caliphate not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. It believes in the idea that no religion other than Islam should survive and all non-believers should be slain. For these reasons, it must be regarded as a truly global project and a transnational threat.
Graeme Wood, after his intense research which involved tracking down the world's most influential recruiters of ISIS, proves that the organization is not just a collection of psychopaths, but a religious group, an apocalyptic creed which aims for a global jihad to establish an Islamic caliphate that encompasses all of humanity and takes the world back to the 7th century. He writes in The Atlantic that ISIS, follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behaviour. He further informs:
"In conversation, they insist that they will not--cannot--waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam."
Compared to other terrorist organizations, ISIS's appeal to religion is clear, direct, immediate, focused and powerful.
Coming to its structure and modus-operandi, it can be argued that it is not a rag-tag army of irregular soldiers or students of religious seminaries. It is composed of professional, battle-hardened and well-trained ex-Baathist military officers, who provide a strong leadership and strategic direction to the organization. In terms of weaponry and training, it is not a medieval Taliban-type organization, functioning instead like a modern nation-state with advanced weaponry, intelligence and communication systems at its disposal, engaging global super-powers on multiple fronts. It has huge oil reserves and a terrific mechanism of illicit smuggling of its oil for its funding which makes it an immensely rich organization.
Adam Hanieh of SOAS writes in his essay, "A Brief History of ISIS" in Jacobin that ISIS is a modernist project that places utmost importance on developing a media and propaganda network. The organization makes exceptionally intelligent and professional use of social media. One study estimates that the media unit of ISIS generates as many as 40 unique pieces of media each day, including videos, photo essays, articles and audio programs in many different languages. Unlike other groups which preferred to remain covert and released a few shoddy video tapes from the remote mountain ranges of Hindukush, ISIS makes a humongous effort to brand itself as the most religiously authentic. Most its recruitment is online through Twitter and social media platforms. Adam Hanieh further writes:
"The decentralized network through which ISIS propaganda is disseminated is also unique, using an army of Twitter accounts and anonymous websites such as just paste. it and archive.org to host their media. Abdel Bari Atwan, an Arab journalist whose account of the rise of ISIS draws upon well-placed insiders, claims that the organization controls over one hundred thousand Twitter accounts and sends a daily barrage of fifty thousand tweets. This and other forms of social media are the conduits through which ISIS both recruits and disseminates its messages."
The brutal executions that are disseminated online are also strategic. They bring instant fame and instil fear among the enemy armies, which makes it easier for ISIS to acquire more and more territorial control. Hanieh cites "Administration of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through which the Islamic Nation Will Pass" (2004) which is a kind of generic world view of Jihadi organizations. In this, Abu Bakr Naji informs that "savage chaos" is a phase of Jihadi struggle which is essential for ushering in an Islamic caliphate. "Savage chaos" implies dismantling of state structures and creating acute social insecurities where Jihadi groups can fill the political vacuum and emerge as absolute masters. People have no option except to fight in the vain hope of Islamic utopia as promised by the Jihadi groups. Clearly, ISIS represents a much more organized and pro-active phase of Jihadi extremism. In future, there is a strong possibility of the merger of other extremist organizations with ISIS. Bruce Hoffman, terrorism expert at Georgetown University, argues that by 2021, ISIS and Al Qaeda will merge because their strong ideological similarities surmount pettier rivalries and tussles for power. If such mergers do take place, the threat will only intensify.
In addition to organized terrorism, there is also the question of smaller scale manifestations of jihadi extremism as seen in the case of the San Bernardino shootings. Such incidents, while they are nowhere near the scale of the Paris or Brussels attacks, mark a completely different style of terrorism--there is no high-tech planning, no organizations and no overseas coordinators involved. It marks a stage where any extremist jihadi sympathizer can unleash violence, depending on the availability of weapons and other opportunities. These "lone-wolf" kinds of attacks are the results of the strong global propaganda machine of organizations like ISIS.
Well, it might be too early to regard San Bernardino as a new phase of Jihadi terrorism, if the trend continues, it will have severe repercussions. It will result in increased vigilance and profiling of Muslims in general, resulting in even the innocent being treated with suspicion. It will increase animosity between communities and in general fuel more hate crimes and violence, thus reinforcing the cause, objective and strategy of ISIS-type outfits ideologically and logistically, giving them more recruits and more following. Further, it will be a challenge for intelligence agencies to pre-empt such attacks.
In the end, I would like to make a case for a counter-terrorism approach that is based on the nuanced understanding of the phenomenon. It should be regional, decentralized and a multipronged, with a special focus on communications and social media, which counts among the most powerful weapons in the hands of Jihadi outfits.
Abhinav Pandya is a graduate in Public Policy from Cornell University. He has worked in political affairs, refugee rehabilitation, social capital and sustainable development in India and USA. He is interested in political affairs, counter-terrorism, religious extremism, international security, spirituality and comparative religions.