The Blindfolds of the West

Debate is raging in the expert community over what ISIS is: a state, transnational ideology, or just a way of life? The case for 'state' is made by in a Defense News article where a state department official testifies that ISIL (ISIS) is 'no longer a terrorist group, it's a full blown army'.

In a telling assessment that provides a glimpse into Obama administration officials’ thinking about the situation in Iraq, [US State Department’s Brett] McGurk told the panel ISIL is “no longer a terrorist group.”

Rather, he said the group has morphed into “a full-blown army.”

This is comforting to the State department.  If ISIS is a state, the same as Canada, then it can be contained in the same way any ordinary country is restrained; by alliances, diplomacy, sanctions.  The all purpose nostrum of diplomacy is to 'statify' an adversary. If Hamas, for example, can be turned into a state, then it becomes something familiar and safe, that in time might even have an embassy in Washington.

Others view ISIS as a transnational organization, with a broad global appeal, the heir to al-Qaeda. Briefly, the good news is that young militants are no longer joining al-Qaeda. The bad news is that they are joining ISIS instead.

Islamists now coming of age are more frequently dismissing al-Qaida as a worn down and ineffective organization, the wire service reported on Wednesday. Using social media services known for attracting candidate supporters, the young radicals have increasingly voiced admiration for the newer group that declared a new “Islamic State” last month in recently seized Middle Eastern territory.

One supporting piece of evidence that ISIS is transnational rather than a state are warnings that Norway is preparing for a possible Syria-linked terrorist attack.  Canada wouldn't do that, now would it?  States don't do that. Ideological movements do.

Benedicte Bjoernland, head of Norway's intelligence service, announced at a press conference this morning that the agency has received "'reliable information' about plans for some kind of attack 'within days,'" linked to jihadists in Syria. This is the sort of threat many Western countries have recently been worried might come out of Syria eventually. Norway is beefing up its airport and border security in response to the threat.

But Yezid Sayigh at the Carnegie Middle East Center makes the more sophisticated argument that ISIS is in transition. It might want to become a caliphate but it is fated to become a regular state, same as everyone else, with a defined territorial base. In the end, all visionary movements, even Communism, become regular countries in time.

Two analogies help understand what ISIS can and cannot do, and the limitations of its caliphate. First, the experience of Al-Qaeda, ISIS’s mother organization, in Afghanistan reveals that no matter how powerful a transnational ideology, movements espousing it must still dig deep roots in local society if they are to survive and thrive. Al-Qaeda appealed to alienated Muslim youth worldwide, but in Afghanistan it had to attach itself to an indigenous armed movement, the Taliban, that was completely embedded in local Pashtun society. Consequently, Al-Qaeda was forced out with relative ease by the US invasion in late 2001, but not the Taliban.

Only in Iraq does ISIS resemble the Taliban. In Syria, in contrast, ISIS resembles al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. To be sure, there is considerable cross-border overlap: ISIS can and probably will take root in Syria, much as a sister Taliban emerged in the northern provinces of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. But neither Taliban movement has been unable to extend beyond its local social base into other parts of the two countries, despite the presence of other Islamist and jihadist groups. For ISIS, the implication is that its Iraqi base remains the critical core; if pressed, ISIS will prioritize consolidating it.

The appeal of ISIS to Sunnis of the wider Levant is limited by the narrowness of its potential social base. This is especially true in Lebanon, where the multi-confessional nature of Lebanese society and its class structure limit the pool of potential jihadist recruits to certain low-income or marginalized sectors of the Sunni community. ISIS can gain recruits only by attracting adherents away from other Salafist groups, as it has done in Syria.

Still another point of view is to ask: who wants a country? Who wants a movement? Suppose names like "caliphate" and "country" and "movement" are merely terms meant to befuddle pedantic Westerners; they are fancy words thrown in for the left wing liberals because they can understand nothing except in terms of their own provincial tropes. What if all these high flown appellations are all the same to the boys, who are really out for some six-shootin', virgin-bustin', kaffir-killin' fun.  Like it was in Mohammed's time and always shall be.

BAGHDAD, Iraq — At the mention of Caliph Ibrahim, leader of the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Abu Mustafa points at his chest and nods. ...

“Life in Mosul is very normal,” says Abu Mustafa. Christians there are treated well, prices are low and people are safe and happy, he says, a description completely at odds with news reports and firsthand accounts describing a reign of terror against anyone in the city who hasn’t sworn loyalty to the caliph.

He seems to believe what he’s saying and performs the group’s public relations not just to blow smoke into the journalist’s eyes, but because he honestly hopes to see the caliph succeed in conquering Baghdad. And then, after the victory, he expects to see the caliphate destroyed. ...

This is a view more common than one might expect among the Sunni Iraqis who have taken up arms against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, although it rarely is voiced so brazenly from inside the capital. They look at ISIS not as a religious prophecy come true or an end unto itself but as a weapon that will be used up after it is has done their work. ...

There’s also the matter of money.

“They have the oil,” say Iraqi journalist Ziad al Ajili. ISIS has seized oil fields in Syria and northern Iraq. “They can pay the fighters and they have the best weapons and vehicles.”

There’s a predictable aspect to shifting loyalties among insurgent groups, Ajili says. “The more money ISIS has, the more Baya [an Islamic oath of loyalty] they will get.”

Money, arms, loot. Yee-haw. All this Holy Joe stuff is strictly for them Western human rights types and multicultural liberals who actually take these things at face value. Swap out the trucks for camels and ditch the cell phones for clear sky under a bright moon and the dialog could come from the campfire of a raiding party 2,000 years ago.  This vision of an ever-renewed, ever-collapsing militancy, living forever on the edge of a dream, on the eve of a tomorrow which never comes, is a fascinating one.

LP Hartley opened his novel, The Go-Between with what is perhaps the most famous literary line of the 20th century. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."  But it was also a very English line with all the limitations of insularity. For it seems that in much of the world beyond Brighton Beach the only homeland is the past. It is the present that is a foreign country.

Under the veneer of modernity, the same old hatreds, passions and greed still govern the world. They still dominate human imaginations. The earth turns, unchanged in its essentials from time immemorial, misunderstood only by the West, which in insists on seeing it à la mode -- according to the current style or fashion.  As for the rest, they see it as it is, or at least as they think it is; so hand over that box of cartridges, it's still the same old story, as time goes by.

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