Most of us have watched movies where a mysterious threat attacks an unsuspecting community. They may be vampires ravaging an Alaskan town or a blob-like being swallowing a town. Typically the defenders, at first confident, are rapidly dismayed when they find that police firearms have little effect against the creatures. With that realization the characters go from complacent to desperate in a few minutes of movie time until the hunted survivors are forced by desperation to try an outlandish theory from a crackpot who has a peculiar insight into the nature of the monsters.
Sometimes real life resembles a horror movie, as in the present instance when Westphalian states find to their surprise that the state-killing bullets in their arsenal can’t kill Islamic extremism. Perhaps the epitome of such weapons is the precision guided missile-firing drone or its equivalent, the special forces raiding team directed by the signals intelligence wizardry of the NSA. This targeted force is like Zeus’ thunderbolt; it is inconceivably potent, almost unimaginably effective. Surely such a thing can destroy what the president of the United States aims it at.
The United States has killed Saddam Hussein, Abu Mussab Al-Zarqawi, and Osama bin Laden. It was instrumental in the death of Imad Mughniyah. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current head of ISIS, is probably lying crippled in some safe house never to walk again from the effects of a March 18, 2015 airstrike. And now a US special operations team has killed one of the next in line, the chief of ISIS’ oil smuggling business, its “chief financial officer”, a Tunisian with the nom de guerre Abu Sayyaf.
A U.S. official with direct knowledge of the intelligence and the ground operation described Sayyaf as “CFO of all of ISIS with expertise in oil and gas” who played a increasing role in operations, planning and communications.
“We now have reams of data on how ISIS operates, communicates and earns its money,” the official told CNN, referring to some of the communications elements, such as computers, seized in the raid.
Now that America has put a bullet through the body, head and wallet surely all that is left is to watch ISIS die. SECDEF Ashton Carter believes they’ve dealt it a serious blow. But others are not so sure. “Michael Weiss, author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” said Abu Sayyaf was largely unknown to close observers of the organization.” Killing him won’t hurt it any more than its been hurt before.
Weiss said he’s skeptical the United States would risk lives to capture the head of ISIS’s oil operations. ISIS hasn’t made significant money from captured oil fields since U.S. bombers began striking its infrastructure, he said.
A Pentagon spokesman confirmed in February that oil is no longer a main source of revenue for ISIS.
“It may be the case that he wasn’t the primary target in this operation,” Weiss said. “The U.S. might have been trying to kill or capture a higher-value ISIS leader who was thought to be at the same location. But it’d make sense to play up Abu Sayyaf’s prominence after the fact since U.S. soldiers’ lives were at risk here.”
But like the monster in the movie, it’s taken “three billion electro-volts of energy and it’s still coming on”! Why have none of the previous heavy blows slowed ISIS or any of the affiliated rebel groups down? Why is the jihadi organism inexplicably resistant to leadership disruptions, whether caused by drone strikes or the murderous work of rivals from other factions? How can it stand against the Olympian thunderbolt? This is an important question to answer.
It’s resistant because it is not a state.
No it’s not made of “solid nuclear material”. But unlike a state, headed by an Emperor of Japan or Fuhrer, Islamic militancy has the apparent ability to reconfigure itself on the fly; to find energy from catastrophes that would delegitimize ordinary state institutions. The Syrian rebel scene is a case in point. It’s a constellation of merging and splitting groups with fanciful names like “Defenders of Jerusalem”, “Knights of Justice”, “Shields of Revolution”, “Sham Legion”, “Knights of Constantinople” and “Euphrates Volcano”. It’s a regular Legion of Doom.
In this environment a damaged Al-Qaeda evolves into ISIS or spawns an al-Nusrah, like a Hydra sprouting heads or water groping a path down a slope. Groups are constantly dividing, consolidating and taking each other over. Instead of dying under the blows of the administration, the collective organism mutates; it has now acquired the unnerving capacity to engage in “united front” tactics with governments and rival armed groups in Iraq and Syria.
As Waleed Rikab, a former captain in the Israel Defence Force’s 8200 intelligence unit and head of the Strategic Research Department at the web intelligence firm Terrogence explained to Business Insider, Jabhat al Nusra has patiently ensnared its more secular competitors in the Syrian opposition.
“They do things in an inclusive way. They are actually doing what bin Laden recommended: To become an insurgency that’s really embedded within a local struggle,” Rikab said.
In a recent report Rikab shared with Business Insider, he tracked how Nusra had been taking advantage of other opposition groups and the Syrian civil war more generally.
“The group appears to have reinvented itself, recovering from tougher times when it was overshadowed by the Islamic State,” writes Rikab.
He notes that Nusra “has embarked on the implementation of an inclusive model for conducting jihadist activity, which is proving to be successful without alienating local populations or other rebel factions, and “appears to be more successful than ever at cooperating with other rebel groups and the execution of joint operations.”
The group is effective on the battlefield, but have been careful to distinguish themselves from ISIS — even if they are cut from the same ideological cloth.
That’s impressive, considering Obama cannot even get his allies to attend a summit at Camp David.
Part of the reason why the state-killing bullets of Obama don’t work is because they’re designed to kill something ISIS is not. The error is instinctive. Calling Abu Sayyaf a “chief financial officer” or ISIS “oil-minister” is a case in point. He’s nothing of the sort. The man is probably just a glorified border smuggler. Mike Giglio of Buzzfeed described the oil smuggling business on the Syrian-Turkish border in great detail. It’s a million dollar a day business for ISIS at best, conducted with drums, plastic cans transported in vans and pickup trucks or pumped over buried pipes to Turkey. On the scale of world affairs, a million dollars a day is hardly even a major oil business; it is something more suitable for a Turkish gangster than an energy mogul. Yet we think of him as a “minister” because ministers can think in no other way.
But non-states can operate on chump-change, and Obama doesn’t fully grasp this. Cities, elaborate bureaucracies, constitutions — all of the paraphernalia of a Westphalian state that Obama cherishes — are irrelevancies to ISIS-like organizations. Armin Rosen notes that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was hiding out in a hick town in Iraq with a population of less than 5,000. When president Obama described ISIS as a “jayvee team” he was being entirely candid, unable to imagine how a bunch of big beards in a few SUVs could possibly stand up to the might of the One Who Rides Around in Air Force One and Dances with the Stars, making the classic mistake of mirror imaging.
Non-states have different needs vulnerabilities from Westphalian states. One analyst who understands this is former Army intelligence analyst Jessica Lewis McFate who writes: “ISIS is a state-breaker”. It doesn’t thrive on hierarchy or order and UN meetings. It thrives on chaos. She explains that the basic unit of jihadi control is conquered territory, which is not the same as a state territory. Conquered territory is the current area open to plunder and may shift as need arises. Such opportunities only present themselves in a collapse.
Control of cities … are not, however, the metric by which to measure the defeat of ISIS’s fighting force.
ISIS’s ability to remain as a violent group, albeit rebranded, has already been demonstrated, given the near-defeat of its predecessor AQI in 2008 and its resurgence over … a vast dominion across Iraq and Syria.
In this most dangerous form, ISIS is a counter-state, a state-breaker that can claim new rule and new boundaries after seizing cities across multiple states by force, an unacceptable modern precedent.
ISIS, despite its name, does not live to become a Westphalian state. On the contrary, it lives by breaking down Westphalian states. It gets its energy from the throes of a dying country; from ransoms, looting, extortion, smuggling, people trafficking, rape and pillage. Thus Obama’s decision to dismantle American hegemony in the Middle East, whatever its merits, had the unfortunate side effect of increasing entropy. That, plus the wayward consequences of the Arab Spring supercharged the rise of ISIS-like organizations.
It fed the beast with a huge input of chaos and quick, give it another burst. Send Saudi Arabia after it with its corrupt, incompetent army. What could go wrong?
The jihadis are so fat on fuel they can hardly masticate the feast. One can only imagine what will happen when the Jihad ingests a major regional country, the oil-rich Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. It will look like Libya, only much bigger. When the jihad eats Saudi Arabia it will glow like a nova on the nutrients of a collapsing House of Saud. And then it will be on to Europe. It’s in the cards. Journalists are becoming gradually aware that the flood of migrants to Europe is yet another money making branch of the jihad.
Extremist groups like the Islamic State group reap millions of dollars by smuggling people from the Middle East and Africa into Europe, a fresh report reveals, adding that some 170,000 refugees traveled by sea to Europe in 2014. Frontex, the border-surveillance organization of the European Union, predicts the number will be higher this year.
Officials from Africa and the European Union have been trying to find ways to prevent illegal migration. The Guardian reported that Europe has plans to smash Libyan smuggling networks using military power.
It’s in the cards because Europe is where the loot will be after MENA is sucked dry. The key to understanding Islamic extremism’s invulnerability to ordinary Westphalian bullets is to grasp that it is something like a living life form, which exists not at the level of the state, but in small groups and clans. It is self-organizing, “triggered by random fluctuations that are amplified by positive feedback. The resulting organization is wholly decentralized or distributed over all the components of the system. As such it is typically very robust and able to survive and self-repair substantial damage or perturbations.”
To survive it needs a constant source of outside energy to keep it going and that insight is perhaps why Ashton Carter and the US military tried to take out its “oil minister — in the hope that the loss would power it down, like an angiogenesis inhibitor. However it is unlikely that killing or capturing Abu Sayyaf will of itself, hurt ISIS by much. We need another kind of ray to put the crimp on it, but that is for another post.
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