ISIS: The Durability of Chaos

Empty beach chairs on the Promenade des Anglais, a day after the Bastille Day attack, Nice, France, July 15
David Ramos/Getty Images
Empty beach chairs on the Promenade des Anglais, a day after the Bastille Day attack, Nice, France, July 15

Mass murder has again been visited upon France and shaken the world. Again ISIS has claimed credit, though this time the link to the group seems confusingly ambiguous, feeding new fears in the West about random violence by alienated or radicalized Muslims anywhere. It raises the urgent questions: What does the attack tell us about the changing face of jihadist violence today? And how might our own response, in turn, be contributing to it?

The local driver of the truck that mowed down at least eighty-four people, including ten children, and wounded more than two hundred, on the Nice waterfront Thursday was a Tunisian citizen residing in France. He had a police record for road rage and wife beating, but was not on a terrorism watch list and had no known jihadi affiliations. Yet supporters of the Islamic State immediately celebrated his actions on social media, and French President François Hollande directly linked the attack to France’s war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

And on Saturday, the ISIS media outlet Amaq formally claimed the Nice truck driver as “one of its soldiers” who answered the call to kill anyone from a country in the coalition against it. Such formal claims have, until now, never been merely opportunistic but refer to those who have either sworn allegiance to ISIS (like the Orlando shooter) or have actually been involved in an ISIS plot (like the Paris and Brussels attackers).

All of this suggests that trying to pin down a direct ISIS connection—while ramping up operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq—may be missing the point. In Western political circles as with the Islamic State, and in the minds of their publics, the connection already is real, whatever actual facts may emerge. As a result, suspicion that any disgruntled Muslim is a possible terrorist-in-the-making will continue to make headway among non-Muslims while further disgruntling Muslims, just as ISIS wants. As my and my colleagues’ field research in Europe has shown, the growing stigmatization of European Muslims, who are in fact overwhelmingly peaceful, has effects of its own; even as Western leaders talk of unity and resolve in the face of such an attack, they risk undermining the authority and legitimacy of their own governments in the eyes of those who are most vulnerable to radicalization.

Others, noting that the recent attacks in France and around the world have coincided with large territorial losses for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, suggest that, as Secretary of State John Kerry put it at the end of June, the group is “desperate” because “they know they are losing.” Indeed, in the last eighteen months ISIS has lost more than one-fourth of the territory it seized, while the Pentagon estimates that the group’s foreign forces have decreased by about one-third, to 20,000 fighters, since coalition bombing began in August 2014. But this too misses some larger truths about ISIS and its long-term ability to inspire followers in Europe and the West.

Another frequently heard view is that such attacks are nihilist actions by detached individuals who simply want to wreck society because they feel society has wrecked their own lives. This assumption ignores growing evidence that attacks like what occurred in Nice are almost always perceived by those who carry them out and who admire them as acts of personal redemption and collective salvation in the service of a world revolution. Again and again, we heard, among those who have been susceptible to ISIS’s message, that realizing something close to true justice on Earth, and a right to enter Paradise in the effort to achieve that, can only come “by the sword” and “under the sword.”

To begin with, that such a horrific, large-scale mass killing was carried out by one person, with little apparent direct support—unlike the previous Paris attacks—may not be as anomalous as it appears. Nor is it necessarily of recent derivation. As long ago as September 2014, at a time when ISIS was still gaining territory, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani urged supporters around the world to “kill in any manner,” including “running him over with your vehicle,” any “disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French, or… the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State.”

Such statements, in turn, reflect ISIS’s longtime aim of creating chaos among the civilian populations of its enemies, as outlined in the 2004 jihadi tract “The Management of Savagery/Chaos,” Idarat at-Tawahoush, a crucial source of ISIS ideology. According to this manual, acts of daring sacrificial violence—whether by individuals or small groups—can be used to undermine faith in the ability of governments in the West and the Middle East to provide security for their peoples, and to polarize Muslim and non-Muslims, or what ISIS regards as true believers and infidels. Amplified through the media, these attacks become an effective way to publicize, and possibly propagate, revolutionary change of the political, social, and moral order.

Rather than reflecting a movement in decline, then, the Nice attack might be better understood as a recalibration of long-endorsed tactics in the service of a constant, overriding strategy of world revolution. Even if ISIS loses all of its territory in Syria and Iraq, the global jihadi archipelago could continue to expand if the social and political conditions that have led to its emergence continue to persist.

Among the social conditions that have contributed to ISIS’s relative strength in France, in particular, has been its ability to connect with young men from lower socio-economic immigrant backgrounds, who have been marginalized in French society (whereas female recruits tend to be even younger but from higher socio-economic strata). France’s large Muslim underclass, from which ISIS has recruited so effectively, has long been overrepresented in French prisons (only 7 to 8 percent of France’s population is Muslim, whereas 60 to 70 percent of France’s prison population is Muslim); while the increasingly aggressive profiling and policing of the Muslim population at large by the French government has enhanced a sense of rejection and exclusion within the Muslim community, where discontent can develop into something more radical, slowly or quickly. With his background in low-level crime, the French-Tunisian attacker in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, fits the French public perception of an ISIS sympathizer whether or not actually true.

Serious jihadi involvement with petty criminal networks began after the September 11 attacks as an unintended consequence of the ability of the United States and allies to cut off the flow of funding to suspect groups, especially through Islamic charities. So al-Qaeda and others began looking for funding and arms in criminal networks instead. And in these networks there were large numbers of marginalized immigrant youth, especially in France. Many of them really didn’t want to be criminals and then the jihadists came along and said to them: “look what this sick, nihilist society has done to you, but you can turn the tables be following God, redeem yourselves, save others and you can do this best by using the skills and knowledge of the underworld against the society that forced you to suffer there.”  

Meanwhile, as we continue to fight ISIS on the battlefield, we may overlook the extent to which it has been able to attract recruits amid military defeat in the past and already appears to be conditioning its supporters for such an outcome in Iraq and Syria. In May of this year, al-Adnani said in an audio message: “Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land [during the US-led Iraqi war surge of 2007–2008]? And would we be defeated if you were to take Mosul, Sirte, or Raqqa [primary ISIS strongholds in Iraq, Libya and Syria]? Certainly not! Defeat is the loss of will and desire to fight.” Adnani went on to call again for acts by lone individuals in Europe and the US: “the smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring for us than what you would if you were with us [in Syria and Iraq]… we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night.”

In fact, during the 2007–2008 Iraqi surge, before it became a self-declared Caliphate, ISIS lost nearly all the territory it had held, up to three-fourths of its foot soldiers, and about a dozen “high-value” members of its leadership each month for fifteen consecutive months. Nonetheless, its diffuse religious, political, military, and economic organization (including payoffs to martyrs’ families) continued to function in fairly orderly fashion. Then, at the end of 2011, the US withdrew, leaving the fate of Iraq’s Arab Sunni to a corrupt, rapacious, and oppressive Shia government while doing nothing to stop the Assad’s Shia-allied Alawite regime from massacring Arab Sunni in Syria. Thus, as Syria descended into civil war in 2011–2013, ISIS’s highly adaptable and resilient consortium of local jihadi leaders and ex-Baathist military and intelligence officials (many of whom had formed strong links in US military detention centers in Iraq) was well-prepared to take advantage of the chaos there. When the group stormed back into Iraq, it was initially welcomed by an overwhelming majority of Arab Sunni as “The Revolution” (Al-Thawra).

What seems increasingly clear, both in its earlier rise and in its current response to the coalition offensive, is that ISIS has created a surprisingly durable and seductive ideology. The mainly young people who volunteer to fight for ISIS unto death often express a joy that comes from bonding with comrades in a glorious cause—involving great shared risk and shedding of blood, which has always been the strongest glue in war—as well as a joy that comes from the satiation of anger and the gratification of revenge (whose sweetness, says science, can be experienced by brain and body much like other forms of happiness). At least for hardcore ISIS adherents, the more the coalition squeezes the more determined the resistance.

We witnessed this in our recent work on the frontlines in Iraq, where we interviewed combatants near the village of Kudilah, site of the very first battle in the ongoing offensive to ultimately retake Mosul. At Kudilah, some ninety ISIS fighters with no heavy weaponry managed to prevent a sustained advance by more than five hundred coalition forces of Arab Sunni militia, Iraqi army, and Kurdish Peshmerga, aided by US and German advisers and repeated air strikes. This, despite the fact (according to Peshmerga leaders) that more than fifty ISIS fighters were killed in the battle, including a score of inghamasi (“those who dive in deep,” suicide attackers trained for piercing enemy positions and for covering retreat). Many who fought in the battle, including some who had been fighting in various wars since the 1960s, told us this was the fiercest combat of their lives.

According to both the ISIS media outlet Amaq and to leaders of the coalition forces, there has been a notable increase in ISIS suicide attacks in recent battles, the most feared attacks of all, which many in ISIS (especially among the foreign fighters) long to do: not out of desperation but in hope of contributing by their sacrifice to eventual victory. The inghamasi war cry on the battlefield is: “The Islamic State is enduring and expanding!” (Ad-Dawla al-Islamiyah baqiyah wa tatamaddad!). In our experiments, coalition combatants considered ISIS fighters to have decidedly inferior physical means, but vastly superior fighting spirit to that of US, French, Arab Sunni militia, or Iraqi army forces.

In his recent comments, Secretary Kerry was echoing a view by leaders and the press around the world that ISIS has been “running scared.” Such assertions are not new. Ever since 9/11 we have been told that mass attacks on civilians—or “soft targets” as officials like to refer to them, as opposed to “hard” military targets—are sure signs that those behind the attacks are running scared.

Are we again dangerously underestimating ISIS’s will to fight, and its ability to endure and expand? Although military defeat in Iraq, Syria, and Libya could help make it more difficult for the group to recruit, we will not be able to defeat ISIS itself until we find a way to reconnect the neighborhoods, online communities, and other particularly susceptible social and political settings where attacks like what occurred in Nice continue to find inspiration and support.