After almost two years of nearly unchecked expansion, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may soon find itself fracturing — in part because of its success in recruitment. Battlefield setbacks and disparities in treatment have undermined confidence in ISIS among its adherents and especially among foreign recruits, reports Liz Sly at the Washington Post. The sudden failures have given hope to some of those oppressed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s marauding Islamist army:
The Islamic State appears to be starting to fray from within, as dissent, defections and setbacks on the battlefield sap the group’s strength and erode its aura of invincibility among those living under its despotic rule.
Reports of rising tensions between foreign and local fighters, aggressive and increasingly unsuccessful attempts to recruit local citizens for the front lines, and a growing incidence of guerrilla attacks against Islamic State targets suggest the militants are struggling to sustain their carefully cultivated image as a fearsome fighting force drawing Muslims together under the umbrella of a utopian Islamic state.
The tensions have resulted in minor uprisings and mutinies, at least on the edges of ISIS’ turf:
Shootouts have erupted on several occasions on the streets of the town, including one last week between foreign fighters and Syrians who refused an order by a Kuwaiti commander to deploy to the front lines in Iraq, the activist said. The Syrian faction, under the command of Saddam Jamal, a former Free Syrian Army leader, remains in the town, keeping a tense and wary distance from the faction led by the Kuwaiti, he said.
In an incident in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in January, local allies battled a group made up mostly of Chechens after the foreigners decided to head back to Syria, according to Hassan al-Dulaimi, a retired police general who works with tribal fighters aligned against the Islamic State. “The Iraqis feared they were being abandoned,” he said.
There have been signs, too, that some foreign jihadists are growing disillusioned, with activists in the Syrian provinces of Deir al-Zour and Raqqa describing several instances in which foreigners have sought local help to escape across the border to Turkey. The bodies of between 30 and 40 men, many of whom appeared to be Asian, were found last month in the Raqqa town of Tabqa. They are thought to be the remains of a group of jihadist fighters who tried to flee but were caught, according to the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which monitors Islamic State activities.
Sly cautions that the deterioration of ISIS has mostly been limited to its frontiers. Raqqa itself, thanks to coalition decision to spare civilians the costs of intense bombing campaigns, has yet to experience dissension and uprisings in its forces. Outside of the strongholds, though, the momentum has slowed or stopped — and that’s a big problem for Baghdadi, who needs to justify his caliphate through continuous victory. Graeme Wood noted last month in his excellent piece at The Atlantic that the hard-line Islamist theologians say that the Caliphate will eventually collapse in the end times, but the true believers who flocked to Baghdadi’s banner believe that divine will guarantees endless victories. If those victories stop, especially if other Muslims start rolling back ISIS’ gains, then all of a sudden Baghdadi looks less like a legitimate Caliph and a lot more like a wannabe warlord, just as his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did.
The Atlantic’s Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger further elaborate on the difficulties in retaining recruits without military momentum, based on the dilettante nature of those recruited:
ISIS didn’t invent ultraviolent jihad. There have been many examples in the past, but they have led to consequences. In the horrific 1997 Luxor massacre in Egypt, 62 tourists (including women and children) were literally cut to pieces by dissident members of the Egyptian Islamic Group. The backlash led the group to moderate its overall approach.
The Abu Sayyaf Group has long beheaded hostages, sometimes on video, but its brutality and indiscriminate targeting have increasingly led to the perception that it is a criminal enterprise with expedient jihadist trappings.
But ISIS has crafted a novel formula for mixing brutal violence with the illusion of stability and dignity, and it has moved the bar for recruits. Its combination of successful ground strategy, aggressive messaging, and an appeal to strength over weakness has proven uniquely powerful and energized at least tens of thousands of ardent supporters.
The challenge that lies ahead for the group is whether it can sustain all three elements over time and whether its extraordinary capacity for violence will eventually alienate even its core supporters.
These recruits also tend to be misfits:
According to Scott Atran, Western volunteers are often “immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends … looking for new families of friends and fellow travelers. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are ‘born again’ into a radical religious vocation through the appeal of militant jihad.” Social acceptance and reinforcement are important factors. Atran’s research found that three out of four foreign fighters in Syria traveled together with others, a figure consistent with previous studies on the subject. Traditionally, jihadist fighters have found internal motivation in the promise of perceived religious rewards such as entry into heaven. But for many, perhaps most, jihadists, religious motivations are necessary but not sufficient to explain the leap to violent action.
In fact, the only victories ISIS has seen of late is on the cyber battlefield — and only by lowering their standards for target selection. If ISIS is collapsing as the Post describes, then why are they spending time hacking websites for Minnesota breweries, racetracks and hotels in Ohio, and marketing businesses in Pennsylvania?
The Rust Belt got weird attention too:
Does this really strike fear into people’s hearts, as the analyst on WCCO suggests? Actually, it looks more like desperation. ISIS hackers would prefer going after significant targets — government and military, financial operations, multinational corporations. (They have been borrowing leftist anti-capitalist rhetoric in attempts to recruit Western youth, of late.) If they’re going after websites of these small businesses — and not even to seize their capital, but really just to use them for their own advertising — then either (a) they’re copycats pulling stunts, or (b) ISIS simply doesn’t have the candlepower to go after larger and more significant targets. There’s a vast difference between hoisting a Jolly Roger over a Spanish galleon and doing the same to a fisherman’s dinghy, after all. It suggests that their recruitment isn’t succeeding in getting people who have real skills and accomplishment, but strictly the disaffected and disconnected. That tends to support the analysis at the Post.
So what’s to be done with ISIS, and Iraq? Michael Totten suggests that the West accept that Iraq is irretrievably broken:
Iraq is finished, an expiring, cancerous nation on life support. Pulling the plug might be merciful. It might be cruel. But either way, it’s time to accept the fact that this country is likely to die and that we’ll all be better off when it does.
The Kurds in the north, who make up roughly twenty percent of the population, want out. They never wished to be part of Iraq in the first place. To this day, they still call the bathroom the “Winston Churchill,” in sarcastic homage to the former British prime minister who shackled them to Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, they’ve had their own government and autonomous region in the northern three provinces, and they held a referendum in 2005 in which 98.7 percent voted to secede and declare independence. The only reason they haven’t finally pulled the trigger is because it hasn’t been safe; the Turks—who fear the contagion of Kurdish independence inside their own country—have threatened to invade if they did.
The Sunni Arabs in the west, who make up another rough twenty percent of Iraq, aren’t itching for independence necessarily, but they sure as hell aren’t willing to live under the thumb of Shiite-dominated Baghdad any longer. Millions of them live now under the brutal totalitarian rule of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has declared its own state not only in a huge swath of Iraq but also in much of northeastern Syria. ISIS either controls or has a large presence in more than fifty percent of Iraq at the time of this writing.
Pulling the plug now, though, would mean accepting that ISIS will be around for a long while. The alternative would be to create a new Sunni state under the leadership of those tribes aligned with the West, but we’ve been pushing those to work with Baghdad and the Shi’ite-dominated government. The other Sunni states in the region may not want to surrender so much of Iraq’s territory to Iranian dominance, either, not unless they could rely on a well-armed Sunni state to encircle it (along with the Kurds).
It’s a mess. And it’s a mess that might have been avoided had the US kept its presence in Iraq to keep Nouri al-Maliki from destroying years of work and investment we put into Iraq’s potential emergence as a self-sufficient representative republic.