Are we underestimating ISIS?

Following the news that Islamic State fighters had successfully downed a Jordanian warplane and captured its pilot, U.S. Central Command claimed that there was no evidence that ISIS was responsible for shooting that aircraft out of the sky. In a statement, CENTCOM offered glowing praise for America’s freshly demoralized regional ally and offered no alternative theory for why that aircraft was lost. Take that as you will.


For all the talk of ISIS’s military prowess, or lack thereof as the case above may be, there has until recently been a dearth of substantive discussion about the state of affairs in the areas occupied by ISIS. The dangerous campaign being waged by coalition forces on the fringes of the so-called Islamic State has only just begun, and it is already claiming American and coalition assets and lives. Eventually, that campaign will need to press on into the state’s interior.

But “eventually” seems farther and farther off as the weeks go by. A disheartening dispatch via David Ignatius leaves a reader with the impression that the campaign to dislodge ISIS from the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria has been a secondary consideration for Western leaders.

“Watching events unfold in Iraq this year has been like viewing a slow-motion train wreck,” Ignatius opened his column in The Washington Post. “Iraqi tribal leaders have been warning since spring about the rise of the terrorist Islamic State and pleading for American help. But after months of slaughter, the United States is only now beginning to build an effective tribal-assistance program.”

His column noted the critical role the coalition hopes its skittish Arab allies will play in Iraq:

A step toward needed Jordanian-Iraqi cooperation came this week, as Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi announced that Jordan would train and arm Sunni tribal units. This unusual Amman-Baghdad project followed a visit by Abadi to the United Arab Emirates, which pledged support for arming and training Anbar’s sheiks. The Kuwaitis have also pledged weapons and ammunition for this Sunni “national guard.”

The plight of the Albu Nimr and other tribes is suggested by e-mails sent over the past few months as the Islamic State terrorized Anbar.

“Today, we have a small window of opportunity to recruit fighters from Sunni tribes because they are mad about losing their livelihoods and their relatives have been killed,” wrote one Albu Nimr leader in a Nov. 18 e-mail, after the Hit massacre, to a retired Marine major who had served in Anbar.


This situation brought to mind recent comments from Juergen Todenhoefer, a journalist who recently toured areas under Islamic State control. In an interview following his return from ISIS-controlled areas, the intrepid reporter wondered if Western leaders were not seriously underestimating the danger posed by ISIS’s brutish militants.

In an interview with CNN, Todenhoefer told familiar tales of the horrors of child soldiers, systematic beheadings, and foreign fighters with an unshakable loyalty to ISIS’s cause for whom the word “zealotry” seems an insufficient description. He also told, however, of the status of the “state” aspects of the Islamic State. Perhaps Todenhoefer’s most terrifying revelation was his claim that a sense of routine is beginning to take hold amongst the remaining residents of the cities flying an ISIS banner.

But how is that possible, we ask ourselves? How can a people endure the daily horrors of life under ISIS, not to mention the minor irritation and inconveniences, and remain docile?

It is difficult to read a thorough and illuminating report via The Post’s Liz Sly on ISIS’s deteriorating ability to function as a municipal service provider without noting subtle elements of Western chauvinism.

Services are collapsing, prices are soaring, and medicines are scarce in towns and cities across the “caliphate” proclaimed in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, residents say, belying the group’s boasts that it is delivering a model form of governance for Muslims.

Slick Islamic State videos depicting functioning government offices and the distribution of aid do not match the reality of growing deprivation and disorganized, erratic leadership, the residents say. A trumpeted Islamic State currency has not materialized, nor have the passports the group promised. Schools barely function, doctors are few, and disease is on the rise.

In the Iraqi city of Mosul, the water has become undrinkable because supplies of chlorine have dried up, said a journalist living there, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety. Hepatitis is spreading, and flour is becoming scarce, he said. “Life in the city is nearly dead, and it is as though we are living in a giant prison,” he said.

In the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s self-styled capital, water and electricity are available for no more than three or four hours a day, garbage piles up uncollected, and the city’s poor scavenge for scraps on streets crowded with sellers hawking anything they can find, residents say.


So, the Islamic State is terrible at being a state. That’s a condition that will cause its residents great discomfort, but do not expect an insurrection among the region’s terrified inhabitants. Those who remain in the Iraqi city of Mosul watched 130,000 of their Christian neighbors evicted and their property repossessed. Other religious minorities were enslaved or slaughtered before the eyes of the city’s residents. All the potable water distribution issues in the world will not prompt a people to rise if their masters are brutal enough.

Dismissing the prowess of a ragtag militia in minting currency and providing residents with passports also justifies an outlook which maintains that the Islamic State is unequal to the task of war with the world’s civilized powers. It is, therefore, unnecessary to treat ISIS as a worthy combatant.

While the West congratulates itself on its superiority over ISIS on both a military and a civic level, it is worth asking if we are comforting ourselves in a notion that will ultimately inhibit the West from engaging in a comprehensive effort to destroy this cancerous and false state. “I think the Islamic State is a lot more dangerous than Western leaders realize,” Todenhoefer’s interview with CNN concluded. He’s probably right.


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