How ISIS is Different

desert, man in desert

(photo: Ilker Ender, creative commons license)

The issue of terrorism and the response of secular societies to it is the sharp edge of international relations and of much current interest. Recently, this website has included my summary of Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” as well as a review of the book The Terrorist’s Dilemma, by Princeton professor Jacob Shapiro about how covert organizations organize themselves.

Putting these two analysis side-by-side, ISIS appears to be both fundamentally and functionally different from the “traditional” terrorist organizations Shapiro describes in a number of key ways, including:

  • traditional terrorist organizations, including al-Qa’ida, have political aims (getting Westerners out of the Arabian peninsula, etc.), whereas ISIS’s aims are religious
  • because of their political goals, traditional terrorist organizations have at least some interest in controlling ultra-violence, as it decreases their political capital, whereas ISIS is focused on establishing absolute, undiluted Sharia and the accompanying violence is part of the package
  • traditional terrorist organizations want to protect their leaders, whereas ISIS appears to court confrontation, or at least is not dissuaded from pursuing its tactics by fear of Western reprisal and
  • traditional terrorist organizations must operate “underground” in their host countries, so their activities—including communication with their agents in the field—always carry a security risk, whereas ISIS is operating in the open in its captured territories, and indeed must hold those territories in order to maintain the caliphate it has declared.

With respect to how an organization can behave when it has territory (a safe haven), ISIS does follow the pattern of traditional terrorist organizations by exploiting that benefit. In addition, traditional terrorist organizations suffer when there is a complete security vacuum and see the need to establish social institutions; not surprisingly, then, ISIS’s plans include a kind of social agenda (albeit along lines endorsed by Mohammed), though whether the organization can pull it off is another question.

These differences call for different approaches, not approaching ISIS like a spinoff al-Qa’ida or the Provisional IRA. This is new.

2 thoughts on “How ISIS is Different

  1. Thanks for clearing this up, I don’t have time to read the Atlantic etc., this makes everything somewhat understandable…Alex Adams

    • Like anything in the Middle East, it’s complicated. We have to avoid the American tendency to look for the quick fix.

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