Evaluating the ISIS threat: Deadly or just photogenic?

As President Obama asks Congress to pass a measure clarifying and making official the United States mission in the Middle East against the Islamic State, it’s worth taking a step back to consider just who and what U.S. forces are up against — and if there’s any meaningful way to make a difference.

News media run video and photos of beheadings, burning, and other killing, and the public is appalled. The most recent atrocity is the reported beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had gone to work as laborers in Libya, drawing a swift response from Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is urging the United Nations to intervene in Libya, and Egypt started bombing what it called offshoots of ISIS training centers within Libya. The burning of a Jordanian pilot while still alive enraged that country, causing Jordan’s King Abdullah II to launch airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria.

So what exactly is the Islamic State, or ISIS (for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), or ISIL (for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), or DAESH or DA’ISH (an acronym of the group in Arabic, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham)? We’ll stick to ISIS or Islamic State for simplicity.

A recent story from The Atlantic with the headline “What ISIS really wants” paints a detailed and often frightening picture of the Islamic State, its aims, its view of itself as a caliphate, and its ultimate goal of the apocalypse. The lengthy piece describes an ultra-conservative view of Islam that developed out of Salafism, the jihadist wing of a branch of Sunnism. ISIS seems willing to incorporate medieval punishments for apostates (killing Muslims who have rejected Islam, at least according to ISIS), thieves (cutting off hands), and other such outcomes, including poisoning wells and crops.

Author Graeme Wood, an Atlantic contributing editor and a lecturer in political science at Yale University, says ISIS subscribes to “the Prophetic methodology,” meaning it follows the prophecies and examples of Muhammad to the letter. In a true caliphate, there are no borders, and there are no elections. In its approach to constant war, ISIS expects to fight “the army of Rome” at Dabiq, Syria, which it conveniently captured, and then expects the apocalypse to ensue. U.S. forces are supposed to be a good substitute for the army of Rome.

I couldn’t begin to sum up the entire article, which says ISIS rejects modernity. But it loves Twitter and YouTube — after all, where would it be without all those videos? How would it recruit? The story has a subhead that promises to tell us how to stop ISIS, although the prescription is murky at best. Wood’s conclusion is that what we’ve done so far is wrong, both in describing the phenomenon and in fighting it.

Another, more measured piece by Middle East expert Juan Cole, the respected Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, gives a less-bleak response, suggesting that it’s too easy to overstate ISIS’ power and influence. The title of that online post is “Today’s Top Myths About Daesh/ISIL.” Although he doesn’t downplay the atrocities, he describes many of the assertions about ISIS from security analysts and Western journalists as being “exaggerated or just incorrect.”

Sure, ISIS holds land described as being the size of the UK. But much of that land is uninhabited desert. Cole describes ISIS’ presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan as more of a brand than a presence. He also rejects descriptions of ISIS adherents as being “pious,” saying they’re more likely to be gang members and criminals who espouse pious slogans. The Danish shooter who targeted cartoonist Lars Vilks in Copenhagen was recently released from prison. Some of the “lone wolf” attacks in Australia and Canada were committed by men with criminal records and who were supposedly influenced by ISIS ideology. To call them ISIS fighters is a stretch.

As far as ISIS being a part of mainstream Islam, Cole also is skeptical. “We all know that Kentucky snake handlers are a Christian cult and that snake handling isn’t typical of the Christian tradition,” Cole writes. “Why pretend that we can’t judge when modern Muslim movements depart so far from the modern mainstream as to be a cult?”

The two authors’ estimates of ISIS’ size is vastly different, too. Wood uses the figure of 8 million, which counts the number of people living in the area controlled by ISIS. That doesn’t mean they’re ISIS adherents. Cole says the number of people living in the same area is more like 3 million to 4 million, and that “Plans are being made to kick ISIS right back out of Mosul.”

So Obama has submitted an AUMF request to Congress, government-speak for asking for the “authorization for the use of military force.” All action up to this point as been based on the 2001 AUMF Congress passed after the Sept. 11 attacks. The reactions to Obama’s proposal have been mostly predictable, and along party lines, for different reasons. Democrats don’t like it because the plan gives too much discretion for the use of ground troops, which Obama says he doesn’t want to use, including a provision forbidding the use of “enduring ground operations,” whatever that is. Republicans say the proposal is too restrictive — they don’t like the proposed three-year limitation. I guess they don’t want to limit a future president, hoping that it will be a Republican.

Republicans apparently want to go whole hog. Conservative activist Dr. Ben Carson, who claims to be considering a run for the 2016 GOP nomination for president, wants a guarantee that U.S. troops will never be prosecuted for war crimes, just for doing something that he called “politically incorrect.” So I guess torturing Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison, including stripping them naked and walking them around wearing dog collars, was OK with Dr. Carson? After all, many in ISIS say the U.S. crimes against Iraqis committed at Abu Ghraib, for which 11 U.S. soldiers were convicted, were a main motivation in the growth of ISIS. There wouldn’t be an ISIS if there hadn’t been an Iraq War.

Cole’s piece takes the approach to ground troops apart. “Only US ground troops can defeat Daesh and the USA must commit to a third Iraq War,” he offers as another myth. “The US had 150,000 troops or so in Iraq for 8 1/2 years! But they left the country a mess. Why in the world would anybody assume that another round of US military occupation of Iraq would work, given the disaster that was the last one?”

At least one lawmaker apparently is advocating the use of nuclear weapons against ISIS. An Arkansas state senator, Republican Jason Rapert, posted on Facebook that it was “time to annihilate the strongholds” of ISIS. “I imagine a nicely placed intercontinental nuclear weapon would shut them up for awhile.” Needless to say, he received deserved backlash for these comments.

Public beheadings are a horrible thing to behold. But the key Arab ally of the U.S. in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, beheaded 113 people in the two years since ISIS first captured U.S. journalist James Foley in 2012. That’s way more than ISIS — the country just doesn’t show it on YouTube. And just for the record, the most recent executions in the U.S. haven’t gone so well, either. Those witnessing the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in May 2014 reported that he cried out in pain and grimaced, and that his body buckled repeatedly. Prison officials finally closed the blinds, and Lockett died of a heart attack later that evening after the assault on his system. The practice of lethal injection is so flawed that the U.S. Supreme Court has temporarily stayed any more executions in the state.

According to opinion polls, Americans don’t like what Obama has done so far against ISIS. But they also want to give him what he wants to fight the group of insurgent thugs. A CNN/ORC International poll says 57 percent disapprove of Obama’s actions against ISIS, and 78 percent want Congress to give him authority to fight ISIS. But to do what, exactly? Overreaction to frightening videos can make people want to thump their chests, but that doesn’t change anything in the long run.

“Politicians should just stop promising to extirpate the group,” Cole writes. “Brands can’t be destroyed, and Daesh is just a brand for the most part.”

Wood’s Atlantic piece takes a more elongated and nuanced view. “Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.”

We’re left basically where we were on ISIS. Air strikes, ground troops, Arab allies, European allies, whatever. There are no good options.

One Comment on “Evaluating the ISIS threat: Deadly or just photogenic?

  1. I really liked this piece, Sher. The hysteria surrounding these guys is clouding our judgment and forcing us to take them more seriously than we should.

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