The Rise of the Islamic State: Four Key Factors for its Unexpected Success – part three

by Andrin Hauri. He graduated from the University of Lausanne with a Master’s Degree in Political Science and holds a Diploma of Advanced Studies in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the University of Basel.

In its self-assigned mission to restore the long-lost Islamic empire, the Islamic State (IS) has subscribed to a puritanical ideology which is geared towards early Islam. These were tempestuous and violent times, when the Prophet Muhammad waged war on the Arab Peninsula in order to spread his beliefs. As many members of IS see themselves as authentic throwbacks to this era, the group has begun to piously reproduce the social codes and laws of war of this time in today’s context. IS enforces its norms on anybody under its control, while branding those who resist, or follow a different persuasion as apostates worth killing. Common sense dictates that much of what IS does will cause it to lose public sympathy, both among its subjects in the region and supporters around the globe. However, this is not the case. IS knows exactly how its actions affect its audience. In the third part of this series of articles, the author argues that the deployment of various forms of terror as strategic tools is the third key factor for the group’s success.

The BBC published this photo with the caption, "Islamic State (IS) has published images of what appears to be the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin at the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria."

The BBC published this photo with the caption, “Islamic State (IS) has published images of what appears to be the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin at the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria.”

Broadly speaking, one can identify three forms of terror being applied by IS: Firstly, the destruction of historic sites which the group considers un-Islamic, including the looting and selling of artefacts on the black market. Secondly, extreme forms of violence such as public beheadings and burnings, and, thirdly, the sexual enslavement of girls and women viewed as infidels (see also Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape“, The New York Times, 13.08.2015 and Kaelyn Forde, “How One Woman Exposed The Way ISIS Uses Rape As a Weapon“, Refinery29, 13.08.2015).

The Destruction of Historic Sites
The trail of destruction of historical and cultural sites which IS has left behind is long and painful to read: the roman city of Palmyra, the former Assyrian capitals Nineveh, Nimrud, and Khorsabad, as well as many Shia religious sites, to mention but a few (Andrew Curry, “Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS has Damaged and Destroyed“, National Geographic, 01.09.2015). After conquering Mosul in summer 2014, the group is reported to have plundered the city’s historic museum and burned over 100,000 books and manuscripts from the central library (Frederick Deknatel, “UN Targets Looting as Islamic State Smashes and Sells Antiquities“, World Politics Review, 05.03.2015). Officially, IS legitimises the destruction of historic objects and structures by calling them heretical to its ideology.

As appalling as these actions look from the outside, besides catering to the abstract religious beliefs of the group they also serve some very worldly purposes. In politics, archaeological evidence is often used as a foundation for power by providing historic support for the claims of one or the other side. IS turns this approach around by attempting to destroy the “before” and “after” in history, leaving only the group and its beliefs as a historical reference point. Through the destruction of these historic records, IS robs the local population of their collective memory beyond the group and, in turn, of parts of their pre-IS identity. However, IS primarily destroys unmarketable antiquities and sells the portable rest. However, these objects can only be officially bought and sold if their origin from illegal excavations can be credibly denied. In this context, the blowing up of historic sites destroys the evidence, serving to conceal the theft and so making the sale of these unique and priceless objects on the international antiquity market possible. Another welcome effect of destroying irreplaceable cultural treasures is the broad media coverage IS receives as a result. By capturing global attention, the group easily multiplies the outreach of its propaganda machine. IS is accounting for this factor by dragging out the destruction of archaeological sites for as long as possible. In the early days of its destructive fury, the terror group blew up the ruins of the historic city of Nimrud in one day, giving it around 20 seconds of footage (Robert Fisk, “ISIS profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relicts to dealers – and the blowing up the building they come from to conceal the evidence of looting“, The Independent, 03.09.2015). Since then, IS has learned from this mistake. The historic site of Palmyra, on the other hand, was blown up one monument at a time, with long periods in between, in order to maximise global media coverage. This indicates that the destruction of heretical symbols out of religious sensibilities, as argued by the terror group, actually takes a backseat to the financial and propaganda value of looting and blowing these sites up.

An image from a video reportedly released by IS in February 2015 showing a statue of an Assyrian deity being damaged in northern Iraq.

An image from a video reportedly released by IS in February 2015 showing a statue of an Assyrian deity being damaged in northern Iraq.

Extreme Forms of Violence
Besides the destruction of irreplaceable cultural treasures, IS has also gained notoriety through the excessive use of extreme forms of violence against perceived external and internal enemies. Be it the beheading of hostages, the incineration, drowning, and mass shooting of prisoners of war, or the rape of minors, the cruelty of IS seems to know no bounds. On the one hand, external spectators are provided with carefully choreographed videos of violence against hostages and prisoners of war. The local population, on the other hand, reports grotesque public punishments of alleged criminals and anyone labelled an apostate. Consumption of alcohol is punished with 80 lashes, thieves lose a hand, highway bandits are crucified, and blasphemers receive the death penalty (Aymenn Al-Tamimi, “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 9, Issue 4, August 2015, p. 123). Some of these methods of criminal punishment under Sharia law are extracted from the Quran and Hadith and are therefore found in the penal code of other Muslim countries too, even if only rarely carried out. IS, however, seems particularly eager to develop new and more horrific punishments to murder alleged enemies, criminals, and apostates, which go far beyond the prescribed rules in Islamic law. Homosexuals, for example, are of late pushed off cliffs or high buildings (Arwa Damon and Zeynep Bilginsoy, “Amid brazen, deadly attacks, gay Syrians tell of fear of ISIS persecution“, CNN, 06.03.2015). In the face of such atrocities, it is difficult to see past the human tragedies unfolding and to not simply dismiss IS’ actions as the irrational and insane acts of psychopathic killers. However, this terror does indeed serve a number of rational purposes for the group.

The most obvious reason for using terror on the battlefield, of course, is to frighten the enemy into flight or submission. Given its impressive track record, history confirms the effectiveness of such an approach. In fact, human history is littered with rulers far more brutal than the leaders of IS. The Mongolian hordes, for example, acquired a reputation for terror in the 13th century when they conquered an empire spanning from Asia to Europe. All inhabitants of cities which tried to resist Mongolian ambitions were put to the sword after their defeat in order to discourage the resistance of other cities (William McCants, “How ISIL Out-Terrorized Bin Laden“, POLITICO Magazine, 19.08.2015). IS has internalised these historic lessons and has been applying them with great success against its much stronger and more capable foes. The use of terror on the battlefield created many situations in 2014/15 in which Iraqi security forces were up against an enemy smaller in number and less well equipped, but fled the field rather than risk death or, even worse, imprisonment, torture, and brutal execution. The quantity of undamaged US military hardware left behind by fleeing Iraqi troops and now in the possession of IS also clearly bears witness to this fact. IS is well aware of the strategic value of its fearsome reputation. Its fighters even consider it a sacred obligation to terrorise their enemies, striking fear deep into their hearts in order to hasten victory and bring the conflict to a close as quickly as possible (Graeme Wood, “What ISIS really wants“, The Atlantic, March 2015). From their point of view, this extreme violence thus has a “humanitarian” component to it, as it helps to reduce the casualties on both sides in battle. However, against troops directly defending their families or tribal areas, this strategy is less effective or can even harden the soldiers resolve, as seen in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Illustration: Rob Dobi.

Illustration: Rob Dobi.

Another rationale behind IS’ use of extreme brutality is to force obedience among the population. People living in liberal Western democracies have bought into the credo that “hearts and minds” have to be won in order to establish a new state. They seem to have forgotten how many revolutionary states in the past have been established through brutality, that “cutting out the hearts and minds of a population can subdue them faster than trying to win them over” (McCants, “How ISIL Out-Terrorized Bin Laden“). During the French revolution, guillotines were used to decapitate an ever-growing number of perceived enemies of the revolution and, by extension, forced obedience among the rest of the population. The atrocities of the Bolshevik as well as the communist revolution in China followed a similar pattern (Tim Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as Tool“, The New York Times, 21.07.2015). Such an approach may not be the most sustainable course of action, but history has shown again and again that extreme brutality is a very effective means of carving out a new state. And it seems to work for IS as well, as these actions have so far effectively silenced any dissent.

Besides forcing the population into line, the extreme brutality of IS also brings security and order by deterring criminal activities. After years of war and chaos, this has led to a limited sense of order in the territories under IS control. Reportedly, streets are the safest they have been for a very long time in terms of criminality, and corruption among officials has virtually disappeared. For this, IS is respected by many locals, just as the Taliban were in Afghanistan in the 1990s. If people do not show any signs of disobedience, and follow the imposed morality rules, they are largely left alone. In this context, the fact that the extreme violence perpetrated by IS is regarded in a different light among locals than in the West, for example, must be taken into account. After years of sectarian conflict, war, and anarchy, many Iraqis have become largely desensitised to violence. Before that, they had suffered under the sanction regime imposed by the West in the 1990s and experienced the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s police state, as well as the Iran-Iraq war in which several hundred thousand died on both sides (no reliable figures exist for the toll of the Iran-Iraq War; see Bethany Lacina and Gabriel Uriarte, “The PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset, 1946-2008, Version 3.0 Documentation of Coding Decisions“, Centre for the Study of Civil War and International Peace Research Institute, September 2009, p. 314ff). Given this history, it is perhaps understandable that these people are somewhat inured to IS’ brutality seeing as violence has formed such an integral part of their daily lives for so long (Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as Tool“).

Finally, the brutality is also meant to shock the West, and thereby provoke a major military reaction. According to the messianic ideology of the terror group, the countdown to the apocalypse will be initiated by the defeat of “the armies of Rome” at Dabiq, in northern Syria, at the hands of the fighters of the caliph (Wood, “What ISIS really wants“). From this point of view, inciting a wider war with Western ground troops is essential. IS wants this escalation of the war — a war it is convinced it will win.

Displaced Yazidis fleeing from ISIS.

Displaced Yazidis fleeing from ISIS.

Sex Slavery
In addition to the destruction of historic sites and extreme forms of violence, IS has introduced a third form of terror within the caliphate: sex slavery. Young girls and women from the communities of religious minorities considered infidels, such as Yazidis, who are Zoroastrians, are enslaved and sold in IS’ sex trade. Around this trade of women and girls, a sophisticated infrastructure has sprung up in the caliphate that includes warehouses with viewing rooms in which to keep and market the victims, as well as a dedicated fleet of vehicles to transport them around. In addition, IS has created a detailed bureaucracy to officiate and regulate sex slavery. The purchase of a slave is registered in a legally attested sales contract, which must then be drafted anew should the victim be resold. Slaves can also be set free by their owner through an official Certificate of Emancipation, for which he will receive a heavenly reward. The terror group justifies this archaic practice of sex slavery by labelling female “nonbelievers” as war plunder, to be sold as concubines (Prem Mahadevan, “Resurgent Radicalism“, Strategic Trends, Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich, 2015, p. 45-62). According to its ideological teachings, raping girls and women from other religions is seen as a sacred act, which is spiritually virtuous and draws the perpetrator closer to God (Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape“). By interpreting religious ideas to its advantage, IS embeds the practice into its religious superstructure and this in turn allows it to justify its actions while reaping the benefits.

However, it can be argued that ancient Islamic traditions fail to fully explain this atrocious practice. Other, similar fundamentalist jihadist groups like al-Qaeda or the Taliban have not publicly advocated the reintroduction of sex slavery. Instead, experts interpret this IS policy as an integral part of the terror group’s war against Western modernity, as a riposte to enlightened Western ideas about women’s emancipation and sexuality. The enemy is not the victim or her body, but fundamental Western values and the role of girls and women in today’s modern society. The practice of slavery should be understood as part of the wider, abstract struggle of IS against the West’s prerogative of interpretation of modernity and what value women should have in the world today. By assigning them the narrow roles of either mother or concubine, IS effectively nullifies women’s emancipation and openly attacks Western ideals. Thus, the terror group can be certain of provoking a continuous outcry through media coverage of this issue, while also giving it the opportunity to broadcast their conservative counter-model of modernity to a much larger audience (David Frankfurter, “The true motives behind Islamic State’s use of sexual slavery“, Reuters, 08.09.2015). What would otherwise be a big taboo under the traditional sexual norms of Muslim men, extra-marital sex with a woman purchased to abuse, becomes a religious act. In fact, this social taboo is so paramount that IS had to repeatedly use propaganda articles to justify the policy to its Muslim audience following its introduction as even its core constituency was initially startled (Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape“). However, since then, sex slavery has become an established recruitment tool used to bait young, religious Muslim men, often from deeply conservative communities, who are banned from engaging in pre- and extra-marital sex. The prospect of casual sex sanctioned by religion, and even considered spiritually virtuous, can be a strong pull factor for young men who are otherwise forbidden from even dating the opposite sex.

In conclusion, IS uses terror successfully as tool to achieve its strategic goals, making it a decisive factor for its success. Three different kinds of terror can be identified, each providing IS with crucial benefits. Firstly, the destruction of historic sites backs up the terror group’s political claims and helps to finance its activities. Secondly, the use of extreme violence demoralises the enemy, forces obedience among the local population, brings relative security to the caliphate, and is being used to bait the West into the desired military intervention with ground troops. Thirdly, the introduction of sex slavery generates funding, exploits those who do not share faith, and serves as a recruiting tool to lure male Muslims from traditional societies to the caliphate. All three forms of terror ensure continued media coverage for IS around the globe, thus increasing its propaganda outreach.

In the last part of this series of articles, the author argues that the extensive and professional use of propaganda is the fourth key factor for IS’ success.

This entry was posted in English, Iraq, Security Policy, Syria, Terrorism.

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