ISIL has grabbed the world’s attention with new levels of barbarism revealed in the scripted murder of the man known throughout the world as “the pilot”. Jordanian Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh has become a symbol for moderate Muslims, westerners and all who agree that ISIL must be dealt with for the sake of human decency.
ISIL has evolved into a hybrid entity which cannot be defined by our conventional understanding of terrorism and conflict. ISIL literally presents an enemy which has never been fought against before. It is an entity that is historically relevant because nothing in its likeness has ever existed. It is a terrorist group that is also a conventional army which fights in the style of urban guerrillas. Its’ asymmetrical expertise is matched by its expertise in fielding a conventional standing army of 200,000 trained militants. Despite their lack of statehood they now control expansive swathes of territory. This hybrid nature is matched by a post conflict mastery of the conquered populations under their control. Of note is the ability to quickly and brutally bring order and stability and politically functionality to the towns and cities captured.
Their ambitious cross border reach however, is also their weakness. The wider the spread of conquered territory, the thinner their military coverage along the edge of their control. For ISIL however, borders are existential in nature. The territorial gains are almost incidental.
Their concept of statehood does not conform to conventional understanding of a modern state. Their version of a Salafist Islamic state cannot be measured by modern Westphalian methods. Their vision is to take the world back to the time of the prophet, as they perceive it might have been. State lines become irrelevant because ISIL fighters are fighting for the establishment of a vision: a caliphate. An Islamic nation. This nation does not have a common social culture, born from practice and common agreement, but instead, has a vision of what society should be, which does not yet exist. ISIL Jihadis are attracted to the promise of what is to come, rather than the reality of a shared common culture, beyond this single idea, of a world which has never existed, and which does not, now exist.
Establishing this identity, the belief in a vision, at all costs, is all that matters. Its appeal is therefore more than state based. This explains its ability to attract thousands of foreign fighters. ISIL therefore, cannot be considered one ethnic group or be confused with having an Islamic ethnic agenda. It is a disparate group made up of fighters from over 70 nations who share a vision, not a culture. Reportedly, this vision does not perceive all fighters as equal. Western foreign fighters are apparently not held in the same regard and are used for suicide missions. It is clear that ISIS does not represent Islam.
There does not seem to be a parallel on this scale at any time in Islamic history where their version of Salafist thought had such access to power, arms and military expertise combined. There has always been friction and tension between different factions, ideologies and schools of thought but ISIL operates on a grand scale and friction and tensions give way to outright brutality and extermination.
What is unprecedented is the scale of access, to military expertise and resources available to their version of Salafism. The Ottoman Empire was a traditional ethnic based empire driven by traditional concepts of territory, borders, expansion and conquest for ethnic and state prestige. They just happened to be Muslims. Their Kings and Sultans were enlightened, understood the importance of science, art and education, in order to make their nation strong and durable. ISIL’s version of Salafism is driven by an idea of bringing back to earth the perfect society they perceive existed during the time of the Prophet and they see this as a holy duty. The closest comparison is to refer to the religious wars during the crusades, where ethnicity also did not matter. People were driven to great acts of cruelty, in the name of religion, and were justified in the act of so doing, as an end in itself. However, ISIL is a greater threat to the world because of the time we live in.
The crusades did not have television and the internet. ISIL has the benefit of globalisation and the you tube generation to spread its vision. Its audience is global and its reach does not respect state borders. The crusades relied on horseback to spread the word and recruit fighters. The crusades did not have the benefit of the weapons and arsenal of the Iraqi army at its disposal. It also did not have in excess of $2bn in assets.
ISIL is arguably the wealthiest militant group in existence. This wealth is supplemented by the operations of the oil and gas infrastructure it has captured and its ability to tax the 8million people now living under its stewardship. Their multi-dimensional control of their captured territories goes beyond military, social and political arenas but enters the economic sphere, as they also control the banking infra-structure spread across three Westphalian state borders of Iraq, Libya and Syria.
In every respect ISIS is unconventional and defies definition. It cannot be fought as an insurgency because it does not exist in a single state. It cannot be fought as a terrorist group because its interest is beyond political objectives. It cannot be fought as a conventional army because it specialises in small cell, asymmetric warfare. It cannot be fought as a state, because it has no borders that matter to it. It cannot be fought as urban guerrillas because it has the power, arsenal and expertise of military academy trained, army Colonels and a standing force reportedly in excess of 200,000. Even if the figure were closer to 90,000 fighters that would equal the entire British Army’s regular force. State on state war is not possible. If war is declared on this non-state state, the battle lines would be drawn within our own state borders as a result of the interconnected and interdependent, globalised world we live in.
The answer lies arguably with the 8million people under ISIS rule. Destabilisation from within-ironically, the very tactic being employed against the west by ISIL’s forerunner, Al Qaeda.