Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A review of Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's "ISIS, the State of Terror"

When ISIS made its first major appearance in media reports there were many people (myself included) who scrambled to find out whatever they could about the organization - after all, the Middle East and North Africa are unfortunately flush with terrorist and militant groups that wax and wane in terms of influence, strength and visibility. It was entirely possible, at first glance, to see them as yet another extremist entity seeking to exploit chaos in Syria and structural weakness in Iraq in order to make a name for itself. Sadly, it turned out that ISIS had some staying power, and one of the most disturbing characteristics of the group, their enthusiastic embrace of inhuman brutality and death, was immediately evident. Then, as ISIS began to attract more recruits, seize and hold Syrian and Iraqi territory execute western journalists and persecute minorities, the media and global leaders really began to pay attention.

For media consumers who go beyond daily newspapers and broadcasts there were  excellent insights to be found in coverage by the New Yorker, The Atlantic and more academically-oriented publications such as Foreign Affairs. Many of these pieces looked at the problem of ISIS from one particular angle or another - violence targeting particular religious or ethnic minorities, for example, or how ISIS fits into the broader context of the Syrian Civil War. Like many others who follow these things, I found this coverage useful, but I was glad to be able to add another important resource to my library after picking up a copy of "ISIS, The State of Terror," by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.  The book, which traces the evolution of ISIS from its roots in Al-Qaeda through to the end of 2014, offers an engaging and thorough look not only at the operations and goals of the group, but presents a detailed assessment of the ideology and philosophy that drive their leaders and followers.

The authors also do not shy away from exploring missteps made by the U.S.. Stern and Berger write that, "The rise of ISIS is, to some extent, the unintended consequence of Western intervention in Iraq. Coalition forces removed a brutal dictator from power, but they also broke the Iraqi state. The West lacked the patience, the will and the wisdom to build a new, inclusive one. What remained were ruins." In the case of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the first leader of Al-Queda in Iraq (which would later morph into ISIS) it appears the U.S. may have also inadvertently contributed to his status (and that of his followers, by extension)  after he was killed in an airstrike. Stern and Berger note in this case, that "... The Defense department released a photo of Zarqawi's corpse, a miscalculation when dealing with a movement that glorifies martyrdom and has no inhibitions about images of death."  Of course the failure to rebuild Iraq cannot be laid entirely at the doorstep of America, no more than the decision to share a photo of the recently deceased Zarqawi was the lynchpin in the rise of ISIS, but the authors are correct to point out that this breakdown of civil society along with massive political corruption, often following sectarian lines within post-war Iraq, helped ISIS emerge as a force in the region.

The religious beliefs which motivate ISIS adherents to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty are also discussed in the book. In fact, Stern and Berger make a compelling case that ISIS,  which ostensibly believes the apocalypse is nigh, has more in common with violent apocalyptic cults than other terrorist organizations. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of which being that in order to effectively counter the enemy, it's important to understand their motivations. In the case of ISIS, these motivations are clearly different from other Islamist organizations in the region, making them appear even more extreme than Al-Queda. The authors note that this difference in motivation puts ISIS in a decidedly more dangerous camp than the normal, garden-variety, terrorists, explaining that, "Violent apocalyptic groups are not inhibited by the possibility of offending their political constituents because they see themselves as participating in the ultimate battle. Apocalyptic groups are the most likely terrorist groups to engage in acts of barbarism, and to attempt to use rudimentary weapons of mass destruction."

Perhaps one of the most worrying aspects of the rise of ISIS is their embrace of, and demonstrated facility with, social media. As the authors chronicle, the group has made extensive use of Twitter to both spread their political-religious ideology, as well as recruit supporters and fighters to bolster their efforts inside the Middle East and beyond. One troubling aspect of the spread of ISIS online is that their success online may have been aided by what the authors describe as an often slow, and at times inconsistent, response, by tech companies, with some realizing the threat posed by terrorist use of their platforms sooner than others.

The nature of the relationships between the tech companies and the government, as well as the direction in which official agencies tried to influence corporate policies was also inconsistent, with Berger and Stern noting that, "In the United States, the government sometimes asked companies to suspend accounts. Some of the time, at least, the social media provider had some discretion in responding to such requests."

This lack of clarity, both in terms of policy and practice, largely reflects the explosive result of violent jihadist embrace of social media at a time when this new technology was itself rapidly evolving in unpredictable ways. The authors acknowledge a need to strike a balance between free speech and limiting the influence of ISIS online, citing the difficulty of trying to define social media as either a kind of broadcast public forum, in the mold of newspapers and television stations, or as a tool for private communication - essentially an extension of email. 

As a kind of hybrid between the two, social media raises questions that society often does not know how to answer, or frequently even how to ask, leading the authors to call for a more focused approach to the questions at the center of the intersection between violent extremism and social media, writing, "We recommend that a conference be dedicated to airing these issues publicly, with participants from both the public and private sector with an eye toward establishing some consistent, reasonable practices and clearly defining areas that require more study ..." The authors should be applauded for calling for this kind of effort, and if such a gathering is convened, I know that I for one would be very interested in seeing the results.

There is clearly no magic bullet when it comes to countering ISIS as either an operational terror group on the ground or in its dissemination of hate-fueled, violent propaganda on the web, but there are things that can be done to limit their efficacy online and check their advances on the battlefield. As the authors suggest, a greater focus on the problem and bringing additional resources to bear will be required, but such an effort is not impossible to mount. In writing this book Berger and Stern offer a clear-eyed, thorough picture of the rise of ISIS, making a compelling case that this group poses a serious threat to the territorial integrity of the modern Middle East, the lives of religious and ethnic minorities, and through its use of social media, to core values of liberal, democratic civil societies around the world.

As an early chronicle of ISIS, I imagine this volume will prove useful to both decision-makers and analysts alike as they struggle with how best to counter ISIS, and for the general reader Berger and Stern's volume provides an important (and alarming) picture of the latest iteration of violent Jihad. ISIS is still evolving - what it is, where it goes, and what it becomes next, remains to be seen - but in authoring this volume Berger and Stern have written at least the prologue of the ISIS story, and perhaps the first chapter as well. In writing this book they have done their part to remind the world about what can happen when extremist ideology, failing states and violence come together, and it’s a reminder for which we should all be grateful.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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