Five Keys to Understanding ISIS

Despite the media floodlight and intense scrutiny by governments around the world, the organization is still poorly understood.
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Despite the media floodlight and intense scrutiny by governments around the world, the organization is still poorly understood.
(Photo: Public Domain)

(Photo: Public Domain)

Editor's Note: This post first appeared on our site on December 29, 2014, with the headline "Know Thy Enemy: How to Understand the Islamic State."

One of the many surprising things about the dramatic rise of the Islamic State, the terrorist organization formerly known as ISIS, is how completely it took the world by surprise. After a decade of watching Islamist insurgencies run amok in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, you would think we’d have had some idea of what was brewing. And yet even the president admits that the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment “underestimated” the threat posed by the group until it started to seize large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Even today, despite the media floodlight and intense scrutiny by governments around the world, the organization is still poorly understood, and efforts to combat it have met with mixed results. The group has shocked the world with its proclivity for beheadings, massacres, forced marriages, and rape. And it has confounded the world by, at the same time, providing the communities it governs with a variety of public goods and services, including water, electricity, fuel, consumer-protection bureaus, courts, and welfare benefits for widows and the poor.

The Islamic State does, to an extent, represent a new kind of animal. But it also shares attributes with many organizations that have preceded it. In fact, there’s a body of empirical research on terror groups, insurgencies, and civil wars that can help us understand what the world is up against in the Islamic State, and the challenges the international community will likely face in its effort to “degrade and destroy” the organization.

EVIL DOESN'T MEAN CRAZY

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The Islamic State is renowned for its ruthlessness, so much so that Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Al Qaeda Central and a chief architect of 9/11, decided to cut ties with I.S. because he thought its tactics too brutal. But that doesn’t mean the group is driven purely by nihilistic sadism. Committing reprehensible acts of violence can be instrumentally rational for terrorist groups, meaning it can sometimes represent the best means for achieving a group’s ends. According to the authors of a study published in International Security, “terrorists are too weak to impose their will directly by force of arms,” and so they rely on “costly signaling,” or acts which publicly demonstrate “how far they are willing to go to obtain their desired results.” Costly signaling can take many forms, but I.S. is best known for intimidation, which is used to “convince the population that the terrorists are strong enough to punish disobedience and that the government is too weak to stop them, so that people behave as terrorists wish.”

—“The Strategies of Terrorism,” Barbara Walter, Andrew H. Kydd, International Security, Vol. 31, No. 1, Summer 2006

INDEPENDENT FUNDING MAKES I.S. ESPECIALLY CRUEL TO THE LOCALS

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United States senators Marco Rubio and Robert Casey recently deemed I.S. the “best-funded terrorist organization in history.” The organization mainly funds itself by selling $1 million to $3 million of black-market oil to foreign buyers every day. Unfortunately, a study published in the June issue of International Organization found that access to funding from sources beyond the civilians in the areas the group controls “greatly reduces incentives to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of civilians because it diminishes the need to collect resources from the population.” This explains why the Islamic State can get away with using such brutal methods. If it relied more heavily on civilians for funding, it would need to do more to win their consent. One silver lining: This also means that support for I.S. among Iraqi Sunnis probably runs less strong than meets the eye.

—“External Rebel Sponsorship and Civilian Abuse: A Principal-Agent Analysis of Wartime Atrocities,” David Siroky, et al., International Organization, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer 2014

INTERVENTION AGAINST I.S. COULD MAKE THE GROUP EVEN CRUELER TO THE LOCALS, AT LEAST IN THE SHORT TERM

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While a stepped-up offensive against I.S. may reduce violence in the long term, in the short term it could push the group toward committing more brutal acts to restore its fearful reputation, and, in turn, its ability to extract resources from occupied communities. A study published in the September issue of International Organization that examined a cross-section of post-Cold War African insurgencies found that in the period immediately following substantial battlefield losses, “acute resource demands” provide an incentive for attacks on civilians. When the tides of battle turn and insurgents lose access to their supply of food or shelter, they turn on civilians, who may not be willing to give up these resources without violent coercion or the threat of violent coercion.

—“From Loss to Looting? Battlefield Costs and Rebel Incentives for Violence,” Reed M. Wood, International Organization, Vol. 68, No. 4, September 2014

INTERVENTION COULD JUST PROLONG THE CONFLICT IN SYRIA AND IRAQ

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Supporters of intervention against the Islamic State argue that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians, and that intervention is necessary to prevent I.S.-controlled areas from becoming terrorist safe havens. However, a study from 2002 that examined 150 conflicts between 1945 and 1999 found that third-party interventions, especially those that don’t favor one opponent over the other, tend to prolong conflicts, which could undermine both of these goals. Then again, a longer conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing: It is possible for more people to die in a shorter, more intense conflict.

—“Third Party Interventions and the Duration of Intrastate Conflicts,” Patrick Regan, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 46, No. 1, February 2002

FORGET ABOUT DEMOCRATIC REFORMS IN BAGHDAD AT THIS POINT

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Presumably, the final goal of the campaign against I.S. is a stable, democratic Iraq and a (somewhat) stable Syria. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with America’s 21st-century wars, a study by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George Downs of New York University that analyzed civil wars between 1946 and 2001 found that third-party military intervention “does little to promote democracy and often leads to its erosion and the substitution of largely symbolic reforms.”

—“Intervention and Democracy,” Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, George Downs, International Organization, Vol. 60, No. 3, Summer 2006

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