The real danger of ISIS is the creation of an ISIS ethnicity…the longer it is left to form, the greater the damage of the social norms it creates
The new levels of barbarism engaged in by ISIS or ISIL must be addressed, for the sake of human decency.
ISIS has evolved into a hybrid entity which has never been fought against before. It is a terrorist group fighting asymmetrically, in an unconventional war of identity and ideology, while simultaneously organising between 90,000- 200,000 fighters, in conventional warfare. They have been able to gain territory spread across three states and more importantly, administer their gains. They are not interested in holding borders or state lines. These are inconsequential to them. All that matters is expansion and spread. The notion of borders is a Westphalian concept.
They are a terrorist group with a conventional army who fight in the style of urban guerrillas. Of note, is their ability to maintain politically functioning towns and cities with each advance made. Their very reach, however belies a weakness. The wider the spread the thinner their coverage along the existing borders. This is simultaneously their greatest strength; their borders are existential in nature. ISIS is no respecter of borders.
Their concept of statehood is not one in the conventional sense. Their vision is to take the world back to the time of the prophet as they perceive it might have been. The territorial gains are almost incidental to the fight. Their version of a Salafist Islamic state cannot be measured by modern Westphalian methods. State lines become irrelevant because ISIS 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; and as such, all 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 more than state based. This explains its ability to attract fighters from over 70 countries. ISIS cannot therefore be considered one ethnic group or be confused with having an Islamic ethnic agenda-yet. They are 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 and to be the trace-able public faces of the acts of barbarism against westerners. The danger is in allowing this ethnicity to be created. Once the ISIS identity becomes established- the practice of ethnocentric brutality as a cultural norm-then the problems the liberal world faces become multiplied. This ethnicity becomes a greater threat as it travels back into our plural societies.
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 ISIS operates on a grand scale to such an extent that 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 also happened to be Muslims. Their Kings and Sultans were enlightened, understood the importance of science and art and education, in order to make their nation strong and durable. ISIS’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 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, ISIS is a greater threat to the world because of the time we live in. The crusades did not have television and the internet. ISIS has the benefit of globalisation 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. It 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 which they have secured their advance.
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 might, 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 be almost equal to the entire British Army regular force of 102,000. 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 in the 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 ISIS’ forerunner, Al Qaeda.