The Three Forms of ISIS
It is tempting to believe that with a military defeat, ISIS will be no more. This assumption is based on the misconception that ISIS is static and monolithic. In reality, it has three forms — solid (caliphate), liquid (insurgency), and gas (ideology).
In its solid form, it occupies a well-defined space and operates much like any other tyranny, with a conventional standing army. But it also carries out more idiosyncratic activities, such as impregnating sex-slaves en masse in order to bolster its numbers and fulfill a hadithic prophecy of “the slave-girl giving birth to her master”, and setting up schools to indoctrinate entire generations of children into its prophetic narrative, with the intention of making them West-hating mass-murderers. We’ve seen the pictures of ISIS children beheading hostages. If this is what they are capable of now, it is hard to imagine the atrocities they will accept as adults.
Fortunately, the solid form of ISIS is the easiest form to disrupt. It recently lost its main strongholds in Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria). If ISIS were a conventional force, losing its two largest cities would have put it on the verge of defeat, but it isn’t, and it isn’t. This is because, when ISIS’s solid form is pressured, instead of breaking, it melts into its liquid form.
In this form, it operates like a guerrilla force, able to seep between the porous borders of nations and soak into foreign populaces. It has done this to dozens of nations, from Malaysia to Lebanon. Once it has soaked through borders it can pass undetected in host countries for large periods of time, allowing it to perform reconnaissance, create information networks, transmit agitprop, and carry out psychological warfare. The liquid form is physically weaker than its solid form, but far more flexible, and it thus employs terrorism as a leveler, using frequent spontaneous attacks to retain an inordinate presence in the news cycle, creating a demoralizing sense of threat, and keeping its enemies’ heart-rates high in order to wear them down mentally rather than physically.
Furthermore, if the liquid form is not disrupted, then eventually, by using propaganda campaigns to win over local populaces, it can solidify into a physical presence (as we have seen in Libya and to some extent Indonesia).
Meanwhile, if the liquid form is disrupted, it runs the risk of becoming even more dangerous, by evaporating into its purest form: ideology. The more ISIS is oppressed, the more convincing become its prophecies of oppression. When it cannot win physically, it seeks to win ideologically, by playing the victim and the underdog, and thereby establishing common ground with locals who also considers themselves oppressed by the government. In this way, as ISIS loses men, it gains influence. All that is required for this evaporation is a few sympathetic ears.
Unlike the solid and liquid forms of ISIS, its gaseous form operates in the realm of ideas, and is therefore unaffected by geography. The fog of hatred has already wafted all over the world, pooling in places with alienated Muslim populations. The gaseous form may lack the overt impact of the solid and liquid forms, but its ability to permeate an entire population through social media means it can form its own lone wolf operatives from a host country’s civilians, who will then attempt to destroy the host from the inside out.
So, the battleground against ISIS is not Syria, or Iraq, or even the Internet. It is everywhere, because what we are fighting is as ubiquitous as air.