ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)

Introduction: The Significance of ISIS

The Islamic State or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) differs in many ways from its portrayal on talk radio and on the cable news channels. The soaring rhetoric that depicts it as a threat to Western civilization and causes audiences to believe that it is the manifestation of the evil spoken of in religious apocalyptic literature is inaccurate. In many ways, ISIS is at the current end of a long arc of brigands, thieves, robbers, drug cartels, and organized criminals who have sought to weaken and even overthrow civilization. It is the current representation of the apex organization of a robber culture. Some of the talk show participants refer to ISIS as a nonstate actor. It is not a nonstate actor—meaning it operates outside the constraints and statutes of a state—nor is it a substate actor—meaning it operates within a state, but still outside state control and authority—but it is a poststate actor—meaning an organization seeking to be a state using a nontraditional, non-Western model. Currently, it is the only poststate actor in conflict with the global community. What this means is that as a robber culture and a poststate actor ISIS does not need the trappings of civilization—roads, oil refineries, schools, cell phone networks, etc. It will use these things as best it can so long as it has them, but unlike civilization, it does not need them. The significance in this statement is that civilization does need these things. Civilization does not exist without education, transportation and communication, energy, and law. This is offered to explain why this war matters, or why we should care how this war is fought. If in the process of fighting this war civilized society destroys all of the necessary elements of civilization, then a desert will be created wherein the robber culture can function, but civilization cannot.

ISIS is not the worst incarnation of robber culture that has ever existed, though it is often portrayed as such. Keeping it in perspective is important. It is a serious threat to the survival of countries friendly to the United States within the Middle East, and as such it demands serious consideration and attention. This, however, should not be taken out of context.

The Islamic State is not currently a threat to all of Western civilization. However, it is important to note the speed at which the situation with ISIS has evolved. ISIS was nothing more than one of many nonstate actors conducting operations in Syria in 2013. Maybe it was the most powerful or the largest, but it was not significant enough to be noticed by the Western media. Most of the events people think of in association with ISIS happened since January 2014. In that month, it captured the city of Raqqa in Syria and conducted a parade in Fallujah. These events propelled the group into the public notice. In less than six months, it appeared on the brink of assaulting the city of Baghdad. This, in turn, drew Iran into the conflict in a direct manner.

More than a year later ISIS inspired or directed attacks against a Russian airliner flying from Sharm al-Sheikh resort in the Sinai and attacks on multiple sites in Paris, France. These events drew an already present Russia and a less involved France into direct and increasing intensity of airstrikes against ISIS bases, economic infrastructure, and civilian governance. What will happen in a year or more from the publication of this book?

No one knows. That is important to understand as one reads this book. No one in the West really understands this group. The reasons for this are plentiful. For the most part, ISIS represents a way of thinking that is outside the normal sphere of thought of most Western analysts. Another reason is that the West does not have accurate information regarding what it really is, what it really thinks, and what it really intends. So far it has done what it said it wanted to do so its words as we have them can serve as some guide to what it will do. Even with this information, it is crucial to recognize that its words must be analyzed through the proper lens and perspective. Most of the commentators in writing and speaking are not providing that perspective. Typically ISIS is analyzed as if it were a Western military with Western military objectives and conceptions of combat operations. This is not the same as understanding it as it sees the world and as it interprets events.

This book tries to explain ISIS, as much as possible, as it sees the world and as it interprets events. While it is impossible to fully grasp the world from its perspective, it is useful to understand the influences, events, and narratives that shape that perspective. Understanding that going in may provide a better context for obtaining a fuller picture.

ISIS comes to the world post-September 11, 2001. In this sense, there are things that have been done and seen that cannot be undone or unseen. The idea of terrorist attacks having global reach and significance is now tried and true. ISIS is also functioning in a world that has been exhausted and disillusioned by seeming failures in Iraq (2003–2011) and Afghanistan (2001–present). ISIS tries to draw on the similarities between the exhaustion of modern powers and the exhaustion of two ancient empires in the 600s CE—Persia and Rome—that were conquered by the first Islamic armies to attack out of the Arabian Peninsula. This is part of how it sees itself and how it wants other Muslims to see its organization. As with the initial Islamic conquests, the fighting today is done at just the right time for a miracle to happen. ISIS grew and developed primarily in Iraq and then later in Syria, in direct conflict with the United States and then later the governments of Iraq and Syria. It did not appear out of nowhere, but it did emerge in some force on an unsuspecting world.

It can claim something of miraculous success as well. In this world of success breeding success and the ability to build off a global narrative of Western weakness and Islamic humiliation at the hands of the West, ISIS has grown into a regional player with global reach. That reach may be through inspiration alone, but regardless of how it comes people are attacking in the name of the Islamic State far outside the direct physical influence of that same state. In this world of opportunity and tired opponents, it is surviving. Whether this is a small and limited phenomenon that will flash in its brilliant success and then fade away as rapidly or whether ISIS will expand to its envisioned near global caliphate is yet to be seen. ISIS itself uses the words remain and expand to inspire and focus followers. It is trying to communicate that it can in fact remain in the world arena and expand to accomplish all that God and His prophet has said is possible. Most (non-ISIS) observers predict that ISIS has only achieved what it has because of the incompetence and disinterest of its primary opponents, and once either the competence or interest increases, ISIS will be swept away. The pages, chapters, and entries that follow will better inform readers to be able to make intelligent contributions to the debates surrounding this iconoclastic organization.