Once upon a time you needed to be Al Qaeda to get the US government’s attention. Today it is ISIS that has the brand recognition that Jihadists crave. If you are an unemployed teenager living in squalor, and perhaps influenced by an Islamist ideology in your neighborhood, the one thing you really want is to make sure that you are not forgotten about. ISIS is the brand name that pays those bills.
For a long time the CIA tried to ignore ISIS, as did other intelligence agencies, considering them to be little more than a half-baked militia in Syria. It wasn’t until ISIS began executing western hostages and flaunting their war crimes that the western world really began to take notice. ISIS produced slick propaganda worthy of a Madison Avenue advertising campaign and western media outlets gleefully propagated their message, acting as a force multiplier for terrorists. News sites like the Daily Mail never saw a ISIS war crime that they were not in love with or that they declined to do a full photo spread on.
ISIS is now a name brand that smaller rebel groups, secessionist movements, terrorists, and criminal gangs aspire to in order to catch the attention of governments worldwide. In Afghanistan, some Taliban elements have re-branded themselves as ISIS as a way to bait American forces in to fight them. It works. An emphasis has been placed on ISIS-K in Afghanistan, and Rangers have been deployed on movement to contact operations to root them out.
In the Philippines the Maute group has pledged allegiance to ISIS and in recent history has attempted to take over several villages and now the city of Marawi and raise the ISIS flag over it. Over the last year, Philippine Navy SEALs and Light Reaction Regiment operators have put a halt to such endeavors. In interviews that SOFREP conducted with over a dozen current and former Special Operations officers the question came up as to who is really ISIS?
Philippine counter-insurgency tactics and strategies have succeeded in separating Islamist groups like Abu Sayyaf from overseas funding from Saudi Arabian terrorist finance networks. Because of this, these criminal gangs are now hurting for income and have turned to kidnapping for ransom. Moreover, random groups of bandits and thugs suddenly morph into hardcore Islamist fighters in the media the moment they take hostages. It is an explicable phenomena. “We observe that these insurgents are no longer motivated by their ideology but that this is something they do as their livelihood,” a Philippine Special Operations officer told SOFREP.
The Maute group has little to do with ISIS, but are simply bandits who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in order to raise their public profile, scare Muslim civilians into joining their cause, and to attract the attention of the overseas Jihadi finance networks. A Philippine Special Operations soldier confirmed to SOFREP that they are not fighting Daesh but just a local terrorist group. A spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines also rightly made this point, declining to build up the Maute group into the boogyman they would like to present themselves as.
Al Jazeera would have us believe that the Maute Group is replicating the tactics of ISIS in the Middle East by attempting to occupy Marawi. This is absurd, as the tactic they are trying to replicate is clearly that of the renegade MNLF faction that seized a large portion of the city of Zamboanga in 2013. These are local terrorists, not a trans-national terrorist group.
America should take a page out of the Philippine playbook in this case. Instead of building up the ISIS myth and selling the American public fear on a daily basis, we should confront the reality that ISIS has become a type of plug and play brand. When a self-radicalized jihadist or mentally disturbed person in California or Germany kills innocents, there is no reason to ascribe to him the legitimacy of belonging to a global ideological movement unless there are actual tangible connections, such as between the 9/11 hijackers and Al Qaeda. To do otherwise, simply creates additional terrorists in the dark imaginations of a frightened public.