Following the sweeping territorial gains and establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL) in the summer of 2014, various nations and their governments have struggled to truly comprehend the group and its methods, particularly the ferociousness and rapidity through which the so-called caliphate was established and how it currently seizes, holds, and governs its territory. Sure, the airstrikes and arming of proxies is helping, but in order to defeat your enemy, you have to know them. And beyond the masks, beheading videos, and religious rhetoric, few truly do.
Here’s a look at seven ways ISIL uses terrorism as a tool, and the seven indisputable truths you must understand that explain why they use it.
1. Terrorism is all about politics.
ISIL, a terror group whose brutality, scope, and religious fervor clearly eclipses that of its al-Qaeda forbearers, serves as a prime example of how the political nature of terrorism—when properly applied—can serve as a highly devastating yet effective tool to implement rapid change in any environment.
ISIL’s use of terrorism in Syria and Iraq as a political tool is best understood as a worldly means effectively applied to reach a religious or divine end—one that is prophesied according to the sacred texts of Islam. So much for world peace or freedom living in that world.
Many nations, both Western and Arab, view ISIL not only as a threat to regional security, but as one that seeks to destabilize world order. This fact is evidenced by the growing anti-ISIL coalition, currently comprised of 12 core nations conducting near-daily airstrikes in Syria and Iraq to destroy the group, that views ISIL as an imminent threat.
However, in order to understand one’s enemy and to best conduct operations that are successful in destroying this Islamic hub of terrorism, it is critical for coalition nations to understand both ISIL’s desired end state and the vehicle through which the group will use its primary tool—terrorism—to achieve this end.
2. There’s a method to ISIL’s madness.
To any rational member of civilized society who functions in a globalized nation of the 21st century under the modern international system (read: excluding the budding metropolises of ar Raqqah and Mosul), the despicable and seemingly wanton acts of violence committed daily by ISIL and its fighters are virtually impossible to comprehend until it is understood that, to its core, ISIL truly is seeking to follow—in “punctilious detail”—the prophecy and example of the prophet Muhammad.
While publicized acts of “beheadings, stoning, crucifixion, and implementation of slavery” may be dismissed as a series of medieval and terroristic practices employed by ISIL to instill fear in the hearts of its enemies (although it is successful at that as well), it must be understood that ISIL is literally, seriously, and assiduously interpreting the texts of Islam and the narrations of its prophet. It is through ISIL’s interpretation of sacred texts that a glimpse of its rationale and methodology is gained.
Further understanding of how the new caliphate behaves in order to usher about the apocalypse and achieve the objectives of its religious fervor is provided through analyzing the tactics, techniques, and procedures through which ISIL fighters have gained ground, fought for territory, and outlasted a good majority of the modern military might currently working to destroy its existence. Sure, we may destroy a few ISIL vehicles, storage depots, or even land a few fighters from time to time, but the cost at which they are outlasting and surviving our airstrikes speaks to yet another costly war of attrition in which many nations will dearly pay.
3. Religious terrorism sucks, a lot.
It has been learned that terrorism, when motivated in “whole or part by religious imperatives, has often led to more intense acts of violence that have produced considerably higher levels of fatalities than the relatively more discriminating and less lethal incidents of violence perpetrated by secular terrorist organizations.”
This intensity of violence, motivated by radical interpretations of Islamic text, is clearly evident not only in the previous 15 years of Western military action in the “Global War on Terror,” but also identified in the countless acts of Islamic terrorism that have occurred in just as many years. America’s 9/11, the UK’s 7/7, the Mumbai attacks, the Beslan school hostage crisis, the Kenyan Westgate Mall attack, and countless others all speak to the utter disregard for the political, moral, and practical restraints demonstrated by acts of terror that are motivated by religious imperatives.
ISIL fighters, through large-scale application of violence across large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory, also demonstrate the effectiveness of terrorism as a tool to implement political goals—in this case, the establishment of the caliphate and the arrival of the second coming of their prophet.
Without terrorism and asymmetric warfare as a primary methodology through which to physically establish a caliphate and occupy territory, ISIL would not possess nearly so great a force nor achieve successful military results on the battlefield. While ISIL has made gains on the battlefield by incorporating relatively modern weapon systems and equipment into its arsenal (obtained through the looting and capture of former Syrian and Iraqi weapons and equipment stockpiles), the group as a military force has recognized the benefits reaped through the proper application of terror tactics and its accompanying effects.
Although more advanced methods of warfare such as coordinated ground offensives, use of maneuvers, and more conventional warfare (did someone mention tanks?) have also been employed with success by ISIL in Syria and Iraq, these actions are usually accompanied by the employment of some facet of terrorism or asymmetric warfare.
4. Suicide terrorism: not as irrational as we’d like it to be.
One effective tactic in particular—suicide terrorism—has been used extensively and with utter precision, and also speaks to the large-scale violence religious terrorists are capable of while in pursuit of their goals.
Due to the fact that terrorists have been “increasingly attracted to suicide attacks because of their unique tactical advantages…devastating effectiveness, and lethal efficiency,” it is no surprise that ISIL has mastered suicide terrorism as a precise and deliberate instrument through which to further its tactical position, ideological foundation, and global following.
A prime example of the effective use of suicide terrorism by ISIL was observed in mid-February 2015, when suicide vest-laden ISIL fighters infiltrated and subsequently attacked a large Iraqi airbase located in Anbar Province, Ayn Al Assad Air Base. Wearing stolen Iraqi Army uniforms to avoid precursory detection, and laden with small arms, suicide devices, and an individual combat load, several ISIL fighters were able to breach the heavily fortified airbase perimeter, attack unidentified compounds on the airbase, kill several Iraqi security forces members, claim a significant religious victory over the resident non-believers who currently host a number of Western military personnel, and instill fear through effective terror tactics all in the same event.
By utilizing effective suicide terrorism tactics against Ayn Al Assad, ISIL was able to harness the power of suicide terrorism as a powerful psychological weapon. This weapon not only inflicted significant physical casualties and damage at the airbase, but also intimidated local government forces and created a climate of insecurity and fear, both in the immediate area and back in Washington. Tell me our drone strikes have that same effect.
This insecurity and fear is precisely the environment ISIL requires if they are to control the airbase, the surrounding area, the region, and the overall caliphate. As a political tool, terrorism has proven irreplaceable on the field of asymmetric warfare.
5. Market the brand. If you build it, they will come.
An additional factor upon which ISIL has capitalized is the use of the Internet and mass communications to effectively message and recruit large numbers of foreign fighters to its cause. (SOFREP has covered this one, specifically the State Department’s efforts to counter this messaging, achieving…questionable results.)
Through the employment of effective terrorism as a psychological weapon across the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields, and in establishing a caliphate under which Sharia law is implemented, enforced, and exhaustively preached, ISIL has employed terrorism in yet one additional means that fits their political end state.
Foreign fighters have flocked to the new caliphate by the thousands, to include foreign nationals of both Arab and Western nations. (Almost akin to our politicians and donor campaigns, but that’s for another time.) While Western foreign fighters have a “higher media profile,” it is the graphic acts of wanton violence and terror, put on display via social media and mass communication for the world to see, that continue to draw more fighters to ISIL’s ranks.
Relatively recent estimates place roughly 12,000 foreign fighters in Syria alone, approximately 25 percent of them from Western nations. Despite the fact that Arab nations such as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are assessed to have the largest numbers of their citizens leaving to fight for ISIL, foreign fighters—regardless of nationality—provide a conduit through which greater visibility of the caliphate, ISIL’s terror tactics, and desired end state is obtained.
6. Maximum publicity = maximum leverage for political change.
Glimpses of life in the new caliphate are all but obvious on various social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Foreign fighters abroad in Syria and Iraq post photos, videos, status updates, and religious messaging. ISIL and its media wing understand that terrorism is a tool employed to generate maximum publicity, intimidation, and subjection for their cause, and therefore focus on spreading the terror to as large an audience as possible, thereby gaining the “maximum potential leverage…needed to effect…political change.”
A prime example of ISIL’s use of the Internet and social media for rapid mass communication can be identified in the recurring publicity given to the countless beheadings and executions performed by its fighters. Understanding that acts of terrorism are designed to communicate a message, ISIL executions are conducted in a manner that “reflects [its] particular aims and motivations, fits its resources and capabilities, and takes into account the ‘target audience’ at which the act is directed.” In the case of ISIL, the target audience is any disbeliever, decrier of the caliphate, its caliph, or legitimacy. The aim and motivation is the fulfillment of the Islamic prophecies found in the sacred Islamic texts.
The importance of terrorism as a tool to further political aims is one that cannot be understated. I’m sure you’re seeing the point to be had here. A second and current example of ISIL’s use of terrorism as a political tool was identified in the release of a video by ISIL depicting the immolation of a captured Jordanian pilot—an act of terror that has created a significant political response across the Middle East as a result of its dissemination. Jordan, which borders both Syria and parts of Iraq, originally joined the U.S. and several Arab Gulf states in “carrying out airstrikes on [ISIL] in late September to ‘ensure the stability and security’ of its borders.”
Taking preemptive action to defend itself from the eventual arrival of ISIL fighters at its doorstep, Jordan implemented steps to prevent ISIL from infiltrating the country and doubled its military presence along the border with Iraq. However, following the capture and brutal execution of the downed Jordanian pilot in late December, Jordan and several Gulf Arab partners have been forced to reconcile the pilot’s death (the man was burned alive in a cage, which was filmed in high-definition) with their efforts to obstruct the stated political goals of the Islamic caliphate.
Needless to say, Jordanian and Gulf Arab partners are now actively engaged in appropriately responding to ISIL’s act of terror, which they clearly view as a very personal attack. Thus, terrorism has once again proven to be a valuable tool employed by ISIL for political outcomes.
7. We can never peacefully coexist.
ISIL has openly stated its desire to draw the United States and other coalition forces into a massive ground invasion which they believe will usher about the second coming of the prophet. In so doing, they’ve clearly chosen to use acts of terror as a viable means to achieve their end goal.
ISIL’s use of terrorism is precise, and is employed to elicit a desired response from the target audience. Whether it entails rapid mass communication via social media for recruitment purposes, publicizing the brutalities and atrocities committed under the umbrella of extremist fervor, or sending a message to the heads of state currently working to destroy the organization, ISIL recognizes the benefits of terrorism as a political tool, and will continue to employ it until it no longer possesses the means to do so.