So today my seminar leader asked me to research this question to give a presentation next week - Is ISIS a terrorist organisation or a nascent state? - Immediately I groaned - *They're awful, what a completely ridiculous question! This is not stimulating to the brain... Its one sided; what is even the argument against them being a terrorist organisation!?.*
I left the classroom thinking I wouldn't spend much time on it - it didn't have to be good and I'm a first year and I only have to get 40%. But when I sat down to research and really think about it - the question got a whole lot more interesting!
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is commonly considered in the West as the largest terrorist threat facing us today and their risk to the us is increasing.
First of all I need to define a couple of concepts;
A terrorist group - an organization enforcing a government and people to act a certain way through the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property. - ISIS’s actions whilst trying to achieve their aim can be defined under the definition of terrorist acts.
A nascent state - a state that is in the process of reformation and its society is being reorganised - ISIS’s aim of creating a state exclusively for Sunni Muslims governed by Sharia law then suggests that they are in fact a nascent state.
This idea that ISIS is in fact a nascent state suggests that they simply use terrorism as a method of trying to get their voice heard. The idea that ISIS is a nascent state stems from and is backed up by a few facts about ISIS and their structure that match the definition of a nascent state.
Firstly, ISIS holds territory in Iraq and 50% of Syria like a nascent state, confronting opposing military forces directly with its 30,000 fighters and aiming to expand territory held. They do this with advanced military communication and commands through sophisticated military operations, for example the ISIS terror attacks in Paris which are set apart from those like the Boston Marathon bombing by the level of planning and sophistication. “To have seven of the eight vests actually detonate tells me that you've got somebody who's really skilled and has got the time and knowledge to spend putting these things together. These guys didn't each build their own vests. Someone built these things.’’ (Colin P. Clarke - On the Difference Between This and the Boston Marathon Attacks)
Similarly, like a nascent state, within its territory ISIS has a strong infrastructure and is set up much like a reforming sate with a structure and hierarchy, meaning that killing the leaders of ISIS will not cripple the organization.
It has separate and clearly defined departments such as media, who do a successful job creating and broadcasting propaganda videos within ISIS held territory and globally presenting ISIS as moral and legitimate - firstly with their moral content of no women or alcohol, and secondly with the carefully executed shots where their leaders appear as righteous warriors sitting in settings such as caves, libraries, and refugee camps.
Another important government department likening ISIS to a nascent state is its financial department who are completely self sufficient, for example ISIS has excellent oil exportation smuggling out of held territory and selling on the black market to countries like Turkey, Jordan and Iran.
This means they do not need outside funding to help pay for their massive expenditure - for example the $500 (£320) needed to fund a fighter for a month, and about $1,200 to fund a military commander for a month - in order to survive, meaning that it is completely independent and does not need to compromise with any other states or bodies of power. In the way ISIS are set up we can see the strong suggestion that they are a nascent state, simply using terrorist methods to be heard.
Another argument for ISIS being a nascent state rather than a terrorist organization comes from looking at and comparing their histories and aims with other terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda was born out of the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan and wishes to mobilize Muslim communities against secular rule. ISIS was similarly born out of invasion – the US invasion of Iraq – however ISIS started out as a terrorist group (part of Al Qaeda in Iraq) however the 2011 civil war against the Assad regime in Syria provided ISIS with an alternative aim and thus they were publicly expelled from Al Qaeda.
ISIS has largely been a success because of political reasons and issues in how the countries where they seek territory are run, rather than for military reasons. ISIS aim to control territory under the creation of a ‘pure’ Sunni Islamist state governed by Sharia law. Large numbers of Sunnis in Iraq are dissatisfied with a government that is still seen as very pro-Shi'a and pro-Iranian, and in Iraq security forces are fairly weak.
In Syria, a lot of the Sunni population is also dissatisfied with the Assad government. Therefore, the dismantlement of ISIS will demand dealing with the underlying political and governance issues that have allowed ISIS to establish such a large foothold, and not just military operations such as the UK’s air strikes. This suggests that ISIS are a nascent state as like previously mentioned their underlying structure is their reason for success and this was born out of a mutual historical feeling of Sunni Muslims in this geographical area.
During the past year, ISIS has lost between 15% to 25% of its territory in Syria and Iraq from its peak levels in mid-2014. This could be seen as a positive as it shows that they are losing territory and support and therefore power, however, looking at the histories of rebel and insurgent groups it can be seen that most increase terrorist activity when they lose territory.
This could explain the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Before the attacks in Paris, ISIS had not previously carried out any acts of terrorism in countries they had not declared territory in and seen as their own. Note that there have been attacks or threats of attack inspired by the name of ISIS in other countries globally, however, these are not directly linked to ISIS and therefore cannot count as terrorism by ISIS.
The Paris attacks mark a new chapter for ISIS and possibly the turning of ISIS from emerging nascent state to a terrorist organization as it was an unprovoked attack on a country that had/is not a threat for ISIS’s existence and more like an attack on the secular governance that France governs under, which is terrorism.
On the other hand, it could be argued that it is simply a cry for attention. ISIS, since its birth has relied on media coverage globally to spread awareness of its message and project its power. Since losing territory and support, ISIS has needed to make headlines once again. However, despite this possibly being a cry for attention it is undoubtedly a terrorist act.
This shift in organization and strategy shows another side of ISIS – a desperate and greedy side which shows their supporters that they are less moral and right. This may lead to a decline in supporters and fighters which potentially makes it a more dangerous and unpredictable enemy during its decline. This leads to legitimately questioning the future of ISIS.
What ISIS is appearing to be providing is a form of short term primitive gratification for Sunni Muslims on a global scale by providing a sense of rigorousness, adventure, personal power, and arguably most importantly, a sense of self and community – especially considering recent movements.
However, looking at ISIS from another angle, it can be seen that perhaps they are something larger and more legitimate: a nascent state simply going to war with states that they perceive should give them territory to house the large amounts of Sunni Muslims that subscribe to their ideology, politics and governance, but going about it in a very undemocratic and undiplomatic way. Political systems are not set up for nascent movements.
This is perhaps why Boko Haram had such a strong foothold in Nigeria in 2014 as the 2011 election produced an extremely clear and definite divide in Muslim north/ Christian south between the PDP and the CPC. This shows that during times of political friction, political groups using terrorist methods can emerge and take a strong foothold.
However, this raises the questions of what a legitimate war is and how one is declared? ISIS have many qualities of a nascent state such as holding territory, being economically self sufficient and having a structure of hierarchy and ideology.
However, they are descending increasingly into a terrorist organization largely because they have lost all international credibility and have been unanimously rejected by the UN. This has caused ISIS to lose territory and therefore power due to a decrease in popularity from its displays of violent methods which do not attract the right kind of fighter or politically motivated thinker to create a functioning state. ISIS’s violent methods also provoke military counter action and foreign action to prevent its rise and legitimacy – which ISIS strongly relies on as two thirds of their fighters are foreign.
Overall, ISIS had a shot at becoming a nascent state as perhaps following a different procedure of less aggressive tactics we could have seen something similar to what occurred in Northern Ireland where former leaders of terrorist group the IRA now sit as MP’s in that same constituency.
A more peaceful path may have also not alienated ISIS from the international community and they may have even received support from the West and their Arab neighbors as perhaps a legitimate alternative is needed in Syria to the Asad regime and ISIS could have been a possible opposing party and/or formed a part or government in a legitimate way.
I'd be so interested on hearing anyones views on any of the above! Please comment! :)
In my research I used the following articles and I don't think they're going to come up very beautifully! They look quite ugly at the moment in this format but hopefully they are still functional!
· Seth G. Jones - On What the Fight Against ISIL Requires — Beyond Military Efforts
Colin P. Clarke - On the Difference Between This and the Boston Marathon Attacks