Yohanes Sulaiman: The more I read about ISIS, the more interesting I find the group. ISIS is popularly known as a group of radical Jihadists who rule its territory with terror.
At the same time, I think ISIS is less of a religious-based terrorist group than the remnants of a deep state that has gone underground. Unlike al-Qaeda, which to some degree is dominated by religious zealots; for ISIS, religion is important, but not that important, considering former Saddam's Iraqi intelligence/military officers basically became the core of this movement. In fact, I am not sure how important al-Baghdadi is, aside from just being a "big brother" figure.
As a result, I think we have a different fight going on here. In the case of al-Qaeda, cut the head and all is gone. I think al-Qaeda still has not recovered from the assassination of Osama bin Laden. If I am right, that ISIS is actually a deep state apparatus, then ISIS is far more dangerous than al-Qaeda, which to some degree is contrary to the common wisdom: many think ISIS will be destroyed simply because it is too radical for its own good, while al-Qaeda can survive far much longer.
BN: Here is how I think of ISIS: it's an insurgent group that's fighting against government and allied forces, as well as other forces of course, in Iraq and Syria. It's also a state. ISIS has its own governing body, laws and punishment mechanisms, military force, currency, PR-machine, and sources of revenue, among other things. Surely, this state has come into existence illegally and no one recognizes it, but it's there. Lastly, it's a terrorist organization, as the attacks in Paris, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and San Bernadino attest.
Now, it can be argued that ISIS is suffering on all three dimensions--at least at the moment. It's losing territory and fighters, losing revenue, as oil facilities have been destroyed, and losing its grip over the people, as citizens and even some ISIS Jihadis caught in the actual Islamic State want to leave. Moreover, al-Baghdadi recently put out a video trying to rally Muslims to fight for ISIS and to launch attacks in their homelands. This has been viewed by terrorist experts as a sign of ISIS's current desperation.
As we know, ISIS was formally al-Qaeda in Iraq, thus an off-shoot or affiliate of al-Qaeda Central. The story of ISIS deciding to split and rebrand itself, as well as the ex-communication of ISIS from the al-Qaeda family, has typically emphasized ISIS's excessive barbarity--that there were disagreements over ISIS's austere vision of the world and its willingness to torture and kill all infidels, even fellow Muslims; ISIS leaders and followers thought it all necessary, though al-Qaeda saw it as bad for the brand. There's even the popular argument, put forward by Greame Wood, that ISIS, relative to al-Qaeda, is much more of an apocalyptic religious cult.
I see it differently. The main difference is that ISIS is far less religiously pure than al-Qaeda; and relatedly, as a whole, ISIS is not nearly as ideologically cohesive as many believe. Many of ISIS' followers know very little about Islam and the Koran. There are even reports of some of the Paris attackers having "Islam for Dummies" books in their possession. What ISIS seems to be attracting is a motley crew of the angry, alienated, and criminal, especially the latter. Terror experts have observed that quite a few ISIS recruits and foot soldiers are gangsters who dabble in things like the drug trade and robberies. I see quite a bit of John Mueller's argument about the centrality of "Thugs, Criminals and Hooligans" in violent incidents--from his 2000 International Security article and his book Remnants of War--in ISIS.
YS: Frankly, I don't think that members of al-Qaeda are more knowledgeable than ISIS in term of religious instruction. Based on what we know of their franchise all over the world (e.g. Boko Haram and Jamaah Islamiyah), most of their recruits don't know much about theology. Exhibit A: there were no theology students among the 19 suicide attackers on 9/11. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda dip from the same recruitment pool, and this is why al-Qaeda is losing: ISIS is flashier and cooler and, more importantly, winning.
The main difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS is that the former still has religious thinkers on its board because it’s an extremist fundamentalist group; ISIS, on the other hand, like I mentioned earlier, was created from the remnants of Saddam Hussein's deep state, and the core of the deep state (and ISIS) is the secular intelligence apparatus. Thus, you could have a very high ranking ISIS leader who used to be a high ranking officer in Saddam's intelligence apparatus, who wasn't religiously observant. In fact, when this former Saddam official was finally captured, the one book that wasn't found on him was a Qur'an.
BN: So what are your thoughts about the Paris and San Bernardino attacks? And have the media and analysts missed anything in their assessments of both incidents?
YS: I think the media has thoroughly dissected these two cases, from the dysfunctional law enforcement in Belgium to the missing warning signs in the terrorists’ Facebook posts. My question is that with all the pipe bombs the two terrorists were supposedly making, why carry out a mass shooting? I think it was a spur of a moment crime, and they probably had different target in mind.
And actually this shows that badly planned attacks can still cause a lot of deaths if the perpetrators have the proper weapon. Acquiring and shooting guns is relatively easy. But if they decide to bomb a mall or some other soft location, it would take much more preparation and effort and there might be a higher risk of arrest.
BN: Here’s what struck me. One of the narratives after both attacks was that ISIS was now going global. After all, it seemed like ISIS was consumed with establishing, expanding and consolidating its control over areas in Iraq and Syria. The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the downed Russian airliner, so went the conventional wisdom, show that maybe ISIS has its eye on local matters--its caliphate--as well as global bullies and infidels--France, the US and Russia. Another suggestion has been that ISIS launches these attacks so as to distract its faithful from the losses it’s suffered in 2015 and to boost morale. Perhaps, but is ISIS now chewing off more than it can handle? Was it or is it currently ready for what lies ahead. Arguably, ISIS has provoked--whether intentionally or unintentionally, or a combination--more countries to take the ISIS threat more seriously, to the point that we might have already witnessed the apex of ISIS.
YS: On biting more than it can handle: yes and no. Yes, in that everyone on the planet is out to get ISIS. While the Taliban or al-Qaeda still, arguably, receive some tacit support from a state, or at least a powerful element within the state, ISIS, as far as I know, does not really have a state supporting them -- well, arguably Syria, where Bashar is currently using ISIS to tar entire opposition with the same broad brush, or, according to Russia's insinuations, Turkey, because of getting profit from the illegal oil trade. But I'd make an argument that it is not so much real support than war profiting/opportunism, not unlike the dealings between the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats militias/criminal gangs during the height of Balkan conflict.
But at the same time, ISIS benefits from the fact that no country is willing to put boots on the ground, or to strictly target it. Russia and Syria, I argue, are far more interested in keeping them alive to become a bogeyman to prop up Bashar's regime. Despite the downing the airliner, Putin, I think, considers ISIS far more useful alive than dead, at least for now. Of course, there are repercussions, but Putin is a long-term player, and he will settle this once he is done with Syria and Turkey. The US? Well, Obama currently has zero credibility in the region and he'd prefer the Iraqis to do the heavy lifting, but in the end, despite the Iraqis' gains in the past couple of weeks, it will not last, simply because Iraq at this point is a quasi-state, unable to completely impose order. The EU? Not likely. Saudis? They fear Iran more than ISIS, for sure.
Of course, the question is what ISIS itself thinks. I think the leadership believes that ISIS is in quite desperate straits. The terror attacks are calculated to inspire, to get more recruits on board, and at the same time broaden their appeals (to e.g. Boko Haram or al Shabaab) as to supplant al-Qaeda. It’s probably the case that the rank and file are over-confident in their abilities to withstand any attacks from the infidels -- e.g. they believe that they are impervious to bullets, etc., thus willingly approve the leaders' decision as actually a way to broaden the scope of their attacks.
BN: Well, ISIS does receive a material boost from Turkey, as black market oil, much like Putin suggested, has found its way into Turkey; not to mention, there's the distinct possibility that Turkey, whether knowingly or not, gives ISIS sanctuary on its turf. Syria, and to extent Russia, has helped ISIS for more than a year by not targeting the group, focusing instead on the so-called "moderates" and their strongholds. But there's no cooperation between Assad and ISIS, as has been rumored by conspiratorial-types. Max Abrahms has addressed this repeatedly on his Twitter feed.
Anyway, one of the things that your comment assumes is that ISIS leadership has sanctioned and thought-through all of the recent attacks. I don't think so. In fact, the evidence to date indicates it's ISIS sympathizers and followers who are acting on their own. That matters. It matters because it means that ISIS isn't necessarily directing events, like some evil mastermind; rather, events are being thrust upon them, from all sorts of directions.
YS: I do agree that ISIS isn't necessarily directing events but at the same time, it does actively encourage its supporters to hit soft targets, meaning that ISIS does sanction any attacks committed by its supporters.
BN: Okay, last topic, which concerns the dreaded questions about prognostication. Put simply, where is ISIS a year from now? For instance, what does the group look like, in terms of its organization/structure, its power, its ability to launch attacks globally, its state in Iraq/Syria, and so on?
YS: It depends on several factors: whether the US-Iran deal holds or collapses, Russia's commitments in Syria, and the Saudis-Iran relationship.
The Iran deal most likely holds and I think, regardless who succeeds Obama, it would be a bad policy to reverse it, despite that the enforcement mechanism is purely minimal -- because like it or not, there's no other option except to bomb Iran to stone age. Plus, Iran does matter to ensure stability in the region, well except to Saudi Arabia.
Russia will keep attacking but they are not specifically targeting ISIS. Rather, Moscow would prefer to focus on anti-Assad groups, which to some degree might cause many groups to gravitate further to ISIS.
So it is a very mixed bag. ISIS’s ability to launch global attacks is based on whether it remains a credible actor, in the sense that they are viewed within Jihadi circles as winning, victorious—which, in turn, helps the group to attract more support and fighters. But once ISIS is seen as losing, not dissimilar to al Qaeda, it would lose its ability to launch global attacks. Since it is getting harder and harder to gain spectacular victories like the battle for Mosul, they will up their push to persuade their sympathizers to launch more attacks.
To answer your question: the group will probably be hemmed in, but it will end up like the Taliban: entrenched in areas that are difficult to control effectively. ISIS has suffered a lot of turnover in its leadership due to deaths, so it will end up having lots of battlefield commanders, who are more interested in short term victories.
BN: I tend to agree with your overall point: that the war in Syria and Iraq will remain frozen conflict and ISIS will have a continued, but gradually shrinking, strong on-the-ground presence, or strongholds, in both countries. Of course, a key is how much turf ISIS loses this year. Mostly thanks to the Kurds, ISIS lost about 25% of its occupied territory in 2015; how much more does it lose in 2016? I'm interested to see how ISIS reacts to, and is impacted by, a steady stream of battle losses--if that indeed comes to pass. Does it violently lash out even more in the West to compensate for the losses? Do radical Islamists, seeing that victory for ISIS isn't inevitable anymore, gravitate back to al-Qaeda?
The trajectory of ISIS’s success or failure, as you suggested, will be shaped by a number of factors. Especially in light of this past weekend's news, one of the things I'm looking at is the Sunni-Shia divide, with Saudi Arabia and Iran as the leaders of each sect, each of which is seeking to be the regional hegemon in the Middle East. This divide has shaped--really, prolonged--the conflict in Syria. As you know, the tit-for-tat confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran has escalated because of the execution of a Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia--which has triggered Shia protests throughout the Middle East, the complete diplomatic estrangement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a deterioration between Saudi Arabia’s allies, like Bahrain and Sudan and the UAE, and Iran. These events will probably only serve to intensify the violence in the Middle East and make it even more difficult to stop and solve the civil war in Syria. How all of this impacts ISIS will be something to watch going forward.
BN: What's your take on how the current Iran-Saudi Arabia spat will impact ISIS?
YS: My gut feeling is that al-Qaeda is on life-support, with very little initiatives, and out-staged by ISIS. Even al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria were defeated/absorbed by ISIS. There are still other branches, but they are all doing their own thing with little to no coordination from above. Many of its affiliates are still aligned with al-Qaeda simply because of old connections. I would even question whether the head organization could survive at this rate without its alliance with the Taliban. So I am not sure that even with the defeat of ISIS, the jihadist community would flock back to al-Qaeda.
ISIS, I think, will try to remain relevant by trying to do more attacks, especially on Western targets. But with the recent Paris attack, I think Western intelligence agents are starting to wise up. It will be very difficult, not impossible but harder, to pull off another Paris.
Still, I think people are underestimating ISIS’s ability to survive even if Iraq/Syria is pacified. After all, there are still plenty of failed states in the region: Libya, Sinai Peninsula, and Yemen. Granted, if ISIS headquarters does move, it will likely be a much different organization, one that’s most likely not staffed by former Iraqis intelligence personnel. Alas, that’s part of the adaptation that terror groups face.
The current Iran-Saudi Arabia spat, I think, will have a greater impact on the stability of Iraq, simply because I doubt the Saudis are content to see an Iranian dominated regime standing next door. Upping its game to undermine Iran’s position in Iraq, if this comes to reality, will give much needed breathing room for ISIS.
BN: You hit on an important point regarding the whack-a-mole element to today's terrorism, which is abetted by so many weak and failing states in close proximity to each other. If ISIS gets really squeezed in Iraq and Syria, it wouldn't surprise me to see its leadership and foot soldiers gravitate to another landing spot. ISIS has already made in-roads in Afghanistan and Libya. My guess is Libya, since the group would face a tough fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
That said, the Saudi Arabia-Iraq imbroglio makes me question how committed Riyadh is to containing and eliminating ISIS. As you mentioned above, Iran is the regime's biggest threat and that's what the royal family is most concerned about. By inflaming the rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia made just made it easier on itself to get distracted from the global terrorism issue. In fact, at this moment, it's become a distracting issue for all sorts of players in the Middle East: local states are taking sides in the dispute and outside states are seeking to ways to de-escalate the Riyadh-Tehran, as well as the more general Sunni-Shia, tensions. In my view, the pressure has been markedly reduced on ISIS right now.
YS: The Saudi philosophy is always "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and thus it is willing to fund radical movements or even armed insurgencies that could bite it in the rear in the future. Granted, the the US also has this problem (e.g. funding the Mujahedeen back in the 1980s). But while the US has wised up in the past couple of years, the Saudis seems to have learned nothing—or maybe they just think that someone else will clean their mess, I don't know. But my gut feeling is that they will try to increase funding to the Syrian rebels, regardless of their ideological affiliations, and since the rebels' loyalties themselves are very fluid, it won't surprise me that some of the money simply ends up in ISIS coffers--and thus, like you said, helping putting off the pressure on ISIS. Obviously ISIS doesn't have much love for the Saudis ruling family, but they hate the Shiites more. And I think the Saudis think they can just kick that can down the road further.