Analysis: ISIL Methods of Projecting Power

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Analysis: ISIL Methods of Projecting Power

Based on the article of SmallWarsJournal; Reworked by Costas Ioannou;

Since now, Islamic terrorist groups functioned based on two models. The first one was an underground resistance network that could appear anywhere and carry out audacious attacks, like Al Qaeda, who inspired jihadists to their cause. The second model, was utilised by groups like the Taliban, was hierarchal and geographically centred, but put little effort on recruiting outside their sphere of influence.

A combination between those tactics is utilised by ISIL nowadays. The Paris terrorist attacks demonstrate how a hybrid of these two models was utilised with deadly effects.  ISIL uses a hierarchical structure necessary to hold, administer territory and impose Sharia law, but their real strength comes from their ability to operate as a decentralized network that helps them project power on their sphere of influence and the battlefield.

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, in their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider, describe starfish organizations as those that survive without central leadership. Centralized organizations are like spiders: cut off its head and the spider dies. Decentralized organizations act more like a starfish, which regenerates its self and multiplies when you try to cut it into pieces. Groups like Napster, Wikipedia, or Alcoholics Anonymous possess their strength in their decentralized, headless nature. ISIL is an organization that acts combining the starfish and spider methods. This is a formidable adversary who exploits advantages of decentralization, while maintaining a hierarchy of leadership. ISIL possesses aspects of all five methods of decentralization that are common to open system organizations:

  1. The Circles – In the circles of common community open networks thrive. ISIL, using the internet and sharing shocking videos of graphic executions on social media, has created circles of interest and support. Those forums enable a virtual identity for anyone who wants to be a jihadist. Modern technology has allowed ISIL to spread their message and recruit tens of thousands of followers. Also ISIL supporters and sympathizers follow them with a certain degree of anonymity, even if they are not actively participating in those acts. Thousands of Muslims from Europe, the Middle East, and America have been inspired not only support them, but also they are travelling to Syria to Join their ranks.
  2. The Catalyst – Typically, someone initiates a movement and then steps aside to let it develop. However, in the case of ISIL the declaration of a caliphate played a catalytic role. The re-establishment of a Muslim caliphate sparked a flood of jihadist’s migrating to Iraq and Syria. This establishment put ISIL on the map as the dominant Sunni Jihadist group. Because no one until now had been so bold with words and actions, the killing of Westerners was just the beginning, now they are challenging the entire world order and nation-state system.
  3. Their Ideology – Violence is a core ideology for ISIL and it is one of the most difficult aspects to counter. ISIL interprets the Quran and the Hadith as an obligation to subjugate or kill anyone who does not share their extreme beliefs, including fellow Muslims.  They are also share apocalyptic and the end of times theology far more than Al Qaeda ever did. Muslims must challenge and correct these interpretations. Non-Muslims must reject ISIL’s point of view and actions without alienating the vast majority of the Muslims who do not share this perspective.
  4. The Pre-existing Network – In Iraq, Al Qaeda operated for years before it transformed into what is now ISIL. The jihadists exploited the already existing network of Bath’ists from Iraq. The U.S.-run Camp Bucca detainee prison in Iraq was made a training camp for future ISIL members detained there during 2004-2005. Abū Bakr al-Baghdādi was a leading organizer in that facility. He went on to capitalize on Sunni grievances against corrupt Shia administration in Baghdad to cast ISIL as the people’s choice. Without this pre-existing network, it is unclear if ISIL would have managed to organized and spread their message so effectively.
  5. The Champion – Abū Bakr al-Baghdādi declared the world-wide Muslim Caliphate on 29 June 2014, which inspired and energized the movement. He reinforced and elevated the plight of Sunni Muslims against the West to a degree above the nation-state system. He made the dreams of a caliphate that has been absent since Kemal Ataturk abolished it in 1924, to become a reality.  Al Baghdadi is the person who started this movement and allowed it to flourish.

Even that ISIL meets the criteria of a starfish organization, it still maintains a hierarchical structure among their members in the Caliphate of Iraq and Syria. Brafman and Beckstrom call this a hybrid organization, but ISIL acts more like a starfish than a spider. Many of the strategies suggested to counter them are ineffective or counterproductive because they failed to focus on the decentralized nature of the threat.

“The Pull them up by the roots strategy”: Some sustain the idea of deploying a large military force to Syria and Iraq to defeat ISIL. That strategy may work initially, but the networked nature of the organization will allow it to re-spawn elsewhere. The ‘what next’ question for Syria also exists, and this has kept the West from pursuing an all-out military operation. This military option leaves the underlying ideology unaddressed. A Western invasion is precisely what ISIL wants, because it would realize their jihadist fantasies of a grand apocalyptic battle with the Western forces in Dabiq, they think that Syria that will bring about the end of days. The idea about the apocalyptic battle would only encourage, bolster its recruitment efforts and inspire sympathizers to conduct lone-wolf attacks.

The Decapitation strategy: Some say that killing the leadership will solve the problem, but this will this be effective? It is highly unlikely that killing Baghdadi will bring the collapse of the caliphate, because the movement is not dependent on his personality. The hydra does not die, it just grows another head. The starfish limb grows into another starfish. A hierarchical leadership is needed to manage a pseudo-state earning millions of dollars a day in oil revenue and implementing sharia law over large parts of territory. By targeting that structure will slow them down. A decentralized movement is not dependent on leadership. Al Qaeda did not collapse after Bin Laden was killed, and much less so the Islamic state. In fact, Baghdadi’s death could function as a martyrdom and further catalyse the group to push to achieve the Caliphate dream and its goals.

Don’t worry, the world has never been safer:  Some argue that ISIL is not a vital U.S. national interest because they are a problem too far away. The Paris attacks had demonstrated the opposite and how this threat has no effective borders. The Islamic state has already established “providences” in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Yemen, Russian Caucuses and the Philippines. They are exporting their influence and brutality to Europe by cultivating support through a rapidly growing population of Muslim refugees. This expansion exemplifies how decentralized ISIL has become.

Renewed Focus on Counter-Messaging

To counter a starfish requires becoming one. As retired Gen Stanley Mc Chrystal has stated, it takes a network to defeat a network. By definition, a transnational threat requires a coordinated transnational response. To counter the spread of ISIL propaganda, synchronized messaging efforts among all groups, nations, and individuals who oppose them need to be organised. This can be applied to kinetic as well as information operations. We must use this starfish thinking and apply it to the information sphere in order to defeat ISIL with their own weapons.
In order to create an information infrastructure to prevent the spread of ISIL involves identifying the areas where Islamic extremism is likely to spread. It also requires organising and synchronizing governmental and religious individuals to speak to those target populations about the dangers ISIL ideology. The more Muslim voices the better, since this is largely an internal Islamic dispute regarding how to best interpret Muslim texts. No group is more qualified to focus messaging efforts than moderate Muslims themselves.

The brutality of ISIL disgusts everyone in the world, and that is to our advantage. Let us take in consideration the fact that, Sunni Gulf states, Iran, and Russia are actively fighting ISIL and seek to reduce their influence and expansion. A unified message should focus on the universal rejection of their oppressive and murderous point of view. The brand is simple: the whole world is against ISIL. This requires connecting the opposition voices against this toxic ideology.  By sharing counter-messaging information and focusing our efforts against their propaganda, the international community will become a more expansive and diverse network than the jihadist sympathizers can handle.

The efforts to coordinate messaging are currently underway, but those networks need time to develop. The sheer number of nations, groups and individuals that reject their message is on ISIL disadvantage and it needs to be exploited.  Of course messaging alone will not deal with the problem, but it can play a critical role on countering any starfish organization guided by an ideology of violence. In order to eliminate this threat we need to start acting as a bigger and stronger starfish that has more tentacles that can reach further than the enemy.

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  • Jean de Peyrelongue

    I think that this article underestimate the fact that ISIS without external support in terms of finance, weapons and training, logistics, data acquisition and communications, strategy, Isis could not be as dangerous as it is. If international community was closing resource’s acces to Isis, isis would dwindle soon.
    I am impressed by the dual approach of starfish and spider and I understand that ideologies are seldom rationale and instead of opening a discussion people with an ideology starts shooting the opponents. The only one who may have a narrow door to talk to ISIS’s candidates are muslim We have also to realized that crazy people with ideology are not only muslim, we have plenty of them among christians and jews, socialists and nazis.