Is the Rise of IS Such a Mystery?

Is the Rise of IS Such a Mystery?Is the Rise of IS Such a Mystery?

If you’ve been watching the international response to the Islamic State militant group with a sense of dismay at that lackluster effort, an intriguing new article offers a novel explanation for why that campaign has seen little success: Officials in NATO countries are totally baffled by the group’s rise.

The article, “The Mystery of IS,” published in the New York Review of Books, grants anonymity to its author, a person with “wide experience in the Middle East and was formerly an official of a NATO country,” in order to review a set of recent books on the Islamic State and its rise to power in Iraq and Syria, Elias Groll wrote for Foreign Policy.

The article’s central thesis is that while each of the books contains insights into the group, its history and operations, none of the theories put forward to explain the rise of the Islamic group provides compelling explanations as to how this group was able to amass so much power, so quickly.

“Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible and difficult to reverse as the rise of IS,” the author writes, using an acronym for the group.

“None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough, even in hindsight, to have predicted the militant movement’s rise.”

It is the inability to adequately understand the group, the author believes, that has crippled the effort to defeat it.

  Gaps of Knowledge

While it is difficult to speculate as to the author’s identity, it’s a remarkably candid document that speaks to the enormous gaps in our knowledge about the IS.

The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, is a total cipher, his biography barely rising above the level of rumor. Then there is the mystery of how the IS came to best other militants.

Other insurgent groups have sometimes blamed their collapse and lack of success, and IS’s rise, on lack of resources. For instance, the Sunni Awakening leaders in Iraq argue that they lost control of their communities only because the Baghdad government ceased to pay their salaries. But there is no evidence that IS initially received more cash or guns than these groups; rather the reverse.

Meanwhile, the group has ended decades of theorizing on insurgent warfare, stretching back to Mao and Lawrence of Arabia, holding that militants should blend in among the locals and avoid holding territory, where they can be hit by the overwhelming firepower of their enemy.

The author cites “US Army studies of more than 40 historical insurgencies” that “suggest again and again that holding ground, fighting pitched battles and alienating the cultural and religious sensibilities of the local population are fatal.”

Despite adopting tactics that should cause it to fail, the IS is far from being defeated. Yet another mystery.

  Contradictory Reports

Reports of how the group governs are rife with contradictions. Some describe it as “a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.”

Others report the IS is incapable of governing. Which is it? Another mystery.

But other parts of the essay are marked by the author throwing up his (or her) hands at trying to understand how extreme violence and depravity can in fact be appealing to the group’s recruits.

Foreign fighters have joined the group from Norway, Egypt, Tunisia, France, Yemen and Canada. Whether in wealthy social democracies or poor dictatorships, the extremist group has managed to find recruits, leading the author to question theories that “social exclusion, poverty or inequality” drive people to join the group.

According to UN experts, around 5,500 Tunisians are fighting alongside militants abroad.

“Sophisticated travel networks operate to take recruits across the porous borders, and sometimes through areas where trafficking in people and illicit goods may not be effectively controlled,” UN said in a report.

It said an estimated 4,000 Tunisians were in Syria, between 1,000 and 1,500 in Libya, 200 in Iraq, 60 in Mali and 50 in Yemen. Around 625 who have returned from Iraq are being prosecuted.

  IS Attraction

Here, the author seems to want not to understand why violent nihilism can be attractive, almost as if she or he were afraid what she or he might find.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the author writes. “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination and humility to grasp the phenomenon of IS.”

But social exclusion, poverty and inequality exist in both Norway and Egypt, albeit in different numbers. According to champions of that theory of IS recruitment, the foreign fighter phenomenon transcends borders because those conditions do as well.

Even if our understanding of foreign fighter recruiting is not complete, what we do know gives us some idea of how we arrived at this juncture in history.

At the same time, it is for this reason that the article is one of the best things to recently have been written on the IS: It honestly grapples with the limits of our knowledge of the group.

By documenting in fairly comprehensive fashion what we do and do not know, it points toward the weaknesses in the international response, the failure to understand how the group behaves within the context of local politics and how its actions have ripped up the conventional wisdom of guerrilla warfare.

In this way, then, what is presented as a mystery is not so much a mystery: It is perhaps the next avenue of inquiry to be pursued by officials and analysts.