The Strengths, Weaknesses and Delusions of ISIS
The Strengths, Weaknesses and Delusions of ISIS
October 13, 2016
Dr. Nimrod Hurvitz teaches in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A historian of Islam, his research focuses on medieval and modern Muslim religious movements and the politics of religiosity. He is a co-founder of the Forum for Regional Thinking at the Molad Institute. The full and original version of this article appeared on its website in Hebrew.
Written by Dr. Nimrod Hurvitz
Translated by Michelle Bubis
The Jerusalem Post — The claim made by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria media that the “lone wolf” attack in Nice was carried out by “a soldier of the Islamic State” reveals just how this organization sustains its most remarkable achievement: painting itself as victorious while losing territories in the Middle East.
Evidence that this deceit has left its mark on Western thinking is an article “Islamic State Is winning, America Must Soon Use its One Remaining Option,” posted in August 2015 by ex-CIA intelligence officer Michael Scheuer, who called for a U.S. reckoning over its misguided policy concerning ISIS.
Scheuer, who led the investigation team that monitored Osama bin Laden, wrote, “The only effective U.S.-NATO defense against the Islamists is to stop all intervention and let the Sunnis, Shias, and Israelis settle their differences in whatever merrily murderous manner pleases them.”
The post, which ISIS republished that month in its English-language mouthpiece Dabiq, attests to its extraordinary ability to mislead both friends and foes. For three years, ISIS has built up an image of strength far greater than its actual power.
While it had hoped to conquer vast areas and establish a new caliphate, in early 2014 it was ousted from several areas by local Syrian rebel groups, and in 2015 lost battles in Ramadi, Tikrit, Sinjar and Kobani.
Recently the organization shrank further after losing Palmyra in Syria and Fallujah in Iraq. If counterterrorism specialists such as Scheuer still think ISIS is “winning” after such stinging defeats, we are truly dealing with a master of illusion.
The implications are massive: adversaries sometimes avoid or minimize confrontation with ISIS; people living in areas captured by members of the organization do its bidding; and pundits such as Scheuer, along with certain politicians have convinced audiences that ISIS is winning.
Worst of all, new recruits join ISIS out of fascination with its sway over the global agenda.
Failure and delusions of grandeur
The ability of the Islamic State to rattle its opponents is evident, for example, in a Time magazine interview with Michael Morell, former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, which ISIS chose to republish.
In the interview, Morell states that “ISIS poses a major threat to the U.S. and to U.S. interests abroad and that threat is growing every day.” He lists successful attacks and emphasizes ISIS’s ability to take over many parts of the world. Unfortunately, he overlooks the organization’s failures.
Despite the ominous picture painted by numerous experts and politicians, Sunni terrorist organizations actually have a dismal track record. For 50 years, they have repeatedly tried and failed to overthrow regimes in various Muslim countries.
As far back as the 1970s and 1980s, organizations such as Al-Takfir wa-al-Hijra (Excommunication and Migration) in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria tried to act against their respective governments and were eliminated.
Even in Iraq, birthplace of ISIS, it was the U.S. and not Islamists that toppled Saddam Hussein. Only after the Americans destroyed Saddam’s institutions of government in 2003 did jihadists start trickling into the crumbling state.
So what can ISIS actually do? It can enter areas where central governments have collapsed and take control of fragmented local populations that are at war with each other. In both Iraq and Syria, ISIS was too weak to overthrow the regime, but was shrewd enough to exploit the lack of strong government, social fragmentation and frustration of oppressed groups.
Like justice, terrorism must be seen to be done. That is why ISIS amplified their actions by documenting and broadcasting them. Their macabre performances — decapitations, mass executions, the Jordanian pilot burned alive — were filmed and shown by media around the world.
The goal of these horrific movies is to warn Western leaders against considering military intervention in ISIS-controlled areas and to deter Iraqi youngsters from joining the security forces gaining power under American supervision.
The strengths and weaknesses of the chaos strategy, and its dependence on political terrorism, came to light when ISIS entered Syria, where the mistreatment of local populations has had a boomerang effect by generating violent opposition to ISIS.
This peaked in January 2014 after ISIS went on a killing spree, galvanizing several militias in northern Syria into joint action against the organization. This combined force managed to drive ISIS out of many villages in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib, and even out of Raqqa.
Although ISIS has been losing numerous battles during the last two years, Western politicians and media continue to depict it as a major success story that is threatening the world order. Not only do they play up its successes and downplay its failures, they often lump ISIS together with its enemies, and in doing so ascribe to it much more influence than it really has.
The fact is that Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements who are on the front lines in the battle against ISIS are the West’s allies in this struggle. Alienating them would mean losing the most important partner the West has in this war.