The Islamic State (IS) and its Mediatized Barbarism

By: Associate Professor Brynjar Lia, University of Oslo.

Not a day passes by without news about yet another act of barbarism by the “Islamic State” (formerly “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”, ISIL) or its numerous wilayat (“provinces”) outside the Levant. In the context of the extreme brutality of the Syrian civil war, now entering its fifth year, the ISIL’s violence is by no means unique in scope or savagery. What is unique is its mediatized nature and a seeming lack of military logic. While war criminals and human rights violators go to great length in hiding their crimes, the ISIL makes excessive efforts at precisely the opposite. It promotes and advertises its barbarism via its sprawling social media network as though bloody decapitations and sadistic massacres are merchandize in a global bazaar.

True, systematic violations of modern norms of warfare are part and parcel of most civil wars, and so is sadistic behavior on the part of individual combatants. In most cases though, one is able to discern some sort of overall “military logic” behind the excesses. Cruel retaliations might prevent civilians from collaborating with enemy forces; a publicized massacre will accelerate an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing, and harsh punishments following summary trials signals a determination to maintain internal discipline. Is there a military logic behind ISIL’s cruelty and medieval barbarism?

In fact, the marketing metaphor might point us in the right direction. In his book, The Marketing of Rebellion (2005), Bob Clifford suggests that “a few Third World political movements” have become “global causes célèbres” while most remain forgotten, precisely because they have proven themselves the savviest in “a Darwinian struggle for scarce resources”. External funding and support depend heavily on visibility in media. There is an interesting parallel to the world of jihadism, where a growing number of local insurgent groups in the Middle East and Asia style themselves as dedicated “salafi-jihadis”. They also compete fiercely among one another for the attention of a global network of sympathizers, preachers, media activists, fund-raisers, wealthy donors, and not the least, foreign fighter recruits. Prior to the eruption of “a jihadi civil war” between al-Qaida leadership and ISIL in late 2013, this competition was rarely discussed openly on jihadi media channels, but new groups clearly tailored their ideological message to please their donors. And whenever a jihadi group gained some degree of territorial control it almost invariably proceeded to destroy “un-Islamic” shrines and carry out highly publicized Shariatic punishments as if to prove the purity of its ideological project.

Is there a military logic behind ISIL’s cruelty and medieval barbarism?

How has ISIL fared in this “Darwinian struggle” for external resources? It is widely acknowledged that ISIL and its predecessors had extensive internal sources of funding, but it clearly also raises funds from outside sources. One fund-raiser in Kuwait reportedly sent $2 million a month to ISIL’s predecessor in Iraq. The movement’s most important external asset, however, is the unfathomably huge influx of foreign fighters, exceeding by far any previous foreign fighter emigration in history. These fighters not only provide needed manpower and highly motivated (though not necessarily well-trained) combatants. Their presence also deepens fund-raising-, media- and recruitment networks linking ISIL to the outside world. One cannot explain ISIL’s military successes and stamina without acknowledging the role played by the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who has flocked to Syria and Iraq and celebrate the organization’s deeds and virtues in social media and in skype conversations with their friends and families back home.

Now, back to the barbarism question. Why is ISIL successful in attracting so many foreign fighters while at the same time publicly committing atrocities? An examination of ISIL’s extensive propaganda videos and online journals may give us a clue. ISIL’s mediatized violence is always carefully choreographed events, marketed as just punishments in a righteously guided society whose orderliness, prosperity and piety are vividly described in numerous online videos, photo collections and “life stories” told by emigrants (muhajirun). In fact, most ISIL videos are not about violence, but about the blessings of living in this virtuous society and the extensive government services offered in the field of Islamic education, Islamic courts, health care, garbage collection, charity works, etc. When punishments are publicized, they are contextualized, justified and tailored to fit ISIL’s ideological claim of being more faithful and more literalist in its interpretation of Islamic law than any other entity or state. ISIL’s propaganda machine devotes enormous attention to scrupulously justifying its action with extensive citations and references to classical Islamic sources. (Whether such cut-and-paste referencing make ISIL’s actions “Islamic” in any meaningful sense is hotly debated, but is not a relevant point here.)

The emotional aspect of ISIL’s barbarism should not be forgotten. ISIL claims to avenge Muslim blood by tit-for-tat punishments. It seems to specifically choose punishment methods which ensure maximum media attention and by doing so, it manages to poke the West in the eye. ISIL demonstrates strength and defiance by continuing its acts of extreme provocation even in the face of a sustained U.S.-backed military onslaught. Its savagery would have long been forgotten and ignored had it not been for its omnipresence in global media. Hence, by being front page news over such a long period of time, ISIL succeeds in portraying itself as the ultimate counterculture of ‘Western civilization’ and fulfills the role as the barbaric other.

In fact, most ISIL videos are not about violence, but about the blessings of living in this virtuous society and the extensive government services offered in the field of Islamic education, Islamic courts, health care, garbage collection, charity works, etc.

ISIL’s punishment practices should also be understood in the context of its struggle for ideological supremacy in the jihadi movement. ISIL has taken al-Qaida and its Syrian affiliates head on, condemning them for their deviation and ideological slackness f ex on the issue of the Shia. ISIL’s excessive violence is part and parcel of an outbidding strategy vis-à-vis its challengers.

After having declaring itself an Islamic State and a Caliphate, ISIL has the advantage of marketing two products to its global constituencies: the prospects for fighting a military “jihad” and the opportunity to live in a “true Islamic state” ruled by Sharia. However, to maintain this preeminent position in the worldwide jihadi movement, ISIL needs to continuously polish its ideological credentials. The rebel organization has many competitors, and if ISIL turns pragmatic and cease promoting itself as the world’s only committed enforcer of Sharia law, the influx of foreign fighters will eventually fade, and donors will turn their attention elsewhere. There will be chatter in the jihadi Internet world that “jihad in Sham” is no longer a pure jihad. One of the other fronts (in Mali, Sinai, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Caucasus, etc) will reappear as the most promising arena for jihad and the most blessed destination for hijra (“emigration”). Don’t forget that the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (i.e. the Taliban) in 1996-2001, despite its hardline “Islamic” rule and Shariatic punishment practices, incurred criticism for ideological deviations. Fighting with the Taliban was “not a jihad”, according to a faction in the Arab-Afghan community. When the insurgency in Iraq descended into civil war in the mid-2000s, and al-Qaida in Iraq was hammered by its former Sunni allies, the jihadi webforas hosted debates on whether fighting in Iraq was “a jihad”.

ISIL still looks militarily strong although it has been forced to withdraw from certain areas. Ideologically, it is a fragile alliance of highly committed foreign jihadis, former al-Qaida in Iraq fighters, defectors from Ansar al-Islam, ex-Baathist officers, and other not-so-jihadi elements. Since, the late 1980s, there have been a dozen or so jihadi proto-states from Afghanistan to Sahel, and they have rarely lasted more than a year. It is impossible to predict the longevity of ISIL, but its shrinking financial resources appear to have set the group on a downward spiral. Sooner or later, however, ISIL will be demoted from a proto-state with a Caliphal aura to just another regional jihadi outfit. The loss of territory will probably change the calculus behind its current ideological position on brutal punishment practices. However, it will not reduce its motives for operating and expanding outside of the Iraqi-Syrian conflict zone.