Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Apocalypse Now: Islamic State's Real Strategic Goal

Forty-five people burned alive in western Iraq. Twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded by the sea in Libya. Five Western aid workers and journalists executed, one Jordanian pilot incinerated, and two possibly related terrorist attacks in Western Cities. All in addition to the tens of thousands  of victims killed or forced into displacement by fighting in northern Syria and Iraq. If Islamic State is seeking to bring about signs of End Times, they are doing a pretty good job. Increasingly, policymakers are forced to take seriously the Islamic State’s self-declared mission: to bring about the Day of Judgment by sowing chaos in the world in the lead-up to the return of the Mahdi.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride Toyotas, who knew?
The only thing more terrifying than a power-hungry Islamic State that uses scripture as a pretext for brutality is one that actually believes in it. While Al Qaeda’s stated goals were largely ones of retribution against the West and its allies for perceived injuries to the Muslim-majority world, the Islamic State's doctrine has confounded policymakers due to its seemingly earnest belief that the apocalypse – and thus paradise for true believers – is at hand, and indeed can be pushed along by worldly deeds. Drawing upon Koranic texts that suggest the End Times will be signified by a battle between the armies of “Islam” and “Rome” in northern Syria (in the town Dabiq, which Islamic State already controls and has named its journal after), the Islamic State strategy of directly goading the United States into intervening in Syria and Iraq becomes much more rational. By drawing the US into battle, Islamic State would have its “Army of Rome.” And defeat of this army is just the first phase of the apocalypse.

For most secular Americans, it is difficult to come to grips with the seeming irrationality of the belief in, and explicit desire for, the end of the world. Yet to ISIS believers, many of whom have been disaffected by life in this dimension, the act of declaring allegiance to a "true" caliph and living according to Salafi codes (i.e. in the supposed manner of the prophet’s companions, slavery and executions included) places them squarely in the center of a crucial historical moment. They also have the tantalizing prospect of paradise in the next world, an increasingly exclusive heavenly terrain that Islamic State leaders claim most Muslims of the last millennium would be barred from entering due to their incorrect Muslim practices and beliefs. Islamic State's propensity to kill not just "unbeliever" Shi'ites, Yazidis, Kurds, and Christians but also other Sunni Muslims is an extension of this tendency to proclaim that their Islam as the only Islam.

The world according to Islamic State.
The understanding of ISIS as earnestly and truly believing its own ideology – instead of as a grasping criminal organization desperate for money, power, or influence – informs the way that the US must respond to this threat. As Graeme Wood pointed out in his eye-opening Atlantic article this week about the group’s ideology, ISIS explicitly desires US intervention and occupation of Muslim lands, as that would validate some of their apocalyptic claims and rally others to their cause. They also control territory where they pose a real threat to the civilian population, and have already committed acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Yet if intervention isn’t the answer, and in fact would exacerbate the problem, what is the US to do?

In this lens, Pres. Obama’s strategy of “degrading” ISIS by containing the organization, preventing its expansion, and hopefully letting it flame out in its own ideological fires, makes much more sense. America has no track record of successful occupation of foreign territory if you don’t count post-WWII Japan, and meaningful military engagement against Islamic State would almost certainly entail some form of occupation. Military intervention plays directly into Islamic State's hands, and also creates pools of new recruits to their cause.  While it may be a longer game, with attendant civilian deaths and destruction in ISIS-controlled lands, the waiting game might be the best option of many bad ones for the United States at this point.

So what can “the most powerful country on earth” do in the face of such necessary patience? One of, if not the main US source of power is not military, but financial. Drawing upon American financial might, more can be done to fund the response to the humanitarian crisis in the region, deliver aid within Syria, and help regional governments stay afloat in the face of violence and floods of refugees. Development-based aid strategies can help ensure that not only refugees, but also the vulnerable members of the host communities are not pulled in by the lure of extremism and can see a better life for them and their families. These aid strategies can have long-term benefits well past the end of this conflict (hopefully), and can also act as a Middle East Marshall Plan to, if not win hearts and minds, at least change some views regarding the US.  While sensational videos of executions, reports of atrocities, and direct provocations will and should spark public anger, that anger cannot be funneled into a short-sighted and ineffective strategy of military intervention. Patience might be frustrating, but it is a far better option that helping ISIS to bring about its wished-for Day of Judgment. 

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