Small Wars Journal

Retreat and Rebuild? ISIS as a Virtual Caliphate

Share this Post

Retreat and Rebuild? ISIS as a Virtual Caliphate

Thomas R. McCabe

As the ISIS statelet in Syria and Iraq is eradicated, an obvious question is what will happen in the aftermath of that eradication. We must remember that that the statelet in Syria and Iraq was only part--although a central part-- of ISIS, which was, functionally speaking, in some ways a worldwide entity mobilized by social media and tied together by the internet—the ‘virtual caliphate.’[1] This enabled ISIS to create and mobilize, virtually, a new global jihadi identity and a collective psychology, which globalized local conflicts even more than al Qaeda had done. This system allowed people at a distance to identify with and functionally join remote conflicts, and provided them with a command system, a mechanism, and a battlespace for doing so.[2] In functional terms, ISIS created a worldwide community united into an online alternative reality by its virulence and its murderous fantasies.

There has been considerable apprehension that the ISIS survivors, wherever they are, will use the virtual caliphate to remain a major, or at least a significant, threat.[3] The concern is that ISIS will try to define its defeat as actually being some kind of a victory,[4] will attempt to create and exploit nostalgia for the lost cause by claiming that for a brief time truly Islamic rule actually existed on Earth, define its defeat in Syria and Iraq as another trial sent by Allah to test the steadfastness of the faithful,[5] and rally its supporters to continue the jihad.

This article will argue that it is likely to be difficult for ISIS to do this. Aside from the psychological impact of defeat, the loss of the physical caliphate (and the ongoing disruption of its command staff[6]) will remove, or at least weaken, many of the factors that attracted people to ISIS and it will have to deal with the following:

  • The practical difficulty of rebuilding and operating what was a major and sophisticated media machine.
  • The loss of the functional appeal that came from success.
  • The discrediting of the ISIS claim to have a right to rule, including its religious justifications.
  • The loss of most of the psychological and especially the tangible factors that drew recruits and support to ISIS.

The Challenges of Defeat

The practical difficulty of rebuilding and operating what was a major and sophisticated media machine. The success ISIS had at blanketing the world through social media,[7] especially the radical Muslim infosphere, with its propaganda didn’t happen by chance. ISIS built a very impressive media machine, with a sophisticated concept for information operations,[8] an effective and adaptable support network,[9] and a sophisticated facility and staff in a reasonably secure rear area to produce large amounts of very high quality propaganda in numerous languages.[10] That secure rear area, the resources that supported it, and that facility evidently no longer exists, and production has reportedly dropped drastically,[11]although very recently it has apparently shown some signs of recovery.[12] Further, although ISIS has a large number of overseas branches (“wilayats”), wherever ISIS or its remnants might try to find a refuge is not likely to be secure either. Even in spaces uncontrolled by national governments, such as parts of Afghanistan or Pakistan, Somalia, or Libya, they can expect to be competing with other factions, including other jihadis such as al Qaeda. In addition, over time pressure from governments and publics on internet providers and social media companies, in addition to actively targeting ISIS internet operations,[13] are likely to gradually at least restrict the ability of ISIS to operate as a virtual caliphate.[14]

It will have lost the functional appeal that came from success.  Much of the support ISIS has received, especially the outside support from the virtual caliphate, was due its claim to be a genuine state in control of territory, and its appearance of success as an invincible force that was routing its enemies—when ISIS could claim to be living up to its motto of “Remaining and Expanding.”[15] Those days are obviously long over, and they will only be able to spin defeat for so long before it is obviously double talk for losing, although they can be expected to try.[16] Despite whatever residual guerilla war and terrorism ISIS manages to continue in Iraq and Syria, the central and ultimately inescapable fact is and will be that it has lost the war there, and in the process of losing will have brought vast devastation to the people on whose behalf the war was supposedly being fought and for whom its state was supposedly being established. If much of the appeal of ISIS was because it was successful, if it is now seen as unsuccessful we can expect its appeal to decline, most likely drastically.

The ISIS claim to have a right to rule, including its religious justifications, will have been discredited. The self-proclaimed “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed his position as caliph and his authority to proclaim the Islamic State by right of conquest.[17] Now that those conquests have been lost, on what basis will he and ISIS claim to retain the right to rule?  If al-Baghdadi manages to operate underground in Syria or Iraq--likely to be difficult[18]--it will be hard for him to claim to be a ruler of much of anything. A caliph without a caliphate is just a fugitive on the run. Unlike, for example, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, he is not likely to have a sanctuary in a neighboring state, such as Al Qaeda Central and the Taliban had in Pakistan and Iran after 9/11 and the previous iteration of the Islamic State had in Syria, from which to operate.[19] And if he is known to be killed, it will automatically dissolve all oaths of allegiance (bay’at) taken to him, which will both dissolve the organization and leave the survivors up for grabs.[20]

In addition, defeat will be devastating for the religious justifications that were central to ISIS’s claim to rule. Consider the religious questions that the destruction of the ‘caliphate’ raises (immense potential for psychological operations here):

  • Since they lost, Baghdadi and ISIS obviously never really had divine sanction to rule. This means ISIS and its method of rule (the “Prophetic Methodology”) actually had no claim to religious legitimacy and, along with being sacrilegious, Baghdadi was actually just another murderous would-be tyrant trying to carve out an empire of shattered states and ravaged peoples.
  • Alternatively, Baghdadi and ISIS may have originally had divine sanction, as shown by their early successes (undoubtedly a physical manifestation of the favor of Allah) but lost it because somewhere along the line because he and/or the “Prophetic Methodology” became profoundly flawed. [Hopefully, the infighting over exactly where and how this happened will be extremely bloody—jihadis have been known to settle doctrinal disagreements with gunfire and bombs.]
  • Since Baghdadi and ISIS lost, does this mean that someone on the coalitions ranged against them (the Christian ‘crusaders,” Muslim “apostates,” Jews, etc.) were the ones who actually had the ultimate sanction of Allah? If ISIS tries to claim it lost simply because it was overwhelmed by the firepower of its enemies, does this mean that humanity has a veto over Allah’s will?

We should also remember that, effectively speaking, this is the second time ISIS has been defeated—the first time was the crushing of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi’s Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) by American and Allied forces in Iraq nearly a decade ago. How many times can ISIS claim that their defeats are trials inflicted by Allah to test the faithful before the faithful lose patience?

In addition, the loss of the ‘caliphate’ will have other religious impacts. Obviously, Baghdadi and ISIS will no longer be able to claim leadership of the global jihadi movement, let alone the world’s Muslims, once the ISIS statelet is gone and Baghdadi is a fugitive or dead.

Most of the psychological and especially the tangible factors that drew recruits and support to ISIS will be gone. Supporters, in particular active recruits, for ISIS were attracted by a variety of factors. Supporters from Iraq and Syria, who are not the primary focus here, were largely drawn by some combination of religious radicalism, opportunism (I’ll go along to get along—ISIS is just the latest group of fanatics to rule here and I need a job)[21], and desire for revenge and protection against predatory regimes and hostile factions. The foreign supporters, who are the major concern of this article, were and are a diverse group with various motivations. Leaving aside those with mental problems,[22] ISIS recruits from the rest of the Muslim world and the Muslim diasporas in the West have largely been drawn from two main clusters of support for ISIS.  These are what we might call the murderously devout and the devoutly murderous.  Although they posture as addressing the world, ISIS has consciously targeted these two groups in particular for mobilization and recruitment. 

The murderously devout are those who believe that ISIS’s interpretation of Islam is the correct one and the procedures and policies ISIS follows are the way a truly Muslim society should be run.[23]  Ominously, it appears this group has included the many Western ISIS recruits who claim to be seeking a Muslim identity or felt a sense of religious duty. They were drawn to the ISIS claim to supposedly be a truly authentic, even utopian, Muslim society.[24]  Such adherents sought a hyper-orthodox Sunni Muslim regime that went beyond the virulently anti-Western and anti-Semitic hostility so typical of jihadis (and even radical Muslims in general).[25]  They were also often murderously hostile to both Shia Muslims, who ISIS claimed deserved to be exterminated,[26] and those they consider inadequately devout Sunnis. They embraced, or at least accepted, extreme violence as part of their religion, were proud of doing so, and accepted—or endorsed—mass murder, genocide, and slavery because they believed these actions were endorsed by Allah.[27] Typical religious motivations for such people included:

  • Establishing and protecting the Islamic State.[28]
  • Pride in being Muslim and seeking a higher purpose in life by being a member of an elite vanguard and a participant in something greater than themselves.[29]
  • Religious solidarity and defending Islam and Muslims, including their honor and dignity,  from attack by unbelievers, and/or defending Sunni Islam from attack by Shia Islam; [30]
  • Seeking salvation, redemption and status in being a combatant for Islam who is willing to sacrifice everything in a cosmic war of good against evil.[31]
  • The offer of a positive vision with dreams of revival (frequently along with delusions of grandeur.).
  • Fulfilling a religious duty.
  • Seeking a refuge from governments hostile to radical Islam.

The devoutly murderous are often a younger and more variegated group, with a more diverse set of motivations that undoubtedly varies from individual to individual and which, to a degree, evolved over time.  These motivations include a variety of religious, psychological, and practical reasons, such as:

  • A search for meaning and personal fulfillment in life.
  • Revolutionary and religious romanticism. Many of the ISIS troops racing around in their pickups undoubtedly thought of themselves as the reincarnation of the cavalry of Muhammad and shock troops in the rebirth of a conquering warrior empire.
  • Revenge against real or imagined grievances and victimization.[32]
  • Seeking a short cut to reclaim an idealized past of greatness supposedly stolen from them by traitors and malignant outsiders.[33]
  • Seeking a sense of empowerment against scapegoats and conspiracy theories blamed for the failures of their societies and often their own personal failures, and gratification for the will to power.
  • Peer pressure, family ties (jihadism tends to run in families) and group belonging (many jihadis traveled as groups)[34]
  • Glorification of war as a heroic adventure.
  • The thrill of domination and conquest--wanting to be part of successful military venture that was routing its enemies.
  • Nihilism,[35] exuberant bloodthirstiness, the thrill of being a licensed outlaw and of being a law unto themselves with the power to kill (especially appealing to a certain kind of young men), along with the belief that extreme violence and brutality, justified as redemptive violence, are worthy attributes of power.[36]
  • Adolescent rebelliousness, against their societies and, for that matter, against the older generation of jihadis,[37] and boredom.
  • The ability to inspire fear in their enemies.
  • Financial incentives—especially among some of the central Asians.[38]
  • For those with a criminal background, the practical appeal of an identity that confirms their hostility to Western society and offers a community and a mechanism for carrying out that hostility.[39]
  • Sex. ISIS offered wives and/or sex slaves—a matter of considerable appeal to young men who otherwise can’t afford to get married.[40]
  • And the old standby—lack of anything better to do.[41]

Obviously, ISIS has been looking, all too successfully, for those with an inclination to violent radicalism with ambitions to pursue and grudges to settle.[42] But what will happen when ISIS can no longer offer theocratic rule, a refuge, psychological fulfillment and/or tangible benefits? Obviously, most of its attraction to both the murderously devout and especially to the devoutly murderous will be gone.

Conclusions and Implications

ISIS reportedly claims that it will take a generation after it loses control of all territory to kill the idea of ISIS.[43] For most ISIS adherents, it is likely to take much less time than that. While the romantic appeal of “the Lost Cause” may retain residual attraction to its more fanatical supporters—especially some of the murderously devout[44]--it is likely to lose support among those looking for more enduring substance or more tangible benefits. That is likely to be much or most of its support.

Unfortunately, we cannot expect this defeat to end ISIS. Even if the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is eradicated, its embers and fragments from the rest of the virtual caliphate will still be out there. The fragments most likely to survive are some of its wilayats, especially those that consisted of preexisting groups that chose to swear allegiance to ISIS which are likely to resume an independent existence, and individual members and cells. All too many of its remnants are likely to gravitate to other jihadi groups.[45] After all, ISIS is just the latest in a series of uprisings by fanatics who believe in the fantasy ideology of jihadism,[46]  and one of the major long-term effects of ISIS has been to enlarge the pool of fanatics available to draw on. The situation in the Muslim Middle East remains as bad or worse than ever, with state collapse and civil wars in several states, the spreading conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, widespread failures of governance, and economic and social stagnation, with ample potential for further deterioration. Radical Islam of various types remains the primary ideology of protest in the Muslim world and the mechanism and vessel for the alienated there to express their alienation and for the power hungry to pursue their ambitions, along with its being being weaponized by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Jihadism remains the revolutionary flavor du jour in the Muslim Middle East, and we should not underestimate the fanaticism of radical Islam in general and the jihadis in particular. Unfortunately, the eclipse of ISIS will not change any of that. The committed will look for a stronger horse, and al Qaeda is still out there, working to regenerate in the shadows.[47] Ominously, the virtual caliphate model provides a template that it and other groups can use in their continuing wars against the world.

End Notes

[1] J.M. Berger and Amarnath Amarasingam,With the destruction of the caliphate, the Islamic State has lost far more than territory,” Washington Post, 31 Oct 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/10/31/the-caliphate-that-was/?utm_term=.b5f1f5fa736c , accessed 1 Nov 2017.

[2] There are various definitions of the virtual caliphate. The one used in this article is a synthesis derived from the following sources, among others; Yaakov Lappin, Virtual Caliphate, Washington DC, Potomac Bookes, 2011; Neil Krishan Aggarwal, The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate, New York, Columbia University Press, 2016; General Joseph L. Votel, LTC Christina Bembenek, Charles Hans, Jeffery Mouton and Amanda Spencer, #Virtual Caliphate, Center for a New American Security, 12 Jan 2017, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/virtual-caliphate , accessed 1 Feb 2017;  Haroro Ingram, and Craig Whiteside, “In Search of the Virtual Caliphate: Convenient Fallacy, Dangerous Distraction,” War on the Rocks, 27 Sep 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/in-search-of-the-virtual-caliphate-convenient-fallacy-dangerous-distraction/ , accessed 28 Sep 2017; Charlie Winter, “Is Islamic State losing control of its 'virtual caliphate'?” BBC, 9 Nov 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41845285 , accessed 10 Nov 2017.

[3] For example, see Michael P. Dempsey, “The Caliphate Is Destroyed, But the Islamic State Lives On,” Foreign Policy, 22 Nov 2017,  https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/11/22/the-caliphate-is-destroyed-but-the-islamic-state-lives-on/ , accessed 23 Nov 2017.

[5] For a typical example of this kind of thinking, see “Stories of Victory After Patience,” Rumiyah Issue 4, December 2016, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/rome-magazine-4.pdf , accessed 5 Jan 2017.

[6] W.J. Hennigan, “The U.S. military is targeting Islamic State's virtual caliphate by hunting & killing its online operatives one-by-one,” Los Angeles Times, 5 May 2017,  http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-isis-online-20170502-story.html , accessed 6 May 2017.

[7] For an outstanding study of the use of social media in the Muslim world, see Haroon K.Ullah, Digital World War, New Haven, Yale, 2017.

[8] Charles Winter, “Media Jihad: The Islamic State’s Doctrine for Information Warfare,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, 2017, http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Media-jihad_web.pdf , accessed 1 Nov 2017.  

[11] The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, ISIS’s Media Network in the Era after the Fall of the Islamic State, 25 Jan 2018, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/app/uploads/2018/01/E_264_17fv.pdf ,  accessed 26 Jan 2018. Also see Colonel Ryan Dillon and Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, “Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Dillon via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq,” US Department of Defense News Transcript, 27 July 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1260398/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-colonel-dillon-via-teleconference-from/  , accessed 1 Dec 2017, and Winter, “Is Islamic State losing control of its 'virtual caliphate'?”

[12] BBC Monitoring, “Analysis: IS media show signs of recovery after sharp decline,” BBC, 23 Feb 2018, https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c1dov471 , accessed 24 Feb 2018.

[14] Some may go even farther than that. As of November 2017, the UK is considering making it a crime, punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment, to look at jihadi (and far-right extremist) material on-line. See Elliot Friedland,  “How Should Extremist Propaganda Online Be Handled?,” Clarion Project, 19 Nov 2017,  https://clarionproject.org/extremist-propaganda-online-handled/ , accessed 20 Nov 2017.

[16] Their on-line publication Dabiq proclaimed the importance of the otherwise insignificant village of Dabiq in northern Syria, where the al-Malhamah al-Kubrā (The Grand Battle) against the Crusaders was supposed to take place. See Thomas R. McCabe, “Apocalypse Soon?  The Battle of Dabiq,” Small Wars Journal, 12 July 2016, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/apocalypse-soon-the-battle-for-dabiq . They then abandoned the place, and in their on-line publication Rumiyah (which replaced Dabiq after they lost the village) they now claim that the battle for Dabiq was only a precursor to the actual coming Battle of Dabiq which will be part of the al-Malhamah. See “Toward the Major Malhamah of Dabiq,” Al Hayat Media Center, Rumiyah Issue 3, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/rome-magazine-3.pdf , accessed 20 Mar 2017.

[17] Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “This is the Promise of Allah” [Proclamation of the Caliphate], SITE Institute Jihadist News, 29 June 2014, https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Jihadist-News/isis-spokesman-declares-caliphate-rebrands-group-as-islamic-state.html , accessed 30 June 2014.

[18] And their capability to do even that may be limited. See Thomas R. McCabe, “The Islamic State After the Caliphate - Can IS Go Underground?,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 11, No 4 (2017) http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/626/html , accessed 19 Nov 2017.

[19] The closest thing to a nearby sanctuary would be Turkey, where the Erdogan Government has often had an ambiguous relationship with the jihadis in Syria. Aaron Stein, “The Islamic State in Turkey: A Deep Dive into a Dark Place,” War on the Rocks, 6 Apr 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/04/the-islamic-state-in-turkey-a-deep-dive-into-a-dark-place/ , accessed 7 Apr 2016. Also see Meira Svirsky,Secrets and Lies: Turkey's Covert Relationship With ISIS,” The Clarion Project, 29 Mar 2016, http://www.clarionproject.org/analysis/secrets-and-lies-turkeys-covert-relationship-isis , accessed 30 Mar 2016; and Charles Lister, “Turkey’s Idlib Incursion and the HTS Question: Understanding the Long Game in Syria,” War on the Rocks,   31 Oct 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/10/turkeys-idlib-incursion-and-the-hts-question-understanding-the-long-game-in-syria/ , accessed 1 Nov 2017.

[20] Unless he is killed and his body recovered, as happened with Bin Laden, we must recognize that ISIS may not admit his death even after it happens, as the Afghan Taliban did for two years after the death of Mullah Omar. Or he may just quietly disappear and never be heard from again.

[21] For instance, most of the ISIS prisoners taken in late 2017 were locals who prefered not to die fighting. See Graeme Wood, “The Bloody End of the Islamic State's Utopian Dream,” The Atlantic, 20 Oct 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/the-bloody-end-of-the-islamic-states-utopian-dream/543522/ , accessed 21 Oct 2017.

[22] Olivier Roy commented “People no longer think they are Napoleon, now they think they are members of ISIS.” Olivier Roy, Jihad and Death, New York, Oxford University Press, 2017, P. 23.

[23]For a representative sampling, see Martyn Brown, “‘I’d go tomorrow’ Hate cleric Anjem Choudary wants to leave UK and move to Islamic State,” Sunday Express, 19 Oct 2014, http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/‌524746/Anjem-Choudary-leave-UK-Islamic-State , accessed 19 Oct 2014; Richard Engel, James Novogrod and Michele Neubert, “American Extremist Reveals His Quest to Join ISIS,” NBC News Online, 3 Sep 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/‌storyline/isis-terror/exclusive-american-extremist-reveals-his-quest-join-isis-n194796 , accessed 4 Sep 2017; Scott Shane, “From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s Path to Jihad,” New York Times, 21 Mar 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/‌2015/03/22/‌world/middleeast/from-minneapolis-to-isis-an-americans-path-to-jihad.html?_r=1 , accessed 22 Mar 2015; and Paul Sperry, “Meet the American women who are flocking to join ISIS,” New York Post,  13 May 2017, http://nypost.com/2017/05/13/meet-the-western-women-who-are-flocking-to-join-isis/ , accessed 14 May 2017.

[24] “Understanding jihadists in their own words,” Now, 7 April 2015, http://now.mmedia.me/‌lb/en/specialreports/565067-understanding-jihadists-in-their-own-words , accessed 8 April 2015. Also, see Center of National Security at Fordham Law, By the Numbers: ISIS Cases in the United States March 1, 2014-June 22, 2015,  25 June 2015, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55dc76f7e4b013c872183fea/t/56b3aae8f8baf3bfd460ecb5/1454615277175/ISIS+Cases+in+the+U.S.+-+June+2015.pdf , accessed 1 July 2015; Cori E. Dauber, “ISIS and the Family Man,” Small Wars Journal,  July 1, 2015,  http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/isis-and-the-family-man , accessed 3 July 2015;  and Ruth Pollard, ” Islamic State Propaganda: What the West Doesn’t Understand,” Sydney Morning Herald,   July 9, 2015, http://www.smh.com.au/world/islamic-state-propaganda-what-the-west-doesnt-understand-20150709-gi86qu , accessed 10 July 2015.

[25] See Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Also, see Thomas R. McCabe, “The Muslim Middle East: Is There a Democratic Alternative?” Orbis, Summer 2007, pp. 479-494.

[26] For a typical ISIS commentary about Shia Muslims, see Al Hayat Media Center, “The Rafidah; From Ibn Saba’ to the Dajjal,” Dabiq Issue 13, January 2016, P.32-45, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/the-islamic-state-e2809cdacc84biq-magazine-13e280b3.pdf , accessed 11 May 2017.  According to this article, Shiism is a Jewish plot.

[27] For such endorsements, see any issue of ISIS’s on-line propaganda magazine Dabiq,

[28] SusSec Team, “Denmark’s Foreign Fighters – An Interview with Jakob Sheikh,” Sustainable Security, 29 Nov 2017,  https://sustainablesecurity.org/2017/11/29/denmarks-foreign-fighters-an-interview-with-jakob-sheikh/ , accessed 30 Nov 2017.

[29] See Cambanis, “The Surprising Appeal of ISIS.”

[30] Those motivated to defend Sunni Islam often include Shia Muslims as part of the unbelievers, which is actually a common attitude among Sunnis. See Geneive Abdo et al., The Sunni-Shia Divide, Council on Foreign Relations, Undated, http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/ , accessed 16 Jul 2015.

[31] As noted in Roy, Jihad and Death, P. 16.

[33] See Fouad Ajami’s, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, New York, Vintage, 1999. Ajami was talking about the delusions of Arab nationalism, but they apply just as much or more to radical Islam.

[34] See Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, “ISIS and the Foreign-Fighter Phenomenon,” The Atlantic, March 8, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/03/isis-and-the-foreign-fighter-problem/387166/ , accessed 9 Mar 2015.

[35] Olivier Roy defines ISIS as a death cult. See Roy, Jihad and Death, especially chapter 1.

[36] See Kori Schake, “ISIS is Winning,” Foreign Policy, July 9, 2014, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/‌‌articles/‌2014/07/09/‌isis_is_winning_social_media_‌hashtag_diplomacy , accessed 10 Jul 2014.

[37] Roy, Jihadism and Death, pgs. 68-71.

[38] Karoun Demirjian, “In Tajikistan, Incentive to Join Islamic State is Monetary,” Washington Post, July 12, 2015, p. A8.

[39] Conversion to jihadi Islam doesn’t necessarily require criminals to change their violent lifestyle; it can provide a focus and justification for it. Instead of robbing a bank because that’s where the money is they are now robbing it in the name of Allah as part of a jihad. See Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: An Interview with Alain Grignard, Brussels Federal Police,” CTC Sentinel, Aug. 21, 2015, and Ann-Sophie Hemmingsen, Manni Crone, and Jakob Peter Witt, “The Politicisation Of Violence: Alternative to Radicalization,” Danish Institute for International Studies, Sept. 30, 2015, http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?ots591=4888caa0-b3db-1461-98b9- e20e7b9c13d4&lng=en&id=194081 , accessed 3 Oct 2015.

[40] A significant problem in many Middle Eastern societies, and therefore a significant attraction. For an analysis of the problem, see Valerie Hudson and Hilary Matfess, “In Plain Sight: the Neglected Linkage between Brideprice and Violent Conflict,” International Security, Summer 2017, Vol. 42, #1, Pgs. 7-40.

[41] See Keir Simmons and Charlene Gubash, “Captured ISIS Fighter: Joining Extremists in Syria Ruined My Life,” NBC News, 27 July 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/captured-isis-fighter-joining-extremists-syria-ruined-my-life-n398976  , accessed 28 Jul 2015.

[42] There are terrifying parallels here with what Hitler and the Nazis offered the Germans, both the true believers in the movement and storm troopers of the SA who were looking for more tangible benefits and/or a good brawl. See Claudia Koontz’s horrifyingly relevant The Nazi Conscience (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003, which studies the redefinition of morality and the psychology of society in Germany under the Nazis. For those with a substantial knowledge of both the Nazis then and the Middle East and Islam in general and radical Islam today, the parallels are terrifying. 

[43] Uri Friedman, “The Once and Future Insurgency: How ISIS Will Survive the Loss of Its ‘State’,” Defense One, 20 Oct 2016, http://www.defenseone.com/threats/2016/10/once-and-future-insurgency-how-isis-will-survive-loss-its-state/132510/ , accessed 21 Oct 2016.

[45] Noor Zahid, Afghan Taliban Says IS Deputy Leader Has Joined Its Ranks,” VOA Extremism Watch, 30 Nov 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/afghan-taliban-says-islamic-state-deputy-leader-has-/4144740.html , accessed 1 Dec 2017. While this may be an indication of things to come, al Qaeda may be hostile to many former ISIS members. See Thomas R. McCabe, “An ISIS-Al Qaeda Merger?” Small Wars Journal, 2 Sep 2017, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/an-isis-al-qaeda-merger , accessed 4 Sep 2017.

[46] For an explanation of the concept of fantasy ideology, see Lee Harris, “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology,” Policy Review, August-September 2002, http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/3459646.html , accessed 4 Sep 2005.

[47]  Julia McQuaid, Jonathan Schroden, Pamela G. Faber, P. Kathleen Hammerberg, Alexander Powell, Zack Gold, David Knoll, and William Rosenau,  Independent Assessment of U.S. Government Efforts against Al-Qaeda, Center for Naval Analysis, October 2017, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/DRM-2017-U-015710-2Rev.pdf , accessed 24 Nov 2017.

 

 

About the Author(s)

LtCol Thomas R. McCabe, USAFR (Ret) is a retired career analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense and a retired lieutenant Colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He worked for over ten years as a Middle East military analyst for the Air Force and for two years as a counterterrorism analyst after being mobilized after 9/11. He has been published in Small Wars Journal, Parameters, Orbis, Middle East Quarterly, and Democracy and Security. His articles should not be considered the opinion of any agency of the U.S. Government.