The Starfish Caliphate: How ISIL Exploits the Power of a Decentralized Organization

The Starfish Caliphate: How ISIL Exploits the Power of a Decentralized Organization

Stewart Welch

Until recently, Islamic terrorist groups generally adapted themselves to one of two models. The first model was an underground resistance network that could appear anywhere and carry out spectacular attacks. This was Al Qaeda, who sought to inspire jihadists to their cause. The second model, used by groups like the Taliban, was hierarchal and geographically centered, but did little to recruit outside their location.

Today a hybrid has emerged, and that is ISIL. The recent Paris attacks demonstrate how they have managed to combine these two models to deadly effect.  ISIL utilizes a leadership structure necessary to hold territory and implement Sharia law, but their real strength comes from an ability to operate as a decentralized network that helps them project power on the battlefield and in the information sphere.

In their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom describe starfish organizations as those that survive without leadership. Centralized organizations are like spiders: cut off the head and the spider dies. Decentralized organizations are more like starfish, which multiply when you try to cut them to pieces. Groups like Napster, Wikipedia, or Alcoholics Anonymous have strength in their decentralized, leaderless nature. ISIL is a spider organization that acts like a starfish. It is a formidable challenge because it utilizes the power of the starfish and exploits advantages of decentralization, while maintaining a hierarchy of leadership. ISIL possesses aspects of all five legs of decentralization that are common to open system organizations:

  1. Circles – Open networks thrive on circles of common community. ISIL has created circles of interest and support by using the internet and by sharing shocking videos of graphic executions on social media. These forums enable a virtual identity for any would-be jihadist. This has allowed ISIL to propagate their message and recruit tens of thousands of followers. It also allowed supporters and sympathizers to follow ISIL with a certain degree of anonymity, even if they are not actively participating. Thousands of disenfranchised Muslims living in Europe, the Middle East, and America have been inspired not only to support them, but also to move to Syria to be part of the new Caliphate.
  1. Catalyst – Typically, a person initiates a movement and then steps aside to let it develop. However, in the case of ISIL the catalyst was an event: the declaration of a caliphate. The re-establishment of a Muslim caliphate has energized the jihadist imagination and sparked a flood of immigration to Iraq and Syria. This declaration put ISIL on the map as the premier Sunni Jihadist group, likely because no one had been so bold with words and actions until then. This went beyond killing Westerners, to challenging the entire world order and nation-state system.
  1. Ideology – Justifying violence with Islamic texts is a core tenant of ISIL’s ideology, and it is one of the most difficult aspects to counter. ISIL reads in the Quran and Hadith an obligation to subjugate or kill anyone who does not share their narrow views, including fellow Muslims.  They are also apocalyptic, stressing end-times theology far more than Al Qaeda ever did. Muslims must challenge and correct these interpretations, and non-Muslims must reject ISIL’s actions without alienating the vast majority of the Muslim world who do not share this perspective.
  1. Pre-existing Network – Al Qaeda in Iraq operated for years before it morphed into what is now ISIL. Members exploited an already existing network of Bath’ists from Iraq. The U.S.-run Camp Bucca detainee prison in Iraq was a training ground for future ISIL members detained there during 2004-2005. Abū Bakr al-Baghdādi was a leading organizer in that prison. He went on to capitalize on Sunni grievances against corrupt Shia governance in Baghdad to cast ISIL as the people’s choice. Without this pre-existing network, it is doubtful that ISIL would have organized and spread their message so effectively.
  1. Champion – Abū Bakr al-Baghdādi declared the world-wide Muslim Caliphate on 29 June 2014, which energized the movement. He elevated the plight of Sunni Muslims against the West to a degree above the nation-state system, realizing dreams of a caliphate that has been absent since Attaturk abolished it in 1924.  Al Baghdadi is the advocate who started the movement and then took a relative back seat to allow it to flourish.

While ISIL fits the criteria for a starfish organization, it still maintains a hierarchical structure among members of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Brafman and Beckstrom call this a  hybrid organization, but ISIL is far more of a starfish than a spider. Many of the strategies suggested to stop them will be ineffective or counterproductive altogether because they fail to address the decentralized nature of the threat.

Pull them up by the roots” Some favor deploying an overwhelming military force to Syria and Iraq to defeat ISIL. This might work initially, but the networked nature of the organization will allow it to re-spawn elsewhere. The question of ‘what next’ in Syria also lingers, and this has kept us from pursuing an open-ended course of action, and wisely so. This military-centric option leaves the underlying ideology unaddressed, and it plays into their hand. A Western invasion is precisely what ISIL wants, because it would realize their jihadist fantasies of a grand apocalyptic battle with the Western forces in Dabiq, Syria that will supposedly bring about the end days. Fighting the apocalyptic battle would only encourage, bolster its recruitment efforts, and incite sympathizers or would-be soldiers to conduct lone-wolf attacks.

Decapitation – Some advocate killing leadership, but this will be ineffective as well. It is highly unlikely that killing Baghdadi would trigger the collapse of the caliphate, because the movement is not dependent on his personality. The hydra does not die, it just grows another head. The starfish limb grows into another starfish. While hierarchical leadership is necessary to manage a pseudo-state earning millions of dollars a day in oil revenue and implementing sharia law over large swaths of territory, targeting that structure will only slow them down at best. A decentralized movement that has already catalyzed is not dependent on leadership. Al Quaeda did not collapse after UBL was killed, and much less so the Islamic state. In fact, Baghdadi’s death will function as a martyrdom and further catalyze the group to push to achieve the Caliphate and its preexisting goals.

Don’t worry, the world has never been safer – Some argue that ISIL is not a vital U.S. national interest because they are effectively a problem ‘over there’. The Paris attacks demonstrate how they are metastasizing, and how this threat has no effective borders. The Islamic state has already established “providences” in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Yemen, Russian Caucuses and the Philippines. They are taking their brutality to Europe by cultivating support through a rapidly growing population of disenfranchised Muslim refugees. This expansion North exemplifies how disaggregated and decentralized ISIL has become. Labeling them a peripheral national interest is a mistake that will eventually cost innocent American lives.

While each of these strategies targets specific aspects of ISIL, none of them addresses all aspects of the organizational structure. These strategies fail to respond one of the primary successes, the ideology as spread by networked messaging and branding. Therefore, we must adapt our thinking in order to compete with this threat.

Renewed Focus on Counter-Messaging

Countering a starfish requires becoming one. As retired Gen Stanley McChrystal has stated, it takes a network to defeat a network. By definition, a transnational threat requires a coordinated transnational response. To counter the spread of ISIL messaging, we need to organize and synchronize messaging efforts among all groups, nations, and individuals who oppose their visceral, radicalized propaganda. This applies to kinetic as well as information operations. We must take this starfish thinking to the information sphere in order to defeat ISIL at their own game.

Creating an information infrastructure to prevent the spread of ISIL involves identifying ungoverned, under-governed, or refugee-laden areas where Islamic extremism is likely to spread. It also requires identifying and synchronizing governmental, religious, individuals to speak to those target populations about the dangers of this ideology, and the misery of living under their oppression. The more Muslim voices the better, since this is largely an internal Islamic dispute regarding how to best interpret Muslim texts. No group is more qualified to focus messaging efforts than moderate Muslims themselves.

ISIL’s brutality disgusts everyone in the world, and that is to our advantage. The widespread rejection of their ideology and brutality establishes single unifying factor for multiple different groups and nations. Consider the fact that U.S., Sunni Gulf states, Iran, and Russia are actively fighting ISIL ideology and seek to limit their influence and expansion. We should use this confluence of interests to develop a multi-faceted information effort highlighting the dangers and moral bankruptcy of their ideology. Our unified message should focus on universal rejection of their oppressive and murderous worldview. Our brand should be simple: the whole world is against ISIL. This requires connecting opposition voices and proactively messaging audiences that are susceptible to this toxic ideology.  By multiplying nodes, sharing counter-messaging information and focusing our efforts, the international community will become a more expansive, diverse network than the jihadist sympathizers can muster.

These efforts to coordinate messaging are currently underway, but networks take time to develop. The sheer number of nations, groups and individuals that reject ISIL is an untapped advantage that we need to exploit.  Messaging alone will not solve the problem, but it is a critical aspect to countering any decentralized organization fueled by an ideology of violence. Peaceful, freedom-loving people around the world will be dealing with this threat for generations. We need to start to see ourselves as a bigger, stronger starfish with more tentacles and a far greater reach than our enemy.

This article represents the author’s views and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.

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Our brand should be simple: the whole world is against ISIL.

Unfortunately, this just reinforces the message ISIL now projects: We are Islam, and the world is against Islam. As long as ISIL can convince the disaffected that it's a last bastion of a worthy cause, it'll continue to draw recruits. The "ISIL against the world" image actually works in their favor...their recruits become elite in their isolation, carving a new caliphate out of the howling barbarian hordes.

That's the message that must be attacked: the message that ISIL represents Islam, that it's something special, that it's anything more than a group of armed thugs preying on captive populations. That won't totally dry up the recruiting stream, but it'll help. Unfortunately, it's not a role the U.S. or anyone in the West can take on -- that message has to come from the recognized leaders of Sunni Islam, coupled with a dedicated effort -- by those same leaders -- to remove those mosques, schools, and leaders propagating the radical message.

Unfortunately, there's little confidence that will come to pass.