Given the terror outfit Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s meteoric rise and its enormous appeal among Muslim youth all over the world — including India — no nation can afford to ignore its threats. This becomes more imperative after a recent report carried by USA Today that IS is contemplating an attack on India. The fact that as obdurate a nation as Turkey has at last chosen to join the U.S. and other allies in the war against IS would point to a global consensus that the civilised world will have to pay a heavy price if it cannot tame the outlaw.
Against this background, R.K. Raghavan spoke to Dr. Jessica Stern of the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University.
Dr. Jessica Stern is acknowledged as an expert on terrorist organisations and a policy consultant. She has written extensively on the subject, including in her latest book, ISIS: The State of Terror, co-authored with J.M. Berger. She is known to have personally met members of terror groups such as the Taliban.
If you are asked to describe the IS in one sentence, how would you respond?
IS is a hybrid organisation that combines elements of a proto-state, a millenarian cult able to attract recruits from all over the world, an organised crime ring, and an insurgent army led by highly skilled, former Baathist military and intelligence personnel.
What is IS’s lure — the reason why many recruits have joined from other countries — based on?
IS’s lure is mainly based on its marketing skill and the way it has figured out how to sell its version of jihad to different audiences. For some the declaration of the Caliphate, the holding of territory, the claim to be a true Islamic state is critical to IS’s appeal. For others, salaries, free housing, free food, and wives — the so-called “five-star jihad” — are clearly important. For still others, the extra-lethal violence must be part of the appeal.
Foreign women are joining the “migration” to the Islamic state in the belief they will become jihadi wives and mothers of the next generation; some of them will be passed from “husband’ to “husband” from one week to the next.
Foreign fighters who manage to get out say that the “Caliphate” is more brutal than they expected, and that they narrowly avoided death in trying to escape. Inside Iraq and Syria, the organisation exploits the disenfranchisement and fear of Sunni Arabs.
Finally, some are clearly drawn to IS’s apocalyptic, sectarian narrative, and the chance to witness the lead up to the “Endtimes.”
Aren't you exaggerating the impact of IS’s use of technology, especially Twitter?
I don’t believe we are. IS is exploiting the Internet in a way no previous jihadist group has before. Social media plays an important role in the recruitment of foreign fighters, whereas the disenfranchisement of Sunni Arabs is more important locally.
How unified is the IS leadership? Are there prospects of dissonance which the West can exploit?
It is very difficult for someone working outside government to understand the nature of the relationship between the former Baathists, who bring military and intelligence skills, and the “Caliph,” who is a religious scholar. Some information is now coming out from a recent raid by the U.S. military, suggesting that the group is well organised to withstand decapitation strikes, suggesting a disciplined leadership cadre. There is tension between foreign fighters and local IS members; the foreign fighters are perceived as caring little about the local population. But the history of jihadist groups suggests that such splits will appear. Jihadist groups are constantly splitting, merging, competing, and collaborating. They are “chaordic [blending chaos and order] organisations,” characterized by constantly evolving allegiances, enmities, and alliances.
One hopes very much that the world’s intelligence agencies are seeking to understand or foment such splits in order to exploit them.
Do you foresee any other fault line that could weaken the IS in the near future?
IS has managed to repulse most of the world; essentially no country is on IS’s side (though some appear to be siding temporarily with IS to achieve other goals). Nonetheless, money, goods, and personnel are still getting in and out of IS-controlled territory. It will make a big difference when governments get more serious about stopping these flows.
Is researching IS more difficult than the al-Qaeda or Taliban?
It’s very hard to understand terrorists’ goals, their pretensions, their fears, unless you sit down with them. Once they felt fairly confident that I was not working for your [Indian] government, jihadi leaders in Pakistan told me surprising things that you wouldn’t get from their marketing campaigns — that they got funding from both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran; that they saw themselves as glamorous; that for some, jihad is an addictive adventure. Jihadi leaders cynically exploit ignorant youth who are seeking a new identity with dignity. But they also have grievances that are important for us to listen to and understand.
IS doesn’t seem to feel it needs researchers or journalists to tell its story; it needs hostages. On the one hand, IS has made much more material available on-line than previous groups have. But there is much that we miss by assessing IS from afar.
How much credibility would you attach to the latest USA Today report of the IS plan attack India.
This document reflects IS’s wishes, not its capabilities. The IS has repeatedly made clear that its apocalyptic goals include provoking a series of sectarian wars leading up to the “Final Battle” and the “Endtimes”. The outfit has made some headway in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In January of this year, it announced the establishment of a new “province” called the Islamic State of Khurasan, boasting in its magazine Dabiq that “numerous” groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan had joined the new province. But so far, the groups that have joined the ISK appear to be small, or splinter groups from TTP and other groups. The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, if true, will lead to additional defections to ISK. But that doesn’t mean that sparking a war in India is credible.
(Dr. R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director.)