COPYCATS

07.08.15 9:15 AM ET

What ISIS Learned From the Cartels

Social media. Beheadings. Dogma. Empty promises. ISIS is copying the Mexican cartel playbook to a T, writes The Cartel author Don Winslow.

A bound man beheaded in front of a video camera, a chained prisoner burned to death in a cage, the sickening images sent out all over the media.

These are the new horrors on the world scene, the brazenly publicized, technology-driven obscenities of ISIS.

Except they’re not new.

And they’re not ISIS.

They’re Mexico.

The Mexican drug cartels were running the Islamic State playbook—decapitations, immolations, videos, social media—10 years ago. It was the cartels that first used social media as a tool of terror and propaganda.

The word “terrorism” has become so well-worn that we tend to forget its root: “terror.”

Its purpose is to terrorize people into submission.

The goal isn’t the action, but the reaction.

An act of terror is useless if people don’t hear about it or, better, see it.

It has to be communicated.

The modern era of this “terro-communication” started with the cartels.

In May 2005, a cartel boss associated with the Beltran-Leyva branch of the Sinaloa Cartel captured four Zeta hitmen sent to kill him. He took them upstairs in a safe house, lined the floor and walls with black plastic bags, and then “interviewed’ them on a handheld Sony camcorder. After the prisoners confessed their various crimes, he shot them in the head—on camera—then mailed copies of the tape to various television outlets. One of the would-be assassins had brought his wife and little daughter with him. The cartel boss gave them money and a bus ticket home, then wrote a letter to the editor with the sanctimonious statement that he, unlike the dead men in the video, didn’t harm women and children.

The television stations didn’t broadcast the tape in its gory entirety, but it soon went viral on the Internet and became, as they say, a “sensation.” The cartel boss in question gained enormous status, power, and yes, popularity—and there were no further attempts to kill him. (Well, for another eight years.)

The lesson had been communicated.

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And the cartels learned a lesson of their own—one that ISIS has fully absorbed: It’s not enough to win the war on the ground, you have to win the media war as well.

The cartels became sophisticated enough to know that they had to control the narrative.

They discovered that the Internet was the perfect tool.

The ’Net has no censor. Neither the established media nor the government can control it. The democratization of communication—some might deem it anarchy—allows anyone to disseminate anything, no matter how disgusting or for what purpose. 

The rival cartels—in a bloody 10-year fight against each other and the Mexican government—also launched a media war, principally on the Internet. Whereas criminals used to try to hide their atrocities, the cartels recorded them and put them out on social media.

The images—decapitations, immolations, disembowelment, torture—were truly terrifying, and that was the point. Like the present-day ISIS, the cartels were trying to seize and control territory, and to do that they needed to intimidate the local population. The videos were a statement of pure power, a way of proclaiming, “Look what we can do. Look what we’re willing to do. This could be you.”

An attitude that screams out of the boastful, arrogant ISIS videos.

Handout

'The Cartel' author Don Winslow.

In their videos, both the cartels and later ISIS go to great pains to justify their actions, turning the cold-blooded murder into propaganda—again, an attempt to control the narrative. ISIS has done the cartels one better, however, adding “feature-level” production values and musical scores that make the cartel videos look cheap and amateurish in comparison.

Both the cartels and the jihadists have recruited highly skilled computer programmers and social media wizards, the cartels sometimes kidnapping them straight off college campuses.

But it’s more than intimidation.

Social media also became a tool for the recruitment of young men and women to join the cartel’s armed forces. The violent videos themselves are recruitment tools, but the cartels literally put out tweets promising high salaries, bonuses, good food and living conditions.

Recruitment succeeds from two basic causes: necessity and attraction.

In the former, young people in the cartel-controlled neighborhoods have no choice but to join in order to survive. They literally have to choose sides or be killed, and they are going to try to pick the most powerful. The videos are a way of asserting that dominance—“You want to be the guy holding the chainsaw, not the guy with its blade at his neck.”

The other is more complicated. It’s hard to understand why anyone would be attracted by the horrific images, and yet they are. We see young men and women flocking to the ISIS banner after being recruited on social media. In the case of the Mexican cartels, we saw similarly powerless and alienated young people attracted by the power and cohesion of the cartels. Few things are more seductive than power to a person who sees him or herself as powerless. They were offered guns (power), money (power), and association with something larger than themselves.

Again, ISIS learned this lesson. They offer guns, salaries, jobs for locals, brotherhood, and the ultimate reward of Paradise. While the recruits to the cartels were basically attracted by money and power rather than ideology, at least two of the cartels—La Familia Michoacana and its successor, the Knights Templar—were based on a core religion.

The Mexican cartels also pioneered the glorification of dying young. A common saying among recruits is, “Better five years as a king than thirty-five as a mule.” The Islamic State and other jihadists encourage their young men to find Paradise sooner rather than later.

So whether from necessity or attraction, recruits flowed into the cartels, as they are now to the Islamic State.

ISIS learned other lessons from the cartels.

Another goal of terrorism is to goad the enemy—usually the greater economic and military power—into a disproportionate response that will alienate the local population. The cartels provoked the Mexican government into sending in the Army rather than the police. The soldiers wrecked houses, burned villages, beat and tortured suspects who were often innocent, turning an otherwise neutral or helpful population into enemies. The cartels would follow up by building clinics, churches and playgrounds, hold festivals for children and Mother’s Day celebrations in which they would give every woman a washing machine or refrigerator.

The double-handed tactic of intimidation and generosity has been used by ISIS and other jihadist groups as American missile strikes and bombs cause civilian casualties and attract fresh recruits. ISIS is trying to provoke the U.S. into putting boots on the ground, where it can fight an urban guerilla war, with all the prolonged bloodshed that entails.

Tragically, ISIS modeled another cartel tactic.

The ruthless elimination of the “other.”

As the drug war spread and deepened, the cartels would go into a town or neighborhood and simply mow down anyone who wasn’t “them,’ real or even suspected enemies. If it were even possible that a group of people might be on the other side, the cartels killed them. They attacked drug rehab centers, teenage birthday parties, hospitals. The Zetas routinely stopped buses of immigrants headed north on Highway 1 (The Highway of Death) and killed all the men for fear that they might be recruits for the rival Gulf Cartel. The women and children were either killed or raped, and then turned to prostitution or forced field labor.

ISIS, in turn, has also slaughtered the “other’—Christians, Shiites, “heretics,” “infidels”—anyone they fear might cooperate with the enemy or challenge their authority. Again, with ISIS and other jihadists groups, the women are given or sold into forced marriages.

This is the ISIS playbook: social media as a means of intimidation, recruitment, and provocation; mass murder as a means of control—that we now watch with horror and revulsion.

But, in reality, we’ve been seeing it for years.

Just across our border.

ISIS learned it from the cartels.