Mind Games

10.25.15 4:01 AM ET

The Real Power of ISIS

The West has failed utterly to understand the appeal of the ISIS narrative, much less to develop effective counternarratives.

As U.S. troops and their allies stage commando raids to rescue prisoners slated for slaughter by the so-called Islamic State, and the Russians mount bombing raids to bolster the dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it’s easy amid the kinetics to lose sight of a central and potentially determining fact about the fight against ISIS (or ISIL, or Daesh): This is, fundamentally, a war of ideas that the West has virtually no idea how to wage, and that is a major reason anti-ISIS policies have been such abysmal failures.

It’s not as if the core approach of ISIS is a mystery. Required reading for the emirs of the Islamic State is Abu Bakr Naji’s The Management of Savagery, a detailed manifesto, published a decade ago, looking at the West’s debilities and the potential strengths of a rising, ruthless caliphate. One typical maxim: “Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly.” That is, suck U.S. troops into the fight.

In the meantime ISIS is reaching out, especially in Africa but also in Central Asia and wherever a state of “chaos” or “savagery” (at-tawahoush) exists, to fill the void. It is establishing its caliphate as a global archipelago where “volcanoes of jihad” erupt, so that it may survive even if its current core base between the Euphrates River in Syria (Raqqa) and the Tigris in Iraq (Mosul) is seriously degraded. Libya is a prime target as the gateway to a continent in chaos, where ISIS is investing heavily. Over 700 Saudi fighters have gone there in recent months, according to evidence Saudi leaders presented to me in August.

Current “counter narratives” aren’t in the least appealing or successful, whether in attracting or deterring ISIS supporters and recruits. They are mostly negative and they lecture at young people rather than dialoguing with them. As one former ISIS imam told me and my colleagues: The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided.

In contrast with, say, the off-target tweets of the U.S. State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals, to learn how their personal frustrations and grievances can fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustration into moral outrage.

Current counter-radicalization approaches lack the mainly positive, empowering appeal and sweep of the Islamic State’s story of the world, while at the same time lacking the personalized and intimate approach to individuals.

Any serious engagement must be attuned to individuals and their networks, not to mass marketing of repetitive messages. Young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture at one another. From Syria, one young woman messages another:

“I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.”

According to people I spoke with at the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, the government has exactly one person in the field dealing on a personal level with these issues for the country, and the FBI is doing its best to “get out of the messy business of engagement for prevention” and just stick to criminal investigation. “No one wants to own any of this,” one woman from the NCTC told us.

Without universal appeal, and quality individual time, little progress can be made beyond what’s achievable by force of arms. Appeals to “moderation” (wasattiyah) fall flat on restless and often idealistic youths seeking adventure, glory and significance. “Brainwashing” and “nihilism” are vapid notions most often adopted by those (especially politicians and parents) who simply do not want to face the problem, or are in denial, about the multifaceted appeal of ISIS to yearning young people who want to be rebels with a cause, to stick it to the man — who want, as they see it, to defend the oppressed.

Grass-roots approaches are not sufficient. The opponents of ISIS can exhibit local success (UNOY Peacebuilders has had remarkable results in this regard)  but this will not challenge the broad appeal of the Islamic State that attracts young people from nearly 90 nations and every walk of life.

What is needed is a platform where the lessons of local successes can be shared with government, and ideas allowed to bubble up from young people to those who can help refine and realize them. To date no such platform exists. Young people with good ideas have no really good institutional channels to develop them: naive demands such as “governments must do this or that” are dismissed out of hand by people in government who have to deal with real-world constraints on power and its exercise.

There are striking historical parallels with the rise of ISIS. The French Revolution suffered through internal factionalism and fighting, “the Terror” was introduced as a political tactic, the realms of the revolution were invaded by a fractious coalition of outside powers, yet the revolution survived, transformed, and emerged as the Empire. The failure and aftermath of the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe is somewhat suggestive of what happened with the Arab Spring, when participatory democracy had not yet sufficiently developed the underlying values and institutions—free press, independent judiciary, tolerance of minorities, etc.—needed to make popular choice and elections more than a tyranny of the majority.

The rise of al-Qaeda in the late 20th century is reminiscent of the rise of anarchism in the late 19th century. The present dwindling of AQ relative to Daesh is similar to the co-opting and near annihilation of the anarchists by the Bolsheviks, who knew much better how to manage a shared political ambition through military and territorial administration. And there are lessons to be learned from the experience of the Nazis as well: The National Socialist movement had genuine appeal as it asked for self-sacrifice in a glorious mission of radical, world historical change that rejects all prior international norms governing the relations between peoples and nations.

George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf in 1940, descried the essence of the problem: 

“Mr. Hitler has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. Hitler knows… that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.”

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In a similar vein, the Arab Sunni radical revivalist trend, of which ISIS is now the spearhead, is a dynamic, revolutionary countercultural movement of world historic proportions, and simply treating it as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism,” or convincing oneself that refusing to call it by its own name can somehow de-legitimize it, is to my mind delusional and therefore only adds to the danger.

ISIS is not directed, controlled or contained by the institutions and power arrangements of the prevailing nation-state system, which was the case with the fascist movement, the communist movement before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and for that matter the Iran-dominated Shia awakening. So it has not been well understood, much less coherently dealt with, by our own academics and policymakers, whose views of history do not fathom, or wish to fathom, the moral seriousness, depth, and often compelling alternate view of history that ISIS presents.

The ISIS narrative is rooted in the reality of Muslim dominance of middle Eurasia until the European industrial revolution, and rejection of the Western world order imposed after the Ottoman collapse—an order that has failed the region in all its tried and various forms, whether nationalist authoritarianism, socialism, fascism, communism, democratic liberalism, or constitutional monarchy.

Finally, there is a disheartening dynamic between the rise of radical Islamism and the revival of the xenophobic ethno-nationalist movements that are beginning to undermine seriously the middle class—the mainstay of stability and democracy—in Europe in ways reminiscent of the hatchet job that the communists and fascists did on European democracy in the 1920s and ’30s.

The fact that Europe's reproductive rate is 1.4 children per couple and so needs considerable immigration to maintain a productive workforce that can sustain the middle-class standard of living—at a time where there has never been less tolerance for immigration, and which is another situation of chaos that ISIS is well-positioned to exploit—is not a happy development.

Managed savagery, it would seem, is winning out over ease, security, and avoidance of pain.