Islamic State and the ‘management of savagery’

Daesh, the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, can be viewed as the most disruptive start-up ever devised. It uses modern technology to spread its message, radicalizing people in a matter of weeks rather than months or years. It also enables its recruits and acolytes to organize unprecedented attacks through undecryptable communications.

Yet this new technology, and the changes in the way digital information flows, also offer an opportunity to defeat Daesh. The rise of smartphones has created new trustworthy sources of information and forged pathways that can disrupt radicalization. The innovative ways to organize and get information can help reveal the bankruptcy and incoherence of extremist positions — if the right resources can be created.

Otherwise, even if an atom bomb is dropped on Raqqa, Syria, the capital of Daesh’s reputed “caliphate,” the group’s ideology and terror network will continue online. While al Qaeda lurks in the wings to take up its mantle.

To defeat Daesh, key questions about what it really wants and who Islamic the group really is must first be answered.

This might seem complex because religions encompass a range of interpretations. Yet every religious community has specific criteria for membership.

Daesh is often labeled as Sunni. In Arabic, the full term for Sunni is “ahl as-sunnah wa l-jamāʻah,” or the people of the practice of the Prophet Mohammad (Sunnah) and the consensus of the Muslim community.

Islamic law is an effort to discern the “will of God,” also known as sharia. For the first three generations of Muslims, this was straightforward because the prophet directly stated they would be on the “right” path.

Over time, however, as Islam spread from Casablanca to Kazakhstan, it grew more complicated. Scholars formalized the process of determining sharia by looking at the links between the eternal Koran and the temporal Sunnah and applying them to contemporary issues.

A wide range of interpretations arose based on different collections of axioms. These were gradually codified into four schools of thought, though each viewed the others as offering acceptable interpretations. It all built on a saying of the prophet that his community would not unite on an error, which led to a juristic axiom known as “ijmā” (from “jamāʻah”) — consensus of the jurists.

Around 1000 AD, each school based its “strongest” and “relied-upon” positions on a consensus of the major scholars in its respective school, after checking and cross-checking all the available evidence.

Yet, just as it is clear that Daesh is not Shi’ite because it rejects key elements of Shi’ite Islam — and actually hates Shi’ites with a passion — its views are not within Sunni orthodoxy. This is not to say that Daesh is not Muslim according to Sunni orthodoxy. For most Muslims, their religion is a matter of belief and not actions. Even murderers or pedophiles, for example, are still regarded as Muslims — though they commit terrible crimes and are awful human beings.

Yet Daesh goes one step beyond: It declares those who disagree with its views as non-Muslim. It labels them heretics based on their actions, not their beliefs. Muslims who do not follow the views Daesh professes are its main targets — and most frequently its key victims.

Daesh particularly targets refugees. They are most despised because they are fleeing from its professed utopia. So, Daesh welcomes calls in Europe to close borders because it feeds into its agenda. It also sees overflowing refugee camps as ideal sources of future recruits because it seeks to serve as their primary source of employment, much as Hamas does in Gaza.

The fatwas issued by Daesh draw on elements of Sunni Islam. In common with extremists of all stripes, however, the group cherry picks its sources and evidence to create desired outcomes.

Understanding these desires, and how Daesh plans to satisfy them, is necessary to defeat it.

Daesh wants a state that is as large as possible in order to prepare for the apocalyptic battle between the forces of the anti-Christ and the messiah (mahdi), who they believe will be aided by Jesus’ return from heaven.

It does not view its own actions as evil, but rather as necessary to achieve its goals. Members of Daesh are willing to kill, or even die, for their community. Yet this is triggered by narcissism, not altruism. Their seminal strategic work, for example, is called the “management of savagery.” It outlines how to increase savagery in areas outside their control and then take over as the areas dissolve into chaos.

Its members are not looking to win hearts and minds. Instead, they prey on Muslims who feel alienated from their society and seek to increase their oppression, as well as inflame broader sectarian and ethnic divisions. This creates an “addressable market” for the group to radicalize and transform into ardent true believers.

Daesh is intent on eliminating all gray areas: You are either with us or against us. It is being helped in this by those who call for authoritarian or oppressive actions in response to its heinous acts.

To defeat Daesh decisively, it is essential that its opponents steadfastly defend their freedoms and discredit Daesh’s ideology by disrupting its efforts to radicalize disaffected or disempowered individuals who lack the religious education to stand up to its well-honed pitch.

The “war on terror” has been a failure. The enemy is now stronger and more numerous than ever, despite the huge cost and civilian casualties. The enemy must be understood. New and more effective strategies must be employed to address the root of the problem — not just its symptoms — to be successful and not fall victim to growing fear.

Emad Mostaque is an investment strategist focusing on geopolitics at Ecstrat.

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