The Islamic State (IS) isn’t an easy entity to describe. It challenges many assumptions about waging war in the 21st century and what it means to govern people groups.
On the one hand IS acts as a militant organisation, trying to conquer and hold portions of the Arab world. On the other it conducts terror attacks in disparate places. Then there’s the mystery of how the group – if that is indeed its best description – manages to keep an estimated half a million people in the core IS territory of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour in Syria from starving by operating a semi-functioning economy.
If IS should be described as a terrorist organisation, then dealing with it through disruption and international law enforcement will have some effect on negating the threat. This process mostly succeeded in Afghanistan against the grandfather of IS, al Qaeda, but the strategy wasn’t enough to stop the group from splintering into franchise groups and ultimately leading to the creation of IS.
Also, whether the group is a militant organisation depends largely on the tactics it uses to achieve strategic goals. Terrorists use terrorism to undermine the morale of an enemy, then often switch to militancy to occupy territory once an enemy shows some weakness. It’s this oscillation between the two that makes an asymmetrical force such as IS so difficult to destroy using conventional military means.
Then again, maybe the obvious is worth pointing out. When the enemy tells you its plans, the best thing to do is listen. IS has been telling the world its desires ever since it took the city of Raqqa in March 2013. The group never wanted to kill the city. Its plan was to form a new regime based on Sharia law, from which IS could spread the ancient form of government throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This is what they tell us they want.
It’s no surprise then that the international community prefers to describe IS as a terrorist entity. Not only does it fit the community’s strategy and dedication of resources for fighting Islamic extremism, it avoids the dangerous step of talking about, and thereby offering some legitimacy to, the idea of an alternative government system. After all, the clue is in the name: Islamic State. It is the idea of change which must be fought, not just the group.
From the point of the view of the US State Department, the preeminent force for upholding democratic government in the world, the threat of an alternative government must be quashed with its full weight. This is why the US and the international community is so concerned about North Korea, Iran, Russia, China and IS. It is no coincidence they are considered “rogue”.
All of these peoples are not happy with the present world order of nation states, international trade and democratic values. So this is where describing the Islamic State gets interesting. If what IS wants is to create an alternative government system in the Middle East, the only question is: do the people living in its occupied regions desire something similar?
To answer this, we have to go back to 2014 in Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul. After IS overtook Raqqa, it purposefully split from al qaeda and took the opportunity to drive across the border into Iraq. Following the Euphrates, it swept Iraqi government forces before it. Yet most observers thought IS couldn’t break into Mosul.
Then government forces fled the city as soon as the guns started firing. US commanders, who had trained the government troops were shocked. But the most intriguing facet of IS’ thrust was how quickly every institution controlled by Baghdad was also forced out of the city – from its police force to sanitation. Clearly IS’ goal wasn’t simply to spread terror. Something larger was going on.
A more important question is how a force of perhaps a few thousand IS fighters overran and occupied Mosul, a city of 600,000, in such short time. The answer is that it wasn’t only IS who used weapons that month. Reliable reports tell of thousands of angry citizens walking into Mosul’s courts, police stations and other government institutions to firmly request those civil servants depart the city or face death.
They did this in part because Baghdad is presently governed by Shiite Muslims, controlled by Iran as a proxy government and caring only about the well-being of the predominantly Shiite regions of Iraq in the south. Mosul is in the north, a traditionally Sunni region, and the general feeling there is that Baghdad neither represented nor administered the Sunni lands well at all.
A thousand IS fighters cannot supress a city of half a million, that requires an agreement of worldview. So because IS is primarily a Sunni force, the people of northern Iraq chose to align with the militants as a serious protest to Baghdad. They chose religion – and a specific sect of that religion – as the fundamental descriptor of their representation. They did this consciously and with planning.
The true story of IS’ incredible resilience in both Iraq and Syria is that it is out-administering the central governments. It does conduct terror and militant attacks, but many of the people attracted to its project are doctors, lawyers and clerical staff. Many do come to fight, but many more want to be a part of the alternative government represented by the Islamic State.
IS not only offers an alternative to the existing world order, it offers an alternative to anarchy. Sure, the project cannot be tolerated by the international community, lest the illusion be dispelled in other parts of the world, but it achieves something for the local people that democratic values and the nation state could not. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to realise that parts of the world do not want democratic values no matter how much they are forced upon them.
Whatever the international community’s response to IS in the coming years, it must have an ultimate plan to out-administer it. This could be done by creating a more representative democratic state or asking which form of government Syrians and Iraqis wish to have. But one thing is clear: non-combatants will align with whichever force offers the most robust set of laws which allow them to continue tilling their fields and protecting their families.
Today this set of laws in Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria is given by the Islamic State. It does not have to be this way, yet the attempt to introduce democracy has also failed. Could it be introduced in a more robust way to out-administer IS? That is the crucial question without an obvious answer.
The frightening implication about the Arab Spring is how much of this counter-narrative thinking already existed in the Middle East before the uprisings. World leaders should be asking how many other people groups around the world might feel the same, just waiting for their own version of IS?