What Would a Jihadist State Look Like?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 13 2014 11:06 AM

The State of Terror

We think of terrorist outfits like ISIS as nonstate actors. But what happens when terrorists carve themselves a state?

(Continued from Page 1)

It’s hard to speak of an ISIS “foreign policy,” at least in a traditional sense. Its central goal is the creation of an Islamic state—a goal it has sought to realize through brutality rather than diplomacy. But the group’s military blitz across Iraq has gone a long way to further discredit the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—particularly after the Iraqi military chose to run instead of fight.

ISIS doesn’t respect state boundaries, believing they are artificial creations of colonial powers designed to divide the Muslim world, so moving the front from Iraq to Syria and back to Iraq is logical from its point of view. Indeed, ISIS sees the struggles in both countries as parts of a larger grand struggle against apostate-dominated regimes (Shiite in Iraq, Alawite in Syria) backed by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. As sectarianism has grown, this conspiratorial view has become mainstream, with Shiites and Sunnis throughout the region seeing the conflict as existential. Lebanon is now facing a rash of bombings as the violence spreads. ISIS’s control of territory gives it a base to recruit, train, and plan attacks on neighboring lands. For now, because of its sectarian focus, ISIS sees the fight against those groups and governments it considers apostate as a higher priority than the fight against the United States, but the United States is also on ISIS’s list of enemies.

ISIS is already the primary magnet for the thousands of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria to oppose the Assad regime: One informed estimate puts the number of foreigners fighting with ISIS at 3,000. The group’s prestige will only soar on the back of this week’s victories. ISIS’s uncompromising ideology and its military effectiveness draw foreign Muslims to its banner, and ISIS often uses these recruits (many of whom are unskilled and, especially if from the West, may not speak Arabic) for suicide bombings. As foreigners integrate into ISIS, their personal networks are used to draw still more fighters to the cause. U.S. and European counterterrorism officials fear that these fighters could return to their home countries and sow terror there. Officials in Europe told me that some European Muslims are drawn to ISIS because they want to live in a real Islamic state—so much so they even bring their families with them. This allure will only grow as ISIS has an actual state for them to call home.

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It is also true that ISIS will run into some trouble once it has an address. Just as ISIS hates everyone, so too does everyone hate ISIS. Even as it is taking on Assad and Maliki, ISIS fighters also kidnapped Turkish diplomats in Mosul, making Ankara more likely to assist ISIS’s enemies.  Iraq’s Kurdish leaders and the Shiite-dominated government have little love for each other, but they will cooperate to contain ISIS. And as ISIS grows in power, the United States and other Western governments are more likely to hold their noses and aid regimes like Maliki’s despite its many abuses and weaknesses and despite the fact most Americans want to leave Iraq far behind. Should the U.S. and other governments decide to intervene more directly, ISIS’s newfound home could become a target-rich environment. A shadowy ISIS emerging at night to terrorize civilians is hard to strike; ISIS “government” facilities and leaders who operate in the open are far easier to target.

Kurdish soldiers provide security at a checkpoint as Iraqi refugee arrive fleeing from the city of Mosul. June 12, 2014.
Kurdish soldiers provide security at a checkpoint as Iraqi refugees arrive fleeing from the city of Mosul, on June 12, 2014.

Photo by Sebastiano Tomada/Reportage by Getty Images

But perhaps the biggest weaknesses for this newly minted jihadist state will be internal. The tribal and regional divisions that plague Iraq and Syria do not go away under ISIS any more than they went away under Syrian, Iraqi, or U.S. control. ISIS has little interest in governing, but if it lingers for long it will have no choice, especially if it wants to prevent the entire population from fleeing. ISIS may be good at preaching fire and brimstone to motivate its followers to kill themselves and their enemies, but the bloodthirsty thug with an AK-47 isn’t much good at helping you find health care or repair your house after it’s been shelled. It can loot and terrorize, but the patient work of providing services or otherwise running a country are beyond it. Even more damning, the movement itself is prone to divisions—violent ones. Power is a function of charisma, not institutions, making rivalries more likely and creating vacuums when a leader is killed. Moreover, having opened the door to declaring other Muslims apostate, it is impossible to close it: You can always find some deviation to fight over or declare a rival insufficiently zealous. The presence of so many foreign fighters often makes this worse. Locals’ zealotry is tempered by their relatives and other personal connections to home; the true-believing foreigners often accept no compromises and, at the same time, their presence exacerbates local resentment and nationalism.

So an ISIS-controlled state will not expand indefinitely, and it may prove even more fragile than what it has already toppled. What follows after jihadist state collapses? That may be a chaos we can’t imagine.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the research director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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