Why ISIS Will Regret Not Heeding Bin Laden’s Advice

How you look at things.
June 23 2014 6:32 PM

Al-Qaida’s Seven Rules for the Effective Terrorist

ISIS is breaking all of them. It will live to regret it.

Osama Bin Laden sits with adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri.
For years, Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants, like adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri, right, tried to explain to their affiliates the folly of unchecked brutality. ISIS isn't getting it.

Photo by Visual News/Getty Images

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is scaring the hell out of everyone. It has infested Syria, overrun Iraq, alarmed Iran, and convinced U.S. politicians it’s the most dangerous terrorist organization ever. But frightening everyone isn’t a long-term growth strategy. ISIS is destroying itself.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Al-Qaida, the organization from which ISIS recently split, understands this truth. For years, Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants tried to explain to their affiliates the folly of unchecked brutality. In letters and directives captured in the 2011 raid on his compound, Bin Laden stressed the importance of patience, discretion, and public opinion. His advice, boiled down to seven rules, forms a clear outline of ISIS’s mistakes.

1. Don’t fight civil wars. Bin Laden recognized that battling for territory against local governments was a lousy way to get to theocracy. In a 2010 letter, he explained why this wouldn’t work in Yemen:

As for the local enemy, such as if the Yemenis were to begin a long battle against the security services, this is a matter that will weigh on the people. As time goes by, they will begin to feel that some of them have been killed and they will start to want to stop the fighting. This would promote the ideology of secular governments that raise the motto of pleasing all sides.
Advertisement

ISIS rejects this rule. It calls itself a state. It measures its progress in territory. It’s trying to control as many as 40,000 square miles with an estimated 10,000 fighters. Meanwhile, the parties that have won seats in the new Iraqi parliament are scrambling to form a government that can appease all sides and pacify the country, just as Bin Laden anticipated.

2. Don’t kill civilians. That was Bin Laden’s principal regret. He called for guidelines that would instruct jihadists to avoid “unnecessary civilian casualties.” Mass bombings in mosques and other public places, he lamented, had resulted in “the alienation of most of the nation from the Mujahidin.”

ISIS spurns this guidance. It has slaughtered civilians in Syria and Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. It targets not just enemy soldiers but anyone who has worked for the government. In Syria, an important cleric renounced ISIS because it blew up children and other civilians. In Iraq, Baathists fighting alongside ISIS have promised to restrain it from killing “innocent people.”

3. Don’t flaunt your bloodlust. One of the captured al-Qaida letters, believed to have been written by Bin Laden or his aide, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, urges al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate to “stay away from words that will affect the people’s support to the mujahidin.” The letter says the group must “carefully write our statements in order to avoid all accusation against us from the enemy, who accuse us of being animals and killers.”

ISIS advertises its savagery. It chops off people’s heads. It vows to kill every Shiite. It posts videos in which captives are shot dead and moving cars are machine-gunned. A week ago, ISIS uploaded photos purporting to show its fighters executing 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers. “The filthy Shiites are killed in the hundreds,” said one caption. “The liquidation of the Shiites who ran away from their military bases,” said another. “This is the destiny of Maliki’s Shiites,” said a third. “Look at them walking to death on their own feet,” said a fourth. It’s hard to imagine propaganda better designed to repulse the public and galvanize the enemy.

4. Don’t rule harshly. Bin Laden was a theocratic fundamentalist, but he cautioned his allies to avoid the “alienation from harshness” that was “taking over the public opinion.” The worst offender was Somalia’s al-Shabab. In a 2011 letter, Bin Laden urged Atiyah to “send advice to the brothers in Somalia about the benefit of doubt when it comes to dealing with crimes and applying Shari’a, similar to what the prophet (PBUH) said, to use doubts to fend off the punishments.”

When ISIS captures a city, it follows this rule at first. But soon, the nice-guy act disappears. The group seizes property and humanitarian aid. It executes Christian and Muslim “apostates.” Two days after taking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS banned booze and cigarettes, instructed women to stay home, and announced that government employees who failed to repent would be put to death. This behavior antagonizes Sunni fighters who have collaborated with ISIS. “In some areas that ISIS has taken they are killing our people, they are imposing their Islamic laws on us,” one tribal leader told the New York Times. “We do not want that.”

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful, a new book argues.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 30 2014 1:23 PM What Can Linguistics Tell Us About Writing Better? An Interview with Steven Pinker.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.