The phrase ‘too extreme for Al-Qaeda’ is inexorably linked to the Islamic State (IS). As a rhetorical tool, it complements ‘death cult’, ‘barbarians’ and Joe Biden’s promise to ‘follow them to the gates of hell’. The language also provides an insight into how IS is perceived in strategic policy circles—best evidenced by President Obama’s description of it as a terrorist organisation interested only in slaughter.
If that’s all true, IS supporters must be either maniacally-evil zealots or those petrified into acquiescence. On that basis, we can rest assured a strategy of forming multinational coalitions, bombing ‘bad guys’, liberating IS-controlled areas with local forces and reconnecting the populace with ‘their’ governments will work. I suspect that’s unlikely. For a strategy to have any hope, it must be based on recognising IS for what it is and understanding the spectrum of active and tacit supporters it attracts.
Insurgencies rely on the population for their survival—Mao asserted that insurgents are akin to fish and the population to the sea—and IS isn’t any different. It’s fluid and diverse supporter base is characterised by a complex interplay of perceptions of legitimacy, fleeting pragmatism and terror-induced collaboration as well as macro- and micro-relationships that may interact complementarily or disruptively. Coming to terms with those dynamics is crucial.
Legitimacy and pragmatism dominate IS’s macro-relationships. Those include its alliance-building with tribal groups and rebel factions, its leveraging of intra-Islamist tensions for recruitment, and its appeals to broader regional and global support networks. IS’s supposed authenticity as an Islamic government (the reason for joining IS according to these British, Australian and Indonesian recruits) and its perceived functionality as a politico-military apparatus (a major reason IS publishes an annual report and promotes its ‘system of control’) are key factors in legitimacy-based support. Pragmatically-motivated IS support tends to fluctuate with successes in the field (IS alliances with tribes in its areas of control) or reflect temporary operational needs (coordination of IS and rebel manoeuvring). Legitimacy and pragmatism are often intimately linked due to the positive relationship between perceptions of legitimacy and the functionality of a ‘system of control’ (ie support follows strength). The fruits of that dynamic are reflected in how significantly IS numbers have swelled since it captured Mosul.
IS’s micro-relationships are those forged with local civilian populations. The CIA recently reported that IS’s fighting force numbers between 20,000 and 31,500 across Syria and Iraq. Those are not huge numbers. IS simply couldn’t successfully fight on multiple fronts, across thousands of square miles, while simultaneously implementing a ‘system of control’ over population clusters numbering in the hundreds of thousands, without local supporters. The nature of that support undoubtedly varies. Some actively support IS as a legitimate and rightful government; others pragmatically collaborate with it. For the majority, the promise of torture and public execution—from IS and its enemies—is sufficient to ensure their acquiescence. Coercion is unquestionably an important tool for IS. Still, flippantly dismissing IS’s ‘system of control’, which is perceived by some locals to address real political, economic and security needs, is fraught with potential problems.
With its complex interplay of motivational drivers and interacting macro- and micro-relationships, IS’s supporter base is inherently volatile. Two implications emerge. Firstly, the unpredictable combination of IS’s ongoing conflict with its rivals and fluctuations in its perceived legitimacy and pragmatic appeal will drive intra- and inter-group fracturing and alliance-building. Those may begin opportunistically but can congeal with time to fundamentally change the strategic landscape. Take for example IS’s conflict with Jabhat Al Nusra and Al-Qaeda (JN/AQ) which is rooted in fundamental differences regarding what is the correct methodology (manhaj) for achieving Islamist goals (see the IS argument and the JN argument). The ‘Letters from Abbottabad’ clearly demonstrated that was a significant issue across the al-Qaeda adhocracy. Just as IS broke away from AQ, the potential exists for other groups to turn to IS for support as its legitimacy and pragmatic appeal rises. A possible result: satellite ‘emirates’ dispersed around the world under the umbrella of IS’s central caliphate (eg Afghanistan and AQIM in North Africa).
Secondly, misguided counter-IS measures risk strengthening rather than rupturing IS support. For example, military alliances established for tactical expediency that ignore potential strategic repercussions (e.g. cooperation with Assad’s forces) could push rebel groups, Sunni tribes and civilian populations into IS’s arms. Bitter irony aside, collateral damage risks driving civilian populations in IS-controlled areas closer to the group. If the purpose of the US-led strategy is ultimately to trigger Sunni ‘awakenings’ against IS, military force alone risks pushing local populations closer to IS as a more palatable option to the return of authorities that helped create the politico-military vacuum for IS’s putsch. IS didn’t simply kill their way in to the ‘fertile crescent’ and the new anti-IS coalition isn’t going to kill their way out.
Haroro J. Ingram is a research fellow with the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies (ANU). His ARC-funded project, ‘Through Their Eyes’, analyses insurgent ‘information operations’ and explores its role as a determining factor in the success of insurgent movements. Image courtesy of Flickr user Beshr O.