Image from The New Yorker.
In her New Yorker story on the purported death of ISIS spokesman and strategist Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, Robin Wright gets an interesting quote from an ISIS expert.
Hassan Hassan, the author of the Times best-seller “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” described Adnani as one of a small handful of leaders left from among the organization’s founding fathers. “This means that the transition to the second and third tiers of the group is already well under way. And this could affect the direction of the organization and how it operates,” Hassan told me. “Those leaders who grew up within this organization are more attuned to the local dynamics, so the decapitation of such leaders could, in fact, inject a new life into the group. That said, the Islamic State is already shaped and well defined by those founding fathers, strategically and ideologically, so these new leaders have little wiggle room to make a change, but this is more possible than before.”
This is the central dilemma for ISIS, and the ISIS-inspired and affiliated groups, as it moves forward and struggles with AQ for the mantle of jihad. After all, they became so powerful because of their unrelenting dedication to violence, which is incredibly attractive to people, and always has been. It offers a sort of purity, and an elevation above petty morality, etc. It’s Fight Club with a glossy religious patina and a sort of medieval escape fantasy. But that’s not always successful, which is something that Adnani should have learned. As the Soufan group points out, he had an example in his mentor.
Al-Adnani was one of the few surviving members of the original group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Long before the declaration of a caliphate, the Islamic State’s previous iterations—such as al-Qaeda in Iraq—were among the most violent and effective terror groups in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Al-Adnani was a trusted associate of Zarqawi, whose manipulation of media and spectacle of public savagery would be imitated by al-Adnani as the Islamic State exploded onto the global scene in 2014. Over the last 14 years, al-Adnani has been front and center as Iraq, and then Syria, became the stage of unrelenting and escalating terror. He had been imprisoned both by the U.S. in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria. As with other infamous terrorists, the arc of al-Adnani’s terror history was long, and bent towards massive suffering and destruction. His death will not bring about the end of the Islamic State. Nonetheless, it marks a significant loss for the group and removes a leading actor from the terror stage.
Zarqawi, of course, was brought down by the revolt against his methods. It’s the difference between him and the leaders of AQAP, which made sure to not alienate the locals, and tried to make grievances dovetail. ISIS is more powerful, with more foreign fighters, and were able to subjugate the territory under their control much more rapidly than AQI. That’s made a difference, but as they start to lose ground, it obviously won’t be permanent.
This is the crossroads for ISIS, as they move toward what Hassan calls “second and third-tier leaders”. If these leaders, especially ones around the world, move toward an “think global, act local” sort of jihad, they will be largely indistinguishable from AQ affiliates. If they continue to act as the caliphate, and ignore local concerns– the biggest one being “we’re concerned that you’re burning alive anyone who looks cross-eyed”– then they’ll never gain the local support they need.
That’s why I think the ISIS model is ultimately unsustainable. If it moderates, it loses adherents, the wild-eyed passion-filled radicals who seek a glorifying fire. But if it stays like this, it will never be able to gain actual local footholds other than through domination, which won’t last. That isn’t to say this isn’t a dangerous model; there will always be people emulating it in smaller and smaller cells, trying to pick up the mantle of “the real ISIS”. That is a global danger that could hit literally any community. I think that’s what is next for ISIS: a gradual splintering, and a new phase of terrorism.