Notes on ISIS from Far, Far Away

ISIS, or ISIL (take your choice—I will call it I/I), appears to be the new shape of 21st century asymmetrical radical Islamist politics. al-Qaeda is at war with it as well as the new “coalition of the willing” rallied under President Obama in September 2014. This motley agglomeration, formally or not, includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the moderate Syrian rebels, Britain, the unrecognized Kurdish nation, the United States, and others, many of whom are enemies under other circumstances. In many ways, this bizarre alliance represents the standard reaction against insurgent asymmetrical warfare originally brought to the fore by Al Qaeda, but now compounded with an electronic media campaign, a huge war chest, and the appropriation of civilian and military resources. The I/I insurgency appears to be the first truly 21st century conflict.

I/I, unlike its hugely unorganized predecessors, has a relatively coherent infrastructure and strategy and can produce professional recruitment videos that reach around the world. It has no hard borders and two maps found under a Google image search that shows two radically different aspirations for the final borders. One looks similar to the old Ottoman Empire while the other seems to be a mashup of the extents of old Arab occupation during the Middle Ages with the Austro-Hungarian Empire glued on, or perhaps the borders extant in the region around World War I.

Though it uses social media to present a unified image (something al-Qaeda could never do), I/I is far from the indoctrinated/streamlined organization of national militaries—its members are a motley mix of extremists and veteran Socialist/secular Ba’ath party officers. This is I/I biggest weakness: its morphology. It could also be its greatest strength, since, in this way it’s akin to a strange ideological amoeba, absorbing assets as it grows. On top of this, according to Martin Chulov (writing for the Guardian,) I/I’s net worth is something along the lines of 2 billion dollars.

Perhaps an amoeba is not the correct metaphor, underepresenting I/I’s size. In this light, it is more akin to the eponymous monster in The Blob—big, amorphous, and seemingly unstoppable.. This is due to I/I’s tactics of invading territory and absorbing its resources. The fact that banks with liquidity fall into I/I hands alongside oil facilities and US military equipment abandoned by iraqi forces. It’s a strange modern day game of Risk, except with a media production complex transmitting beheadings alongside funny cat videos. The more one reflects upon the scenario, the sheer strangeness and cunning of the situation I/I has constricted becomes apparent. So what we have is a well-funded, organized and mediated insurgency that claims to have its borders defined by a somewhat artificial ideology rather than geography and it’s throwing the First World into a panic.

I/I Speculative Map I

This is no surprise, as I/I is essentially an al-Qaeda 2.0, which integrates non-traditional warfare by using informatic/PR warfare as well as unconventional military incursion. This combination of ideology, infostructure and infrastructure combines what I have termed as “Info-power” and “Atomic [material/conventional] power” in a deadly combination. It is a nightmare for the conventional nation-state which is forced to act and respond as just that.

Since the global political configuration of formalized nation-states and boundaries that began in the 19th century, and solidifying after World War I and the fall of the Ottomans in the 20’s, conflict between national entities was handled either through covert (intelligence) or overt (army vs. army) means. Of course, guerrilla tactics are nothing new, as Vietnam, Colombia, Nicaragua and others have taught the West. However, groups in Africa and the Middle East, with I/I, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, amongst others, are emerging in areas with weakened political infrastructures. The interesting part of some of these groups are the increasingly complex pastiche of interests that each one brings together and the degree to which they are able to find funding/resources. In the case of I/I Islamist extremists that are banding together with some ousted secular Ba’athist military for organizational purposes, this makes I/I’s Islamic position appear little more than a veneer.

I/I Speculative Map II

Despite this seemingly opaque overlay, there is something far more insidious at hand. I/I combines a dangerous mix of conquered territory, military experience, infospace and capital that allows it access to conventional power (land, resources, money), but its info-savviness allows it to act virally, which is something that al-Qaeda didn’t do well at all, putting its media releases out on VHS tapes or the occasional DVD. I/I uses YouTube and thumb drives and Twitter. The difference between the two is best described in the words of Fergie, who once said, “I’m so 2008 – you’re so 2000 and late.”

I would like to posit I/I to be the result of an iterative process (perhaps evolutionary) of essentially Anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East, spreading into Africa and Eurasia. The logical conclusion for this process is the building frustrations created by the “Great Game” in Eurasia (or the constant manipulation of power in the Middle East and Central Asia by the West), beginning with the conflicts between Britain and Russia in the 19th century, to the various Western promises of assistance after the World Wars, all of which were never fully realized. A conventional reaction in the region would be the Iranian Revolution, but with the miscalculation of assuming the CIA-backed Mujahideen in Afghanistan would remain friendly after the expulsion of the Soviets, the United States learned a deadly lesson. As political instability and vacuums of power expand within the region, a mix of building organization, ambition, extremism, and ignored anti-Western sentiment has built, where the United States hoped that the Arab Spring would result in a democratic renaissance throughout the Muslim world. Instead, it seems to be more like a political blip, with the area becoming increasingly unstable; enter I/I.
I/I is the latest thing; a realized yet surreal near-future scenario, like something out of a William Gibson or Bruce Sterling sci-fi novel. At the 2014 SxSW Interactive Austin EFF party panel, Sterling lamented that current reality surpassed any dystopia he had ever imagined as a science fiction writer. He vehemently stated that that the future we have wasn’t the one he wrote about or any one he wanted. I/I’s use of viral media and lack of definite goal exampled in its lack of clearly defined borders reveals the traditional nation state’s terror of amorphous conflict. A September NPR news segment on WBEZ in Chicago dealt solely with the potential, stating that “There are no definite threats at this time”.

I/I Flag

This undefined threat is very web 2.0. I/I is waging the first ever YouTube war. Al-Qaeda’s VHS tactics are old hat, safe, and easily defeated. The virality of I/I’s video threats is part of this idea that its sphere of influence is both physical and digital. However, its physicality manifests with shadowy borders, expanding digitally throughout the networked world which is not firewalled. This is a form of asymmetrical contestation that challenges the notion of the modern nation-state by distributing its power through decentralized networks rather than traditional chains of command and control.

The inability for nation-states to effectively fight amorphous enemies was evident with al-Qaeda to a lesser degree and is even more so with I/I as it threatens the established order with the combination of asymmetry/virality without nomadism, but with a shadowy borders (meaning its enemies, besides being merely “the West,” are still unclear) and stated dreams of a huge regional presence. There is no small irony that the Arabic name for ISIL is “daesh” which roughly means “traveling.”* In some ways, it is a speculative state, operating both under traditional and informatic modes. Strange indeed. In some ways, this is the reason why the West has sprung into action before a 9/11-caliber event. It isn’t necessarily what is already happening in the Middle East, it is the potential that is sold as being the most terrifying threat that I/I offers as a very real perpetuation of the contemporary “culture of fear”, documented by writer Barry Glassner.

Tweet showing Omar al-Shishani (known as “Omar the Chechen”) inspecting an American humvee; Al-Shishani is one of the most regularly photographed commanders of I/I possibly due to his “Western” complexion

What the emergence of I/I signals is a unique signature of the situation of the 21st Century. Economic and social instabilities, especially in Africa and the Middle East, have caused vast power vacuums that have challenged infrastructure after uprisings. And, in the case of the post-Iraq War, the imbalance of power created by the removal of the (secular) Ba’athists allowed for Iran to take a more aggressive stance in the region after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Ironically, according to the press, it is some of those very Iraqi officers who are involved in the military organization of I/I, which signals a double backlash in the latest moves on the Great Game.

This also draws into question whether I/I is actually about Islam at all as many of its military leaders are secular Ba’athists. I/I has learned from the Arab Spring and memetic culture by using social media to organize and spread ideology beyond its sphere of influence, which as said before, is murky. In many ways, they are global trolls who have enmeshed themselves in Iraqi and Syrian regions, benefiting from the same infrastructure that the West would like to remain in place. However, in order to cripple the profit-making potential of the captured infrastructure, the West may need to destroy or damage those resources. As with trolls, the idea is to elicit a response to the stimulus (destabilization of their sphere of influence through invasion: physical and videos of beheadings: viral/digital), which is the desired response. In this provocation, a double or triple dose of suffering already harmed by local regimes or the West may fuel additional recruits to those seeing I/I as a potential solution. Add into this mix conflicting powers, such as Kurds, Iran, and the U.S. (as a strange constellation of “frenemies” or an uneasy alliance of the “unwilling”) and what emerges is a delicate regional and global imbalance.

The point: the emergence of I/I is a combination of situations coming together as effects of the Great Game, the Iraq Wars, Internet-mitigated uprisings, late stage politics of the “Arab Spring” (as part of the situation involves the uprising in Syria), and tactics derived from Internet culture itself. This has emerged as what has been called a “deadly molecule” which signals the simultaneous emergence of traditional, asymmetric, and informatic power that masquerades under the rubric of radical Islam. What actually exists is a complex, brutal ideology that signals the widening of the global ideological bell curve as radical shifts of power are under way and resource criticality creates contestational zones throughout the world. The result is a highly problematic situation that will be difficult to unravel at best, and may actually widen the power vacuum up into Syria and near the borders of Jordan and Lebanon.

American arms injected into the region are also being found in the hands of I/I. According to the Guardian and other news sources, American-armed Iraqi soldiers deserted in the face of I/I, with the insurgency using the MO they’re famous for which iis to spread into an area and appropriate the assets—including people. There are online reports with images documenting American Hummers on flatbed trucks, along with M1 tanks and Russian T-55 tanks. As has been learned from Afghanistan, arming an insurgency against your enemy does not guarantee that the insurgency will not consider you the lesser evil that will be dealt with once the first priority is defeated.

This is why I/I is the first truly radical movement of the 21st century: while elements of their strategic plan have existed in part for years, they have not been brought together with such scope and conciseness. It feels like watching a perverse pseudo-Islamic troll culture oozing across the Middle East similar like a slime mold, with no way to remove it without damaging the host organism. Like troll culture, it is rhizomatic and resists the force of traditional order—antagonism at its purest. In some ways, I/I is potentially the result of international blunders in Middle East policy: the reaction of training friendly insurgents and sending in airpower seems in line with traditional responses; responses that have not, historically, been overly successful. The problem is that new paradigmatic approaches to insurgence necessitate new forms of approach to combat I/I.

A caravan of I/I militants; the Arabic name for ISIL is “danesh” which roughly means “traveling”

I/I is the result of a perfect storm. This situation combines failed U.S. intelligence (as stated by President Obama in late September) that underestimated the insurgency as well as failed “post-colonial” foreign policy (with its roots in WWI) with the latest result being the power vacuum created by the reconfiguration of Iraq, Syrian instability from the civil war that arose from the last stages of the Arab Spring, and the existence of skilled military from the Iraqi (and perhaps some Syrian) Ba’ath Party members. My prediction of the conflict’s terminal strategy will be another area of weak control (between Israel and Iran, an issue which few talk about) that could result in a decades-long game of whack-a-mole with the certainty of further unrest. And then, once control is reestablished, what of the agendas of the traditionally conflicting states once they are no longer united against I/I? In a Guardian article, human rights violations committed by I/I are major criteria for Western involvement (although it seems that the destruction of the sanctity of sovereign states is much greater). Here, given those criteria, George Monbiot argues whether the West should just bomb the Muslim world in light of Saudi violations, et al., and just be done with it. This selective morality makes evident the agendas of the West as a zone struggling for stability, politically and economically, preserving energy resources.

One last question concerns the potential for the destabilization of Europe and North America through the viral dissemination of I/I ideology. Simply put, I/I proper has its hands full with the Western attention, although the viral ideology does not rule out the possibility of terrorism or beheadings (one having happened in the U.S. already at this writing). As stated earlier in this essay, what is being sold through the U.S. media is the potential for actions in the First World, which is a standard policy for mass control since 9/11. The problem is, United States Airports have been at terrorism “Orange Alert” (the one before assuming nuclear attack position) since the 2000’s and has largely become an empty signifier as the American public has become numb to terror alerts.
One thing that is certain for all the reasons stated above, I/I and their first “YouTube War” as a form of civil war presents no easy strategies beyond trying to solve for a least worst case scenario that will result in instability in the area of conflict, as well as in relations within the coalition. We are all in for is a long, unstable situation that may fracture into multiple zones of conflict, exacerbating the so-called “War on Terror”. Needless to say, there’s no easy way out of this one, folks.

Welcome to the 21st Century…

Patrick Lichty is a writer, artist, and cultural provocateur living in the nexus between Milwaukee and Chicago. He has been part of the media/art scene for nearly 25 years and is/has been part of many groups such as RTMark, Second Front, haymarket RIOT and The Yes Men. He is part of the art & theory faculties of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Title photo by Flickr user Edward Blake.
*One of our readers has pointed out that “danesh,” which was the original term published in this article, is now commonly transliterated as “daesh.” This has been changed. The accepted translation is of ongoing dispute. –JMD 08/12/2015
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