ISIS Is A Shape-Shifting Beast: We’ll Need A New Whip

The deadly terror attacks in Paris that killed 132 people and injured many more mark a particularly deadly turn in the West’s struggle to crush Islamic State (IS) – but they fit a pattern of behaviour the group has been pursuing for months.

IS and its global affiliates claimed responsibility for gunning down 38 tourists on a Tunisian beach in June, bringing down a Russian airliner and killing its 224 occupants over Egypt in October and bombing a Shia area of southern Beirut, killing 44 people, on November 12. It’s also suspected that they were involved in a suicide attack in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, that killed 102.

This is a significant shift in focus, possibly brought about by stalemate on the ground against Iraqi and Syrian government forces and the Kurds. Initially focused on building a functioning caliphate/state and eliminating opponents in Syria and Iraq, the group is now staging attacks on opponents outside the region. IS is often labelled a terrorist group, but dealing with it is much more complicated than eliminating a typical terrorist organisation.

Like al-Qaeda, IS consists of cells and franchise affiliates, and inspires lone wolf acts of violence, but it is also capable of both providing some administrative services to the people under its captivity and engaging in organised crime while pursuing a full-blown insurgency. IS is a hybrid organisation, which makes it all the more challenging to deal with, especially for Western powers unable to unwilling to venture any deeper in the snaked pit of Middle Eastern power politics…

Terrorist groups of the past were mostly hierarchical, tightly organised and highly secretive with very selective recruitment. But that very clear leadership structure meant that “decapitation” strategies of killing off the leadership usually resulted in the demise of the organisation and made their survival contingent on the survival of their leaders. While conventional wisdom (based in large part on studies of groups in the US) once held that most terrorist groups last less than a year, more recent studies indicate that they now last 14 years on average.

Terrorist groups can endure for longer by flattening the hierarchies of their organisations. This means that exterminating one cell does little to affect the strength of the organisation. Sure enough, though US-led coalition air-strikes apparently continue to kill off IS’s leaders, their impact is lessened by the proliferation of new cells ready to defend the group’s values.

IS and its ilk are skilled recruiters, using the internet and informal networks. They can therefore rely on a steady flow of terrorists ready and willing to fight. Instead of going through a tightly controlled and highly competitive recruitment process, IS has a well-funded web and social media propaganda campaign disseminating videos of brutal violence and destruction to appeal to potential followers. It also distributes an English language magazine, Dabiq.

Taking advantage of improvements in technology and transportation, the Islamic State (like al-Qaeda) contrasts with past terrorist groups that remained more domestic and nationalist. Today’s terrorist groups are transnational – European and North African recruits are incorporated into cells based in Europe and beyond. Unable to migrate to fight in Syria, they are being used to stage attacks in the countries in which they are based.

Driven by ideology, the conventional terrorist organisations of yesteryear mostly received their support from state sponsors. But today, most terrorist groups engage in organised criminal activities to keep their organisations thriving. IS has flexible and lucrative sources of funding. Most of this comes from illicit proceeds from occupying territory such as controlling banks, oil and gas reservoirs, extortion and theft of economic assets. IS also earns funds by kidnapping for ransom and donations from non-profits and foreign fighters.

By not relying on foreign funding, the group is not vulnerable to a sudden loss of support. Additionally, the group’s motives also mutate. Lucrative criminal opportunities motivate the group. They also provide a constant flow of funding for further attacks.

Occupying territory is also a something that distinguishes terrorist-hybrid organisations from terrorist groups of the past. Typically it is insurgencies that hold territories by force, whereas terrorist groups have been too weak to hold territory and must rely on a safe haven provided either passively or actively by a state sponsor.

IS holds territory roughly the size of Belgium, which it uses as a base to train its militias and conduct and plan its operations. More than 60% of its funds goes towards paying its military. By holding territory and providing services to the people who live there, it can operate more freely than groups which lack a large base for its headquarters. As well as collecting taxes and alleged funding from sympathetic groups across the Gulf, IS is reckoned to earn $1m a day from the sale of oil in territory it controls.

Though the organisation is transnational and cellular, it also has a robust organisation capable of planning carefully orchestrated attacks and offering the financial and logistical support necessary to make its attacks highly deadly. The Paris attacks were too sophisticated and effective to be the work of leaderless resistance or lone-wolf terrorism. As the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, has now officially stated, they were very probably planned from the top in Syria, rather than by an autonomous cell based in France.

But in spite of its unusually clear hierarchical leadership structure, simply killing IS’s top leaders and destroying its resources and supply lines (as post-Paris attacks on Raqqa seem to be aiming for) will still be ineffective.

IS is unlike any enemy the Western has faced before – too powerful to be combated like a terrorist group, but sufficiently devolved and mercurial to be treated like an nation state.




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