Is Daesh/ ISIL a modern Raiding Pirate state?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Some analysts trying to understand Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) had suggested that it differs from al-Qaeda in its emphasis on taking and holding territory, thus becoming a state– something that al-Qaeda was largely uninterested in. They expected the self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to concentrate his resources on local statebuilding.

The Daesh attack on Paris, assuming that was what it was, contradicts the state-building model and looks more like the tactics of al-Qaeda. How to understand this paradox?

Al-Qaeda from the late 1990s had scattered cells in numerous countries but held no territory on its own. It had a doctrine that terrorist strikes could initiate the popular overthrow governments or make them withdraw from the fray. It thus put its efforts into hitting the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States) rather than the “near enemy,” since it had tried striking local states but found them propped up by the US. Thus, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri joined the Islamic Grouping to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat in 1981, hoping the act would lead to a popular uprising on the model of Iran. But the US was giving Egypt $2 bn. a year after Camp David and helped stabilize it. When al-Zawahiri joined Usama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in northern Pakistan, he was convinced of the “far enemy” strategy. Al-Zawahiri succeeded Bin Laden after the US killed the latter and is now the head of core al-Qaeda.

The contrast between the state-building model and the terror-cell model can easily be exaggerated. The some 5,000 Arab al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan became the 55th Brigade of the Taliban after 1994, and so were in a way a part of a state. But they sacrificed the Taliban state for the opportunity to hit the US and draw it into what they were sure would be a ruinous war in Afghanistan, on the model of their anti-Soviet holy war of the 1980s.

And, Daesh has routinely conducted bombings and other acts of terrorism in Baghdad and elsewhere, as an adjunct to its standing militia and state-building in al-Raqqa and Mosul, attempting to weaken its enemies through terrorism.

Even so, the Paris attacks are clearly a dangerous tactic for a state with territory and a return address (al-Qaeda’s cell structure meant that it did not really have a return address, despite its bases in southeastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan). How to think about Daesh’s current strategy?

I would argue that Daesh is analogous to the pirate enclaves of the early modern period. Al-Raqqa, Palmyra, Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi function for it as desert ports, as Tortuga and Port Royal did for pirates in the Caribbean and St. Mary’s on Madagascar did for pirates in the Indian Ocean. It is easy to be misled by the organization’s language of “state.” It is a militia of some 25,000 fighters who conduct raids. They don’t actually do much governing of the places they dominate, and mainly extract resources from them. Tribal raiding states in it for the loot have been common in Middle Eastern history, as with Nadir Shah in the eighteenth century. Looting one city pays for the raid that lets you loot the next. They even make the people who want to emigrate and escape their rule pay a sort of exit ransom.

Pirates liked island strongholds, as Louis Sicking has argued. He says that they used them to shelter their ships from storms, to take on food and water, as dwelling-places, especially in winter, as points from which to intercept cargo ships, as places to store and hide their looted treasure, and as places to keep hostages for ransom.

If we think of the armored vehicles, humvees and other conveyances Daesh captured from the Iraqi army at Mosul as analogous to pirate ships, and of the towns they have taken over as island settlements, we can see that Daesh functions as desert pirates. They captured oil refineries and smuggle gasoline and kerosene (black gold) to Turkey. They take hostages for ransom and store them in their desert ports until they receive payment. With regard to foreign hostages, if they aren’t paid, as is typically the case with US hostages, they execute them very publicly so as to increase the likelihood of payment for the next hostages. They actively seek hostages as a means of money-making. They also capture young women and engage in human trafficking and forms of sex slavery, just as the pirates used to. And, they loot conquered populations, just as the pirates did.

Pirates primarily preyed on the shipping trade, but as an organized naval force they could be enlisted in para-military actions on occasion, as with Pierre Lafitte’s participation on the American side against the British in 1814 as part of the War of 1812. Barataria Bay in Louisiana was Lafitte’s al-Raqqa. It had a population of as many as 1,000 marauders. Since the US population is about 80 times greater today than then, this is like a population of 80,000 in today’s US. That is roughly the pre-Daesh population of al-Raqqa in Syria, the organization’s current capital. Barataria Bay was deployed as a base to attack British vessels coming from Jamaica with the intent of overwhelming New Orleans. It is not so different for Daesh to use its desert ports as bases from which to attack sovereign states like Syria, Iraq and France.

It might be objected that pirate strongholds were typically dens of iniquity whereas Daesh is running a hyper-puritan state. But pirate captains often imposed puritan codes of behavior on their crews. And, the actual behavior of Daesh fighters, who capture, buy and sell slave girls for sex, and loot households, is less puritan than hedonistic, despite their religious slogans.

Seen through this lens, the Daesh attack on Paris was similar to a pirate raid in the past. Modern transportation networks open inland cities to such attacks. Although it was not a direct act of theft in the way most pirate raids would have been, it did have material benefits for the phony caliphate. Daesh leaders hope that such horrific spectacles will help in recruiting foreign fighters with some military experience, the most valuable fighters on Mesopotamian battlefronts (and for whom it has to compete with the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra). Its wealthy Salafi oil tycoon supporters in the Gulf are also likely to send it more money if it is seen as actively taking on the Christian imperial powers of the North Atlantic world. To some extent, the attack was expected to attract men and money, just as a pirate raid of the past would have. Pirate raids often involved forms of brutality and the infliction of humiliation on the adversary. These actions intended to make royal navies chary of frontally attacking the pirates. Likely the Paris attacks also were intended to function as the Madrid bombings of 2004 did, pushing a country out of the Middle East (Spain got out of Iraq after that).

The analogy, as with all analogies, is inexact. But seeing Daesh as a set of raiding pirate strongholds rather than as a conventional state makes sense of its various activities, which include local brigandage, oil and drug smuggling, human trafficking, and raids abroad. The policy implication of this way of viewing it is that President Obama’s containment strategy won’t work. As a raiding state, Daesh can’t be contained. It has to be rolled up, and political concerns about the image of Kurdish or Shiite allies of the US on the ground conquering Sunni Arab populations simply have to be set aside.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Vox: “Why ISIS would attack Paris”

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34 Responses

  1. Seeing Daesh as a pirate state would permit use of Letters of Mark and Reprisal clause of the Constitution to permit attacks in international waters, as I suppose the administration sees it.

    But it is likely an error. Like other insurgencies, it is primarily an army, not expected to govern or present a coherent philosophy. But that does not mean that the insurgency does not have a popular base nor a cause outside of gains from piracy. It is the attempt to obscure the cause which distinguishes the right wing demagogue warmonger from the far-seeing analyst, so I would not go down that road.

    When we see only the “outrages” to our allies and ignore the “side effects” of our military killing, we have gone all the way to the far right, and have no more legitimacy than Daesh.

    The underlying causes must be addressed. Not after a conquest, but always. We cannot expect an army to negotiate much, nor the extremist leaders to bow much when their constituents have been so much abused for so long.

    It is the right wing that creates these foreign enemies, to support their demands for power. They are traitors wrapped in the flag, even less willing or able to govern justly than the enemies they have created, because they have no underlying cause but their own greed and lust for power.

    • Yes, including not only the Republican Party, with near-unanimity as a warmongering right-wing ideologic force, but including also a portion of the Democratic Party, its substantial conservative wing that votes with Republicans more times than not for revanchivist issues across the board, especially the jingoistic ones, And I say that as someone who votes Democratic. My wing is the progressive/pro-peace one.

  2. ISIS would have been eliminated long ago if their crimes included filesharing. No matter what the value of ISIS to the US/Israel/Saudi, the MPIAA would have organized their immediate destruction.

  3. Dr. Cole’s equanimity is a positive influence in a reactionary environment.

    It is imperative that strategic policy responses are NOT decontextualised into a dualism crusade.

  4. Revolutionary Russian Empire seems like the European example the Caliphate is sort of like? Their world wide revolution seems sort of Trotskyite. Their supporters in other countries also mirrors previous groups like the Red Army Faction.

    Unlike the pirates you mention the Caliphate seems to have a large population base, with a comparatively large number of military age males.

    While I understand why the G-20 wants to cut a deal with G-20 members excluding all others, I have to wonder how a deal that does not include the people living in the ‘Caliphate’ will work? It sounds a lot like the de-Bathification and then repression of the Sunnis that resulted in the current tragic situation. If the Caliphate has actual support from its populace, I wonder if a government imposed by the G-20 can really work. The assumption seems to be the people in the Caliphate areas will be thankful for being liberated, which may or may not be true.

  5. An interesting idea, but I don’t see how calling them pirates would reduce their appeal to young people who think of the Pirates of the Caribbean when they hear talk of pirates.

    Some idiots might pack some rum for their trip to Syria.

    They’re people who have learned to love war and chaos, they’re still people, killing such people becomes the only civilized thing to do. Of course, if we really were civilized we’d be killing the local wanna-be pirates and armchair warriors along with the pirates of Syria. (of every violence-advocating religion, or violent cult)

  6. “political concerns about the image of Kurdish or Shiite allies of the US on the ground conquering Sunni Arab populations simply have to be set aside.”

    But it is exactly that which led to the growth of Daesh in the first place.

  7. I apologize for this being off-topic, but there seems to be something wrong with this website’s RSS feed. Whenever I attempt to subscribe to the article feed, using my RSS reader, it automatically switches/redirects to the comment feed URL.

  8. ‘wealthy Salafi oil tycoon supporters in the Gulf’

    When will the US end its disgraceful alliance with the petro-monarchies?

    • Indeed. While I would expect that much assistance travels in the form of cases of crisp US dollar bills, given the US capacity to scrutinize and control international financial flows, it is curious that transactions from various Gulf-based ‘charities’ to recipients haven’t received closer attention.

  9. I like this analogy, particularly because it’s congruent with the way I see America’s response to terrorist attacks evolving.

    In my view, about 20 years ago, we entered a new era, characterized by quasi-nationalist movements in the Middle East, terrorist attacks on soft targets in the United States and other countries, and retaliation by the United States, aimed at killing terrorists, eliminating their bases, safe havens and training camps, and at disrupting their communications and finances. Like two heavyweight boxers, the United States and Middle Eastern terrorists stand toe to toe, trading punches, and neither fighter should expect to win by a knockout.

    The “Bush doctrine”, established after 9/11 is well understood. The United States has the absolute right to project force anywhere in the world to capture or kill anyone we identify as a terrorist, without regard for the sovereignty of any other nation. This right is limited only by our capability to exercise it. There can be no legal or moral limits at all.

    Unfortunately, both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s application of this principle has been flawed by their obsession with regime change and state building. That obsession has led to failed occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the death of an American ambassador in Libya, and to a continuing disaster in Syria.

    It’s inevitable that, as it evolves, Bush Doctrine 2.0 will explicitly reject regime change and occupation as viable tactics in the Middle East, and abandon the notion that terrorism and terrorist attacks on the United States can be eliminated. A long, long war of attrition lies ahead.

    We do have to eliminate the “pirates.” But our own “raiding parties” have to get out as soon as the job is done.

    • Some very good points.

      Especially “We do have to eliminate the ‘pirates.’ But our own ‘raiding parties’ have to get out as soon as the job is done.”

      And if I might add a couple.

      One, use the formula that was working so well in Afghanistan V1 (before we pulled way too many resources to run off and illegally invade and occupy Iraq thereby allowing the Taliban to resurrect even way, way stronger); that being Spec Ops teams working in conjunction with capable local ground forces (time to quit playing political footsies IMO and simply back the Kurds across the board) and surgical (as possible) airpower.

      Two. Don’t try to change people. Make it clear that there’s no problem with Sunnis (Nor Shiites nor secularists). Only with – in this case – fanatically radical Sunnis of the fringe fundamentalist variety. And with the quasi / pseudo Sunnis who really are there for the adventure aspect.

      Actually if a moderate Sunni state of adjoining segments of Iraq and Syria as well as a moderate, maybe even secular, Kurdish state of segments of adjoining Iraq, Syria, and Turkey would IMO be a good thing. A counterbalance to Shia Iraq and Shia Iran and likely allies of moderates in the area (such as Jordan). But I believe that complexities such as that need to be done – to truly work – through negotiations of involved parties once combat actions have been derailed. Help out with those negotiations? Sure. Hopefully with multiple allied partners. Show that we would economically aid and assist true modern states in the region? Absolutely. But remove the military presence (which should never become a large footprint) as soon as practical? Mandatory.

  10. El Çid

    They remind me of the Sea Peoples who used to be seen as destroying Bronze Age Mediterranean

  11. The pirate image is an interesting one but isn’t the image of a newly born “revolutionary” state with greater ideology- export ambitions such as Soviet Russia (as a commentator above suggests), Cuba or even Iran (in their early days) more on point? Some commentators (e.g G. Wood in The Atlantic this past march) have suggested, the key to ISIS appeal is as a territory-holding caliphate of Islamic purity that will also defeat the “armies of Rome” at Dabiq and grow from there. If this is the case (or at least a major factor in its appeal), isn’t the most promising antidote, a military defeat of ISIS and the stripping away of its territorial base? Can we really expect even middle-term social, attitudinal, political and economic changes in the region and in Europe that would make the Caliphate promise less appealing to marginalized and disrespected populations? If not, is any kind of “quarantine” of the ISIS caliphate really going to work? I ask these questions despite my profound suspicion of the use of force and particularly the use of American force in the region.

    • William, you neglect to point out the similarities to the Great Pirates of ‘The West’, whose ideology primarily embraced armed conquest of areas where resources could be extracted and which installed colonial trading regimes, dividing local peoples between a few self-interested abetters and everyone else – as still exists around the world to a very large extent, and which has been the primary form of government (corrupt dictatorship still supported and overly influenced by the colonial/occupying/and now ‘trading partner’ Western power. It’s just as brutal initially as anything ISIS has done, and only in time does it settle down into a semi-barbaric routine under the watchful diplomacy of Western gunboats. Get it? The West was just as bad, if not worse, and ISIS is a parallel invention, barbaric in its desperation (the best defense is a good offense) to maintain its territorial gains. Sure, some piracy similarities exist, and they’re important strategically, but mostly its a Western-style (with cultural differences) invention of a new territorial power, as was Israel at its gestation and later birth. Only with ISIS, it’s the Saudis and Gulf allies doing the funding and recruiting, as opposed to England, the United States, and other European colonial/imperial powers doing the preparatory work. Get it? ISIS doesn’t equal Israel, but the genesis is the same, and ISIS is the antimatter that has evolved finally to oppose Israel in a region where the United States and England have generally exploded the old order, which England and the U.S. (and France) had created in the first place. It’s all to make Israel and “our” oil safer, but the antimatter was created as a byproduct. And now The West is trying to strangle ISIS in its cradle. ISIS is dangerous but has already begun to flail around to help sustain its momentum and try to guarantee some sort of survival for itself. Wither and whittle and eventual dissipation is The West’s strategy against it.

    • I guess as right-wingers, ISIS has no problem with private property and inequality. So it appeals to the young not as progressive, but romantic and reactionary. Sort of like the Society for Creative Anachronism for kids who aren’t bourgeois whites, where everyone is somehow a nobleman and the peasants aren’t acknowledged.

      What likely happens is exactly what you’d expect of something like that: they don’t understand economics. People too stupid to figure out how to make goods of value in legal markets usually turn to narcotics. Narcostates are the modern equivalent of the pirate states of old, and we’ve done very badly battling them. But even the Taliban had to pretend to be anti-opium when it was allied with al-Qaeda and trying to bring in devout Moslem boys from around the world. A narcostate in Syria sounds like an easy drone target to me. Absent that, their economy will fall into the squalor typical of failed communes of the ’70s.

    • Let’s see (just IMHO)…

      Per question.

      Yes.

      Yes (plus strips away the base of operations of its tentacle-like international terrorist cells – unlike good guerrillas, ISIS aren’t “fish swimming in a ‘friendly’ sea”)

      No, it’s not a reasonable expectation (especially given emotions created by terrorism itself – spelled out fairly well, not completely accurate, but fairly well, in Chris Hedges’ “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning”, simply human nature that POSSIBLY has bettered since the Cold War, but not so much as to alter that nature that much; given several very positive generations, who knows, maybe we’ll see that type change to a large majority, but not now).

      No.

      And, BTW, I agree with your last statement absolutely. Me too.

  12. I recently read Colin Woodward’s “The Republic of Pirates” and so know just enough to be dangerous. According to Woodward, during the “Golden Age of Pirates”, even though established authorities did all in their power to portray them as such, pirate strongholds were by no means “dens of iniquity” .

    This was a time when European navies were horribly brutal to sailors, treating them virtually as slaves. By contrast, pirates elected the captains of their ships, split loot equitably, and avoided violent confrontation whenever possible, preferring intimidation to outright violence. And though Europeans and Americans were engaged in the wholesale enslavement of Africans, pirates accepted blacks into their crews as equals.

    Though it treats St. Mary’s in Madagascar, the pirate stronghold Woodward’s book principally focuses on is Nassau in the Bahamas. Both, being beyond the pale of colonial authority, were major smuggling centers, but neither was an especially violent place.

    Nassau during this period is the world depicted in the television series, “Black Sails”, which I have quite enjoyed and highly recommend.

    • Very good point.

      And the same was true of the Barbary Coast States (eventually a part of the Ottoman Empire, but remote enough to have a lot of autonomy). In fact, they were a step up th he ladder as they were indeed “nation states” versus “pirate ports”. In both cases, these centers of “raider activity” (whether Nassau / St. Mary’s or Barbary Coast states) were not dens of inequity as one might think. In fact, the Barbary Coast states were considered quite “civilized” (for that era) and very peaceful. A good place to start in looking at that comparison is simply Wikipedia. (Barbary Coast, Barbary Pirates, Barbary Wars). All are well referenced and have good bibliographies and good suggestions for “further reading”.

      I am not sure what it is, but I couldn’t get into Black Sails. My nephew (great nephew?) and grandson who live with us love the show and tape it to watch when their schedules coincide. It may very well be due to not having seen it from the start (in fact missed the whole first season and first show was like the third episode of season two. I will have to check out season one from the library and see if there’s a change in my thoughts. I know that it has very positive fan review as seasons 4 and 5 have already been approved.

      • Well, if you do want to try “Black Sails” from the beginning, starting with Episode One, Season One, and you don’t mind paying $2.00 per episode, Amazon offers the program as streaming video for computer and television.

        That is a one-time-only payment. Once you’ve given Amazon your two dollars, you can watch an episode is often as you like.

        But the library is a better idea.

  13. I like the idea of viewing ISIS/Daesh as a pirate state, given its deep involvement in plunder and illicit resource trafficking. But I think it’s closer to the Italian Mafia or Medellin Cartel at its peak – entities with pretensions of socioeconomic improvement for the masses and de facto control over territory. Like those groups, Daesh entices alienated young men with promises of loot and sex in return for loyalty and killing. And, of course, terrorism is intended to brutalize populations into fear and submission.

  14. Thanks for a good partial model that contributes to understanding a novel and complex phenomenon.

  15. Ahhh… a quite good analogy. But, as you stated, not exact.

    ISIS / ISIL really does (IMO) want to become a nation state. But do not have that capability currently. So indeed are right now closer to being a modern Raiding Pirate state. You gave examples from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean but maybe a more direct example would have been the Barbary Pirates of North Africa?

    They were small Muslim “countries” (sultanates, etcetera) along the southern shore of the Mediterranean that specifically targeted non Muslim shipping for the ships and their cargo, the ransom of any surviving crew, and extortion money from the non Muslim nations for their shipping to not be targeted (which the Barbary pirates would periodically ignore in order to “up the ante”).

    Additionally, while their major strategy was piracy (and that centered in the western Mediterranean), “In addition to seizing ships, they engaged in Razzias, raids on European coastal towns and villages, mainly in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, but also in the British Isles, the Netherlands and as far away as Iceland. The main purpose of their attacks was to capture Christian slaves for the Ottoman slave trade as well as the general Arabic market in North Africa and the Middle East.” (*)

    And we’re not talking minor activities here.

    “Corsairs captured thousands of ships and repeatedly raided coastal towns. As a result, residents abandoned their former villages of long stretches of coast in Spain and Italy. The raids were such a problem that coastal settlements were seldom undertaken until the 19th century. From the 16th to 19th century, corsairs captured an estimated 800,000 to 1.25 million people as slaves.” (*)

    “The scope of corsair activity began to diminish in the latter part of the 17th century, as the more powerful European navies started to compel the Barbary States to make peace and cease attacking their shipping. However, the ships and coasts of Christian states without such effective protection continued to suffer until the early 19th century. Following the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15, European powers agreed upon the need to suppress the Barbary corsairs entirely and the threat was largely subdued. Occasional incidents occurred, including two short Barbary wars between the United States of America and the Barbary States, until finally terminated by the French conquest of Algiers in 1830.” (*)

    IMO, to complete the analogy, it is pretty obvious that pirates, whether ships / small fleets under the command of those such as Kidd / Blackbeard / Etcetera or Pirate Raiding Nations such as Barbary States had a primary motive of WEALTH. Was some of their wealth used for logistics (supplies), new armaments, paying crews (who traditionally were paid by means of a share of “the loot”), paying off the local / regional authorities where they operated out of, etcetera, the vast majority of generated capital was to make people rich (even the Muslim pirate captains – and the sultan, whatever that they were used by).

    And that is where I see the main difference with ISIL. Unless someone has “followed the money” and discovered billions stashed away by ISIL leaders, it is apparent that ISIL, unlike pirate groups or Pirate Raiding Nations is dumping pretty much all of their extorted / stolen / looted funding BACK into the ISIL “war chest”. Which is a logic that circles back around to tell me that in the short term (medium.term?) ISIL does want to establish eventually a type of nation state on the ground (as in a large swath of Iraq, most of Syria, and I’d also say a chunk of Lebanon… specifically the regions that have a vastly majority Sunni population as ISIL us basically not simply a fanatically radical Muslim organization, but specifically a fanatically radical Sunni Muslim organization – and their observations during the Iraqi War was that while they had areas – of Iraq, as well as Lebanon and especially Syria – where they were the majority, that the immediate area was of a high majority Shiite and very discriminatory; as the Sunnis had been as Baathists under fellow Sunni Saddam Hussein – who, like fellow Baathist Assad was / is a pretty secular dictator. That (Baathism) itself is an interesting subject. Interestingly, the Christian population of Syria sided solidly with the secular (Alawite) Shiite Baathists in control of Syria (as did the majority of the Christian population in Iraq sided with the secular Sunni Baathists under Saddam – as I recall).

    I believe that as one would compare ISIL with Al Qaeda, that an equally legitimate comparison should be made with ISIL and the Taliban, and with the PLO (and its sub units such as Fatah, PFLP, DFLP, PLF, etcetera), Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, and, say, the Kurdish Workers Party.

    Those are, like ISIS / ISIL and Al Qaeda, listed terrorist organizations (by the U.S. anyway – not everyone lists all of these as such). But, unlike Al Qaeda (or the international terrorist groups of the 1970s / 1980s), they are territorial oriented, either de facto nation States or striving to be so. They utilize military actions (from ambushes to raids to terrorism) in the local environment (and to a limited extent to their immediate surrounding area). They don’t (as a rule) establish “terror cells” in distant countries for Paris type attacks (even if the target country is allied with their main opponent. A main agenda of that strategy is to generate support for their cause (Hamas, for example, and the PKK are in certain terrorist lists, but not that of all nations, even some Western countries, while the PLO is recognized by the UN and some countries as the representative government of the Palestinian “state”). I believe that they correctly surmise that being international terrorists (such as Al Qaeda) or the equivalent of “modern pirate raiding nations” would be very counterproductive to their progress. And I think that they are correct in that assumption and subsequent strategy.

    Meanwhile, it appears that ISIS / ISIL has no such strategy. In fact, they seem to be – by action if not intent – a hybrid of international terrorist cells, modern day pirate raiding nations, and a territorial oriented political / military / wannabe true nation state. Which I see as a very negative strategy. Al Qaeda’s very strength lies in its lack of “home territory”. Yet two of the three persona’s exhibited by ISIL requires it to have that large territorial foundation / “home ports”. Which creates quite a number of identifiable targets. Not a good overall strategy. Plus removing the territorial base and dispersing the military strength of ISIL as well as its organizational structure ends up dropping support to its foreign cells to very little, if any.

    Does ISIL “mature” over time? Do repeated losses and loss of any international support (even more and more to include Muslim countries – how many are already a part of the anti ISIL coalition) result in internal changes within ISIL to become territorial versus international, to become a Taliban rather than an Al Qaeda? After all, Fatah, the largest faction of the PLO (and once primarily its sole armed wing) was also a hybrid:

    “In the 1960s and the 1970s, Fatah provided training to a wide range of European, Middle Eastern, Asian, and African militant and insurgent groups, and carried out numerous attacks against Israeli targets in Western Europe and the Middle East during the 1970s. Some militant groups that affiliated themselves to Fatah, and some of the fedayeen within Fatah itself, carried out civilian-aircraft hijackings and terrorist attacks, attributing them to Black September, Abu Nidal’s Fatah-Revolutionary Council, Abu Musa’s group, the PFLP, and the PFLP-GC. Fatah received weapons, explosives and training from the Soviet Union/Russia and some Communist regimes of East European states. ” (Fatah and the PLO in general are very leftwing secularists and thus openly supported by the Soviets and Warsaw Pact countries and the fall of communism in those areas likely had a large impact on the “maturing” of the PLO’s splinter groups and Fatah away from international terrorism in the 1990s).

    But my gut reaction is that ISIL will not do that same type of “maturing”. It seems that they simply don’t have a conclusive strategy other than fight and kill the infidel locals (anyone over there, even fellow Sunnis if they aren’t fanatically radical fundamentalist Sunnis) and “the Crusaders” (any non Muslims anywhere)… and have inoculated even that with an extreme dose of nihilism.

    IMHO.

    (*)
    link to en.m.wikipedia.org

    link to en.m.wikipedia.org

  16. A dialectical analysis sees the AQ/9-11 Action and American Reaction producing two sythesis.

    Frst, the destruction of Humpty-al-Saddam-al-Dumpty and his army produced a basis for an army and a territory. The Daesh-as-Pirates model is ingeneous and works well.

    Second, the West has failed to even identify, let alone patrol, the seas in in which the AQ/Daesh barracudas swim, in the degraded overseas Muslim diaspora, from which the 9-11 attacks were launched.

    Suppose that the West (could be short for Western Imperialists, Shining Light in the West, or something in between; I expect I am closer to the former expansion than is the optimistically liberal Professor Cole) succeeds in decapitating Daesh, while its Kurd allies defeat its armies.

    Meanwhile, in the Talibanlieux of Brussels, Paris, Marseille and Hamburg, the hate-mongers will pour poisin into the ears of the brothers, nephews, cousins and neighbors of the last crop of foolish sick children that marched away to bloody war and did not come back, a new set of fools will practice Jihad on those of their female neighbors who challenge Hijab or go to school, the bully boys of French (and Dutch, Belgian, and German racism) will support the Western Talibans in their recruitment, and a new and larger crop of organized and organizable young extremists will grow up, ready for orders from the next manifestation of international Salafi terror.

    Professor Cole, and the French, and much of their Arab-world population ask that we call them Daez, not IS/.*?/, to deny them the legitimacy associated with [I]slamic [S]tate. OK.

    But wouldn’t they be easier to deal with as a state? with a return address? There is clearly a strong theological argument against: the assertion of the existence of a Califate is a core claim to the allegiance they claim from the Talibanlieux. So why not take a page from George Kennan’s book(s), and isolate them with strong containment? A Califate that one can’t get to, and that is shunned by other states with Islamic credentials (especially Saudi Arabia) will collapse soon enough from inside.

  17. The pirate meme gives some structure to what is actually happening. I found this article in the Nation also helpful, in terms of seeing a lot of Isil fighters as pragmatic, rather than ideological.
    link to thenation.com

  18. The pirate argument seems to have a lot of truth to it. Pirates, in literature anyway, are romantic and heroic and very much about manliness (the incident of vigilantes defending the Nevada rancher comes to mind, though of course we’re talking about ISIL). The argument can be pushed too far, though. Most pirates, for example, don’t wear suicide belts (then again, a cornered pirate is willing to jump off a cliff rather than submit to authority).

    From some of the things I’ve read here on Informed Comment and elsewhere, I’m struck by the two different groups that join ISIL: some are petty to serious criminals with a range of motivations, including, in their own mind, redemption. Some are nonreligious people stuck out in the middle of territories held by ISIL who need income literally to support their families.

    So what did we learn from George W.’s fiasco in Iraq? We learned the worse thing we can do is create more enemies. And that clearly is a lesson conservative Republicans have not learned. I’m suspicious that part of the motivation for the attacks by ISIL is to alienate enough Europeans that they turn on the refugees. This strategy is already working on a large number of American conservatives.

  19. Dr. Cole
    I wonder if you find credible Graeme Wood’s article in the March Atlantic about ISIL. His analysis of ISIL seems to contradict the motivation you attribute to much of the behavior of the followers. I would love to hear your ideas about Wood’s analysis of ISIL.

  20. I find it hard to believe we cannot stop the flow of oil. How hard can it be to blow a pipeline or a tanker truck?

  21. ” The President had accepted the finding of the Department of Justice that all ISIS fighters were unlawful combatants not subject to Geneva Convention protections. They were like pirates of old, and piracy was stamped out only when governments began hanging them.”

    link to gawker.com

  22. I don’t think the analogy holds very well in Paris anyway. It isn’t like they got a lot of profitable loot from 9/11 or the Paris attacks, in fact from a looting perspective such things are counterproductive as they draw unwanted negative attention.

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