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ISIS are a terrifying, devastating Sunni militia that emerged out of the Iraqi insurgency and the anti-Assad jihad … except they aren’t particularly religious! And their origin story makes no sense. And militarily speaking they are a joke who could be wiped out within weeks if NATO wanted that. In this episode I take a sideways look at the Islamic State, which isn’t very Islamic and isn’t a state, and ask what they really are, if anything. I focus in on two elements of their PR that have been particularly effective: the development of the Al Qaeda myth (of which ISIS are an offshoot) and the beheading videos of 2014. I wrap up by suggesting that ISIS are the first truly postmodern terrorist group, who exist almost entirely as a media entity.


There is an obvious answer to this question and a string of less obvious answers. I am by no means an expert on ISIS, I’ve read a lot of the coverage, I’ve listened to a lot of the criticism of that coverage, I’m obviously familiar with the Defense Intelligence Agency report, and given that this whole ISIS thing evidently isn’t going anyway I thought it would be a good topic to bring up again and offer to you my ideas about this.

Obviously, ISIS are a Sunni militia operating in Syria and Iraq, who have their origins in the so called al Qaeda franchise group Al Qaeda in Iraq, run by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. He died in 2006 when the US Air Force dropped two 500 pound bombs on a safe house in a village near Baqubah.

Between 2006 and 2014 no one spoke much about this group. Back when the Syrian conflict was all about supporting the jihadis against Assad Al Qaeda in Iraq, now under the command of Al Baghdadi, created a branch of themselves in Syria, the Al Nusra Front. They officially formed at the beginning of 2012, and by the end of that year they had been labelled a terrorist organisation due to their affiliation with Al Qaeda. Somewhere along the line for reasons I cannot find a clear explanation of, this all fell apart and those who splintered off from this Al Qaeda affiliate and created ISIS are now somehow at war with Al Qaeda.

Al Baghdadi was, as expected, previously captured and interned by US forces in Iraq in 2004. Though there are a lot of conflicting reports, some saying he was held until 2009, fully five years, and that would take us up to only a few months before he was announced as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It is another 18 months before the State Department lists him as a specially designated global terrorist, and he then goes on to found the Syrian extension of Al Qaeda in Iraq and then announces this merger with ISIL. Or ISIS. But my question is, if ISIS did not exist until this merger between the Syrian and Iraqi branches of Baghdadi’s group, then how are they merging with ISIL? Are they not merging with ISI, the Islamic State of Iraq or Al Qaeda in Iraq?

So, exactly what people are saying when they describe this origin story has never been clear to me. But despite their nebulous origins they are a Sunni militia, apparently operating under an extremely strict, fundamentalist Wahhabi/Salafist code. Though that apparently doesn’t stop them from being able to launch technically complex operations across the Middle East and now into Western Europe, apparently. And according to one former captor French journalist Didier Francois, the group that held him for 10 months weren’t interested in religion, weren’t reading the Koran. So is it even accurate to call them a Sunni militia? Are they not just Islamic gangsters, and Islamic not even in the religious sense but in the sense of the ethnic origins of most of their members and the geography of where they operate?

So, the Islamic state may not be so Islamic after all. Is it a state? Well, no one recognises it as a state. Even Ayman Al Zawahiri refuses to recognise its legitimacy. And what really defines a state as a state, beyond its own citizens believing in it, is whether other states recognise it as such and treat it as such. It’s not like ISIS are being offered a table at the United Nations. It has an army of somewhere between 10 and 20 000 members, depending on which estimates you read, and despite this ultimately laughable military strength it is at war with Assad, with coalition forces in Iraq, with the Iraqi government, with Al Qaeda in Syria, with Al Qaeda in general, and with NATO.

I don’t mean to trivialise the very real horrors perpetrated by this Islamist mafia, but this whole thing reminds of North Korea, who declare war on the US about once a year. It’s not that North Korea is harmless, or that ISIS are harmless, but on a scale of real world global power North Korea are a joke. The subject of CIA-sponsored Hollywood comedies that aren’t very funny. And yet, in a straight war between North Korea and ISIS, North Korea would win. I know that would never happen, but you take my point. I just don’t see why ISIS are considered to be such a problem. In isolation, I mean. Obviously a huge quantity of propaganda, a lot of people paying lip service to this idea of them actually one day being able to take over the whole of the Middle East, that’s why people consider them to be such a problem. But it’s an elaborate mythology.

So I’ve been reflecting on why the methods for convincing people of this elaborate mythology have been effective. Because it’s a collective madness, it really is. 10,000 jihadis in Syria, with no Air Force, and little if any anti-air capacity are not a military challenge. If NATO really wanted to then they could wipe them off the map in a matter of weeks. The fact that they haven’t done this speaks volumes.

But there are two things I’d like to focus in on that help explain why this ISIS story has been so readily accepted despite being so preposterous. The first is the development of the story of Al Qaeda, the first big scary Muslim enemy image we were given in the post 9/11 war on terror. The second is the beheading videos from last summer.

Originally the story we were told about Al Qaeda was that they were a tight knight group with a central command and cells around the world waiting at a moment’s notice to carry out devastating attacks. In the wake of 9/11, this seemed plausible to a lot of people. Then a bigger version of Al Qaeda emerged – a more decentralised, horizontally structured version advanced by the likes of Rohan Gunaratna. Then we got Jason Burke’s version, where there is no organisation and the real threat is the idea behind these disparate, disconnected groups and movements. Then we got the Al Qaeda franchise groups, ones that took on the name of Al Qaeda but shared no command structure, no mutual financing, nothing. Then we got the idea that Al Qaeda wasn’t an organisation or even a unifying idea or ideology, but a ‘way of working’, hence the phrase ‘the hallmarks of Al Qaeda’. For several years we got that phrase, the hallmarks of Al Qaeda.

This is a perfect example of doublethink, and doublespeak. Because if we’re saying that Al Qaeda is a methodology, a way of working, and that methodology is described in a million terrifying newscasts, then anyone could use those methods and ways of working, and thus saying that an attack bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda is meaningless. But it sounds good. The Hallmarks of Al Qaeda.

But more importantly, we were subjected to this ever-expanding and ever-widening definition of Al Qaeda, and then when Barry Hussein got into the White House it was expanded further to ‘violent extremism’ of all kinds. It was relatively predictable that sooner or later the idea of the caliphate, which has clattered around in Wahabbi and Salafist sects for a long time, would be subsumed and assimilated as an even broader, even more vague notion of the great Muslim terror threat. And it was relatively obvious that people who bought into the notion of Al Qaeda, despite the definition of that notion being as vague and multiform as a Jackson Pollock painting, would buy into the caliphate, the Islamic State, as the new terror threat.

The other aspect that strikes me as really important is the beheading videos. I remember back in 2004 when Zarqawi’s group went through a period of releasing beheading videos, Nick Berg and Ken Bigley being perhaps the two most famous examples that you’ll remember. But then they stopped. I’ll link you up to the wikipedia page on beheading videos so you can see what I’m looking at but after several such videos in 2004 the only one between 2005 and 2013 was in 2009. Then in 2014 it starts up again. Why did they stop? Why did they start again?

As with so many of these war on terror videos, the origins are not certain and the identities of the people in the videos is often very debatable. Even back in 2004 people were disputing the authenticity of the videos being released on the internet, not just in terms of who was doing this but also in terms of whether anyone was actually being beheaded, whether the people were already dead, and so on. Against my own better judgement I watched one of these videos back then and felt pretty sick. And had nightmares afterwards. Not something I’d ever advise.

But these new ISIS videos, which are very similar to the 2004 videos, have been widely suggested to have been faked or at least staged in some way. I’m pretty sure these people are actually dead, but the one I saw of James Foley is pretty dubious. People have pointed to the fact that you never see the beheading, or any blood coming out when the ISIS militant starts sawing at the guy’s neck, you wouldn’t use such a small knife for such a big, gruesome job – there are a lot of issues. My biggest issue is the audio, which doesn’t sound like it is being recorded by amateurs on a hillside in a breeze. And I don’t see a boom mic or anything else that would explain how good the audio in when the guy in the ninja pyjamas is giving it the whole jihadi bit. Makes no sense to me.

I have thought that the fact that you don’t see the beheading itself is very psychologically effective. For one, it means that most of the video can be shown on news networks, scaring the shit out of people. For another, it means people have to use their own imaginations to fill in the gaps left by the original video, or the edited version they may have seen some of on the news. And nothing is scarier than your own imagination.

So, I ask again, who are ISIS? Because their PR is outstanding, a lot better than I could imagine any fundamentalist Salafi militia from being able to get together. This is one of the main reasons so many people believe the hype, even though the hype is ridiculous. The PR is really good. So we do have to wonder, what if this goes way beyond the implications of the Defense Intelligence Agency report? What if this isn’t primarily about a strategic asset against Assad, which NATO has plenty of in Syria anyway and has done for several years at this point. What if this is about recreating the terrorist enemy image once more, broadening it yet further while keeping enough of the previous incarnation to make it seem like a logical replacement. After all, the PR would not be that effective on the people of Syria itself, who have seen worse in reality than ISIS are threatening in the videos. So that side of things seem squarely aimed at an international audience, most likely a western audience.

Meanwhile, as a militia operating primarily in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, do they pose a serious threat to the West? No. So their purpose is not to actually pose a threat to the West and perhaps not even to be used as a proxy against Western targets. Their effectiveness lies primarily in the media realm, not in the real world. They are the first truly postmodern terrorists in that respect, though all terrorism through history has had this dimension. But ISIS, IS, ISIL, Daesh have no central identity. Al Baghdadi, assuming he even exists, has no media profile himself. Instead his followers, among them Jihahi John, assuming he even exists, make these videos and a guerrilla army rides around shooting up and blowing up various places, but what is the connection between the beheading videos and the guerrilla army, the gangsters on the ground? That is never made clear, except with the name. ISIS. IS. ISIL. Jihadi John is a member of ISIS. This is jihadi John in the video. This is what ISIS are doing in Syria.

The string of words and images convinces us that the spectacle is true. In reality, as I said before, they could be destroyed in a matter of weeks if that was truly the plan, so clearly it isn’t. The spectacle of an Islamic terrorist group who, like Pinky and the Brain, is trying to take over the world. It is truly a measure of how divorced people’s fears are from reality, that this absurd fantasy prevails. ISIS will never take over the world, that simply isn’t going to happen. I know you all know this, but I’m re-emphasising it because it’s good both to state and to hear simple truths that keep us all grounded in reality. So, to answer the title question – that’s what ISIS is. A myth that isn’t going to take over the world.