ISIS: Infrastructure of Fear and Belonging

By Kate McEntee

 

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All artwork done by Ina Lim

Islamic State, also called ISIS, is an organization that has enthralled our global media and dominated the political securities discourse for several months now. The group is known for its use of extreme violence and skillfully produced media. ISIS ruthlessly broadcasts heinous acts of violence and promotes a self-serving, medieval doctrine of Islam. These elements are used to propagate fear, project the image of having large expanses of land and power, and attract worldwide attention. It concentrates efforts and resources to legitimize or “legalize” its claimed Islamic state or caliphate.

ISIS is commonly described using terms such as “extremist,” “militant,” “fundamentalist,” “violent,” and “radical Islamists.” This project aims to avoid such broad and non-descript labels whose definitions could be used to describe a varying array of groups and activities. The words chosen here are an attempt to unravel the infrastructure of who ISIS is and how it is supported in a more informative way, rather than simply considering them another fringe, extremist group.

The glossary terms explored in this project are the result of first, understanding the surface contours of ISIS—its geographical presence, financial situation, organizational structure and doctrinal influences. And secondly, exploring social and political theorists who examine extremist movements, violence, shifting forms of sovereignty and nation-states and modern media’s relationship with war and violence.

Using this information, the glossary presented here is an attempt to offer a deeper understanding of ISIS: how it came into existence, motivating ideologies, modes of spreading, and influence on the world around it. As the project continues I hope to expand insights outside this initial and somewhat narrow investigation and build on how this phenomena relates to overall understandings of modernity/postmodernity and what implications it has for future nation-states, terrorism and war.

This project avoids using standard imagery related to discussions about ISIS and extremist groups in the Middle East in general. Images seen in mass media outlets generally capitalize on stereotypes. Images produced by the group itself are theatrical in a way that detracts attention from a complex unpacking of the infrastructure in this space.

VOID

VOID: a potential for beginnings

(n) a vacancy

Void is not generally considered a term for fecundity, but yet it describes an opening or space. This is precisely a place that has boundless potential for creation.

In Faisal Devji’s lecture, “The Terrorist in Search of Humanity” he argues that the end of the Cold War created new spaces in the global political arena that allowed the rise of political jihadist movements.[1] He is looking particularly at al-Qaeda and extremist organizations that preceded ISIS. He analyzes how during the time of the Cold War the world was given a dominant geo-political structure and within that there was limited space in which to operate outside of the capitalist vs. communist dichotomy. The void left by the end of the Cold War allowed for conceivable political systems outside of these dominant philosophies.

Devji’s work lays the ground to explore some specific characteristics of Islamic State. Similarly during the Cold War, the world was also operating under the assumption that one of the two superpowers were going to initiate a nuclear war that would destroy life and if not obliterate it, force humanity to develop completely new political and social structures based on the damage. This assumption limited motivation for groups or belief systems to claim to be harbingers of either a new political systems (i.e. an Islamic caliphate) or proliferate alternate apocalyptic beliefs. As described below in the state-us term, declaring an Islamic caliphate is a critical component of how ISIS projects its purpose in the world. It leans on this created political structure as validation for its actions in the world and legitimacy in the Islamic world. In addition, as J.M. Berger supports in his extensive research on ISIS and is discussed in the exclusivity term, “millenarian apocalyptic cults provide a far more useful framework for understanding ISIS than Islam does.”[2] The presence of a religious institution does little to give us insight into the infrastructure of ISIS, but these two concepts—one a political system and one a belief system—were able to arise as substantial and defining components to the ISIS infrastructure because of the void provided by the absence of the Cold War’s singular geo-political landscape.

Another void to distinguish the ISIS infrastructure has to do with a distinctive inner void promoted by ISIS. In a recent dialogue between Devji and Jason Mohaghegh in September 2014, the scholars examine ISIS’ extreme distrust and abrogation of any forms of inner spiritual practice.[3] This void creates a space in which ISIS is able to fill its self-serving doctrine. We can see an example of this in its excessive use of takfiri doctrine, declaring a Muslim to be an apostate for any kind variant beliefs, to justify mass killings.[4] ISIS also takes extreme measures to “legalize” its practice and create forms that externally verify its otherwise extreme religious beliefs, ideas, and practices. The inner void ISIS promotes encourages followers and recruits to rely on external acts and influences and avoid personal reflection, both on a large, organizational scale and in regard to individual beliefs and practices.

Media commentaries often note how ISIS militants are filmed and photographed being jovial and relaxed amidst horrific murders and punishment, in much contrast to stoic presentation of muhajadeen that is prevalent in other militant organizations. In the published dialogue, Mohaghegh comments how, “the militant subject as emerging from the void of any authentic inner world, and hence that theirs is a subjectivity always projected onto the hollow representational surfaces of some virtual stratosphere. Not shockingly then…they overcompensate either through excessive demonstrations of violence or through excessive instantiations of the law.”[5]

[1] Devji, Faisal. “The Terrorist in Search of Humanity.” Ali Vural Ak Center for Global I’s. George Mason University, Washington D.C. 12 Nov. 2011. Vimeo. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. <https://vimeo.com/32011616>.

[2] Berger, J.M. “Enough about Islam: Why Religion Is Not the Most Useful Way to Understand ISIS.” The Brookings Institution. The Brookings Institution, 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/02/18-enough-about-islam-berger>.

[3] Devji, Faisal and Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, “Point of No Return: Extremism, Sectarian Violence, and the Militant Subject,” SCTIW Interlocutors Series, SCTIW Review, September 3, 2014. http://sctiw.org/sctiwreviewarchives/archives/232.

[4] Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

[5] Devji, Faisal and Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, “Point of No Return: Extremism, Sectarian Violence, and the Militant Subject,” SCTIW Interlocutors Series, SCTIW Review, September 3, 2014. http://sctiw.org/sctiwreviewarchives/archives/232.

 

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STATE-US: an identifier of power

(n.) the position of an individual in relation to another or others

In June 2014 ISIS captured the Iraqi town of Mosul and officially declared itself Islamic State.[1] It used this opportunity to establish itself as an Islamic caliphate. This declaration of “statehood” conferred a particular status upon ISIS. The capture of Mosul established legitimate recognition for the organization from other nations and also acted to legitimize ISIS in its own eyes. Given this “state-us” it could define itself as a geographically established, tax-collecting nation-state. This formalizes ISS as a “state” and not simply a fringe terrorist group.

The formation of the caliphate served as a rallying call to Muslims around the world. A caliphate is considered a beacon to Muslims living under other, non-“caliphate” governments. Many of ISIS’s foreign supporters cite the caliphate as the attractive force drawing them towards the cause—morally as well as physically.[2] This importance on statehood speaks to a specific interpretation of Quranic jurisprudence, that a Muslim must live under an Islamic caliph in order to be able to fully practice their religious duties.[3]

ISIS is acutely focused on legitimizing its actions through law. This is a distinctive quality from other militant groups such as al-Qaeda, who never attempted to appropriate religious or political authority over a population, Muslim or otherwise.[4]

How does ISIS’s actions of legitimacy perhaps reflect upon other nation-states claimed sovereignty? ISIS is considered an extremist, fringe group that is using force to control its land and citizens. However, it is able to create “legal” status for itself and the external structures to legitimize its “extreme” beliefs and use of force. How are these actions different from the same methodologies used by other nation-states to assert their power?

Wendy Brown examines how the nation-state’s adherence to sovereignty is losing power to non-state actors, such as global financial forces, religious violence, illegal immigration and lucrative contraband. She argues that as the nation-state loses power among these dynamic global forces, it clings to archaic forms of sovereignty.[5] For example, the United States is currently using a physical wall to try and control illegal immigration at our borders. Devji considers is ISIS’s adherence to a “caliphate” and archaic institutions of law and social organization are actually fringe behaviors or perhaps related to this same current of grasping at this desirable “sovereignty” like other nation-states. Is the whole idea and goal of statehood a bygone construct?

The status conferred by statehood, whether as a fringe extremist group or widely recognized “legitimate” nation is interesting to examine when thinking about how one lives up to the expectations of such a title. ISIS’s statehood has been delegitimized by the fact that despite its ability to wield power and control territory, it cannot provide basic services and welfare to its citizenry. Similarly one could argue that the United States’ legitimacy as a nation-state is threatened by the use of drone warfare and blatant disregard for international laws regarding detention centers. Is there a productive examination in how the lines between these two blur? As we see ideas and forms of political sovereignty and personal identity shift, is ISIS pushing us to recognize new forms or terms for what is considered a legitimate, service providing, internationally recognized entities that are not currently covered in our political discourse?

The ideas presented here of this blurring line needs further exploration, clarity and support.

[1] What Is Islamic State? BBC News. BBC, 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29052144>.

[2] Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/>.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Devji, Faisal and Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, “Point of No Return: Extremism, Sectarian Violence, and the Militant Subject,” SCTIW Interlocutors Series, SCTIW Review, September 3, 2014. http://sctiw.org/sctiwreviewarchives/archives/232.

[5] Ibid.

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EXCLUSIVITY: a means of identity

(adj.) not admitting of something else; incompatible

How ISIS is identified in the general media and public as an “Islamic” extremist group is a prime example for the value of this glossary discussion. The surface level terms and labels we often use do not allow space for new ways of thinking and meaningful understandings of the infrastructure. Although “Islam” seems like an obviously apt label to apply to the group, it actually does little to help us identify or understand the group’s constituents and belief system. The term exclusivity however speaks to a central tenant of ISIS’s identity—the core, driving belief that it’s members are part of an exclusive group and that it has a divinely-directed purpose to subjugate or destroy anyone outside of this group. This mission includes the belief that ISIS’s purpose is to herald the apocalypse. This apocalyptic belief structure helps motivate and support the organization’s unrestrained acts of violence in “carrying out” this mission. Examining exclusionary identity tactics, which are then driven by an apocalyptic belief system, provides a clearer vision of the group’s infrastructure than “Islam” is able.

Analyst J.M. Berger argues this point in his article, “”Enough about Islam: Why Religion Is Not the Most Useful Way to Understand ISIS” saying, “Millenarian beliefs are often wedded to identity-based extremism through the narrative device of a chosen group that will triumph in an apocalyptic war or survive an apocalyptic disaster. Again, the traits of these groups are remarkably consistent across a variety of belief structures. Their commonality is their Millenarianism, not the theological background from which those End Times beliefs are derived.”[1]

ISIS has built a global identity through claiming acts of extreme violence. It has been far more effective at attracting and being able to claim acts perpetrated by “lone wolves” than any other terrorist organizations. Radicalization specialist Anne Aly describes ISIS having introduced a framing in which “[fighting for Islamic State] is not just an obligation, it’s the only real pass to absolute cleansing of all your sins.”[2] The encouraged external actions of violence against enemies of Islamic State, earn you “Allah’s mercy” and redemption.”[3] Unfortunately, pious Muslims who are not willing to submit to ISIS’s terrifying rule are excluded and not granted the same divine redemption.

As introduced in the glossary term void, Devji’s work examines how ISIS is intent on creating its identity based on externalities, rather than developing unifying internal philosophies. ISIS’s actions in recent months provide concrete examples of the emphasis placed on external acts for inclusion rather than religious beliefs. Particularly, if an actor is moved to spectacular acts of extreme violence and is willing to do so in the name of ISIS’s movement, they are accepted and praised. It is irrelevant to ISIS what the actor’s philosophical motivations or belief structures are.

A clear example of this is the story of Man Haron Monis, an Iranian-borne Shia Muslim. ISIS is a staunchly anti-Shia organization and has declared that all Shia are non-believers and must be killed. Monis took civilian hostages in Sydney, Australia in December 2014 and was killed in the ensuing clash with police, along with 2 of the hostages. Monis had declared allegiance to the “caliph” online in the days preceding the hostage event. In ISIS’s magazine Dabiq published immediately after the event, Monis is praised as a crusader for the caliph and member of the muhajadeen.[4]

The exclusionary, externally created identity pursued by ISIS is intimately intertwined with the organization’s use of spectacle to create its infrastructure of fear and belonging.

[1] Berger, J.M. “Enough about Islam: Why Religion Is Not the Most Useful Way to Understand ISIS.” The Brookings Institution. The Brookings Institution, 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/02/18-enough-about-islam-berger>.

[2] Safi, Michael. “Sydney Siege Gunman Man Haron Monis Praised in Isis Publication.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 29 Dec. 2014. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/30/sydney-siege-gunman-man-haron-monis-praised-in-isis-publication>.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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SPECTACLE: an instrument of attraction

(n.) something presented to the sight or view, especially of a striking or impressive kind

(n.) a public show or display, especially on a large scale

ISIS is well known for its strategy of publishing highly produced media, most notably detailed executions of enemies and “heretics.” These violent videos and images are pushed out by thousands of ISIS supporters and picked up by mainstream media outlets. The executions are defended and described in detail in the ISIS English language magazine, Dabiq. The shameless publication and sheer extremity of these acts plays an important role in understanding the ISIS infrastructure and is a telling moment in the evolution of media’s relationship with war and violence.

By creating a spectacle of their atrocious acts, militants within ISIS are able to distance themselves from considering the weight of their actions. You see young men laughing and joking with one another in the midst of heinous mass murders. It is a piece of theater, a video game or a film. They are simply playing their role in the story. ISIS’s apocalyptic doctrine possibly helps to support this theatrical acclimatization. If ISIS is heralding the end of the world, each member of the organization must play his or her role to bring this reality. You are able to marginalize the terrible act and your role in perpetrating it by placing it in a larger context—one life, twenty lives, a hundred lives do not matter if it is bringing us closer to the mighty, divinely sanctioned end of this world. They are simply playing a role in the apocalyptic end–“playing some particularly grotesque part in a piece of theater.”[1]

Our modern media landscape is inundated with examples of people living “reality” in a theatrical context, such as playing the role of life on a reality TV show or projecting curated images and stories of who we are on Facebook and other social media outlets. For most people these actions seem somewhat benign. However, when we examine the deeper effects these trends ingrain, it can generate parallels to understanding ISIS militants. How could one happily, proudly, on camera carry out such acts? Perhaps the familiarity of an atmosphere where we are constantly “performing” our lives makes it comfortable to “perform” these shameful acts, and indeed serves to lessen the shame by making the actions so public. This is a topic that needs deeper exploration.

The sadistic shamelessness of the actors in ISIS’s spectacular productions feeds the global fear of this unknown, shadowy terrorist force. “[M]ost Americans are far from clear as to what this ‘ISIL’ monster is, other than a few shadowy, portentous figures on disturbing videotapes.”[2] Without a lot of understanding or background knowledge, people see or hear about these dramatic and appalling events through the news and media that ISIS is producing. By being the most lurid source of content, ISIS attracts the most attention and is able to control its public image and instill senseless fear in the masses.

Spectacle also serves as a powerful tool of attraction for supporters. As explored in the exclusivity term, ISIS has built a support network based on people who are attracted to the extremity and absolutism of its views. J.M. Berger notes in his article, “The Islamic State’s Irregulars” that ISIS has become a “fixation” for increasingly diverse acts of violence throughout the world.[3] He comments on the visual media specifically saying, “IS visual propaganda puts a premium on the depiction of acts of violence so horrific and sadistic that their depravity can scarcely be appreciated without seeing them. But it alternates those messages with carefully manufactured visions of a utopian Islamic state within its territory, which stands in stark and unrealistic contrast to the carnage. This is a recipe to incite and agitate people with borderline personalities, and IS is a populist movement, happy to accept virtually any support.”[4] ISIS uses the strategy of spectacle to pull in the kind of support that will accept and propagate its twisted message and views.

[1] Devji, Faisal and Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, “Point of No Return: Extremism, Sectarian Violence, and the Militant Subject,” SCTIW Interlocutors Series, SCTIW Review, September 3, 2014. http://sctiw.org/sctiwreviewarchives/archives/232.

[2] Elving, Ron. “How To Measure Success Against The New Monster In The Middle East?” NPR. NPR, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. <http://www.npr.org/2014/09/16/348650721/how-to-measure-success-against-the-new-monster-in-the-middle-east.>.

[3] Berger, J.M. “The Islamic State’s Irregulars.” Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. <http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/12/23/the-islamic-states-deranged-irregulars-lone-wolf-terrorists-isis/>.

[4] Ibid.

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AMPLIFICATION: a strategy for projection

(n.) the act of making larger, greater, or stronger; enlarging; extending

Central to ISIS’s ability to project a presence larger than reality around the world, is how it is able to manipulate and leverage modern media channels. There is a long history of the relationship between media production feeding off war and violence, and war and violence feeding off media. The television and the use of live, visual media greatly affected American’s understanding of the Vietnam War. Though highly affective and gruesome, footage was pre-approved and cushioned within a nightly newscast. In her essay, “The War Drive,” Rosalind Morris draws attention to how that experience evolved with the Gulf Wars, and particularly the second Gulf War. [1] Twenty-four-seven news channels such as CNN offered non-stop coverage that could be consumed all day, at any time. This footage still had to go through the appropriate channels to be publicly broadcast. With the second Gulf War and the general “War on Terror” content could easily be released and not pre-approved or edited with any oversight. What one could not see on the network channels was recast and published via the Internet. A flagrant example of this uncensored coverage are the shocking photos of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, released via social media and immediately distributed throughout the world.[2]

ISIS’s amplification strategies bring yet another evolution of the relationship between violence and media outlets. ISIS implements a very sophisticated media strategy that circulates its uncensored messages en masse and sometimes even unwittingly exposes viewers to the contents. It is often overlooked that ISIS does not have an enormously strong base of support online. It simply employs technical strategies in order to amplify and control its messaging. J.M. Berger noted back in June of 2014 that, “The ISIS hashtag consistently outperforms that of the group’s main competitor in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, even though the two groups have a similar number of supporters online.”[3] In a recent study published by the Brookings Institute it was approximated that ISIS has at least 45,000 twitter accounts (1,000-3,000 of those accounts being the most active) pushing out around 90,000 tweets per day and actively retweeting messaging.[4] In addition, ISIS uses “bots,” which are Twitter accounts that are simply controlled by computers, not humans, that automatically send out content.[5] An interesting dichotomy to note here is ISIS’s strong use of Western technology and systems to support its network, despite doctrines against everything Western or modern being evil or un-Islamic.

ISIS runs a mechanized, systemic approach to create the image of having hundreds of thousands of followers and widespread popular support around the world. This simulated popularity is picked up and echoed by mainstream media outlets. Does it matter whether or not the projected level of “human” support is behind the movement, if ISIS is able to make the world believe it is there? ISIS creates an image of itself—a powerful Islamic caliphate, caring for its citizens, directed by divine power to slaughter whoever stands in its way and widely supported by the people in its mission. Regardless of the validity of these points, the louder ISIS voices these points, the more they spread, in both “legitimate”, mainstream mediums and in the democratized underground of social media.

[1] Morris, R. C. “The War Drive: IMAGE FILES CORRUPTED.” Social Text 25.2 91 (2007): 103-42. Web.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Berger, J.M. “How ISIS Games Twitter.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 16 June 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-iraq-twitter-social-media-strategy/372856/>.

[4] Berger, J.M. “The Evolution of Terrorist Propaganda: The Paris Attack and Social Media.” The Brookings Institution. The Brookings Institution, 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.brookings.edu/research/testimony/2015/01/27-terrorist-propaganda-social-media-berger>.

[5] Ibid.

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