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‘ISIS is a modern phenomenon; it is really a new religion’

Interview: Jessica Stern | January 29, 2016



In an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman, Professor Jessica Stern shared her insights on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Stern states that “for Baghdadi and ISIS, the caliphate is here and now,” suggesting that ISIS counts the re-establishment of the caliphate as an essential step leading up to the apocalypse. “Although many jihadi groups are somewhat apocalyptic, ISIS is much more focused on an end times narrative and on the imminence of the prophesied final battle,” she argues.

She further elaborates that the best way to fight ISIS ideologically requires people who can reach out to the youth. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of learned Islamic scholars and clerics who have said ISIS is misinterpreting Islam. But what they are saying is not reaching the young people who are their recruits,” she says, adding, “What we need are credible sources who know how to talk to young people.”

Stern, who has a doctorate in public policy from Harvard, lectures at Harvard Law School. She is well known for her internationally acclaimed books, especially on terrorism, including “Terror in the Name of God” (2003), where she collected data by interviewing religious extremists in the US, Israel, Pakistan and elsewhere over a four-year period.

She was portrayed by Nicole Kidman in the famous movie “The Peacemaker” (1997), in which Jessica's work at the National Security Council was fictionalized. The reason she was portrayed in the movie was due to the position she held as director of the anti-nuclear-smuggling operation in the first Clinton administration. As a reminder, George Clooney also co-starred in the movie as a military intelligence officer who used unorthodox methods to get the job done.

Her dissertation, “The control of chemical weapons: A strategic analysis,” submitted to Harvard University in 1992, also helped to make her a leading figure in the field of weapons of mass destruction.

Stern is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was included in a Time magazine series that profiled 100 people with bold ideas.

In 2015, she co-authored her most recent book, “ISIS: The State of Terror,” with J.M. Berger, an expert on political and extremist uses of social media. Referring to highly sensitive intelligence sources, they explain the emergence of today's most infamous terrorist organization, ISIS, and try to offer ideas on how to respond to it.


Could you, please, tell us about your book? What is the focus of your book? How has the feedback been?

I wrote the book with J.M. Berger, who is an expert on terrorist use of social media. Actually, I met him on Twitter and I only met him in person once before I asked him to write a book with me. What we do in the book is to explain where ISIS comes from, how it evolved from earlier jihadi groups, its relationship with other groups, how it is competing for personnel, how it recruits and so on.


What do you think is the role of al-Qaeda on the emergence of ISIS?

ISIS comes out of al-Qaeda; it comes out of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). From the very beginning there were tensions between “al-Qaeda central” and al-Qaeda in Iraq. One of the tensions was that the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq was extremely violent and killed a lot of Muslims, and [Osama] bin Laden didn't think this was good for the image of al-Qaeda. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, really had it in for the Shiites. Zarqawi was very good in raising money through criminal activities. We still see that feature in ISIS. He was basically a petty criminal in Jordan, and his mother urged him to study Islam, thinking she would save him from the life of crime. Unfortunately, the Islam that he found was simply an excuse to continue his life of crime. He beheaded his victims and filmed the beheadings. Therefore, the things that people think that are new about ISIS, actually, are not new at all, it is just that ISIS got much better at the filming and the dissemination of the filming of these beheadings. The killing of many Muslims, both Sunni and Shiites, but especially Shiites, that comes right out of Zarqawi's ideology and practices. And really paying attention to finances was something that Zarqawi also specialized in. Al-Qaeda central actually asked al-Qaeda in Iraq for money, which is quite unusual. Usually al-Qaeda central would be disseminating money, but in this case, they asked for money.


What do you think are the major differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS today?

As I said, they come out of the same organization. ISIS emerged out of al-Qaeda's branch in Iraq, AQI. By 2011, Syria had essentially erupted into civil war, and AQI (at that point called the Islamic State of Iraq) wanted to take advantage of the chaos. In 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who became emir of the organization in 2010, declared himself the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- claiming responsibility for running the jihad in both Iraq and Syria. [Ayman al-] Zawahiri [leader of al-Qaeda] ordered Baghdadi to return to Iraq and leave the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, in charge of the jihad there. Baghdadi refused. Baghdadi declared himself the caliph in 2014, claiming that all Muslims, anywhere on earth, owed allegiance to him. In Baghdadi's view, Zawahiri owed allegiance to him rather than the other way around. Thus the breakup of ISIS and al-Qaeda, and the continuing tension and competition between the two organizations was at least as much about authority and leadership as it is about differences in their objectives and style. As for those differences -- ISIS holds territory. It has spread a narrative that is appealing to young people and has significantly greater social media skills than earlier jihadi organizations. ISIS is a populist organization; Baghdadi wants to recruit anyone and everyone, and his organization has attracted an unprecedented number of foreign volunteers. Baghdadi announced that every Muslim is required to move to the caliphate. Whereas bin Laden was a little bit of an elitist, he wouldn't take just anyone into his organization. This difference was reflected in the original tension between Zarqawi and bin Laden. Zarqawi was an uneducated man who didn't even finish high school. He was essentially a thug who learned about Islam partly in prison. Bin Laden, on the other hand, was well educated and a member of an elite family. ISIS has retained Zarqawi's brutality, but Baghdadi is not a street thug. He is a religious scholar, and in many ways has more of a claim to legitimacy as a jihadi leader than bin Laden did. So, there are lots of differences. But I think the most important difference is ISIS's extraordinary brutality against Muslims.


Why do you think al-Qaeda never claimed the caliphate, while ISIS claimed it at the beginning?

For al-Qaeda, the re-establishment of the caliphate was a long-term goal, something that would happen some time in the future. For Baghdadi and ISIS, the caliphate is here and now. ISIS counts the re-establishment of the caliphate as an essential step leading up to the Apocalypse. Although many jihadi groups are somewhat apocalyptic, ISIS is much more focused on an end-times narrative, and on the imminence of the prophesied final battle.


Do you think they really believe we are in the end times, or do you think they are using it for recruitment strategies?

I have no way of knowing. I used to be able to talk to some jihadists. I can't do that now. To learn whether they really believe it, I'd want to go spend a week with Baghdadi and try to understand his views. That is clearly not possible…


But do you believe that they are using those apocalyptic views for recruitment?

I certainly think they are using it for recruitment. It is also possible that many of them believe it. Since 9/11 and the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sunnis have taken a far greater interest in the Apocalypse, a subject that has traditionally been of only minor interest to them (as distinct from Shia). In a 2012 Pew poll, in most of the countries surveyed in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, half or more Muslims believe that they will personally witness the appearance of the Mahdi. In Islamic eschatology, the messianic figure known as the Mahdi (the Guided One) will appear before the Day of Judgment. This expectation is most common in Afghanistan (83 percent), followed by Iraq (72), Tunisia (67) and Malaysia (62).

So, yes, I think it is possible that ISIS is deliberately exploiting apocalyptic expectation to enhance recruitment, but it is hard to know how many of the leaders are really thinking that way. But the Apocalypse is all over ISIS's writings. Its sectarian killing and even its sexual enslavement of “polytheist” women is partly dictated, or so ISIS says, by its preparation for the final apocalyptic battle, which it anticipates will take place in the Syrian town of Dabiq. Thus, ISIS conquered that town, and named its online English-language magazine after it, even though Dabiq was of limited strategic value.


What would you tell us in general about their recruitment strategies?

I think what is unique about their recruitment strategy is that it is so varied and so tailored to the particular audience. There was a lot of press coverage of three girls from North England, who were incredibly good students and were completely integrated, they were not living in the margins of society -- we kind of understand why a person living completely in the margin of society might find the ISIS recruitment appealing. But these girls from North England were recruited as well. ISIS generally uses women to recruit other women, telling them they have a chance to play a big role as a jihadi wife, to raise the next generation. ISIS is also seeking a wide variety of recruits -- not just fighters, but also doctors and engineers. Recruitment often starts on social media, but the conversation could switch over to some kind of encrypted application and the recruitment effort can become quite personal.


In one of your earlier works, you argued that the Salafi terrorists or jihadi terrorists are not necessarily very knowledgeable about Islam and religious people. Could you elaborate on that?

This is true for many terrorist groups, not only jihadi groups. For example, neo-Nazis in Europe are often drawn to join organizations initially through music before they understand the ideology. One story told by an escaped ISIS recruit really struck me. This young man, a fighter, said he had first joined al-Nusra, but switched over to ISIS because they offered higher salaries. He also said he believed that ideology played a minimal role for many of his fellow fighters, that he believed they would be equally as happy fighting on behalf of a Christian group, if they got paid enough. That it wasn't really about Islam, it was about the highest paying job for them.

Also, a lot of Sunni Muslims in the region feel completely disenfranchised and unsafe, so it may be about security rather than an agreement with ISIS's ideology. We know that a couple of young men who joined from the UK had just bought “Islam for Dummies” and “The Quran for Dummies.” In the United States, out of 54 people who have been arrested in connection with ISIS, 40 percent of them are converts. This possibility of having an adventure, reinventing oneself, living in the only Sharia-based state on earth, or so ISIS says, can be appealing to young people who want to remake society and, most importantly, reinvent themselves. A person living in Syria would presumably join for very different reasons from a person living in Iowa. In Syria or Iraq, as I said, it could be about protection, security, feeling that the government is either attacking them or just not protecting Sunnis. We also know that many of the people living in ISIS-controlled territory don't want to be there, but they are stuck.


What is the definition of radicalization? What can you say about the radicalization process of these jihadi terrorists, especially ISIS members?

There is a big debate in academic literature about what that word means. Some people would say that a Muslim who suddenly becomes a Salafi is becoming radicalized. Such a person could be a quietist Salafi, who has absolutely no interest in politics, let alone violence. Whereas some people use the term radicalization only to refer to those who believe in violence. It is a controversial term. I'm going to assume that by “radicalization” you mean the conversion to a belief in violent jihad. How does it happen? In so many different ways. Sometimes friends recruit each other. Some of the escaped foreign fighters have said that all kinds of promises were made to them, that the “five-star” jihad adventures they were promised was nothing like what they had experienced when they got to ISIS-controlled territory. Sometimes people start out by watching ISIS's videos, they may get drawn to ISIS's version of war games online. Perhaps they are not very happy with their lives and want to remake themselves. They may be drawn to violence. On the other hand, some people join ISIS imagining that they are joining a humanitarian mission. They think they are going to help Syrians, who are obviously in desperate need of help. There are lots of different reasons.


In Western media in general, what I see is that they discuss a lot whether Islam promotes violence, but do you think the international community is doing its best to cut off the financial resources of ISIS?

You are asking two questions. Does Islam promote violence? Every religion can be used to promote violence. I'm not an expert on jihadism; I have studied terrorism across religions and ideologies. Every religious terrorist points to a religious text as justification for violence. The advantage to studying terrorism across ideologies is that I can see they all play the same tricks; it's all about a selective reading of religious texts.

About the money, I don't know if you saw that there is a report that ISIS has just cut its fighters' salaries in half, which may be related to a recent bombing raid. The issue of ISIS's finances is finally being taken more seriously. ISIS raises money by selling or taxing the sale of antiquities, and those antiquities have been getting out. Oil has been getting out. They are trading in amphetamines and, like most terrorist groups, cigarettes. They are taxing the flow of refugees from Libya. Libya has become very important for them, partly because of money. There are reports that Bashar al-Assad buys oil from them. Turkey, I think, has gotten more serious about the flow in and out of Syria of fighters and the sources of funding. One thing that is different about this organization is that ISIS, at least up to now, doesn't need the support of donors in the Gulf. There are private donors in the Gulf -- and many of the Gulf States have been making a big effort to stop that flow of cash -- but in the case of ISIS it is not nearly as important as it was for al-Qaeda. Turkey is beefing up its border controls, but ISIS's sale of oil to Assad is a hard problem to address.


Do you think that Turkey has taken ISIS as a serious threat, compared with how it considers the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)? Do you think it prioritized the PKK as a greater threat than ISIS?

That is one of the problems with the international coalition against ISIS; the Gulf States are more focused on Iran and feel more threatened by Iran than by ISIS. Saudi Arabia especially feels more threatened by Iran. Turkey has been more interested in fighting the PKK than ISIS. Turkey, I think, is becoming more serious now that ISIS is attacking inside Turkey. Turkey will become more serious over time, I believe.


Do you have anything to say about how they are getting their weapons?

They have stolen a lot of weapons from the Iraqi military, often American weapons. Another unique feature of ISIS is that its leadership contains many former fighters, highly trained military and intelligence personnel. It has a level of expertise in weaponry and in fighting that we don't normally see with a terrorist group. Where do they get additional weapons and parts? That I don't know. It is a very important question.


Could you please tell us what should be done to fight against ISIS's ideology?

Another unique feature of ISIS is that it has made enemies of the entire world. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of learned Islamic scholars and clerics who have said ISIS is misinterpreting Islam. But, what they are saying is not reaching the young people who are their recruits. I think ignorance about Islam actually makes the youth more vulnerable. Ignorance is a vulnerability. What we need are credible sources who know how to talk to young people. I think we need young people thinking about how to explain to those kids that this is not how Islam should be practiced today. ISIS claims that it is going back to original texts, but it is a modern phenomenon. ISIS's ideology is based on Wahhabism, and it always points to religious texts, but those texts require human interpretation. ISIS is promoting a new religion, invented by ISIS. So, part of it, I think, is coming up with a way in which to talk to the youth so that they will listen and really think about how to market that counter narrative as skillfully as ISIS has marketed itself. The propagandists, the filmmakers and the journalists in ISIS are paid more than the fighters -- that is how seriously it takes its propaganda. Facebook and Google are getting more interested in thinking about how to disseminate a compelling counter narrative. But this isn't just a problem of better dissemination; we need better stories, better ideas. My ideal candidate would be a hip-hop artist who joined ISIS and left. That would be an example of somebody who the kids would like and respect, who says, as many people have said: I've joined ISIS, I thought it was a Shariah based state, I thought I'd be helping people, I thought I'd be doing good, but I went there and it was quite different from what I had anticipated, I didn't get what I was promised, it was brutal, the group kills Muslims. We read those stories, I read those stories, you read those stories, but the kids who are vulnerable to ISIS's message are not seeing those stories because they are in the newspapers that many of the kids who join ISIS from the outside don't read.































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