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The ISIS shock doctrine

posted by Steve Niva

The rapid and shockingly violent establishment of a self-declared Islamic Caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq by The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), rebranded in 2014 as The Islamic State (IS), has led to what Issam Eido describes as an explosion of narratives about ISIS, many of which seek a doctrinal basis for its beliefs and behavior from within the Islamic tradition.

Given the emphasis that ISIS places on promoting its austere brand of Islam, symbolized by the stark black and white of its ubiquitous flag, it is not surprising that many accounts subsume ISIS under the doctrines of Salafism, a backward-looking reformist current within Sunni Islam hostile to perceived deviations from the Islam allegedly practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors. ISIS’s emphasis on a purified Islam and its hostility to Shia Islam and other allegedly “apostate” traditions have led others to link its Salafism with Wahhabism, the conservative eighteenth century Islamic revival movement that is the foundation of the modern Saudi State. The New York Times asserts that ISIS has “clear roots” in Wahhabism and British diplomat Alastair Crooke contends that ISIS shouldbe seen as a corrective movement within Wahhabism due to its revolutionary rejection of the offiial Wahhabism of the Saudi State.

But as Alireza Doostdar points out, any account of the ambitions and behavior of ISIS cannot end with the doctrines of Salafism or Wahhabism because actors labeled Salafi or Wahhabi frequently promote opposing political agendas and have diverse orientations towards action and violence. His reasoning is that Salafism is at root more a theological orientation than a blueprint for action, particularly when it comes to organized violence. Thus, Doostdar concludes: “Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’S military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.”

By contrast, when one considers what ISIS is actually doing in practice—waging a protracted and violent insurgency in various locations and phases that aims to undermine existing authorities and establish zones of control—it becomes clear that the ambitions and behavior of ISIS have less to do with doctrines derived from the Qur’an or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad than with the strategic doctrines of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and the tradition of revolutionary insurgent warfare in the twentieth century, dressed up for the information age. While ISIS may have a Salafist orientation, they are also a revolutionary insurgent organization. As the political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas notes, “There is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space.” In other words, the twenty-first century Sunni Salafist insurgents of ISIS may have added a new chapter to the modern theory and practice of insurgent warfare; a hybrid blend of the sacred and profane.

Insurgent Genealogies

As a growing number of analysts have pointed out, the doctrinal basis for the insurgent ambitions and behavior of ISIS, including its use of spectacular and shocking violence, can be traced to the jihadist military strategy text entitled The Management Of Savagery (Idarah al-Tawahhush) first posted on-line in 2004 under the pseudonym of “Abu Bakr Naji.” Since then, this text has become a doctrinal touchstone of many Sunni jihadists involved in insurgencies, including the al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Close observers of radical Islamist movements such as Lawrence Wright, Michael Ryan, and Alastair Crooke have all noted a strong correlation between ISIS actions and behaviors in Iraq and Syria and the strategic doctrine prescribed in The Management of Savagery.

The Management of Savagery is a distillation of writings and postings that compose what could be referred to as the emergent field of “jihadi security studies,” which arose in response to Al-Qaeda’s chief strategist and current leader Ayman Zawahiri’s call for new strategic and military thinking after the fall of Al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan in 2002. As Michael Ryan explains in his useful book Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy, the writings of a distinctive genealogy of jihadist military thinkers such as Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi, the military tactician Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin; and broader strategists like Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri, among others, increasingly inform the practice of militant Islamist groups and fighters.

While these authors situate themselves and their work within a broadly Salafist vision of Islam, their core assertions primarily draw upon the strategic doctrines of communist and leftist insurgents such as Mao, Che and Western theorists of insurgent warfare, the most consistently cited of which is Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea. This work counsels revolutionary actors to develop unconventional forms of protracted political-military conflict that include guerrilla warfare, psychological warfare, and political mobilization designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy. In addition, they reference heterodox American military thinkers such as William S. Lind and Thomas X. Hammes and their concept of Fourth Generation War (4GW), which prescribes using information-age media networks to convince opponents that their strategic goals are unachievable or too costly.

In order to legitimate their reliance upon communist and atheist traditions of revolutionary and insurgent warfare, many of these writers make a distinction between “time tested” principles or “universal laws” (sunan kawniyyah) of military or political behavior and “divine laws” based on sacred texts or traditions. Abu Bakr Naji, for example, urges successful jihadists to embrace the latest writings on military science, administrative science, and economics drawn from Western and non-Western sources. Naji implies that, provided they do not contradict the sharia and are used to establish a purified Islamic state, every rule of warfare and politics does not need a specific justification in the sharia.

Naji’s Savage Shock Doctrine

In its particular contribution to “jihadi security studies,” The Management of Savagery provides what Will McCants and Jarret Brachman call the “playbook” for what is referred in these writings as “regional jihad”: the attempt to seize territory within the Muslim world and establish a self-governing Islamic state in a sea of hostile opponents backed by the West.

In order to do this, Naji’s strategic doctrine echoes Mao’s familiar three-phase theory of revolutionary warfare in which the insurgent organization can be in one or all phases simultaneously. In the first phase, the Islamist insurgent actor seeks to create or exploit “regions of savagery” through violent or shocking actions that collapse central authority or state control via “damage and exhaustion.” The second phase establishes primitive forms of government to “manage” such “regions of savagery,” which he claims would be accepted by shell-shocked people desperate for security. These forces would gradually expand government services while engaging in even more shocking violence in order to extend the “regions of savagery” and defend them. The final phase is the transition from the “administration of savagery” in various regions to a fully governed Islamic state under a Salafist version of Islamic law.

What is distinctive in Naji’s doctrine is his emphasis on shocking and spectacular violence as an asymmetric warfare strategya jihadist shock doctrine. One of most important lessons of Robert Tabler’s The War of the Flea is that insurgent actions must always mobilize a population to side with their cause. In a chapter dedicated to “Using Violence,” Naji emphasizes that shocking violence is not only effective for recruitment and instilling fear, but that it is the primary means to create a society-wide crisis that will polarize the population and drag everyone into the battle. Naji contends that, “We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away, so that the two groups will realize that entering this battle will frequently lead to death. That will be a powerful motive for the individual to choose to fight in the ranks of the people of truth in order to die well, which is better than dying for falsehood and losing both this world and the next.”

From the perspective of Naji’s strategic framework, then, in parts of Syria and Iraq today ISIS is in the process of moving from the first phase of creating or exploiting “regions of savagery” to the second phase of crudely administering these “regions of savagery” and has even taken the initial step of declaring the caliphate in Mosul. In this second phase, ISIS is engaging in the process of internal pacification, providing basic services and establishing Islamic justice as well as “plundering the financial resources” for the purposes of becoming financially self-sufficient. This second phase of “managing savagery” is also characterized by even more shocking violence in order to deepen chaotic conditions, especially in response to its opponents. Naji argues that countries who bomb or attack the Islamist insurgents should be made to “pay the price” — meaning some form of retribution — which we are seeing today in such gruesome acts as beheading hostages or attacking opponents abroad.

Syncretic Insurgents

This novel blending of doctrinal orientations and prescriptions from both the Salafist tradition of Islam and twentieth century communist and leftist traditions of revolutionary warfare, updated for the information agea hybrid combination of divine law given by God and the allegedly universal laws of revolutionary politics and warfare—has led some observers to see ISIS as an incongruous comingling, more contradiction than consequence.

Some like Brian Fishman, for example, cast doubt on the compatibility of blending these two traditions“Che Guevara warmed over for jihadis”while Hussein Ibish highlights the ideological contradiction between communist and Salafist ideals, in a useful article accusing ISIS of plundering Mao’s playbook. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that despite their claims to religious purity, ISIS actually embodies a very modern form of nihilism in which their zealous embrace of brutality even up to their own violent self-destruction reveals a lack of true conviction or faith, making them, in his words, a “disgrace to true fundamentalism.”

But rather than constituting a lack or contradiction, it may be the case that the hybrid doctrine at the root of ISIS simply reflects what Navid Karmani in an earlier discussion of al-Qaeda calls the “explosive synchronicity of non-synchronous elements” in a world where no space remains untouched by hypermediated and globalized information-age capitalism. Like other many other syncretic actors in contemporary global society, both violent and not, ISIS has taken “isolated features from one’s own tradition” and “combined them with foreign as well as with modern elements, images and structures of thought” to construct a tradition “combined with borrowings from a past which isn’t even their own, plus elements which are completely and utterly contemporary.” Paraphrasing Karmani, the hybrid doctrines of ISIS may actually represent a form of belief and action that can spring up anywhere today, given a set of violent conditions and grievances to work with.

In this sense, then, the search for the doctrinal roots of ISIS must also locate its origins in what Alireza Doostdar refers to as the “ecology of cruelty” in Iraq over the past decade resulting from the neoconservative Bush administration’s implementation of what Naomi Klein has described as its own “Shock Doctrine”: exploiting the public’s disorientation following massive collective shockswars, terrorist attacks, or natural disastersto impose unpopular policies. Klein contends that the Bush administration adopted a year zero strategy when invading Iraq that deliberately collapsed the Iraqi state and society and created what Naji would term “zones of savagery” that it sought to “manage” through the likes of Paul Bremer, Ahmad Chalibi and the U.S. military. But as Klein observes, this strategy “has transformed Iraq into the mirror opposite of what the neocons envisioned: not a corporate utopia but a ghoulish dystopia, where going to a simple business meeting can get you lynched, burned alive, or beheaded.” More than any text or doctrinal tradition, this is the fertile ground that is at the root of the shocking doctrines of ISIS.

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3 Responses to “The ISIS shock doctrine”

  1. avatar Ali Minai says:

    Interesting and informative piece. Much to think about for all those trying to understand ISIS. And Zizek with a guest appearance. :-) Of course, the old adage that no plan survives its encounter with actual combat applies as much to the strategies of ISIS as to any others.

  2. avatar John R. Hall says:

    This seems like a very solid review. I do think, however, that more emphasis needs to be given to the congruence between the ISIS military program and the early warring expansionism of Mohammed and his followers…tempered by contemporary insurgent strategies and technological possibilities, to be sure.

  3. avatar Tom the Taalib says:

    A thought-provoking article. However, I have yet to see any convincing evidence to support the claim that ISIS is grounded in any legitimate Islamic theological tradition, let alone “Salafism” or “Wahhabism” (if such a thing exists), other than the nebulous assertion that they are “backward-looking” and kill people for supposedly transgressing Islamic Law. Such assertions betray, in my humble opinion, a shallowness of understanding regarding Salafism and Islamic scholarship as a whole. A more substantial look at ISIS’s highly selective and inconsistent methodology in relating to Islamic scripture reveals much more affinity with Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who readily abandon and reinterpret traditional scholarship as is expedient to their military goals. Amongst Salafi circles they are dismissed as Khawarij.

    @ John R. Hall, I beg your explanation as to how ISIS terror is congruent at all with the expansion of the initial Islamic state.

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