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ISIS’ ‘State’ of Terror

by Mark Hay

November 20, 2015

Since the Paris attacks, countless world leaders have inveighed against the Islamic State, promising swift justice for its atrocities. But you may have noticed that not all of them referred to the group as “the Islamic State.” Many these days prefer the term Daesh. A rough abbreviation of the group’s old Arabic name (al-Dawlat al-Islāmiyya fī al-‘Irāq wa-al-Shām; it now calls itself just al-Dawlat al-Islåmiyya), apparently coined by local opponents of the group, the phrase carries usage-dependent pejorative connotations—roughly, “crusher” or “sower of discord”—and members of “Daesh” reportedly hate it. It’s been used on and off by leaders for some time as a succinct insult and denial of the group’s claims to political legitimacy. We ought to use this term, many argue, because it reflects the reality that the “so-called Islamic State” (another common dismissive label used for the group these days) is neither Islamic nor a state. It is, they say, simply a bunch of thugs bound together by terrorist motives and actions that we ought not validate by caving in to their self-aggrandizing self-definition.

Undercutting the threat of the group and denigrating it in the eyes of those who may fear it by using the term “Daesh” is rhetorically powerful and even admirable. Yet, unfortunately, it’s also pointless at best and counterproductive at worst. Despite our protestations to the contrary, there’s growing evidence that the Islamic State has (functionally) become a viable state. Recognizing that reality does matter; the way we think about, address, and deal with a thuggish terrorist group is drastically different from the way we think about, address, and deal with a pariah state that sponsors terror. Insisting publicly on the illegitimacy of the group is a good way to score points, but recognizing the unpalatable reality of our enemy’s capabilities is a better way to actually address the threat they pose. There may be a better way to refer to the group than “the Islamic State.” But whatever we settle on must forgo feel-good deprecation and acknowledge the group’s de facto state status. 

Ever since its inception, the only real way to understand the Islamic State and its actions has been to read it in terms of an all-out state-building enterprise. For most of its history, from its birth as an al-Qaeda in Iraq offshoot about a decade ago, its claims of territorial control and institutionalization were entirely aspirational. But over the past few years, and especially since 2013, when the group took over the northern Syrian town of Raqqa, which has since become its de facto capital, that aspiration has slowly morphed into a reality. As early as July 2014, a month after the group blitzed its way into Mosul and through much of Iraq, cementing itself in the American popular consciousness, analysts were already cautioning that we ought to see the group less as a terrorist threat and more as a full-out, sophisticated army. After all, one of the first things they did in Mosul was issue a city charter and install their own political structures. 

For much of 2014, many believed that while the Islamic State might have state-building aims, its thuggish nature and ineptitude would lead it to crash and burn. Stories throughout the year highlighted refugees’ and local activists’ experiences with corrupt and ineffectual “state” organizations in Raqqa and Mosul, chronic insecurity and poverty, and a twisted focus on promoting religious purity and administering brutal punishments over the provision of essential services. Claims of cronyism, territorial and force erosion, and hearts-and-minds campaign failure were rife. If this view held, it’d make sense to discount “Daesh” as a valid state, rhetorically and strategically.

Yet while the Islamic State may have been rough around the edges at the outset of its twisted adventure in state construction, while it may pursue particularly brutal polices in certain regions, and while its effectiveness may remain haphazard, there is growing evidence that the group has become freakishly competent within its strongholds. Based on syntheses of reports issued by the group itself, opposition activists, refugees, and leaked documents of all sorts, we can say with some confidence that the Islamic State has established a monopoly of force and taxation (and even symbolism) over its core territories, eliminating major threats against it. We know that they’ve offered selective clemency and launched hearts-and-minds campaigns to improve their image amongst the (possibly 10 million) locals under their rule. Although once like other terrorist organizations, dependent on donations and benefactors, the State is now self-funding, with a budget of perhaps $1 billion to $2 billion a year, eclipsing larger nations like Myanmar. And public perception to the contrary, the vast majority of that cash seems to go into the creation of now-competent state organizations and services, from courts, police, and indoctrinating schools to power stations, welfare offices, and consumer protection bureaus. Some accounts indicate that the state has become so competent that, every time we destroy some infrastructure via airstrikes on their strongholds, it’s rebuilt within days.

Image by 3aref 6ari2o via Flickr

Even those who detest the Islamic State will occasionally concede that the group has managed to reduce crime in the regions it controls. This relative stability, coupled with the provision of reliable basic services, grants the regime some legitimacy for people who are accustomed to navigating draconian and repressive regional regimes. Add to this the fact that the State has its own steady supply of small and heavy arms, the power to conscript soldiers into its wars, and (apparently) the time, space, and resources to fund a new wave of foreign assaults and proxy forces, and you get the impression that the State has become internally confident and objectively competent. That’s a lot more than you can say for many recognized states, pariah or otherwise; even some of the Western nations that IS is targeting can at times seem less competent than their foe.

Treating an entity this capable as a group of thugs, whether in rhetoric or in policy, is a grave mistake. While it may be psychologically productive, easing the overblown sense of threat some people feel at the mention of the group, it can promote a piecemeal and insufficient strategy. Bomb them long enough, put enough pressure on them, or just wait them out, the logic runs, and, as with other terrorists, their operations will be disrupted—perhaps to the point that they burn out and are forced to scatter. But when you use this approach against a state that, despite its birth within wartime footing, is muscling its way toward functional legitimacy and self-sustaining operational competency, you wind up, at best, only containing or slowly strangling the threat.

Acknowledging the Islamic State as a state, on the other hand, may give us a better sense of how to decisively end this conflict. States have vulnerabilities that terrorists do not—dedicated supply lines they have to maintain, a capital they cannot leave, leaders who are essential to the provision of social services that ensure not just their monopoly of force but tacit regional concessions to their legitimacy. Admittedly, there are issues around wiping out a rogue state, like the fear of creating a regional power vacuum. But seeing and labeling the Islamic State clearly and accurately allows us to have a more practical dialogue about our options in response to the threat it poses. And it’s arguably less terrifying as well, because “terrorism” as a whole is (as we have become keenly aware) is practically indestructible—mobile, elusive, resilient. States, on the other hand, are discrete enemies that can be contained, discredited, even defeated decisively. Daesh, the “terrorist” organization, is an extension of the amorphous and immortal specter of terror against which we often feel so impotent. The Islamic State is a threat we can handle both physically and psychologically.

There’s a caveat to this argument: While it may be important to publicly acknowledge the terrible but practical statehood of our foe, rather than just insult them with dismissive labels, the phrase “Islamic State” is still troubling. It’s not problematic because it somehow legitimizes the organization; the State probably doesn’t give much of a shit about what we call them. It’s the fact that the term “Islamic State” recognizes not just the organization’s begrudgingly acknowledged statehood, but also its theoretical holiness. French officials make the fair point that publicly using the name draws an insulting equation between the faith of Islam and this entrenched actualization of a radical fringe.

This is our challenge: We need to avoid the temptation to dismiss this potent organization with digs and contradictions. We need to acknowledge that, even if the group is taking a pounding now, it’s a fearfully competent machine. (And even if it’s not, better we overestimate than underestimate our foe.) We need to acknowledge the group’s de facto statehood, even if we reject it de jure. Yet we need to do so in a way that does not sully the name of the faith of which this state boldly and ridiculously claims to be the sole ruler and arbiter. But whatever terminology we land on in the end, it must productively acknowledge, rather than dismiss, the hard truths that define the ongoing conflict.

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ISIS’ ‘State’ of Terror