CURATED BY Zack Beauchamp
2014-10-01 14:29:56 -0400
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If you want to understand the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, the first thing you have to know about them is that they are not crazy. Murderous adherents to a violent medieval ideology, sure. But not insane.
Look at the history of ISIS's rise in Iraq and Syria. From the mid-2000s through today, ISIS and its predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, have had one clear goal: to establish a caliphate governed by an extremist interpretation of Islamic law. ISIS developed strategies for accomplishing that goal — for instance, exploiting popular discontent among non-extremist Sunni Iraqis with their Shia-dominated government. Its tactics have evolved over the course of time in response to military defeats (as in 2008 in Iraq) and new opportunities (the Syrian civil war). As Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas explains, in pure strategic terms, ISIS is acting similarly to revolutionary militant groups around the world — not in an especially crazy or uniquely "Islamist" way.
The point is that, while individual members of ISIS show every indication of espousing a crazed ideology and committing psychopathically violent acts, in the aggregate ISIS acts as a rational strategic enterprise. Their violence is, in broad terms, not random — it is targeted to weaken their enemies and strengthen ISIS' hold on territory, in part by terrorizing the people it wishes to rule over.
Understanding that ISIS is at least on some level rational is necessary to make any sense of the group's behavior. If all ISIS wanted to was kill infidels, why would they ally themselves with ex-Saddam Sunni secularist militias? If ISIS were totally crazy, how could they build a self-sustaining revenue stream from oil and organized crime rackets? If ISIS only cared about forcing people to obey Islamic law, why would they have sponsored children's festivals and medical clinics in the Syrian territory they control? (To be clear, it is not out of their love for children, whom they are also happy to murder, but a calculated desire to establish control.)
This isn't to minimize ISIS' barbarity. They've launched genocidal campaigns against Iraq's Yazidis and Christians. They've slaughtered thousands of innocents, Shia and Sunni alike. But they pursue these horrible ends deliberately and strategically. And that's what really makes them scary.
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