Cable news and internet information feeds are always talking about the Islamic State, alternatively called ISIS or ISIL. ISIS is an Arabic acronym, ISIL stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is the geographic area where states like Syria, Iraq, Jordan, East Turkey and Israel are situated. The Islamic State is certainly not the only terror group in the region. They share space with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Al Nussra and others.
However, according to Philosophy Professor Dave Boersema, “ISIS is particularly nasty, even for most other terror groups. Most other groups have tried to put space between themselves and the Islamic State.”
The Islamic State is also unlike other terror groups in that it is not attempting to take control of an existing state, but actually trying to create a new one. The goal of the Islamic State is a “caliphate.” A Caliphate is a Sunni-Islamic State run according to strict Islamic Law that has not been seen for hundreds of years. The Islamic State has an extremely complex leadership system, both militarily and civically, focused around their leader and “Caliph” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. They have firm, confirmable borders and centers of government, unlike most terror groups, which move fluidly through international borders. In this sense, Islamic State is a unique terror organization with no close equivalents.
So, when we talk about this ambiguous terror group committing atrocities, we need to talk about how they differ from a conventional terror group. Rarely does anyone attempt to explain who the Islamic State actually is, or where they originated.
The Islamic State are not just Islamic. In fact, their most fierce enemies are other Muslims. These opponents of the IS are either different brands of Islamic or ethnic groups that consider themselves distinct. The Islamic State are Sunni, as are nearly all Arab and North African Muslims. However, a portion of Iraq is Shia. Shias are the predominantly Persian wing of Islam, mostly found in Iran. These two factions loathe each other. In Iraq, former dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, badly mistreated his countries Shia minority. When the U.S. installed a Shia Government after invading the nation in 2003, the Shias returned the favor and badly mistreated the Sunni. Now, a portion of the Sunni has coalesced into the Islamic State, with the goal of establishing a Caliphate.
Beyond the Shia minority, the Islamic State is also the enemy of the ethnic Kurds. The Kurdish are not a religious subset, but an ethnic people. The Kurds have a long history of victimization in Iraq, and are ready to defend themselves against the Islamic State. One of the only major policies the U.S is implementing to check the advance of the Islamic State is arming and resupplying the Kurdish minority. While it is working in the short term, this could be dangerous. Arming ethnic minorities during wartime has often lead to those weapons being turned against us as that ethnic minority seizes control in the post-war power vacuum.
We are also fighting an Air War, meaning we are attempting to minimize casualties by not putting soldiers on the ground, but simply by bombing the Islamic State from the sky with unmanned aircraft, or drones. But drones are not the best policy solution, as they tend to terrify and enrage civilians on the ground with collateral damage.
As Political Science Professor Jim Moore told the OPB radio program “Think Out Loud” this past Sept. 11, “The efficacy of Air War is in question…everyone who is underneath the drones hates America.” Effectively, Drones may actually create as much anti-American sentiment as they manage to contain.
But the U.S. is not likely to embrace any further action, such as boots on the ground. President Obama has repeatedly illustrated to the country his plan for using air power and arming ethnic fighters and government forces in Iraq.
Moore summarizes the sentiment nicely in the aforementioned program, “The solution will be something that does not have a huge U.S military presence on the ground.”
The Islamic State is a terror group with no close equivalents. Containing it will require careful policy and commitment, beginning with simply understanding whom the Islamic State actually represents.