The Caliphate of the Headless: why Islamic State deserves our respect
Second, their game plan is terrifyingly brilliant and deserves our respect. To dismiss them as another murderous terrorist organisation underestimates how dangerous they could potentially become. Why?
It starts with the declaration of a Caliphate. This was true genius. There are a lot of murderous Islamic terrorist groups: Al-Qaeda (“The Base”) kills people, Hamas (“Enthusiasm”) kills people, Hezbollah (“The Party of God”) kills people. Islamic State does not just kill people, however. By declaring itself as a Caliphate and calling itself “Islamic State” it has claimed status as a new county and a link to the past, which gives its rise a sense of historical inevitability. Unlike Al Qaeda, who merely hoped to recreate an Islamic Caliphate at some point, Islamic State actually has territorial control over large chunks of Iraq and Syria.
This is different from being a mere terrorist group. It has captured US military equipment that the US provided the Iraqi army and has plentiful oil from which to generate income to fund its activities. This allows it to pay and equip Muslim recruits from all over the world, including the US and the UK. Many parallels have already been made between idealistic young Europeans fighting in the Spanish Civil war in the 1930s. Those recruits can be inspired by thinking that they are creating something new and wonderful.
Beheading US and UK citizens and posting those videos online has been fantastic propaganda for Islamic State. This attracts more recruits to come and fight on their behalf in Iraq and Syria. Enthusiastic fighters in Iraq are actively encouraging fellow Muslims to either come and join them in Iraq and Syria or to take the fight to their Western neighbourhoods. Recent beheadings of innocents in the UK and US by Muslims helps Islamic State as it creates serious tensions amongst Muslims and non-Muslims in Western countries. When a non-Muslim walks down the street and sees a bunch of men wearing Muslim clothing they will feel threatened. Muslim women wearing hijabs or niqabs will feel threatened by non-Muslim men. This tension is great news for Islamic State.
So what about the air strikes against Islamic State that have recently started? One cannot help but think that Islamic State was actively encouraging this to happen by beheading American and British citizens so openly. From a short term perspective being bombed by American, British and Arab warplanes is going to hurt Islamic State. But the West is tired of its long set of conflicts in the Muslim world. It is clear to most of the citizens in the West that the war to topple Saddam Hussain was a colossal mistake that has unleashed chaos throughout the Muslim world. The constant terrorist threat of Western Muslims attacking fellow citizens in their own country will make Westerners even more wary of a prolonged conflict with Islamic State.
And so Islamic State is calculating that the bombs will eventually stop falling on them. Without boots on the ground – which will only encourage more attacks on Western troops – the West can’t displace Islamic State easily. The best bet for the West is to support Iran and Syria to stop Islamic State. But relationships with Iran are poor and Assad has been declared persona non grata. Turkey, who should be very worried about Islamic State, has chosen to do nothing. The financial cost of bombing Islamic State will be significant and most Western countries are in deep financial trouble.
Islamic State expects that the West will eventually give up and the Islamic State will show to the rest of the Muslim world that they cannot be beaten by the West. Islamic State can then count on demographics and poverty to help it expand out of Syria and Iraq. North Africa and the Middle East are going through a population explosion. Very high levels of unemployment and the inability to feed their growing populations mean that people in those areas will grow even more desperate than they already are. Governments are weak and ripe for being overthrown by people with focus and determination.
Just like Islamic State.