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Why ISIS's reign of fear has worked, and how it can be countered

The Islamic State is brutal, but for a purpose. It can succeed in the short term because locals don't appear to have any other options.  

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    This undated file image posted on a militant website last year shows fighters from the Islamic State marching through Raqqa, Syria.
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In the early days of the Islamic State, back when it was still taking shape from the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Muslim scholars advised the group to take a page from the United States military’s playbook.

During the Sunni Awakening of 2008, American troops had successfully nurtured tribal councils and militias as partners to eject murderous insurgents from their homeland in western Iraq.

Al Qaeda in Iraq failed because of its “brutality, zealotry, and arrogant belief that it was a state,” said critics – both jihadi and non-jihadi – according to Will McCants, director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

So what did the Islamic State do? It doubled down.

By 2014, “those were the very qualities that made the Islamic State so successful,” says Dr. McCants, author of the new book, “The ISIS Apocalypse.”

It is well known that the Islamic State is now governing a wide swath of Syria and Iraq through a modern-day reign of terror. What is less well-known is why that approach has been so successful – even attracting tens of thousands of foreigners.

The answer appears to be in how that brutality takes shape.

Toward local populations that have little choice but to obey, the Islamic State can promise – and carry out – untold savagery. On Sunday, the Islamic State killed some 70 members of a tribe in Iraq that had tried to rise up against the group. To the foreign fighters who pledge their lives to the cause, by contrast, the Islamic State promises lakeside homes in Raqqa, Syria, and high salaries.

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The campaign of fear and intimidation that hangs over locals works largely because there are no other options. Sunni Muslims in IS-held territory trust the Syrian and Iraqi governments – which are run by other religious groups – even less than they trust the Islamic State. And no foreign power is likely to step in and tip the power balance toward local tribes, as the US did in the Sunni Awakening.

The result is a pseudo-state that breaks all the modern rules – governing through a very calculated mix of opportunism and oppression.

“It was a tough thing for me to see, because I had bought into the idea, put around by the western analytical community – but also by [former Al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden himself – that if you’re going to wage an insurgency and create a long-lasting state, you need to win over popular support,” says McCants.  

“The Islamic State has done the exact opposite.” 

Violence, but not random

For all its wanton spectacle, the brutality of the Islamic State is not random. It is part of a carefully calibrated state-building strategy that the group has been ramping up for years.

The group’s approach to establish control “began with infiltration and ended with conquest,” as a Rand Corporation report released this month put it. “Time after time, place after place, the group would establish an intelligence and security apparatus, target key opponents, and establish extortion and other criminal revenue-raising practices,” it noted. “Clandestine campaigns of assassination and intimidation have been part of the group’s playbook for more than a decade.” 

Reports from groups on the ground, as well as social media, show that “ISIS does rely on brutality much more than Al Qaeda,” says Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. This includes “intentionally inspiring terror, pushing the bounds so that it can intimidate those under its control.” 

Sunday’s slaughter was a typical example, Ms. Gambhir says. “These sorts of mass executions come frequently for those even vaguely hinting at rebellion.” 

This summer, an uprising in Libya was brutally put down by an IS affiliate, which “mass executed those in local tribes,” she adds. This in turn “eliminated all hints of social rebellion.” 

What the Islamic State has shown is that, in the short term, “brutality … can be much more effective than worrying about others,” McCants says. “If you look at what IS has done, you can see examples where control has been established by extreme brutality and kept up by extreme brutality.” 

The question is whether the Islamic State can maintain such a state over the long term. Al Qaeda has long argued that its vision of establishing an Islamic caliphate is more sustainable.

“It thinks ISIS is going to burn out, because of the way it treats locals,” Gambhir says. 

The Islamic State instead has put a priority on bringing in foreign fighters.

“ISIS fighters … are given preference in obtaining food and basic needs of living,” she adds.

Sunni Awakening, Part 2?

There are clear signs that locals are chafing mightily under Islamic State rule, says McCants. But “unless they get help from the outside,” they are going to have trouble throwing off the group.

That help is not likely to come from the US. “I have no doubt we could do it, should we choose to,” says McCants, but such an operation would necessarily include troops on the ground and embroil the US in the Middle East again. 

Moreover, it would “let the local governments off the hook,” especially in Damascus and Baghdad, McCants says. As a result, the problems that allowed the rise of the Islamic State in the first place, including Sunni disenfranchisement by Shiite-dominate governments, would continue. 

“This leaves us in the unsatisfying position of not having terrific options in the near term for destroying the IS,” McCants says.

In some ways, the US might have more options in Syria, McCants says, because it is not working with the government. “Syria is always seen as the hard case, but we also have greater freedom of choice.”  

The US could work with Kurdish forces to clear areas, then build up local Sunni militias to hold them. Yet Turkish officials balk at the idea of empowering Kurdish forces, given the large Kurdish minority in Turkey.

As in 2008, the most promising center of gravity for the fight against the Islamic State is the Sunni tribes. “Many Sunnis support the group either because of intimidation or because they view it as their only protection against other groups,” the Rand report notes. “Although this will be difficult, Iraq, at least, can start by ensuring fair treatment of the population when towns are recovered, and by speeding the reconstruction of those towns.” 

The question becomes how to empower them, given the limited tools the US has at its disposal.

In theory, Iraqi government officials agree with the plan to engage Sunni tribal militias to some extent, “but there’s been a lot of foot dragging,” he adds. “We could start arming the tribes ourselves, but if they are not part of the Iraqi central government, we’re kind of pushing the state of Iraq in a particular direction of a more federal state.”

Still, McCants says, the Sunni tribes “should be our center of gravity, too.”

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