Calm Down, ISIL Won’t Kill You

Daech, naissance d’un état terroriste
Calm Down, ISIL Won’t Kill You - Alex Nelson

“You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist.”1 Despite the undeniable empirical basis of this statement by former Pentagon analyst Andrew Schaver, it does little to soothe many Americans. A well-organized band of terrorists has succeeded in establishing a barely functional proto-state, and maybe more importantly, a fear construct within the American psyche. But the American people have experienced similar fears before. To a student of American history, demagogic claims that subversive radicals threaten the United States sound familiar. In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy was able to exploit Americans’ exaggerated fears about domestic subversion by communists and their fellow travelers in the United States government. 

While the threat posed by communism during the Cold War was different from that of Islamic terrorism today, there are similarities. George Kennan advocated for a policy of containment through economic and military force, but he also described a Soviet Union that was internally weak and an ideology that needed an enemy to fuel its expansion and survival. While Soviet containment became the backbone of American foreign policy, Kennan’s description of the Soviet Union was largely misunderstood. In place of this complicated narrative, Joseph McCarthy inflamed the American psychic infection that was the Red Scare, providing the Soviet Union with the enemy it needed. America became the star of Soviet internal and external propaganda, leading both sides to portray the Cold War as a clash of good versus evil. In this battle of morality, emotion often triumphed over rationality, resulting in excessive confrontation and escalation. The popularity of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz shows that a similar fear is in danger of defining America’s confrontation with Islamic extremism. 

Islamic extremism, like Soviet-style communism, is not sustainable. It may be attractive to some as a counter to the perceptions of Western imperialism and Western-imposed socio-economic conditions, but it generally proves not to deliver on its advertised benefits. Those convinced by ISIL propaganda to move to the “Islamic State” to either support the cause or take up arms often have a change of heart. Paul Wood recently reported that “[m]orale is plummeting within ISIS, especially among foreign fighters. Many European foreign fighters in particular are packing it in. Many want to defect. Whole units have just gone away in Iraq… the Islamic State is in crisis.”2 Social outcasts looking for acceptance often find a brotherhood constructed out of mutual hatred for others rather than mutual love for each other. Islamic radicalism is in fact radical. It is an ideological anomaly that, when realized for what it really is, simply doesn’t resonate with most people. Very few human beings have been created to host such ideas and follow these perversions of Islam.3 While the number of people subscribing to these ideas seems to be growing, this number will inevitably erode back down to its natural and manageable level. 

ISIL itself is approaching a more tangible threshold. The further they progress in the process of statebuilding, the more problems they face. ISIL differs from an established state in many ways, but one stands out in particular: They have no idea how to run a country. Liz Sly of the Washington Post has quoted a Syrian aid worker in close contact with ISIL officials who claims that “ISIS has become too big to control itself” and that “… they’re not smart, and they’re not capable. They have no expertise.”4 They wield an army of misguided militants, not of bureaucrats and technocrats. There are already reports of difficulties in providing basic utilities, and they will only struggle more in providing healthcare, education, and infrastructure management. Economically, ISIL-controlled territory lacks the diversification necessary to sustain itself in isolation from the outside world. Revenue from black-market sales of captured oil and foreign donations are being both physically destroyed by coalition air strikes and tracked by various intelligence services. In reality, the decline of ISIL started the day it declared itself an Islamic State. More importantly, the U.S. and its allies have the ability to accelerate or decelerate this decline. 

Despite considerable criticism, the current U.S. strategy is accelerating their decline. The use of special operation forces and precision-guided air strikes to assist Peshmerga forces has halted ISIL’s territorial advances while degrading their already fragile infrastructure. But the misguided, insensitive, and irrational language of certain right-wing conservatives acts as a major decelerating force. Similar to Soviet communism, Islamic extremism requires the West to be an enemy in order to prolong its downfall. Calling for the names of Muslim Americans to be compiled into a list and stating that Syrian refugees are likely to be ISIL sympathizers looking to attack the U.S. from within only reinforces ISIL’s narrative. Such rhetoric provides the ISIL propaganda division with more than enough material to successfully paint the U.S. as the grand oppressor of the Islamic faith. ISIL is running on fumes, particularly those emanating from the mouths of America’s neo-McCarthyists. 

Alex Nelson is a current SAIS M.A. candidate concentrating in Strategic Studies and International Economics. He previously studied at San Diego State University majoring in International Security and Conflict Resolution. He is originally from Danville, California.