Current operations to scrub out Islamic State (ISIS) bases have restored American confidence in state-of-the-art military solutions for complex problems, but unfortunately these battles (and the undefined relationship with Russia, Turkey or the Assad regime in the post-ISIS era) also offer a comfortable distraction from more disturbing questions. Victory in Mosul or Raqqa will encourage Americans to think of ISIS as a vestige of the past that can be easily excised, but it would be better to study ISIS as a preview of emerging forms of non-state organization. ISIS is as much a product of the modern era as the weapons deployed against it.
While ISIS fighters are frequently characterized as delusional interlopers from the past, jihadists are not artifacts from some isolated village untouched by contemporary life; rather, they are solidly entrenched in the global cultural and economic marketplace. In fact, the worldview of these extremists has been formed by global and regional events that have touched them far more than they touched Americans of a similar generation. The Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the leftist opposition throughout the Middle East, world indifference to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims, 9-11 and the subsequent Global War on Terror with its laser focus on eliminating extremists rather than improving human security….these are the events that have undone the nation-state architecture laid upon the region after World War I. The jihadist founders are very much products of this contemporary unmaking of the world, not inexplicable dissenters from modernity.
Members of these extremist groups also experienced the global economic shifts that have indeed provided opportunities for some, but left many with a disorienting loss of control over their lives and communities. The integration of local, regional and global markets, the recessions of the 1990s and 2008, and the volatility of petroleum prices and oil-dependent government budgets have driven home the realization that individual lives are increasingly subject to international economic developments. Migration to Europe has captured world attention over the past two years, but in the last three decades waves of regional migration from rural to urban, from agriculture to industry, and from constricting to expanding economies have rocked and reshaped the entire world. Humans who must leave behind their families in order to support them are not ignorant of the modern economy, they are all too aware of its intrusion into their lives.
Culturally, the ISIS crowd is also well exposed to modern life. Unfortunately, they are exposed to the worst of Western exports (slasher films and shooter games top my list) far more thoroughly than they encounter our civil liberties traditions. And the American catastrophe in Iraq and Afghanistan is constantly before them, contributing to the violence we then blame on the region. It is the Americans, in fact, that could be accused of living in an ahistorical bubble. We have been at war in the region since 2001 and yet most Americans cannot find Afghanistan or Iraq on a map or understand why eliminating key jihadist leaders hasn’t crippled the extremist challenge. It is Americans who could more appropriately be accused of being insufficiently globalized.
And of course the technology of ISIS is undeniably modern. ISIS’s mastery of social media replicated the dynamics of the Arab Spring in a way that even surprised Al Qaeda as it eschewed organizational hierarchies and leaped ahead into the global marketplace of ideas. ISIS has a clearly successful PR and marketing strategy; the ISIS brand is popular not only with supporters from Colorado, Morocco or London, but with self-proclaimed affiliates in Mali, Nigeria or Belgium. The magic of the internet provides easy access to anonymous funding, arms and a global labor pool of willing recruits, a discovery made also by the multiplying militias across Syria. And finally, having few social or economic investments in traditional military tools will enable ISIS and other groups to make an easy adaptation to cyberwarfare in the future.
While the world has been horrified by the brutality of ISIS, the emotional landscape of ISIS devotees is hardly alien territory to any modern society. Over and over the same themes appear in statements of those who drop out of their old lives and reappear in promotional videos for the new caliphate. As a group they are rarely well-schooled in religion and have little political vision of the world they claim to be building. What attracts them would be pitiful if the outcomes were not so tragic: they seek a sense of community and purpose after having lost the sense of identity and belonging that gives order to the social fabric. They are not holdouts from modernity, they are the objects of modernization: theirs is an existentialist crisis that spans classes and cultures and might be the most universal token of modernity.
The territorial hold of ISIS might indeed be broken after the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, but that won’t eliminate the factors that fed into the ISIS challenge. The increased technological ability of non-state organizations to challenge state systems, the emotional and economic anomie that contributes to the breakdown of traditional social ties, and the barely disguised apprehension about the future are not going to end with the capture of Mosul.
In fact, those same factors are already driving political transformations closer to home. The most negative varieties, such as the rise of international criminal gangs like those recently linked to the wave of homicides in El Salvador, the expansion of drug and human trafficking cartels that exploit distorted notions of “family” loyalty, and the rise of right-wing nativist rhetoric in Europe and in America all feed on the same emotional and cultural anxieties as ISIS. They employ the same technological abilities to create transnational movements and increasingly envision a political future in which the goal is not the capture of the state, but the rejection of the state itself.
ISIS’s ability to terrorize populations and disrupt lives won’t be missed when it is dislodged from Syria and Iraq, but dismissing the ISIS challenge as if it were a confrontation between a modern military and an archaic opponent distracts us from the greater challenge—how to address this definitively modern problem of transnational non-state actors that feed off the discontents of the modern world? Dealing with the demands of Russia, Turkey and the Assad regime appears comfortingly familiar by comparison.
Fourth in a series on the Syrian War
Janice Lee Jayes, Ph.D. teaches Modern Middle East history at Illinois State University. She has worked in Morocco, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, and was a Fulbright scholar in Egypt.