Is ISIS Unprecedented?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Jackie Lay / Institute for the Study of War

I recently got to chat with my old professor, Martha Crenshaw, who helped invent the academic study of terrorism in the 1970s, way before it was cool. One thing I find useful about her work is its sanity-check function—mass-casualty terrorist attacks are rare, especially in the West; historically terrorism hasn’t been exclusively, or even primarily, a jihadist phenomenon; and it’s basically impossible to find a terrorist “profile”—for every troubled youth that heads to Syria, there are plenty more who stay home, and plenty of seemingly well-adjusted adults who go off to fight.

Given what strikes me as excessive rhetoric about the threat posed by ISIS—cf. Chuck Hagel’s famous “this is beyond anything we’ve seen;” or an FBI official’s recent congressional testimony that, via social media, the Islamic State “has direct access to the United States like never before”—I asked her what’s really unprecedented about the group. Her answer:

If you look back at the FLN in Algeria … it controlled territory, and it aspired to be an alternative government within the areas that it controlled, it used [terrorism] in order to control the local population. ... The idea that a kind of rebel group might start out, say, with isolated acts of terrorism and then move to actually controlling people and controlling territory doesn’t seem to me to be that striking or unusual a phenomenon.

The above GIF, created by my colleague Jackie, illustrates how that territory has changed over the past year. Over at The Monkey Cage, Costantino Pischedda argues that Islamic State’s tactics are not so mysterious either:

[T]he group is far less unique among insurgent organizations in terms of brutality and state-like governance activities in territories it controls than commonly thought. … How could the Islamic State prosper while violating the cardinal principle of guerrilla warfare of not alienating one’s constituency? This view [as laid out recently in The New York Review of Books] fails to grasp two well-documented dynamics of civil wars: the ability of violence to shape the behavior of civilian populations and the power of shared identity in the context of large-scale bloodshed across ethno-sectarian lines. When armed actors can selectively wield violence to punish “misbehavior,” even individuals who do not share the ideological outlook tend to fall in line.

Mao [Zedong] envisioned three stages of revolutionary war: in the first one, insurgents focus on popular mobilization and assassinations of key individuals on the government side; in the second phase, they escalate to guerrilla warfare proper, with systematic hit-and-run attacks on security forces; finally, after they have acquired sufficient power and their opponent is correspondingly weakened, the insurgents graduate to conventional warfare and engage government forces in pitched battles, with the ultimate objective of inflicting on them a decisive defeat and seizing power. …

The Islamic State may have adopted positional warfare sooner than most groups—Stathis Kalyvas suggests that this might have occurred to due to a combination of flat terrain and military weakness of its opponents—but it has moved seamlessly along this spectrum of tactics depending on the conditions faced on the battlefield.

None of this is to deny the group’s innovations, in particular its propaganda apparatus and its ability to recruit foreign fighters. Nor is it a moral evaluation of the group’s savagery. It’s context that makes ISIS, however shocking its behavior, a bit less incomprehensible.