The ISIS Hysteria Industry

How has a group with such little actual military power created such overblown global paranoia?

There are few conceivable gaps larger than that which exists between ISIS as an actual real-world insurgency and ISIS as a media phenomenon. While the bungling jihadis have persistently floundered and self-destructed in the upper Levant, they’ve managed to find spectacular success convincing credulous western audiences of their vast and formidable power.

The overrating of ISIS as a military force and geopolitical power was as vexing as it was grimly unsurprising. That level of dumbfounded fear is exactly what they wanted, with the group’s constant attempts at media manipulation betraying its obsessive attention to self-marketing and public posturing. In so few words, ISIS desperately cares what you think. And the Western press has happily indulged them.

ISIS has lost greater than an aggregate 50% of their peak territory in Syria and 20% in Iraq. Leaked documents reveal the group is overrun with internal discontent, managerial incompetence, and low morale. Reports from inside the caliphate can sound like Monty Python sketches; British expats who join the Islamic State complain that their fellow jihadis seem incapable of forming an orderly queue, and frequently steal shoes or unplug cell phone chargers without permission. (“I knew you chaps were barbaric, but this is ridiculous!”)

Militarily, they suffer excruciating fatality rates against more organized forces, and lack the resources and manpower necessary to hold key supply lines. Prominent figures within the ISIS leadership are dying like flies. Despite the yammering bravado of their earlier propaganda, ISIS’ official media apparatus is beginning to release statements conceding that their project in the upper Levant is not long for this world. Even the most cursory analysis reveals that the self-declared Caliphate is doomed.

And they’ve always been doomed. Even at their peak, ISIS was confined harshly by limited territorial reach and military resources. The respective civil wars in Iraq and Syria led to the rapid disintegration of both states. As is typical with national dissolution in deeply sectarian regions, militias and de facto territorial divides form along the most logical sectarian and ethnic demarcations. ISIS is a middling Sunni sectarian militia who emerged in the midst of Syria and Iraq’s parabolic apex of chaos and disintegration. What we witnessed throughout 2013 and 2014 wasn’t an act of astounding power or military genius, but merely a group of reckless scavengers staging a low-rent desert blitzkrieg throughout the upper Levant’s sparsely populated, neglected flatlands. ISIS’ ostensible rise to geographic prominence was little more than a frenetic smash-and-grab campaign enabled by a lack of cohesive opposition. Their rapid, humiliating collapse as a military presence is as unsurprising as their emergence from Iraq’s long-simmering sectarian tempest.

The one domain in which ISIS was an unprecedented success was in manipulating the Western media, especially through stoking the fires of paranoia and hype. Examining their various propaganda videos, one is struck by the meticulous attention to production quality. You weren’t looking at grainy, amateur output. Their releases betrayed a calculated and pre-planned intent to reach a mass audience. ISIS’ various beheading videos combined the deliberate horror of staged murder along with fantastical braggadocio. Jihadi John, the nickname of the (now deceased) ISIS theater kid who starred in many of their more notorious videos, declared “Let the nightmare for Japan begin!” in the clip featuring the beheading of Japanese war journalist Kenji Goto. It also goes without saying that this aforementioned cataclysm against Japan and its people never actually transpired.

There’s a lot to be gained by posing as the most ruthless clique in the jihadi game.

In a sick sense, ISIS had a rather astute grasp of media and internet virality. One of their more notorious early stunts involved using a hashtag associated with the 2014 World Cup to broadcast Twitter posts showing decapitations. Not only was this a typically self-aggrandizing and dramatic move, but it also allowed them to psychically interject themselves into an event that had nothing to do with the Syrian insurgency whatsoever. It was another telling and revealing moment that condensed the core goals of their media apparatus into a single Twitter gambit.

There’s a lot to be gained by posing as the most ruthless clique in the jihadi game. Militias with subpar organization, training, and overall firepower often fall back on invoking fear to compensate against their various deficits. Which certainly worked back in 2014 when ISIS was ousting the demoralized Iraqi National Army from posts in Sunni-dominant western Iraq. The Iraqi National Army consisted overwhelmingly of scared Shia boys who had no vested interest in defending Sunni territory, and oftentimes fled before ISIS even fired a shot.

ISIS’ malevolent posturing served as an essential recruitment tactic. To a whole swath of clueless Sunni kids throughout the Muslim world, ISIS had succeeded fantastically in appearing tough and menacing. They looked like the winning team, one consisting of fierce jihadi badasses who had a knife in one hand and a Qu’ran in the other.

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This might sound like a superficial explanation, but it’s one that neatly underscores a particular reason for the group’s obsessive self-broadcasting. Regardless of time or place, a region’s irregular militias consist overwhelmingly of very young men – it is effectively impossible to overestimate both the recklessness and misplaced, angry romanticism of guys in their early 20s who dream of dying for a cause. And on a practical level, untrained yet over-eager soldiers make excellent suicide soldiers and cannon fodder. ISIS had succeeded in using the mass media to brand themselves as the Great Jihadi Hope, irrespective of whether or not their tinpot caliphate was actually sustainable. Their media apparatus was never more noisy and self-aggrandizing than in the wake of capturing new territory or staging a civilian massacre.

ISIS desperately wanted to be seen as both omnipresent and omnipotent, an infinitely capable and ruthless band of invincible jihadis who were only one step away from barreling into your hometown.

Which brings us to the frankly embarrassing ways many western news organizations have portrayed the jihadi insurgency. When ISIS began capturing territory, American broadcasters had an arms race to see who could cover their rise in the most breathless, hysterical manner possible. The western media and various pundits rapidly formed a weird, unintentional symbiosis with ISIS’s propaganda wing. The jihadis depended on broadcasting networks for amplification and exposure, while those same networks leaned on ISIS to fuel the sensationalism-as-ratings model of newscasting to which our networks are so hopelessly addicted.Luckily for them, the western (especially American) media was all too happy to indulge this. The consequence is that the public was ruthlessly bombarded with months of overwrought scare stories and dumb hysteria at the expense of accurate, cogent analysis.

The persistent, and persistently obnoxious, refrain across network news outlets during this earlier period was that “ISIS now controls a span of territory larger than Great Britain”. It was the perfect condensation of that attitude – hyperbolic, ignorant of situational realities, and shot through with fear-mongering innuendo. Never mind that a majority of the territory ISIS claimed to control was uninhabited desert wasteland. Comparing their territorial reach with the U.K. was the exact right note to strike with viewers convinced ISIS was only one victory away from rolling right into England herself. ISIS was of course happy to indulge this fantasy, with the group routinely screaming about their alleged plans to conquer parts of Europe – including the Vatican, of all places. This too was repeated with breathless sensationalism across various news outlets, exponentially amplifying the perceived menace of a localized desert militia who had little more than anarchy and national fracture to thank for their fragile moment of prominence.

This fear-mongering wasn’t restricted to media outlets either, with various American politicians ranting about the threat a middling insurgent group like ISIS posed to history’s single greatest martial power. Former presidential candidate and South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham once declaimed on Fox News that “[ISIS] is intending to come here” and that “the President needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home”. Which might have been the definitive nadir had Marco Rubio not later stated his opposition to gun control on the grounds that, “God forbid ISIS pays a visit to you, to our community, the last thing standing between them and our families may be the ability to protect ourselves with our guns”. For a considerable stretch of time, ISIS’ media apparatus found dedicated allies among America’s more hysterical politicos. And despite the persistence of these assertions, it seemed no one dared ask the likes of Lindsey Graham exactly how ISIS would manage to invade a nation containing both 300 million people and the world’s most sophisticated military infrastructure.

From this odd, codependent relationship emerged a small cottage industry in ISIS-related literature. Seeking to capitalize upon this newfound fascination with an insurgency that was (erroneously) perceived to have emerged abruptly and without precedent, publishers churned out tomes both brief and voluminous for a hungry and frightened public. Some of those were intelligent and insightful, others were dishonest or crafted to further indulge this cowed sense of terror. For much of the American public, “ISIS” seemed little more than a Rorschach test to gauge one’s predetermined fear over a faceless Muslim horde somehow overrunning America or otherwise engaging in the act of evil one dreaded most. At their best, these various books serve as a sober analysis of a complex issue. At their worst, they seem indistinguishable from ISIS’ own public relations team.

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One of the more intelligent, incisive mass-market books on ISIS has been penned by intelligence operative Malcolm Nance. A refreshingly sober voice, Nance has given various interviews in the past two years that stand out for their depth of analysis knowledge. Thankfully he has written Defeating ISIS, since it can serve as an antidote to the unhelpful hysteria that has cropped up in the wake of ISIS’ emergence from the backwoods of western Iraq.

Defeating ISIS starts with the mordant observation that “Apparently in the eyes of many in the news media, political world, and academia… a new group, far more powerful and capable than al-Qaeda, had mysteriously descended from thin air.” This implicit conviction that ISIS somehow emerged spontaneously and without warning seemed to only fuel the subsequent belief that the jihadis could do the same outside of Iraq as well.

Nance rapidly dispels the illusion, subjecting it to the clarifying light of the upper Levant’s recent military and political history. He dedicates the earlier portions of his book to outlining the legacy of local disintegration and militant Salafism that preceded ISIS, carefully analyzing the various catalysts that made the jihadi insurgency possible. History is driven by the logic of motive and precedent, something to which Nance is highly attuned and applies rigorously to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq. He notes that the various conditions that enabled ISIS had been brewing for some time, and that experts and intelligence operatives had been well aware of an increasingly active insurgency in western Iraq. ISIS’ emergence amounted to a local insurgency reaching critical mass, and using a window of opportunity to burst forth from its confines and overrun easily captured terrain.

The remainder of his book stands as a proscription for how to contain and wither what will likely be a militia with limited geographic endurance. The central value of Nance’s work is ultimately written into its title. Defeating ISIS outlines that the jihadi group can, with intelligent application of diplomatic and counterinsurgency methods, be eventually defeated. It’s a practical counterpoint to the useless doomsaying we saw from far too many pundits and politicians. Contrary to the voices who declaimed that ISIS was nigh-unstoppable and strategically omnipresent, Nance outlines the limitations of ISIS’ reach and tactical capacities and how these can be turned against them.

Nance is sensitive to both the cruelty that ISIS has inflicted on innocent civilians as well as the group’s inherent weaknesses. He’s keen to note the sheer fragility of ISIS’ financial infrastructure, and recommends comprehensively severing their sources of funding. He also outlines the paramount importance of unified military opposition and training local forces in counterinsurgency tactics. Beyond this, he outlines that geopolitical fracture remains one of ISIS’ greatest assets. Nance rounds out his analysis with a vision of a Marshall Plan-style project to help stabilize and reconstruct Iraq and Syria in the wake of their respective wars. He notes that in the long run, deescalating local hostility and rebuilding infrastructure will safeguard against the emergence of violent insurgent groups and prevent those with rapacious intentions from gaining a foothold.

Unfortunately, other books written on the jihadi insurgency fall into the precise “Rorschach test” habit that Nance’s work aims to counteract. They often have a predetermined audience, one for which focus on ISIS mainly serves as an excuse to restate some preexisting ideological theme.

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Defying ISIS, written by Johnny Moore and released by the Christian Publishing division of HarperCollins, falls under the long tradition of Christian apologetics. It opens with a definition of martyrdom as understood in traditional Christian theology, before going on to associate that with the horror experienced by Iraq and Syria’s Christian populations in the wake of the jihadi insurgency. As a thematic centerpiece, Defying ISIS emphasizes the suffering of the faithful, and the book’s more compassionate passages do evince genuine sorrow for the suffering endured by all religious and ethnic minorities living throughout the upper Levant.  

But Moore intertwines this with boilerplate post-9/11 hysteria about the omnipresence of menacing terrorists, and dives into some pretty odious fear-mongering, including a remarkably deranged chapter titled “ISIS is in Your Backyard” that hammers away with unceasing aggression how “ISIS represents a group of people who share the same ideology that results in only one goal: TO KILL YOU” before spiraling into a list of things allegedly being perpetrated by someone “In a city like yours, in a neighborhood like yours, in a house like yours”. The list of things that “ISIS-inspired people” are ostensibly doing on your very doorstep begins with: “Right now, someone is listening to a hate-filled sermon in English by Anwar al-Awlaki.”And ends with:

“Right now, someone near you is reading about how to make a bomb or blow up an airplane.”

Ignoring the fact that the likelihood of Everytown, USA being hit by a jihadi-planned mass-casualty attack is infinitesimally small, Defying ISIS’ repeated assertion that this alleged ISIS operative who personally intends to kill you “may live next door” somehow manages to exceed even the most fear-mongering news broadcast in terms of sheer unhinged paranoia.

What ISIS is attempting to instill as a foremost objective is a vague, generalized sense of fear.

The book also serves as an unintended microphone for ISIS’ rather noisy propaganda machine. ISIS has long made a business of spewing threats at anyone and everything in an attempt to seem more powerful and menacing than they truly are. Moore’s description of the jihadi menace echoes ISIS’ own propaganda wing, who have threatened mass-casualty attacks against a laundry list of over 60 countries (almost none of which materialized). The back of the book claims that “the ultimate aim of ISIS is to eradicate the world of Christianity,” though ISIS’ core goal centers more on the creation of a pan-Islamic caliphate, and its greatest aggression is often directed at other Muslims. Defying ISIS accepts the group’s most fantastical boasts with absolute credulity, parroting ISIS’ theatrical assertion that a mid-sized desert militia and its idiot sympathizers will somehow eradicate a religion practiced by over 2 billion human beings. (Defying ISIS also features a salutary blurb from Newt Gingrich, noted practitioner of the Christian values of compassion, honesty, and sexual fidelity.)

Never has a group with such limited military and economic resources reached this level of prominence in the public imagination. The murder of helpless reporters and attacks on defenseless minority sects are the work of undisciplined thugs, not conquering armies. Indiscriminately antagonizing everyone around you, as well as wasting resources on civilian massacre, is a surefire recipe for self-destruction. Intelligent militias exercise discipline as well as diplomatic finesse, conserving their resources and leveraging their available assets for longevity.

Like some horrific roman candle, ISIS burned themselves out in a spasm of dumb aggression, self-aggrandizing hostility, and complete neglect for cogent structural, economic, and military planning. The consequence of this is that the jihadis garnered an unprecedented flurry of media attention during their brief moment of eminence, and midwifed a corresponding industry of fear-mongering and bad analysis that only served to parrot their transparently theatrical propaganda. As ISIS’ horrible decisions continue to slingshot back at them and they buckle under the weight of structural collapse and military opposition, we’re left with the ashes of a small cottage industry whose frantic doomsaying looks as empty and fantastical as the declamations of ISIS themselves. We’re fortunate that when it comes to the Islamic State, our shrieking pundits are as wrong as always.

Note: Soon after this article was written, PayPal suspended a Current Affairs business payment due to our suspected violation of “government regulations.” We received a notice asking us to explain why, when paying Mr. Patterson for contributing this piece, we had listed “ISIS” in the “purpose of transaction” box, and informing us that our ability to transfer money would be revoked if we failed to prove that we were in compliance with national security requirements administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). We have submitted an appeal, and note that we find it amusing (1) that PayPal believes supporters of terrorism would openly write “ISIS” as the purpose of their online transactions and that (2) the payment was for article about hysterical Western overreactions to ISIS.

The Banality of Instagram

Dictator chic in the age of social media…

One of the most consistent traits of individuals who perform acts of monstrous evil is their capacity for being simultaneously unremarkable and ridiculous. Kim Jong-Il was responsible for perpetuating the system of immiserating Stalinist repression and satanic gulags that infest the North Korean state. He also publicly claimed a world-record golf handicap and maintained a status as the world’s single-largest purchaser of Hennessy cognac. Joseph Goebbels was a darkly amoral propagandist who headed the public-relations apparatus for the Nazi genocide machine. He was also a fidgety, easily agitated man, and when he saw a British parody film in which producers had set Nazi marches to whimsical dance music, Goebbels immediately ran out of the screening room while shrieking obscenities and throwing chairs like an enraged toddler.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the standing dictator of Chechnya, is a second-generation death squad commander and Putin lackey. He’s known for his pitiless cruelty and brutality toward any and all perceived political enemies. He also enjoys taking taking selfies and recording videos of himself working out despite being a rather goofy-looking sort with the physique of a potato.

Bashar al-Assad looks like a nervous substitute teacher. Joseph Stalin looked like someone’s jovial uncle. And Ramzan Kadyrov looks like a smiling doofus who films himself on the treadmill and named his pet dog “Tarzan.” (“Tarzan” is apparently female.)

Hannah Arendt is widely cited for her analysis of Nazi logistician Adolf Eichmann’s unremarkable personality—an observation that lead to her famous remark about the “banality of evil.” Eichmann was not a snarling cartoon, or a flamboyantly malevolent persona who cackled while plotting the Final Solution. He was a mousy bureaucrat who engineered genocide with all the theatricality of a tax attorney.

Ramzan Kadyrov has been accused of ordering the killing of celebrated anti-Putin dissident Boris Nemtsov, a middle-aged father of four. There are allegedly videos of a man bearing a damning resemblance to Kadyrov beheading soldiers during the Second Chechen War. He is, by all accounts, a compulsively homicidal figure whose name has been attached to murder throughout every step of his life. Yet he also maintains one of the most personal and aggressively jovial social media presences of any head of state today. Online, Ramzan Kadyrov looks oddly similar to your least intelligent friend from college who grew up and somehow fell into a successful marketing career.

Kadyrov’s Instagram account has a following totaling more than 1.8 million users – a figure that rivals some of America’s most visible celebrities. As a point of comparison, Chechnya’s standing population was little more than 1.25 million as of 2010. Kadyrov’s social media presence extends well beyond those in his nation of birth and into the Russian-speaking world as a whole. It’s an astounding feat of subtle whitewashing. It makes Kadyrov seem friendly and acceptable, not through the usual means of outright lies and manipulation, but simply by making him look so staggeringly unremarkable that it’s hard to imagine this grinning cheeseball perpetrating atrocities.

When you comb over Kadyrov’s Instagram account, you notice a series of running themes—his puppy-like adoration of Putin, his obsession with fighting sports, assertions of nationalistic pride, and rather inane displays of piety and good cheer. One of Kadyrov’s most liked Instagram posts is merely a photo of him holding a baby lion, captioned with a heart emoji. None of these are in any way reminiscent of, for example, cutting off someone else’s head.

It’s not uncommon for Kadyrov’s posts to open with “As-salamu alaykum!”, a friendly salutation used between Muslims that translates roughly to “Peace be upon you.” In fact, the usage of this phrase is so common it starts to look like a sort of social media tic. It also goes without saying that Kadyrov doesn’t actually spend much time attempting to visit peace upon others.

To give some background to Kadyrov and his ascent as Chechnya’s current dictator and #1 Vladimir Putin fan, his family crawled to power out of the ashes of the Second Chechen War. When an empire begins to crumble, its satellite states will agitate for secession at the first sign of opportunity—turning perceived weakness or distraction into a point of severance. Chechnya fought viciously for autonomy during the post-Soviet era, eventually achieving de facto independence for a nearly three-year period from 1996-1999 along with the full removal of Russian military presence. This came to a brutal halt during the Second Chechen War when Russia, under the guidance of Vladimir Putin as newly elected Prime Minister, attempted to reassert territorial control.

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The Second Chechen War was less of a prolonged conflict and more of a harrowingly brutal shock operation aimed at crushing local resistance. While the primary combat phase only lasted from summer 1999 to spring 2000, civilian fatalities at the hands of pro-Russian forces are alleged to have reached into the tens of thousands. Once Russia’s scorched-earth policy achieved its intended effect, Putin promoted a particularly loyal death squad commander named Akhmad Kadyrov to the upper echelons of government. Akhmad soon become the president of Chechnya in 2003, but was assassinated by Chechen Islamists only months thereafter as an act of revenge. (Chechnya tends to produce uniquely capable jihadis, by contrast with the klutzes and blunderers that often emerge from France or England.)

Enter young Ramzan, stage right. Both slavishly loyal to Putin and enthusiastically violent, the younger Kadyrov proved an ideal successor. Moscow propelled him up the ranks in a manner similar to his father, with Ramzan being appointed supreme leader of Chechnya at the tender age of 30.

Predictably, Ramzan acted much like a death squad commander would when handed absolute power. He’s known for assassinating not just political opponents, but even members of the Chechen state apparatus who criticize him at all. His loyal paramilitary squads, referred to as Kadyrovtsy (it’s good to have a brand name), are known for wantonly terrorizing anyone who might offer the slightest dissent. Their uniting purpose seems to be cementing the power of the Kadyrov clan through the most horrific means possible. Kadyrovtsy were once accused of displaying the severed head of an anti-government partisan in the village of Kurchaloi as warning to the locals who might be tempted to make any gestures against Kadyrov’s rule. Some of the bravest people in the entire Russian Federation are prone to dying horrible deaths the moment they start to criticize Kadyrov, and Kadyrov has been accused of personally participating in tortures and executions.

One should adopt a balanced perspective though. It’s true that local beheading statistics seem to escalate precipitously whenever Kadyrov comes to town. On the other hand, a few months ago Kadyrov endearingly took to Instagram to ask followers to help him find his missing cat. As of this writing, no one has been able to locate Kadyrov’s cat, which probably makes him very sad. This is Ramzan and his cat, in better days:

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It should be noted that Kadyrov is rumored to have a private prison on his own compound where dissidents are known to disappear, never to return.

One of the most lasting impressions from Kadyrov’s Instagram is how easy it can be for revoltingly evil figures to hide their crimes behind an innocuous front. This is far from new. Autocrats throughout history have leaned heavily on the most up-to-date, relevant forms of propaganda to make themselves seem relatable and charming. Dictators on social media may seem faintly absurd, but it’s simply the logical contemporary update of an ancient tactic. What’s most unsettling about Kadyrov’s Instagram account is how successful it is at channeling this age-old methodology through contemporary social media. Because it’s so difficult to reconcile Kadyrov the smiling cat fancier with Kadyrov the wanton beheader, it becomes harder to imagine the brutality that goes undocumented. The unspoken rule behind this style of misdirection is that the cheerfulness of a despot’s propaganda often corresponds directly with the magnitude of their atrocities.

This can even be seen in the case of the Syrian Civil War. Bashar al-Assad has been responsible for significantly more civilian murders than ISIS has—despite ISIS making every attempt to advertise themselves as menacing, lethal, and dangerous. Assad presented himself as an even-handed statesman, all the while executing a military policy centered on massacring civilian populations loyal to the rebel opposition. During the harrowing earlier days of the Syrian Civil War, observers would occasionally remark on the dissonance of Assad’s well-composed, patrician social media presence. No matter the scale of murder occurring under Assad’s watch, his various Instagram postings still broadcasted little more than benign magnanimity.

Kadyrov simply takes this to its logical next step. His online presence shows a man who has murdered dissidents with his own hands playing with his dog and wishing the faithful a peaceful Ramadan. Brutal regents throughout history have had few better assets at their disposal than the power of distraction and public posturing. If you can mislead your subjects with one hand, it’s easier to commit murder with the other. It’s just that these days, the first hand is holding a smartphone.

Illustration by Lauren Lueder.