It so happens that I am the Chair of the Governing Board of an organisation known as ISIS. No, not that one, but a small and inoffensive little NGO in Brussels. But the coincidence of names started me thinking in more general terms about organisations and the objectives they try to pursue.
There has been a lot of innocent fun had recently in the media at the news that ISIS was apparently considered too extreme in its tactics even by Al Qaeda itself, the organisation out of which it grew. But if we can contain our merriment for a moment, it might be worth looking at what ISIS is actually trying to achieve, and whether its tactics are likely to be effective in helping it to do so. After all, Al Qaeda itself had very narrow objectives: overthrowing corrupt and brutal monarchist regimes in the Gulf, initially by undermining Western support for them. It pursued tactics, with some success, which it thought would help to bring this objective about.
Bu ISIS is trying to do something totally different. Its objective is to carve out and hold an area of territory in Syria and Iraq which corresponds roughly to land traditionally occupied by Sunni Muslims. In turns out that the tactics it is using are those normally employed by similar movements in such circumstances, not to mention Western governments themselves from time to time. The criticisms apparently made by Bin Laden seem to reflect standard guerrilla warfare priorities: don’t alienate the local population, don’t cause unnecessary violence and so forth. But ISIS is involved in a struggle for territory, where are quite a large portion of the local population is seen as inherently hostile anyway, and where persuasion is by definition impossible. In such a situation, the creation of deliberate terror is a deliberate and logical tactic, which has been effective in the past.
ISIS seem to be drawing on two types of historical experiences. First, there are the tactics of liberation movements from Algeria to Zimbabwe, who used terror as an effective weapon against those supporting the colonial regime. Like resistance movements from the Second World War up to South Africa, they also employed targeted killings of those who were believed to be cooperating with the enemy forces. The same tactics were employed in reverse by the French in Algeria against the FLN, by the Americans in Vietnam, and by their successors virtually everywhere today. The intention is to frighten people away from cooperating with the side that you are fighting. By and large, this tactic was quite successful, and the more brutality that was used the more successful it was.
The second experience is of the struggle for control of territory between identity groups. Although national liberation struggles were by definition against a colonial power, they often contained an element of competition and overlap within and between the combatants. But other types of conflict are simply for control of terrain by one group as opposed to another. In most cases, the competing groups do not have enough military power to control the territory physically, and therefore resort to terror tactics to frighten and cow the enemy population, and sometimes to persuade them to flee. These were the tactics used by the British in their brutal suppression of the Palestinian revolt of the 1930s, and subsequently applied by various nationalists in the Middle East, up to the Balkans, and not forgetting Northern Ireland. In each case, the very existence of a group of civilians not of one’s own identity was seen as an existential threat. The same model has been very common in warfare in Africa. The classic example is probably Rwanda during the civil war, when the invading Rwandan Patriotic Front, without the capacity to control much territory in a densely populated country, resorted to deliberate terror to persuade the Hutu population to flee. The Hutu responded with counter-terror, and the whole thing escalated horribly.
What this suggests, is that in purely technical terms ISIS may actually be right about the tactics to pursue if it wants to be successful, and that Bin Laden, not normally quoted with approval by Western media sources, may on this occasion have been wrong. It is true, of course, that ISIS does not represent all of the Sunni population. It is also true that not all of the Sunni population approves of its tactics, although we should remember that the civil war between Sunni and Shia in 2006– 7 was fought with comparable tactics and comparable brutality. It is also true, finally, that not all Sunni accept ISIS’s objectives. But violent disagreements about objectives and tactics are routine and even normal in struggles of this kind. Whether they will actually affect the outcome remains to be seen.
So far, at least, the evidence suggests that Bin Laden’s posthumous career as a Western political pundit will be a short one.