Small groups fighting national governments have sought foreign support and assistance for as long as such groups have existed. Except for the Islamic State, however, which stubbornly refuses to adhere to any stereotype, and has sown disbelief and panic in the West by refusing to do so.
The first main stereotype it spits on, is that of gallant rebels battling huge odds in pursuit of freedom. From Balkan countries throwing off Ottoman tyranny, to Gallant Little Belgium in 1914, and Gallant Not So Little Poland in 1939, this worked very well for nation states. It continues to pay dividends, but now also for anti-government movements as well. The opposition in Libya, and the “moderate” Syrian rebels both played this card to perfection, and were rewarded with guns, money and political patronage.
The second main stereotype it sneers at, is the cultivated appearance of weakness and defenselessness, aimed more at public opinion and a credulous media, in an attempt to pressure governments into military action. This was successfully trialled by the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s, and has been successful in a number of later cases (such as Kosovo in 1999) in getting the West to do the fighting for the group concerned.
But the Islamic State refuses to abide by either of these stereotypes; It is anti-western, but has not sought help from other Arab states, or even Russia or China. It is fighting a government which the western world says is despicable and barbarous, but it doesn’t ask for an alliance, or even help. It makes tactical alliances and seems to be buying weapons, and its military wing is led by ex-Baathist officers, but in the last analysis, it doesn’t care what any other nation thinks. That’s what we can’t get our head around. OK, we say, if you’re not with us, you’re against us. Why should we care what you think? replies the Islamic State. The idea that there is an armed group, even a small one, in a strategic part of the world that does not define itself by what the West thinks of it, is too horrible for us to contemplate. And when the Islamic State appeals directly to our own populations and they go in their thousands, we feel helpless and lost, not to mention homicidally angry.
When I was a child there was a struggling local football team, Millwall FC, whose supporters were unpopular even with other supporters, which gives you an idea what they were like. But their slogan was “nobody likes us, we don’t care”. The Islamic State might well say the same. Nobody likes them. They don’t care.