Director of the CIA John Brennan gave a statement on Thursday to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, outlining counter-terrorism efforts, specifically noting where we have succeeded and failed in our efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In the statement, Director Brennan talks about intelligence showing progress to weaken the group’s hold in Iraq and Syria, but he makes one other point that strikes as being more important than he is letting on.
“Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach. The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly.”
In other words, we keep killing them and they just won’t go away. There can be several factors that contribute to such a scenario. For example, the expanded reach could be a product of loose organization, meaning people can claim to be acting as a member of ISIL (such as the shooter in Orlando) even if they have no direct ties to the organization.
However, a far more misunderstood factor relates to lack of a cultural understanding. It’s no secret that ISIL is especially critical of Western imperialism, and they operate locally in a more tribal setting that doesn’t recognize the artificial borders set by those powers. In fact, the dismantling of the border between Iraq and Syria was a joyous occasion for ISIL, as noted by Dr. Jeffrey Kaplan, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh:
“When they dismantled the border separating Iraq and Syria, jubilant IS fighters announced that at last they had erased Sykes Picot, the secret 1916 pact in which France and Britain divided the territory of the defunct Ottoman Empire’s lands by drawing lines in the sand.”
Kaplan discusses more in-depth the tribal tactics that fill the void during times of crisis in the Middle East:
“The Islamic world is again in crisis. At such times, the tribal roots of the region return to the surface as the oppressive regimes of the region’s tyrannical rulers dissolve into irrelevancy. Chaos dogs American interventions in the region as the United States is coming to be seen not as the new Crusaders, but rather as the Mongolian Hordes of our time.”
With these tribal roots comes some of the more common tribal collective actions, most notably the blood feud. When an ISIL fighter is killed, tribal connections don’t see it as more reason to stay away. On the contrary, it more likely leads to more ISIL fighters, more wives for those ISIL fighters, and more children growing up in a general where all they will ever know is the Islamic state.
Understanding these cultural differences will be pivotal in the fight against ISIL in the future. Indeed, referring to it as a “fight” may be dangerous in itself. Kaplan makes the important observation that in death and in life, win or lose, ISIL fighters believe that they have God’s favor, and every bomb that drops reaffirms this to them.
“IS has for some time invited the United States to battle with them directly in full confidence that, God willing, the Americans will be no more successful in fighting the Islamic State than they were in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and indeed anywhere else it has deployed its forces since World War II.
The men of the Islamic State have openly declared that ‘death is the gateway to Paradise!’ Be it by life in the Islamic State or by death in its defense, the victory of IS fighters is assured.”
All of this just lends more credence to the message from former CIA Agent Amaryllis Fox, whose viral video made waves across the country. We see them as the bad guys, apparently thinking that all bad guys are like they are in cartoons where they’re outwardly evil and openly admit their evilness. That is not the case here; we won’t know how to use intelligence to approach this conflict properly until we understand that they see themselves as a small but righteous group fighting us, the evil empire.
Featured image via Youtube screengrab