The rapid emergence of ISIS and its creation of a quasi-state depended on a variety of factors, including sectarian issues and social media. Foreign fighters play a large role in ISIS’ more brutal endeavors, and foreign governments, in the West and in the Arab world, must do more work to eliminate ISIS. The extent of ISIS’ brutality has alienated other jihadist groups and fighters, and its network of foreign fighters poses a threat to the West. It aims to establish a global caliphate and implement Sharia.
Chair: Dr. Eitan AzaniDeputy Executive Director, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), IDC Herzliya, Israel
Mr. Shiraz MaherSenior Research Fellow and Head of Outreach, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), Kings College London, United Kingdom
Mr. Yoram SchweitzerSenior Research Fellow, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict, INSS, Israel
Mr. Emile SimpsonErnest May Fellow in History and Policy, International Security Program, Harvard University, United States of America
Dr. Jonathan SpyerSenior Research Fellow, Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC Herzliya, Israel
Prof. Eyal ZisserDean, Faculty of Humanities, The Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair of Contemporary Middle Eastern History, Tel Aviv University, Israel
Prof. Eyal ZisserProf. Eyal Zisser showed linkages of ISIS on a map, and said that Assad made a terrible mistake of supporting rebels, which gave ISIS opportunities. He talked about the collapse/decline of the states and structure of Iraq and Syria. He discussed four stages of the civil wars: peaceful protests, violence and uprising, breakout of civil war where regime loses most control over the country, and demolition of regime with opposition gaining legitimacy. The terrorist groups are turning Syria into an Islamic state, and wish to transform the entire Middle East in the same way. With ISIS, regimes are managing but bleeding as they don’t have the manpower to destroy them. When there is no regime to fight, they end up fighting each other, and ISIS is trying to take over other groups and convince them to join the fight.
Dr. Jonathan SpyerDr. Jonathan Spyer considered the current reality of ISIS as a quasi-state and examined the challenges of longevity of the state. He discussed the implications of its emergence for the sectarian war in Iraq, which is more complex in Syria. He talked about the Raqqah Province and its submission of governance. Civilian deputies were summoned to destroy the border between Iraq and Syria. The fighters of ISIS receive a salary and housing while a rudimentary tax system is imposed, and there are no signs of collapse despite the extremist leaders. Dr. Spyer believes if ISIS is not destroyed from the outside, it is likely to continue to exist. In a recent article by Dr. Michael Knights, the author described the military vulnerabilities of ISIS, especially when it’s in a defensive mode. The article goes on to describe ISIS’ aggressive operations with mobility, tactic surprise, rapid approach marches, road network, night or dawn attacks, local superiority in numbers, aggressive platoons, and hybrid military force. In periods of rapid expansion, ISIS only faced 2nd grade forces (the Kurds and Assad). Dr. Spyer talked about the current situation of ISIS in regards to their inexperienced fighters but also where the group is strong and will be hard to destroy. The U.S. has committed to a policy of destroying ISIS, but doesn’t want to intervene in Syria or to deploy ground forces, while the allies in Iraq can’t do much. He believes that ISIS will only be destroyed when ground forces enter Raqqah, as the bombing strategy will injure them but not destroy them. If the West is truly committed to the destruction of ISIS, victory will go to Iraq, which is not an attractive option.
Mr. Shiraz MaherMr. Shiraz Maher discussed the influence ISIS foreign fighters will and do have on Europe. Overall from Europe, twenty-five thousand foreign fighters have gone to Syria to fight. Mr. Maher believes ISIS is in ascendency, and has the best weapons. In Europe, the soldiers initially found the guard duty boring and with more time, they are willing to be pushed to the forefront. Since February, documented Europeans have been suicide bombers, tortured detainees, and executed prisoners of war. Mr. Maher believes there is a change in motivations: ISIS has hardened over time, partly due to fall out with Al-Qaeda and partly due to alienation with jihadist world (criticisms from Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, Muhaisini), and dismisses criticism. The foreign fighters don’t want to free Syria - they want to establish Sharia. They offer ISIS slick propaganda, communication with Western Muslims, recruitment, and incitement. They post nice houses and show they have a better life; the idea of masculinity is also powerful. Mr. Maher explained ISIS’ threats to the west, and shows how the foreign fighters have pushed themselves to the forefront of conflict. There are implications for Europe, as thousands of EU passport holders are in Syria where there is free movement of citizens across the continent, which makes monitoring them all impossible.
Mr. Emile SimpsonMr. Emile Simpson discussed the role that the West can play in Syria and in defeating ISIS. Mr. Simpson believes that the West is fundamentally poorly configured to deal with the issues in Syria. It is a highly political fight with militants, tribes, corruption, an ethnic mix of security forces, land and water rights, etc.. Local politics must be taken care of by local people; the West cannot take over. The West has military options and should take on ISIS in an initial phase, and deny ISIS control of jurisdiction. However, the long-term phase must involve the commitment of the regional powers to eliminate ISIS. The West has a classical view of strategy: to define the endpoint. However, the problem with this is that nobody knows what the end game will be in Syria. Right now, it is more about managing risks and making sensible decisions moving forward.
Mr. Yoram SchweitzerMr. Schweitzer discussed the threat of ISIS to Israel. While the presence of ISIS in Iraq is remote, its concentration near the Syrian border does pose a direct threat. ISIS’ goal is to wipe out Shias and those who don’t support the supremacy of the new caliphate, so maybe in the future it will come to Israel. Either when they finish Assad, or if there is a stalemate, they may try to infiltrate and attack Israel. ISIS has money and sophisticated arms, and is looking to spread its influence and make new alliances, including with Egyptian jihadi groups. In July this year, fifteen ISIS members tried to penetrate the Sinai through Gaza. In September, four tried to get through Egypt using forged passports in an effort to conduct an attack. The good news is that Israel has many partners trying to diminish the influence and spread of ISIS, including Egypt and Jordan.
Dr. Eitan AzaniDr. Eitan Azani discussed the evolution of ISIS and its methods and ideology compared to other jihadist groups. There are two models that terror groups have followed. One is the Hybrid Model, where groups establish political power in state-like form, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The other is the Revolutionary Vanguard Model, where groups only use terror; however, this has evolved during the years into the hybrid terror model where everyone wants political power. Hezbollah and global jihad groups started their evolution through the Revolutionary Vanguard Model, but since 2006 we have seen jihadists enter the social sector and capture the minds and hearts of the people. Al-Qaeda still follows the Vanguard Model, and believes that once the caliphate is established, it can then enter the social and political sector. Conversely, ISIS is looking to establish the caliphate now. Zarqawi was the first organizer of the Islamic State of Iraq, and then partnered with Al-Qaeda. After his death, the new leader al-Baghdadi reestablished Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but in his own way. Both leaders combined brutal tactics with a sophisticated public media campaign. ISIS has active twitter accounts and digital magazines, three of which are published in English. The social media jihadist campaign is a new component of jihad. There appears to be a power struggle between Al-Qaeda central leadership and leaders in the field. The group’s methods have caused huge disputes among Al-Qaeda affiliates as to who to support.