Tuesday, December 29, 2015

ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger

This report on the state of [Islamic] terror worldwide is essential to our understanding of a new kind of ideological warfare and how it is fought. In addition it raises issues of security far from the physical battlefields in Syria or Iraq, and describes the ways in which bad actors influence surveillance and curbs on free speech. Finally, it contrasts Al Qaeda with ISIS along many threads, and leaves open the possibility that one will eventually absorb the other.
"The West has too often found itself fighting the last war, when the next war is taking shape before its eyes. Faced with the expansionist, populist rise of ISIS, we cannot afford to keep making that mistake."
The authors describe the online presence of ISIS and the methods used to gain followers through media sites. The Twitter Wars fought among splinter ideologues and referred to in newspaper reports are laid out in ravishingly detail, and the analysis is explicit and thoughtful. Especially interesting is the informed discussion on whether attempts to limit ISIS participation on social media sites controlled by U.S. organizations (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, etc.) helps or hurts attempts to reign in ISIS influence.

Stern and Berger define terrorism (“terrorism is psychological warfare”) and remind us “people understandably forget sometimes [that] terrorism is ultimately intended to send a message to the body politic rather than being a pragmatic effort to destroy an enemy…” The particular makeup of our psychologies make us susceptible to fear when the chances of death or maiming by terrorist plot is vanishingly low, even when compared to a car accident while driving to work in the morning. The terrorists are taking advantage of those irrational fears and can be extraordinarily effective in desensitizing large groups of people to empathy. In the most successful attempt yet to explain the extreme violence shown online by ISIS, Stern & Berger posit
"…Empathy can…become attenuated…when a person is too often severely frightened, too often victimized, or too often involved in perpetrating violence. Frequent exposure to savagery is one way to reduce a person’s capacity to feel. When a person is trained, or trains himself, to feel less empathy and its absence becomes a trait, he becomes capable of dehumanizing others, putting him at risk of acts of extreme cruelty. In our view, ISIS is using frequent exposure to violence as a technology to erode empathy among its followers."
This theory helps to explain why ISIS is involved in teaching and training young children—the younger the better—in weapons training and inculcation: “young children are easier to mold into ISIS’s vision of this new man...Leadership decapitation is significantly less likely to be effective against organizations that prepare children to step into their fathers’ shoes.” Regarding desensitization to extreme violence, “residents of Raqqa report…that children are taught how to behead another human being, and are given blond dolls on which to practice.”

In the last sections of the book (before the Appendix in which they give background information and definitions), the authors consider possible outcomes of Western involvement in the attempt to crush ISIS and ask the question: should we be fighting against ISIS or “for” something? The authors suggest that we must be held responsible for U.S. tactics or policies that are actually inciting rage and violence: drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, regime change, torture, and the misguided promotion of electoral democracy around the world.
”We must find better ways to balance our security against common sense and widely accepted ethical principles. That means refusing to rush in to war every time we are invited by someone waving a black flag, but it also means taking a closer look at our strategies and tactics, and asking how they can better reflect our values. In the conflict with ISIS, messaging and image are half the battle, and we do ourselves no favors when we refuse to discuss the negative consequences of our actions.”
Jessica Stern is a policy analyst specializing in terrorism affiliated with Harvard’s School of Public Health and the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law. J.M. Berger is a nonresident fellow in the Project for U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. Both appear to have closely monitored the appearance and development of ISIS outreach online, and seem to be defining a new kind of war that has enormous implications for how we live our lives now and in the future, to say nothing of how we fight.

For readers afraid of books with "too many words," this book doesn't sit in that category. It's is remarkably fluent and interesting and easy to read, and the final one hundred pages are notes. This is an important must-read for those interested in looking at an aspect of the conflict that so far has not been well-defined for watchers.

More reading on ISIS:
Black Flags by Joby Warrick
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria (essay in London Review of Books) by Patrick Cockburn
The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister
Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. I was just debating on borrowing this from the library, thanks for your review!

    1. So glad to be able to tell you it is an enlightening read and a beautifully phrased book, and as such not difficult. Definitely worth looking at.