In the rhetoric of American leaders, the Islamic State is a terrorist group. The terrorism label, while accurate, is also misleading, obscuring more than it enlightens. One of the top scholars of terrorism, Audrey Kurth Cronin, sharply criticizes the label “terrorist” to describe the Islamic State, arguing that doing so confuses us as to the true nature of the group and how best to fight it. But if the terrorism label doesn’t work, the alternatives are imperfect. It is best to think of the Islamic State as an amalgam, bringing together the characteristics of many different types of actors – some legitimate, some downright evil – but with no single label doing the job. Definitional issues have always hindered our understanding of terrorism, as no one, agreed-upon definition exists. However, our lack of a proper vocabulary stymies our public discourse and our policy response: if we can’t articulate what we are fighting, it’s hard to articulate how to fight it. A failure to recognize and counter all of the faces the Islamic State presents to the world will severely limit our ability to defeat it.
Let’s start with the label terrorist. As the Paris, Sinai, and San Bernadino attacks make clear, the Islamic State uses international terrorism – political violence against non-combatants outside its immediate theater of operations – to achieve a psychological effect. The Islamic State uses such violence to intimidate its enemies and attract recruits. Alas, it is succeeding in generating fear, as polls show Americans are more concerned about terrorism now than at any time since 9/11. Indeed, if anything, the international terrorism label seems more applicable to the group today than it did a year ago. Then, the Islamic State was focused on its immediate theater and attacks on non-combatants were linked to its local struggle. Attacks in the West seemed, at least to the outside world, not to be a priority.
This brings us to the second label: insurgent. The Islamic State is skilled at moving up and down the Maoist spectrum of operations, and it regularly conducts guerrilla war and tries to mobilize political support, classic traits of an insurgency. At the same time, almost every insurgent group also uses terrorism, broadly defined. The Islamic State, for example, uses suicide bombers to attack enemy police and military forces, assassinates Iraqi and Syrian opponents (including leaders of rival jihadist groups), and otherwise uses what are usually considered terrorist tactics as part of its insurgent struggle.
Definitional issues have always hindered our understanding of terrorism, as no one, agreed-upon definition exists. However, our lack of a proper vocabulary stymies our public discourse and our policy response: if we can’t articulate what we are fighting, it’s hard to articulate how to fight it.
Yet all the above makes the Islamic State seem normal – too normal. The group is also a bizarre cult, a modern Scourge of God. It embraces sexual slavery and rape and many of its recruits are more motivated by a quest for adventure, a desire to kill and wreak havoc, and a sense of belonging and group dynamics than by religious attachment. The group’s rhetoric is often messianic and apocalyptic: indeed, its English-language propaganda magazine, Dabiq, is named after a town in Syria where one of the last battles with the Crusader forces is prophesized to occur. Almost a decade ago in Iraq, one of Baghdadi’s predecessors ordered his men to build pulpits for the Mahdi, a messianic savior who will rule during the end times and bring justice to the world.
Although many of the Islamic State’s foot soldiers are often zealous fools – one recruit blew up himself and his classroom where he was learning to be a suicide bomber, killing 21 of his fellow students – its leaders today are crafty, and increasingly its ideology is bent to raison d’etat. The Islamic State’s motto is “enduring and expanding.” It seeks to defend its territory and conquer new lands, usually in an opportunistic way. When ideological tenets conflict with state necessity, the needs of the state usually win. Indeed, it claims the highest duty of Muslims is to defend this state.
Here, we get to its most impressive, and scariest, accomplishment: it is a de facto state, with its own army. Terrorist groups have a long history of overreaching in their rhetoric, but the Islamic State’s claim to statehood is not far-fetched. It rules over vast swaths of territory – at its peak roughly the size of Great Britain – and controlls the fate of around six million people. Militarily, the Islamic State has an army, complete with tanks and other heavy weaponry, and its style of fighting is often highly conventional – just like most states. Indeed, part of the reason the terrorism label doesn’t work is that traditional scholarship usually applies the term to non-state groups: states can do awful things, but when a state slaughters innocents, it is considered a war crime, not terrorism. Legally, statehood depends, in part, on recognition, but most social scientists follow the lead of Max Weber, who defined a state has having a monopoly on legitimate violence. The Islamic State has disarmed or suppressed rival groups in the areas it rules, achieving a monopoly on violence. Many would contest whether this violence is legitimate or not, but it has at least some local followers, and its provision of law and order in a land exhausted by chaos gives it additional legitimacy.
The Islamic State's claim to statehood earns additional legitimacy too, because it is a social service provider. It offers medical services, enforces price controls, creates courts and police, pushes local municipal employees to return to work, provides traffic cops, and even created a consumer protection bureau. The quality of these services and governance is often poor, but even limited services are valuable in war zones. Indeed, scholar Mara Revkin finds that locals often view the Islamic State favorably because it provides order and services better than its rivals. If everyone around you is horrible at service provision, you can win over the people simply by being less bad. In addition, the Islamic State drives out other service providers, including international NGOs, because they threaten its monopoly on service provision. However, coalition efforts to destroy the Islamic State’s oil trade – and the falling price of oil – have hindered its finances, and they can only extort or pillage so much. The Islamic State’s services appear to be declining, driving the prices of goods and services up, and its popularity may be falling as a result.
The Islamic State, however, is highly revolutionary: it is not content to focus on its immediate area of operations and otherwise act like a normal state or even an aspirational one. As such, it is more like a revolutionary state sponsor of terror, akin to how Iran, Sudan, and Libya acted in their revolutionary heydays. The Islamic State has established or worked with so-called “provinces” around the Muslim world to overthrow their governments and spread the Islamic State’s model while encouraging individuals to rise up and commit acts of terror in the West. Although the exact relationship with many of its provinces or affiliates is not known, its role is often coordinating, facilitating, bankrolling, and otherwise bolstering capabilities and giving strategic direction, while the local groups figure out the operational details on their own.
A failure to recognize and counter all of the faces the Islamic State presents to the world will severely limit our ability to defeat it.
Our desire to label the Islamic State as a terrorist organization may be because terrorism is what scares us so much. But treating the Islamic State as solely a terrorism problem will not defeat it. All its faces must be recognized in order to best fight the Islamic State. In some cases, this will mean bombing its tanks, as we would another state enemy. Elsewhere, it might mean helping allied governments or local forces provide social services to out-compete Islamic State-affiliated organizations. In still others, it might mean severing the links between the core organization in Iraq and Syria from its far-flung provinces and cells. Because every label is correct, yet incomplete, no single label to describe our policy defeat the group – “counterterrorism,” “counterinsurgency,” and so on – suffices. However, the Islamic State is not simply going to go away, and other hybrid groups are likely to arise in the future. Our rhetoric and our policies need to recognize these many dimensions.