The ISIS Playbook: Yes, There Is One
Below is a link to an article written by one Scott Atran, in which he argues quite persuasively that ISIS is much worse than “mindless terrorists,” that they have what might be called a “playbook,” entitled “Management of Savagery/Chaos.” And of course as Atran argues this is worth studying by “the West” so as to better understand what ISIS is about and what to expect from them.
As the title suggests, the ISIS strategy is to create chaos in “the West,” among what it calls “the crusaders” and “the Zionists” by attacking them where they are “soft” or vulnerable, such as resorts or soccer stadiums or, as we know now, Paris. They are also focused on recruiting new members, especially from the young, who are “rebellious” and ready for sacrifice. And, conversely, the message “the West” has are mostly “negative” and mass messaging, rather than intimate.
This is, for me, all quite interesting and even revealing. And surely Atran is correct that “treating Isis as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a willful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world.” Certainly, Atran is correct to emphasize the fact that ISIS has a “profoundly alluring moral mission,” one that appeals to the young and the despised. And this, if taken seriously, would help “the West” understand ISIS in a way it does not today, when it seems all too likely to dismiss this phenomenon as a kind of insanity or simple minded “religious extremism.”
But what Atran’s argument lacks is any consideration of how the strategy of “the West” plays into the hands of ISIS for that strategy seems to be also the management of savagery and chaos. As has been pointed out, here and elsewhere, “the West” seems content with fighting what seem to be losing wars, e.g., in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why is this the case? Perhaps because, from the perspective of those fighting these wars, “losing” is actually “winning” in that chaos in the Middle East is the goal, to say nothing of the fact that losing wars does little or nothing to damage those who wield power, the ruling class. So, those in power achieve both the chaos they seek, a chaos that is being used to advance what are labeled “regime changes” in the Middle East, while fortifying “the West’s” allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. And at the same time, these power brokers are fortifying their own status and the regime within which they operate, as any attempt at dissent can be portrayed as almost treasonous.
The point is this: “the West,” like ISIS, is attempting to manage savagery and chaos, as it were. This means that “the West” is not fully committed to warding off ISIS’s attacks, as these attacks create more chaos. Is it a dangerous game “the West” in playing? Of course it is, extremely dangerous. And it is also deadly, especially for the innocent, in “the West” or in the Middle East. But if it shortsighted of “the West” to underrate the allure of ISIS, it is also shortsighted to underrate the extent to which “the West” will go to impose its will on the world. And while it is useful and necessary to study ISIS as Atran does so well, it is also just as useful and necessary to study “the West” and its brand of imperialized politics.