Since it rose to prominence in the Middle East, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Islamic State, as it likes to call itself, has surprised everyone with its remarkable ability to create enemies.
It pioneered the grisly videos depicting the execution of scores of citizens from the United States and Europe. But it went further, by killing Japanese and by expanding its murders to fellow Arabs. A captured Jordanian air force pilot was recently burned alive and 21 Egyptian Christians, beheaded.
At first glance, killing Arabs makes little strategic sense. For quite apart from the fact that it risks a backlash, the murders only increase the military pressure: Egypt, with the region's biggest military force, is now pounding ISIS targets.
A winning military strategy picks enemies carefully, but ISIS seems to relish collecting as many opponents as it can, as swiftly as possible.
The reason for this is that ISIS is not just an extremist organisation, but a cross between a terrorist network and a fanatical sect; its leaders believe themselves to be engaged in an apocalyptic fight, the supposed final showdown between Islam and the "anti-Messiah", a bloodbath which is not only their duty to engage in, but also their obligation to hasten.
Seen from this perspective, the more enemies one fights, the better: "Here we are, burying the crusader, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive", was the narrative on one murder videotape.
The "restoration of the Islamic caliphate", a return to a period when all the various parts of the world inhabited by Muslims - stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia on one side, and North Africa on the other - were one political entity, is the essence of the ISIS ideology. So is the rule of one caliph, a political and religious successor to the Prophet. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, claims to be "commander of the faithful", a title ordinarily reserved for caliphs.
The murder of Middle Easterners deemed "alien" was the first step in ISIS' rise: The organisation staged its first attack against a Catholic church in Baghdad in 2010, killing 58 believers, the single deadliest crime against Arab Christians at that time.
The second stage was the slick production of online videos featuring atrocities. The objective was to emphasise ISIS' claim to be uniquely cruel and uncompromising, a gang unlike any others in an otherwise crowded landscape of extremists. The reputation of being more extreme than extreme worked: ISIS has attracted tens of thousands of foreign volunteers.
The systematic and highly publicised murder of Arabs represents the latest and probably the most ominous phase: that of denying the very existence of current states and governments in the Middle East.
As al-Baghdadi put it, the ISIS goal is "to establish an Islamic state that does not recognise borders, on the Prophetic methodology", which usually translates into whatever al-Baghdadi wants.
The uniquely hideous murder techniques reserved for the Jordanian and the Egyptians were deliberately designed to humiliate Arab governments: The subliminal message is that local governments cannot protect their citizens and are powerless against ISIS.
But ISIS has gone further, by dividing the entire Middle East and North Africa into "wilayats", or provinces run by "walis", or governors, all responsible to the "caliph". The Egyptians were the first victims to be beheaded not in Iraq or Syria, where ISIS routinely performs such deeds, but in Libya, where ISIS established three wilayats. This strengthens its claim to run larger parts of the Middle East.
The tactic is similar to the franchising methods which Al-Qaeda used, with one big difference: While the affiliate terrorist bodies which joined Al-Qaeda were groups which otherwise failed and needed Al-Qaeda's brand name, ISIS offshoots in places such as Libya are tightly and centrally controlled. And, while Al-Qaeda's objective was to force Western governments out of the Middle East, the ISIS objective is to destroy Arab governments from within.
Still, unlike Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations which can exist underground, ISIS cannot because holding territory is its key objective.
So, once ISIS is kicked out of Syria and Iraq, it will also cease to exist, as "caliphates" cannot survive in the abstract. As deadly as it may be, therefore, the ISIS strategy also contains the seeds of the group's own destruction
This article was first published on Feb 18, 2015.
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