3Qs: How long can ISIS survive?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the jihadist terrorist group, recently released a statement, reportedly claiming that its leader is now the new Muslim head of a caliphate encompassing Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East. Global concern over ISIS’ rise has mounted and its brutal regime has been widely condemned, even by al-Qaida. But Max Abrahms, a terrorism theorist and assistant professor of political science at Northeastern, argues that ISIS does not have the durability to remain in power for very long. Here’s why.

What is the relationship between ISIS and al-Qaida, and how do the two organizations differ?

When al-Qaida perpetrated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the group was relatively centralized. It would quickly metastasize into several affiliates, however, after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and killed off much of the core leadership. The most important affiliate to emerge was al-Qaida in Iraq. AQI, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, made a costly strategic mistake by wielding violence indiscriminately, killing thousands of Sunni and Shia Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi population understandably turned against AQI, drawing the wrath of the original al-Qaida leadership, particularly Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. ISIS developed out of AQI and embraces the same strategy of indiscriminate violence. For this reason, al-Qaida is highly critical of ISIS and tries to separate itself from it.

What does the future look like for ISIS?

The media are overstating the rise of ISIS. It is true that ISIS now controls swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. It has also managed to amass plenty of weapons, members, and money. But ultimately, I expect the future of ISIS to resemble that of AQI. The backlash will arise from both its unrestrained tactics, as well as its extreme political preferences, which have relatively little support throughout the Muslim world. In Iraq, this backlash will happen faster if the unpopular Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, steps aside or enacts more pro-Sunni policies. At the moment, Sunnis are gravitating to ISIS partly because Maliki is rightly seen as serving only Shia interests in Iraq. Consequently, I believe that support for ISIS is destined to unravel. Further, the military prowess of ISIS is also greatly exaggerated. ISIS has claimed territory largely by assuming authority in areas of Iraq and Syria lacking government control. In direct confrontations with national militaries, ISIS can and will be defeated.

ISIS has attracted many headlines for its skillful use of social media. What are your thoughts about its technological prowess?

People like to overstate the intelligence and skill of terrorists. You often hear people refer to “terrorist masterminds” and the “sophistication” of their attacks. In reality, committing terrorist acts is inherently easy because the tactic preys on soft targets. ISIS uses Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. But using hashtags, posting status updates, and uploading videos are all pretty standard behaviors today, even among many middle school students. Just because ISIS opposes democracy does not mean its members live in caves. Indeed, terrorists have always made use of the media of their times. In this sense, ISIS is no different from the anarchists of the late 19th century, except they exploited the telegraph and daily mass newspapers. Terrorism, by definition, requires media to instill fear in the broader public. As Margaret Thatcher noted, the media provide “the oxygen of publicity” for the terrorist cause.