Last Wednesday, a group of scholars met to discuss the implications of the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris on the Islamic State's future military and recruitment tactics. The event, which was organized by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, was titled "ISIS after Paris."
The lectures and discussions —moderated by Prof. Alain Lempereur (Heller), director of the Heller School's Coexistence and Conflict master's program — included Profs. Jytte Klausen (POL) and Shai Feldman (POL), Dr. David Siddhartha Patel and Dr. Richard A. Nielsen.
Patel, a Junior Research Fellow at the Crown Center whose studies focus on social order, religious authority and identity in the contemporary Middle East, was the first to address the audience. He focused his allotted 10-minute time frame on providing the audience with an overview of ISIS's internal structure and political framework. "We should be modest in how much we know and understand about ISIS ... and about perhaps how much we're misunderstanding their goals," he cautioned the audience.
Patel explained that the ISIS organization dates back to 2003, when it was an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and that it has since morphed into an independent organization. He added that prior to the Syrian Uprising, ISIS had existed as a relatively small and powerless entity in Iraq. It was the political discord in Syria which provided ISIS with an opportunity to grow and usurp political power in the region.
He went on to describe how, according to his research, the leaders of ISIS appeared to be mostly Iraqi ex-Ba'athists — people of the youngest Iraqi generation who had previously served as members of the secret police, military intelligence and special guard officers under Saddam Hussein. These individuals, Patel warned, are all the more dangerous because they have gained extensive military experience through their former posts.
Most ISIS fighters he noted, are local Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis who had previously pledged allegiance to Saddam Hussein's regime but who now feel disenfranchised or disillusioned by their current representative governments.
The attraction of ISIS to its potential recruits, Patel explained, is twofold. First, and most simply, he said, "ISIS pays." The 600 dollars a month salary ISIS awards local fighters is much higher than salaries paid by alternative rebel groups and general Iraqi and Syrian employers, according to Patel. Conscripts who agree to fight in more remote territories have the opportunity to "receive a house, a wife and all sorts of other goodies."
Second, Patel emphasized that the ISIS regime provides structure and predictability to those who live within its conquered territory. He noted that approximately 7,000 different militia groups have a stake in the region, adding: "in territory not controlled by ISIS, every checkpoint is controlled by a different militia group ... every single one of them is going to want a bribe. Eventually somebody is just going to shoot you and take your stuff. ISIS provides order over a large swath of territory that you can move around in and feel relatively safe. The order might be an unjust order, ... but it's order."
Next, Klausen, the Brandeis Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, addressed the recent military strategies proposed by Western countries to defeat ISIS. She posed the question, "if we beat ISIS to the ground, will we then not deter more people from joining?"
She then answered her own question with a resounding "no," claiming that ISIS is an organization driven by more than financial incentives and a craving for regional political dominion, propelled primarily by ideology. Klausen argued that it was this very ideology that would continue to attract recruits to the organization, regardless of Western military intervention.
"The Islamic State is far more than a state," she told the audience. "It is a revolutionary objective that is built on a very elaborate and sophisticated political-religious ideology. ... The Islamic State is also an amorphous, sprawling, highly interconnected network that spans continents and countries."
Despite her claim that Muslim extremist ideology was at the root of ISIS's violent movement, she asserted that, "We [the Western world] cannot fight the ideology." Klausen instead called for the establishment of an "International Global Regime" that would capture and contain the individual people culpable for the organization's violent atrocities.
Nielsen, the Neubauer Junior Research Fellow at the Crown Center, was next to the podium. He themed his speech, "If ISIS wants you to do it, maybe you shouldn't do it."
Nielsen claimed that ISIS wants three main things from the Western World: "Increased Islamophobia and [Western] policy makers who explicitly link Islam to the Islamic State and its rhetoric, ... refusal by Europe and the U.S. to take Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq [and] ... [U.S. and European] boots on the ground in Syria."
He explained that what he proposed as ISIS's first and third objectives were driven by a motivation to establish a "good guy" and "bad guy" dynamic between itself and the West — rhetoric that would appear to justify the cosmic jihadist battle that ISIS hopes to wage.
In regard to the refugee crisis, Nielsen posited that ISIS hopes the West will stop accepting refugees because it currently appears puzzling to most of the Muslim world that Sunni Muslims are desperately trying to flee from the "One True Caliphate" that ISIS is trying to establish. He closed his lecture by warning that Western powers should exercise caution when assessing ISIS's true objectives.
Feldman, the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center, was last to speak. He addressed the ISIS conflict as related to other Middle Eastern countries, questioning why no Middle Eastern countries — with the exception of Iran — have invested serious military efforts in defeating ISIS.
He quoted one of his colleagues at the Crown Center in his answer: "ISIS is the number two enemy of almost every country in the Middle East, and it's the number one enemy of none." He explained that many Middle Eastern countries are hoping that the Western World, whose "number one" enemy now seems to be ISIS, will be the ones to put boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq.
He concluded his talk by saying, "I don't see a way of dealing with the recruitment and the appeal of ISIS without dealing with the theology ... but I would argue that the West cannot do this. This is a debate which has to be conducted within Islam."
The event was co-sponsored by the Coexistence and Conflict Program, the Center for German and European Studies, the Politics Department and the International and Global Studies Program.