ISIS is a different kind of threat than other terrorist groups because it has deliberated securing a different kind of financing, the independent kind that means it doesn't have to listens to donors or other countries that might restrain it, a Duke professor says.
More than from oil, the group gets its money from the the people who live in the territories it controls, via "extortion," said David Siegel, a political science professor and panelist at a forum Wednesday night organized by the Duke Middle East Studies Center.
On the ground, "it's basically a large protection racket," Siegel said.
But it's also one with a clear set of political grievances, ones it shares with "a faction of Sunni Muslims" unhappy with the post-World War I order of the Middle East and the outside powers that shaped it, said David Schanzer, a public-policy professor who directs the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.
And it's got a fine grasp of political theater, its filmed beheadings and other atrocities seemingly modeled on the aesthetics of Hollywood horror movies, said Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center.
On social media, it's much more nimble than western adversaries that by their own admission have "go through five committees" before sending out a single Twitter message, Safi said.
"To pretend that ISIS is somehow this medieval nightmare come to life glosses over that they are a 21st century creature," he said.
But Safi later hinted that he thinks the group's particular brand of theater already borders on being counterproductive, as the logic of its strategy dictates taking things to such extremes as to undermine any claim of religious legitimacy.
"ISIS in a way has to perpetually out-do itself," he said. "It's like 'Saw 17.' They have to ratchet up the level of violence inflicted on the audience."
But Schanzer pointed out that the group doesn't necessarily need to rally the masses, as even a relatively small number of people who find its methods and ideology appealing "can perpetuate violence that generates a large amount of fear."
Moreover, it's setting precedents for successor organizations, with causes no one knows about or recognizes yet, Siegel said.
"In every wave of terrorism, a different ideology gets associated with violence," he said. "Terrorism is not going to go away. It'll get easier as technology improves, and it'll get picked up by some other ideology or grievance."
Wednesday's forum continued what's essentially been a year-long discussion at Duke, from different ends of the political spectrum, about the Middle East, ISIS and the associated refugee crisis.
At one end, political science professor and former Bush administration national security aide Peter Feaver has orchestrated a speaker series that has brought high-profile figures like retired Gen. John Abizaid and former Obama administration National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
At the other, in-house organs like the Middle East Studies Center have put together forums like Wednesday's to give Duke's own experts a chance to offer their take on the issue.
Between them, there's broad agreement that ISIS is a qualitatively different threat from predecessors like al-Qaida, both for its organizational skills and its ability to take advantage of the weaknesses of the governments in Syria and Iraq.
Siegel echoed Donilon in assigning Iraq's post-war prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a large share of the blame for the rise of ISIS.
In parallel with Syria's Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad, the Shiite al-Maliki's "gross political mismanagement" and sectarianism helped convince many Sunnis that "their security was better guaranteed by ISIS" than by either regime, he said.
But the ongoing violence sparked a refugee crisis that's put about half of Syria's population on the road, mostly within that country or in neighboring ones like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, said Suzanne Shanahan, a Duke ethicist and sociology professor.
The numbers of refugees still in the region dwarf those who've escaped to Europe, and especially to the U.S., she said, adding that many are living "on the edge" of survival and in consequence thinking about returning home, taking their chances in ISIS-held territory.
Schanzer, a former aide such Democratic Party politicians as Vice President Joe Biden, said the refugee situation is a "huge symbolic" failure for ISIS, one that undermines its claims to be creating "a genuine Muslim experience" for the territories it controls.