Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, explores the thinking of ISIS and gives needed historical perspective to its victory in Iraq's Sunni heartland. After pointing to a prescient essay he wrote back in January discussing some such Sunni offensive, he gives his analysis of ISIS's intentions. In January, he wrote that the demons were getting closer to Baghdad: "everyone in Iraq still privately believes that one Sunni desert tribesman is worth a hundred cowardly Shi’a villagers in a fight. . . . Could a Sunni vanguard force, whether Islamist or not, just ride roughshod over a much larger on-paper but disintegrating Shi’a army all the way to Baghdad? Damn right it could." So it was "hardly unpredictable." He continues:
I don’t actually think that ISIS wants to march on Baghdad. I think they want to scare the Shi’a regime ensconced there into one massive laundry problem, and I think they want to get large numbers of clueless Shi’a men onto their turf, where they have metis, and slaughter them as an unmistakable signal to keep Baghdad’s writ far, far away from the Sunni tribal homelands. I think they do not really want to march on Baghdad because the coalition or pact, as noted in the quote above, of which they are still a part would likely fracture on that account. And I think they would rather look toward Syria to consolidate that territory, too, creating their new emirate—of which more in a moment.
So we heard talk of a “stall” in today’s news. There is no stall. There is a downshifting of gears in order to consolidate control over Tikrit, Tel Afar, and other new prizes, and in order to take the measure of the soon-to-be Shi’a walking corpses headed foolishly in their direction. So far it’s been really easy and, if you are a crazed, bloodthirsty fanatic, quite exhilarating. Just think: You get to drive down the road with submachine-guns firing out the windows, running all the other cars trying to flee Mosul off the road. Then you stop, go over to the spun-out vehicle, and put ten bullets in the face of all the passengers. What fun. And then you get to do it again, and again. But now there are just too many people to shoot, and some of them are shooting back. Not half as much fun.
What we are seeing, then, is not an attempt by ISIS and allies to take control of Iraq. What we are seeing, in part at least, is a classical example of premodern state, or empire, building. Many years ago, in 1956 to be precise, a cultural anthropologist named Anthony Wallace wrote an essay on what he called revitalization movements. He was mainly interested in the Ghost Dances of American Indians (of which also more in a moment), but what he described as cultures trying to boost themselves into a more effectively organized and satisfied orbit fits perfectly a host of Muslim religious movements in history, too. The first of these and the best fit for the classic description of a revitalization movement was Mohammed’s uniting of the tribes of Arabia under a new banner of faith in the 7th century. The Almohad maniacs, mainly Berbers, who invaded and completely trashed Almoravid Spain in the 12th century was another, and nothing reminds me as much of ISIS today as the Almohads then. The Wahhabi movement that sired the contemporary Saudi polity in the 18th century was another. So was the Taliban, version 1.0 at least. So was the mainly Tuareg movement that grabbed Timbuktu last year. And now we have ISIS.
But that’s only likely a part of what’s going on, as I just said. The other part we are witnessing is an equally classical form of chiliastic religious violence. Chiliastic premillenarian fanaticism can be inward and quietist, or it can be outward directed and both mass-homicidal and suicidal. It is always mystical and anchored in religious symbols against enemies believed to be attacking the very corporate identity of the pressed group. Like al-Qaeda on 9/11. Like the Ghost Dances. Like Tancred’s Crusaders when they sacked Jerusalem in 1099 and bathed the streets in blood. Like the Jewish zealots fighting the Romans before and at Masada. Like the Peasants’ Revolt of 16th century Germany. Somewhat like the Taiping Rebellion. The Mao-Maos in Kenya, too. One could continue with examples, but I’d be deliriously happy if just a dozen or so members of the entire U.S. political class understood or even just knew something about any of these historical cases.
So the real question about ISIS is, to what extent is it a movement of this world, and to what extent is it an example of collective radical religious madness bound to end in spectacular self-immolation? Well, there’s an argument for both possibilities, just as the Almohads were doubtlessly fanatical nutjobs but still managed to consolidate a polity.
A movement has to be at least part of this world to pull off as sophisticated an operation as the ISIS Mosul caper. Cranes and earthmovers operated as if commanded by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers professionals. We saw flying columns comprised of Toyota land cruisers, rather like in the successful Chadian war against Libya in the 1980s. It sure beats the camels and horses of the 7th century. Beats Shi’a too, evidently. But the craziness and delusion quotient is on display, as well. Why else would an ISIS spokesman assume and even yearn for U.S. intervention? They have to know that they will be bounteously dead if U.S. warplanes attack their concentrations in the stark lack of cover that is northeastern Iraq. But martyrdom may be what many of these holy warriors seek.
So again, what is happening is not entirely new anymore than it was unpredictable, even though it is a challenge to figure out which way this whirling human wind is headed. You would therefore have to assume that the U.S. intelligence community as a collections-and-analysis community, which after all knows lots more about Iraq today than it did a dozen years ago (and with NSA listening in), had signals-and-indices level warnings of all this. So go ahead, you just pucker right up and assume it; see where that gets you. (I’d talk more about this but it’s just too depressing.) . . .
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Adam Garfinkle, “Iraq: What a Way to Go,” The American Interest (The Middle East and Beyond), June 16, 2014. The extract is about half the original entry.