Remember the good old days when Al Qaeda was the most powerful force we had to fear on the international terrorism front?
That seems like a distant memory at this point; we should all reflect and appreciate how lucky we were.
Al Qaeda has always been, and remains, a poorly funded, poorly organized, and relatively small organization. They don’t control territory and they don’t have an effectively structured military force. Al Qaeda has defined leaders who hide in rural areas, easily accessible by means of drone strike without the accruement of civilian casualties.
“We have to take [ISIS] seriously. They’ve shown in Paris what they can do in an organized fashion.” – President Obama
In Al Qaeda’s paucities, we find the puissance of ISIS. The Islamic State lacks centralized leadership. They’ve designed a complex system whereby when one administrator of a regional force is assassinated another member instantaneously fills the role.
ISIS has a distinctive approach to recruitment, which includes the use of social media to reach young people around the world for persistent development as an organization.
Their military units are well trained and well equipped. They hide out in major urban city centers where a US drone strike would result in hundreds of civilian casualties and collateral damages.
But the biggest strength of ISIS is the way in which it raises money.
ISIS’ yearly revenue equals the GDP of Samoa
When you combine the membership of the Islamic State with its military organization, its landholdings, and its ability to fund its operations, in many ways it’s evolved beyond a terrorist force. Today; ISIS is essentially operating as a pseudo-state.
IS sells petroleum on the black market extracted from the oil fields they control in Iraq and Syria, bringing in millions of dollars in daily revenue. They rob central banks and loot museums to sell off valuable ancient artifacts. They tax commercial activity on the land that they control by means of military coercion. They kidnap foreigners and demand ransoms.
A study from IHS in early 2015 estimated Islamic States’ monthly revenue at a staggering $80 million. That number has surely grown.
ISIS knows how to achieve its goals
Al Qaeda is an idealist organization. They believe in a world without borders ruled by Sharia, but have no practical agenda for achieving that goal. Because of this methodology, they are easily contained.
The United States and its allies were able to match the propaganda of Al Qaeda to delegitimize its agenda, turning Sunni Arabs against the organization and creating enormous resentment towards Al Qaeda in the Middle East.
ISIS is far more practical. They are an extremely intelligent organization that knows which battles to fight and which to avoid, and thus they’ve been able to capture territory in the midst of instability. Their stated moral position can’t be undermined because they have no moral position.
The fight with ISIS has been ugly, and it’s only going to get uglier. We aren’t battling a conventional terrorist force; we’re battling an elaborately funded pseudo-state with a conventional military force intent on causing as much destruction as possible on their path to perpetual expansion.
The west can’t bomb or drone ISIS out of existence; it’s going to take an elaborately coordinated and well-structured policy of embargo, airstrikes, and mobilization of Middle East forces like the Peshmerga to fight the Islamic State from the inside.