Tracing the Islamic State’s “Allure”

In a prominent article about Islamic State in the Washington Post over the weekend, Carol Morell and Jody Warrick suggest that, by massacring people in various locales, the group was growing in appeal—or “allure” in the words of the headline writer. How this remarkable process comes about is not explained, nor is evidence given to back it up. It is said to be a conclusion reached by “experts,” but only one of these is quoted in the article, and none of the quotes from him seems to fit, much less support, the article’s conclusion.

There is certainly evidence, much of it noted in other articles in the Post, to suggest that the appeal (or allure) of the vicious group actually is, like the scope of the territory it holds in Syria and Iraq, in severe decline. By 2016, the flow of foreign fighters going to join the group may have dropped by 90 percent over the previous year even as opposition to the group among Arab teens and young adults rose from 60 percent to 80 percent. Any allure the group may have in Iraq certainly fails to register on a poll conducted there in January 2016 in which 99 percent of Shiites and 95 percent of Sunnis express opposition to it. And, according to the FBI, the trend for Americans seeking to join Islamic State is decidedly downward.

Indeed, overall, the Islamic State has followed policies and military approaches that have repeatedly proven to be counterproductive in the extreme in enhancing its “appeal” and/or “allure.” High among these was the utterly mindless webcast beheadings of American hostages in 2014 that turned the United States almost overnight from a wary spectator into a dedicated military opponent.

A considerable amount of academic work strongly suggests that the group is following a self-destructive approach. Thus, in her analysis of civil wars, Virginia Page Fortna concludes that insurgencies that employ “a systematic campaign of indiscriminate violence against public civilian targets to influence a wider audience” pretty much never win. Similarly, Max Abrahms finds that the targeting of civilians by terrorists is “highly correlated with political failure.”

The Post article also notes the suggestion of Secretary of State John Kerry that terrorist attacks like those Turkey, Iraq, and Bangladesh are a sign of the group’s desperation as it is pushed back in Iraq and Syria. Yet the article seeks to refute this plausible hypothesis by irrelevantly noting that the group has recently issued its own currency in the territory it controls.

And it gravely relays the grandiloquent ravings of Islamic State forefather Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who was killed in 2006), that “We fight here, while our goal is Rome.” More recent Islamic State spoutings include its warnings to Russia that “We will make your wives concubines and make your children our slaves…The Kremlin will be ours,” and to the United States, “Know, oh Obama, that we…will cut off your head in the White House and transform America into a Muslim province.” To take such drivel seriously is to exacerbate fear and to play to the monster group’s childish self-infatuation.

A year ago, the Post published a thoughtful analytic perspective on Islamic State by the prominent Middle East specialist, Marc Lynch. He concluded that the group seemed to him to be “a fairly ordinary insurgency that has been unduly mystified and exoticized in the public discourse.”

Lynch’s column generated three comments. The Morello/Warrick article has thus far generated 881. For editors anxious to entice readers, it is clear which perspective has the most allure. Like fear, mystery and the exotic sell.