'State Of Terror': Where ISIS Came From And How To Fight It

Mar 16, 2015
Originally published on March 16, 2015 11:34 am

There have been mixed results in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. Iraqi government forces and their Iranian allies are fighting to retake the central city of Tikrit, but it's unclear how much longer this will take.

Meanwhile, ISIS has established a foothold in Libya. They also recently accepted the allegiance of Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist organization.

Where did the group come from, and why are their efforts so successful? Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, two experts on terrorism, explain the rise of ISIS and what it will take to defeat the group in their new book ISIS: The State Of Terror.

They believe that this group has succeeded where Al-Qaeda failed by presenting itself as a powerful force, instead of just an extremist threat.

"It's holding territory. It's attacking local regimes that it believes to be apostate instead of lobbing grenades at the West," Berger tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Their whole narrative's really based on this — on this projection of strength instead of weakness."


Interview Highlights

On the apocalyptic vision of ISIS, which has resonated with people

Stern: I would say that was one of the biggest surprises to me. I've talked to a lot of apocalyptic groups, Christian groups, and I really wasn't anticipating the extent to which ISIS has its own ... philosophy of the end times. They believe that if they carry out the signs, it's not that the end of times will come more quickly, but they get very excited that they are actually manifesting the end times.

On how ISIS reaches out to new recruits

Berger: I think one characteristic that we see from ISIS is that they pursue every avenue. They have a specific recruitment for women' they have specific recruitment for different countries, different languages. They're really unusually large for a terror group.

On how people can fight back against the terrorist group's ideologies

Berger: There are a lot of different approaches you can take, but the coalition against ISIS is mostly united by the fact that it's against ISIS. We don't have a one country or one system of government or one set of values that we could be promoting as an alternative and that creates a kind of sticky situation.

Stern: I would add to that that we do have the opportunity to amplify the messages of clerics who have really taken ISIS on in terms of its interpretation of Islam. There are so many clerics who are doing this and yet their arguments are not getting the attention that they deserve. And I think we need to hear a lot more from people who leave ISIS. Somebody who says, "Gosh, I joined, I thought I was going to be making the world a better place and it turned out that it really wasn't what I imagined. That there were atrocities that I didn't want to be involved in." There are people who are saying that. We need to amplify those messages.

On who should amplify those messages that counter ISIS

Stern: The State Department has been trying to counter ISIS's message. The problem is no matter how good of a job they do, it is the State Department. I think it's going to be very important for private sector people and NGOs to respond. I think it's going to be very important for clerics to get more serious about ensuring that their message gets to the right people.

On the reaction that ISIS videos receive from the public

Berger: I think that ISIS wants the backlash. I think the backlash is the point of these videos. ISIS, as part of its apocalyptic vision and part of its strategy, it wants to polarize populations. It doesn't like fence-sitters. So videos like this are not necessarily meant to win popular support. They're meant to alienate and anger other countries and other people's populations. Part of that also is the hope that they can provoke people into doing something rash.

Stern: Like sending in ground forces. They'd like to see a sectarian battle and they'd like to see the West right there fighting it out.

On whether ISIS has been weakened by the U.S. air campaign

Berger: I think they're stale-mated right now and for them that's really a win. All they have to do is hold on to the territory that they have, particularly the major population centers, Raqqa and Mosul. It's lost some territory around the edges and every time it does it opens up a new front. So they took a hit in Tikrit this week and so they opened up an attack in Ramadi. At the same time they're also expanding overseas. So even as they're being forced to contract a small amount in Iraq and Syria, they're able to add a giant chunk of territory in Nigeria with the pledge of allegiance to Boko Haram.

On how long the battle against ISIS will take

Stern: I think it's hard to imagine this will take less than years. ... No matter how much headway we make in Iraq and Syria we're going to have to fight this idea that is attracting people, unfortunately, all over the world.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

There are mixed results in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. Iraqi government forces aided by Iranian allies are fighting to retake the central city of Tikrit. But at the moment, it's not clear how much longer that's going to take. Meanwhile, ISIS has established a foothold in Libya and, on Friday, accepted the allegiance of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, two of this country's preeminent experts on terrorism, explain the rise of ISIS and what it will take to defeat the group in their new book, "ISIS" The State Of Terror." They begin by explaining how ISIS has exceeded where al-Quaida failed.

J.M. BERGER: Well, al-Quaida had followed the model of kind of a traditional extremist organization. Usually, extremist groups will recruit by posing a threat to their identity group. and ISIS has completely inverted that. So ISIS now is arguing that it's in a position of strength, and it's doing all the things that al-Quaida couldn't do. It's holding territory. It's attacking local regimes that it believes to be apostate, instead of lobbying grenades at the West. And their whole narrative is really based on this - on this projection of strength instead of weakness.

RATH: And you also write about how it's tied in with this apocalyptic vision which has a kind of resonance with people.

JESSICA STERN: Yes. I would say that was one of the biggest surprises to me. I've talked to a lot of apocalyptic groups - Christian groups. And I really wasn't anticipating the extent to which ISIS has its own eschatology.

RATH: That's a philosophy of the end times.

STERN: Yes, philosophy of the end times. They believe that if they carry out the signs, it's not that the end of times will come more quickly, but they get very excited that they are actually manifesting the end times.

RATH: You write about how, you know, even after years of studying terrorism, there's really no such thing as a terrorist profile. So without knowing who to go to, how has ISIS done such a good job recruiting?

BERGER: You know, I think one characteristic that we see from ISIS is that they pursue every avenue. So they have specific recruitment for women. They have specific recruitment for different countries, different languages. And they're really unusually large for an extremist group.

RATH: There's been an effort to fight back on the propaganda front since the George W. Bush administration. Is there a way to effectively fight back on social media?

BERGER: There are a lot of different approaches you can take. But the coalition against ISIS is mostly united by the fact that it's against ISIS. We don't have one country or one system of government or one set of values that we can be promoting as an alternative. And that creates a kind of sticky situation.

STERN: I would add to that that we do have the opportunity to amplify the messages of clerics who have really taken ISIS on in terms of its interpretation of Islam. There are so many clerics who are doing this, and yet, their arguments are not getting the attention they deserve. And I think that we need to hear a lot more from people who leave ISIS - somebody who says, gosh, I joined. I thought I was going to be making the world a better place, and it turned out that it really wasn't what I imagined, that there were atrocities that I didn't want to be involved in. There are people who are saying that. We need to amplify those messages.

RATH: Who would be the ones to amplify that message, though, where it would actually, you know, be received in the right way by the people you want to convince?

STERN: You know, the State Department has been trying to counter ISIS' message. And the problem is no matter how good of a job they do, it is the State Department. I think it's going to be very important for private sector people and NGOs to respond. I think it's going to be very important for clerics to get more serious about ensuring that their message gets to the right people.

RATH: There have been even more gruesome videos released recently by ISIS. I'm thinking of the Jordanian pilot. And there's been a backlash. Do you see a danger for ISIS -for them going too far, for eroding that popular support they've been successful in winning so far?

BERGER: I think that ISIS wants the backlash. I think the backlash is the point of these videos. ISIS, as part of its apocalyptic vision and as part of its strategy - it wants to polarize populations. It doesn't like fence-sitters. And so videos like this are not necessarily meant to win popular support. They're meant to alienate and anger other countries and other people's populations. And, you know, part of that, also, is the hope that they can provoke people into doing something rash.

STERN: Like sending in-ground forces. They'd like to see a sectarian battle, and they'd like to see the West right there, fighting it out.

RATH: And in terms of how the West is fighting this out, we're now seven months into the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS. Would you say that ISIS has been weakened significantly?

BERGER: I think they're stalemated right now, and for them, that's really a win. All they have to do is hold on to the territory that they have and, particularly, the major population centers - Raqqa and Mosul. It's lost some territory around the edges, and every time it does, it opens up a new front. So they took a hit in Tikrit this week, and so they opened up an attack in Ramadi. And at the same time, they're also expanding overseas. So, you know, even as they're being forced to contract a small amount in Iraq and Syria, they're able to add a giant chunk of territory in Nigeria with the pledge of allegiance from Boko Haram.

RATH: Would either one of you be willing to hazard a guess as to how much longer the fight against ISIS is going to go on?

STERN: I think it's hard to imagine this will take less than years, for the reasons that J.M. just spelled out. And no matter how much headway we make in the Iraq and Syria, we're going to have to fight this idea that is attracting people, unfortunately, all over the world.

RATH: Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger are authors of the new book "ISIS: State Of Terror." Thanks, both of you, very much.

BERGER: Thank you.

STERN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.