How does one explain the extreme violence of ISIS? Very simply!

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

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ISIS brutality is a veritable circus of the macabre. But just when we thought that they might have reached the lowest levels of depravity, we hear that they allegedly blew up a baby in a video to demonstrate how to handle explosives to new recruits. As I have heard some British Muslims say before, it is difficult to conceive how these people are the same species as the rest of us.

But, if one can even countenance the overwhelming obscenity of this kind of behaviour for one second, we must at the very least ask where it might come from. How can human beings behave like this? And not just barbarous savages from distant history, or not so distant history if we think about the Holocaust and more recent genocides, but people who we might have known and lived with in our communities not so long ago. People who for most of their lives seemed, and indeed were, “just like us.”

One theory is that this is intrinsic to the jihadist ideology. And there may be some credence to that hypothesis; Jihadism is an ideology of violence after all. And the historical precursors of today’s jihadism certainly had a habit of committing wholesale massacres and what can only be described as ritualised brutal murder.

But if that were all there was to it, we would know what to expect by now. Yet here we are, week after week, month after month, finding out, courtesy of ISIS, that our imaginations are really rather limited when it comes to the levels of depravity that human beings can sink to. ISIS, it seems, are not going to let decency get in the way of their quest for a caliphate!

New lows

This perverse creativity, however, hasn’t just popped onto the scene as a natural evolution of the jihadism that came before. It is not the sole product of jihadist ideology. After all, it is difficult to imagine that even Osama bin Laden himself, evil though he may have been, would have ever stooped to these levels, or indeed would condone what is now happening in ISIS territories if he were still alive. By comparison to these creatures, bin Laden seems like a decent kind of guy!

it is difficult to imagine that even Osama bin Laden himself, evil though he may have been, would have ever stooped to these levels, or indeed would condone what is now happening in ISIS territories if he were still alive

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Yet things like this have happened, even routinely, in the very recent past, and specifically in Iraqi territory. It’s just that we didn’t hear about them in the West. I am talking, of course, about Saddam Hussain’s regime. Quite apart from the well-known and documented cases of ethnic cleansing and even genocide against the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds in the 90s, this regime was maintained by a military and intelligence establishment that were very well acquainted with and very comfortable with terrorising and killing en masse Iraqi and foreign civilians.

Gruesome gang

And guess where all these Baathists from Saddam’s intelligence and military agencies ended up, after the U.S. dismantled Saddam’s state in the wake of the 2003 invasion? Well, initially they all ended up in American prison camps, alongside jihadists and Islamist demagogues like al-Baghdadi himself. And then, many of them went and formed ISIS together.

This accounts for the superior organisation of ISIS on the ground compared with the other fighting groups in Syria and Iraq – these were hardened military men, well-accustomed to effective hierarchical organisation. It also accounts for the way in which ISIS has managed to quickly and seemingly quite effectively put in place the administrative structures typical of a state necessary to manage ministries, tax systems, courts, utilities like energy, water, rubbish collection and so on over an area the size of the UK. When I visited Syria in 2013, ISIS was not even on the map. The Nusra Front dominated the news. But within two years, these people set up the entire ISIS apparatus. And it worked. After all, they had a lot of experience running just these things under Saddam.

Wanton murder

They also had a lot of experience of how to terrorize a civilian population into submission, with wanton brutal murder, ritualized aggression against taboo targets such as children, the works. The Ba’athists under Saddam had no limits when it came to torturing women, children, elderly, whole families at a time. There were no red lines. All was fair game – including the liberal use of banned weapons of mass destruction (like chemical weapons) on whole communities. And now they have simply transferred these “public administration techniques” to ISIS. And added glossy videos to help the international propaganda and recruitment efforts.

A senior military figure I recently met told me that he was convinced that the Ba’athists selected Baghdadi to be the Caliph rather than Baghdadi selecting former Ba’athists to administer his dominion. That would not be altogether surprising if it turns out to be true. Saddam, as it turns out, is causing the West much more of a headache in death than he had ever done in life.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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