THE CTAP INTERVIEW: Brian Fishman, Center for International Security and Cooperation

By: Interviewed by Dr. Douglas Borer , US Naval Postgraduate School


This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 On 20 August 2015, Dr. Doug Borer sat down with Brian Fishman to discuss the history and strategies of al Qaeda and ISIS, and what makes them different. Mr. Fishman previously served as the research director at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and was a founding editor of the CTC Sentinel. He is presently a fellow in the International Studies program at New America and at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.2

DOUGLAS BORER: A lot of people don't understand how ISIS seemed to pop out of the sand, if you will, and take over parts of the Middle East so rapidly. Can you help us understand the group's background?

BRIAN FISHMAN: This group's roots go back to organizations in Jordan in the mid-1990s, which were led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Zarqawi, who was the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, was released from prison in 1999. He moved to Afghanistan, where he was able to interact with al Qaeda, and ended up establishing a camp in the western Afghanistan city of Herat. This camp included mostly people from the Levant: Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians. This is a population that al Qaeda traditionally had a difficult time recruiting among—there weren't a lot of senior al Qaeda leaders from that part of the world. So Zarqawi set up this camp, which he called Jund al-Sham, or the "Soldiers of the Levant." Obviously, after 9/11 and the US attack on Afghanistan, Zarqawi ended up in Iraq.

He eventually united with al Qaeda, but he already had this network of people that stretched from Iraq into Lebanon, among the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and across Syria. This organization established al Qaeda in Iraq, which was, of course, one of the main insurgent groups fighting the US and coalition presence there. But what's really critical to the story of ISIS is that throughout that early, pre-9/11 period, Zarqawi talked a lot about building an Islamic state in Iraq and in Syria. That's one of the interesting things: even in those early days, he and his followers saw a demographic opportunity in Syria, which had a primarily Sunni population led by a government dominated by Alawites, a form of Shi'ism.

Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 in a US airstrike, and in October his successors declared something called the Islamic State of Iraq. The US government, for the most part, believed this declaration was merely a sort of window dressing—a rebranding of al Qaeda in Iraq. In the United States, the organization was still called al Qaeda in Iraq for another five years, until the Syrian civil war broke out, despite the fact that it had formally changed its name, and despite the fact that in 2007 al Qaeda's leadership said there was no more al Qaeda in Iraq—there was only the Islamic State of Iraq. So there are a lot of reasons to think that even al Qaeda's leadership was buying into this rebranding.

But what's important about that is that the people who are part of ISIS today believe their history is almost 10 years long—that they have been at this project of building a state for 10 years. They believe that they have sustained their organization and continued to fight despite the surge of US troops into Iraq from 2007 to 2009, despite the "awakening" of Sunni tribal leaders against the Islamic State of Iraq. So today ISIS's leaders say, "Look at what we have beaten. We have beaten the best the Americans can throw at us, and we have sustained ourselves, and we have remained through that time." They draw a lot of strength from this notion of their history.

I think they really did intend to build a state in 2006. But even if you disagree with that point, and I think smart people can reasonably disagree with it, it's important to grasp how ISIS understands its own history. When we think about them from an information operations perspective, or think about what it means to defeat them, we have to understand their sense of identity, which is wrapped up in this history going back at least to 2006.

The original set of leaders who founded the Islamic State of Iraq was killed in 2010. That's a period, I think, when many in the United States believed that the group was basically defeated. That was wrong. This was an organization that had, by US government estimates, maybe 800 to 1,000 people straddling the border between Syria and Iraq, even on the eve of the Syrian civil war. That was a major decline from its earlier peak of about 12,000. The Islamic State of Iraq may not have looked like a state at that moment, in 2010 to 2011, but 800 to 1,000 people is still a really big terrorist group by any measure. Al Qaeda on 9/11 had maybe 200 people in it. So when those of us who had watched the Islamic State of Iraq for a long time started to see the unrest in Syria, both political unrest and then early hints of violence, it was pretty clear that the Islamic State of Iraq was well-positioned to take advantage of that. The leaders certainly thought they had a demographic advantage in Syria that they didn't have in Iraq, because Iraq is a primarily Shi'a country and Syria is a primarily Sunni country.

Therefore, I think this notion of history is really important. I think ISIS's leaders will keep going back to that history for inspiration, especially when they get pressured. We can do a lot of damage to this organization with military force. We could do more aggressive things than we are doing, and I think we could hurt them badly. But their sense of identity is tied to the idea that they can withstand those blows. They say to themselves, "We know we can, because we have done it before." When we think about how we are going to defeat this organization and its fighters, their belief in themselves raises the level of difficulty because we not only have to defeat them militarily, but we have to find ways to crush their spirit as well. They built an ideology—not just an ideology, but a legend, the mythology of their history—that I think will help sustain them in those hard times.

I suspect those hard times are coming for ISIS in the next couple of years. I don't think it can remain as powerful as it is today, but neither do I think it will be defeated easily, because its leaders have this mythology that makes them resilient and regenerative.

BORER: I would like to go back to this al Qaeda connection. Is separating the two groups a distinction without a difference? Are al Qaeda and the Islamic State essentially the same thing, or are there ways to distinguish between them?

FISHMAN: I think they come from two different sources. The way this often is described is that al Qaeda is a group of intellectuals, while ISIS grew from the bottom up. Zarqawi, the mafia-style "godfather" of ISIS, is often characterized as a kind of street thug, whereas Osama bin Laden was an educated man. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current emir of al Qaeda, is a doctor, so also very educated.

I tend to think this distinction isn't that important, however. The way I see the difference between these organizations in broad terms is that al Qaeda had a pretty big ideological tent for a jihadi group. It said, "You don't have to agree with us on everything. But we want to help you work with other militant organizations. We want to help you overthrow governments that are unjust." In other words, "We want to help you attack the United States. We want to help you overthrow the Saudi monarchy." Al Qaeda built relationships with lots of different organizations to achieve those things, without getting hung up on the specifics of doctrine. Its goal was to collaborate with others.

But it was also fundamentally an elite organization. It wasn't an accident that al Qaeda only had around 200 members on 9/11. The organization was designed to be small. It was supposed to be elite. Its members thought of themselves as sort of special operators in the jihadi world, who would train, advise, and assist other jihadi organizations. That was the mission. And then they had their own special operations, including 9/11. So that was al Qaeda's operating model: big ideology, willing to work with anybody, but a small elite organization.

ISIS turned that around, saying, "Our ideology is more restrictive. We are not going to work with people who don't agree with us on everything." In practice, they do build political alliances. But ISIS's ideology is much more restrictive in terms of the people it will tolerate. And that means it is much more willing to declare other Muslims takfir—non-Muslims—than al Qaeda is. Al Qaeda was willing to do that, too, but had different ways of going about it, and the differences are really important.

There are two debates within the jihadi world over when to declare takfir. When you declare another Muslim a non-Muslim, you essentially kill them. The first questions are, what has that person done? Is he a soldier in the enemy army? Is he a bureaucrat in the enemy government? Is he a shopkeeper who sells to enemy soldiers? Or is he just a person on the street who doesn't join our movement? There are lots of different arguments among jihadis over who is actually eligible to be killed. That's one set of arguments.

The more important argument, which distinguishes ISIS from al Qaeda, is that al Qaeda says only somebody who really knows what they are talking about can make the decision that another Muslim is a non-Muslim. You need to get the decision from a scholar, a religious leader, somebody who has thought about this question really carefully. And whenever possible, you need to make that decision about individuals rather than broad categories of people, unless maybe they are enemy soldiers.

The reason why al Qaeda is doing this is to set de facto limits on the types of people within the Islamic community, within the ummah, whom they are going to kill. Al Qaeda says American civilians can be attacked because the United States is a democracy and the people support their government. Therefore, all Americans are legitimate potential victims. Within the Islamic world, al Qaeda is much more restrictive about whom it thinks you ought to be able to kill. ISIS is really interesting, because its ideology prioritizes violence and the participation in jihad above all else. In other words, its leaders say, "Look, you might be some brilliant Islamic jihadi legal scholar, but if you don't actually go out and fight, then you don't really understand Islam. You are just sitting around reading your books all day. But our understanding of Islam is that you have got to go and fight for it. If you aren't doing that, then how good a Muslim can you be?" That leads to the position, "Well, as long as you are out fighting, you must be the best Muslim; therefore, you can decide who is not a good Muslim. You are the one who really understands the religion." This boils down to ISIS saying, "We can kill anybody. We can declare who is a non-Muslim and go kill them." Killing isn't centrally controlled.

So this is a real challenge in ISIS's ideology because, on the one hand, ISIS is trying to build a state structure. On the other hand, it has always espoused this ideology that delegates authority down to individuals to make this incredibly far-reaching theological, ideological, and political decision of declaring another Muslim to be non-Muslim. The way ISIS tries to square that circle is by saying, "Well, that was true until we had a Caliph—until we declared that there was a Caliphate. Now we all listen to him." But it had already created this ethos, this long lineage of ideology that devolves this kind of authority to lots of different people. Now ISIS's leaders are trying to get it back in the box—and that's going to be hard for them to manage. ISIS, in the long run, is going to be fractious.

The other reason ISIS is likely to be fractious in the long run is that while al Qaeda has this big tent ideology but a small organization, ISIS has a more narrow ideology but a big organization. If you want to join ISIS, the number one thing you have to do is show that you are willing to go to them. If you do that, you can get in. You are part of the club. You see this difference reflected in the different ways that foreign fighters interact with some groups in Syria. For example, to join Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an al Qaeda affiliate, somebody has to vouch for you; you have to be a known entity. It is a smaller, more exclusive, more elite (in some ways) organization. Whereas with ISIS, if you show up and you are willing to do brutal things, that is more or less your stamp of approval. It's almost automatic.

This is a major difference in the ways al Qaeda and ISIS were structured. But I think it's also one of the things that empowers ISIS and gives it the ability to recruit people remotely. It is saying not just, "You are a good Muslim," but also, "You can be part of our group. And all you have to do is believe you are." In contrast, al Qaeda might say, "You go do your thing over there, but you are not really al Qaeda. You are part of our movement, but you are not part of our organization."

I think this has something to do with the ability of ISIS to inspire people in the West to come and join them. And I certainly think it has something to do with their ability to grow so quickly. That said, that ethos, that ideology, that willingness to accept all these people, means that ISIS is going to be inherently fractious. That is its Achilles heel in the long run. I don't think it will be able to hold together, but I do think that it will be resilient and hard to destroy.

BORER: You more or less answered my next question. I was going to ask you about the potential impact of ISIS outside of Syria and Iraq. It sounds like they are trying to consolidate power inside the Caliphate, but are they still going to have an echo effect in other parts of the globe, meaning effects that they may not be able to control?

FISHMAN: That's the biggest change, in my opinion. There was this powerful continuity from 2006 until now: the Islamic State of Iraq was intended to be a real state in the way that we think of ISIS as a proto-state or a pseudo-state today. At least, it has a lot of those elements to it. But when ISIS declared itself the "Islamic State," the Caliphate, and said everyone should swear allegiance to it, that was a difference. It was saying, "Not only are we going to govern here in Iraq and Syria, but we are a point of inspiration and leadership in all of these other places around the world." That's new.

ISIS's predecessors always had regional connections. So the group that became ISIS had lots of connections in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and Europe. But ISIS's leaders purposefully avoided saying all of their supporters out there were part of the organization, because they wanted them to be able to operate without the affiliation. Not being formally affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq or the Islamic State of Iraq gave those sympathizers some operational security. That has clearly changed. Al Qaeda had a sort of built-in advise-and-assist mission for decades, and it's not totally clear to me how ISIS is managing that today. How often are they sending people from Iraq and Syria to Gaza? To Libya? To the Sinai? To Afghanistan? To bolster these affiliate provinces of ISIS? It's a hard thing to learn about from open sources.

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests this is happening in ways that are different from before—certainly a lot of evidence that it is happening digitally. ISIS is taking lessons learned and packaging them up to be used in other places. And that's smart; that's what people do. The United States does that: we package up learning materials to reflect on and to expand our digital reach. Well, ISIS is doing the same thing, but fortunately, they don't have military schools where everybody can get together. To the extent that they do, those are in Iraq and Syria.

This is actually one of the fascinating differences between ISIS today and the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006 and 2007. One of the great challenges for the organization in 2006 and 2007 was that most of the foreign fighters who came in had no training whatsoever. They really didn't know what they were doing, and they were actually a security problem for the Islamic State of Iraq. They would show up, they would speak Arabic with a conspicuous accent, they wouldn't have any knowledge about Iraq, they wouldn't be able to shoot straight—in short, they wouldn't have even basic skills.

BORER: They were foreign tourists?

FISHMAN: Yes, they were tourists. You can turn a tourist. You can use a tourist as a suicide bomber. But some of these foreigners didn't want to be suicide bombers, so the Islamic State of Iraq needed to find a way to train those people and needed to find the space to train them in. That was also a problem. There was a lot of talk for a time about what a "safe haven" meant for the group. A safe haven means you can take tourists and turn them into soldiers. Al Qaeda in Iraq had such a place for a while in 2005–2006, and then it lost it for a long time. Now ISIS has one again, and it is still getting a bunch of tourists. This time, though, it also has the ability to train tourists and make them into soldiers. That's terrifying.

BORER: I am going to wrap up the interview with the "king for a day" question. If you were the king of the world, what one significant change would you make that you think would reorient this situation?

FISHMAN: I would try to get back to a consensus among countries—a consensus that I, maybe naively, felt was there at one time. Maybe this consensus never really existed, but in 2005 and 2006, especially after al Qaeda's attacks on Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2005, I thought that there was a real sense of consensus in the international community that you can't use jihadis as tools of state foreign policy. Lo and behold, when the Syrian civil war started, lots of countries essentially tried to instrumentalize the jihadis to go after the Assad regime. Frankly, the Assad regime had been trying for a long time to instrumentalize jihadis as well. So it was sort of a pox on everybody's house.

I thought that the lesson had been learned, but it hadn't. This current situation illustrates the danger. We can see this today in some very dangerous Gulf state support for some of the jihadi groups operating in Syria. We see it in Turkey's toleration of foreign fighters crossing the border with Syria for years. We saw it in Assad's behavior for decades, first in Lebanon and then in Iraq, as well as within Syria. The global community of responsible people has to agree that there are certain kinds of behaviors and certain kinds of ideas that are just unacceptable, and that are corrosive to stability. The kinds of ideas that ISIS and its predecessors have been pumping out for 15 years now should have been alarming enough, and everybody should have known that these were people to be avoided at all costs. The fact that the Syrians didn't know this, that the Iranians tolerated some of the jihadis' behavior as well, and that American allies in the Gulf and Turkey did the same—all for their own purposes, all for understandable strategic objectives—was unacceptable, in my opinion. So we have to try to get back to a point of consensus around this problem. I don't know how you do that, because now the choices are getting worse, with ISIS pushing the limits of what a jihadi group is. Some people even see groups like Jabhat al-Nusra as a reasonable alternative these days. And I think that's crazy. We have got to turn that around. ²

About the Author(s):

Dr. Douglas Borer teaches in the Defense Analysis department of the US Naval Postgraduate School.

  1. The Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP) aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the twenty-first-century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future. go back up
  2. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the US Naval Postgraduate School, the US Department of Defense, the US government, or any other official entity. go back up
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