THE WRITTEN WORD Not Your Dad’s Al Qaeda

By: Blaire Harms, US Naval Postgraduate School

by Jessica Stern and J. M.
New York: Ecco Press, 2015
Hardcover: US$27.99
385 pages


The news is full of the daily horrors that are tearing Syria and Iraq apart. The recent involvement of Russia is just one more twist in this story. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are fleeing not only the Bashar al-Assad regime, but also the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). From reports of its rivalry with al Qaeda (AQ) for the allegiance of other jihadis, to the declaration of a caliphate, to the rise in terrorist acts around the world by individuals or groups claiming affiliation with or inspiration from ISIS, the group seems ubiquitous in the headlines of the world's newspapers.

For a non-specialist, following the rise and fall of the various factions and splinter groups, the changing loyalties, and the internal disputes that have helped create ISIS as it is today can be as bewildering as any TV soap opera to a first-time viewer. In ISIS: The State of Terror, Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger provide a simple and timely "Who's Who" of major ISIS players; an overview of the group's origins, goals, and methods; and an analysis of what makes ISIS unique on the jihadi scene. The clarity that Stern and Berger bring to this murky subject makes this book a must-read for anyone interested in the modern Middle East and jihadist terrorism. Dr. Stern is the author of several books related to religious militants and terrorists, including Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (Harper, 2004). She is a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University and served on US President Bill Clinton's National Security Council staff (1994–1995). J. M. Berger is the author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (Potomac Books, 2011) and is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution.

Stern and Berger begin by describing the original incarnation of ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Given the prevailing assessment by some television "talking heads" that the departure of US combat troops from Iraq in 2011 led directly to the rise of ISIS, the authors' more nuanced take is refreshing. They point instead to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, along with the "de-Ba'athification" of government and military ranks (largely Sunnis), as the true sources of Sunni discontent and the rise of AQI. The US troop surge of 2006–2007 briefly calmed sectarian fears and helped bring about the "Sunni Awakening." This period also saw the death of AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the organization's name change to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), although the group remained aligned with the less brutally violent al Qaeda Central. Stern and Berger go on to demonstrate how the increased sectarianism of the Iraqi government after the 2010 elections, along with the Arab Spring uprisings—particularly in Syria, with the formation of ISI affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra—and the departure of US combat troops, fueled Sunni fears and the spread of ISI, and led to the eventual merger in 2013 of ISI and Jabhat al Nusra as ISIS under the leadership of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Having established this background, Stern and Berger delve into the central theme of the book: how and why ISIS is not "just your dad's al Qaeda."1 The differences in methods and means between al Qaeda and ISIS mark an important shift in approach for the modern jihadi movement. The authors highlight three primary, mutually reinforcing distinctions: the message, the recruitment targets, and the use of social media. They discuss these broad subjects along with closely linked topics such as the use of "electronic brigades" and psychological warfare. In one example, Stern and Berger describe ISIS's use of a Twitter app called "The Dawn of Glad Tidings," which includes a "computer code that could take control of a consenting user's account to automatically send out tweets."2 This is not new technology, but ISIS has excelled at using Twitter strategically: "ISIS had a name for these [Twitter] users—the mujtahidun (industrious). The mujtahidun could be observed repeatedly using specific tactics to boost the organization's reach and exposure online."3 This section of the book, about the ways ISIS has changed the message, the methods it uses to disseminate that message, and the individuals and groups with which that message resonates, was particularly compelling—and alarming.

Stern and Berger contrast the messaging of al Qaeda and ISIS, pointing out that AQ retains the older jihadi focus on Muslims as being in a position of weakness—the perspective, in other words, that jihad is an act of defense. This message was typically supported by lengthy ideological papers and static "talking head" videos, along with the occasional action video showing AQ soldiers training in a desert or blowing up "asymmetrical targets" (because AQ leaders did not view direct combat as a current possibility).

ISIS, in contrast, projects a much more active, successful, and violent vision of jihad. The Clanging of the Swords movie series, produced by ISIS's media outlet, is emblematic of this transition. The films are a higher-quality and more aggressive portrayal of ISIS fighters' strength and ability to win in direct combat.4 This new approach also promotes the vision of an Islamic "utopia" in the here and now, which is an important part of the group's appeal to new audiences for whom the more muted AQ message does not resonate. The notable violence of ISIS's current messaging, in both nature and transmission, appears to have been largely influenced by the writings of jihadi strategist Abu Bakr Naji. In Naji's view, a lesson learned from previous failed jihads is the need for a phase of "highly visible violence, intended to send a message to both allies and enemies."5 ISIS has taken that lesson to heart.

Not only does ISIS offer a different message from that of al Qaeda, its target audience is also significantly different. Like AQ, ISIS primarily woos foreign fighters, but unlike AQ, it also invites women, families, and even foreign professionals to join the hirja (emigration). This broad recruitment pool is directly linked to the group's dual goals: not only to reestablish the caliphate, but also to create a state and society of like-minded Muslims. ISIS is actively appealing to a wide range of internal and external motivations, making it much more difficult for Western CT analysts to typify ISIS's foreign fighters. Stern and Berger also lament ISIS's use of children to carry out their atrocities, noting that people, especially children, who are inundated with violence and death tend to lose their empathy and respect for human life. As a result, the world is faced with a significant challenge as countries consider the reintegration of both returning and liberated ISIS fighters. Moreover, ISIS has a message for those "left behind," sympathizers who are unable for whatever reason to travel to Syria or Iraq but might be willing to act at home. This message of encouragement to "lone wolf" jihadis has allegedly provoked a number of incidents in Western countries, raising fear among Western populations and heightening the psychological warfare factor.

In later chapters, Stern and Berger highlight ISIS's innovative use of social media. Whereas AQ is much more likely to produce a long-winded video monologue revolving around a theological point, ISIS has turned to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to share "victories," such as hostage beheadings, interspersed with happy images of jihadi family life in ISIS territory. This use of media technology and brand marketing takes advantage of Western countries' protection of free speech, which raises interesting (and troubling) questions about the circumstances under which messages can, or should, be designated as "terrorist" and shut off. Is it better to shut down terrorist accounts or leave them up for intelligence purposes? Who should be in charge of making such decisions: governments or the corporations that own the social media sites? Social media helps spread the organization's message of strength and victory, not only to the world at large, but also to its rivals in al Qaeda.

Stern and Berger make it clear that realistic military options against ISIS are limited, and unlikely to do more than degrade its fighting capacity and perhaps contain its growth. They offer two principal prescriptions: counter the black-and-white jihadi message by "fleshing out the nuance and complexity of situations and conditions" in vulnerable communities; and design policies that do not "lend credence and support to ISIS's simplistic and apocalyptic worldview."6 The first prescription, however, seems to contradict a discussion earlier in the book regarding the generally limited ability of vulnerable populations to process nuance. This in turn suggests that, somehow, ISIS's opponents first have to increase a group's (or society's) capacity for critical thinking, and only then can they engage in discussions of specific "situations and conditions." This makes the task much more complicated than the authors imply in their recommendation.

The second prescription appears, on the surface, easier to accomplish. States simply need to avoid overreacting to atrocities committed by ISIS and playing into the jihadis' narrative. This would, however, require that democratic governments be willing—and able—to resist public pressure for immediate action following acts of savagery and violence, or the repercussions of terrorist violence elsewhere, such as a massive influx of refugees. This recommendation also relies heavily on the Western media and how they report the ISIS "story." Stern and Berger focus more on "control" of the social-media battlefield rather than the role of social media per se, but they also acknowledge the minefield of legal and moral obstacles that lie along the boundaries of free speech, private business, intelligence, and the actual terrorists who are using social media. They rightfully point out that the West "owns the battlefield" of social media, and if that power is used correctly in this war of ideas and messages, we will have an indisputable advantage in our confrontation with ISIS.

In their conclusion, Stern and Berger seem uncertain whether there is anything to do beyond containing the virus that is ISIS. And while they clearly oppose any full-scale military response, each of their recommendations for containing ISIS seems to come with a caveat, which makes their ideas less useful for real planning or action. Their analysis of a proposal to cancel the online accounts of anyone distributing terrorist content provides an example of the complications for democratic societies. The authors warn that such a policy can lead to "chronic framing problem[s]. Advocates of free speech see it as a censorship issue, as do some social media companies."7 Later, Stern and Berger point out that, while "additional study is necessary to fully evaluate the impact of such suppression techniques [as suspending accounts], the early data is very encouraging. … That said, it is not so easy to implement a policy of suppression."8 The authors' framing of the problems in countering ISIS is excellent, but deriving actionable policies from their discussion is less easy.

Overall, however, ISIS: The State of Terror is an interesting and quick read. The authors do an excellent job of laying out ISIS's history, tactics, and techniques, and the ways in which ISIS differs from previous jihadi movements like AQ. Stern and Berger intersperse their discussion of ISIS's messaging, recruitment strategies, and use of social media with descriptions of the methods Western states have used successfully to degrade some of these efforts. It is also satisfying to catch a glimpse of the internal jihadi fitna (infighting)—which shows that ISIS and its leadership are not unanimously supported even within the jihadi community.

Stern and Berger bring clarity and perspective to the threat we are facing—a threat that is not an existential one. Despite the lack of innovative policy recommendations, ISIS: The State of Terror helps to provide context for the recent events in Syria and Iraq, as well as their impact on the world at large. Anyone who is interested in, but unfamiliar with, violent religious extremism and the evolving situation in the Middle East will find value in this insightful book. ²

About the Author(s):
Blaire Harms teaches in the Center for Civil-Military Relations at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

This is a work of the US federal government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. "Not your dad's..." is a colloquial American phrase that means something is no longer as simple as it was a generation ago. I use it ironically here and in the title of the essay to suggest there is a generational shift between al Qaeda and ISIS.go back up
  2. Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: Ecco Press, 2015), 143.go back up
  3. Ibid., 155.go back up
  4. This series, the fourth of which appeared online in May 2014, is produced by al-Furq?n Media, the production wing of ISIS.go back up
  5. Stern and Berger, ISIS, 23.go back up
  6. Ibid., 243.go back up
  7. Ibid., 245.go back up
  8. Ibid., 247.go back up
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