Why is a coalition of some 60 countries determined to destroy a non-state actor?
On February 17, the White House opened a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism with the presence of US authorities, foreign leaders, UN officials, and other participants from private and civil society. The event aimed to seek forms of preventing “violent extremists and their supporters from radicalising” and averting other individuals or groups “to commit acts of violence”. Even though the discussions involved different terrorist groups, there was a large concern regarding the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The global spectrum of the meeting shows that ISIS has become an international issue. This position was reinforced twice by the US president Barack Obama in the event, in which he stated that fighting terrorism is a “challenge for the world” and that the global effort to deter ISIS would not “relent” in its “mission to degrade and ultimately destroy” the group. This international effort is a coalition of some 60 countries set up last year, involving nations such as Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, US and the United Kingdom. The action includes military efforts, provision of weapons, equipment and training of “partners”, besides impeding the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.
ISIS grew from the Iraqi “branch” of al-Qaeda, but is no longer associated with it. For the past two years, the jihadist group has gained territory in Northern Iraq and Syria capitalising mainly on the internal crisis of both countries, taking over control of major cities and imposing a hardline interpretation of the Sharia Law to those under its rule. Thus, brutality has become the group’s main arm of propaganda, with executions of prisoners being filmed and released online.
In this sense, the organised movement of Western and Middle Eastern countries against ISIS shows a common perception of the jihadist group as a threat to international security. But how can a self-proclaimed state with no defined borders provoke a global feeling of insecurity? Would its systematic abuse of human rights be enough to construct such an image? Or would it be the way ISIS uses its brutality as propaganda?
The answer goes through how ISIS’ actions are perceived by others within the international system. Thus, it is useful to understand the process of interaction between states and other actors in order to comprehend the construction of the Islamic State’s image. A non-orthodox interpretation of the international system can consider states and other actors, such as terrorist groups, as deep social actors. This means that they develop their perceptions by interacting with each other, and not by pre-conceptions.
Threats are not natural, they are constructed
As Alexander Wendt argues, “social threats are constructed, not natural”. The international actors interact by sending messages to each other, such as an announcement of weaponry acquisition, for instance. Signals like this are interpreted distinctly by different actors, according to their relationship and previous experiences. Thus, whist one may see the new weapons as a threat, another may consider them irrelevant. These interpretations will generate a reply from those involved in the interaction. The whole process of exchanging signals is a “social act” that gives intersubjective meaning to certain actions or concepts and helps those involved to decide how to behave towards others. Therefore, even though violations of human rights tend to be overlooked as an internal affair of states, its systematic and gross repetition can create social unrest, conflicts and political instability, which tend to cause tensions beyond the country affected.
In this case, ISIS already operates illegitimately and brutally within two extremely turbulent states. Thus, there is a massive potential of spillover to other regions, in especial because the self-proclaimed state has no borders or territory. ISIS’ militants can easily infiltrate neighboring nations or set up bases within sovereign states, posing a real threat to the widely accepted concept of states as inviolable units of the international system and the only authority within their territory.
Through the interaction of international actors one can find many underlying messages, some of which are known by others, such as the concept of sovereignty, as Friedrich Kratochwil points out. In this context, ideas, beliefs and values are crucial in shaping the behaviour of actors of the international system, and exert a powerful influence on their social and political actions. It is based on identity and ideology that relations of friendship and enmity are created, as Christian Reus-Smith highlights.
Therefore, when ISIS militants throw men charged with homosexuality from the top of buildings, persecute individuals on the basis of their identity or behead prisoners, there is a pre-conceived understanding that such brutal actions are not only inappropriate, but highly capable of causing social unrest. Thus, gross violations of human rights and the extremist use of religion to justify violence, create a shock of values and concepts, such as freedom, democracy, legitimacy and governance with actors that have, for instance, liberal democratic views and institutions. These actors will feel threatened and associate ISIS with enmity feelings.
This conflict of values is clearly identifiable in the statement of the US Secretary of State John Kerry issued after the execution of the Jordanian First Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS. In the short comment, the Democrat defines the jihadist group as absent of compassion, owner of an agenda “to kill and destroy” and unable to “value” life. In a speech at the White House summit, Kerry went on to say that the “adversaries” do not have “a broad set of responsibilities to fulfil” and “do not have the same institutional responsibilities that we do to meet the needs of our citizens”.
No barriers to communication
How does ISIS, a self-proclaimed state with no defined territory, interact with actors outside its remits in order to be perceived as a threat? Through communication, not necessarily by geographical borders. The jihadist group has been clearly producing more elaborate videos of executions, including beheadings and burnings of foreign prisoners. The aim is to use them as propaganda to attract fighters to the “caliphate”, and also to display them as threats and war messages to some actors. For instance, most of the foreign prisoners beheaded were nationals of countries of the coalition fighting ISIS. It was an effort by ISIS to show that nationals from such countries can be targeted due to their identity anywhere in the world by militants.
In this sense, the power of the jihadists’ propaganda and extremist use of Islam are concerning, especially for Europe. The group has attracted 20,730 foreigner fighters, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). This is the largest mobilisation of foreign fighters in Muslim majority countries since 1945, surpassing the Afghan conflict in the 1980s. They come from 50 countries, but nearly 20 per cent were residents or nationals of Western European countries.
By justifying its acts on Islam, ISIS attempts to establish its legitimacy as a religious state. Something that Western countries refuse to accept, as Obama argued at the Summit. “They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defence of Islam […] and they propagate the notion that America — and the West — is at war with Islam. […] They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam”, he said.
Creating the perception of a war between the West and the Islam is an efficient tool to radicalize young people and continue attracting foreign fighters to ISIS. In this sense, the international coalition should involve great cooperation not only to geographically deter the jihadist group, but also to neutralise the effects of its extremist rhetoric on young foreigners. ISIS needs to be fought beyond military trenches, including vast efforts of communication and image (de)construction.