In the aftermath of the Brussels terror attack many will call for a military solution to the Islamic State problem. Yet the new science of Cliodynamics predicts that the long-term result of the military victory over ISIS will be the opposite of what is intended.
In Part II of this series I looked at the rise of ISIS from the macrohistorical point of view. In Part III I’d like to delve into the inner workings of how states actually form. The basis of any successful state is cooperation (more on this in my latest book, Ultrasociety). It is in fact the human capacity to sacrifice personal gain for the sake of public good that fuels state formation. It may sound strange to talk about cooperation and ISIS in one breath. But like the Force in Star Wars, cooperation has its dark side. The ability of ISIS to battle so effectively against its rivals in Mesopotamia and to bring terror far beyond its territorial borders is based on selfless sacrifice and cooperation by its adherents, even if for goals that are deplorable.
The leaders of ISIS understand too well that intense war creates strong states (see Part II). They are not just a death cult reveling in murder for the sake of murder; they use atrocities instrumentally. From the decapitation of captives to indiscriminate mass murder, everything is directed at the ultimate goal—fostering internal cohesion and cooperation within the Caliphate.
Atrocities work at multiple levels. First, they energize ISIS supporters, proving the capacity of the Caliphate to inflict pain and horror on its enemies. This serves as an effective recruitment strategy. As anthropologists Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid write, “What many in the international community regard as acts of senseless, horrific violence are to ISIS’s followers part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation.”
Second, the atrocities bring an expected response by intensifying attacks on ISIS. Paradoxically, such a response is welcomed by the ISIS leaders. Shared danger, suffering, and sacrifice create in group members the psychological state of “fusion,” as social psychologists have demonstrated in many experiments. When “fused,” group members are eager to sacrifice their lives in return for advancing collective goals. In other words, the greater the pressure that is brought on ISIS the more internally cohesive and effective it becomes.
The overthrow of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the weakening of the Assad dynasty in Syria turned large swaths of Mesopotamia into a stateless area, a “realm of war,” which created an evolutionary environment that selects for the groups that are best at recruiting intensely loyal followers who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the collective.
We have seen this evolutionary dynamic in action ever since peaceful protests against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria transformed into a civil war. Initially there was a multitude of rebel groups, which have been winnowed down to three: Jabhat al-Nusra Front (an Al Qaida affiliate), Ahrar al-Sham (another Islamist group), and ISIS. We might reel in horror at the brutality of ISIS’s methods, but it is difficult to deny that they work. ISIS advances, engulfing or eliminating its rivals. Its ghastly tactics are evolutionary adaptations to an unimaginably dangerous social environment.
So the rise of a highly cohesive and capable group, whose members are willing to sacrifice their lives to inflict terror on enemies, was predictable outcome of the Iraq occupation. It was also predictable that the successful group would use militant Islam as unifying ideology, “since that is the traditional way in which Islamic societies have responded to challenges from other civilizations” as I wrote in 2005, channeling the great Arabic thinker of the thirteenth century, Ibn Khaldun.
In the next installment, I will use these theoretical insights to explore the likely consequences of several possible responses by the West to the challenge of ISIS.