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The logic of violence in the Islamic State’s war

Militants take part in a parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014 to celebrate the declaration of an Islamic “caliphate” after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured territory in neighboring Iraq. (Stringer/REUTERS)
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When North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam and overran its army, most observers and analysts expected a bloodbath to follow. The Vietnam War had been going on for a long time and the communist insurgents had suffered enormous losses, as well as inflicted considerable damage on their enemies, both on various battlefields and most importantly across thousands of hamlets. There, the war had acquired a character common to many civil wars – that of vicious neighbor on neighbor violence. To top it all, the South Vietnamese state and military apparatus was huge, having being fed by the United States at a clip of billions of aid. Revenge, communist practice and the necessity of repressing a large-sized ancien régime all converged to suggest an enormous outbreak of violence. It didn’t happen. To be sure, hundreds of people were executed, tens of thousands sent to “re-education” camps, and many more were forced to flee the country. But a bloodbath of epic proportions failed to materialize. One did did, however, take place next door in Cambodia, where virtually no one had expected it.

This vignette illustrates the pitfalls of trying to make sense of violence in the context of civil wars, a tendency that has already emerged with regards to the latest round of fighting in Iraq. The temptation is great to see patterns where none may exist. For example, the current fashion of the day is to predict a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq stoked by the jihadist onslaught. The previous wave of sectarian killings in Iraq, the bloody record of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria, and its own pronouncements after it took over Mosul, all appear to confirm these expectations. However, we should be skeptical about such interpretations and predictions.

For starters, data on violence in civil wars is almost always incomplete: Sometimes it overcounts and sometimes it undercounts, while almost always much information is missing. Most importantly, the context is almost always absent. Even in an era of seemingly plentiful, real-time data availability, a lot more may be going on (and is almost certainly going on) under the radar – and this is crucial for making sense of what is happening. For example, I have shown that the part of violence that tends to be undercounted consists of individualized “selective” killings of suspected collaborators of the enemy, which may exceed in size spectacular, collective massacres. Indeed, a recent U.N. report appears to suggest such a pattern, pointing to at least 757, mostly civilian, fatalities from June 5 to 22, in the provinces that have seen the bulk of insurgent activity. At the same time, initial reports about mass executions of close to 2,000 Iraqi army prisoners by the Islamic State appear to have been overstated by the organization, an indication that we should take self-reported claims with much more than the proverbial pinch of salt. Indeed, recent analysis suggests that the mass executions around Tikrit may have been lower than the numbers claimed.

The actual numbers, and their actual allocation between indiscriminate and selective killings, matter because they have vastly different implications about the nature of the conflict. If it turns out that the bulk of violence meted out by the Islamic State consists of randomly targeted Shiite fighters and civilians, this would be in line with an interpretation of their main strategic goal as being about provoking an all-out sectarian war between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites. The logic is pretty obvious: Random violence against Sunnis would provoke equally random retaliation by Shiites against Sunnis, activating the sectarian cleavage and forcing Sunnis and Shiites, irrespective of either their initial or true preferences, to side with the most radical representatives of their sects. According to this logic, the Islamic State would emerge as the champion of the Sunnis and acquire a much larger base of support than it could otherwise claim.

The Islamic State experience in Syria, however, may be suggesting a different story. Although there is a lack of a systematic and reliable account of violence that also takes into account its targeting logic, there have been several processes at work. First, it has been killing, in often graphic and highly publicized ways, enemy fighters – primarily regime fighters but also members of its insurgent rivals. The killing of prisoners was a common feature of pre-modern warfare, a tactic intended to scare enemies and cause defections. It is also designed to project resolve, a tactic often used by weaker military actors and, in the case of the Islamic State, it has apparently been used as a recruitment strategy. Second, it has been killing suspected collaborators of its enemies, including the Syrian regime or most commonly its insurgent rivals. “Selective” killings of suspected enemy collaborators are the most common tactic employed by both insurgents and governments in civil war contexts. Third, it has been targeting “misbehaving” individuals in areas it controls, from petty thieves to those disrespecting its authority. Again, this is a common practice for rebel rulers and state-builders, from “stationary bandits” to incipient states, one intended to build up support from the community. When not implemented in an excessive way, this tactic does fulfill this goal.

Lastly, it appears to have engaged in indiscriminate massacres of civilians who belong to a different religious sect (Alawites and Christians in Syria, Shiites in Iraq). Possibly, the intention may be of stroking a sectarian war, along the lines described above. However, alternative (or complementary) interpretations may be offered as well. For example, it may be that these instances reflect local conflict dynamics rather than a grand strategy of sectarian war, a response to specific battlefield contexts. Relatedly, this violence may result from local commander initiatives, or even reflect chain of command breakdowns, both common occurrences in the fragmented battlefields of civil wars. Or it may result from long-standing feuds between competing local communities and groups that happen to be members of different sects, rather than the sects per se. In all these instances, this violence may be understood as local and fail to escalate at the sect level.

What should we make out of all this? I would like to stress three points. First, violence is not a transparent process and we should be careful about drawing easy conclusions from what transpires from the fog of the civil war battlefield. Second, there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor. These groups project a goal of radical political and social change; they are composed of a highly motivated core, recruit using ideological messages (although not all their recruits or collaborators are ideologically motivated – far from it) and tend to invest heavily in the indoctrination of their followers. They tend to prevail over their less effectively organized insurgent rivals (see the examples of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front or the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka), but their Achilles heel lies in their radical proclivities which often turn local populations against them if the opportunity arises, as happened in Iraq with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity. In that respect, we have much to learn from revisiting the action and strategy of the last generation of insurgent revolutionary actors, those of the Cold War.

In short, analyzing the Islamic State as a revolutionary actor that happens to be Islamist is a much more promising avenue of interpretation than seeing it as either simply an Islamist actor or a sectarian one.

Stathis N. Kalyvas is Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University.