Beyond Labels

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Perspective on ISIS

The attacks in Paris have brought ISIS to the top of the news feeds (again). As recently as last June, their expansion was viewed as a grave and growing threat:

From an article in Time: “As ISIS expands their territory they become increasingly dangerous

“One of the prerequisites of a caliphate is a significant swath of territory,” says Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “So the more territory you have the more legitimacy your caliphate will have. That’s historically been the case, and ISIS very self-consciously thinks it’s modeling the first generations of Islam, where you these very impressive territory conquests in a short period of time.”

“If their territory was rolled back significantly, it would be harder for them to make various arguments,” says Hamid, whose new book, Temptations of Power, is on Islamist movements. “If eventually they were reduced to a very small piece of Syria, then the idea of a caliphate wouldn’t resonate as much with potential supporters.”

In the time around June, when this article was written, ISIS had some success. Here’s a web site with an interactive map that shows the territory they controlled on July 1, 2015:

ISIS July 1 2015

And here is November 11, 2015, just after the Sinjar offensive.




ISIS Nov 15 2016

This article in The Atlantic,  a follow-on to their great must-read article “What ISIS really wants” calls it a stalemate. But that was before the Paris attacks.

Muslim support for ISIS in polls reported in “The New Republic” is low in most countries: only a few percent, as compared to much higher support for Hamas, for example.  Yet, as the article points out, the 3 percent approval in Egypt is 1.5 million people. The attacks take attention off their territorial losses so that they can continue to present themselves as a growing, vibrant movement.


But every time there’s an attack like this it makes it easier for those who find themselves with common cause to push them back to gain the resources and make the agreements needed for effective action.

As was pointed out in a discussion this summer, there are plenty of people in the area who don’t like them: basically everyone. But they don’t all get along that well, which makes it hard for them to coordinate and form alliances. But these attacks, public beheadings and the like which motivate people to join the ISIS cause also motivate people to oppose it.

As their power is diminished, the need to oppose them drops, so there’s a good chance that they won’t be hammered out of existence. But whenever they make gains or public displays, the need to oppose them grows. They’re kind of a chronic low-grade infection, around for a while but not too serious.

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