ISIS is an interesting group. They have managed to horrify the world–except, interestingly, a large number of Muslims–yet they continue to be in a position to launch apparently stunning attacks on Paris, hold their own against various enemies in the Middle East, link up with fellow travellers, like Boko Haram in Africa, and pump out ever more shockingly violent and disgusting videos. Their latest production—gunning down children en masse—was a new masterpiece is sadistic savagery.
The best way to understand ISIS is to remember the famous quote by Osama Bin Laden:
When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will naturally want to side with the strong horse.
ISIS’s goal is to play the part of the strong horse, but the reality is that ISIS is not actually strong at all.
An appropriate way to think of them is as enhanced cosplayers, acting out a role much bigger than they are—bronies on steroids with Koranic stylings, if you like. Instead of the mighty stallion of the collective Arab consciousness or folk memory, they are, in effect, a shop-soiled and luridly customized version of My Little Pony.
Their power is not positive but mainly negative. ISIS would not exist on the ground if the great powers and the medium-sized powers of the Middle East could line up their ducks. They have only been able to carve out their little caliphate because all the other powers with their pokers in the Middle-Eastern fire—Israel, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf States, the EU, Russia, and America—have created a kind of long-running and rather messy stalemate.
When these various powers manage to hammer out a rough deal, we can expect it to be sealed by the quick extinction of ISIS, and its substitution by Sunni Arab organizations more amenable to Western and world sensibilities.
But when that happens, ISIS will already have served its purpose—to have improved the long-term position of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni Arabs. Any deal in Syria will inevitably have to involve a lot more participation of the country’s Sunnis in government. This is clear from even from the rhetoric of Assad’s main supporter, Russia. Likewise, any deal in Iraq will have to include a degree of autonomy for that country’s Sunni Arab minority—possibly something analogous to the local autonomy that the Kurds in Iraq already have.
But while things remain unresolved, ISIS will continue to larp as the proverbial strong horse, acting like an alpha even when they are much nearer the other end of the alphabet. Videos of children on fire and homosexuals flying off high buildings, and other actions horrifying to the tender sensibilities of the mollycoddled West, will continue to seep out into the porous and viral media or the Internet age and mix with more traditional news reports of terrorist atrocities like Paris, making ISIS’s little pony look like a mighty beast and even one of the horses that carry the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
All this is possible simply because ISIS have their own little “safe space” created by the interstices and disjunctions between the competing interests of several powers. If either side or sides of this stand-off were dominant, ISIS could simply not exist. If the pro-Assad group–mainly Russia, Iran, Shiite Iraq, and Hezbollah—were dominant, ISIS would soon be wiped out. But even if the Gulf States, Turkey, Israel, and America got their way, ISIS would also have to go, as those powers would require a more moderate Sunni face to front their new regime in Syria. Either way, ISIS would not survive. The way to think of ISIS, therefore, is as an entity growing out of the combined shadows and disagreements of all of these powers.
And while they continue to exist in this shadowland, they will continue to play the strong horse. The attack on Paris was a perfect way of doing this. Just eight men, a few Kalashnikovs, and some explosives were involved, yet they were able to create a massive media footprint and have an enormous global psychological impact. The fact that they were attacking extremely soft targets in what is in effect a partial or future Islamic country is neither here nor there.
In the shock utterances of reporters and the mass uploading of hundreds of millions of French flag filters to Facebook, the impressionable masses of the Muslim world, both in their old homelands and new ones across the West, would have smelled the sweat and heard the snorting of Bin Laden’s strong horse—even if behind the curtain it was just the Islamic world’s version of My Little Pony.