Terrorism is very difficult to define, even for those of us who work professionally in terrorism/counter-terrorism studies. IS (the artist formerly known as ISIS/L) is a rather exceptional and attractive case-study for contemporary academics, because, what “terroristic” activites they have performed the group has quickly segued into attempts at religio-political legitimization. Most recently, IS has issued a lengthy edict titled, The Promise of Allah, which proclaims the standards and process by which the group’s self-authorized and self-declared Caliphate (a single religiously-governed state, imposing Islamic rule over all Muslims within its territorial boundaries) has been created and will be maintained. The Caliphate will be headed exclusively by IS’s singularly charismatic leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now magically transitions, by IS ideology and caliph-definition, into the authorized representative of the Prophet Mohammed. Interestingly, IS’s recent declaration envelops the group in all of the characteristic trappings of a defined cult. Still, IS is attempting to transcend this, and a host of other perceptions, by labeling them as misperceptions, and by asserting its unquestionable legitimacy. It is a bold, bold, bold move- and it’s working.
Troops of the Islamic State (“IS”) march through the streets of a recently secured territory in a public display of authority
Even al-Qaeda (AQ), who formally stated as early as the 1990’s that they wished to reestablish the lost Caliphate, always stopped short of declaring they had actually done so. The Afghan Taliban, “politically legitimized” their movement long before AQ attempted to do so, as evidenced by their ability to construct negotiation scenarios with the US and Afghan governments, the materialization of which indicating that both entities acknowledged the Afghan Taliban as having some degree of political legitimacy. Prior to that, however, the group was defined exclusively as a terrorist organization.
Similar examples abound in world history: the IRA, Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini (Freedom/Liberation Army) in the Muktijuddho (Liberation War) of 1971, Afghan’s U.S.-supported/financed mujahaideen fighters working to expel the Soviet presence in the 1980’s, the Katipunan in the Philippine Revolution of 1896, to name a few. It is worth recognizing, even better to honestly admit, that violent political/religious/sociologically-connected incidents of this nature are fair facsimiles of a movement that began just over 238 years ago, one in which rogue bands of guerrilla fighters, engaging in thoroughly unconventional warfare, “terrorized” foreign occupier troops, until such time as the foreign government overseeing those occupying troops began to afford the guerrillas modicums of political recognition/increasing legitimization, through an ongoing series of negotiations. Those foreign troops were the British Redcoats, the guerrillas were the Revolutionary Patriots, and their persistently violent combination eventually resulted in the evolution of what we now call the United States of America.
IS may or may not remain in the long-term game, but they sure know how to play their semantical/symbological cards right. This isn’t Texas Hold ‘Em, though, and IS isn’t bluffing. In a game of extreme opposites, IS knows how to back up their talk with just enough hardest-of-hardcore violence to convince those watching that they are serious about their “fantasy caliphate.” If the histories referenced above are any indicators (hint: they are), at some as-yet unknown tipping point, the seemingly delusional rantings of a group of “Islamic” thugs may well become authentic and recognized political agendas. Meanwhile, the citizens of the occupied region remain caught in the crossfire and continue to be slaughtered, whether via acts of what some call IS’s terrorism, or, what historians of the region will eventually come to call collateral casualties of a Just War.
NOTE: These ideas may become the subject of a larger commentary/analysis at some future date. Until then, I encourage my readers to generate dialogue around the issue(s) as a means of refining the analysis. (SJMB, Ed.)