Though terrorist groups are a fixture of contemporary politics and warfare, the world has never witnessed the degree of sheer brutality demonstrated by the group known as ISIS– the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Its sadistic disregard for human life, sophisticated use of social media, acquisition of territory, and ability to attract foreign fighters is unprecedented.
Stern and Berger analyze the tools ISIS uses both to frighten innocent citizens and lure new soldiers, and offer practical ideas on potential government responses.
“ISIS: The State of Terror” by the Harvard terrorism scholar Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, a contributor to Foreign Policy magazine, covers much of the same ground but with less granular detail. The authors also offer some vague recommendations on how they think the West should deal with the Islamic State: focus on “containment and constriction” rather than overwhelming military force, and exert more effective control of the digital battleground. (“Our power over the Internet is the equivalent of being able to control the weather in a ground war.”)
The most compelling sections of the Stern-Berger book are devoted to comparing ISIS and Al Qaeda. The authors describe Al Qaeda as an exclusive “vanguard movement,” a “cabal that saw itself as the elite intellectual leaders of a global ideological revolution that it would assist and manipulate.” Through the 1990s, they write, Al Qaeda “grew into a corporation, with a payroll and benefits department, and operatives who traveled around the world inserting themselves into local conflicts.”
ISIS, in contrast, is more of a populist start-up operation. Online, Ms. Stern and Mr. Berger note, “it amassed and empowered a ‘smart mob’ of supporters,” polling “its constituents and making shrewd calls about when to listen and who could safely be ignored.”
Al Qaeda’s vision for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate, they write, “is framed squarely in the long term” — “an idealized future that its leaders did not expect to see realized in their lifetimes.” Using “a classic extremist trope” (the defense of one’s own identity group against aggression), the authors assert, Osama bin Laden’s organization “framed its pitch to potential recruits in more relatable terms as ‘doing the right