Here, for your consideration, are a “précis” and an “excerpt” about ISIS. Later, I’ll explain how and why I’m posting it as another step in my enduring effort to urge analysts and strategists to recognize the importance of the tribal (T) form, even if they don’t fully accept TIMN.
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ISIS and affiliates are using the information age to reiterate ancient patterns of tribalism on a global scale. They are operating much like a global tribe waging segmental warfare.
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In short, analysts and strategists have adopted a basic set of organizational views to work with. But they still face a lack of knowledge about ISIS and its affiliates, particularly as to how they may combine and shift among network, franchise, hierarchical, and possibly other design elements. Thus, it is advisable not to get fixed on any one view, but instead to work with "multiple models" whose content and probability may continue to vary. It is also advisable to keep looking for additional views that are not yet fully articulated.
Here is a viewpoint worth adding to the mix: ISIS and its far–flung affiliates are organized and behaving much like a classic tribe, one that wages segmental warfare. This view overlaps with the network view, but has its own implications. It shows that ISIS’s vaunted, violent fundamentalism is more a tribal than a religious phenomenon. It also shows that continuing to view ISIS mainly as a cutting–edge, post–modern phenomenon of the information age misses a crucial point: ISIS is using the information age to revitalize and project ancient patterns of tribalism on a global scale.
When a tribe does go to war, it tries to do so as a whole, but it fights as segments.
Classic tribal warfare emphasizes raids, ambushes and skirmishes — attacks followed by withdrawals, without holding ground. Pitched battles are not the norm, for tribes lack the organizational and logistical capacities for campaigns and sieges. Sometimes the aims are limited, but tribal warfare often turns into total warfare, aimed at massacring an entire people, mercilessly. Killing women and children, taking women captive, torturing and mutilating downed males, scalping and beheading are common practices. So is treachery, as in mounting surprise attacks at dawn, or inviting people to a feast then slaughtering them on the spot. Tribal fighters do not hold prisoners. Enemies who are not massacred are put to flight, and their lands and homes seized. Bargaining in good faith to end a conflict becomes nigh impossible, for the attackers have denied legitimacy to those whom they are attacking. In ancient times, this brutal way of war did not ease until the rise of chiefdoms and states, when leaders began preferring to subjugate rather than annihilate people. In today’s world, examples are still easy to find — the Hutu massacres of Tutsis in Rwanda come readily to mind, as do episodes in the Balkans.
Tribes that go to war normally do so in the name of their god(s). Indeed, many (though not all) religions, from ancient totemism onwards, have their deepest roots in tribal societies. The major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each arose from a tense tribal time in the Middle East. And each, in its oldest texts, contains passages that, true to traditional tribal ethics, advocate reciprocal altruism toward kin, yet allow for terrible retribution against outside tribes deemed guilty of insult or injury. Today, centuries later, tribal and religious concepts remain fused in much of the world, notably Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
The more a religion commends the kinship of all peoples, the more it may lead to ecumenical caring across boundaries (as Islam often does). But the more a religion’s adherents delineate sharply between "us" and "them," demonize the latter, view their every kin (man, woman, child, combatant or non–combatant) as innately guilty, revel in codes of revenge for touted wrongs, and seek territorial or spiritual conquests, all the while claiming to act on behalf of a deity, then the more their religious orientation is utterly tribal, prone to violence of the darkest kind. This is as evident in the medieval Christian Crusades as in today’s Islamic jihads, to mention only two examples.
All religious hatred — whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or Hindu — is sure to speak the language of tribe and clan. And that language is sure to be loaded with sensitivities about respect, honor, pride, and dignity, along with allocutions to the sacred, purifying nature of violence. This is a normal ethic of tribes and clans, no matter the religion.
This is not the dominant way to view ISIS and its affiliates. Analysts have preferred to keep looking for central decision-making nodes and specialized structures — even committees — for matters like targeting, recruitment, financing, logistics, and communications, as though they might reveal a corporate pyramid. Or they have treated the creation of affiliates as though they were franchises that took the initiative to become affiliates or were concocted at ISIS’s behest. Or analysts have emphasized the sprawling network designs that ISIS and its affiliates increasingly exhibit. Or they have applied social movement theory. All these analytical approaches make sense and should continue. But they end up making ISIS look like a work of dauntless, modern, forward–looking genius, when it isn’t. Its design looks backward more than it looks forward; it reiterates as much as it innovates — and that’s because of its enduring tribalness.
The tribal paradigm — and a case that ISIS is like a global tribe waging segmental warfare — shows up across five analytic dimensions: narrative content, social appeal, leadership style, organizational design, doctrine and strategy, and the use of information technology. Below is a look at each.
• Narrative content: Many themes in ISIS’s and other jihadist statements fit the tribal paradigm. The world is divided between good–hearted believers — the worldwide umma (kindred community) of Muslim brothers and sisters — and evil non–believers (infidels, apostates, heretics). Arab lands and peoples have suffered far too much injury, insult, and humiliation — their honor has been trampled, their families disrespected — by arrogant, self–aggrandizing intruders (America, Israel). Muslims have a sacred duty to defend themselves: to fight back, wreak vengeance, seek retribution, and oust the foreign invaders. They must be made to pay; no mercy should be shown — no matter if civilians die, even women and children. They deserve every punishment, every catastrophe, every tit–for–tat that can be heaped upon them. Defensive warfare is a necessary duty to restore honor and pride. This story–line is made to sound Islamic, and it has Islamic aspects that are not necessarily tribal — for example, requiring that an enemy be warned. But overall, it is tribal to the core. Indeed, similar story–lines have cropped up among virulently tribal Jewish, Christian, and other religious extremists as well, all across history.
• Social appeal: Among Muslims, the jihad narrative is not alien, academic, or bizarre. It requires little indoctrination, for it arouses both the heart and mind. Recruits willingly come from militants who fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya, or the Balkans; immigrants in Europe and refugees in Jordan and Palestine who are leading alienated, unsettled lives; youths leading comfortable but constricted lives in Saudi Arabia; and Sunnis whose lives have been shattered by the warring in Iraq. What drives them, according to many analyses, are shared sensibilities about loss, alienation, humiliation, powerlessness, and disaster. Such analyses may also note, more in passing than in depth, that joining ISIS or an affiliate provides a family–like fellowship. However, this should not be given short shrift; participation may appeal largely because it binds members in such a fellowship — in mosques, training camps, militant cells, etc. And it may do so not simply because many members share the social–psychological sensibilities noted above, but because they come from cultures that are deeply, longingly tribal and clannish. For the lost and the adrift, joining ISIS recreates the tribal milieu. This may even apply to the attraction of nomadic loners from faraway cultures who convert to Islam while seeking a more meaningful identity and sense of belonging for themselves.
• Leadership style: [Left blank for a reason explained later — but partly because I do not know enough about Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.]
• Organizational design: ISIS and its affiliates are organized as a (multi–hub? core/periphery?) network of dispersed nodes, cells, and units, all campaigning in a similar direction without a precise central command. This looks like an information–age network, but it is equally a tribal–age network. It is bound together by kinship ties of blood and especially brotherhood. What look like nodes and cells from a modern perspective correspond to segments from a tribal perspective. Some segments come from true tribes and families; others are patched together in terms of "fictive kinship" by jihadist clerics, recruiters, and trainers. Yet all who join get to feel like they belong to segments of an extended family/tribe that reaches around the world.
• Doctrine and strategy: ISIS and its affiliates fight in the field much like tribes and clans: as decentralized, dispersed, semi–autonomous segments that engage in hit–and–run (and hit–and–die) tactics. These segments vary in size and make–up. Some are small, and fit the notion of terrorist cells. Others (as in Iraq) are larger, more like platoons with commanders. Some may resemble close–knit, exclusive brotherhoods; others may keep shifting in membership. Meanwhile, they fight like modern terrorists and insurgents, but do so in the tradition of tribal warriors, relying on stealth, surprise, treachery, and savagery, while avoiding pitched battles. And they are comfortable with temporary marriages of convenience. Thus, while ISIS’s underlying doctrine and strategy have been acquiring the sophistication of modern notions of asymmetrical warfare (e.g., for netwar and swarming), its tribalness endures within that modern frame.
• Technology usage: ISIS and its affiliates have an extensive, growing presence on the Internet. Their statements, speeches, and videos are posted on myriad Web sites around the world that advocate, sympathize with, and report on jihad. As many analysts have noted, the new information media are enabling terrorists and insurgents to augment their own communication and coordination, as well as reach outside audiences. The online media also suit the oral traditions that tribal peoples prefer. What merits pointing out here is that the jihadis are using the Internet and the Web to inspire the creation of a virtual global tribe of Islamic radicals — an online umma with kinship segments around the world. This can help a member keep in touch with a segment, or re–attach to a new segment in another part of the world as he or she moves around. Thus the information revolution, not to mention broader aspects of globalization, can facilitate a resurgence of intractable tribalism around the world. ISIS and its ilk are a leading example of this.
In other words, ISIS is like a global tribe, waging a modernized kind of segmental (or segmented) warfare; we are fighting against virulent tribalism as much as Islamic fundamentalism. Salafi and Wahhabi teachings urging jihad against infidels, fatwas issued by Islamic sheiks to justify murdering even non–combatants, and stony ultimatums from Sunni insurgents who behead captives are all manifestations of extreme tribalism, more than of Islam. In Islam, jihad is a religious duty. But the interpretation of jihad that Al Qaeda practices is rooted less in religion than in the (narcissistic?) appeal of virulent tribalism in some highly disturbed contexts.
In short, ISIS and its affiliates have formed a hybrid of the tribal and network designs: a tribalized network or networked tribe, so to speak, with bits of hierarchy and market–like dynamics too. The tribal paradigm has a striking advantage over the network, hierarchy, and other organizational paradigms. The latter point to organizational design first, and then to leadership, doctrine, and strategy matters. But they have nothing clearly embedded in them about religion. As voiced in terrorism discussions, they are secular paradigms; religion is grafted on, as a separate matter. In contrast, the tribal paradigm is inherently fraught with dynamics that turn into religious matters, such as altruism toward kin, delineations between "us" and "them," and codes of revenge. And that is another valuable reason to include it.
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Does the above make sense? Pretty much, I’d say — though it underplays mentioning the creation of a caliphate by ISIS. But there’s a reason for that.
Everything I just stated about ISIS is excerpted verbatim from a paper I wrote ten years ago about Al Qaeda: “Al Qaeda and its affiliates: a global tribe waging segmental warfare?” (2005 — see source note at end). All I did was substitute “ISIS” for “Al Qaeda” in the title and the text (plus omit a few place names, and make a few little punctuation changes).
To keep it short for blogging purposes, I omitted mostly the two long sections about the dynamics of classic tribes — but they’re still there in the original if you want to peruse. I also left blank the leadership-style bullet above, because the 2005 paper focused on Bin Laden, and it didn’t work to simply substitute al-Baghdadi’s name — but even so, the point stands that leadership style appropriate to a tribe is different from what is appropriate to a hierarchical institution.
Why do this post this way? Because I keep trying to raise attention to the tribal form and its implications for analysis and strategy. And this seemed a handy, relatively easy way to do so.
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A key difference between Al Qaeda and ISIS is that the latter has created an Islamic caliphate — an organizational design that is more advanced than a tribe, for it is a state-like institution. If I were to rewrite the 2005 paper today, focusing it on ISIS, I’d have to say more about this caliphate from a TIMN perspective. Nonetheless, while the 2005 paper was about Al Qaeda, it closed with a warning, drawn from TIMN, about the possible eventual formation of a caliphate with proto-fascist tendencies stemming from its tribalized nature — thereby anticipating something like ISIS:
The tribal paradigm may be useful for rethinking not only how to counter Al Qaeda, but also what may lie ahead if Al Qaeda or an affiliate ever succeeds in seizing power and installing an Islamic caliphate somewhere. Then, neither the tribal nor network paradigms would continue to be so central. Hierarchy would move to the fore, as a caliphate is imposed. Over the ages, people have come up with four major forms of organization for constructing their societies: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks. How people use and combine these forms, both their bright and dark sides, pretty much determines what kind of society they have. Were an Al Qaeda–inspired caliphate to take root, we can be pretty sure that it would combine hyper–hierarchy and hyper–tribalism, while leaving marginal, subordinate spaces for economic markets and little if any space for autonomous civil–society networks. When this has occurred in the past, the result is normally fascism.Isn’t that what’s happening now? If so, we better learn more about the dynamics of tribalism and fascism, and not focus so much on Islamism. For that reason, the 2005 paper also closed with the following advice, which still holds today in 2015:
The United States is not at war with Islam. Our fight is with terrorists and insurgents who are operating in the manner of networked tribes and clans. U.S. military forces are learning this the hard way — on the ground. But policymakers and strategists in Washington still lag in catching on. …
U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterrorism methods — for interrogations, intelligence assessments, information operations, strategic communications, and public diplomacy, indeed for the whole "war of ideas" — would benefit from our upgrading our understanding of tribal and clan dynamics. ... [W]e must learn to separate better our strategies toward Islam from our strategies toward tribalized extremists who ultimately cannot endure such a separation. Whose story wins may well depend largely on just that.
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In this spirit, a Postscript I added in 2006 about information strategy seems worth repeating today — again if ISIS were substituted for references to Al Qaeda:
What troubles the world today is far more a turmoil of tribalisms than a clash of civilizations. …
In short, Islam, a civilizing force, has fallen under the spell of Islamists who are a tribalizing force. In the war of ideas, as well as in the battles on the ground, whose story wins may depend largely on addressing this brand of tribalization.
Shifting to a turmoil-of-tribalisms perspective would have to be carefully thought out. The point is not to condemn all tribal ways. Many people around the world appreciate (indeed prefer) this communal way of life and will defend it from insult. Moreover, even the most modern societies retain tribal tendencies at their core – as expressed, for example, in nationalism, cultural pride, and all sorts of civic groups and fan clubs that express social identities. That must be upheld; it is not always uncivilized to be tribal. Instead, the point is to strike at the awful effects that extreme tribalization can have – to oppose not the ISIS and its affiliates terrorist’s or insurgent’s religion but rather the reduction of that religion to raw tribalist tenets.
This approach could help rally moderates to resist clannish, sectarian extremists. Western leaders have put Muslim leaders everywhere under pressure to denounce terrorism as barbaric and uncivilized. But this approach to the “war of ideas,” along with counterpressures from sectarian Islamists, has put moderate Muslims on the defensive, often inhibiting them from speaking out. An approach that focuses instead on questioning extreme tribalism, particularly the tribalization of religion, may be more effective in freeing up dialogue and inviting a search for common ecumenical ground.
This is a domain – and a task – for information strategy. It involves knowing the enemy, shaping public consciousness, and crafting persuasive messages for friend and foe alike. It involves getting the content of those messages right and finding the best conduits for them. It is about winning the battle of the story. And it involves doing all this in such a way that soft power works as well as hard power, and information-age noopolitik outperforms traditional realpolitik. (2007, pp. 50-51)
For a somewhat different view I offered about ISIS — and about the difficulty analysts and strategists may face in trying to heed the above in a media environment heavily influenced by the “religion industry”, I’d refer you to my February 2015 post on preternatural tribalism (here).
Sources: “Al Qaeda and its affiliates: a global tribe waging segmental warfare?”, First Monday, vol. 10, no. 3, March 7, 2005, unpaginated (download here). Republished with slight editing and a 2006 postscript as “Al Qaeda and its affiliates: a global tribe waging segmental warfare”, in John Arquilla and Douglas Borer, eds., Information Strategy and Warfare: A Guide to Theory and Practice, Routledge, 2007, chap. 2, pp. 34-55 (download here).
UPDATE — December 17, 2015: I just listened to a panel discussion about Islam and Countering Radical Ideology, aired by C-SPAN on Dec 11, 2015. At about the 1:10:30 mark, Irshad Manji proposed, with some back-up analysis, that “At the end of the day we have to separate culture from religion.” In her opening talk, she argued that the Arab world should focus on cultural reform, more than religious reform. This seems close to what I argue above.
UPDATE — December 23, 2015: Nibras Kazimi, posting about “Where is the ‘Strategic Depth’ of the ‘Islamic State’?” at his blog Talisman Gate, Again, observes that
“The jihadists fight as if they were pirates, with the desert being their sea. … Nowadays, they field various types of forces, but their elite and most successful ones, not to mention their best-equipped ones, are small, disparate mobile desert units that converge on a target when needed (for example, the inghimasiyeen forces). They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply. When challenged by superior forces attempting to retake these ports, the jihadists dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed-out the invading force. Their best fighters are not garrisoned in those cities; they live in the skiffs that carry them around the desert, such as the ubiquitous Toyota pick-up trucks they favor. There may be several mother ships in the desert that steam towards a target around which the skiffs gather. They exercise strict force conservation, especially after the military debacle at Kobani. They have to do this either because the numbers of fighting men they have are too few (far less than intelligence estimates) or because they are holding them in reserve for big strategic pushes when the time is right. The instinctual individualism of piracy is mitigated by having a cohesive ideology. One may understand the perplexing nature of the Paris targets as that of a jihadist skiff sailing further afield.” (source)This helps substantiate what I posit above. I'm also pleased that he cited Arquilla’s and my study Swarming and the Future of Conflict. (h/t John Michael Greer for highlighting Kazimi’s post.)