What is ISIS?

Whoever even heard of ISIS – until a week or two ago?  Whoever even heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or, in some translations, Iraq and the Levant) – until a week or two ago? Who knew that in the proverbial blink of an eye ISIS would occupy large swaths of Iraq as well as Syria, and seem to the government in Baghdad to be an existential threat?

I certainly did not. But I should not have been surprised. ISIS is precisely the sort of non-state actor that in the 21st century has become a major player in the international system.

Consider only the two most recent international crises. To be sure, it was Vladimir Putin who made the decision to seize Crimea. But he did so only as a response to the people’s uprising in the Maidan – the upending of leaders (primarily Putin’s putative puppet, President Viktor Yanukovytch) by followers in Kiev. Moreover once Crimea was Russian, Putin was prepared to pick up his marbles and go home. But, he was precluded from doing so by separatists in Eastern Ukraine – again, non-state actors – who continue to agitate for a further break-up of the Ukrainian state. Similarly, this most recent implosion of Iraq. It was triggered not by any leader of any nation-state, but by a non-state actor, ISIS, that though previously unknown, nevertheless changed the direction of the global conversation.

One of the interesting things about ISIS is that it is not, as most would depict it, a ragtag band of furious fundamentalists.  Rather it is a well-organized group, even organization that for several years now has had a structure and a strategy – both of which have been carefully documented in annual reports.

You read that right! Since 2012 ISIS has issued annual reports similar to those with which Americans are familiar: they describe how the organization has performed in the last year and its goals for the next year. Of course the content of ISIS reports are a smidgen different. For example, in 2013 ISIS recorded nearly 10,000 operations in Iraq that included, among other things, 1,000 assassinations and the planting of 4,000 explosive devices. Nor has ISIS been old-fashioned in its operations. Quite the contrary. It’s been adroit at fund-raising, by any means necessary. And its use of social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are reputedly remarkably deft.

None of this is to say that ISIS will eventually triumph in either Iraq or in Syria. (Our new BFF is Assad!) It is likely in fact that an array of state actors, including the United States and Iran (our second new BFF!), will see to it that in the end ISIS is relegated to bit player. However… the frequency with which state leaders, and nation states, are compelled to cope with non-leaders and non-states is mind-bending.

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