There are few things more dangerous than overconfidence, and after their lightning campaign through Northern Iraq, in which they routed a much larger and better equipped, US-trained Iraqi National Army, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) is in no shortage of that particular vice. As far as military gains go, even their biggest rival, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been made to look timid and impotent compared to ISIS’ blitzkrieg. As the history of jihad has shown however, such wars are rarely won on the battlefield, and ISIS’ overconfidence could turn around to deliver a nasty sting to the entire Salafi-Jihadist movement.
What has been apparent for a long time in Syria, and what is quickly becoming equally apparent in Iraq, is that ISIS’ battlefield track record is promoting increasing arrogance towards their domestic policy. While their main ideological rivals, Jabhat al-Nusra, have learned from the mistakes of previous jihadi casualties like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) or the Algerian GIA, who alienated themselves from their key support bases through their strict implementation of Islamic Law and blood-thirsty conduct; ISIS has apparently not. Already, ISIS’ extremist conduct has earned it the ire of the broader jihadi community, with even al-Qaeda Central disowning them for being too extreme, while Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s adopted Syrian poster-child, has turned its guns increasingly towards the group. ISIS appears to be heading inexorably in the direction of its predecessor, AQI, who were driven into insignificance by the combined firepower of Maliki’s Shia-dominated Iraqi National Army, and the fury of an exasperated indigenous Sunni insurgency.
It is this apparent trajectory which gives cause for some (extremely) tentative optimism regarding ISIS’ most recent seizure of the international headlines. The Syrian conflict has been repeatedly cited as a case-in-point for the particular jihadist radicalisation theory known as “out-bidding”. This theory suggests that when numerous jihadi groups are competing in the same arena for adherents and funding, they will radicalise their rhetoric and behaviour in order to present themselves as the most zealous and committed of God’s warriors. In Syria, this has taken on whole new proportions, and commentators have noted that many previously secular Syrian rebel outfits have increasingly radicalised as a means of attracting funding and weaponry from Saudi-based Salafi charities. Jabhat al-Nusra has so far been the biggest victor in Syria’s out-bidding competition, its nationalist (i.e. non-global) agenda keeping it just unthreatening enough to maintain it on the anti-Assad nations’ list of “good jihadists”. They have benefited from good press, good weapons, good funds, and a certain amount of legitimacy even among secular elements of the opposition. It is here that ISIS has misunderstood its place. With a global-jihadist agenda and a reckless disregard for public opinion, its attempts to out-bid Jabhat al-Nusra have placed it firmly on the “bad jihadists” list. What can be observed is a Jabhat al-Nusra that has reached “Peak Radicalisation” – acceptably zealous for al-Qaeda and its sympathisers, while acceptably localised and rational to the West and Syria’s neighbouring Sunni regimes. ISIS has crossed the line of “Peak Radicalisation”, and the fallout from this mistake is likely to be felt at both the macro and micro level.
At the macro-level, ISIS’ latest antics have unsettled those Sunni powers who were at first so keen to see jihadist groups topple Assad. As ISIS sweeps through Iraq, drawing ever closer to the Saudi border, and expresses plans to seize Lebanon, Gaza, the Sinai and Jordan – threatening to “slaughter” Jordan’s King Abdullah; the Gulf Regimes will be tightening their grip on the charitable organisations whom they were so happy to see funding ‘acceptable’ jihadist groups like al-Nusra. This will send a firm message to Syria’s other armed groups, signalling that the out-bidding cycle has spun its course. Instead, Jabhat al-Nusra is likely to become fixed as the standard of extremism for militant groups seeking outside support. Furthermore, Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that has already shown its rationality, and ability to learn from the mistakes of vanquished jihadi groups like AQI and the GIA, are likely to head this warning also, and so will be even more cautious to reign in their own activities, lowering the bar further still for their tentative emulators.
At the micro-level, we are likely to see a similar hesitation among jihadists and would-be jihadists. As case-studies across Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan, Israeli-occupied Palestine and Lebanon, and US-occupied Iraq have shown, Jihad is ultimately an imitator’s movement. These warriors of God, fighting “the good fight” have become rockstars in the eyes of many disillusioned Sunni youths, drawing recruits who wish to join them in their cosmic battle of good against evil. However, just as GIA massacres soured the FIS’ stand against oppressive secularism in Algeria, and just as AQI’s sectarian carnage soured the efforts of Iraq’s indigenous Sunni insurgency against US occupation, ISIS are now souring the Syrian People’s battle for liberation from Assad’s violent tyranny. Would-be jihadists will be slowly realising that joining Syria’s jihad is just as likely to include slaughtering fellow Sunni rebels as heroically resisting against an anti-Sunni, Iranian-sponsored dictator – a far cry from the expectations of radicalising youths eager to sacrifice in the name of the Sunni Umma.
Ultimately, ISIS has overstepped, and it is making far more enemies than friends. The real silver-lining however, tentative as it may be at this stage, is that ISIS’ particular brand of cruel, uncompromising extremism could just be the perfect de-radicaliser for the manifold other jihadist groups that have emerged out of the Arab Spring. Influential groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, who have demonstrably learned the value of PR, will be cautious not to be equated with ISIS, while simultaneously, many would-be jihadist are likely to be discouraged from joining groups like Ansar al-Sharia because of this same association. ISIS may have not only shot themselves in the foot. They may just have maimed the entire Salafi-jihadist movement. For now, only time will tell, but if the experience of the GIA, AQI and Ansar al-Sharia (following their unpopular bombing of the US Consulate in Benghazi) is anything to go by, then the high-profile, media-saturated PR blunder of ISIS, could just prove fatal for this generation of Sunni radicals.