Interview with J.M. Berger co-author of ‘ISIS: The State of Terror’
The use of new technology as a marketing tool has been a large part of ISIS’ strategy. Enter J.M. Berger, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute, founder of Intelwire.com, author of Jihadi Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (2011) and co-author with Harvard’s Jessica Stern of the recent release ISIS: The State of Terror (2015).
Berger is one of the leading researchers when it comes to radical jihadi movements and particularly when it comes to their respective media strategies. As someone who has followed the rise of ISIS in particular, Berger says their media campaign has had a “disproportionate impact on how we design policies,” he told The Arab Weekly in a Skype interview.
“[ISIS was] underestimated from the early stages,” Berger said. “And in politics, an underestimation leads to overreaction.”
In his latest book, Berger explains the sophisticated evolution of jihadi media strategies – from al- Qaeda’s primitively filmed early training camp videos to the high definition gory execution films and portrayals of daily life in the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
Berger and Stern write in ISIS: The State of Terror: “Where al- Qaeda framed its pitch to potential recruits in more relatable terms as ‘doing the right thing,’ ISIS seeks to stimulate more than convince. Its propaganda and recruiting materials are overwhelmingly visceral, from scenes of graphic violence to pastoral visions of a utopian society that seems to thrive, somehow, in the midst of a war zone.”
ISIS burst into the international consciousness when its fighters overran the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014. The Obama administration mobilised a coalition of willing nations to launch air strikes against ISIS. The shift in policy was so strong that when Francis X. Taylor, under-secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the US Department of Homeland Security, was asked at a recent panel at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars about the role of the regime in the Syrian crisis, he sidestepped the question entirely by saying that the United States’ primary goal in Syria was defeating ISIS.
ISIS’s rise to prominence, through territorial gains and media strategy, has thrust the focus of the foreign policy community on the group. For Berger, the best way to begin working to defeat such a group is by learning all about it.
“[We] need to understand ISIS’s strengths and weaknesses as precisely as possible,” Berger said.
And Berger attempts to do that in ISIS: The State of Terror. ISIS in particular gains strength from military victories and strategic use of rancorous violence – something amplified by its adept use of Twitter and professional-quality video releases.
A criticism that has been levelled at this book is the lack of first-hand interviews and information gathering. Berger has interacted directly with members of extremist groups over social media platforms — including a high-profile exchange with Omar Hammami, an American who joined and was later killed by al-Shabab in Somalia — but much of the information in the book is cited from news reports.
Berger and Stern, nonetheless, have compiled a comprehensive and detailed timeline of ISIS’s rise – dating back as far as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Something that the pair certainly accomplishes in this book, and that is lacking in much of the news-driven reporting on ISIS, is focus on the psychological and sociological factors that drive men and women to ISIS.
“What we find is that there is not a consistent profile. There are groups and subsets,” he said.
Sometimes it has to do with where a person lives and if the surrounding community shares similar views that might make joining a group like ISIS not such an outlandish prospect. Berger names Derna in Libya as one example of a place from where a large number of recruits joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS.
Other times young people are simply trying to reinvent themselves. “They are looking for a way to fill a hole in their lives,” he said.
When asked about the role Islam plays in ISIS’s extremism, a major topic of recent debate, Berger said he believes there is a “framing error” and a logical “category error”.
He said ISIS has done its religious homework – sometimes using obscure or outlying religious literature. But the leadership works hard to appear legitimate and intelligent in issues related to Islam. However, he still sees ISIS as an “identity-based extremist movement with an apocalyptic bend”. If its members are primarily seen as an Islamic movement, then that requires comparing them to all other Islamic groups around the world, most of which have very little in common.
But for Berger and Stern, ISIS is not going anywhere anytime soon.
“ISIS is the crack cocaine of violent extremism,” he and Stern write. “ISIS’s goals are impossible, ludicrous, but that does not mean it can be easily destroyed. Our policies must look to the possible, which means containing and hopefully eliminating its military threat and choking off its export of ideas.”