ISIS versus Al Qaeda

I kept hearing about how ISIS must be the batshittiest of crazy ever (at least of modern pseudo-Islamist terrorist and paramilitary groups) because Al Qaeda, the leading brand, has called them out for being too extreme. Whether this is all in the cynical fun of television news, or whether it is a serious point meant to illustrate just how much batshit these guys have stockpiled is unclear.

I think it’s the latter. I think the media actually trusts Al Qaeda’s judgment on this one. Like listening to the guy with singed eyebrows when he tells you (in a maniacal giggle) not to try to relight that firework, son. Shrug.

The media probably isn’t allowed to admit to itself, much less to the public, that radical groups that survive long enough to acquire the kind of cachet that Al Qaeda has tend to become more legitimate over time.

The biggest single reason is the money. Once they have the money, it becomes hard to justify the same tactics that were driven by lack of funds.

Where you couldn’t afford to buy most black market weapons, with money you can. Where you didn’t care about pissing off non-violent religious groups because they were part of the problem, now you’re trading money with them to try to shape the community influence and culture.

The second reason is that the former leadership was either captured or killed. The second generation, seeing the effectiveness with which the top row got wiped from the slate, doesn’t want to be dead or locked up. In part this is about the organization and their loyalty to it: they know how much internal turmoil and struggle that leadership changes put on an organization. And of course, it’s also self-preservation.

So just for the record, Al Qaeda saying ISIS is a heaping pile of the bat’s previous meals should not only be taken as one extreme group pointing at another, but as one naturally self-legitimizing group that is in fact less extreme than even a few years ago.

Which gets to the second part of the relationship. Groups like ISIS typically break off from groups like Al Qaeda, for the very reason that a group like Al Qaeda will condemn the extremity of a group like ISIS. The minority of a maturing group will wish to continue with the old tactics of utter destruction and murder. And they will feel frustrated, cuckolded by the new fold that the group is gravitating toward.

They see the new regime as a sellout, a slight against what the organization should be. So they split off. Maybe they are more extreme by a bit. Maybe even the earlier form of the originating organization prohibited some behaviors considered too much, and the new group adopts them. Maybe they do things to try to gain recruits away from the original group. They have to have a selling point, of course. So they tend to use the idea, “we’ll jihad the infidels twice as hard as anyone, or your money back.”

But as long as we cannot understand such organizations as a society, we will continue to allow our leaders to understand them badly on our behalf. So we should not buy into hyped up notions of evil or of it being all about religion. We should try to understand why terrorism exists, how it arises and how it passes away.

If you reread this post and insert Tea Party and Republican or some of the newer ecology-minded groups and Greenpeace, or basically any social movement ever (oh, and also replace terrorism/violence with the relevant activities of those groups; small detail, that), you should see the same basic pattern of organizational development at work.

Okay, but what about situations where legitimization does not quell the violent urge? These organizations are typically when the only legitimacy is the violence itself. Slave owners, for example. Dictatorships where the people would obviously change their government but for the force of violence. And so on. They are not entirely legitimate. They are legitimate toward their peers (e.g., other nation-states), but not toward their citizens.

Prison culture often hinges on this facet. If the main understanding of prisoners is that the institution is illegitimate (toward them) and only existing by violence or threat of violence, then prisons will be violent. If the prisoners have respect for law, believe there is a mission of rehabilitation and service to the prison, the violence will be minimized (barring the presence of other violent forces). We also see this in financial institutions (including otherwise legitimate governments faced with the opportunity to sell natural resources to private companies), which often undertake economic violence toward those it feels no need to act legitimately toward (i.e., the poor).