You Can’t Put ISIS Back in the Box

Fall, Like Reign

Politics Features ISIS
You Can’t Put ISIS Back in the Box

Mosul has fallen, and everyone else is standing around, not sure about what to say. After months of frenzied battle, the ISIS-held city submitted to the force of Iraqi arms. The flag over the town is of a traditional, mostly sovereign power. Tim Arango of the Times explained that

As Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Mosul to declare victory and call for unity, civilians on the longer-secured east side of the city danced and waved Iraqi flags. Some called for brotherhood between Sunnis and Shiites, or chanted, “By our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you, Iraq!” It is a moment for Iraqis to celebrate after nearly nine months of bloody warfare against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. But despite the flaring of hope for a new national unity, the government’s costly victory in Mosul and the questions hanging over its aftermath feel more like the next chapter in the long story of Iraq’s unraveling.

What questions? In another story for the same paper, Hubbard and Schmitt argue that ISIS still has the power to inspire global attacks:

But the loss of its two largest cities will not spell a final defeat for the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — according to analysts and American and Middle Eastern officials. The group has already shifted back to its roots as an insurgent force, but one that now has an international reach and an ideology that continues to motivate attackers around the world. “These are obviously major blows to ISIS because its state-building project is over, there is no more caliphate, and that will diminish support and recruits,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington and a co-author of a book on the group. “But ISIS today is an international organization. Its leadership and its ability to grow back are still there.”

What ISIS did cannot be erased so easily. In itself, ISIS is merely another American innovation, like many of our other groundbreaking creations: vulcanized rubber, gamer culture, al-Qaeda, Eric Garland’s tweet stream. In each case, without really intending to, we stumbled over something new, and before we knew it, the monstrous birth had grown beyond our ability to control it. So it is with ISIS, our weird, black-flagged stepchild, which in its brief run, did an untold amount of damage: to human lives, human property, American credibility, and, finally, to the illusions of state power. When I say there is more ISIS in our future, I am not being grandiose. ISIS is not a global superpower. It never was. It is merely the forerunner of the coming age. The future of conflict, of every kind, will be with marginalized, idea-bound groups, tied together from afar, who can project power with the flimsiest of materials.


The capture of Mosul is not the end of ISIS, or the organizations like ISIS, any more than the destruction of al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan career killed al-Qaeda. Since 9/11, there has been an extraordinary number of thinkpieces about how al-Qaeda was unlike any adversary we had ever known. According to these scholars, we were required to fight in a unique way now, under different laws and different ethics. Most of these were the delusions of aged international affairs hacks who had been yelling about dangerous foreigners since the days of European colonialism. But even the hollowest can knows how to roll downhill. Many of the pundits who wrote after September 11th had at least one point right: we are facing a challenger who does fight in a new way. We are witnessing, in military affairs, the end of the state. For now, the state will continue to be the major player, able to kit out and arm regiments of coherent, consolidated troops obedient to rules of engagement and battle standards. For now.

At present, private military operations waltz to the fiddle of ministries of defense. There’s no other way to do it: states are the whales of power on the Earth. But continents tilt in new directions now. ISIS was a collection of zealots, and they were combatted in part by militias on the ground. These were thrown-together clumps of partisans fighting for (depending on who you ask) liberty, self-determination, the Kurdish nation, against Assad, for real Islam, against religion, for their town, village, or region … in the end, ISIS was defeated as much by a constellation of several different forces as it was done in by the will of one institution.


When I wake up in the morning, after noticing the sun has once again decided to grace us with its boiling presence, my next thought is usually: “Let me get through this day, and every day of my immortal life, without quoting Thomas Friedman.” So far, I have made good on this highly moral pledge. But everybody ought to have one freebie. Much as crocodiles can teach you everything you ever wanted to know about evil, so Friedman can occasionally be counted on to drift near a sharp idea. The man made a good point once, a long time ago when the world was young. While overpraising the chomping maw of globalization, Friedman tripped over a rather novel bit of insight:

Whether by enabling people to use the Internet to communicate instantly at almost no cost over vast distances, or by enabling them to use the Web to transfer money or obtain weapons designs that normally would have been controlled by states, or by enabling them to go into a hardware store now and buy a five-hundred-dollar global positioning device, connected to a satellite, that can direct a hijacked airplane – globalization can be an incredible force-multiplier for individuals. Individuals can increasingly act on the world stage directly, unmediated by a state.

Friedman, with his fixation for dropping commercially-friendly labels on simple ideas, dubs these folks “super-empowered individuals.” He describes these people with all the born insight of a man who owns a town-sized mansion in Connecticut. He writes that some of these super-empowered men and women are “quite angry, some of them quite wonderful,” but all of them can “act” directly and much more powerfully on the world stage.” Before Friedman advocated invading Iraq and creating ISIS, he wrote the following words about Bin Laden:

Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in the late 1990s. After he organized the bombing of two American embassies in Africa, the U.S. Air Force retaliated with a cruise missile attack on his bases in Afghanistan as though he were another nation-state. Think about that: on one day in 1998, the United States fired 75 cruise missiles at bin Laden. The United States fired 75 cruise missiles, at $1 million apiece, at a person! That was the first battle in history between a superpower and a super-empowered angry man. September 11 was just the second such battle.

The future will be interactions between super-empowered individuals and states dancing around one another. Much as transnational corporations have used their strength to make satire of democratic laws and republican government, so too will the battles of the future invalidate much of what we know about war. The fall of Mosul is the eventual fall of governments. They haven’t realized it yet. The way of the gun turns with the earth, and the ground the path leads to is surprisingly level. Oceans rise, empires fall, but conflict remembers, and builds upon what it has done. Small armies with large guns are the road before us. Brecht said it best: War is like love; it always finds a way.

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