ISIS: the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM Berger. A Review by John Cook

Isis - Stern


No one can deny the growing impact of the modern Jihadi phenomenon on the lives of those directly involved and those of us who see it largely as a media phenomenon but who are affected by terrorism-related changes in our daily lives. So it is probably incumbent on us to gain some understanding apart from TV news and opinionista rantings. This book has proved for me to be an excellent source. It is reasonably up-to-date having been published in 2015 with a slightly updated paperback version in 2016.  It does not reflect some of the more recent changes in IS occupations and bombings and shootings but it seems that this is not a phenomenon that is going to disappear either quickly or easily. The authors are highly experienced and expert with detailed referencing.


I had a similar relationship with ‘The House of Saud: The Rise and Rule of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World’ by David Holden and Richard Johns (1982) which introduced me to the relationship between Wahhabism and the political ambitions of the Saudis.


It is important to understand the originals of this Islamic revivalist thinking and how it has spawned points of view that have gone in different directions including the most extreme activists who are prepared to use force and terror to establish a new caliphate that would return Islam to what is seen as essential purity. ISIS, ISIL, IS stands as the most extreme example of this thinking with a conjunction of the most extreme forms of terror and a subtle understanding of the use of internet based media and psychological manipulation of those needy individuals with whom it makes contact.


I found some wise words on the subject of how we deal with this confrontation


‘.. this means refusing to characterize our conflict with ISIS in stark, ideological terms, an uphill battle in the current media and political environment, which tends to incentivize simple explanations. It is further complicated when ISIS theatricalizes dreaded risks such as beheadings to evoke a stripped-down primal response. In many ways The Management of Savagery outlines a specific psychological campaign designed to provoke enemies into the same simplistic thinking that dominates jihadist thought – al Naji refers to the process as “polarization” and that is why those who argue that ISIS’s public displays of brutality will backfire are wrong (up to a point). The object of ISIS’s extreme displays of violence is to polarize viewers into sharply divided camps of good and evil, not to rally the general public around its actions.’


It has a central focus in oil-rich middle eastern regions which is partly a product of long-term geo-political manipulations and destabilisation and its religious base relating to holy and ‘heretical’ places and populations. It has growing spheres of influence in Africa and Asia as well as encouraging lone-wolf terror activities anywhere else.


The book has an excellent appendix which gives the reader a thumbnail understanding of Islam and the development of the current phenomena concluding with some general advice on how dealing with it might proceed as ‘Closing Thoughts’. The final paragraph is thought provoking.


‘For all these reasons, and more, the problem of ISIS is likely to be with us for a long time to come, whether in its current form or in some future mutation, barring an extraordinary act of self-destruction, which still lies in the realm of possibility. Much of ISIS’s messaging is based on distortion, but its slogan and promise – baqiyyah, to remain – continues to be tragically credible.’


If you want to try to understand whats, whys and hows of this emergent influence which is having such an immediate effect on our way of life it is incumbent to strive to understand lest we simply make this worse as we have done often enough in the past.


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