The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Of ISIL Exceptionalism

One of the largest priorities for the United States in its fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, is stemming the group's recruitment, especially of foreign fighters. As of September 2014, the CIA estimated that ISIL had 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, of which at least 15,000 were foreign fighters. This February, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence recently amended the number to 20,000 foreign fighters. The combination of battlefield successes, declaration of a caliphate, and a prolific online presence has facilitated ISIL's mass recruiting. However, the rhetoric of the Coalition partners, including the United States, has exacerbated the way ISIL has been able to portray itself as exceptional. Statements from the White House, to the King of Jordan, and the King of Saudi Arabia all have painted ISIL as an exceptional jihadist organization. For example, the White House pronounced that ISIL was "an imminent threat to every interest we have" and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee Senator Inhofe stated:

"We're in the most dangerous position we've ever been in as a nation... ISIS, they are really bad terrorists, they're so bad even Al Qaida is afraid of them... They're crazy out there and they're rapidly developing a method of blowing up a major U.S. city and people just can't believe that's happening."

Additionally, across the globe leaders have characterized ISIL as an extremely unique and powerful jihadist organization. David Cameron declared that Britain needed to use its "military prowess" to defeat "this exceptionally dangerous movement" and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said "if we ignore them, I am sure they will reach Europe in a month and America in another month." Even after the Coalition began the targeted strike campaign, Jordan's King Abdullah II asserted that ISIL poses the threat of "a third world war by other means". These statements, in addition to the sensationalized press coverage, and ISIL's continuing violent efforts, have had two key effects on the spread of ISIL's ideology.

First, statements that characterize ISIL as exceptional inspire potential jihadists to join ISIL. The group is viewed as the leading and preeminent terrorist organization in jihadi eyes. Joining a jihadist organization is not all that different from joining any other organization; recruits want to work for the best, most successful, most well funded organization and Coalition statements are helping to frame ISIL as the best. The profile of foreign fighters is young males between the ages of 17 and 30 years old and the exceptionalist rhetoric of the Coalition partners tie well to the duty, adventure, and mission of jihad that ISIL describes in its propaganda.

Furthermore, by characterizing ISIL as such a formidable threat, the Coalition has elevated ISIL's role in the jihadi community. As a result, in an attempt to also gain credibility, numerous other lesser-known jihadist groups have declared their allegiance, or baya, to ISIL and the recent successful strikes by the US Coalition have not stopped this trend. Recently, the Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia, or MIT), Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jund al-Khilafah, the Islamic State in Gaza, the Ahrar al-Sunna in Baalbek Brigade all pledged their official allegiance, baya, to ISIL. All of these groups are small, relatively unknown jihadist groups and it can be hypothesized that their declarations of allegiance to ISIL serve as a strategy to elevate the profile of the groups to the international jihadist stage. (Notably, the Sunni Takfiri militant group known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt declared official baya to ISIL in November. This group could be particularly dangerous to the fight against ISIL because Egypt plays a key role in the idea of an Islamic Caliphate in the region. )

Policymakers should take note of the trend that ISIL is developing an associate - core network similar to Al Qaeda. It seems today that ISIL has not taken advantage of the many groups that have pledged baya to it, but with defeats in Iraq this trend could change and ISIL could develop a global planning and attack network. Therefore, policymakers should modify their rhetorical stance on ISIL in order to discourage the continued affiliation of jihadist groups across the globe with ISIL. Al Qaeda's threat evolved as it changed into a global loosely affiliated network of associate regional groups and ISIL has the potential to pose a similar threat. Just as Al Qaeda remains a serious source of terrorism from its central command, but also from the way it "push[es] others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities", ISIL's prolific propaganda and associate-network poses the same threat to communities across the globe. Instead of fear-inducing rhetoric, the US and its allies should prioritize creating the perception that ISIL faces certain, inevitable defeat while also continuing to strengthen their engagement with Sunni communities in Iraq and more globally as well.