ISIS: A New Brand of Terrorism or More of the Same?

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

Since September 11, 2001, terrorism is both a word and a concept that is front and center in not only government but also the daily lives of individuals and communities around the globe. Although terrorism has existed for centuries, the contemporary version of terrorism, particularly Islamist, has been a development of the past 40 years or so. While many terrorist groups and incidences currently exist, the present face of global terrorism is identified as the Islamic State (IS or ISIS). ISIS has rapidly become a focal point of both news and foreign policy not only for the U.S. but also other countries. But the question is whether ISIS presents a new brand of terrorism, requiring new approaches and new methods to address. Or, does it present more of the same of what we have experienced in the past few decades?

While a formal definition of terrorism is still not universal, a well accepted one is that presented by foremost terrorism expert Cindy Coombs. Prof. Combs defines contemporary “terrorism” as an act comprised of at least four crucial elements: an act of violence has a political motive or goal, perpetrated against innocent persons, and staged to be played before an audience who reaction of fear and terror is the desired result. By this definition, violence in and of itself is not necessarily terrorism, neither is military conflict between and among military personnel, nor acts that don’t have a political motive nor desired result of fear/terror. That excludes a lot of horrific events, and leaves behind a relatively narrow band of violence with specific intents.

Under this definition, certainly Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda launched a full terrorist assault on the United States on September 11, and the same definition also applies to ISIS today. ISIS’ violent acts certainly have a political motive – the promotion of the Islamic state and protest against contrary perspectives. They have been perpetrated against innocent persons, including journalists – even journalists in conflict regions cannot be considered acting in the same capacities or with the same authority as military personnel and are thus “innocents.” And the fact that so much of ISIS’ gruesome violence and rabid protest is shown internationally through video indicates that an audience is not only desired but the desired result is fear and terror.

Although ISIS fits the same definition as did Al Qaeda, does it present a new brand of terrorism? That is, does it present something significantly different in its approach and its purposes that require significantly different approaches to fight? I would argue that despite ISIS barbarism and vehemence, it is really more of the same that we have seen in contemporary terrorism, particularly since 9/11. It is not a new brand but it does have a new packaging. The distinction for ISIS is the level and depth of its resourcing. In addition, ISIS seems to trigger a supportive response among some of the disenfranchised and distraught in the West. While the instances of those that follow ISIS from the West are thus far limited, as ISIS starts to infiltrate and impact various regions with its violence that may increase.

If ISIS is not a new brand of terrorism, but has increased resources, perhaps increased capacities, and arguably a higher level of brutality, how then should the US and other democracies address it? Cindy Coombs has insightfully noted that “democracies, throughout history, have been the effective targets of terrorist attacks, because [they] must „play by the rules.” That is, the US cannot respond in the same way or use tactics and methods that are equally brutal. Other regimes, such as totalitarian or autocratic, may not apply those same ethical, civil or political and thus may actually face less of a challenge. And interestingly, ISIS seems to not limit its reach or its opposition to only the US, and that has necessitated a broader scale response from the West or the democratic nations in general.

But the tactics for fighting terrorism in general or ISIS in particular are affected by the fact that we are not fighting a government, a military, or a clearly outlined entity. We are fighting a concept/cause/ideology and something that functions more like an organism than an organization. Traditional military responses, such as air strikes, may be necessary but problematic. The challenge of resourcing and deploying troops to hit a concept/cause/ideology is difficult. And finding ways to infiltrate and stop the flow of resources that ISIS receives may be even more difficult despite hitting targets that affect their resourcing. By sheer might, it is likely that the US and others can prevail over time – but time is costly and may also add fuel to their ideological fire.

Regardless of the tactics the US and other nations use to respond to terrorism, event today’s version – certain principles for fighting terrorism also remain the same In particular: 1) Taking a strong stance opposing terror – there is no effective means of “negotiations” in this context. 2) Articulating a clear mission and strategy – prolonged armed intervention are highly problematic. And, 3) a deflection of the spectacle and resulting fear – in other words, conducting business as usual. Terrorists are most effective when they can stop communities and nations in their tracks and prevent them from functioning – it’s the public reaction of fear that energizes them. In that regard, we should consider whether repeatedly showing the violence of ISIS and other terrorists through mass media actually harms the effort to fight them.

The fight against ISIS may be a lingering fight – even if we are able to contain ISIS, we still have to face the other terrorist entities that may evolve from the current version. Perhaps if all nations, especially democratic nations, consistently embrace the principles noted here, we may begin rendering this form of political violence less effective thus forcing terrorist to rethink their plans and their brand.