Why ISIS Is Still Going Viral, with General Stanley McChrystal

Military and Foreign Policy
When we think about ISIS, it's important to try to understand what they are and why they're as effective as they are. According to retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, ISIS benefits from the fact that the Middle East and North Africa are so fractured at the moment. Just as a weak disease can prove deadly to someone with a weakened immune system, ISIS takes advantage of the context and situation. They also benefit from a savvy grasp of modern technology, social media, and — believe it or not — effective branding.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

When we think about ISIS now, I think it's important to try to understand what they are and why they're being as effective as they are. First, they shouldn't be as effective as they are. They've got a doctrine that most people, particularly in the Muslim world, don't buy into; their behavior is absolutely abhorrent; and they don't offer a clear road to a better future; it is a road in the minds of many people back into the seventh century and that's not somewhere a lot of people want to go.

So why are they effective? The first is to understand they're effective in a very unique environment right now. The Middle East and North Africa are in disarray. Many of the traditional structures that have held things together there have collapsed. They're in an environment that I liken to a patient that has HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS does not kill a patient; what it does is it weakens the immune system until a very weak disease that normally would be pushed off easily becomes potentially life threatening. And that's that region right now and so a disease like ISIS, which otherwise would be laughable in certain times, is not.

The second reason ISIS is effective as if they were a traditional terrorist organization or a traditional insurgent movement, they would have certain strengths and weaknesses, but they would be largely geographically contained by the fact that you'd be affected by what they see and do sort of as far as you can see or as close as your cousin is and he drove over and told you about it. And that would be, for most of history, that's how these kinds of organizations were largely contained in certain areas. If they did spread, they spread very slowly because they spread by word-of-mouth or mailing or newspapers and whatnot. ISIS however has hit the intersection of modern technology, information technology. So now we get up in the morning and we think ISIS is in Texas. We think ISIS is in Nigeria. We think ISIS is under our bed. We think that they are constantly killing people and that they have created this sense that they are this growing movement that is about to take over, not just their part of the Middle East, but in the world.

Also it creates this sense among many, particularly frustrated young people around the world: Okay here's the new, new thing. They're a little bit disgusting in the way they act, but they're pretty strict. They are sort of Peck's Bad Boy, and while you don't like them, there's something seductive about the idea of tough guys who are willing to do anything and stick it to the man. We got to understand that an awful lot of people ran off and joined the circus in one age or they ran off and joined gangs or they ran off and did things that later in life didn't seem very smart, but there wasn't this seductive idea of adventure.

And so those things wrapped together suddenly give it this power it should not have. I think what we need to understand is because it's this loose set of franchises and it's not an organization that just is headquartered in Iraq and Syria and therefore limited by the things they can see and touch. In fact they've created the idea that it's an idea and it's an idea that is customized in each area. People take the — they used to take Al Qaeda and now they take ISIS and Boko Haram stamps themselves: “We're ISIS now.” And they may not do anything directly with anyone in Syria or any of the former Al Qaeda leadership, but now they've adopted the T-shirt and the brand and it gives this sense that they have a new level of credibility.

And so it becomes very, very important that we understand that aspect of it. ISIS is a military problem only in its smallest sense. It's a geographic, diplomatic, and social problem in its broadest sense and then it is a communication problem at its very core.