The Achilles’ heel of all jihadist movements (as opposed to, say, Hamas or Hezbollah) is their inability to resist the urge for violence. This acts as a self-limiting feature, and keeps these groups from winning the allegiance of large populations. I sometimes think of them as following an “ebola strategy”. Just as ebola kills its victims too quickly to truly become a sustainable pandemic, jihadi groups tend to alienate the populations they live in, and can only maintain whatever control they acquire by relentless violence. With this approach, they may succeed briefly in limited regions, but have no hope of truly gaining the allegiance of large populations in countries such as Pakistan, or even Libya or Syria.
The jihadis will truly become an existential threat to the rest of Muslim society the day they turn away from mindless violence and start building social capital. That’s why ISIS, with its financial resources and organizational savvy, is so especially dangerous. Because of the large area they have already acquired, the sympathy of a significant population based on deep resentment and, above all, their very deep pockets, ISIS is the first jihadi force that may actually be able to create a de facto state in the name of their ideology. And there is at least some anecdotal evidence – countered by many other reports, to be sure – that they are being quite selective in their oppression. If they continue this strategy, and use their financial resources to provide social support to the populations who are supporting them, they could create a state that, over time, might win over much larger populations in the Sunni Muslim world – especially in countries like Pakistan, where tens of millions are already invested in the notion of an “Islamic State”. They are held somewhat at bay by the fact that no successful “Islamic State” has existed outside of the idealized version from Islam’s earliest days. If any remotely apparently-functional “Islamic State” were to emerge, the barriers would fall and we could easily see a positive feedback process that would tip a lot of Muslim societies in a more extreme direction. It is also especially important that the core element of ISIS is Arab. Given the hierarchy of regard within the Muslim world, it is highly unlikely that Arab societies would gravitate to a non-Arab one – however successful it may be – but non-Arab Muslims in Central and South Asia (and perhaps elsewhere) will much more easily look up to an Arab society seen as virtuous – even when it is not successful as a state (which it certainly won’t be). Saudi Arabia may have served this purpose, but its alliance with the US is a major impediment. ISIS could provide a guilt-free option.
The last group to try building an “Islamic State” as an example were the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, but they were never going to succeed because: a) They were not Arab; b) They had limited resources; c) They failed to curb their violent instincts; and d) They had no sophisticated feel for history. Pakistan, of course, has been trying to make itself into an ideal “Islamic State” for decades, but the product doesn’t sell because it is based entirely on fictions. Attempts in Algeria and Egypt were nipped in the bud, and Turkey’s re-Islamization is still too modern – and too royalist – to attract transnational allegiance of fundamentalist Muslim populations. And, of course, both Pakistan and Turkey are non-Arab (though Turks can probably command allegiance in Arab societies based on the vestigial memories of Ottoman rule).
It is hard to say what the strategists of the Great Powers are thinking, but if their strategy involves allowing ISIS, even temporarily, to create an actual state in Mesopotamia, they will regret it sorely – and pay for it with blood and treasure for decades or longer.