ISIS followed the Stalinist playbook for seizing control of a global movement, and now faces a similar choice between urgency and decline.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is frequently described as an unprecedented threat, as the recent attacks in Brussels, Orlando, and Istanbul have reinforced its ability to conduct or inspire a wide range of strikes on a global scale. However, the group’s penchant for tactical innovation, and the fear which it elicits, obscures its conformity to a pattern which is evident in the rise and fall of another global revolutionary movement, namely Marxism-Leninism. ISIS represents a ‘Stalinist’ phase of Salafism featuring the concentration at one time and place of a universalist movement, dramatic escalation of violence, and fratricidal conflict within the revolutionary leadership.

Historical analogies are imperfect, and so understanding ISIS in terms of Stalinism will not reveal the key to defeating it. Policymakers should not conflate similarities between ISIS and the Soviet Union under Stalin with the revival of Cold War strategies and assumptions. Nonetheless, examining the relationship between the two entities identifies a range of likely short and long-term outcomes around which expectations and policies may converge. By learning to manage the trajectory of an institutionalized revolution, in addition to confronting its most threatening aspects, the United States and its allies can bring about a similar ending to the Cold War, so that the defeat of the organization doubles as the exhaustion of its ideas.

Believers of the World, Unite!

Salafism aims to restore the unalloyed Islam of the prophetic generation (Salaf), and yet its tenets and methodology bear a striking resemblance to those of Marxism. Pioneering Salafists such as Abul ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb arrived at their conception of “true Islam” in part through their study of socialism and other Western ideologies, the failures of which proved that the laws of social organization existed only in the Quran and ahadith (collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad). The goal of restoring the umma (Islamic community) to its divinely ordained condition necessitated a process surprisingly similar to the atheistic historicism of Marxists.

The all-pervasive influence of Western culture subjected the world to a state of jahiliyyah (ignorance of divine guidance) while denying the possibility of hijra, the flight from pagan corruption that precedes the gradual consolidation of a rightly-guided social order. Maududi and Qutb thus imagined the umma in a position comparable to that of the Marxist proletariat. Following the Marxist doctrine that the technological advances of capitalism fomented class consciousness and thereby hastened its own decline, Qutb taught that the revived Salaf will “emerge from within the old jahili society.” Accordingly, Muslims could learn from Western advances in engineering, military tactics, and administration in preparation for seizing the ‘means of production’ (governments, in this case) and redirecting them in accordance with Salafist principles.

Just as loyalty to church and nation frustrated the radicalization of the workers, so was it unlikely that the umma in its collective capacity could manage this task without succumbing to the temptations of Western culture or the false piety of quietism. Qutb and Maududi, explicitly citing Lenin, called for a “vanguard” whose familiarity with the West only made them more eager to destroy it, while also equipping them with the knowhow to navigate its contours and prey upon its weaknesses.

Al Qaeda was the heir to this Leninist model of revolution. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which bin Laden attributed to the Afghan mujahidin whom he had helped to fund, energized Salafism as much as the inception of the Soviet state had energized international communism. In 1917, Trotsky predicted that his duties as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs would amount to “issuing a few revolutionary pamphlets, and then closing up shop.” Bin Laden was equally optimistic that as soon as the umma caught a glimpse of the earthly paradise awaiting them, secular regimes throughout the Islamic world would fall like dominoes, recapturing the imperial grandeur of the Abbasids and the moral perfection of Muhammad and his companions. The details of this transformation were no more important than planning who would clean toilets in the classless society. Swapping out class with religion, Salafism retains the logic of dialectical materialism by identifying modernity as the exclusive cause of mankind’s travails and then rationalizing its existence by naming it the unwitting vessel of a utopian future.

The Men of Steel

Al-Qaeda’s program encountered many of the same limitations that frustrated the Leninist plan of action. The resilience of enemies and the unwillingness of the masses to embrace the ideal of rule by commissars or the Taliban postponed a victory that was supposed to be inevitable. This impasse led to a debate within both groups between patient expectation of proper revolutionary conditions and redoubled efforts to jumpstart momentum. Either choice encountered the same dilemma: to mobilize followers and terrify foes, or assuage public sensibilities and manage external perceptions? In their attempt to strike a balance between these requirements, the leadership of the Bolsheviks and al-Qaeda exposed their vulnerability to internal rivals, who proved far deadlier than the expected set of foes.

ISIS closely follows the Stalinist method for carving out a totalitarian state from within a revolutionary movement. The first step is to turn the group’s existing territorial base into the chief barometer of ideological progress. Stalin’s doctrine of ‘Socialism in One Country’ exchanged an ambitious international project reliant upon the synchronized operation of various external actors for a more limited set of benchmarks exclusively within the organization’s domestic purview. Along those lines, ISIS’s declared caliphate imposes a duty on all true Muslims to pledge their loyalty and support to it or else lose the source of earthly guidance necessary for their salvation. The prioritization of state-building has kept followers in a state of perpetual mobilization, as they bore responsibility for establishing the model of internal perfection that subsequent movements abroad would copy whenever they came to power.

The second step, the severe expansion of internal violence, further strengthened this claim by forcing a showdown with enemies that left no gray area between the righteous and the wicked. This forced the group’s members to choose between perseverance and oblivion, and for its supporters abroad to choose between unconditional endorsement and a humiliating setback for the entire movement. Stalin’s program of forced collectivization and the desperate resistance in the countryside compelled the Bolsheviks to either destroy the peasantry as a class, or imperil their claim to infallibility and with it the fate of international socialism. ISIS’s provoking sectarian war has driven the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria to seek out its protection, boosting the group’s avowed representation of Sunnis worldwide.

The resulting chaos brought Stalin and ISIS to the third step, the purging of the original vanguard and its reconstitution as a mass movement under the exclusive guidance of a supreme leader. By the time that the old guard among Bolsheviks and Al-Qaeda expressed concerns that indiscriminate violence would squander their gains, the ongoing crisis had swelled the ranks with new members with little to no ideological training or military discipline. Whether motivated by fear, fanaticism, or opportunism, they were susceptible to direction by an oracular authority who touted the virtues of unrelenting savagery. To the Party elite born out of the Great Terror or ISIS’ legion of foreign fighters, any kind of criticism was tantamount to betrayal. That criticism came from such luminaries as Trotsky or Ayman al-Zawahiri only confirmed that the enemy had penetrated the highest ranks of the organization, justifying the formation of a new hierarchy.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

The resemblance to Stalinism strengthens the widespread impression of ISIS as a cruel and cynical perversion of its professed ideals, and it also bears a warning that such a moral assessment may do little to influence the underlying political reality. While ISIS may lack the Great Power resources that kept Stalin in power despite many catastrophic errors, it does retain many of the advantages that enabled Stalin to feed off of the same disasters that kept it hovering on the brink of disintegration. The balance of power in the Middle East perpetuates the continued existence of ISIS for the same reason that interwar Europe favored the survival of the Soviet Union. At the height of Stalin’s terror, the USSR was a raging fire that was easier to contain or even redirect in a preferred direction than to extinguish. Churchill, who in 1919 called for “strangling the Bolshevik baby in its crib,” changed his tune after the rise of Nazism presented a more pressing threat. Even Hitler, who regarded Marxism as a puppet of the global Jewish conspiracy, veered between using the Bolshevik menace to blunt Western hostility against himself and appeasing Stalin’s desire for a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Of course, Hitler would later prove the folly of assuming that the Stalinist regime’s brutality and instability made it liable to invasion.

The conditions that permitted the emergence of ISIS similarly inhibit a consensus on the appropriate manner of engaging it. Aside from the United States, no major state regards the destruction of ISIS as its top priority. Provided that the barbarians stay sufficiently far from the gates, regional players regard the brutality of the Islamic State as an indirect means of achieving their own ambitions or a deterrent against the ambitions of others. There are strict limits to the ability of Iraqi troops Iraq to recapture territory that they are demonstrably unable to hold. Russia and Iran have not inflicted too much damage upon the entity that entitles them to an expanded regional presence. The admirable performance of the Kurdish peshmerga militias on the battlefield is more of a bargaining chip for Kurdish autonomy than an end unto itself, which is precisely why Turkey is treading carefully in its fight against two enemies in which the defeat of one aids the other. With enemies like these, ISIS has little need of friends.

Another key advantage that ISIS shares with Stalinism is the mutual reinforcement of events and its overarching narrative. Under the right conditions, acts that would ordinarily shock the conscience instead become proof of authenticity for a target audience. Stalin attributed he traumatic costs of industrialization and purges to the desperate attempts of capitalists to stave off their approaching demise. For the average Soviet worker and peasant, joining in the witch hunt for the innumerable ‘wreckers’ in their midst was the only way to make sense of the senseless while deflecting suspicion against one’s self. Mass complicity in the constant cycle of unmasking  and denouncing ‘enemies of the people’ obliterated all conventional moral and legal restraints, leaving the individual wholly at the mercy of the latest adjustment in the Party line.

Whereas Stalin made himself the sole refuge against a fearsome enemy, ISIS has been able to rally its followers around an optimistic assessment of impending success. It has painstakingly cultivated an image of itself as the fulfillment of Abbasid-era prophecies concerning the end of the world. According to these prophecies, the territory which ISIS currently occupies, notably the Syrian city of Dabiq will host the final battle between Islam and ‘Rome,’ which can be conveniently translated to mean the United States. The declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe, whose return to power heralds the coming of the Mahdi. The inflow of foreign fighters, especially those from non-Muslim majority countries, manifests the reunification of the Islamic world in preparation for the End Times.

These theological credentials set a stage in which the traditional practices of the seventh century gain renewed importance. The abolition of state boundaries, extermination of kuffar (infidels, especially deviant Muslims) and enactment of the most severe hudud (divinely sanctioned punishments) are not a regression into barbarism but rather the restoration of God’s law over manmade ‘innovations.’ The more this Islamic resurgence cites obscure passages from the Sunna to justify its most heinous atrocities, the more it turns scriptural interpretation from an exercise in moral reasoning into a display of raw power that prove its singular authority.

Apocalypse Soon

Combining the territorial base and financial assets of a state with the elastic structure and fanatical mission of a terrorist organization, ISIS has the resources to realize its ambitions along with tremendous flexibility to shift priorities in line with emerging necessities. At the same time, the characteristics that ISIS exhibited in its acquisition of power do not align well with the skills necessary for its maintenance. Beyond the inherent difficulties of ruling a territory after conquering it, the quotidian duties of administration are unlikely to entice the idealistic recruits who arrived in search of adventure, martyrdom, or plunder.

Confined to its Sunni-dominated heartland, any serious disruption of its oil markets will force ISIS to seek all of those goals at the expense of its own population. An uprising is probably too much to hope for, but the phenomenon of Muslims fleeing the caliphate, especially for refuge in Europe, will deal a serious blow to its claim of divine right to rule all Muslims. Preventing this outcome will diminish its fighting potential by diverting resources from jihad toward pacifying (or policing) its restive hosts. Denied an external outlet for its passions, such a state can maintain cohesion only in the manner of a snake eating its own tail.

ISIS has turned to terrorist attacks abroad as a means of counteracting the setbacks in its own neighborhood, but these are an unlikely vehicle of political success on their own, as they must provoke a carefully calibrated mixture of paralysis and overreaction to achieve their desired effect. As disturbing as it is that French and Belgian citizens have turned on their homelands (not to mention American ‘lone wolves’) there is no guarantee of indefinite waves of such home-grown terrorists. For others to emulate their example, ISIS must leverage discontent, real or perceived, into the moral equivalent of war. Lacking the counterpart of battlefield victories or a vicious crackdown on European Muslims, the emotional fever will break, leaving overseas terrorist cells open to disruption while depriving their cause of the community support needed to furnish their replacements. In the meantime, ISIS’s position is not unlike that of a backwoods preacher. One can gather a following by proclaiming the approach of doomsday, but that following is likely to lose heart after the promised Judgment Day comes and goes.

Expanding or Merely Enduring

Proposals from scholars and officials for countering ISIS have reproduced the seminal Cold War debate between ‘containment’ and ‘rollback.’ Audrey Kurth Cronin and Stephen Walt favor a George Kennan-style strategy of insulating ISIS from external support and bolstering regional allies, while Max Boot and James Jeffrey echo John Foster Dulles by calling for the outright defeat of the group and the liberation of its subject populace. True to the Cold War tradition of crafting new policy largely in response to the failures of predecessors, President Obama has held a middle ground between these competing positions, under the guiding principle of “don’t do stupid shit.”

Whether the revival of Cold War concepts stems from the salience of the comparison or the comfort of a familiar paradigm, it conflates the recurring traits of specific actors with the overall nature of the struggle. Unlike communism, ISIS and its Salafist ideology are not nor ever will be a serious threat to the United States or the liberal international order. Contrary to the Cold War’s zero-sum competition between global coalitions, America’s unrivaled status creates the impression of universal preeminence. Without a peer competitor against which one can measure gains and losses in influence, America’s synonymy with international structures and norms turns any unfavorable development in any area of strategic significance into a challenge against the status quo. The efforts necessary for upholding this perception multiply potential avenues of conflict at the same time that it encourages would-be rivals to boost their own legitimacy by exposing cracks in the edifice of the powers that be.

The US and USSR offered functionally equivalent and mutually exclusive models from which states could modernize and gain an edge over their rivals. One state’s choice of sponsor set off a chain of action and reaction until the logic of bipolarity grafted itself onto the politics of the region. Since it cannot pose an equal and symmetrical challenge to liberalism, Salafism either burrows into the deepest recesses of the globe or inserts itself into a vacuum that results when liberal institutions fail to produce corresponding habits. ISIS provides the textbook example of Salafism twisting the assumptions of the liberal status quo to advance its revolutionary cause. Its proclaimed state is a fiendish mockery of American objectives in Iraq. Through direct appeal to world public opinion, ISIS assembled a diverse coalition to oppose a tyrannical government and established a regime built on universal principles expressing the presumed wishes of the population.

ISIS has succeeded as much as it has because there is no regional consensus on the proper basis of state authority, the boundaries of the states themselves, or the rules governing the use of force between them. Direct intervention, and the package of liberal reforms that invariably comes with it, can only exacerbate such instability by imposing a uniform standard at odds with local realities and thereby liable to manipulation. There will be no separating the wheat of moderates and democrats from the chaff of terrorists and other rogue elements.

The silver lining for policymakers is that there are predictable consequences to ISIS’ attempt to impose something akin to ‘Islam in One Country.’ Staving off disappointment over diminishing resources and delays in its apocalyptic timeline will consume an increasing bulk of its resources, although they will still attempt to revive enthusiasm through external attacks. Ultimately, it will either escalate to the point of self-destruction, carrying with it the satisfaction of doctrinal purity to the bitter end, or it will severely narrow the scope of its ambitions and seek a modus vivendi with its neighbors in order to hang onto its possessions. This calls for a strategy that expedites that decision and prepares for either eventuality, utilizing the adaptability of a liberal ethos against the confinements of Stalinist dogma.

ISIS’s rejection of Westphalian sovereignty permits a wide variety of measures against it, but the attempt to weaken ISIS on the battlefield through air power and regional proxies only strengthens its claim to statehood when such actions fall short of intended results.  A more circumscribed US role would reflect the fact that its campaign against violent Salafism is a sideshow to the Sunni-Shia divide that dominates Mideast politics. Given the implausibility of a comprehensive political solution to this issue with or without US mediation, allowing the sectarian rift to take center stage shifts the narrative from a failed Western attempt to destroy ISIS into the failure of ISIS to fulfill its own prophecies. Permitting ISIS to survive while isolating it from its enemies will render its clarion call to Sunnis increasingly hollow and shift focus onto the mistreatment of its own people and the patent falsity of its claims to ‘endure and expand.’

As a notorious but minor player in a broader regional struggle, ISIS will follow one example out of two earlier Stalinist regimes. The first is that of the Khmer Rouge, whose inability to contain the mayhem that it stoked turned it from a convenient North Vietnamese ally into an intolerable threat to postwar Vietnam’s desire for regional stability. The alternative is that of North Korea, a quixotic if occasionally worrisome relic that keeps up a menacing appearance to conceal its complete and utter dependence on Chinese patience. So long as ISIS claims the mantle of global Salafism without delivering on the promises expected of such a role, its very existence will do more to poison its effectiveness and appeal than any Western attempt to downgrade and destroy it.