Chaos: Islamic State’s ambition, and opportunism

On 10th October this year, in Turkey’s capital city, Ankara, a peace march was attacked by suicide bombers. I have written about it already, but for the sake of swift recall and recognition, 102 people were killed and more than 400 injured when two people blew themselves to pieces as a rally gathered outside Ankara’s Central railway station.

The people killed were largely (though not exclusively) left wingers and Kurdish people. All of those killed had gathered to march to promote peace between Turkey’s state and its Kurdish population.

It was so obviously and completely an IS killing that it was easy to ‘jump the gun’ and report it as such even before they confirmed it themselves.

But then, something strange happened. Because, as reporters waited for the confirmation from IS that it was responsible for the bombing, it never came. In its place, was silence.

Most people outside of Turkey ignored this: having already concluded that a bombing which was obviously committed by IS had been committed by IS, they saw no reason to wait for IS itself to confirm it.

But within Turkey – and for some outside observers – the period of waiting became an increasingly tense experience. And to date, it hasn’t stopped.

The thing is, as horrible as it sounds, there is a system to terrorist attacks: someone launches a rocket/plants a bomb/blows themselves to pieces, killing dozens or hundreds of people; a nation mourns, and then a terror group claims responsibility and explains what it wants in exchange for ceasing to murder people.

But this didn’t happen after Ankara. Two people blew themselves up, and 102 people were killed, but no announcement was made.

To understand how important this is, it is important to consider Turkey’s wider social and political situation.

The Suruc bombing of 20th July in which 33 people who were preparing to travel to the Kurdish town of Kobani were killed by Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz* changed Turkey from a nation in a state of uneasy peace, to one at war with itself.

*This attack was committed by IS. It has become increasingly clear that, though it was certainly an act of public ‘revenge’ against Kurdish people because Kurdish fighters had liberated Kobane from IS, it was also an attempt by IS to sow division within Turkey’s borders. In that, it was entirely successful. Seyh Alagoz, who committed the attack, is the brother of one of the two Ankara bombers, Yunus Emre Alagoz.

In the wake of the attack, Kurdish activists, who had agreed a cease-fire (at that stage in its third year) with the Turkish government, responded to the bombing by attacking Turkish police.

Why they did so is not entirely clear, though Kurdish people in Syria and Turkey had been increasingly vocal with fears that Turkey was collaborating with IS. In order to explain how this belief had arisen one would have to endanger the entire aid and humanitarian response to the Syrian civil war, and I am not prepared to do that, even to protect Turkish reputations.

In short, however, a series of unfortunate but hard-to-avoid coincidences – some engineered by IS itself – combined with Kurdish people’s understandable suspicion of the Turkish state with which they considered themselves to be technically ‘at war’ to convince them that Turkey and IS were in collaboration.

The opposite is in fact the case. IS’ wider plans for the region include annexing a large part of Turkey to form part of its proposed caliphate, and it is on record as specifically opposing the Turkish government which it claims to believe has ‘betrayed Islam’ by partaking in democratic elections. Turkey does not – and would be insane to – support IS, which stands for its destruction.

Matters did not end there. The PKK – the largest and most powerful Kurdish political organisation in Turkey (regarded by the Turkish government – and many others – as a terrorist organisation for its armed resistance to Turkish rule, it was nonetheless also the lead group in negotiations with the Turkish state during the cease-fire) publicly supported the killings, and the Turkish state responded – predictably and depressingly – with devastating overreaction.

It undertook the storming and arrest of not only Kurdish ‘dissidents’ (for which we can without fear of contradiction read ‘Kurdish people’ in the eyes of the Turkish government) but also of prominent left-wingers, seemingly for the ‘crime’ of being left wing (in Turkey’s 7th June elections, the left and Kurdish parties formed a coalition, to help both pass the 10 per cent vote-share threshold necessary to take seats in Parliament).

It also carried out airstrikes on Kurdish towns in northern Iraq and northern Syria, where many of the most active Kurdish fighters had been sent by the PKK to help enable the cease-fire and its concurrent negotiations with the Turkish government, to hold.

The political and social mood did not lighten. The state continued to carry out arrests, and called a new election in which the Justice and Development party (AKP) – the largest in Turkey’s then hung parliament and the party of its President, Recep Erdogan – portrayed itself as the only possible leader and defender against not only the external threat of IS but also the internal ‘enemy’, the Kurds.

It was in this atmosphere, of mutual fear, mistrust and hatred between Turkey’s largest centre-right group and its left-wingers and Kurdish minority, that the Ankara attack took place.

In its aftermath, chaos and rumour took hold.

Feverish speculation arose, particularly among Kurds and left-wingers (who had, after all, made up the largest part of the attacked march), that the attack was not, as it had seemed, staged by IS, but by the government, to brutally dismantle organised protest against Turkey’s activity within its borders and in northern Syria and Iraq.

The idea does not stand up to a great deal of analysis. It is obvious, for example, that neither Erdogan nor the Turkish state benefits much from an explosion at a peace rally, as when it blamed – as it would have to – IS or another agitator for the outrage it would be directly subverting its own claim to be able to lead and protect Turks from exactly that type of incident.

It is also clear, from the famously put-down marches at Taksim Square, Istanbul, last year, as well as its systematic targeting and arrest of Kurds and the Left after Suruc and its fall-out, that the Turkish state does not need to blow up marchers. It is happy to openly and brutally overreact to protest using its police force to make that point obviously.

And yet, the idea has been seriously considered and debated, not just in Turkey itself, but by observers and commentators, including, I admit, myself.

And the reason is this: if IS carried out the attack, why has it not stated it did? What is the point of a terrorist act which is unclaimed? How can anybody know you exist and know your demands if you do not draw attention to your outrages against humanity?

Even as I argued that the idea the Turkish government blew up its own people while attempting to present itself as a protector against its people being blown up defied logic and went against the state’s own proven modus operandi, the same thought kept coming back to me: but IS has still not claimed responsibility.

It is entirely counter-intuitive to imagine an act of terror committed without an associated demand, but the reason to believe this is so is not only because the alternatives make even less sense, but because IS is not simply a terrorist organisation in the ‘classic’ sense.

Whatever the aims of terrorist groups across the world, the major common factor linking all is that they hold an achievable demand, which can (this is not the same as to say ‘will’) be delivered by those the group strikes against.

Thus, the IRA fought for the UK to give up its claims for and possession of the six counties of the Irish mainland’s north and east, Palestinian groups demand an end to Israeli settlement – and in most cases the return of land taken from them by the Israeli state – and the Tamil Tigers strike for rights, recognition and some degree of self-governance (arguably, the Kurds in Turkey have been doing the same).

In each case, the group’s strikes are aimed at either the governments, or the people who can put pressure on the governments, which can deliver these aims. Hence, the pattern of ‘strike, confirm responsibility, demand’: the strike is pointless without the demand, and the demand makes sense only if accompanied by the confirmation that an organised, capable group is behind it.

IS, on the other hand, is not only demanding something it knows for certain will never be delivered to it – the entire states of Iraq and Syria, as well as a large part of Turkey, within which it will set up and run a new Islamic caliphate* – but is making no ‘request’, or even demand, whatsoever.

*Its presence in Yemen and Libya indicates a wider aim, but Iraq, Syria and Turkey remain at the heart of its ‘project’.

It knows that it will never be given the better part of three nations for its insane plan, and whether as a result, or simply by its leaders’ inclination, it is not asking for them: it is, instead, attempting to take them, bullet by bullet, yard by yard and body by body in a grim, bitter and vicious war.

This war is made all the more vicious, bloody and bitter by the very fact that this is IS’ approach. Because IS is well aware that despite its funding from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and despite the profusion of cheap (and in some cases free – the US left large weapons caches in Iraq when it left; not for IS, but just as easily accessed by it as by anyone else) military hardware, it would be absolutely incapable of winning a war without a widespread international recruitment campaign, and in that, notoriety is key.

Notoriety is necessary for a second reason, too. Because IS is equally aware that in a ‘straight fight’ – bullet for bullet – it is also almost certain to lose. Even in its own ideal situation, in which the majority of Muslims supported it and its aims, it would still be massively outnumbered across the world.

Instead, it needs to be seen as a problem larger, and more threatening, than it actually is. It needs, in fact, to present itself as a problem so difficult that it either cannot be dealt with effectively by its opponents, or that to do so is simply a greater commitment than anyone is prepared to undertake (the IS attacks on Beirut and Paris on 12th and 13th November, respectively, should be seen in this context. IS regards itself as an army fighting both Lebanon – whose Hizbollah forces are fighting IS on the ground – and France which is bombing it from the air. IS knows it cannot possibly overcome either Lebanon or France at present, but equally, cannot possibly let attacks on it go unanswered, for reasons of publicity: it struck so as not to appear weak to potential recruits, as much as to seriously harm the wider Lebanon or French states, and discourage their continued engagement against it).

For both recruitment and tactical purposes, IS uses the tools of terror groups. Each time it films the decapitation of hooded and blindfolded people; each time it broadcasts footage of caged men burning to death; when its members carve out and eat the hearts of defeated soldiers in battle, IS is recruiting and issuing warnings – simultaneously screaming ‘look at us!’ to those it hopes will join it, and ‘we are too dangerous to engage!’ to those it believes will oppose it.

If it seems a chaotic policy, that is because it is. And that is not the only part of its operations which appear to deliver contradictory outcomes. Because also like terror organisations (and, in fact, like ‘legal’ armed forces; it is just that in the latter case the process is called ‘taking prisoners of war’), IS kidnaps people.

Unlike most terror groups, however, its kidnapping is seldom for ransom – IS is far better funded than some nation states – and only some of the time for ‘recruitment through reputation’; the process of broadcasting torture to attract angry young people (not exclusively men) for whom IS’ excesses are a signal of its commitment and ability, rather than its lunacy.

In fact, the ‘rule’, in as far as there is one – and IS is more than willing to break it in order to keep people uncertain of its next move or the reasons for it – is largely that international prisoners will be tortured and killed for recruitment purposes, while ‘locals’ are far more likely to be used to force others to fight for it: that is, one of IS’ major recruitment practices in the states in which it fights is to kidnap entire families and use threats and torture to force their young men to fight for it.

Once again, IS’ own policy is to use deeply counter-intuitive, seemingly-chaotic practice to deliver it necessary outcomes. In this case, one of its major ‘local’ recruitment practices requires the kidnap and imprisonment of those its ‘recruits’ love – inspiring fear and hatred as well as obedience.

Chaos – both in the sense of using seemingly internally-contradictory methods to carry out its most important activities, and in the sense of making itself seem larger and harder to defeat – is at the heart of IS’ day-to-day operation. In a real sense, it simply cannot exist without it; certainly not at the level of activity and notoriety it has currently achieved.

But chaos is not only the sole way IS can operate as an organisation. It is also the sole situation within which it can operate.

To date, IS has been able to maintain a presence – let alone actually to ‘succeed’, which it has so far arguably done nowhere at all – in states which have almost, or actually, failed.

It has taken advantage of extraordinarily weak governance and armed exchange to gain a foothold in Iraq (where the state’s armed forces are resisting it with increasing success), of all-out warfare in Syria to snatch land, of the same in Yemen to stake a claim to some regions, and of the outright collapse of Libya to do the same (though in Libya, it has so far managed to ‘keep hold’ only of Sirte, having been chased from its original stronghold, Derna, by Al Qaeda-affiliated militias).

IS is not just using chaos to operate, to recruit and to discourage opposition to it; it seems in fact to require chaos to exist: to be unable to operate unless chaos has already taken hold in a state. Without it, IS simply does not exist as more than an irritant.

Which brings us back to Ankara.

Because IS has no demand to make of Turkey. It does not want Turkey to ‘give’ it anything. In fact, it wishes to take a large part of Turkey and subsume it into its non-existent caliphate. As a result, it had no reason to announce it had bombed a peace march, killing 102 people. It simply could not gain anything it wanted by doing so.

But not making such an announcement, sowing ambiguity, suspicion – and indeed chaos – within a state it wishes to enter and snatch, is directly to its advantage. IS simply cannot possibly succeed in stealing part or all of Turkey if the state is at peace. But if IS can sow chaos, it perhaps stands a chance of entering, as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and using attrition and fear to stake its claim.

The bombing – the murder of 102 civilians – was designed to build on the chaos begun by Suruc.

Its aim was to pit the Turkish government against Turkey’s Kurdish minority (IS would also regard Turkish attacks on Syria and Iraq’s Kurds as a welcome bonus), simultaneously spreading suspicion across the state’s Left-wingers that Erdogan’s government might be using force to crush political opposition, and inspiring those on its religious Right to doubt the President’s ability to rule and protect its citizens.

Ankara was an attempt to spark chaos in Turkey, because without it, IS stands no chance of success there.

The incident is important, because it not only underlines IS’ operational practice, and shows its absolute reliance upon chaos for all of its activity, but also because it highlights one of the organisation’s major weaknesses.

We have already seen that IS is too unattractive to recruit without chaos (and this is the second major reason for the attacks on Beirut and Paris: Lebanon has taken 1.125m Syrian refugees. While France has taken far fewer, one of the attacks in Paris was an attempt by suicide bombers to strike at France’s football match with Germany, which has announced plans to welcome hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. It was this attack at which one bomber left a fake Syrian passport – a clear attempt to implicate Syrian refugees in attempted murder of Europeans. It is hard to imagine a more telegraphed signal from IS than this attempt. Syrian – and for that matter Iraqi, Libyan and Yemeni – refugees, whether in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or the EU, are an embarrassment to IS. It has spent the last three years presenting itself as the truth and the light, yet Muslim people in their millions have seen them and either fought against them, or turned their backs and fled. IS wants a state. It wishes to rule people. To do so, there must be people in the places it exists. It cannot persuade them to stay, and nor can it realistically force them to do so. But if it can force them to be returned by states on the basis of ‘security risk’, it will have the citizenry it desires to dominate, and which it has lost through violence and insanity).

It is too weak to win a war, and incapable of gaining land in a state with an organised military and police force. So it has used, and taken advantage of pre-existing, chaos.

But Ankara was one of its first concerted attempts to actively sow chaos. And it failed.

Far from bringing down Erdogan’s government, his AKP party took four million more votes on 1st November election than it had in July. And the Kurdish and left-wing HDP coalition secured the ten per cent of votes it needed to enter Parliament. As noted in a previous blog, the result is not ideal – and Erdogan is not an ideal President (I would have preferred a coalition between the centre-left Republican People’s Party and the HDP, or an outright HDP win, though this was never particularly likely).

But it was the confirmation of IS’ failure in Turkey, and yet another of its wider weakness. IS is an opportunist organisation. It is adept at using the tactics of terror to recruit, and to gain advantage in warfare, but that is all it is. It is far less powerful – or even terrifying – than it would like to be, or to be seen to be, and its failure at Ankara is an indication of that.

There has been a great deal of speculation in recent months about what IS is, what it wants, and why it wants it.

There have been analyses of the political background to its appeal (some of them extremely good) and frankly wild claims about its motivation, including in many cases the idea that it is in some way at the vanguard of a ‘war of cultures’ waged between Islam and the West: it is not. More than 95 per cent of people killed so far by IS were Muslims; Kurdish Muslims, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Alawite Muslims. IS does not oppose the West, or even ‘non-Muslims’; it opposes everyone who is not a member of IS.

In one entertaining analysis the author – who has clearly worked hard and done their research – concludes that what IS wants is the end of the world.

It does not.

IS – for all its use of and reliance upon chaos, which (deliberately) helps inspire within those outside of its ranks exactly that kind of feverish and fearful speculation – has an aim which is far less imaginative, far less exciting, and far more pragmatic and prosaic than ‘the end of the world’.

It wants a state. It desires nothing so much as a state in which it can systematically dominate and oppress people to the greater glory of a religion it shows little – in some cases no – understanding of, or commitment to.     

It may well be that if it ever achieves this (and we must hope and ensure it never shall) it would then attempt to take over more states, spreading its lunatic doctrine further. But this, too, would hardly be an effort to end the world; rather the greedy, predictable desire to rule it.

IS is an expression of chaos. Perhaps by inclination, but certainly by necessity. It cannot recruit without it, cannot win a war without using it, and cannot exist anywhere chaos has not taken hold. It has no option but chaos, because its ideas and ideals are abhorrent to the vast majority of people –of all religion and none, and of literally all cultural background – everywhere in the world.

And Ankara is an expression of its central weakness, because though reliant upon chaos, and able to harness it, it has proven incapable of instigating it.

IS is frightening, but a film’s central character can also be frightening, until one realises that outside of the cinema, away from the celluloid on which it relies to project itself, it simply cannot and does not exist.

IS relies on chaos, but it cannot create it, or control it. It has proven its inability to persuade, and shown it is too pathetic to force its rule on others. For this reason, in the face of opposition from every part of the world, IS should not even be defeated, but simply dissolve.


In Libya, the disgraced Bernardino Leon has been replaced as the United Nations Support Mission in Libya’s Special envoy by German diplomat Martin Kobler.

As detailed in a previous blog, Leon leaves to take up a position as the head of a UAE-based political think-tank.

He had headed peace negotiations between Libya’s two equally-illegitimate (and powerless) governments, the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and the House of Representatives (HoR) which sits in Tobruk.

But his role was called into question late last month, when it emerged he had communicated his intention to ‘undermine’ the GNC to the UAE, a major supporter of the HoR and the warlord, Khalifa Haftar, who claims to support it.

Despite this mail, Leon had crafted a series of increasingly-workable political compromises between the two governments, the last of which had won the backing of ‘moderates’ in both ‘parliaments’ but had failed to convince enough politicians in either house.

He was scheduled to step down this month, long before the e-mail and its contents came to light.

Kobler, who was Germany’s ambassador to Iraq, then Egypt, and has represented the UN in Afghanistan and Iraq, moves to Libya from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he led the UN peace mission. He took up his new role on Tuesday 17th November.

He said: ‘Only through dialogue and unity can stability be attained and the state’s authority restored. I am determined to build on the momentum to bring about an endorsement of the Libyan Political Agreement in the immediate future. We cannot afford to waste the hard work already done.’

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