It was no surprise to watch our Orange Leader crowing at the podium and boasting how he personally helped killed Ibrahim al Baghdadi: “We moved very, very quickly.” Did you? How about that! But let’s leave the president’s early-Alzheimer’s (there’s a good medical argument for this: another article) inflected psychopathy aside to examine the game changer that could be the death of al Baghdadi.
“Caliph Ibrahim” al Baghdadi’s ignominious and spectacular end in a shitty remote hideout in a lawless corner of the broken state he helped break prompts questions of where to now for ISIS and the forever war on terror.
Unlike Bin Laden, whose (more modestly announced) death came at the end of a long period of retired residency in his Pakistani terrorist nursing home, Al Baghdadi was the active central node of his organization up to his last fiery moments. In his probably clinical narcissism and astounding arrogance he proclaimed himself Caliph and centralized the movement into his own image: “Le Califat, c’est moi” to misquote Louis XIV.
Fighters swore their “bayat” – oath – to him personally, not to ISIS, and the legitimacy of their “state” as a Caliphate hinged on its leader being of the Quareshi tribe (he was) for some inexplicable Koranic reason. Contrast this with Bin Laden who called his organization Al Qaida “the base” (as in database) and posed himself as a mere cog in a larger machine, despite his ego and obvious need for fame.
Consider al Baghdadi’s personality traits in administrating the Islamic State’s all important funding networks, banking passwords, ideology and connections. It seems they all have been completely controlled by him so the actual money supply and power of the movement might have been hit harder than we think. Such centralization – and the Islamic State was extremely centralized – fits with al Baghdadi’s narcissism, need for control and obsessive privacy, psychologically speaking. When you make yourself the center point of a network it may not survive you personally being mashed by US troops. Which is wonderful, by the way, and the operation was a credit to our intelligence agencies and the intelligence sharing we have with our allies, including the perennially doomed, trusting Kurds. Shamefully this comes as our country screws the Kurds and damages the faith and credit of our promises for a second time, the first being after George H.W. Bush encouraged them to “rise up” against Saddam Hussein before abandoning them to the bloody fate of that monster’s genocide.
By its very definition terrorism’s asymmetrical threat profits from the fear it instills on many orders of magnitude greater than the actual damage and fatalities it causes which statistically speaking are minimal. In fact, strategically its goal is to play on several human psychological biases: one bias is how people dramatically misjudge what is an actual threat. After 9/11 on NBC a typically cretinous TV host asked a wise doctor: “How do we survive in this age of terrorism?” who replied: “Don’t smoke and wear your seat belt.” Hilarious and true. Idiotically we spend billions on “security theater”, vast expensive bureaucracies and catastrophically counter-productive wars of choice (two and counting) for a “threat” which, by the numbers is slightly more hazardous than shark attacks on land. It is this highly irrational fear at scale which is the raison d’être of terrorism in the media age.
Another psychological bias is the difference in the way the human brain perceives threats. An f/MRI view of a person imperiled by an indirect, untargeted source differs bio-dynamically when the threat is personally directed at oneself. In other words we process the danger of a hurricane very differently to the way we process a human pointing a gun at us: intentionality matters even if terrorists aren’t targeting us as individuals. These two factors, these irrationalities, are the only reason terrorism succeeds in frightening us and so “works” so well.
A final bias terrorism exploits is our horror at the thought of freelance violence. Max Weber defined the state as an entity which has a monopoly on violence so to have a political organization challenge that monopoly drives people slightly crazy with fear as it insults the implicit compact between state and citizen.
With its superstar gone, the threat of an amorphous, scattered ISIS may be increased in terms of actual danger, note an ISIS attack in Mali last week, but the perception of the hazard is greatly reduced. When you consider it is that perception itself, not the body count (due to our biases listed above) that gives terrorism its power an exploded al Baghdad is actually a huge win for us. With the irrational fear from the public gone or reduced, terrorism is pretty much meaningless in its primary effect. Thus, in circumstances where a problem like ISIS is intimately associated in the public mind with its leader, and that leader is killed the “kingpin” strategy seems to work.
Of course, it is likely the ISIS project will simmer on in some form as we’re constantly reminded by our fear clicking media: Al Qaida grew from a few hundred members to tens of thousands after the death of Bin Laden, but haven’t you noticed nobody talks about Al Qaida as a real danger anymore except for analysts discussing their limited theaters of operations (Yemen, Iraq, etc)?
If there’s a silver lining on the cloud of ISIS’s existence at all, especially if it has been destroyed by this operation, it is that like the ongoing Taliban disaster, ISIS’s demise has become the best object lesson the Islamosphere could receive on the madness, futility and cruelty of political Islam. It’s worth noting that Islamic parties in most parts of that region have been losing strength over recent decades where ever elections are held. Instead, the data (Pew, etc.) tells us there’s a slow but steady movement towards secular and enlightenment values throughout the Islamic arc of countries. The utopian dreams of actual government under ISIS and the Taliban’s religious leaderships have been proven to end in blood, broken concrete and corpses.
Both ISIS and the Taliban’s ways of running things are totally compliant with and representative of religious law, particularly Islamic religious law. Obama’s “nothing to do with Islam” lie’s intent was to not have the angry mob blow-back-victimize the vast majority of peace loving Muslims, themselves the first victims of political Islam.
Were it not for the Enlightenment and the beating down of Christianity it is likely the entire monotheistic world today might look like northern Syria or Afghanistan as by their texts fundamentalist Christianity and Islam are nearly identical: the important difference being Christianity has been tamed somewhat and, unlike Islam, it is permitted to change whereas Islam is set in stone, utterly unalterable since the death of Mohammed. We should take a second to thank science and those 18th Century Enlightenment geniuses every day for our good fortune to be living in a “Christendom” where Christianity has been defanged and castrated. And remember, Christianity didn’t give an inch willingly and it has been on the wrong side of every battle for socio-political progress from the original anti-slavery debate to today. Let’s not forget how the church treated humans before it was forced to adopt its current, sometimes sunny disposition. Three hundred years ago your atheist correspondent would be just another burnt heretic smoldering by the side of the road.
The fight against superstition and the cruelty and poverty of all Iron Age fairy tales can be fought with our ballots, actions, and social norms at every opportunity. Someday humanity will learn that while individual humans growing older become wiser, knowledge and ideas only become outdated or superseded with age.
Religion tends towards totalitarianism, and here psychology comes into play again: Al Baghdadi’s consolation of power was fueled by his (clinically, again) psychopathic personality: his wildly self-important (“L’etat, c’est moi”) amorality untroubled by instrumental violence. But as Al Jazeera hilariously noted – without irony – Caliph Baghdadi’s Ph.D. in Islamic studies was his political and educational credentials. Consider the absurdity of that fact: that a Doctorate of Philosophy can even be awarded, anywhere, to anybody in religion. The very thought makes as much sense as awarding Nobel Prizes for unicornology. But award Ph.D.s in religion they do, such is the stock we put in the toxic, humanity retarding nonsense of “faith”, the intellectually embarrassing ranting of unimaginably ignorant “prophets” who knew pretty much nothing and their regressive pre-medieval myths.
Terrifyingly, psychology also tells us that in normal times a third of people will willingly cede power to narcissists and psychopaths – just like that. In difficult or more so unpredictable times of great change way more than a third are amenable to such a drastic mistake. If you add magical thinking, the power of religion to that human weakness as the means the psychopaths and narcissists use, you end up with a dictatorship or autocracy. Run by a madman. If you track history this confluence of factors has been responsible for nearly all dictator-lead bad outcomes in history and the majority of misery for our species.