“Disruption” is a word of Silicon Valley currency. It’s a word we use to describe an unexpected agitation of some age-old idea, a dislodging of a cog in the old system. It’s primarily a technological term envisioning massive change in a short period of time with exponential results. A true disruption can shake generations on each side of it. It can rattle all that everyone knew and establish a new norm.
While there is something very old about ISIS, with its medieval brutality, I believe ISIS has disrupted terrorism in three distinct ways: technologically, tactically and theologically.
Technologically, ISIS has leveraged the Internet to outsource training, and connect and inspire an astonishing number of terrorist sympathizers. In the height of the ISIS ascent in 2014, as many as one out of five — 21.4 percent, to be precise — tweets in the United States with the acronym “ISIS” were in support of ISIS, according to the University of Milan’s Voices from the Blogs.
That percentage was roughly equivalent to those seen in the United Kingdom and France. Yes, it was considerably less than the outsize percentages of ISIS-supportive tweets in Belgium and Qatar, but — believe it or not — it was more than that in Saudi Arabia.
Also, al Qaeda had a hard enough time finding potential terrorists, and then they required them to travel to rudimentary training camps in obscure parts of the world. In contrast, ISIS has, in effect, outsourced training by turning cellphones into training camps, viewable by sympathizers in cities and countries the world over. You no longer have to live in a city you don’t know with a language you don’t speak (how do you even get to Afghanistan in the first place?) to join their jihad. ISIS has eliminated the most significant barrier of entry to jihad.
The second disruption is tactical.
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When al Qaeda would plan an attack, they would employ dozens — if not hundreds — of people to devise complex plans that took years to execute. Those plans almost always failed, but when they were successful (i.e., the 9/11 terror attacks), they brought the world to its knees.
ISIS has traded complexity for simplicity and scale for frequency. All you need to participate in the ISIS jihad is a weapon and some civilians.
The final disruption is theological. We will never defeat ISIS until we understand the role of religion in it.
ISIS recruits are particularly persuaded by the vision of the “Islamic State” or “caliphate” established by ISIS. Recruits watched as ISIS captured a contiguous piece of land between Iraq and Syria that was approximately the size of the United Kingdom, and they watched as terrorist groups in Libya, Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, Yemen and Somalia pledged their allegiance to them. The movement’s success makes them believe it’s prophetic. This even compels some of them to sympathize with the Islamic State, whether or not they agree with its brutality. You see this clearly in the chilling words of one 16-year-old ISIS sympathizer interviewed by a British author. The teenager said, “I respect all my brothers going out to fight. The media makes them out to be like these crazy people brainwashed by crazy people, but that’s not how we think about it at all. We have so much love and respect for them.” Another European teenager concurred, saying joining ISIS is “a way to prove not just that you’re a proper Muslim, but a proper man.”
This disruption is real, and it will outlive ISIS.
Oh, and when another “expert” in the U.S. government says “they didn’t see this coming,” you can remind them that the Rand Corporation was screaming about it all more than a decade ago.
In a 2001 monograph, “Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy,” Rand experts described a kind of terrorism “emerging in the information revolution,” in which wiping out the leader (think bin Laden or al-Baghdadi) is “insufficient” to stop terrorist networks. That is because they “consist of various small, dispersed groups that are linked in odd ways and do not have a clear leadership structure,” and confronting terrorists networks happens at “technological, social and narrative levels.”
We chose — and are choosing — to ignore what’s changing about terrorism.
• Johnnie Moore is a noted author and advocate for international religious freedom. He is the president of The KAIROS Company and author of “Defying ISIS: Preserving Christianity in the Place of Its Birth and in Your Own Backyard” (Thomas Nelson, 2015). His Twitter handle is @JohnnieM. This article is derived from his April 9 remarks at the Wilberforce Weekend in Arlington, Virginia.