ISIS: The State of Terror

Richard Purcell, a SAIS alum and freelance writer covering international security affairs, reviews Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS: The State of Terror."

By Richard Purcell

It has now been a little over a year since the start of the US-led military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS. However, in many ways the US national security community finds itself still struggling to understand the nature of this relatively new threat. A new book, ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, attempts to shed more light on it. Stern is a lecturer at Harvard University as well as a former staff member on Clinton’s National Security Council, and has written extensively on terrorism. Berger is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World. In the book’s introduction, the authors describe ISIS as “a hybrid terrorist and insurgent organization” that “sits at the nexus of a rapidly changing region and world.”[1] What follows is a thoughtful, if somewhat discursive, examination of a quickly evolving situation that is reshaping the contours of the Middle East.

The authors go to great lengths to explain the fissure that developed between ISIS and al Qaeda. ISIS’s forerunner—al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)—was established in 2004 as al Qaeda’s first regional affiliate. As it evolved into ISIS, it became increasingly independent from its parent organization. Significant strategic differences have emerged between the two groups. Al Qaeda’s primary focus has been on attacking the “far enemy”—the United States and its European allies which, it believes, prop up apostate regimes in the Middle East. In its view, if the United States can be weakened or driven from the region, then those regimes will inevitably fall, allowing for the eventual reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate. Whatever its merits, this approach necessarily entails a long-term strategy. According to the authors, al Qaeda’s “organization, ideology, identity, strategy, and messaging were . . . predicated on the expectation that it would not take power. It stood for an idealized future that its leaders did not expect to see realized in their lifetimes.”[2]

In contrast, ISIS’s focus is much more regional and immediate. While the group has sought to inspire Muslims living in the West to mount small-scale attacks, to date it has not attempted to execute direct strikes against the United States or its European allies. Instead, its primary goal has been to seize and control territory in Iraq and Syria in order to establish an Islamic state. “Unlike its predecessors,” Stern and Berger write, “ISIS did not seek a far-off dream of the caliphate. The caliphate was here and now.”[3] Whereas al Qaeda is selective about whom it allows to join, ISIS opens its arms to all Muslims around the world, encouraging them to come to Iraq and Syria to help build an Islamic utopia. Another unique aspect of ISIS is its apocalyptic vision. In the past, al Qaeda’s propaganda has mentioned the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecies, but this aspect of its message is largely symbolic. In contrast, ISIS believes that the end of the world is near, and that it is its duty to help bring it about. In this way, Stern and Berger argue, ISIS is less like a traditional, politically motivated terrorist group, and more like a doomsday cult.[4]

Another way in which ISIS has distinguished itself from al Qaeda and earlier jihadist groups has been through its horrifying brutality. ISIS forces abducted women and girls to serve as sex slaves. It recently destroyed ancient Roman ruins in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Most notably, it has beheaded international aid workers, Western journalists, and enemy soldiers, uploading videos of these acts on the internet as a form of advertisement. The authors believe that the group’s barbarism serves two purposes. First, it serves as a useful recruiting tool. ISIS’s media campaign has inspired tens of thousands of Muslims from other countries to come to Syria and Iraq to join its ranks. Many of those who have joined are “angry, maladjusted young men whose blood stirred at images of grisly beheadings and the crucifixion of so-called apostates.”[5] Second, ISIS seeks to desensitize its followers to violence and erode their ability to empathize with their fellow human beings as part of the new order it seeks to create. In practice, this is accomplished by promoting mass participation in acts of savagery among the population it controls.

Like many other international security experts, Stern and Berger believe that the Obama administration’s campaign against ISIS is unlikely to succeed, at least in its current form. “In our view,” they write, “the mission described by the president cannot be accomplished with the limitations he has set out.”[6] Yet Stern and Berger’s concrete recommendations on how to tackle the problem are vague. They do not advocate more aggressive US military action, noting that even a full scale ground invasion would be unlikely to completely eradicate ISIS and would in fact generate greater sympathy for it within the Muslim world. Instead, they argue that the US-led coalition should adopt a more patient approach that focuses on containing and disrupting ISIS’s operations until the group self-destructs on its own. Such suggestions certainly seem reasonable and worthwhile, but they differ very little from what the Obama administration is doing now.

Stern and Berger also offer some ideas as to how to counter ISIS’s message and ideology. They warn that the United States and other governments should avoid statements and actions that play into ISIS’s absolutist and apocalyptic narrative. Because of ISIS’s brutality and genocidal aspirations, it can be difficult to not see it in Manichean terms. To many observers, the group seems to exemplify evil in ways that are reminiscent of the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge.[7] The authors themselves express such sentiments throughout the book. Yet they also argue that this mindset is counterproductive because it is exactly what ISIS wants. In their words, “The object of ISIS’s extreme displays of violence is to polarize viewers into sharply divided camps of good and evil,” an approach that has inspired tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join its ranks.[8] Stern and Berger argue that in order to neutralize the group’s appeal, opponents of ISIS would do well to draw attention to the group’s atrocities against other Sunni Muslims as well as highlight the failures of the utopian caliphate it claims to have created.

One of the book’s biggest strengths is the authors’ willingness to take a step back and ask a very basic question: how big of a threat does ISIS represent? This is an important consideration that has often been overlooked in other treatments of this topic. A poll taken in early September by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs found that sixty-four percent of Americans believe that ISIS represents a “critical threat” to US security.[9] However, as Stern and Berger explain, “There is little correlation between objective risk and perception of danger.”[10] News reports of ISIS’s atrocities have led many observers to view the terrorist group as a very immediate threat without situating it in a broader context. Stern and Berger point out that although ISIS is larger and better financed than al Qaeda was prior to September 11, there is no publicly available evidence that it possesses the ability or intention to mount a large-scale terrorist attack against the United States or Europe. They do not add that excessive focus on ISIS could lead the United States to neglect other important concerns, such as Russia’s belligerence in Eastern Europe and China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. ISIS is unquestionably a threat to US security interests and to the stability of the Middle East, but Stern and Berger are right to argue that if policymakers yield to popular pressure to act quickly and decisively against it, the results could be counterproductive.

Because the ISIS phenomenon is so new, ISIS: State of Terror is necessarily a first draft of history. Released this past March, its content was likely finalized in late 2014. Much has happened since then, and its authors repeatedly acknowledge that the observations made in the book could be quickly overtaken by events. However, at this point there is little in the book that is outdated. If it has a shortcoming, it is that the writing is not as focused as it could be. Nonetheless, the book is an illuminating exploration of what has become the world’s most powerful jihadist group. Those interested in learning more about ISIS will benefit from reading it.

 Richard Purcell is a freelance writer covering international security affairs. He holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Strategic Studies. Prior to graduate school, he worked as a legislative staffer for Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) for seven years on foreign policy and national security issues. He blogs at You can follow him on Twitter at @SecurityDilems.

[1] Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 11.

[2] Ibid., 195.

[3] Ibid., 118.

[4] Ibid., 224-225.

[5] Ibid., 72.

[6] Ibid., 234.

[7] David Horsey, “James Foley beheading shows vicious barbarity of Islamic State,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2014, accessed October 8, 2015,

[8] Stern and Berger, ISIS, 243.

[9] Dina Smeltz, “ISIS Successful in Raising US Public Fears about Terrorism,” September 8, 2015,

[10] Stern and Berger, ISIS, 202.

The SAIS Review
The SAIS Review