“The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.”
– Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 38: “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West”
Entropy is an incredibly important yet greatly misunderstood concept. From a thermodynamic perspective, the term refers not to the amount of “disorder” in a system, but how close that system is to perfect equilibrium – essentially, a state in which no macroscopic change ever takes place.
Per the second law of thermodynamics, entropy never decreases in an isolated system. Instead, perfectly walled-off states spontaneously march towards thermodynamic equilibrium. For non-isolated systems, the equation is inverted; these open states pretty much do nothing but become more disorderly and unstable, and they can only regain a semblance of order by increasing the entropy of surrounding systems.
This isn’t a social science hypothesis. It is a mathematically indisputable principle governing energy throughout the universe.
And that applies to geopolitical relations just as much as geothermal gradients.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – more commonly referred to as ISIS, although the group uses a host of other monikers, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – is an almost perfect portrait of geopolitical entropy in action.
The organization was founded in 1999 by Salafi jihadist Abu Masub al-Zarqawi, whose initial goal was to overthrow the Jordanian government. Fueled by a seething hatred of Shia “apostates” in the Levant (not to mention anger over failing to accomplish a coup in Jordan), the group then turned its attention towards “liberating” U.S.-occupied Iraq; becoming an official auxiliary of al Qaeda in 2004 (assuming the name al Qaeda in Iraq), what would eventually become ISIS slowly began to take shape in the mid- 2000s. AQI merged with a number of homegrown insurgent groups to establish the Mujahideen Shura Council in 2006. Three months after al-Zarqawi was killed, the MSC absorbed several more insurgent Sunni organizations, with Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri taking over the first “true” incarnation of ISIS in Oct. 2006. From there, the “objective” of ISIS changed yet again; its new goal was to seize western territory in Iraq and establish a new Sunni caliphate.
In April 2010, the top two ISIS leaders were killed. That summer, the organization was on the cusp of disintegration; it had lost communications with al Qaeda higher-ups and roughly 80 percent of its leadership base had been wiped out. Then, current ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control of the organization – and once more, the mission of the terrorist consortium changed.
Released from U.S. Forces custody in 2004 (he was deemed a “low level” threat by the Combined Review and Release Board), al-Baghdadi took a different approach from his forerunners. Instead of staffing his ranks with domestic insurgents, he instead sought the services of former Ba’athist military personnel – i.e., the men who led Saddam Hussein’s armies and intelligence outfits prior to the U.S. invasion. Samir al-Khalifawi, a former Iraqi colonel, was appointed head of ISIS military operations and the Islamic State of Iraq began a slow campaign to raid Iraq prisons and free detained terrorists. Instead of simply wreaking havoc for the sake of wreaking havoc, this new “faction” sought to assemble as large and experienced an army as it could; in that, the Islamic State more closely resembled a “professional” military group than previous insurgent terrorist networks.
Feeding directly off the entropy of the Arab Spring, IS forces gained a foothold in Syria in 2011. By 2012, an entirely new IS offshoot, al-Nusra Front – had taken root in Syria, becoming something of a proxy anti-Bashar al-Assad army. Following al-Assad’s downfall, Syria fell into chaos – a united IS/al-Nusra Front coalition was formed, and ISIS as we know it today was officially established in 2014. After capturing several smaller cities in Syria and Iraq, ISIS/ISIL forces began campaigns in Libya and Yemen and several failed excursions into Afghanistan. With al Qaeda power waning, ISIL quickly established itself as the world’s preeminent Islamic terrorist group; Eurasian hardliners and Boko Haram – Africa’s most feared Muslim terror outfit – have since pledged “formal” support for ISIL’s mission.
What started off as an “isolated system” in Jordan has now grown into a pan-continental menace. With the ultimate goal of creating a global jihadist empire – a perfectly walled off state, forever accelerating towards ideological equilibrium – ISIL’s objective is to capitalize on as much disorder as it can. Perverse as it may be, the group views itself not as an agent of chaos, but a stabilizing force; wherever there is political disjunction – i.e., states no longer in control of their own “entropy” due to external factors – opportunity arises for al-Baghdadi and his murderous kindred.
The current ISIS “goal” is to establish a caliphate – essentially, a hardliner Sunni regime governed by Sharia law, which includes the subjugation of Christians and Jews and the outright extermination of Shiites and other Islamic “apostates.”
Whereas numerous radical Islamic terrorist groups have made efforts to establish a caliphate since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the ambitions of ISIS differ greatly from the pan-Arabian aspirations of organizations like al Qaeda. Subscribing to an apocalyptic theology, ISIS supporters believe they are destined to battle a modern incarnation of “the armies of Rome” in Syria, with a crucial victory in Dabiq allowing the Islamic crusaders to move eastward into what is modern day Turkey. According to the “prophecy,” ISIS expansion towards Europe will be thwarted by an Iranian counter-attack, predicted to obliterate the ISIS forces until only 5,000 fighters remain. Pushed into Jerusalem, the ISIS fighters will be spared by Jesus Christ – yes, that Jesus Christ – who will take command of the ISIS armies, defeat the Iranian counterattack and lead the caliphate towards global victory.
Those eschatological “goals” make ISIS military moves very predictable on the macro level, but on the micro level, judging their next move is almost impossible. With the apocalyptic end zone in mind, it makes very little sense to target sites in Europe and the United States, but consistency and rationale is something one should never expect from people who have no qualms about beheading infidels and incinerating children in suicide bombings.
At the moment, despite the considerable amount of territory that has fallen into the hands of ISIS forces, they remain little more than a contemporary “barbarian” threat in the grander scope of things. Yes, they can instigate mass shootings and bombings, but as far as putting together a unified military to wage traditional warfare with Saudi or even Israeli forces – let alone the United States – they are gravely undermanned and unprepared.
Harkening back to George Friedman’s eerily prescient late 2000s work The Next Decade, the greater geopolitical threat to the Western world is the emergence of a non-radicalized pan-Arabian bloc. If the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East put aside their long-held religious differences to establish a European Union-type economic mechanism, the consequences would be dire. With a vice-tight clamp on 26 million barrels of oil per day – which literally fuel the economies of Europe and an ever-expanding Asian energy market – an OPEC-style consortium covering all Arabian Peninsula economies would wield tremendous political power; indeed, by controlling half the world’s energy supply, the hypothetical Arabian Union could more or less bend international trade in any shape it desires.
As offensive as it may sound, the emergence of groups like ISIS unintentionally benefit the U.S. from an economic perspective. With a perpetually disjointed and divided Middle East, the likelihood of a true Islamic State – one unified by trade instead of terror – remains impossible. In that, the U.S. capitalizes on Middle Eastern entropy just as much as ISIS and their sort; considering the grim possibilities of an Islamic super state – with an economy and military to match that of the U.S. – rising to power, even primitive terror attacks a’la the Paris massacre and the San Bernardino shootings are “reasonable” trade-offs (from an emotionless geopolitical strategy standpoint, anyway.)
With their bloodthirsty, genocidal ideology, the odds of ISIS “uniting” the Arab world is virtually nil. However, with gasoline prices declining – thanks in no small part to ramped up domestic U.S. production, which now outpaces that of even Saudi Arabia, in tandem with Russia’s re-emergence as Europe’s top natural gas energy supplier – there is a strong likelihood that more Arabian Peninsula nations will fall into internal disarray, alike Syria. Lest we forget, the entire Mesopotamian region is one of the most agriculturally challenged on the planet, and irony of ironies, outside of its precious oil reserves, it remains particularly deficient in natural resources. The Arab Spring was never a tale of marginalized citizens raging against corrupt political leaders; instead, it was a widespread revolt against skyrocketing food prices.
In that, there is potential – however small – for ISIS to expand in the case of rampant economic destabilization throughout the Middle East. The rub there, of course, is that the Salafist pan-Arabian aspirations of the organization runs in opposition to the closed state Sufi-Sunni ideologies of most Muslim nation states in the Levant.
The so-called “War on Islamofascism” is essentially a war against Salafism – a hyper-conservative branch of Sunni ideology. A near totality of Islamic terror is perpetrated by Salafi hardliners – in fact, it’s the common link between al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and al Shabaab (a point conservative and liberal-leaning news outlets, for some reason, almost always fail to mention.)
The largest Muslim nations on earth are not located in the Middle East. More than 700 million Muslims – almost half the globe’s total Islamic population – reside in Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Another 400 million are in Africa, with Russia and China being home to three and a half times as many Muslims as Jordan or Libya. In predominantly Sufi-Sunni and Shia states, however, domestic terrorism is relatively rare. While radicalized violence is rampant in Nigeria, Kenya, Iraq and Syria, terrorist activity in Iran and Saudi Arabia(*) – despite being a strict Wahhabi culture oft-considered an offshoot of Salafism – is practically unheard of today.
(*) With enormous wealth from oil production, Saudi Arabia has primarily spread its more conservative, semi-Salafist ideologies via financial investments – believed to be in the billions, annually – into other Muslim countries. Journalist Dawood al-Shirian once estimated that Saudi’s “petro-Islam” donations constitute as much as 90 percent of the Islamic world’s endowments.
By no means are non-Salafist Islamic nation states devoid of other forms of violence – indeed, Iran and Saudi Arabia have among the most oppressive regimes on the planet – but the fact remains these strong, closed-off countries are not fertile ground for globally-minded jihadists (while a majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, virtually all of them were trained in, and took orders from, Afghani camps.)
In that, it appears the strongest deterrent to Islamic terror is to ensure Muslim nation states are stable. As a humanitarian issue, this is extremely troublesome, but I suppose a tyrannical – yet self-secluding – national government is a preferable alternative to rapid propagation of widespread, international terrorist outfit.
The greatest counterweights to ISIS are clearly the national militaries in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey all receive aid from the U.S. and could easily crush any insurgencies on the ground – a much more effective means of stamping out terrorists than the impressive (yet hardly effective) series of Russian, French and U.S. air strikes.
Just a decade and a half removed from George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, the Western world now finds itself courting the unlikeliest of allies. As the only majority Shiite government on Earth, ISIS terrorists are on a collision course with Iran; it is not a question of if they attack, but when. Despite the shaky state of U.S./Iranian diplomacy since 9/11, no nation state is in a greater position to go toe-to-toe with ISIS than Iran – more than a strategic geopolitical maneuver, it almost becomes a necessity for self-preservation.
It may seem a remote possibility at the present, but the U.S. – begrudgingly – may soon find a partnership with Iran to be a counter-terrorism imperative. Needless to say, such would not be a move without its share of risks – alienating Israel is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – but the writing on the wall is already there. Try and try as we may, ISIS forces will never be thwarted unless the nation states of the Middle East take the initiative and cut them off at the source – and as much as we may hate it, Iran serves a critical role in doing precisely that.
ISIS will never “take over” the Muslim world. It’s an outright impossibility, as their hardliner ideology runs opposite the mainstream ideology of a majority of the planet’s Islamic adherents. Of course, that won’t stop them from doing a lot of damage in their attempt to take over the globe, but their downfall is inevitable. The same way Charles Martel stopped the greatest Muslim empire in history – at the time, five times larger than the Roman Empire at its height – all it takes is one critical blow to send ISIS recoiling, and ultimately, collapsing in the wake of major defeat.
Many dates are often considered “world changing'” but few events in modern human history have been as resounding as the Battle of Tours. In October 732, the Merovingian Franks soundly defeated the Umayyad Caliphate army at the southern French border. The devastating loss – which resulted in the death of General Abd Ar-Rahman Al Ghafiqi – ended the almost 100-year Muslim dynasty, whose borders stretched from Kazakhstan to Spain, covering a territory as far north as Poland and as far south as Sub-Saharan Africa. Not only did the loss keep the invaders from gaining a foothold in Europe, it ultimately led to a humongous schism between the Caliphate’s followers. A series of revolts followed, and a decade and a half after that single defeat in France, the fifth-largest empire in human history was no more.
Had Martel’s forces – a woolly assortment of French, German, Italian and Austrian soldiers – faltered, Western civilization as we know it would have disappeared. With virtually no military resistance to the north, Al Ghafiqi’s forces likely would have run roughshod over the entire continent, with Scandinavia and the British isles certain to fall in due course. Islam would have supplanted Christianity, the Arabic languages would have replaced the Romantic tongues and, over time, most ethnic groups throughout Europe would have died out. For better or for worse, Western culture would have been extinguished, and the world today would be completely unrecognizable.
The ISIS fantasy is to rewrite history – in short, to create a world where Martel dropped his proverbial hammer and the Umayyad Caliphate takes control of Eurasia. That lofty ideal is next-to-impossible to envision, but as stated earlier, that won’t prevent the terrorist group from causing a lot of wanton carnage in the quixotic undertaking. As it has many times since its inception in the late 1990s, it is not difficult to see ISIS changing its grand plan yet again – instead of unrealistically trying to “take over the world,” perhaps they will adopt a ghastly anti-Western campaign that focuses solely on sporadic mass death, as we have sadly seen numerous times over the last few weeks, as its own destabilizing geopolitical strategy. As horrific as the organization and its ilk are now, one can dare fathom the evils the group may perpetrate out of sheer hatred once they realize their far-flung caliphate fantasies are never to occur.
An incredibly controversial topic, any attempt to address the ISIS problem requires a discussion of immigration. Today, the Islamic population in the U.K., Spain, France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries rests on a continuum from 5 to 10 percent of their respective national populations. A Pew study suggest Muslims may make up as much as 10 percent of the total European population by 2050 and by 2100, some estimates have projected the Islamic population to be as large as 25 percent of the entire continent. The sheer volume of the population increase would lead one to believe that at least the possibility of greater hardliner Islamic terror in the West is bound to go up, if based on nothing more than basic arithmetic. Even if ISIS never gains a protracted presence in Europe, it is not hard to imagine some other homegrown threat emerging; as contentious as the “illegal immigrant” debate is in the U.S., I imagine the one surrounding Islamic migration into Europe will pose an even thornier dilemma – with far greater geopolitical implications – as the years drag on.
In oh so many ways, the rise of extreme Salafist Islam parallels the rise of Naziism. Very, very early on, U.K. and French forces could have pounded Hitler into submission, but instead of being confrontational, they just let Mr. Mustache have his way, conveniently peering off in the opposite direction whenever he violated the Treaty of Versailles. With Neville Chamberlain and a string of self professed “radical-socialists” in France appeasing the National Socialist Worker’s Party, Hitler was able to build a formidable war machine right under their noses – and when German bombers and tanks started rolling over Birmingham’s factories and crushing Parisian forces, England and France’s political elites has only themselves to blame.
Right now, radical Salafism is Germany, circa 1933 and the dawdling Middle Eastern countries – Iran and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – might as well be Poland, Austria and Belgium. That’s not to say that anything even remotely resembling the Wehrmacht in scale will rise to power, but that doesn’t safeguard these nation states from being brutally savaged by wave after wave of political terror. Although extraordinarily unlikely at the present, the fall of any of these Mesopotamian states could produce a disastrous domino effect.
The worst case scenario? An entire region, ruled not by a dictator with an iron grip, but by vengeful, aimless crusaders hell-bent on bringing as much death and destruction as they can to “modernity.” The world’s most oil-rich swath of land completely destabilized, with a nuclear arsenal residing just to the north of the Baltic and a little bit west of Afghanistan. The hypothetical powder keg, with its fuse finally lit.
Not only is this scenario easily avoidable, it is one that can be prevented right now. It doesn’t require a concentrated, U.N. attack – all it takes is one Middle Eastern nation to stand up and say “not in my backyard” or one European Union member to declare they’re not going to let history repeat itself or one former Soviet state to take a preemptive stand.
For once, this is a global threat the U.S. cannot remedy from afar or from the cabin of a bomber aircraft. To end the ISIS threat – indeed, to end the worldwide menace of Islamic terrorism – somebody has to demand that order reigns supreme, that their way of life is worth preserving and that they won’t kowtow to suicide bombers and AK-47-lugging murderers.
One triumphant defensive stand, however, and ISIS is done for. The question now? Which nation swill be the one to pick up “the hammer” and smash al-Baghdadi into smithereens … and what happens if nobody steps up to the plate?