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ISIS Terrorism


The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (Isis) has become one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups. ISIS is an extremist Muslim insurgent group founded in Syria and Iraq. The terror group has been responsible for several attacks including two deadly attacks against civilians in Paris. ISIS is engaged in a campaign to spread fear and anxiety like many other predecessors. However, ISIS departs from the traditional definition of terrorist groups as it is carrying out a campaign for territorial conquest. The terrorist group is involved in open war against government forces in both Iraq and Syria. It aims to build an Islamic state after toppling the government of these countries. ISIS seems bolder than any other Islamic terrorist groups as seen by attacks on military installation and the open war against the Syrian and Iraq government.

This essay tries to answer the question of whether ISIS is really a terrorist group. The paper begins by defining terrorism in order to provide common characteristics of terrorist groups. The paper then proceeds to analyze ISIS in reference to the common characteristics of terrorist groups discovered from the literature review. The paper concludes that ISIS is a terrorist group that has adopted new tactics to achieve it ambitious political goals.

Defining Terrorism

To find out whether ISIS is a terrorist organization a good definition of the word terrorism is needed (Cronin, 2003). This section will define the term to set the stage for investigation on how it applies to ISIS. According to Nacos (2008), terrorism is the use or the threat to use political violence that is deliberately targeted at civilian populations, in order to impact the actions and behavior of the target population. Cronin (2003) associates terrorism with violent force meant to create fear and provoke emotional reaction in an audience that is beyond the victims of the attack. According to the three definitions, terrorism groups have the following common characteristics; (1) they are non-state actors, (2) they pursue political goal , (3) their attacks primarily target civilians, and (4), their primary intention is to create fear and influence their audiences’ political leaning. Many terrorist groups also use criminal activities to raise funds for their operations (Sageman, 2004).

Intention to create fear

Terrorism is traditionally defined as the act of instilling fear and anxiety in order to achieve political goals. In many cases, terrorist groups are cast as cowards who make opportunistic attacks whose primary goal is to instill fear. According to Cronin (2003), the underlying tactics of many terrorist groups have been psychological warfare. Many scholars in the field agree that the fear and anxiety are central characteristics of the tactics used by terrorist groups. According to terrorist attacks can be recognized by three distinct characteristics: they target civilians, they are violent and are meant to achieve a political goal. If an attack lacks these qualities it cannot be objectively considered a terrorist attack (Weisburd, Feucht, Hakimi, Mock and Perry, 2011). However, large scale nuclear attacks meant to kill whole populations and contaminate large areas are considered terrorist attacks, although their primary goal is not to instill fear. Therefore, fear and anxiety should not be considered necessary to define a terrorist attack. Rather, fear and anxiety can be linked to the mode of operation of most terrorist groups.

Indeed, many modern terrorist organizations continue to use fear and anxiety to push for their objective. Terrorist attacks generally have limited effect in terms of damage and casualties. However, the fear and anxiety caused by the attack is an important psychological weapon of terrorist groups all over the world (Weisburd et al, 2011). Terrorists rarely target specific individuals; instead the targets of terrorist attacks are people who fit into the terrorists broader targets. Attacks are used as communication platforms to send messages that increase the anxiety and fear of the terrorist group. The terrorist attacks are meant to push people to pressure their governments to take actions and change policies in order to suit the interests of terrorist groups. According to Weisburd et al (2011), terrorist attacks are meant to achieve six psychological goals:

  1. Uncertainty: Random terror attacks promote the sense that nobody is safe and anyone could be the victim of a terrorist attack.

  2. Vulnerability: the citizens are vulnerable anywhere they are at any time as

  3. Helplessness: their government is unable to protect its own citizens.

  4. Personalization: You or a close person can become the victim of a terrorist attack at any time.

  5. Disproportional Price: Terrorists create the impression that they are making people suffer for their governments unjust policies, and they will only relent when the public pressure policy changes in the interest of terrorist groups.

  6. Vengeance-terrorist inflict individual suffering as payback for their government’s policy and actions against the terrorist group.

Terrorist attacks are meant to depict the terrorist organization as more powerful than they are and create anxiety about their capabilities to impact the life of individuals. Citizens begin to shift their priorities from national to their own personal security (Sageman, 2004). The citizens of countries targeted by terrorists start to overestimate the threat of terrorism, and blame the dangerous policies of their own government. Terrorist organizations end goal is to get the citizens to pressure their government to change their defense policies and ask for a change of administration. Most of the changes made as a result of terrorism pressure allow for terrorist groups to continue thriving and become stronger. For example, the terrorist attacks in 2004 led to the electoral loss of the most popular party and the subsequent withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq (Weisburd et al, 2011). Terrorist will escalate their attacks and use shocking tactics in order to change public opinion. Many times, terrorist will attack locations considered taboo in order to attract media attention to their activities. Without media coverage many terrorist organizations would not be able to achieve their objective of spreading fear and uncertainty. Without the media terrorist cannot shock the public or get their message across. According to Weisburd et al (2011), terrorist activities are considered more successful when they receive more attention from the media. Today, terrorist organizations frequently hold press conferences to claim responsibility for atrocious attacks or to announce the intention to carry out attacks against the public.

Use of Crime for Financing

Another characteristic of terrorist groups is their involvement in traditional crime in order to raise funds for their activities. Many terrorist organizations are involved in criminal activities such as human and drug trafficking, petty crime, counterfeiting and extortion (Vidino and Emerson, 2006). O’Brien (2012) reports that terrorist organizations are increasingly partnering with criminal organizations to carry out crimes meant to finance their operations. Terrorist organizations use criminals and take a cut from the money obtained from criminal activities. According to Noble (2003), terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Al-Queda are financed from the proceeds of international and local criminal activities. The expansion of terrorist activities has also increased their need for funding. Terrorist groups use money for procurement of weapons, accommodation, training, transportation. The criminal activities of terrorist groups are a threat to the global financial system and the security of citizens of countries where the terrorist groups operate (BBC News, 2006). For example, terrorist groups that carry out counterfeiting activities can be detrimental to the economies of affected countries. On the other hand, the involvement of terrorist organizations in the Narcotics trade harms the health of local population as seen in some areas of South America (Weisburd et al, 2011). Since the early 1970s terrorist organizations have excelled at raising funds through criminal activities such kidnapping for ransom, bank robberies, extortion and blackmail. The Red Brigades in Italy incorporated criminal groups in their ranks as part of their fund raising strategy. However, terrorist groups switched to the more lucrative drug trade in the 1980s and terrorism can now get billions in funding from the lucrative illegal trade (Sageman, 2004). Over 15 terrorist groups are associated with the narcotics trade around their world, and their drugs are sold in Asia, Latin America and even in Western Countries (Weisburg et al, 2011). Columbia elusive Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) obtain majority of their funding from trading drugs mostly in the United States. FARC makes over $300 million from narcotics each year. According to Madani (2002), the border area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay account for substantial terrorist drug trade by groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Madani (2002) asserts that the border area is an epicenter of criminal activities including arms trafficking, narcotics trade, smuggling, and counterfeiting. These criminal activities provide tens of millions of dollars to terrorist groups.

Most terror organizations do not become involved directly in producing drugs. However, their main role is to protect the growers and producers of the narcotics. Hudson (2003) also points out those terrorist groups play a huge role in the distribution of drugs in market countries. The diverse network of terrorist contacts allow for drugs, weapons and ammunition to be smuggled across international borders. The networks developed for moving weapons are also used for the movement of narcotics. The drug trade has also been used as a platform for recruiting activists for involvement in terrorist activities (Weisburd et al, 2011). Terror groups bribe activists who are outside their organization using narcotics to carry out their heinous terror attacks. Many activists have been recruited into terrorist organizations in return for a regular supply of drugs. Some terrorist groups consider the use drugs as a form of social attack on the population of target nations.

Terrorist as non-state actors

Majority of terrorist groups operate autonomously from government as many governments would not risk identification with terrorist groups. Terrorist groups are the most dangerous among non-state groups such as insurgents, rebels groups, dissident armed forces, and liberation movements (Nacos, 2008). In most cases non-state actors act against government policies and are known to operate from regions where government control is absent. In many cases non-state actors have operational bases in countries where governments have failed. Non-state actors are defined as organizations that are not recognized as legitimate but use military tactics to achieve military goals.

Political goals

Terror groups are involved in pursuit of political goals by using various tactics. However, the political goal of terrorist groups determines the activities of terrorist groups. According to Nacos (2008), terrorist groups with that have non-religious and ideological activities aim to limit the number of victims in their attack. The groups limit the number of causalities in order to reduce the risk of undermining their support bases.

On the other hand, religious terrorist groups are motivated by political goals that have a religious undercurrent. Religious groups have an apocalyptic frame of reference and aim to kill as many people as possible in a terrorist attack (Juergensmeyer, 2004). The members of religious political groups are not afraid if dying as death means they will be rewarded in the afterlife (Venkatraman, 2007). Killing non-believers and spreading their religion is considered a moral duty of the members. For example, Al-Qeada’s 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya claimed more Kenyan lives than those of Americans. Over 95 per cent of the total causalities were non-Americans. More than 5000 Kenyans were injured in the 1998 blasts showing that political-religious terrorist groups have little regard for the lives of non-believers (Weisburd et al, 2011). Terrorist groups use symbolism widely as they have a tendency to strike on special occasions and on anniversaries.

Isis Analysis

Use of fear by ISIS and Attack on Civilians

A timeline of attacks carried out by ISIS can help shed light on whether the group is really a terrorist group. In November 2015, ISIS launched one of the worst terrorist attacks on a western capital (Haress, 2015). In the November attacks in Paris, 129 civilians were killed in series of coordinated strikes. ISIS attacks in Paris were the first outside the Middle East where the group has been carrying out a very effective and deadly terror campaign. However, ISIS is not the traditional terror group as some of their activities include attacks on armed forces across the Middle East. The New York Times reported that ISIS has been responsible for 51 attacks since September 2014 (Haress, 2015). Many of these ISIS attacks were centered in the Middle East and were not targeted at civilian targets. ISIS attacks can be grouped into those aimed at spreading terror and fear and those aimed at expanding the Islamic caliphate they are trying to build in the Middle East.

ISIS attacks aimed at creating fear use brutal tactics such as beheading and slashing of victims to create a dramatic effect. In September 2014, ISIS militants beheaded a tourist they had kidnapped in Algeria as retaliation for airstrikes against ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq (Haress, 2015). A month later, a member of ISIS shot dead a soldier in Ottawa and stormed the Canadian parliament. The attacker fired several times inside the chamber before he was shot by authorities. In December 2014, an gunman acting on behalf of ISIS hold 17 people in a Sydney Café. In January 2015, ISIS was associated with attacks at French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. During the attack, three gunmen shot 12 people and injured another 11 (Haress, 2015). During the same month, ISIS affiliates in Tripoli and Sinai carried out attacks which at least 22 civilians, 24 soldiers and police officers. In June 2015, a ISIS gunmen killed 40 people in an attack in a hotel in Tunisia. Majority of those killed in the attack were British tourists.

Unlike many other terrorist groups, ISIS carries out attack against military installations. In April 2015, ISIS Libya killed 13 soldiers using car bombs at military checkpoints (Haress, 2015). In the same month, ISIS carried out several separate attacks against the Egyptian military which left at least 12 soldiers dead. Later in the month, ISIS released a video of militants killing 15 yemen government soldiers. In July 2015, ISIS carried another coordinated attack against Egyptian army position killings dozens of soldiers. According to Fisher (2014), Islamic State control vast territories in central and NorthWestern Iraq and has seized some border town in Syria and Jordan. ISIS has been able to capture huge territories in Iraq and Syria blurring the old colonial boundaries in the area. Unlike other terrorist groups, the group is bent of using military conquest in expanding the Islamic caliphate it envisions (Haress, 2015). The ambitions of ISIS have seen the group operate outside the ambits of traditional terrorist groups. ISIS is engaged in a war for territorial control with government forces in Syria, Iraq and other unstable states in the Middle East.

ISIS as a non-State Actor

ISIS is obviously a non-state actor as seen by its activities against the interest of various governments. Since its early day, ISIS has carried out a non-state agenda and in many cases the terrorist group has acted as a destabilizing force in Middle Eastern states (Haress, 2015). Many countries are engaged in the fight against the spread of ISIS. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria and Libya are some of the states where ISIS cells and insurgents operate and threaten the safety of citizens in the countries. ISIS is also a global threat to peace and stability as seen by the attacks in Paris and other Western cities.

However, it is questionable for how long ISIS intends to remain a non-state actor. According to Fisher (2014), ISIS has the ambition to start an Islamic caliphate (state) in the regions it is taking by military conquest. ISIS also a plan to establish governance structures modeled on Islamic ideals in the countries it is working to topple governments.

Political Goals

One common characteristic of terrorist group is their pursuit of political goals. Obviously, ISIS activities are aimed at achieving a political goal for the Islamic constituent. However, ISIS political goals are more ambitious than those of any previous terrorist groups (Fisher, 2014). ISIS is already occupying territories and in the process blurring traditional political boundaries in an ambitious plan to build a pan-islamic caliphate. Nacos (2008) believes that terrorists are distinct from other violent groups as their greatest motivation is secular or religious political goals which benefit a wider constituency. ISIS maintains that it is carrying out a Jihad “holy war” against non-believers that will end in the creation of a unified Islamic State (Juergensmeyer, 2003). ISIS ambitions include Islamizing the whole world by killing or converting non-believers to Islam (Fisher, 2014). ISIS believes it can achieve these ambitious political goals through violence and terror and thus can be defined as a terrorist group.

ISIS Finance

Like other Terrorist groups, ISIS gets majority of its finance from criminal activities. It is believed that the Afghan Heroine trade brings up to $1 billion to ISIS. Some argue that Afghan heroine which is sold in Europe could bring the militants up to $50 billion (Malm, 2015). ISIS also loots banks in areas it has captured. In one incident, ISIS was able to loot $429 in cash from the Central Bank in Mosul. According to Malm (2015), ISIS could use the money looted to pay more jihadists to fight in the war against its enemies. ISIS is also engaged in illegal oil trade and ships out 9,000 barrels of oil from oil fields it has captured in Iraq and Syria.


ISIS is unlike any other terrorist groups that have been studied in literature on terrorist groups. However, ISIS still bears most of the traditional characteristic of terrorist groups. First, many of ISIS terror attacks are target at civilian populations and are meant to spread fear and help ISIS in efforts to influence government policy. But, ISIS is also known for carrying out brazen attacks against military position, and is engaged in an occupation war in Syria. Perhaps the biggest reason to categorize ISIS as a terrorist group is its pursuit of political goals. ISIS carries out it terrorist activities with the aim of creating and expanding an Islamic caliphate. ISIS believes it is engaged in a war against non-believers and opponents of Islam. ISIS also operates as a non-state actor as seen by attacks against government forces in the Middle-East. Finally, ISIS is funded from the proceeds of criminal activities and illegal trade just like many other terrorist organizations across the world.


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