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Do we overestimate Daesh’s capabilities?

December 12, 2015 at 1:09 pm

John Kerry has branded the members of Daesh as psychopathic monsters; François Hollande calls them barbarians; and David Cameron describes them as a death cult. Simultaneously, they have been described as the greatest threat facing the US by Kerry, while Cameron has said that Britain will “never be safe” until they are defeated. On one level, Western leaders are painting Daesh as a bunch of mindless terrorists and on another, they are emphasising the great danger they pose to our societies, which implies that they are an organised and highly capable group. Are we, though, overestimating Daesh’s capabilities?

Survivors’ accounts and brutal execution videos certainly attest to the notion that the group is simply a collection of mindless terrorists. They have captured territory by using fear as a tactic but apparently struggle in trying to manage the areas under their control because they lack the necessary skills; a refugee from Daesh-held territory recounted to Humans of New York how he was released from captivity after promising to set up a hospital and manage it. While the group has claimed responsibility for the October bombing of a Russian passenger aircraft, which killed all of the 224 people on board, we are not yet sure whether Daesh ordered the Beirut and Paris attacks directly or merely inspired or facilitated them.

However, whether inspired or coordinated, the group’s ability to attract others to do such horrendous acts in its name shows how well its propaganda machine functions. Recruitment, at least, is a professional process; trained Daesh members seek out potential recruits and spend hours exploiting their personal grievances online until they are somehow persuaded and prepared to board a plane that will take them from comfortable lives in Europe and elsewhere to the battlefields of Syria.

Documents obtained by the Guardian recently demonstrate that behind the death cult image is a methodical bureaucracy busy mapping out a state. About 340 official documents, notices, receipts and internal memos seen by the newspaper show that Daesh has been trying to rebuild everything from roads and nurseries to hotels and market places. It has also established 16 centralised departments including one for public health and a natural resources department that oversees oil and antiquities. It has posted notices advertising job opportunities within the newly-established zakat (alms tax) department akin to a social services team. On the education front, there were announcements about the beginning of the school term, the opening of a kindergarten and the recruitment of teachers.

So is Daesh intent solely on building up its own infrastructure in its self-declared Caliphate and only acting in self-defence to counter what it believes is Western interference in Middle East affairs? Or is it a serious existential threat to Western nations as the group tries to expand its area of influence? The mixed messages coming from politicians highlight that there remain far more questions about Daesh than we have answers.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.