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Dr. Michael Allen

ISIS: America's next war

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In anticipation of his Saturday, April 25 public presentation on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Boise Weekly sat down with Dr. Michael Allen to talk about the terrorist regime known as ISIS. Though our conversation with the Boise State University political scientist took place on a fine, almost serene, spring day half-a-world away from the corner of hell occupied by ISIS, the topic was still chilling.

Allen emphasized the science of political science. His long list of published works—impressive for a 32-year-old professor, author, husband and new father—on international politics is based on statistics and analyses of data sets. Allen conceded he is a "data nerd."

"Absolutely. Almost everything I publish is based on statistical analyses," Allen said. "When the average person thinks about political science, they may picture someone talking about politics. But a lot of what I do is large statistical analysis. It's a lot of math."

Yet the topic of ISIS inspires multiple emotions, not the least of which are fear and/or hatred. It was a rare opportunity to have such a measured conversation with someone who probably knows more about ISIS than anyone else in the Treasure Valley, at least from a scholar's perspective.

I think it's fair to say that many of our questions regarding ISIS are going to include the word "why."

In political science, we're interested in causation. That's the name of the game. You want to explain why particular things happen.

Isn't it fair to say that ISIS wants to redraw the map of the world?

Fundamentally, all politics are about redistribution and ISIS disagrees with the current distribution of resources in Syria and other countries. Indeed, they've proclaimed a worldwide caliphate where they are actively redrawing ISIS territories that don't reflect traditional colonial borders. Yet, they've required traditional strategic resources, such as oil and water.

Let me pause you there. How significant are ISIS oil assets?

It's estimated that they currently receive $1- to $3 million a day from selling oil on the black market. It's also estimated that they have about $2 billion in assets. [NPR's] Planet Money had a fascinating report on black market oil. It's very hard to track.

Do we have any sense of where that black market oil is going?

There's some speculation that it's being funneled through Turkey. But when you see a tanker-full, you really don't know where all that oil came from. Indeed, some of it may be so-called "conflict oil."

Let's talk a bit about the huge swath of territory that ISIS controls in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. It's the equivalent of a good-sized nation, maybe two or three.

To hold that much territory suggests that they're very powerful. A trend in looking at civil wars and insurgencies is, if you want to act as if you're a state, then you need to provide social services. They provide health care, schools, roads, electricity. The name Islamic State is not a misnomer.

How does their extremism define who they really are?

There are usually four reasons why terrorists engage in terrorism: No. 1 is coercion or the threat of force; No. 2 is spoiling or derailing peace talks; No. 3 is provocation or using violence to get another party to overreact, and they're certainly doing that; and No. 4 is outbidding, or being successful in competing with other extremists.

And how do we best measure their success in any of that?

Media coverage and/or recruitment.

To that end, Western media coverage of ISIS is considerable.

They're quite savvy with social media and they certainly have a sense of how much they're being covered by Western media. Look at how their escalated atrocities get so much free coverage. There was a very interesting report last month on [NPR's] Radiolab. It turns out that during World War II, the Japanese floated balloons with bombs aboard across the Pacific to strike American cities. That terrorism was intended to terrorize the American public, but you never heard about it. Our government clamped down on the reporting about the balloons. You can't have that in today's world. There are no rules and everyone is a media source.

Well, you certainly access NPR-curated media. What other mainstream media do you pay attention to when it comes to ISIS?

We don't have cable TV at home. I grew up at a time of significant growth of the Internet. So, I'm on Reddit quite often. If I want a general political understanding of ISIS, I would probably go the Monkey Cage blog at Washingtonpost.com.

Do you think that ISIS is being underestimated or even overestimated?

Given that we're now involved in that conflict, we are certainly treating ISIS as a serious threat, but we keep hoping that regional forces will deal with ISIS so that we don't have to. The problem with wars like these is that they end by one side winning.

But is this conflict now at a stage where we have two sides: ISIS versus the global coalition against ISIS?

Most of the Islamic world now thinks ISIS is wrong and their caliphate is illegitimate.

Let's next consider ISIS' particular brand of misogyny and cruelty.

Sexual violence is a tool of war to demoralize your enemy. And women are captured and used as rewards, almost as a reward, to some of their recruits.

What do you want to know about ISIS that you don't know now?

I would be very interested to learn more about the levels of support that they're gaining in places that they've taken over, but there's not a lot of media that is present. They capture reporters, or kidnap them.

Or behead them.

That's right. As a result, the reporting is pretty bad on how many people are actually dying at the hands of ISIS.

To be clear, if a U.S.-led coalition wanted to carpet bomb ISIS off the face of the Earth right now, we could do that. We do know exactly where they are.

Absolutely. But carpet bombing is problematic. It's indiscriminate violence.

Is it your sense that the global coalition against ISIS is growing?

I believe so. In addition to being terrible to humans, ISIS is terrible to human culture. And I think they're shocking more and more people with every passing day. But the less the coalition commits to actual troops on the ground against ISIS, the worse it will likely become. If most of the support is distant, that's not going to be a winning strategy. You have to control territory to win a conflict like this.

You're in a very unique position, because our nation is in some desperate need of some really good scholarship on this topic, sooner rather than later, and this is your wheelhouse.

Much of my research includes analyses of something called asymmetric interaction, where you have one very powerful force versus another very weak force. In 400 B.C., Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, when the all-powerful Athens was up against a tiny colony of only a couple of hundred people. Athens said, "You either join us in an alliance, or we're going to destroy your existence." But the people of that tiny colony only hoped that the Gods would smile on them and implored Athens to be more just. But Athens' response was, "Justice doesn't matter when the strong see what they want and the weak suffer what they must."

So, are you saying that when we see ISIS up against Syria or Iraq, things may be more symmetrical, but when we see ISIS up against the United States, then we're talking about that asymmetric interaction?

That's right. Right now ISIS is considered to be pretty powerful versus only Syria or Iraq. But there's a huge asymmetry between the U.S. and ISIS.

And, by most accounts, that appears to be the direction where all of this is heading.

Yes. Right now it is.

How our country chooses to deal with ISIS is about to become a political football in the next 18 months. I can imagine that we'll be hearing a wide array of possible solutions to ISIS from the presidential candidates—everything from ignoring or walking away from the conflict to dropping a nuclear bomb on them.

Democrats will blame George W. Bush for ISIS. Republicans will blame Obama for ISIS. They're both not wrong. Think of it: We don't get ISIS as a consistent force if Saddam Hussein had continued to control Iraq after 2003. And conversely, ISIS only became a significant military force after the Iraq government went away after we crushed Iraq in 2009 and then we withdrew. That created a vacuum for ISIS to emerge. Both parties are going to blame each other.

Your wife [Dr. Julie VanDusky-Allen] is also a professor here at Boise State, and her expertise is politics. So, isn't this where your work and her work intersect?

I'm a lot less interested in domestic politics. Wars are easier to understand.