How to Dehumanize a Terrorist: Give Him an MBA

ISIS has swept across Iraq in a stunning show of force, accumulating land and capital at a staggering rate. How, after a decade of American presence in Iraq, can this possibly be explained? What language do we even have for this?

“ISIS: The first terror group to build an Islamic state?

The face of a balding, middle-aged man stares unsmilingly into the camera. He is dressed in a suit and tie and could pass for a midlevel bureaucrat.

But the photograph is that of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who has transformed a few terror cells harried to the verge of extinction into the most dangerous militant group in the world.

“1,083 Assassinations and Other Performance Metrics: ISIS’s Year in Review

The [ISIS annual report] document demonstrates yet again that Islamist groups overtly committed to eradicating modern, Western influences from Muslim countries often embrace modern, Western business practices in their organizations.

“Selling terror: how Isis details its brutality

The reports paint a picture of an organisation that analysts say is not so much the ragtag terrorist band depicted by Iraqi officials but more of an organised military structure with a clear political strategy to set up a Sunni sectarian state — and one with several of the hallmarks of a corporate entity…

Deft use of social media has been at the forefront of its campaigning tactics in Syria and Iraq. When it comes to using platforms such as Twitter, Isis is “probably more sophisticated than most US companies,” said Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadis and fellow at the Washington Institute.

“ISIS Brings Business Acumen To Violent Jihad

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is proving to be both militant and disciplined, borrowing organizational tools from the corporate world to professionalize its operations…

One example: It decided to pay its fighters less than other groups. ISIS calculated that the lower pay will attract men who are more ideologically committed, and are not just in the fight for the money.

Excel spreadsheets and guns? Management theory and ideological extremism? I am fixated on this fixation: That ISIS is well funded and organized is obviously significant, but what makes the concept of its business savvy so fascinating, so unlikely, and so sticky? It’s an odd narrative within which the media is contextualizing a massive, difficult geopolitical event — and one that, to the nearby and the sober, isn’t shocking at all.

“ISIS, and al-Qaeda, for that matter, have always been highly bureaucratic organizations,” Aaron Zelin tells Businessweek. Recall as well the brief period after 9/11 and before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when the administration’s portrayal of al-Qaeda gave it quite a bit of credit — when the idea of a sophisticated “international financial network” supporting international terror attacks entered the American consciousness. In November of 2001, the President described a group of organizations that “manage, invest and distribute funds. They provide terrorist supporters with Internet service, secure telephone communications and other ways of sending messages and sharing information.”

“The entry point for these networks may be a small storefront operation,” he said. “But follow the network to its center, and you discover wealthy banks and sophisticated technology, all at the service of mass murderers.”

But this quickly — very quickly — gave way to a much more durable portrait of al-Qaeda, as a primitive tribe of unsophisticated fanatics with Skype accounts. This was simpler and more effective in wartime: To describe an enemy as a 14th-century anachronism, precluding any and all understanding of reason or motive, robs them of both humanity and power.

So how do you both give credit to ISIS and maintain its absolute otherness? Recast its leaders as corporate raiders! It’s perfect. It’s a type that’s both recognizable and difficult to empathize with; it explains a group’s motivations without requiring you to understand them. It’s a business narrative — a disruption narrative — which is increasingly the dominant type of narrative, laden with clean premises and familiar, if unknowable, forces. It aligns, for a Western audience, the foreign desire for an Islamic state with that inevitable quality of industry: The unquestioning desire for growth.