American University’s Tricia Bacon and Georgetown University’s Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault have a new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism journal on the break between Al Qaeda and Islamic State. The article’s abstract:
Employing counterfactuals to assess individual and systemic explanations for the split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), this article concludes that individual leaders factor greatly into terrorist alliance outcomes. Osama bin Laden was instrumental in keeping al Qaeda and ISIS allied as he prioritized unity and handled internal disputes more deftly than his successor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although a troubled alliance, strategic differences between al Qaeda and ISIS were not sufficient to cause the split. Rather, the capabilities of al Qaeda’s leader determined the group’s ability to prevent alliance ruptures.
The article is an interesting use of the counterfactual method for causal inference of explanations. The authors’ focus on Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri contrasts with other explanations such as Will McCants’ focus on Islamic State’s apocalyptic belief system.
During my on-going PhD research at Monash University, I’ve increasingly focused on ‘dissertation to book’ studies from university presses (Cambridge, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford) that develop and test formal theories. This has been a surprise to me – given that my earlier published research used critical theory and journalism experience.
The latest study I’m looking at is Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro’s Nuclear Politics: The Strategic Causes of Nuclear Proliferation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). They include a puzzle and case study based approach that emphasises the pivotal role of security concerns. Their book includes coding rules and a formal theory: a useful ‘writing model’ for the relevant sections of my draft thesis.
RAND has a new research paper out on Islamic State’s economics:
At its peak, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) controlled vast portions of territory in Iraq and Syria with several million inhabitants. ISIL’s territorial ambition and desire to conduct state-like governance over this territory are integral to its global ideological appeal. By examining ISIL’s impact on local economic activity in Iraq and Syria, this report seeks to assess the effectiveness of ISIL’s governance over its self-styled caliphate.
This report leverages remote sensing data and commercial satellite imagery to offer a unique, data-driven look inside areas controlled by the Islamic State. It paints a bleak picture of economic life under ISIL, replete with shortages of electricity, massive refugee flows, reductions in agricultural output, and upticks in violence all associated with ISIL control.
At times, ISIL was able to build a dense governing apparatus that helped maintain stable local commercial activity, particularly in its strategic capitals in Raqqah and Mosul. At other times, ISIL mismanaged key resources or sought to punish its citizenry rather than govern it. However, this report suggests that decaying economic conditions in ISIL-held territory are also a product of ISIL’s inability to insulate its territory from opposing military forces. Outside pressure against ISIL successfully prevented the group from realizing its governing ambitions across significant parts of its caliphate, with major consequences for its ability to support functioning local economies.
This report is important for those trying to understand the group’s impact on local populations in Iraq and Syria, for those seeking to counter its financing or conduct post-conflict stabilization, and for broader efforts to understand the economic impact of insurgent governance.
I’ll likely be citing it in my in-progress PhD chapter on Islamic State.