Understanding ISIS: What is Clan-like behavior?

Everyday Sicilians put up with the cosa nostra because well, they get something out of it. Arising out of familial propensities, they like the idea that if they have a dispute they can resolve it with a third cousin who knows a guy, without going to some court or having to deal with some humorless bureaucrat. They consent to the cosa nostra, knowing full well that the system impinges their individual freedoms. It does so in that just as favors can be dealt, and disputes resolved, family feuds and other baggage can foist their own obligations upon those favored.

People come up with their own calculations as to what is the right tradeoff, between individual freedom versus the double-edged sword of benefits and liabilities to the clan. Would you rather be able to lean on Giuseppe for a favor, for some aid, knowing that he is likely to invoke something Godfather-esque, like the famous quotation by Don Corleone after he has granted Bonasera’s request: “someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me[i].” Some people are warm to the idea, and for others it is more situational. “Maybe I’d do the favor if it were my blood brother,” some people might think. Given that a good brother has callable favors at any given time anyways. But a web of favors can go too far. They can easily tip the scales toward unsavoriness, as the whole concept of a favor implies it is to transact outside of routine. Favors can tip toward violence, or illegal, immoral behavior. And the nature of favors, because what drives them are tribal affinities can dip dangerously into payback. Afghanistan, and its neighbor Waziristan, for example, are plagued by retribution and asynchronous honor killings. The key is that big clans struggle and kill for reasons sometimes unknown to the perpetrators, and certainly to those on the wrong side of the barrel. A hallmark is that vengeance lingers in disproportion to the draw of practicality. The clan has pitfalls. Again, the size of the group is important. An immediate family is something any family member, even a child, has some degree of agency over. But an entire clan? The Godfather mantra is a gangster ethos, an example of the acute clan mentality that mobsters all over the world must have in order to defend against the police, informants, and the courts.

ISIS, the terror group that is too extreme for Al-Qaeda, is a clan-based organization. Maybe it is not painted as such in the media: it is Sunni, composed of a number of former Saddam loyalists, former Baathists, etc. You could carve an identity for ISIS out of whom it loathes: it is anti-Kurdish, anti-Yazidi, anti-Free Syrian Army, anti-Assad, anti-Western, anti-establishment, anti-State, and of course, fiendishly anti-Shia (it is hard to imagine ISIS growing in scale and relevance amidst an inclusive power-sharing environment out of Baghdad).

You could get a darn good idea of ISIS from what it is NOT, but then again, as my 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Smith always said- "if your thesis statement is against something, there are still an infinite number of things you could be for." Well, there isn't that much wiggle room for ISIS, given the pigeonhole it has carved for itself- I can't imagine they are donating much of the seized gold taels to Orbis, or Breast Cancer Awareness, or the Girl Scouts of Lebanon. One thing they are for is clan. They are for that space above family- they don't want the intimacy of mirrored basic assumptions, and actually knowing people, in fact they want to break families, in order to merge and coerce those smaller units into governable and taxable, conscriptable and controllable clans (it is harder to do that with families, because sisters appeal to brothers, mothers appeal to fathers); yet, the larger meta-idea of citizenship is also unappealing- it is too diverse, involves too many compromises, and requires too much institutional give-and-take in exchange for supposedly larger civic and National benefits. 

There is no reference point for the clan in the contemporary West. Similarly, the Chinese social unit of group is a smaller one than clan today, and the emphasis is direct ties to family. In other words, the clan is an abstraction- when you imagine an ancestor they are specific people.

How do you think of ISIS? What are their basic assumptions? To defeat them mustn't one try to understand them? 

What jumps out at me in the news are stories of random assortments of militiaman, coming from all over the world, just sort of show up, get issued an armband and rifle and go out there into the Iraqi-Syrian desert. Just now it seems the Iraqis discovered the first ethnic Chinese ISIS fighter. Seems that however ISIS defines "clan," they have a very strenuous policy of accepting, nurturing, and protecting clan-members. And just as the cosa nostra was toppled from its mighty heights a few decades ago by those who informed upon it and turned state's evidence against it, breaking it from the inside, maybe the key to understanding ISIS is not through the (outside looking in) label "terrorist," but of clan, albeit a very sickening and violent clan, a mafia group with all the rhythms, strengths and weaknesses of a classically clan-based structure.