“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” reads the bronzed plaque beneath the symbol of immigration and refuge at the mouth of New York’s harbor. For over a century, the Statue of Liberty has towered in America’s history as a monument to an open, pluralistic society—one which welcomes the world’s downtrodden to a new age of opportunity. But now there’s a new colossus in town, a shining beacon on the hill for renegades, refugees, and jihadis-in-training from across the globe, located in the land now under the jurisdiction of the Islamic State. Many casually dismiss the Islamic State’s longevity, but in reality, like it or not, the Islamic State has tapped into what has been commonly thought of as sole property to fully-fledged nations: the power of symbolism.
It’s been just over one week since Hayat Boumeddiene, wife to the Paris Kosher mart hostage-taker, slipped across the notoriously porous Turkish-Syrian border and into territory under Islamic State control. In the space of those eight days, the ugly truth has emerged that the Islamic State has come to represent a type of struggle against oppression and ignorance in the modern world. With accomplished devotees flocking to join the ranks of those living (and dieing) under the black banner, IS has won an internal PR victory as it draws from its Diaspora of disgruntled Jihadis in Europe and the Americas. Believe you me, this is not the last we’ll hear of Hayat’s new life in the Caliphate.
And while Akcakale in South-Eastern Turkey is no Ellis Island, Hayat passed through on her way to live a life among devotees to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, much like Europeans came to America in search of an opportunity. Realizing her and her deceased husband’s aspirations for a life more in line with their radical ideology, call her a criminal fugitive—with blood on her hands and hatred in her eyes–, or a desperate refugee—fleeing the ignorance of the lands of the infidel—but it all comes down to your perspective. What has been motivating these people, these lone wolves and sleeper cells, to erupt into violence and pledge allegiance to a new flag?
An analyst had examined Hayat’s deceased husband long before the attack, and had determined him to be clinically sane—albeit with a disturbing wish to be “all-powerful”. Now does that mean that his wife shared those dreams? Did she help to orchestrate the Paris attacks with the intent of cozying up to the Islamic State and garnering some adoration from one of the most powerful terrorist groups in modern history? And do these distinctions take away from the intrinsic draw of the Islamic State as an anti-thesis to the West’s policies and positions? Whatever the answers may be, it’s safe to say that none of these questions point to anything less than the disturbing staying power of the Middle East’s newest country, thanks to its universal symbolic appeal.
On the disputed subject of IS’s staying power, look no further than the shifting landscape of the Islamic State’s campaign against the West. Though not an outright declaration of state-on-state war, IS’s ability to hack into the United States’ Centcom Twitter account and project their dominance looks more like the work of an international actor than a gang of misfits bound to be extinguished in the coming months.
What we’re talking about here is a land under the control not just of a stand-alone government entity, but one with its own mythology and symbolic draw that has already attracted the allegiance of countless Jihadi-hopefuls around the globe. A looming monolith, draped in black.