Small Wars Journal

Countering the Evolving Islamic State: How Psychology Informs a Realist Strategy

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 12:33am

Countering the Evolving Islamic State: How Psychology Informs a Realist Strategy

Kimbra L. Fishel

The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States calls for the destruction of ISIS and its affiliates. As ISIS continues to lose territory in Syria and Iraq, the threat from the regional Caliphate diminishes as that from the global virtual Caliphate expands. This article utilizes psychological concepts from social identity theory and fusion theory within an overall framework of political realism to construct an ends, ways and means strategy to counter the evolving threat in Syria and Iraq, Europe and the United States. The strategy can be further applied on a global basis to all Islamist terror organizations.

“The political objective of war itself is not per se the conquest of territory and the annihilation of the enemy armies, but a change in the mind of the enemy which will make him yield to the will of the victor.”

--Hans J. Morgenthau[1]


The United States is in a state of war with the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical Islamist terror organizations.  Neutralization or destruction of ISIS and its affiliates is a large component of current US national security strategy. The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) calls for direct military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the disruption of terror plots, the destruction of terrorist safe havens and sources of finance, a shared responsibility with allies in confronting the threat and combatting radicalization to counter ISIS ideology.[2] This policy is reflective of the Trump Administration’s overall strategy of ‘Principled Realism,’ in which US national security concerns and interests are at the forefront of US foreign policy, and international actors are viewed with at least an instrumental rationality. However, the tactic of terror contains a psychological element that moves the PSYOP component of the war to the forefront. The concepts of social identity theory and fusion theory from political psychology, when working within an overall framework of realism, lend insight into the development of a strategy to counter an evolving ISIS threat. This paper develops a strategy for countering the threat of ISIS in three main theatres: Iraq and Syria, Europe, the United States. It presents a campaign that is adaptable to the changing nature of the ISIS threat with the collapse of the regional Caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the expansion of the global virtual caliphate. It argues that US actions must secure the ways and means of meeting the Administration’s end goal – that of destruction of the ISIS threat and overall stability of the region -- through a campaign heavily targeted on Islamist ideology and centered upon psychological operations. In so doing it sets the groundwork for expansion of the strategy throughout all areas of the globe where radical Islamists organizations operate. It also demonstrates how theory informs practice if appropriately utilized, bridging the practitioner – scholar divide.


The Trump Administration’s NSS accurately identifies the ISIS end goal as creation of the global Islamic caliphate and notes its totalitarian vision. The Islamic State evolved out of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a Sunni Islamist terror organization. ISIS represents a politico-religious ideology based on the 7th century Islamic Caliphate that is antithetical to Western values and ideals and opposes all Muslims who do not share its view of Islam. By 2014, the Islamist movement captured large areas of Syria and Iraq and attracted tens of thousands of foreigners, including ‘engineers, accountants, teachers, grandparents,’ teenage girls and fighters who sought to establish the regional Caliphate.[3] ISIS distinguished itself from other Islamist organizations such as Al Qaeda in that it acquired an ability to seize and hold territory and function as a state. ISIS’s success at establishing its transnational organization came by holding territory while simultaneously spreading the concept of the global caliphate. It undermined competitors, attracted sympathizers and grew in regions that were ungovernable by states.[4] These areas include not only Iraq and Syria but also Yemen, regions of Saudi Arabia, Libya and Nigeria, where Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and renamed itself the Islamic State’s West African Province. ISIS exists in at least 60 countries.[5]

Although an asymmetric non-state organization, ISIS can be looked at through the rational actor lens. The rational actor model derives from realism, which views the state as the primary actor in an anarchic international arena. Furthermore, states are rational actors that seek their own interests and operate on a cost benefit analysis as they pursue those interests. However, realism long predates the 1648 Westphalian system and can be traced back to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, so the concept of the rational actor need not apply only to states but may be extended to other entities in the international system. Realism at its essence is inherently psychological. So too, is the tactic of terror. Countering ISIS is a psychological campaign of power, and in the words of Hans J. Morgenthau, ‘When we speak of power, we mean man’s control over the minds and actions of other men.’[6] The most famous articulation of the Rational Actor Model is Graham Allison’s development of Model 1 in his examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Allison argues that analysts see states as unitary rational actors, and actions undertaken by states can be understood in terms of the strategic problems faced by the state.[7] ISIS as an entity can be accurately viewed in terms of strategic problems faced by the state if its ideological basis is understood.

Rationality in this case is understood as one of instrumental rationality. Its end goal of the global caliphate complete with apocalyptic aspects may not be rational within the current international system, but whether ISIS operates from an instrumental rationality can be examined. In other words, can the behavior of the entity be anticipated based upon its end goals? In this case, the answer is yes, and ISIS makes it particularly easy as it often tells the West what it is going to do in advance.

ISIS utilizes social media to incite global support for operations and mujahideen recruitment. By 2014, at least 60 militant Islamist groups had pledged allegiance to or support for the Islamic State.[8] Since that time, a series of attacks throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States demonstrated ISIS’s global reach as well as its ability to attract a worldwide flow of recruits. Unlike Al Qaeda which primarily stressed a global virtual network and the spectacular terror attack, ISIS initially captured and held territory in Iraq and Syria, functioning as a state as well as an Islamist terror network. In June 15, 2014 Operation Inherent Resolve began military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. By April 2018, the regional caliphate in Iraq and Syria was all but destroyed by the United States and coalition partners.

In 2016, terrorism specialist Rohan Gunaratna maintained that as ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, it will continue to expand in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and SE Asia and will eventually attempt a spectacular utilizing its foreign fighters.[9] The 2015 Paris attacks demonstrated the ISIS/local nexus and the capability to carry out an attack. Similarly, US Director of National Intelligence Dan R Coats maintains with the loss of territory, the ISIS threat in 2018 is that the organization will regroup in a long-term insurgency to reestablish itself in the region while giving priority to transnational terror attacks and global interconnection. This threat includes home country attacks carried out by ISIS sympathizers.[10] ISIS has supplied ample evidence for these concerns. Since 2016, ISIS has published 13 magazines in languages including English, German, French, and Arabic and released videos promoting jihad, and the August 2017 attack in Spain was detailed in the ISIS magazine Rumiyah, which also called for “all-out war” against the West.[11] In Europe, EUROPOL also recognizes the long-term security challenge from the increased threat of attack in European states as foreign fighters return home or infiltrate states as territory is lost in Iraq and Syria.[12]

An examination of ISIS through a rational actor lens focusing on instrumental rationality shows that the following threats are apparent:

  • As ISIS loses its regional caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it will reorganize in an insurgency to reestablish itself in the region.
  • ISIS will simultaneously shift from a territorially based entity to a virtual, globally based entity.
  • ISIS fighters will infiltrate states or return to their home country as territory is lost, threatening both Europe and America.
  • ISIS will inspire home grown sympathizers to carry out terror attacks.
  • ISIS will attempt a spectacular terror attack.


The US and coalition objective against ISIS is threefold – to neutralize or destroy Islamists, to target uncommitted Muslims away from the Islamists’ camp, and to support reformists who are Muslim whether the theatre of operation is in Iraq and Syria, Europe or in the US homeland.  The last objective is reflective of the emerging group of reformists who are Muslim who seek assimilation as Muslims into the wider modern world. The realist analysis sees ISIS as an actor of instrumental rationality and sets the international stage of conflict. It is a stage of ‘mind manipulation,’ what is often called a ‘war for hearts and minds’ between ISIS and those opposed to its world view of the next Islamist Caliphate. The Trump Administration’s ‘principled realism’ is reflected in its approach to the ISIS threat. The sections below expand on that approach with an emphasis on the war for hearts and minds aimed at all three target areas.

Iraq and Syria

The ongoing successful ground campaign in Syria and Iraq must continue until all territory captured by ISIS is retaken and the physical caliphate is destroyed. According to the former Deputy Assistant to President Trump, Sebastian Gorka, moving from the Obama strategy of attrition to the Trump strategy of annihilation resulted in military success on the ground. This involved the setting of grand strategy and policy at the NSC and DOD levels while leaving theatre operations to the commanders in the field as well as calling for a Muslim/Arab partnership with the US to meet the ongoing threat.[13] The objective of destruction of the regional caliphate requires this continued arrangement in Washington and on the ground.

Destruction of the Caliphate must coincide with regional stability, else there is danger of Iranian, Syrian and Russian influence in the area antithetical to the interests of the US and its allies. While the Trump policy differs in some ways from the former Administration’s policy, some analysts argue that the Trump strategy is only an amplification of Obama’s strategy. For example, analyst Phillip Lohaus testified before Congress that despite successes certain elements of the Trump strategy remain similar to Obama’s strategy, including special forces direct action missions, airstrikes, and the use of drones, and the problem remains that there is still no plan for a post-Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria; if American involvement is reduced too soon the Islamic State will reemerge.[14] Planning for a post-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is required for long term stability in the region, and the adaptability to the shifting ISIS threat is required. Meeting the regional stability objective requires long term planning for a post-Islamic state.

Another objective is containment of the shifting threat of ISIS as the regional Caliphate is destroyed. In recognition of the shifting nature of the threat, Gunaratna calls for a full engagement of a four-dimensional threat composed of the ISIS core in Syria and Iraq, the ISIS branches, the global ISIS infiltration and the online ISIS.[15] This type of approach will become even more relevant as ISIS loses territory and switches to an Al Qaeda style strategy, employing decentralized cells for operations and high-profile attacks.[16] In short, ISIS loss of territory does not equate to victory against ISIS due to the ability of the organization to effectively move from one style of conflict to another, from a territorial based operation to a decentralized global mode of recruitment and attack. It is because of the nature of the threat posed by ISIS that analyst Michael Pregent testified before Congress that from a tactical and operational standpoint what is needed beyond the taking of ISIS territory is for US forces to partner with local Sunni forces that can hold territory while US Special Operations Forces conduct kill and capture operations.[17] Strategically, the US must work toward reconciliation in Iraq and Syria as well as the dismantling of the militia. Pregent fears this will not occur due to Russian and Iranian actions in the area.[18] Thus, ISIS activity will remain a recurring problem.

Pregent makes some useful points, but he does not go far enough. The concern with creation of a power vacuum by premature withdrawal of US forces is a legitimate issue. President Trump recently indicated the United States would pull out of Syria ‘soon’ and is considering his options,[19] although the recent Syrian chemical attack in Douma will render that prospect moot in the short term. Whether Trump’s statements are part of diplomatic maneuvering to pressure other countries in the region and in Europe to take on more of the burden remains to be seen. However, the United States vacating the area is not a viable option, as the Islamic State will attempt to reestablish the regional caliphate, and Iran will seek a permanent military base in Syria backed by the Russians.[20] The political integrity of Iraq is necessary to counter Iran and its Shia form of Islamist militancy.[21] Thus, an additional major objective is countering Iran, Syrian and the Russian influence.

ISIS Recruitment and Infiltration in the US and Europe

The objectives with regard to ISIS recruitment and infiltration into the US and Europe are (1) to isolate and neutralize those Islamists who cannot be assimilated into a society of Western values and ideals and who seek to engage in warfare against the West, (2) to target uncommitted Muslims for assimilation into society before fusion with extreme organizations can occur and (3) to support Muslim reformers. Psychological theories can be applied to the individual and group levels to gain understanding of the enemy mindset and those it seeks to recruit. In taking this approach, it is useful to remember that terror is a tactic that is most often utilized by an asymmetric organization against a more powerful entity. By nature of the tactic, members and supporters of terrorist organizations are already radicalized through ideology or some other means to accept and participate in a particular form of violence.

Social Identity theory states that individuals undergo depersonalization, losing their individualism and favoring members of their own group.[22] Elements of this theory might lend insight into the raising of children with a certain set of beliefs, a desensitization to violence and a fear of defying the group all in the name of a politco-religious ideology, all hallmarks of ISIS. There is very specific evidence of this kind of indoctrination in the textbooks used by schools where Islamist ideology is strong in such places as Gaza controlled by Hamas but where the US has access through both Israel and the UN.[23] However, this explanation may work better for territories conquered by ISIS than it does in explaining members or ‘soldiers’ of the Caliphate. In addition, Allison G. Smith suggests that ‘power motive imagery’ is an indicator that a group is becoming radicalized,[24] and such imagery might indicate ISIS’s radicalized nature. However, power imagery is found throughout all forms of political activity, both legitimate and illegitimate. As realism indicates, all politics, whether domestic or international, are various ‘manifestations of a struggle for power’[25] and thus a battle for the mind. Because social identity theory places its emphasis upon identity itself deriving from group membership,[26] it is unlikely that the theory in its basic form with its emphasis on depersonalization is enough to explain the phenomenon of ISIS; this is because it fails to grasp the importance of the underlying political religious ideology in which the individual Islamist becomes one with the ‘true’ Islam of the group yet retains self-identification.  Fusion theory, a more refined theory with its focus on the fusion of the individual to the group, fits better with the political religious ideology of the Islamist.

Identity fusion occurs when there is a joining of the individual with the group such that the boundaries are permeable between the personal and social self.[27] Group membership is a critical component of who the person is, but the person also sees himself as a critical component of the group. What results is a powerful union between individual and group. Is there something within the nature of the Islamic State that inherently supports this type of fusion? In the case of the Islamist, the driving force behind this powerful union is the Islamist ideology espoused by the group to which the individual member as a ‘Soldier of Islam’ or a ‘Soldier of the Caliphate’ contributes. It is a symbiotic relationship mutually reinforcing of group and individual identity, all driven by ideology. Implications for general identity fusion are articulated by William B. Swann Jr. et al, and include the following: highly fused persons reflect both personal and social identities to enact pro group activity; pro group behavior is amplified among highly fused persons; highly fused persons assume others have strong personal identities as well and will be valued for those characteristics as it relates to the group; fused individuals tend to remain fused; both social and personal identities support group allegiance.[28] When these elements are combined with the ideology underlying global jihad and the extreme brutality of the Islamic State, a very dangerous mixture emerges. Group fusion does not automatically denote violence, as noted by Swann et al, but the culture and ideological framework are the underpinnings of whether violence will occur: ‘…just as some groups may develop norms that endorse pacifism as a means of achieving the goals of the group, other groups may advocate extreme behaviors such as suicide bombings as a means of accomplishing agreed upon goals of the group.’[29]

Once fusion occurs, de-fusion is very difficult. This is due to the fact that relational bonds to group members increase the feelings of fusion and simultaneously fused people are encouraged to refrain from aligning with other groups.[30] When the cohesion for the fusion is Islamist ideology, it is likely that this already strong phenomenon is further amplified. The majority of those living in the West who are motivated to act for extremist groups such as Islamic State are either Muslim immigrants or the children of immigrants from Muslim countries. In these cases, assimilation of these individuals into the Western states has failed. Although there are some native-born converts to radical Islamist terror groups, in many cases the elements of identity fusion are already established. This occurs as ‘people experience a visceral feeling of oneness with a group. The union with the group is so strong among highly fused persons that the boundaries that ordinarily demarcate the personal and social self become highly permeable.’[31] Therefore, the objective is a proactive approach to prevent the fusion of uncommitted Muslims with extremist organizations and to promote their alignment with values and ideals of the host country.[32] In the effort to achieve this objective it is necessary to recall the third group within the Muslim community – the reformers. These are allies to cultivate and support since they provide an alternative to Islamist ideology.

Neutralization of ISIS

The means by which ISIS is neutralized in Iraq and Syria, Europe and America span the instruments of power and include military forces, special operations forces, civil affairs units, diplomatic missions, overt and covert intelligence units and state and local operations. What is relevant is that instruments of power must focus on the psychological aspects of operations.

Iraq and Syria

Instead of Syrian withdrawal, military operations of seizing and holding territory should continue and a no-fly zone should be established. As ISIS’s physical caliphate in the region is destroyed, Operation Inherent Resolve should shift its primary focus to one of psychological operations. The combined Joint Inter Agency Task Force with US military command and operational control over all assets is critical because it allows for organizational control and the mixing of elements from CIA, State Department and the military. Special operations forces in Syria and Iraq include Special Forces, Delta and Seal Team 6, Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs units. The Psychological Operations focus should be on countering ISIS propaganda while Civil Affairs engages in national assistance to improve living conditions for the people on the ground so that they are willing to work with Special Forces and are susceptible to PSYOP. In general, there are three groups of Muslims present for target operations: the Islamists loyal to ISIS who must be isolated and destroyed, the Reformers who should be backed by US and coalition partners, and many Muslims who are not Islamists and whose ‘hearts and minds’ the coalition seeks to win over. In a region of failing states and identity flux, extremist movements are able to embed politically within these regions and exploit the areas,[33] and a withdrawal of US and coalition forces would almost certainly bring back an attempted reemergence of the Islamic caliphate

For those Islamists who must be neutralized or destroyed, retaking territory in clear displays of military victory has a psychological effect on the enemy and its followers. The Islamic state, through its magazines and propaganda, touts its victories as an indicator of favor from Allah and uses the words of Western officials lamenting ISIS gains.[34] There is no substitute for military victories against ISIS in showing that the Islamic State has fallen from ‘favor.’ One might speculate that changing the name of ISIS’s English language magazine from Dabiq (the site of the future apocalyptic battle with the West) to Rumiyah might have something to do with its losses on the ground.   Nevertheless, as successful operations continue, there will be an expanding threat to Europe and the US.

The US and Europe

The psychological component within the United States and Europe against ISIS remains the centerpiece of operations utilizing assets across the board. In the US, the department of Homeland Security becomes the lead agency with important agencies such as FBI and ATF working as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force alongside state and local law enforcement agencies. As psychological operations are illegal within the US, the focus within the US is on public information. In Europe, the State Department is the primary player in negotiation with host countries, with the National Security Council managing the effort. CIA is available for clandestine operations as needed. Specifically, in either the US or Europe, group identities should be either undermined or reinforced in those hostile and friendly groups respectively. Host country populations will be mobilized to support Muslim reformist groups and the moderate majority, establishing intergroup linkages for possible assimilation into the population. Group and social identities of Muslims will be targeted, reinforcing those identities which bolster reformist Muslims and isolating those which reinforce radical Islamism. Given that Middle Eastern cultural and religious identity is a crucial component of worldview[35] and that ISIS is a political religious ideology, targeting those social bonds that are vulnerable to ISIS propaganda, and recruitment is a key operational element.  The goal is assimilation of the moderate majority who are persuadable into the host country and away from radicalization to break potential group fusion with Islamists before it occurs. Preventing radicalization of moderate Muslims by Islamists is the preferred route, as de-fusion from a group is a difficult process.[36]

Expect an expansion of regional and global ISIS operations as operatives attempt to infiltrate communities to carry out attacks and inspire home grown terrorist sympathizers. The non-radical Muslim communities of all countries should be targeted as allies against potential attack from extremist ideology.  ISIS has an organizational capability to infiltrate and take over a state using both violent and non-violent methods. The organization’s infrastructure or Dawa seeks the conversion of non-Muslims and to instill Islamist views in all Muslims, as ISIS is a global insurgency promoting subversion from within in which Shari’a law replaces political institutions.[37] In those communities which have not assimilated there is a sort of alienation from the Western country with simultaneous identity fusion with the terror organization. This coincides well with the Islamist goal. That goal is to reconstruct Muslim majority societies and to also pursue an ‘Islamic’ reconstruction of societies throughout the world based on Shari’a law.[38] Ayaan Hirsi Ali correctly stated that Obama’s policy of ‘countering violent extremism’ failed to address the underlying threat that produces the violence. She is also correct in that focusing on the tactic ignores the strategical underpinnings inherent in the threat of radical Islamism. She argues that the Trump Administration took a solid step by identifying the enemy, however the focus of US strategy must not be exclusively on violence but must go straight to targeting the spread of ideology. Trump’s promise to be a friend to moderate Muslim reformers and to screen those entering the US for radical Islamist ideology is a start.[39]

Development of a Strategy

A strategy is a policy composed of ends ways and means. In short, it is a statement of what the desired outcome is, how to go about making that happen, and the available resources that can be used in the operations. In understanding the threat, the objectives in countering the threat, and what is needed to neutralize ISIS, a strategy can be formulated in three regions of operations: Syria/Iraq, Europe and the United States. Table 1 illustrates the key points of the Syria and Iraq strategy.


Table 1: Strategy for Syria and Iraq

The end goal for the US in Iraq and Syria is the complete destruction of the ISIS Caliphate, regional stability which counters the power and influence of Russia and Iran, and a containment or at least a mitigation of the threat from ISIS as it shifts from a territorial basis to an Al Qaeda mode of operation. As military operations continue with the seizing and holding of territory through US and coalition forces actions, the emphasis is upon psychological operations as enemy fighters are destroyed and those non-committed or friendly are induced to support coalition forces by virtue of who is winning on the ground. Stabilization of the region comes through the implementation and enforcement of a No-Fly Zone over Syria. The No-Fly Zone will create a safe haven to which refuges and other displaced persons can return. Demarcation lines between the US and Russia/Syrian forces are adhered to and enforced. If Russians cross the line, they too are shot down. This must be credible. Containment of the threat rests upon a psychological understanding of the different individuals and populations dealt with on the ground.

The safe havens created by the No-Fly Zone establish locations where data collection and other activities that enable psychological operations can be conducted relatively securely. Essential to the creation of safe havens is refugee resettlement and reconstruction. Data collection of those in the area of their beliefs, motives and ideals so that messages to individuals who are uncommitted to extremist ideas can be targeted appropriately to come over to the ‘right’ side can be useful in dissuading those who might seek to begin the fight in the region or leave the area and fight in foreign lands. This is a direct targeting of individuals and a manipulation of the social identity bonds to reinforce bonds away from ideals of radical Islamism and to embrace ideals and values that are peaceful in nature. Care must be taken to present the desired ideals and values in terms that can be explained in ways that are compatible with the traditions of Islam; they cannot be viewed as imposed from or by the West.

Although ISIS distinguished itself by the establishment of a regional caliphate, it is ideologically a global insurgency and as such those committed to its underlying beliefs will not be persuadable except in rare instances. Although ISIS’ goals remain the same, their strategic methods change, as do their resources. They seek to change the nature of the existing international structure, and in so doing desire to spread throughout the world, in particular Europe and finally the United States. Table 2 gives the strategy in Europe to counter this threat.


Table 2: US Strategy Toward Europe

The US and European countries share common goals in the war against ISIS and radical Islamism, the main one of which is the isolation and neutralization of Islamists seeking to carry out attacks. Diplomatic means which set up avenues of coordination among NATO countries as well as coordination with and sharing of information among law enforcement agencies is of paramount importance in finding and neutralizing enemy fighters. The US can use diplomatic carrots and sticks to influence European countries in goals advantageous to both the US and Europe. There are also EU institutions that must be coordinated with effectively as well as those UN agencies located or headquartered in Europe.

The threat from radical Islamism within Europe and within the United States is different in degree if not in kind. Europe has a greater unassimilated Muslim population than does the US. European problems are also compounded by many of the countries’ policies toward Muslim refugees which allow for easy infiltration, little background identification and then greater alienation within society as ‘no go’ areas increase due to the threat of violence. These “no go” areas exist all over Europe but until quite recently EU governments were very reluctant to acknowledge that they existed. The US can and should assist the Europeans to recognize that these zones are real threats to their security and stability. Whereas the US cannot dictate to European countries what to do within their own borders, it can encourage ways of identifying Muslims that can be assimilated into European society as well as those that cannot be assimilated through PSYOP campaigns, expanded intelligence sharing, and covert operations as well as the use of, radio, television, newspapers, and  social media, as well as face to face communication to propagate messages conducive to the end goals of either neutralization or assimilation. Creating awareness of these problems in Europe can be enhanced by academic conferences jointly conducted by European and US universities. Other promising venues are the George C. Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany, a joint US DOD and German Ministry of Defense academic institution, the NATO school, also in Germany, and the NATO staff college in Rome.

Whereas psychological operations can be used in countries outside the US, they are not allowed within the US so the strategy within the country is slightly different. Within the US, instead of a PSYOP campaign, an information campaign is used with an understanding of identity and social bonds which connect groups and individuals to society. Table 3 illustrates the US strategy within the country.


Table 3: US Strategy Within the United States

The focus within the United States is to isolate and neutralize Islamists who are at war with the country and to assimilate into society those Muslims who are uncommitted to extremist elements of the Islamists. This requires the collection of information and analysis of the threat at a granular level. Reformist Muslim organizations are the natural allies and are at the forefront of such endeavors. It is through these mosques and organizations that the US can coordinate with the Muslim community. Because fusion with Islamist organizations is difficult to break, the goal is to prevent fusion before it happens but to also simultaneously create the bonds of social identity with loyalty to the United States. A solid education in civics, American history and government as well as the ideals and values upon which the country is founded is fundamental to the assimilation process of Muslims or any other group or individual seeking to reside in the United States. Courses in comparative religion are also a useful tool of integration when done with care. Educational systems from the local levels through the university setting are conduits through which this type of integration can occur.

To achieve these educational changes within a decentralized federal system run at the state and local level requires a collaborative effort. This is probably best developed by academic organizations at national conferences that begin to focus the discussion. The follow on could be developed with assistance from the US Department of Education and State Education Departments.

Similarly, the concept of share festivals and the intermingling of diverse religious groups can demonstrate that individuals can retain their religious affiliations yet respect and interact with those of other faiths as part of an American family. Churches, synagogues and mosques can be used as allies in process, to reaffirm healthy community ties and to root out any threat to the social order by members that have become radicalized. The recent honoring of an Oklahoma rabbi with a community leadership award by the FBI is an example of such initiatives. Rabbi Harris took a group of 22 Muslims, Christians and Jews to Israel.[40] The idea is to assimilate those Muslims into American society who are not committed to the Islamist ideology without destroying the positive traditions of the community.

Final Thoughts

This strategy rests on an understanding of the ideological foundation upon which ISIS is built. Unfortunately, that ideological foundation is deeply Islamic.[41] Any counter ideology must be equally Islamic and led by Muslims themselves who will not be viewed as apostates by the mass of uncommitted Muslims.  Nevertheless, the ideological foundations of ISIS result in a psychological fusion of individual ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate’ or ‘Soldiers of Islam’ with the group. There is a psychological fusion of members of ISIS into a group cohesion that is antithetical to not only Western values and ideals but to any system that does not embrace this particular politico religious construction of the 7th century caliphate. The targets of the strategy whether in Syria and Iraq or in Europe or in the US are psychological in nature and are composed of three groups of Muslims: Islamists, Uncommitted and Reformers. Identity ties and psychological bonds are targeted. Figure 1 illustrates the target of operations, including the uncommitted Muslim population as the centerpiece of this operation.


Figure 1: Target of Operations

While the United States is in a state of war with radical Islamists and must destroy or neutralize the threat presented to the country by the enemy, the US should also work to support Muslim reformers who seek to co-opt the uncommitted portion of the majority Muslim population away from extremism. The US should also target the uncommitted population directly to instill identity bonds with the US and inclusion of democratic values and ideals of freedom and liberty. Active obstruction of the fusion between Islamists and the uncommitted population is required as once fusion bonds develop they are difficult to break. Destruction of bonds require the disbanding of the group, individual betrayal by the group or for the relational ties between individual and group to be shattered.[42] In the case of ISIS this translates into the discrediting of the ideology on which the group is based as well as the destruction of the caliphate.

The Rational Actor Model, Social Identity Theory and Fusion Theory work in conjunction to define and inform response to the threat presented by ISIS and radical Islam. The concept of the instrumental rational actor is a derivative of Realism which defines the threat environment. Social Identity and Fusion operate within the overall framework of realism to explain the psychological component of ISIS membership. The world of the theoretical is then translated down to the arena of the practitioner in meaningful ways. In this case, the psychological theories also allow for the development of strategy within the overall realist framework of state interest and national security. The psychological theories also provide for the disaggregation of the Muslim community, which allows for the building of the ends, ways and means strategy for each theater of operation as well as for giving direction for use of the organizational tools given as illustrated in the tables and discussed in this paper. Figure 2 illustrates theory and practice in which social identity theory informs both ISIS membership and strategy and fusion theory informs both ISIS membership and strategy, all within the greater framework of realism.


Figure 2: Theory and Practice

This strategy is limited to the three theatres addressed in this paper. There are other theatres, as ISIS is spread throughout the globe and the strategy is adaptable to all areas in which ISIS operates. Also, the strategy is adaptable too all Islamists movements and future movements such as the newly observed White Flag in Northern Iraq about which little is known. Avenues of future research will apply this strategic approach to regions throughout the world under threat of radical Islamism.

End Notes

[1] Morgenthau, 36.

[2]The White House, National Security Strategy, 11.

[3] The Jihadi Threat, 5.

[4] Gunaratna, 134.

[5] Griffin, 168.

[6] Morgenthau, 32.


[8] Griffin, 173.

[9] Gunaratna, 134.

[10] Coats, 9-10.

[11] State of New Jersey.


[13] Gorka.

[14] Lohaus.

[15] Gunaratna, 137.

[16] Pregent.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Holland.

[20] Coats, 20.

[21] Gorka.

[22] Smith, 58.

[23] Eisenbud.

[24] Smith, 72.

[25] Morgenthau, 101.

[26] Brown, 311.

[27] Swann et al, 442.

[28] Ibid., 443-444.

[29] Ibid., 449.

[30] Ibid, 444.

[31] Ibid., 442.

[32] The author has introduced this idea in a previous op ed format.

[33] The Jihadi Threat, 25.

[34] Simcox, 12.

[35] Alexander et al, 34.

[36] Swann et al., 450.

[37] Ali, 36.

[38] Al Raffie, 71.

[39] Ali, 62-63.

[40] The Oklahoman.

[41] Wood.

[42] Swann et al., 450.



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About the Author(s)

Kimbra L. Fishel is a political scientist specializing in US national security, conflict, warfare and terrorism. She has taught courses in International Politics, American Government and the American Presidency at the University of Maryland at College Park, George Washington University in DC, and the University of Oklahoma in Norman. She currently teaches for American Military University. She has published numerous articles and book chapters and is pursuing the Doctor of Strategic Intelligence at AMU.