Small Wars Journal

How to Defeat the Islamic State: Crafting a Rational War Strategy

Fri, 09/25/2015 - 1:59am

How to Defeat the Islamic State: Crafting a Rational War Strategy

Anthony N. Celso


The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) caliphate declaration is the most significant historical event since the Cold War’s end. ISIS’ jihadist state has unhinged the Mideast, contributed to destabilizing refugee flows and inspired global terrorism. Military reaction by the United States and its allies to ISIS has been dysfunctional and ineffective.

This essay examines ISIS’ caliphate and the security challenges the jihadist state portends. These problems have been poorly addressed by the Obama Administration’s low cost/minimum risk containment policy. Above all the essay is concerned with crafting an alternative war strategy to destroy the caliphate’s institutional edifice.

The analysis has four parts.  First, the roots of ISIS’ formation are explained. Second, the caliphate’s emergence and the security challenges it presents to regional and international order are discussed. Third, the failure of Western policy makers to address this problem is presented. Fourth, an alternative war plan is developed to exploit the strategic vulnerabilities of the jihadist transnational state.

ISIS’ Origins

Many analysts blame the 2003 Iraq War for the region’s destabilization and ISIS’ emergence.[1] While the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni dominated regime made an important contribution, the 2003 war’s impact is often over-stated.  A 2014 POMPES report on ISIS, for example, predominantly blames the 2003 war for the caliphate’s emergence.[2] This Iraq war centric argument captures a part of the story that begins earlier and is catalyzed by later events.

Instead ISIS’ rise has more varied historical roots. The clash between Sunni fundamentalism and Shi’ite radicalism has been building for a generation.[3] Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution Tehran has exported Shia radicalism across the region.[4]  Working through its Lebanese Hezbollah proxy and Syria’s Assad regime, Tehran wants to project a regional Shi’ite arc of influence. Threatened by a Shi’ite rebellion in its oil rich eastern provinces, Saudi Arabia countered Iran by fortifying Sunni fundamentalism.  Enriched by oil wealth the Kingdom’s export of Wahhabism spawned radical jihadist movements hostile to “apostate” religious minorities.[5]  Within the chaos of the 2003 Iraq war, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) grew abetted by sectarian antagonisms.

AQI’s ethno-sectarian warfare against Shi’ites, Kurds and Christians hoped to force state collapse and a US military withdraw.[6] Beaten back by American counter terror policies and anti-jihadist Sunni tribal militias, AQI and its Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) successor lost ground and by the end of the American occupation ISI was considered defeated[7]

ISI’s resurgence was facilitated by the Obama Administration’s post 2010 policies that created a power vacuum stimulating regional rivalries.[8] Especially damaging was the US pivot to Asia, its 2011 Iraq withdraw, and its non-intervention in the Syrian conflict. These actions sent a message to regional actors that America is not a credible power. Iran, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states intensified their intervention supporting opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.

Regional competition coincided with Arab Spring protests and the weakening of the state system.  These forces have been devastating. Parts of the Mideast represent a Hobbesian state of nature where sectarian fratricidal violence rages. The Syrian civil war’s carnage fueled ISIS rise undoing the fragile colonial era state system. With no dominant hegemon, regional actors pursued their respective interests igniting proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.  The Syrian civil war internationalized this conflict by producing the greatest foreign fighter migrations in history. [9] Today Syria is the epicenter of a sectarian shadow war between Iran, Turkey and Gulf Arab states.

The Caliphate Reborn

The resulting chaos set forth two deadly dynamics: one in Iraq; the other in Syria. These events contributed to ISIS transnational jihadist state. Before ISIS no modern extremist group was successful in breaking colonial borders and forming an Islamic Empire. ISIS caliphate is a vindication of late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s anti-Shia war strategy that within the cataclysm of the Syrian civil war succeeded.[10]  After the US disengagement events in Iraq were important. Former Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki contributed to Iraq’s unraveling by repressing the Sunni minority.[11] The Obama Administration inability to negotiate a long term US troop presence freed Baghdad from American military pressure. Pursuing sectarian agenda Maliki persecuted Sunni politicians and demobilized tribal militias. Faced with state repression and absent the protective shield of tribal militias, Iraqi Sunnis looked for someone to defend their interests.  Sunni anti-government sentiment allowed ISI to rehabilitate its terror network.[12]

Working from Mosul and Tikrit the movement expanded. ISI’s Breaking the Walls and Soldiers of Harvest campaigns freed hundreds of jihadist prisoners and killed thousands of Iraqi army and Sunni tribal militias members.[13] Two years of relentless ISIS attacks shattered Iraqi security forces. ISI terrorism was de-stabilizing. Religious antagonisms and Iraqi security vacuums expanded ISI’s territorial reach to Anbar province. Once pacified, Fallujah again became a key jihadist stronghold.

The network’s transnational consolidation was propelled by the Syrian conflict. Without the revolt against the Alawite dominated Bashar al Assad’s regime, it is doubtful that ISIS would have developed. Beginning in March 2012 as a peaceful protest for democratic change the revolt evolved into a jihadist dominated insurgency. With over 240,000 deaths and ten million refugees the conflict continues. The Syrian civil war reflects past confessional antagonisms. Over three decades ago the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood revolted against President Bashar al- Assad’s father in the beleaguered city of Hama. Damascus responded savagely by destroying the city and wiping out the rebels.[14] Avenging Hama has been a rallying cry for Syrian jihadists who now have the opportunity to succeed where the Muslim Brothers failed.[15] Today’s jihadist revolt against Damascus is more fortuitous.  Global and regional forces favor the Sunni jihadists who benefit from Gulf Arab funds and a permissive Turkish border transit policy.[16] This has globalized the conflict and allowed ISI to benefit from foreign fighter migrations.

Confronted by a popular insurrection Assad consolidated his forces leaving regions lightly defended. Rebels soon dominated remote rural areas. This was especially true of the border area with Iraq that allowed ISI to expand its network into Eastern Syria.[17] By 2012 ISI’s network developed a Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) that gained fame for its successful assaults against regime forces. Within eastern Syria ISI began attacking other rebel groups and displacing them. Concentrating its forces around Raqqa, the town soon became ISI’s iconic Syrian headquarters that imposed medieval Sharia justice.[18] With its Syrian base of operations strengthened and flush with international recruits, the network announced ISIS’ creation merging its Iraqi and Syrian branches.

Sensing a leadership challenge, Al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri enjoined the union and ordered ISI’s Syrian disengagement.  Vexed ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi repudiated Zawahiri’s order. By January 2014 jihadists turned on each other, thousands died.[19]  One month later ISIS was ejected from Al Qaeda’s network.[20]

Fortified by its Syrian network, ISIS stormed into Western Iraq seizing Mosul and most of Anbar Province. ISIS’ Blitzkrieg demoralized the Iraqi army that either surrendered or retreated. This left ISIS with a vast arsenal of American weapons. ISIS celebrated its victory by slaughtering over 1,200 Shi’ite Iraqi Army prisoners at Camp Speicher, a celebratory slaughter of military prisoners not seen since the Rape of Nanking.[21]  

Two seminal events followed. ISI spokesperson Muhamad al-Adnani in late June announced the caliphate’s formation, now rebranded the Islamic State (IS). In the fourth issue of the Islamic State Report ISIS foot soldiers announce the abolition of the Franco-British treaty and confidently predicted the caliphate’s predestined expansion. [22] ISIS’s transnational aspirations were fortified by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi later address at Mosul’s Grand Mosque.  His July 4, 2014 sermon called for the loyalty of the world’s Muslims and he demanded their hijrah [emigration] to his caliphate. Renamed Caliph Ibrahim, Baghdadi’s address divides the world into heavenly and devilish realms and suggests the inevitability of an apocalyptic struggle where Islam destroys its enemies.[23]

One cannot overstate the significance of Baghdadi’s proclamation. IS’s formation and its caliphate centric strategy are historic events.  The Islamic State acts as a magnet for unprecedented foreign fighter migrations (some 40,000 fighters) and serves as the embodiment of millenarian jihadist aspirations.[24]  This is magnified by IS’ on-line Twitter campaigns that have generated significant mass support.[25] Some of these on-line participants have headed Baghdadi’s call for hijrah, while others have committed acts of terrorism in their home countries. With attacks by IS sympathizers in Brussels, Copenhagen, New York, Sydney, Paris, Suisse and Garland, and with thirty provinces worldwide the caliphate is a significant threat to the international liberal order.

The Islamic State’s Multi-Pronged War

These achievements should not mask the obstacles confronting the caliphate’s remaining and expanding strategy. The Islamic State’s expansive ideology blends takfirist, apocalyptic, sectarian, and Salafi-jihadist values. Though complex IS’ vision can be divided into sequential projects that prioritize the extinction of foreign influenced apostasy in Islamic lands and then proceeds to conquer all non-Islamic civilizations.  

ISIS’ confrontation with Sunni apostates and Shi’ite, Alawite, Druze, and Kurdish heretics is driven by its Salafi-jihadist world-view. These groups’ heterodox beliefs are believed by the Islamic State to be source of apostasy that must be eradicated.[26] Despite this enormous challenge, conflicts among IS’ enemies and regional religious antagonisms work to the caliphate’s advantage. IS believes that it must fortify the Islamic community’s religious foundations by cleansing apostates and imposing servitude upon heretical Yazidi and Christian communities. Such actions reflect IS’ idealization of Muhammad’s Medina community and his immediate successors caliphate. Islamic State ideologues see this formative period in Islamic development as God’s will incarnate. Once purified of apostasy, IS believes it will have the divine fortitude to vanquish its Zionist-Crusader enemies. 

ISIS June 2014 Mosul conquest threatened a dep advance into Iraqi Kurdistan and the encirclement of Baghdad. IS’ success impelled a risk averse Obama Administration into action.  IS’ conquests were partially a tragic legacy of the Administration’s post 2011 neglect.  After the American withdraw jihadist military advancement elicited no response from the Obama Administration. Rejecting requests from the Iraqi government to target ISI’s network, the Administration, never less, continued to support Baghdad as it brutalized its Sunni political opponents and disbanded the Anbar based Sons of Iraq militias the only effective firewall to prevent ISI revival in Sunni communities. [27]

Obama’s Dysfunctional “Containment” Strategy

By August the collapse of Iraqi and Kurdish defense forces forced the Administration’s hand. Most critical was the need to stem the jihadists advance toward Erbil and prevent the encirclement of Baghdad. This synchronized with “strategic” needs to defend the US mission in Iraqi Kurdistan and protect the US embassy from ISIS attacks. Soon realism and idealism merged. With a genocidal threat to Mount Sinjar’s Yazidi community, American military intervention meshed with the Administration’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine forcing the US government into launching limited air strikes.

The Administration stumbled in rationalizing its intervention and explaining the scale of its commitment.  A number of factors explain this development. Obama is affected by Vietnam’s legacy and above all by his opposition to the Iraq War.[28] His reading of history cripples him and this may explain the anemic US military response.

US war strategy against IS is incoherent and dysfunctional. The Administration has implemented a containment policy composed of four essential components. First, it is a low cost, risk minimization approach that confines US participation to an air support, training and equip mission, ruling out combat troops. Second, it relies on a 60 nation coalition (mostly European and Arab regional powers) to assist in ISIS containment. Third, its’ Baghdad centric strategy channels resources through the central government and depends upon it to direct the fight against IS with the assistance of Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni tribal allies.  Fourth, its Syrian component finances the development of a vetted expat army and provides some limited air and supply support for the Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga.

Harmonizing these four components has proved difficult. The divisions within the coalition have hampered the use of force against ISIS.  Mistrust between Kurds, Shi’ites, Turks and Sunnis impedes a unified effort and ISIS has adroitly exploited security gaps in their forces.[29] Progress has been slow and degrading ISIS frustratingly difficult. At best the Islamic State’s offensive capacity has been repressed in Iraq and Syria. IS media operations inveigh against the US led alliance and shrewdly juxtaposes the caliphate’s unity with the chronic disharmony of it enemies.[30]

The Dangers of Leading from Behind

The campaign is hindered by the limited scale of its air strikes.  Fearful of collateral damage, the Administration bombing strategy leaves IS’s economic and civilian infrastructure intact assisting the caliphate’s “remaining and expanding” narrative. Having ruled out US Special Forces to direct laser guided air strikes, the Administration impairs the air campaign’s effectiveness. [31]

Relying on a fractured coalition is fraught with problems. Turkey’s role and its commitment to fight the Islamic State are problematic. Under the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, Ankara has supported Muslim Brotherhood chapters across the world.[32] Hostile toward the Assad regime, Turkey supports jihadist groups fighting the Baathist regime. Its permissive border policy has facilitated the transit of hundreds of thousands of fighters whom have mainly joined ISIS or Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.[33] Equally counterproductive is Ankara’s efforts to repress Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG) and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants fighting ISIS. Hailed by the Obama administration as an important development, Turkish July 2015 participation in the anti-ISIS campaign has featured only one strike against IS and repeated bombing of the PKK’s Iraqi bases.

Arab Gulf financial support for radical jihadists groups fighting Assad compounds the problem. Driven more by ideological hostility against Assad than fear of IS, Sunni nations are contributing to the caliphate’s remaining and expanding. This works to the detriment of coalitional efforts. The Saudis, for example, have not mounted one air strike against the caliphate. Yet they are heavily involved in air and ground operations in Yemen against Shi’ite Houthi rebels.  These alliance problems and the constraints of a containment policy explain why scant progress has been made.

The Administration has had some sustained success working with the Iraqi Kurdish government and the Syrian-Kurdish YPG. U.S. air strikes and Kurdish Peshmerga resilience have given IS battlefield losses at Mount Sinjar, Mosul Dam and Kobane. Thousands of ISIS’ “lions” were eviscerated by American air strikes defending Kobane. Working with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) the YGP has gained ground against ISIS threatening its iconic Raqqa Syrian headquarters. This success is jeopardized by the Administration’s agreement with Turkey to create a security zone along the Syrian-Turkish border, a proposal driven by Ankara’s anxiety that YPG offensive could result in independent Syrian Kurdistan.[34]   

The Administration stance, moreover, suggests a Cold War era containment doctrine.  Defenders of Washington’s policies, point to past jihadist insurgencies that imploded once effectively isolated.[35]  Some point to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) where government forces gave the group the space it needed to govern territory which soon engendered popular resistance.[36] Combined with Government counter- terror operations, local resistance and amnesty deals for repentant militants, isolation contributed to the GIA’s implosion.

The GIA experience may not be a viable precedent. While similarities exist, the forces that gave birth to these movements are radically different. Today’s proxy war raging in Iraq, Syria and Yemen pitting Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran plays well into ISIS narrative as a defender of Sunni interests. It is the wellspring of ISI’s resurgence and its transnational jihadist state.

The GIA lacked the IS’s international connections and it acted predominately within Algeria making containment viable. The caliphate’s portable forty thousand foreign fighters, its diverse financial base and on-line communications strategy that reaches millions are not amenable to an isolation strategy. Such an effort would require Turkish and Gulf Arab states cooperation whose permissive policies have facilitated ISIS rise.

IS’ proto-jihadist state derives revenue from oil, antiquities and human smuggling operations.[37]  Its expansion across the Muslim world features some thirty provinces including powerful Egyptian and Nigerian terror networks.[38] The internationalization of the IS network since November 2014 constitutes potent evidence that containment has failed.

ISIS’ Effective Counter Response

IS’ war strategy facilitates its strategic objective to remain and expand.[39] The Islamic State’s military and propaganda activities have functional qualities vacant in the current anti-IS campaign. Among these are: (1) a unity of purpose and concentration of force; (2) the use of hybrid warfare that mixes asymmetric and conventional techniques; (3) a divide, conquer and diversion strategy that neutralizes its opponents offensive capabilities; (4) total commitment, brutality and risk maximization; (5) operational dexterity across different battlefields; and (6) the synchronization of media and military policy.  All of these qualities have allowed it to effectively counter the international military campaign.    

The caliphate is unusual in the jihadist world for doesn’t have the organizational and ideological fissures that have hindered past Islamist insurgencies. A contrast with Al Qaeda (AQ) is illustrative. Since the 2001 loss of its Taliban protected sanctuary, the organization has fractured and its affiliates have acted contrary to its parent’s wishes. The near enemy, sectarian and takfirist behavior of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Shabaab and even Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) were criticized by bin Laden in his Abbottabad correspondence.[40] Al Qaeda’s inability to control policies it objected to led the late AQ media advisor Adam Gadahn to urge separation from affiliates. [41] By 2011 AQ’s far enemy strategy was in shambles with only AQAP remotely interested in attacking the US homeland.

The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) anti-Shi’ite, takfirist, apocalyptic and caliphate centric strategy created strains within AQ’s network. Despite these tensions it was not until February 2014 that Al Qaeda expelled ISIS for its failure to heed Zawahiri’s decree to abandon its Syrian operations.  Unique among AQ’s network ISIS progenitor AQI never experienced severe divisions and the network has had a stable command structure.[42]

The Islamic State’s hierarchical order has an emir/Caliph, a Shura policy-making council, two media divisions, separate Iraqi and Syrian commanders, and a leadership structure for all of its thirty provinces.[43] United by a barbaric sectarian and takfirist agenda that dates back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, IS is fully committed to its program tying resources to its goals. Fragmented between Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, and Sunni tribal forces, no single actor leads and coordinates offensive capability against the caliphate. This inhibits the concentration of force needed to break IS and may explain why Ramadi and Baiji are still under the caliphate’s control after successive Iraqi army assaults. Whenever its opponents advance, IS opens up another front to divert its opponent’s resources. Today few speak optimistically about liberating Mosul soon.[44]

The fragmentation of Iraqi forces has two dynamic effects. First, it creates security gaps in anti-ISIS forces allowing IS to exploit. Second, it permits the Islamic State to divide and conquer its opponents through the inflammation of ethno-sectarian divisions.[45] Each attack against Kurdish and Shi’ite civilians creates tensions between these groups and their Sunni coalitional partners inhibiting force coordination and concentration.

The caliphate’s army is skilled at hybrid warfare and has an operational dexterity that its opponents lack. Employing varied attacks ISIS made dramatic advances throughout 2014-2015 including capturing Mosul and occupying Ramadi. The latter is a good example. With its forces shielded by a sand storm ISIS unleashed dozens of massive tanker truck bombs and an infantry charge right out of the movie Road Warrior.[46] Denied air support due to weather and not equipped with enough anti-tank missiles to derail the assault, the Iraqi army retreated. This outcome was sadly reminiscent of the security forces abandonment of Mosul last year that allowed ISIS to capture vast amounts of US supplied weapons.  

IS military campaigns feature suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, human wave attacks and vehicular bombs and its slaughtering of its opponents represent a commitment lacking in its numerically superior adversaries.[47] The caliphate’s operational dexterity and dedication go beyond its Iraqi-Syrian base and includes a growing presence in Egypt and Libya.[48] This insures that defeat in one theater does not portent he caliphate’s demise.

Its military operations are promoted by propaganda campaigns that attract recruits and terrorize its enemies. Reports of battlefield achievements, grisly execution videos, depiction of the caliphate’s charitable activities, destruction of pagan architectural sites and appeals for hijrah are designed to facilitate its remaining and expanding strategy[49]. Packaged as fulfilling ISIS’ prophetic destiny this media campaign attracts fanatics committed to its ideological message. Thousands pf videos are posed by hundreds of ISIS Twitter accounts. Dozens of these videos appear daily. The propaganda recruits many foreign fighters (including some three to four thousand Europeans) that it hopes will be able to launch external operations in their home countries.[50]

ISIS brilliantly markets itself. Filmed in Palmira’s ruins (now completely destroyed) one ISIS video features child executioners killing Syrian soldiers[51]. Presented in grand operatic style the film suggests that the future generations guarantee that it will remain and expand and imperial glory awaits these cubs of the Islamic State. By destroying Palmira ISIS suggests that not only can it shape the future but it can destroy the past.  This does not mean ISIS can be defeated and its state building project destroyed. Doing so is critical but is preconditioned upon examining the caliphate’s strategic weaknesses.

Exploiting the Frontiers of Anarchy and Hybrid War  

The US led military campaign is plagued by numerous problems. The Obama Administration’s unwillingness to expand the air campaign and to deploy US combat troops cripples efforts to defeat the caliphate. With America leading from behind, no one directs sufficient force to smash IS’ jihadist state. Except for the Kurds everyone is pursuing a low cost/risk minimization strategy driven by fear and anxiety. This posture clashes disastrously with ISIS totalistic commitment/risk maximization approach that terrorizes its enemies.

Three years forward ISIS will probably remain and expand. Terrorism, refugee flows and regional destabilization will increase. We are likely to see more attacks like those in Paris, New York, Suisse, Sydney, Brussels, Copenhagen and Garland. By necessity we will need to abandon this ineffective risk minimization containment policy.

Decades ago Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth presciently examined the collapse of the Third World’s state system.[52] Since than regime dissolution has proceeded alarmingly. Battered by the Arab Spring’s turmoil and sectarian proxy wars, the Mideast state system is withering.  Current policy aims to preserve Iraq and Syria’s territorial integrity and works through Bagdad and Ankara to contain ISIS. This strategy is unrealistic. Instead, we should encourage ethno-tribal centrifugal pressures, work with non-state actors and disengage from regimes whose interests constrain US policy. By-passing Iraq and Turkey is necessary in any engagement with Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces.  The Obama Administration’s Baghdad centric policy features a prominent role for Iranian backed Shi’ite militias that impairs any Sunni tribal rebellion, while its deference to Ankara prevents any vigorous engagement with the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. Only by supporting these groups with a sustained air campaign and Special Forces operations can we upend the caliphate.

British policy toward the Ottoman Empire during the First World War may be a helpful guide on how to defeat the Islamic State. Working with tribal federations London assisted revolts that fragmented Istanbul’s imperial integrity contributing to British and French colonization of the Middle East and North Africa.[53] As Ephraim Karsh argues, the caliphate’s unity has historically been compromised by ethnic-tribal divisions.[54] Past success working with regional non-state actors, moreover, suggests the need to change course. Successful partnerships with Sunni tribal militias during the US Iraq occupation and currently with Kurdish Peshmerga indicate that this could be a more efficacious approach.[55]  Given the collapse of states across the region, this devolution of authority presents opportunities for US policy-makers to work with warlords, militias and private vigilantes that are now not fully untapped.[56]   

We need to exploit IS” strategic vulnerabilities and attack it at its weakest points. The Islamic State has four core vulnerabilities (see the table below). First, its visible state structure and governance project requires an open persistent presence. This can be shattered by a prolonged air campaign that makes life in the caliphate unviable. Destroying ISIS’ institutional foundation by turning its schools, oil fields, police stations, training camps, dams, grain bins into charred rubble derails ISIS marketing of its jihadist state.

                                    Table: ISIS Strategic Vulnerabilities and Points of Attack

Few will emigrate to live in a caliphate composed of destroyed and smoldering cities and towns. IS version of Muhammad’s Medina community Raqqa, should be turned into WWII’s Dresden. Today’s limited air strikes avoid collateral damage (economic and human) and allows for the caliphate’s governance project to persist. This plays into the Islamic State’s remaining and expanding narrative. This needs to end.

Second, IS’ apocalyptic ideology and its fixation on fighting Western troops in a predestined battle of Dabiq makes it vulnerable to open confrontation. Ending the prohibition on US combat troops engaging the caliphate is vital. At a minimum American Special Forces should be mixed with Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal militias to coordinate targeted air strikes against IS military positions. Western troops will likely coax the caliphate’s lions into taking risks and make its forces vulnerable to open engagement. Despite their ferocity and experience IS soldiers are no match for the sophisticated weapons and training US Special Forces possess. Targeted air strikes in support for Kurdish and Sunni allies could lay waste to ISIS forces. Driven by prophetic visions of impending victory, Islamic State commanders take significant risks. Washington Institute scholar Michael Knights labels IS’ impetuosity the “cult of the offensive”.[57] The battle for Kobane is illustrative. Propelled by images of predestined victory, ISIS repeated assaults against the beleaguered Kurdish Syrian city proved dysfunctional.  Thousands of its lions were slaughtered by sustained US air strikes and determined Kurdish ground resistance.

This is not the first time an apocalyptic jihadist state embarked on a misguided war strategy. The 19th century Mahdist state in Sudan fought openly against well-armed British troops in the battle of Omdurman emboldened by Caliph Abdullah’s “clairvoyant dream” that he defeated crusaders in an open field in broad daylight.[58] Omdurman was one of the greatest military routs in history and served as the death knell for jihadist forces.   

Thirdly and relatedly, Sunni tribalism is ISIS’ Achilles heel. The caliphate’s transnational ideology and its foreign fighters mix uneasily with indigenous populations and customs.[59] Reviving tribal resistance to Baghdadi’s state building project is critical. The most promising avenue lies in Syria where the Kurdish YPG and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) work effectively. Direct support for this coalition is necessary but is constrained by the Administration’s angst over angering Ankara that fears a Kurdish Syrian enclave. The initial Afghan campaign where American forces worked with Northern Alliance allies that destroyed the Al Qaeda-Taliban terror state could be a viable precedent.[60] With Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal forces fighting IS across the Syrian-Iraqi border, credible ground forces exist.

The US should funnel advanced arms to this alliance aided by air strikes and Special Forces operations. Such a development could assist a march on Raqqa. The fall of IS’ iconic community would be an important strategic milestone. In Iraq more support for tribal forces is necessary and US bombing should be directed to assist any tribal revolt against the caliphate. Failure to support past tribal rebellions led to high profiles slaughter of anti-ISIS opponents[61]. At a minimum, when ISIS brutalizes communities as they are in Rugbah there should be retaliatory air strikes.

Fourthly, ISIS brutality creates many enemies whom seek revenge. Overtime a sustained bombing campaign, Special Forces attacks, and assaults by tribal opponents could assist in the caliphate’s weakening leaving its militants vulnerable to vigilantism. Especially impacted will be ISIS foreign fighters whose privileges arouse local animosity. Unleashing this culture of revenge and blood lust in Baghdadi’s caliphate sends a potent message to any British, French, Tunisian, Saudi, Libyan or Belgian sympathizer contemplating IS’ hijrah message.

The US led campaign, moreover, should employ language that ISIS understands. Today’s debate on countering ISIS’ ideology is mostly pointless and sterile.[62] There is little psychological appeal the US government can make to dissuade an ISIS sympathizer form going to Syria or prevent him/her from engaging in jihadist inspired home-grown terrorism. If Al Qaeda ideologues like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada have no capacity to prevent young jihadists from joining ISIS, what is the likely success of a US State Department counter-radicalization initiative? Instead, we should use ISIS own apocalyptic narrative against them. Terminology like signs of the hour, Allah’s will, God’s judgment should be used in Department of Defense (DOD) media operations to foreshadow IS’ inevitable doom.

Finally, the metric for success must be simple---that is, the complete destruction of IS’ state apparatus. Only be eviscerating the caliphate’s institutional edifice can we reverse some of today’s destabilizing trends. This means taking the war to Libya or any place where no government can effectively fight IS’ provinces. In the wake of the caliphate’s demise local proxies should be empowered to exact revenge against IS militants. While barbaric, vigilante retribution would be an important impediment to any future caliphate.


[1] Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (New York: Verso, 2014); Loretta Napoleoni, The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2014)

[2] “Iraq between Maliki and the Islamic State” POMEPS Briefing#24-July 9, 2014 accessed at

[3] Samuel Helfont (2013), “The Geopolitics of the Sunni-Shia Divide” FPRI Footnote December 2013 access at; Steven Hydemann (2013), “The Syrian Uprising: Sectarianism, Regionalization and State Order in the Levant” Fride and Havos Working Paper No. 119 (May 2013) 1-19 access at

[4] Vali Naser, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within the Islamic world will shape the future (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007)

[5] Walid Phares, The Coming Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010)

[6] “Letter signed by Zarqawi, seized in Iraq in 2004” reprinted in Jean-Charles Brisard, Zarqawi: The New Face of Al Qaeda (Other Press: New York, 2005) Appendix VIII 233-251; Shmuel Barr and Yair Minzili, “The Zawahiri Letter and Strategy of Al Qaeda” available at http://www.currenttrends./op...thezawahirikms./.isn’; Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi (2014). “The Dawning of the Islamic State of Iraq an ash-Sham” January 27, 2014 Hudson Institute access at

[7] Assaf Moghadan and Brian Fishman (editors) Self-inflicted Wounds: Debates and Division in Al Qaeda and its Periphery (Combating Terrorism Center: West Point, 2010); Brian Fishman (2009)” Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons Learned from Inside Al Qaeda in Iraq Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Harmony Project March 16, 2009 access at

[8] Colin Duek, “The Strategy of Retrenchment and its Consequences” FPRI e-note April 2015 accessed at

[9] Richard Barrett, “The Islamic State” November 2014 The Soufan Group accessed at: http/ Barrett calculates some 20,000 foreign fighters have gone to Syria half of whom join Al Nusra or Islamic State

[10] Nibras Kazami (2008), “The Caliphate Attempted” Current editors Hillel Fradkin, Eric Brown, ad Hassan Mneimnah (2008) 5-49 Hudson Institute Trends in Islamist Ideology Volume 7; Anthony Celso, “Zarqawi’s Legacy: Al Qaeda’s ISIS Renegade” Mediterranean Quarterly 26:2 DOI 10,2015/10474552-2914495

[11] Ken Pollack (2013), “The Fall and Rise and Fall of Iraq” July 30, 2013 access at

[12]John McCary (2009), “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives.” Washington Quarterly 32:1 43-59; Bing West (2009), The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq (Random House: New York, 2009)

[13]Alex Bilger, ISIS Annual Reports Indicate Metrics Driven Military Command Institute for the Study of War Backgrounder May 22, 2014 accessed at http/:; Jessica Lewis, “AQI’s ‘Soldiers of Harvest’ Campaign” The Institute for the Study of War October 9, 2013 accessed at

[14] Thomas Friedman (1998), “Hama Rules” in From Beirut to Jerusalem 2nd edition (Harper Collins: London) 76-105; Raphael Lefavre (2013), Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Oxford University Press: New York, 2013); Aaron Lund (2011), “The Ghosts of Hama: The Bitter Legacy of Syria’s Failed 1979-1982 Revolt” Swedish International Liberal Center Silc Forag (June 2011) 1-44 access at

[15] Nibras Kazimi , Syria through Jihadist Eyes (Stanford: Hoover Institution, 2010)

[16] Elizabeth Dickinson (2013), “Playing with Fire: How Private Gulf Financing for Syrian Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflicts at Home” Analysis Paper 16 (December 2013) Brookings Saban Center access at http://www,

[17] Jeffery White (2014), Assad’s Indispensable Foreign Legions Policy Watch 2196 January 22, 2014 Washington Institute access at; Jeffery White (2013), Hizb Allah at War in Syria: Forces, Operations, Effects and Implications CTC Sentinel Volume 7: Issue 14-18

[18] Charles C. Caris and Samuel Reynolds,” ISIS Governance in Syria” Middle East Security Report 22 July 2014 The Institute for the Study of War accessed at

[19] Aaron Zelin, The War Between ISIS and Al Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement Research Note 20 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (June 2014) accessed at

[20] Thomas Jocelyn (2014a). “Al Qaeda General Command Disowns Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham” Long War Journal Feb. 3, 2014 access at

[21] “Smashing the Borders of the Tawaghit” Islamic State Report 4 Alhayat Media Center accessed at 3

[22] Ibid.

[23] “From Hijrah to Khalafah” in Dabiq 1 The Return of the Khalifah al-Hayat Media Center accessed at 34-40

[24] Candyce Kelshall, “ISIL: the Ultimate Hybrid Enemy” at The author puts ISI forces between 90,000-200,000 which vastly exceeds the 20,000 figure cited by the CIA and US military sources.  

[25] J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporter on Twitter” Analysis Paper No. 20 March 2015 The Brookings Project on US Relations with the Muslim World accessed at:

[26] John Calvert, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islam (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2010)

[27] Pollack, ibid

[28] Barak Obama, The Audacity of Hope (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007)

[29] Andrew Watkins, “Islamic State Operations and Iraqi Fault Lines” CTC Sentinel 8:5 17-20; Michael T. Flynn "Why the Iraq Offensive Will Fail." POLITICO Magazine. February 20, 2015.

[30] “Dabiq 11: From the Battle of Al-Ahzab to the War of the Coalitions” accessed at 4-9

[31] Jessica Lewis, “The Islamic State: A Counter Strategy for a Counter State”  Institute for the Study of War (ISW) July 2014 accessed at

[32] Soner Cagaptay and Marc J. Stevens, Turkey and Egypt’s Great Game in the Middle East The Washington Institute Articles and Op-Eds March 8, 2015 accessed at

[33] Richard Barret, ibid

[34] Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Turkey’s New Syria Policy: Preventing the Islamic State and Kurdish Expansion” Terrorism Monitor 13:19 6-8

[35] Clint Watts, “Let Them Rot: The Challenges and Opportunities of Containing rather than Countering the Islamic State” Perspectives on Terrorism 9:4 156-163

[36] Ibid

[37] Matthew Levitt and Lori Potkin Boghardt, “Financing ISIS (Infographic)’ September 12, 2014 Accessed at

[38] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Islamic State’s International Expansion: What Does Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis Oath of Allegiance Mean?  War on the Rocks February 25, 2015 accessed at; Jabcob Zenn, Boko Haram, the Islamic State and the Archipelago Strategy” Terrorism Monitor 11:24 23-26

[40] Don Rassler, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Liam Collins, Muhammad al-Obaidi, and Nelly Lahoud (2011), Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined? Combating Terrorism Center at West Point access at

[41] Ibid

[42] William McCants, “The Believer: How an Introvert with a Passion for Religion and Soccer became Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Leader of the Islamic State” Brookings Essay September 1, 2015 accessed at

[43] Charles Lister, “Profiling the Islamic State” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper No. 13 November 14, 2014 accessed at

[44]Stathis N. Kalyvas “The logic of violence in the Islamic State’s war”

“Iraq between Maliki and the Islamic State” POMEPS Briefing#24-July 9, 2014 accessed at

[45] Michael Knights and Jabbar Jaafar, “Restoring the Iraqi Army’s Pride and Fighting Spirit” July 8, 2015 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy accessed at;  Andrew Watkins, ibid

[46] Kirk H. Sowell, “The Islamic State’s Eastern Frontier: Ramadi and Fallujah as Theaters of Sectarian Conflict” Perspectives on Terrorism 9:4 130-140 

[47] Gary Anderson, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad” Small War Journal August 1, 2014 accessed at;

[48] Anthony Celso, “Boko Haram and the Islamic State: Fifth Wave Islamist Terror Groups” Orbis 59:2  249-267

[49] Aaron Zelin, “Picture Or it Didn’t Happen: A Snapshot on the Islamic State Official Media Output” Perspectives on Terrorism 9:4 85-96

[50] Richard Barrett, ibid

[51] “ISIS teens execute 25 soldiers in Syria’s Palmyra” accessed at

[52] Kaplan The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy (New York: Vintage Books, 1996)

[53] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London: Aegitas, 2015)

[54] Ephraim Karsh (2006), Islamic Imperialism: A Short History (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2006)

[55] Norman Cigar, Tribal Militias: an Effective Tool to Counter Al-Qaida and its Affiliates?  (Carlisle: United States Army War College Press, 2014)

[56] Dan Danelo, “Anarchy is the New Normal: Unconventional Governance and 21st Century Statecraft” FPRI E-Note October 2013 accessed at

[57] Michael Knights and Alexandre, “Cult of the Offensive: ISIS on the Defensive” CTC Sentinel  8:4 1-5

[58] Murray S. Fradin, Jihad: the Mahdi Rebellion in the Sudan (Authors Choice Press: New York, 2003); P.M. Holt, The Mahdist State in the Sudan 2nd edition (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1970); Byron Farwell, Prisoners of the Mahdi (W.W. Norton: New York, 1989); Daniel Alan Butler, The First Jihad: Khartoum, and the Dawn of Militant Islam Kindle Edition(Casemate: Drexel Hill, 2007)

[59] Kristin M. Blakke, “Foreign Fighters don’t always help” accessed at

[60] Gary Bernsten, Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and Al Qaeda (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2006)

[61]Martin Chulov, ISIS kills hundreds of Iraqi Sunnis from Albu Nimr Tribe in Anbar province” The Guardian October 30, 2014 accessed at

[62] Clint Watts, “Countering ISIL Ideology: keep it Limited, Focused and in Tune with Lessons Learned” accessed at


About the Author(s)

Dr. Anthony N. Celso is an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Angelo State University, San Angelo, Texas. He is the author of Al Qaeda’s Post 9-11 Devolution (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).


Outlaw 09

Sun, 11/15/2015 - 4:52pm

Highly recommend rereading this article in light of the Russian invasion of Syria using their non linear warfare.

Actually some of what he states is actually now ongoing and are showing signs of success of actively countering IS.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 09/28/2015 - 3:29pm

Kunduz collapsed faster than Mosul . The lesson we have learned today is that we never learn lessons.

The article is fundamentally defective in that it treats the defeat of ISIS as an entire strategic goal: there is no discussion of the desired end state or the exit strategy. I don't think anyone doubts that US ground forces could defeat ISIS, and telling them how to do it is fairly pointless: they already know. The problem is what comes after. I don't think we need any more lessons in what happens when you commit forces without a clear, fixed, and achievable end state objective.

The claim that "the Mideast state system is withering" seems to border on the irrational. It's not withering, it's evolving. That system as we know it has existed and continued because it was enforced by a cadre of long-serving autocrats, across the region. As those autocrats die or lose power to domestic or foreign action, the evolutionary forces that have been suppressed by autocrat rule are unleashed and change begins. The process of State evolution is often violent, as anyone familiar with that process in European history will know. We should not succumb to the illusion that these processes can be controlled or directed from the outside. They can be suppressed, temporarily, by occupation or by new autocrats, but that's a short term fix at best, and confuses order with stabiity.