Why ISIS Is Different—And Why It Matters

Monday, February 1, 2016
Image credit: 
Terence White Collection, Box 2, Folder 8, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Terence White Collection, Box 2, Folder 8, Hoover Institution Archives.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is the modern face of terror. Unlike al-Qaeda, the Irish Republican Army, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Maoists in India, the Shining Path, and other traditional terrorist organizations, ISIS refuses to lurk in the shadows. Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas, the Tamil Tigers, or the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, ISIS is not content with controlling a limited amount of territory confined to a single nation-state. Osama bin-Laden was willing to wait for a future day when al-Qaeda, having destabilized the Western world and defeated the dictatorships of the Middle East, would emerge to claim its rightful place as the governing body of the Islamic caliphate. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is unwilling to postpone that destiny. He and his followers are in a hurry—to establish an Islamic caliphate, to continue its spread across the Islamic world, to battle the Crusaders and Jews, and to bring their brand of justice and Shari’a law to the entire world. They have seized territory in Iraq and Syria larger than the size of Israel and Jordan combined, formed a government, fielded capable armed forces, and established branches in nine other countries, with sympathizers in dozens more. ISIS is a force with which to be reckoned.

ISIS is the archetypal hybrid threat, combining elements of conventional armed forces, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and criminal activity to form a potent challenge to stability in the Middle East and a threat to security worldwide. It cannot be defeated by addressing just one aspect of its power. Attempts to contain it have already failed due to the organization’s ability to spread its radical ideology over social media. The group has extensive monetary assets and an ability to tax its subjects that make targeting of its finances problematic. A counterterrorist strategy to defend against attacks at home combined with the targeted assassination of ISIS leaders overseas has proven to be insufficient to seriously degrade the ability of the organization to continue its reign of terror. Airstrikes over the past eighteen months have killed more than twenty thousand fighters, but new recruits have more than compensated for these losses. Attacks against ISIS territory have had some success in Tikrit, Baiji, Sinjar, and Ramadi, but the core of the Islamic State remains intact.

Defeating the Islamic State requires a holistic strategy to deal simultaneously with all of the various aspects of ISIS power. Elements of such a strategy are in place, but by themselves they are insufficient to defeat ISIS in an acceptable timeframe. Good intelligence and robust homeland defenses are absolutely required to deal with ISIS-inspired terrorism. Airpower and special operations forces will continue to degrade ISIS command and control and logistics, including its lucrative oil smuggling business. More can and must be done in each of these areas. Intelligence agencies must apply more resources to track people who have travelled to the Islamic State and then returned home. The air campaign needs to be expanded and overly restrictive rules of engagement loosened to increase its effectiveness.

But to defeat the ISIS narrative that its victory is inevitable and eliminate its attraction as a base for Islamist terrorism, its armed forces must be destroyed and its territory occupied. This can only be accomplished by ground operations in Syria and Iraq. Several factors complicate any such campaign. Iranian control over Baghdad inhibits the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to accept further American assistance, especially the introduction of U.S. ground forces or combat advisors into Iraq. Kurdish forces are capable, but are unlikely to be enlisted to attack areas outside their region. The use of Shi’a popular mobilization forces would alienate Sunni Arabs, without whose support any long-term solution to the governance of currently held ISIS territory is impossible. Syrian rebel groups are divided, partly under Islamist control, and more interested in defeating the forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad than in destroying ISIS. This leaves the possibility of a U.S.-led air-ground campaign to destroy the Islamic State. Forces could come from the United States, NATO allies, and Arab regional partners, using Turkey and Jordan as bases of operation. Assembling such a coalition requires overcoming a number of obstacles beyond domestic political opposition, primarily the fashioning of common policy regarding the future of Syria, crafting local governance arrangements that Sunni Arabs can accept, and managing the complications of Russian and Iranian involvement in the conflict.

Skeptics counter that crushing ISIS requires defeating its ideology, absent which any military success would be fleeting. But the existence of the caliphate feeds that ideology; indeed, it is its essential foundation. If the caliphate is overrun by Western, Arab, and Turkish military forces it will no longer seem to be riding the tide of fate. ISIS and its ideology will be tarnished beyond repair, and it will then enter the dustbin of history where it so rightly belongs.

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