The United States and its allies—both Arab and European—must leverage Sunni tribal alliances to defeat the Islamic State, just as, in a different context, it leveraged tribal alliances to defeat al-Qaeda in Anbar Province in Iraq during the “surge.” Only local networks can pull the Islamic State out by its roots, put a stop to its influence, and keep it away permanently.
Citizens must take back their own land with their own blood and sweat, particularly in rural provinces. That is necessary because social trust in Iraq and Syria, as in most of the Arab countries, tends to be deeply aligned with tribal affinities or other traditional informal structures, especially in states that are heterogeneous ethno-linguistically or in sectarian terms. In other words, trust, and thus political legitimacy, tend to circulate locally and do not readily migrate to far-away capitals. Local stability therefore has to depend on locals in relatively weak states with relatively strong but fragmented societies. State stability, in turn, can only be established by giving ample autonomy to local centers of social trust, or else by imposing draconian dictatorship.
Certainly, the U.S. government cannot defeat the Islamic State by mowing down militant after militant with drones only to radicalize many more in the process. Smashing Islamic State fortifications, most of which are ruses, may seriously damage the State’s patina of invincibility and, in concert with counter-radicalization measures, hurt them in the short term. But this will not defeat ISIS in the long term. Meanwhile, feckless, low-intensity, strategy-less bombing is thoroughly counterproductive.
The Islamic State leadership, like al-Qaeda and its various branches before it, is baiting its enemies. Its violence has a purpose: to make U.S. and allied forces attack. At first, such an argument seems counterintuitive: National armies in days past have successfully used force to dissuade other powers from interfering, and some terrorist groups have used violence as a tactic with a view to change the political landscape. But the Islamic State uses violence to invite attacks directly. Direct assaults not only fail to damage contemporary violent extremist movements; they actually strengthen those organizations in multiple ways. Indeed, Islamic State spokesmen are not shy about admitting as much to the media. In messages often directed toward the U.S. and European governments, they assert that the Islamic State hopes for military attacks from the United States and its partners. As Abu Muhammad al-Adnani stated,
If you fight [the Islamic State], it becomes stronger and tougher. . . . So mobilize your forces, O crusaders. Mobilize your forces, roar with thunder, threaten whom you want, plot, arm your troops, prepare yourselves, strike, kill, and destroy us.
A decade earlier, Osama bin Laden had also boasted how it was “easy for us to provoke and bait” the U.S. government. His plan was to entangle the U.S. military in a long, drawn-out fight “using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers.” His execution was simple: “All that we have to do is to send two mujaheddin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make generals race here.” This was the strategy of causing death by a thousand pricks, “by luring [the United States] into unprofitable attacks; by causing an excessively wide distribution of his force; and, not least, by exhausting his moral and physical energy.”1
Obviously, the strategy does not always work as planned. Al-Qaeda central is not stronger today than it was a decade ago, and lethal American attacks on its leadership certainly deserve at least some credit for that outcome. But al-Qaeda franchises are still going strong and by most measures constitute an even more menacing collective threat today than al-Qaeda itself did in 2001. The Islamic State, whatever its relations with its former mother organization, stands as a key case in point. From its perspective, the invite-attack strategy has worked.
Even ordinary ISIS ground fighters have openly taunted enemies. In its online media, the Islamic State has announced that it wishes to usher in an apocalyptic battle in Dabiq, Syria. Instead of hiding its atrocities, the Islamic State flaunts them worldwide on YouTube—and to a soundtrack, no less. Instead of picking battles carefully and limiting the number of enemies they face at any given point, it welcomes invaders into a cosmic war. As one English-speaking radical stated after the killing of American aid worker Peter Kassig, “We bury the first crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the rest of your armies to arrive.”
Upon learning of such atrocities, the U.S. government and its Western allies have announced that they would strengthen their resolve, “redouble determination”, and kill more jihadis. Following the Islamic State’s murder of a U.S. journalist in August 2014, U.S. leadership called for action; airstrikes against violent extremists then intensified. Upon learning of the death of the Jordanian pilot whom the Islamic State burned alive, U.S. Rear Admiral John Kirby said, “This act of despicable barbarity only strengthens our resolve to destroy [the Islamic State].” This sort of statement is music to the Islamic State’s ears. Worse yet, Jordanian military spokesperson Colonel Mamdouh al-Ameri said, “The revenge will be as big as the calamity that has hit Jordan.” Another Jordanian government official promised a “strong, earth-shaking and decisive” fight against the Islamic State. This sort of response is just what the Islamic State needs to survive and grow.
The Islamic State baits the West into attacking it through multiple lines of operation. One is through gruesome crimes against humanity. Unspeakable acts give governments carte blanche to retaliate with prejudice. Crucifixions, burnings, beheadings, torture, slavery, child abuse, the use of child soldiers, rape, forced marriage, mass executions of enemy soldiers, destruction of archaeological sites, wholesale murder of enemy tribes and minority religious groups, the complete subjugation of women, capital punishment for perceived ideological deviation, and the documentation of these activities in online magazines, social media feeds, and slick pictures and videos—all of these things drive the United States and its allies to action.
Also, Islamic State forces appear to be (and advertise themselves as) the kind of standard military force that NATO countries have trained to fight since their inceptions. These forces thus seem vulnerable to full-on attack or at least air strikes supported by advisers on the ground. The Islamic State has convinced Western media and governments that it is a hierarchical network that can be dismantled the way European governments successfully dismantled socialist terrorist groups in the 20th century, or the way stronger armies have defeated weaker armies since Homo sapiens joined into clans.
This fiction is farcical. The past 14 years have shown that al-Qaeda and all affiliates, former partners, and similar groups are flat, flexible, and malleable. They are able to morph from a silent and patient stand-by insurgency into a resilient, headless movement immediately upon direct attack.2 Analysts have proposed several prisms through which to view al-Qaeda and likeminded organizations such as the Islamic State: Are they top-down, centrally commanded organizations, or a centrally controlled worldwide network? Or are they unrelated cells tied only to a core narrative, working through teams of leaderless violent extremists? All these descriptions are occasionally accurate, and they are not mutually exclusive. That, indeed, is the point.
The Islamic State can change on a dime to survive. All its affiliates seek to become capable of producing mass-casualty attacks anywhere in the world. Most often, any semblance of a state and army apparatus in the Arab world stands on the shoulders of a simultaneous if nebulous insurrection within a tribal network. Having a structured military, as long as it is based on a structure-less movement, can of course serve a purpose, allowing groups to seize and control more land more quickly for some amount of time, but any jihadi army acts as an ancillary addition to a more fluid ideological revolt that blends into society. Western media analyses focus too much on the violent extremists of the Islamic State as an army, referencing its “rigid hierarchy”, “tightly controlled and bureaucratic organization”, “executive-level team”, “eight-man cabinet”, “military council”, fighting force “administratively akin to a nation state’s army”, and “medium and top level field commanders” with experience. This is misleading. Even if air strikes took out each and every command center and cell commander, the Islamic State could survive and, under an array of circumstances, go on to attract more recruits, find more safe havens, and achieve greater resolve.
Another way in which violent extremists bait the West is by making Western governments think coalition forces are winning. In the search for revenge, quantitative results, and shows of strength, the U.S. military loves killing violent extremists. The U.S. government is so married to this approach that it continues to use it despite overwhelming evidence that the strategy only causes violent extremists to grow in number. The Islamic State, for example, will order foreign fighters into military trucks, provide them medium and large arms (easily seen by drones), and station them outside of towns for the sole purpose of having them die by air strike in order to make U.S. officials believe they are winning. Killing violent extremists by direct strikes is more akin to fertilizing and watering a field of weeds than to mowing it daily.
Yet another ploy is the Islamic State’s fiction of having irreplaceable leadership—as if deaths of cell leaders could disrupt it fatally. The group has successfully made its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appear as a singular commander, descendent of the Prophet, and modern-day caliph (even as he is rumored recently to be seriously wounded). This fiction has helped keep the Islamic State (going back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s rule of al-Qaeda in Iraq) resilient and alive. The idea that this group is a structured military organization allows the U.S. and European governments to believe they can bomb and kill commanders until the organization collapses.
From its inception under a variety of names prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion, the Islamic State has become more decentralized, independent, self-sufficient, fluid, flexible, and resilient with each passing day. Baghdadi has planned for his likely death, as have Islamic State cell leaders throughout Syria and Iraq. At one time in the modern history of “terrorist” organizations, the deaths of leaders suspended operations—as with, for example, the arrest and death of Abu Nidal. But today the Islamic State might only undergo a period of mourning before the ascent of deputies who are more extreme. Any leadership change would be immediate, with an estimated six-hour delay of an announcement to the media.
Even if a violent extremist group were somehow to be thrown into lasting turmoil after a leader’s death, the devil you know may be better than the devil you do not. Take out a commander and suddenly operators and analysts are flung into a catch-up game to learn about the successor. As fiction writer Andrew Bovell critiques the current approach to capturing or killing a terrorist leader:
What would your people say? Take him out? Kill him? And then what have you got? A great big . . . hole. And who’s going to fill it. Nobody knows. . . . So we all start looking again? Tap tapping in the dark?3
The Islamic State presents the West with a façade of vulnerability, when in reality airstrikes and raids strengthen its narrative, recruitment, and resolve.
The key skill for violent extremists is the ability to engender popular support. If they can recruit new militants, mobilize clans, embed themselves within rural villages, and radicalize people throughout the wider world, the movement continues even if every violent extremist holding a weapon right now were suddenly to drop dead. They do not need complete popular support; as a journalist reported after interviewing Islamic State members, “They are only 1 percent in the Islamic World, but this 1 percent movement has the power of a nuclear tsunami.” This statement refers both to the fighters themselves and to the modest audiences that can provide this 1 percent with new bodies and safe havens. Thus body counts are as useless and misleading as they were in Vietnam.
The critical factor that motivates this popular support is the simplest of stories. There is only one core extremist narrative. It is uncomplicated. It is absolute. It is seemingly unassailably true. It is nonviolent—but leads toward violence. It is ubiquitous and agreed upon by movements of different ideological backgrounds—from the Islamic State to Abu Sayyaf to the Taliban to Boko Haram to core al-Qaeda. It is buttressed by every kinetic U.S. action. The Islamic State, for example is able to bring aboard hundreds of new foreign fighters each day by deploying this narrative, despite international travel bans and belated Turkish efforts to stem the flow of violent extremists across its border into Syria and Iraq. The lowest estimate is about fifty new foreign fighters per recruitment center, with several recruitment centers likely in Syria and Iraq.
The narrative? “Islam is under attack.”
Western operations in and money spent on Muslim-majority countries lend credence to this central narrative. Drone attacks that kill civilians seem to prove it. Extremist leaders and spokesmen bend every Western effort affecting Muslims into aggression against Islam—whether it is protecting Saudi Arabia from Ba‘athi Iraq, liberating Kuwait, saving lives in Kosovo and Bosnia, or even providing humanitarian aid following the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami.
When the United States and its allies successfully target violent extremist leaders or cells, the spokesmen for these extremists immediately twist the events not into an attack against radicals but an attack against all Muslims. The Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, has stated that air strikes are a “war against Islam.” A spokesman declared, “These states have committed a horrible act that is going to put them on the list of jihadi targets throughout the world. . . . This is not a war against al-Nusra, but a war against Islam.” The Islamic State similarly claims U.S. strikes are “a clear message that the war is against Islam.” Each materialization of their narrative attracts more fighters and radicalizes lone-wolf attackers abroad.
By the end of 2014, there were possibly more than 15,000 foreign fighters in the Islamic State from East and Western Europe, North America, North and East Africa, and Southwest and Southeast Asia. The UN Security Council stated in October 2014 that the “numbers since 2010 are now many times the size of the cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters between 1990 and 2010—and are growing.” Those who self-radicalize, usually via internet content, often point to targeted killings as their motivation for conducting attacks.
Violent extremists are not necessarily devotees of any specific core belief system or ideology. What they have in common is a grievance about the killing of Muslims, consistently citing U.S. and Western strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. From the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers (motivated by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) to the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, that narrative is the driving force. Would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad stated that drone strikes in Pakistan were his motivation. He chose to “plead guilty a hundred times because unless the United States pulls out of Afghanistan and Iraq, until they stop drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen, and stop attacking Muslim lands, we will attack the United States.” Failed New York City subway bomber Najibullah Zazi stated, “I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the United States was doing to civilians in Afghanistan by sacrificing my soul for the sake of saving their souls.” Pakistani-born U.S. citizen Farooque Ahmed, whom the FBI suspected of plotting to bomb a Washington, DC, Metro line, stated he wished to defend innocent Muslims. He was not an al-Qaeda or Taliban recruit but an unaffiliated engineer.
Many factors probably propelled these attackers and would-be assailants; there is not just one road to radicalization. No scholar has been able to draw one course toward violence in the name of Islam. Some claim that multiple factors have to coincide, which may include: the influence of family or friends; the stimulus of international events; a feeling of boredom or a thirst for excitement, purpose, or glory; rank ignorance; psychopathy; and, of course, religious fervor. However, a common element in each case of radicalization is online propaganda centered around this ubiquitous narrative, which taps into a supposed religious obligation and is able to motivate even the educated and wealthy.
Why don’t direct strikes put extremists on their heels? The reason is that the Islamic State and similar movements embed themselves in local populations with a savvy that would make Western special forces jealous.
As of December 2014, the U.S. government alone had spent at least $7.5 million per day on strikes in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State. Yet the Islamic State continues to fight just as ferociously—and with ever greater numbers. Planes, drones, and advisers have failed to stifle the Islamic State, whose martial boldness and speed is sometimes seemingly boundless.4 Even as some counterterrorism analysts claim that the Islamic State is “but a flash in the pan”, it takes more land, more dams, more border areas, more population centers, more weapons, and more military installations on a daily basis. Its military tactics can be described as both flexible and blitzkrieg-esque: attacking swarm-like anywhere there is weakness, moving forces thousands of kilometers to surge and exploit vulnerabilities, and using both insurgency and counterinsurgency/conventional strategies depending on what is needed on a given day. For example, its forces retreated from one dam in Iraq in September of last year only to turn around and attack a major airbase in Syria 36 hours later. Even more shockingly, in May, after U.S. military officials had boasted that allied efforts against ISIS were succeeding, ISIS seized both Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria within a five-day period. This extreme flexibility short-circuits their enemies’ “orient-observe-decide-act” cycle.
Even as the Islamic State faces many daunting enemies—some with international support and some who may build unlikely alliances of convenience against these extremists—it does not hunker down defensively. Instead, it continues to take the fight wherever it can to win ground and to give up difficult terrain as needed in order to expand elsewhere. Even as the U.S. and allied governments conduct air attacks and consider increasing arms for some supposedly secular rebels and Kurdish forces, the Islamic State continues to attack and to inspire lone wolves to act against North American, European, and Gulf targets. The Islamic State appears to be making up for land lost with attacks elsewhere in Iraq and Syria, border areas near Turkey and Lebanon, and individual attacks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Libya, as well as taking over dams and factories, controlling population centers, and conducting mini-genocides or mass expulsions. ISIS is a shape-changer par excellence.
The Islamic State can withstand aerial attacks because its members live among the people. In targeting Islamic State members, its opponents will inevitably wound or kill civilians. Militants live in civilian homes, hold meetings in schools and medical centers, and operate on the streets looking like civilians. Many have reportedly abandoned military for civilian vehicles in populated areas. They avoid, to some degree, large and medium weapons systems, such as some types of heavy machine guns, in an effort to become harder targets for jets and drones. This is how the Islamic State survives. Even on the ground, coalition troops have difficulty realizing who the enemy is.
So what can Western and allied Arab governments do? After all, doing nothing would allow the Islamic State and similar groups to take new lands. And even without drone attacks, which materialize the extremist narrative, militants can still point to a Shi‘a-dominated government in Baghdad that the U.S. government originally helped establish, regional governments that are closely allied to the United States, and U.S. support for Israel and the hated “fake” protector of the Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabia. In other words, if coalition forces did nothing in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, the Islamic State could still maintain its operational tempo and continue to recruit, though perhaps not at such a vigorous rate. As ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani warns, “If you leave [the Islamic State] alone, it grows and expands.”
The answer is that coalition forces must defeat the Islamic State near its center of gravity—by empowering, silently and invisibly, societal networks to push the Islamic State away from their lands and keep it out of their villages and cities permanently. The idea is to undermine the Islamic State’s ability to embed in local communities and blend in with local actors. The U.S. counterterrorism mission begins and ends with locals.5 Without their willingness to revolt against violent extremists, the Islamic State will likely resurge following any future military withdrawal from the area. The prospective battle for Mosul is a perfect case in point: Unless local Sunnis rise to take back their city, Shi‘a soldiers loyal to Baghdad, fighting alongside Iranian-supported militias, will never be able to hold and govern Mosul after they take it.
Any strategy must necessarily revolve around supporting civilians able to keep violent extremists and extremism at bay. And because of the stratified sociology of these societies, that strategy can only work at a local and provincial, not a national, level. Absent never-ending air strikes or eternal occupation, countering violent extremism is in large part an enduring people’s war.
Local grassroots movements are the first and most important step to a security campaign.6 Only when village movements are robust and resilient enough can national forces possibly stand. In this way, if national and formal security units falter, there will still be some semblance of security at the local level. Local movements become the necessary base and initial effort that enables larger and more formalized movements to enter and operate.7 But even then, to be truly stable over time, larger national-scale political institutions must cede considerable autonomy to the local level.
There is more evidence beyond Iraq,8 Afghanistan, and Pakistan that such a local-first strategic approach will work. First, there are the scorched-earth responses that violent extremists make to uprisings against them. This appears to be their strategic priority, as they realize that bottom-up movements like their own alone have the best, if not the only, chance of defeating them and leaving them without safe haven. The Islamic State’s first moves in Iraq, for example, were to try to execute entire clans that had in the past removed violent extremist presence and influence. Similarly, extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban have made it a top strategic priority to put would-be popular anti-extremist uprisings down. The Islamic State has shown the world that this too is its greatest fear.
Second, this strategy offsets the instability that coalition presence can inherently bring—what veteran soldier and author Kevin Powers described as “the sheer brutality of our presence.” The very presence of foreign security forces and foreign aid organizations—even those claiming to conduct stabilization activities—can have destabilizing effects, materialize the extremist recruitment narrative, and empower the enemy.9
Third, given that the U.S. military currently faces sequestration, furloughs, troop reductions, and budget cuts, U.S. troops and civilians must now conduct low-cost and light-footprint contingency missions worldwide. In short, a minimalist approach to leveraging locals may be the only available option for victory anyway.
Getting into the weeds of the tradecraft of identifying counter-violent-extremist efforts at a grassroots level may at first seem an exercise for tacticians. Nothing could be further from the truth. If national assets and strategists are focused on the defeat of extremists through local systems, they can refocus intelligence and security services to this end as well. And, in turn, operators on the ground—such as the silent and invisible Green Beret and perhaps even the CIA—can better identify and leverage locals for strategic effect. In this case, the tactical fight is directly tied to strategic and policy end states. We must therefore assess the nature of potential immune systems, keeping in mind the American end goal of permanently denying safe haven to violent extremists long after advisers have left. Immune systems typically:10
- Counter, undermine, or lessen support for recruitment, radicalization, and growth of extremist groups and supporting criminal organizations and cells.
- Offer or support alternatives to viable violent extremist programs such as the security, governance, or courts that extremists currently hold in a particular area.
- Increase support for government and/or locally recognized institutions and leaders such as tribal councils and other traditional governance entities that show signs of being resilient.
- Strengthen societal capacity and/or cohesion—the ability of a community to address its own sources of instability and priority grievances.
- Discourage zero-sum power games, although ambitious power-seeking may be an attribute of some resiliencies.
- Promote ideology and counter-narratives to undermine support for insurgents, increase support for governance, and strengthen societal capacity.
- Support efforts to destroy violent extremist cells permanently.
By far the most important attributes of viable revolts against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and affiliated and similar organizations are self-determination and self-sufficiency.11 If the movement is not already willing to fight and die, or not already in the process of warring with violent extremists, it will likely fail.12
Admitting to locals that no “superman” will come to their rescue, but instead supporting local movements that have a chance at success will encourage the formation and adaptation of immune systems, so that societies can overcome their enemy through local means with local tools on a local timeline. Forcing locals to fight, fail, learn, and fight again to retake their own land may be one of the only means to ensure enduing local investment in keeping violent extremists away from their homes and off their lands.13
There is unlikely to be such a thing as a perfect immune system, however. These types of resiliencies will likely have negative attributes as well. Thus decision-makers must pick which resiliencies will most effectively undermine violent extremism and promote stabilization. For areas where there appear to be few or no immune systems, leaders must make the strategic decision to work with non-ideal figures or choose to focus efforts on other areas with more promise. The ethically squeamish will not enjoy any of this. Better then, to keep occupied doing something else.
1Hart, B. H. Liddell, Strategy (Faber & Faber Ltd., 1954), p. 321.
2See Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Terror’s Comeback Kids: Jihadi groups like ISIS rarely manage to hole their ground – but that doesn’t mean they’re going away”, Spectator, June 19, 2014.
3Bovell, Andrew, “A Most Wanted Man”, Film, 2014.
4See Ross Harrison and Michael W. S. Ryan, “The ISIS Paradox: A Mirage or Mortal Threat”, The National Interest, July 7, 2014.
5United States Special Operations Command, “Special Operations Forces Concept”, May 2013; Raymond T. Odierno, James F. Amos, and William H. McRaven, “U.S. Armed Forces White Paper: Strategic Landpower”, Council on Foreign Relations, May 2013; William H. McRaven, “Posture Statement Before the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee”, U.S. Senate, 1st session, 113th Congress, March 5, 2013. See also Anthony H. Cordesman, “Changing U.S. Strategy: The Search for Stability and the ‘Non-War’ Against ‘Non-Terrorism’” (Draft), Center for Strategic & International Studies, July 9, 2013, pp. 72–73.
6Mao Tse-tung, On Guerilla Warfare, trans. Samuel B. Griffith II (University of Illinois Press, 1961), pp. 71-85; “A History of Guerrilla Warfare: How the Weak Vanquish the Strong”, Economist, January 19, 2013; Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (W.W. Norton, 2013).
7Ian F. W. Becket, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and their Opponents Since 1750 (Routledge, 2001), pp. 20–21, 50–51.
8From personal observations as a 2nd Marine Division intelligence officer (assistant plans officer and acting foreign area officer) and 3rd Battalion 25th Marines S-2A in from 2004 to 2005 at Camp Lejeune and Iraq’s al-Anbar Province. See also Timothy S. McWilliams and Kurtis P. Wheeler, eds., U.S. Marines and Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009: Volume I (Marine Corps University Press, 2009), p. 12-13, 222.
9Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan” (Nine Sisters Imports, Inc., 2009), p. 10.
10Howard Gambrill Clark, Lions of Marjah, Thesis, King’s College London, 2014.
11D. Scott Mann, “Village Stability Operations—101: Understanding USSOCOM’s role in VSO and ALP in Afghanistan and Beyond”, The Donovan Review, United States Special Operations Command (January 2012), pp. 6-13.
12Billy Birdzell, “Let’s not try that again: Why you can’t win someone else’s counterinsurgency”, Armed Forces Journal, April 30, 2013.
13See E.B. Boyd, “Lead or Die”, Fast Company, October 28, 2013.