New Report on ISIS: Focus on the Governance, Not Just the Violence

The CTC (Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point) has a new 105 page report on the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL, now known as IS.) The report is called "The Group That Calls Itself a State: Understanding the Evolution and Challenges of the Islamic State" and the full report is available here.

The report examines ISIS' rise, activities, and weaknesses. Shorter version: To defeat ISIS, it's important to look past the brutality and examine its governance record, and highlight the shortcomings in it. There will be no defeat and surrender. The best we can hope for is that after a generation or two, they will become irrelevant.

In case you don't have time to read 105 pages, I'll summarize the report and highlight the parts I found most significant below. [More...]

I'll start by saying the report is quite detailed, with statistics, graphs, images, and a lot of footnotes sourcing the information. It is not as general or dry as some of its introductory summaries suggest.

The first section examines ISIS' origins, going back to the 1990's and Afganistan, and of course, al Qaeda.

The next section examines ISIS' activities, including on the battlefield and in the governance realm, and its finances and media strategy, to determine its strengths and weaknesses.

...The fact that the IS is attempting to operate across multiple functional areas will test the group’s ability to adapt over time and will ultimately expose the group’s shortcomings.

In the third and final section, it examines the strategic implications of efforts to defeat ISIS:

Though prominent and tragic events on the ground in Iraq and Syria dominate the headlines, pulling back and analyzing the fight against the IS at the strategic level reveals opportunities and challenges. Countering an amorphous transnational insurgent organization that is fueled by an end state that, although implausible, is attractive to a small number of disenfranchised individuals living in countries they perceive to be led by corrupt regimes is an onerous task. As a result, the fight against the IS and jihadism is likely to be a long-term conflict.

The report cautions against concentrating solely on ISIS violence. Its successes and failures as a governing state are equally important, and may be the key to any successful effort to defeat it.

Despite what is being propagated by the IS on forums and social media, not everything is going smoothly. Since the beginning of U.S. and coalition airstrikes, there have been reports of increasing food prices in al-Raqqa, Syria, the main city that has been mostly under control of the IS since January 2014. From individuals inside Mosul, we hear of troubles maintaining the provision of electricity on a consistent basis. In addition, there have been numerous reports of interviews with people living in territory under the control of the IS that emphasize the failures of the IS in terms of governance.

Highlighting such failures (of which there appears to be plenty of evidence) as opposed to its brutality may be a better way to damage its image in the eyes of sympathizers and potential recruits.

Citing similar violent acts by Iraqi security forces, Assad and the Shi'a militias, the report says:

Caution needs to be taken so that solutions to the problem posed by the IS do not end up being worse than the disease, particularly over the long term. In other words, actions taken to roll back the IS need to avoid perpetuating the underlying grievances that have allowed such groups to have influence in the first place.

The report says ISIS' governance performance is key to its winning the "hearts and minds" of those living under its control. It finds "the challenge for the IS to carry out effective governance will only increase with time."

In the discussion of ISIS' weaknesses:

Another weakness of the IS is in the way in which it administers captured territories, particularly those where it does not have a great deal of strength. While the organization appears to exercise strong control over larger cities like Mosul and al-Raqqa, there is some evidence to suggest that it allows locals to govern other places to a certain extent. This dual strategy for governance is born of necessity: despite the large number of fighters fielded by the IS, they cannot exercise complete control over their entire territory.

Consequently, when these local groups act beyond what the IS finds acceptable or in direct contradiction to the IS, the results can be brutal. Such events, while tragic, are signals of an opportunity to push back at the IS. They also serve as a reminder of the fact that there is resistance to the IS, but such resistance will need external assistance if it is to challenge the IS.

In the end, it is clear that the IS, just as most analysts do, sees these Sunni tribes as a key to maintaining governance control. Favorable gains against the IS have resulted when these disaffected tribes have access to weapons and funding from the outside. Replicating these gains more broadly may prove difficult in both Iraq and Syria, but given the governance style of the IS, the weakness will likely remain indefinitely.

The report also highlights ISIS use of spies.

One of the areas that have not received much public attention is the strides that the IS has made designing and developing intelligence practices to assist its military, financial, and governance activities. From the personal experiences of some Iraqi citizens, we know that they have been investigating individuals’ backgrounds to identify people living within their territory who are not Sunni.

One helpful aspect in conducting these operations has been their ability to exploit the military and financial side of their operations for derogatory information on individuals whom they later target in an effort to strengthen governance by removing potential threats.

On ISIS" media strategy:

One of the most visible areas in which the IS is effective is in leveraging its media organization for gains in other areas. There is very little that happens within the territory controlled by the IS that does not have a media component to it. This allows the IS to maximize the value it extracts from all of these activities. Hence, tactical operations to take out key targets not only have kinetic value, but also psychological value once the footage of the operation is publicized to a wider audience. Efforts to build roads and improve schools not only benefit the local population, but serve as signals to outsiders of the viability of the IS. This effective media organization allows the IS to select the good and omit the bad in the image it portrays.

However, it is clear from our brief discussion here that there are multiple failures of the IS across its varied activities, especially governance. Highlighting these failures is an important part of diminishing the IS’s appeal.

The report says it is also a mistake to view ISIS as a terror organization, rather than an insurgency that employs the use of terror.

The attacking of military targets and the setting up of governance structures are activities much more akin to those conducted by an insurgent organization, as opposed to a terrorist organization. Recognizing that the IS is, in large measure, an insurgency that uses terrorism in addition to other activities, is an important step in creating policies that deal with it.

In the final section on strategic implications in a challenge to ISIS, the report begins with a discussion of goals and the distinction between degradation and destruction. It says:

[T]oday the threat from jihadism destabilizes more state regimes and is more geographically diffuse than ever before. Jihadism’s attractiveness appears to be growing rather than declining.

This state of affairs has less to do with the efficacy and execution of U.S. counterterrorism policy and more to do with the challenges of fighting an empowering extremist ideology that resonates with a small (but potentially threatening) number of disenfranchised Muslims around the world, especially in failed and failing states that are politically corrupt.

The report discusses a number of factors and concludes, "The destruction of the group [is] a nearly impossible objective, at least in the short term" and "[A]irstrikes are unlikely to prove decisive in the defeat of the IS."

What won't work: Convincing the jihadists that their Caliphate "is a failure of an enterprise not worth pursuing."

This is because this generation of Sunni jihadists has never seen its utopian vision of the global caliphate put into practice, and as a result, they have never witnessed it fail.

What's left? "Degrade and Manage."

“Degrade and manage” may not be as definitive and ambitious as “degrade and destroy,” but it better reflects the challenges and long-term horizon the United States faces in fighting this war.

The report also says it is essential to address ISIS' media superiority.

To successfully combat the IS, the United States and its coalition partners will have to puncture the perception of invincibility, which the group has meticulously crafted via the sophisticated propaganda campaign....For those in the region who are consuming and comparing the propaganda produced by both the West and the IS, the latter looks like the “strong horse” in this conflict.

...Although there have been prominent efforts by U.S. elements to counter the IS in the social media sphere, these efforts are underfunded, underemphasized, and fail to match the IS in terms of size, scope, quality, and influence. The IS has a knack for producing strategic effects from seemingly tactical events, while the West fails to exploit the IS’s tactical failures to achieve its own strategic effects.

...Unless the United States and its coalition partners invest more time, energy, and attention toward countering the IS’s relentless propaganda campaign, the IS will continue to dominate the public discourse in the region. This dominance not only facilitates the IS’s recruitment efforts but also makes it more difficult for the United States and its coalition partners to present a credible and attractive alternative narrative to the one provided by the IS.

How can the U.S. and its allies effectively use media to counter ISIS? The report gives the example of a stoning published not by ISIS, but the media, and points out the local opposition at the scene to the participation of foreign ISIS fighters from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in the incident. There was another stoning in which local Syrians refused to participate.

These events receive scant attention from Western media and may represent wasted opportunities to puncture the IS’s self-projected image of righteousness.

This section of the report then discusses the potential threat of returning foreign fighters. In addition to threats by returning fighters who engaged in combat with ISIS, there are other threats. This is the only section of the report I found unconvincing, because some parts seem to contradict other parts and because one of the named threat potentials seem entirely speculative. The author of this section even says it has never been attempted by ISIS or according to known information, even been contemplated by ISIS. So why include it? It's like telling someone not to fly because the plane may fall out of the sky. Could it happen? Of course. What's the likelihood? There's a 1 in 3.4 million chance of being in a fatal plane crash, and only 9% of those crashes occur at cruising altitude. Next to nil.

That said, I don't have a problem with the first two such threats. One is called "Foreign Fighters Who Get Diverted from Their Theater of Choice." These recruits go overseas to join ISIS but never become fighters, and are trained instead to launch an attack in their home countries, and then sent home to carry one out. They had no intention of launching an attack in their home country when they left, and were only persuaded to do so once they got overseas. Even though the report says so far, ISIS hasn't done this, it's only a matter of time. Since other groups have done this, I think it's fair to mention the possibility as a potential threat.

Same for the second potential threat, the would-be jihadi who never leaves home to go overseas and decides to stage an attack here to "aid the cause." That's happened, and I agree, there will be more instances of it. I also agree that the scope of these threats is limited and they are unlikely to be detected in advance.

While the smaller, more isolated, and purportedly independent attacks like the ones Canada recently endured are certainly tragic, they are also likely to be less sophisticated and less capable of producing mass casualties on the scale of 9/11, the London bombings, and the Madrid train bombing. Unfortunately for Western counterterrorism officials, these attacks are also the least likely to be prevented by law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies.

It's the next threat I take issue with. The report moves from warning of non-fighting recruits trained overseas to conduct an attack at home ("[I]t would be surprising if the group was not devising plans to do so given its anti-American rhetoric" )to saying ISIS may decide against such tactics because of the expense and the likelihood the plot would be exposed, and decide instead to capitalize on the the U.S. - Mexican border. That seems contradictory to me, and the Mexican border part seems entirely baseless and speculative.

Because the IS is likely well aware of the attention Western foreign fighters have drawn and will continue to draw from their home governments, it is possible the group may conclude that the costs of sending Western foreign fighters back to conduct jihad in the United States and elsewhere in the West are too high. One unconventional means by which the IS and other jihadist groups could insert foreign fighters into the United States and other Western countries to conduct attacks is through exploitation of the U.S. immigration asylum process.

The author says he talking about Syrian applicants for asylum. He says fewer requests have been granted recently, and some Syrians show up at the Mexican border to request asylum rather than go through the traditional immigration process. He says it's possible an immigration agent at the border could make a mistake and let a bad person in. Then he adds there's no indication ISIS has ever sent a Syrian to the U.S. this way, and most Syrian applicants for asylum are not associated with ISIS and have legitimate grounds for their request. This does not qualify as a realistic potential threat in my view.

The report's conclusion is unlikely to satisfy most people. Shorter version: There is no way to defeat ISIS now. Even if we did, some other group would just take its place. This is a task that will take a generation or longer. There will be no one moment of defeat. There will only be a process of evolution, and at some point, we can hope ISIS will become irrelevant.

Victory in this fight, moreover, will not look like victory in previous conflicts against state actors. There will be no surrender ceremony from the IS aboard a U.S. battleship, nor will there be definitive scenes like those of East and West Berliners tearing down a wall.

Victory in this conflict is more apt to resemble that of the American civil rights movement. Extremists like the KKK who want to turn back the clock and fan old flames will continue to exist, but history and society march on regardless, with each succeeding generation making these extremists and their ideology more and more irrelevant.

I particularly appreciate the emphasis the report puts on trying to understand ISIS. I have said since my first few posts on ISIS months ago that there can be no effective strategy to defeat ISIS without understanding their beliefs and their goals. They are not out to kill for the sake of killing. They want to eliminate the borders in the Middle East and create a unified Islamic state governed in accordance with Sharia law. Viewing them simply as monsters who commit horrific acts leads nowhere. So I was especially glad to read the first paragraph of the report's Introduction which says:

Sun Tzu once said that “if you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.” Over the past several months, the world has become increasingly familiar with the Islamic State (IS) through media reporting of its brutal executions and military successes. A focus on these aspects of the organization that relate to violence alone, however, leaves us vulnerable to the type of failure described by Sun Tzu.

Despite my one criticism, this is a very worthwhile report, especially because it recognizes the importance of ISIS's efforts at governance to its ultimate success and longevity and while it doesn't overlook the brutality and violence, puts it in perspective, and cautions against making it the sole focus in deciding how to counter it.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Did you read the report? Or at least my summaries? (none / 0) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Dec 17, 2014 at 04:17:04 AM EST

    Excellent report, outstanding summary (none / 0) (#3)
    by Jack203 on Wed Dec 17, 2014 at 09:05:55 PM EST
    Thank you.  It seems some people are getting it.  Let's hope our current and future leaders are listening.

    ISIS is important because the US cannot afford another devastating and costly Middle Eastern war.  If the war hawks return to power in 2016, they could easily ramp up the war again, and then our own country will be one step closer to falling apart.

    It should be clear that the more the West and US become involved militarily, the more extremists we create.  

    And as vicious as ISIS is by slaughtering aid workers, the Taliban gave us a strong reminder with the school attack how deep extremism is running in that entire region.  It is impossible to root out extremism in that region with bombs.  To continue our slow and careful withdrawal from that region (militarily) is by far our best option.