THE CTAP INTERVIEW: The Return of the Zarqawists: How to Deal with the Islamic State Movement

By: Ian C. Rice and Craig Whiteside, US Naval Postgraduate School


On 20 August 2015, the Defense Analysis Department, the Naval War College Monterey, and the Global Education Community Collaboration Online (Global ECCO) hosted a panel at the US Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) titled "The Islamic State: Remaining and Expanding?"1 The five researchers on the panel discussed the Islamic State (ISIS) from different perspectives and then took questions from the audience. The panelists were

  • Major Jon Baker, a US Army Special Forces officer and student at NPS;2
  • Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow with the New America think tank in Washington, D.C.;
  • Dr. Haroro Ingram, a professor at the Australian National University;
  • Dr. Casey Lucius, a former professor of National Security Affairs with the Naval War College Monterey; and
  • Dr. Doug Ollivant, a managing partner at the consulting firm Mantid International.

Editor's Introduction

The purpose of the panel was to answer a series of questions about the Islamic State movement's return from near-defeat in 2007–2008. How was it able to return, and what were the factors that allowed its rise? What is the nature of the organization and its ideology? What aspects of insurgency, counterinsurgency, and irregular warfare are present in this current conflict? At what level should the United States be involved? Finally, how do we defeat the robust capability of the Islamic State movement in the realm of information operations?

NOTE: We use the name "ISIS" throughout the discussion to refer to the movement that is alternatively called ISIL, Daesh, and the Islamic State. When referring to the generic movement over time, we use the term "Islamic State movement."3

The Panel: The Islamic State—Remaining or Expanding?

QUESTION: What is the nature of the Islamic State movement? Is it an insurgency, a terrorist group, or a state? How did it develop into the organization it is today?

DR. BRIAN FISHMAN: I'll give a brief run-through of the history—and more recent development—of ISIS, starting in 2007, which is the later period in the progression of this organization. I'm going to start with the phrase "remaining and expanding." The reason people use the word "remain" with regard to ISIS is because ISIS leaders talk about how it still remains. The Arabic word for this is baqiya. There is a famous passage that ISIS folks refer to again and again, to this day, that talks about how the State [referring to the Dawlah Islamiyah, or "Islamic State" in Arabic] still remains, despite all of the pressure from so many different places. In the very narrow world of the jihadi, there is a very famous paragraph in a speech given by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who was the first emir of the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI]. [He was appointed in October 2006.] At this time the [Anbar] Awakening was just getting off the ground, the US troop surge was just starting to get off the ground, but ISI already felt heavy pressure from those events as early as spring 2007.4 Abu Omar said the Islamic State of Iraq would remain: "It will remain safe because it has been built on the body remains of martyrs; it has been watered with their blood streams."5 That quote still shows up in ISIS propaganda over and over again.

We measure ISIS in lots of different ways to try to determine whether we are winning or losing. But I would say, from their perspective, they set the bar low: ISIS will remain—in the sense of ISIS continuing to be a powerful force. Continuing to be something that is worth fighting for. That's not the bar of what they want to achieve, it's the bar that says, "We are not defeated so long as we still exist." In June 2010, [US Army Chief of Staff] General Ray Odierno said, "Well, over the last 90 days we have killed 34 out of 42 of the Islamic State of Iraq's top leaders." That was the primary metric the US military was using to understand the success we were having against this group. The ISI rejoinder during that period was "The Islamic State will remain. We are still fighting and we will continue to fight." I think we have to recognize that we are using a different set of metrics to measure how weak this organization is compared to the metrics that ISIS is using. What our metrics ought to be, I don't know, but I think that is something to think about.

So the subtext of all of that is these guys think they have existed [as ISI or ISIS] since October 2006—not just since the Syrian civil war began, not just since they took over Mosul last year. We continued to call them al Qaeda in Iraq until they declared themselves to be ISIS or ISIL, crossed into Syria, and separated themselves formally from al Qaeda. But, if you look at the statements by Ayman al-Zawahiri, by Abu Faraj al-Libi—all the senior leaders in al Qaeda—in 2006 and through late 2007, they acknowledged that no, there was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq anymore. There was just the Islamic State of Iraq. We interpreted al Qaeda in Iraq's declaration of an Islamic State of Iraq as a rebranding exercise rather than a definitive political shift in the kinds of things that they wanted to accomplish. I think that from that early point they wanted to build this state. I think that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi wanted to build an Islamic State and was preparing to declare it even before he was killed. So you have this dynamic where the state gets declared in October 2006, and al Qaeda acknowledges that but still wants to exert influence over it.

MAJOR JOHN BAKER: ISIS is the evolution of a brutal organization that first formed in Iraq in 2002. Driven by a Salafi jihadist ideology [not the popularly ascribed Ba'athist influence], ISIS has a history of brutal actions directed at punishing the Iraqi Shi'a populace, which it views as apostates. The extreme ideology is likely not representative of the natural preference of the collective Sunni population in Iraq. The Awakening movement, the Sahwa, demonstrated that moderate Sunnis were present and willing to participate in efforts to undermine Zarqawi's version of Salafi jihad. With the end of the US mission in Iraq, however, this effort lost sponsorship and was quickly eroded from within by the remaining vanguard of the ISI. Subsequently, the Islamic State of Iraq entrenched itself in the social, political, and economic fibers of the Sunni population. The ISI revolutionary methodology penetrated tribal dynamics: collecting and coercing tribal leaders; achieving integration through marriage; manipulating lots of businesses; and, of course, assassination.

ISIS has proved itself to be a resilient organization and demonstrates resolve routinely through the information operations [IO] realm. Because of both the inability of the Sahwa to sustain itself after the end of the US mission and the revolutionary methodology of ISIS, there is at present little alternative for the Sunni population to turn to. The bandwagoning effect and fear of repercussions discourages the Sunni populace from betraying ISIS for a system that might align more closely with their natural preferences. Pockets of Sunni resistance exist, but how long can they endure?

ISIS as a Network

FISHMAN: If you look [at our efforts to defeat the ISI movement] from 2009 to 2010, when we were making tactical and operational progress against this organization, one of the metrics we used [to measure their viability] was whether they had reliable communications back to Afghanistan. In fact, they couldn't talk to their senior leadership. So this debate over whether they were already operating as an independent entity was not just academic. It was a function of whether we were really measuring something that mattered at that time. We said, they have got to do all of their fundraising locally now, here in Iraq. But today, it's easy in 20/20 hindsight to look back and say that [having to rely on local extortion and taxation as opposed to outside funding] actually strengthened them over the long run. That's a really interesting dynamic. The other piece of this that I think is key, is when we think about ISIS today, we think that it developed solely out of the organization that was started by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had a connection with al Qaeda, became al Qaeda in Iraq, and then spread into Syria and came back to Iraq. But I would posit to you that the very earliest networks that Zarqawi built in Iraq were [a series of] regional networks that extended into Jordan and into Syria. They extended into Lebanon. And these networks never really went away.

A fascinating piece of this is that we had uprisings of jihadi organizations in Lebanon, the most famous of which was in 2007 by a group named Fatah al-Islam. It was largely crushed, but the people escaped. Well, [Shaker al-Abssi] led that uprising, [and he is the same person] who was indicted in Jordan in 2002 for collaborating with Zarqawi to kill an American diplomat named Laurence Foley. Shaker was later killed by Syrian forces, but this was a man who built a jihadi movement in Lebanon that was training people to go to Iraq, and that was receiving wounded fighters from Iraq and essentially doing rehabilitation for them. Shaker then tried to start his own organization in northern Lebanon, and it spread into parts of Syria.

The roots of these kinds of organizations still exist, and when we wonder how ISIS was able to explode so quickly in the context of Syria, it's because of this same network in Syria. It was not only funneling foreign fighters, but there was this indigenous network that was moving people [on behalf of various jihadist groups] from Lebanon into Syria, into Iraq, and vice versa. So I think one of the most important dynamics of ISIS as we think of it today, or as the "Islamic State" with no geographic boundaries, is that it is accepting pledges of allegiance from organizations around the world, including in Afghanistan. This is a definitive change. This is, in my opinion, one of the very few definitive changes from the organization that it was trying to be—from 2006 forward. We have documents from Syrian-based logisticians in ISIS saying, "I am going to negotiate with the guys in Lebanon, and I am going to do the Haj in Saudi Arabia, and I am going to meet up with our guys in the Gaza Strip and talk to them there." So the ISIS network was this underground network that [existed throughout the region].

ISIS as an Insurgency

DR. HARORO INGRAM: I [find it helpful to look at ISIS as] an insurgency based upon these broad kinds of strategic principles that it shares with thinkers like Mao [Zedong], Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, Abu Bakr Naji, and to some extent, [Abu Musab] al-Suri.6 One of these principles is the establishment of a fully integrated politico-military campaign. ISIS thinks like an insurgency, presenting a competitive system of control [in contrast to the Iraqi and Syrian governments]. Now, the thing about a competitive system of political control is that when you look at insurgencies in their strongholds, they look remarkably state-like. They tend to structuralize, to institutionalize their functions. Even militarily, they have some kind of uniforms and they set up police and infantry. If, however, you look further out from those strongholds, insurgencies start to look very much like guerilla warfare—more insurgency-like. The way that the center interacts with those outer areas is through a functional political and military engagement. Militarily, they use guerilla warfare tactics, hit and run, those kinds of things, but certainly politically and socially, the way they operate is that the tax-man will appear, and he is just a guy who is carrying a gun. He walks past someone and says, "Pay up." That's taxation. They will engage with these populations functionally, with the differences between the areas being whether those functions are formalized in what we could call structures or institutions.

ISIS as a Pseudo-State

DR. CASEY LUCIUS: States have certain capabilities that terrorist organizations don't have. Most terrorist organizations carry out physical attacks for a political aim, but once that political aim is achieved, they don't necessarily have a desire to govern territory. ISIS is different with regard to what they want: they have political aims, they carry out physical attacks, but they also have the will to govern territory, to govern people. They also want to be recognized as a state, both on maps and internationally, and they have the ability to use multiple tools of power—information, political, military, and so on. We know that they have significant economic tools [extraction of taxes from locals, oil infrastructure]. So, in many ways, I think ISIS has the characteristics of a state, and if we treat them as a state, it opens up a range of policy options for dealing with them. Instead of thinking the only options are either to engage or not engage, it opens up the scope, and we can say, What do we do with this state? We negotiate, we impose economic sanctions, we attack the state's military, we isolate them, and we encircle them, or maybe apply a multipronged approach and do all of those things at the same time.

ISIS and Its Relationship with Shi'a States

FISHMAN: What is the relationship between the Assad regime and ISIS? It's absolutely indisputable that ISIS hates Shi'a Muslims—they have hated the Iranian and Syrian governments for years as a result of that sectarian perspective. At the same time, ISIS would not be what it is today if the Iranians didn't tolerate its networks operating back and forth between Iraq and Afghanistan for years. It's a fact that Iran allowed a range of different jihadi organizations to operate on its territory going back into the 1990s, mostly because the jihadis were hostile to Arab governments in the region, including the Saudis and the Egyptians, and so Iran allowed them to operate.

As for Syria, it's even more interesting. I mentioned Shaker al Abssi, who was a key ally of Zarqawi. Before the Syrian government killed him back in 2008, Shaker was part of a jihadi organization sponsored directly by the Syrian government in Lebanon. So why was the Syrian government doing that? Well, they weren't doing it because they actually supported these guys' goals. They were supporting pseudo-jihadi groups in Lebanon because they didn't want Palestinian organizations to get too powerful. So they were going to do anything they could to divide those movements. The radical would-be jihadi organizations would go to war against secular Palestinians as well as Palestinian Islamists like Hamas. So the Syrian government was playing all of these people against each other. When we look at Syria today, I don't believe there is this tight relationship between the Syrian government and ISIS that some people say exists. But it's absolutely true that the Syrian government over the years has supported radical groups, takfiri groups, in order to divide other opposition movements. That's just what they do. It is the playbook. So it's not surprising that in the first years of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian government would focus on fighting insurgent organizations that were not ISIS because they knew that ISIS would divide the insurgency. That's not some new strategy—that's what they have always done. The best place to see that is in Lebanon.

ISIS as a Global Threat

LUCIUS: Is ISIS a threat to our national interests? To answer this question, first, you identify national interests. Second, you identify your goals. Third, you identify your policy options. Using this approach, and starting with our national interests, I turn to Hans Morgenthau, who wrote, in his book In Defense of the National Interest, that the national interest should be the standard by which we develop policy.7 In other words, policy should not be based on what we morally agree or disagree with. Policy should not be based on what we can afford or can't afford or what public opinion polls say. Specifically, Morgenthau suggested that moral principles in the international sphere have no concrete universal meaning, and he warned that without consistency in foreign policy, decision makers will simply demonize the enemy, rather than recognize the real threat and the opposing state's real power. This raises two big questions about ISIS. First, Morgenthau says that we should focus on interests, not morals. So, what I think he would say in regard to ISIS is that no matter how horrific ISIS's actions are, no matter how morally reprehensible we find these actions, our reaction should not be the basis of our policy. I think that's at least worth thinking about. We should allow that to sink in and inform the policy process.

The second question is [the threat]. We don't want to just demonize our enemy—we want to focus on what the real threat is and [what ISIS's capabilities are to harm or oppose any of our vital interests]. So I identify six vital interests: trade and economic prosperity; energy supply; freedom of the seas; space access; cyber security; and homeland security. Again, we could talk about what those six actually mean and go on forever about whether those really are vital interests and what they encompass. But in terms of how that list relates to ISIS, I would submit that it could be our baseline to try to answer that question: does ISIS threaten our national interests? I will say ISIS does not threaten our trade supply, freedom of the seas, or space access. I will go on to suggest there is not an immediate threat to our energy supply or cyber security, although I do think there is possibility over time that the threat could grow. I would, however, submit that ISIS is a threat to our homeland security. The reason I say this is that [ISIS's own stated goals] are to expand its territory across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa; to recruit Westerners; and to attack the West and the United States. So, if we use that list of six national interests we can say okay, there may be one national interest that is actually threatened by ISIS.

FISHMAN: I think it's pretty clear that ISIS's strategy for engaging the West aims to inspire people there to do homegrown attacks. That's not always been the case, and it's also true that ISIS's predecessors have, at least rhetorically, had their eye on the West for longer than is usually understood.8 In 2008, Abu Ayyub al-Masri was the minister of war in the Islamic State of Iraq, and he claimed credit for a bombing attack on the Glasgow airport in Scotland. Now, how much exactly did ISI [influence the perpetrators to act]? Did they actually drive that kind of attack in the West? It's hard to know. But I think that there is a lot to the idea that they had some influence on it. Most importantly though, this organization had its eyes on something bigger than just Iraq much earlier than we have generally given it credit for. I think that as we combat this group, it's important for us to understand that its leaders measure their legacy in those terms.

Dealing with Sectarianism in Iraqi Politics

QUESTION: ISIS's leadership must be credited with developing a successful strategy that facilitated its growth in support among the Sunni community. But this can only be part of the story. The return of the Islamic State movement occurred in a political environment in Iraq that created the conditions for it to grow. How did this happen?


DR. DOUG OLLIVANT: The Iraqi government is a weak and largely dysfunctional one. It is also a democratic and representative one. Of course, those two aspects are intertwined. Democratic and representative governments have a hard time getting things done. It is difficult in a democracy to make things happen. They are inefficient by design. This is a problem now that Iraq is in a crisis. Iraq has what we call a national unity government, which means that all parties are represented in the executive. National unity governments, even within the subset of democracies, are on the least functional side of the spectrum. I think the only national unity government in the history of mankind that worked well was [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill's government during the Second World War, and all it was doing was to focus on fighting the war. The government postponed all other concerns about what was going on at home. To understand the national unity government, I give this example: imagine if, in the current Barack Obama administration, four ministries—including one or two important ones like State, Interior, or Treasury—were controlled by Republicans who reported to Karl Rove or some similar figure.9 What if President Obama had to work with a cabinet that included people who were quite intent on making sure his government did not function effectively? I tell people that government is hard to make function effectively even when everyone is dedicated and trying to make it function effectively. When some people are trying to ensure that it does not function effectively, that's actually very easy to do.


So, we are in a situation right now where we actually have some fairly decent leaders in the current Iraqi government. By decent, I mean well-meaning—I don't mean particularly capable. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is Western-oriented and spent his exile in London. He and the people he has surrounded himself with come from the London-exile branch of the Da'wa party, while [former Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki and the previous group came from those who spent their exile in Damascus and Iran. Abadi speaks fluent English, and he used to work for Hewlett Packard in London, where he was a technocrat. He also got 5,000 votes in the last election—not a huge support base for him to draw on—whereas, I believe, Maliki got 850,000. Abadi's most senior Sunni counterpart, Dr. Salim al-Jabouri, who is the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, comes out of the Muslim Brotherhood but has tried to leave that behind and is presenting himself as a more moderate and conciliatory figure. Both Dr. al-Jabouri and Prime Minister Abadi, I believe, are trying to reach out and cut a deal. The issue, of course, is that both of them have problems with their base. You know—and this is something that current congressional leaders in Washington can also understand—just because you're trying to get a deal, it doesn't mean that you can bring all of your backbenchers along with you.

BAKER: In response to the sectarian attacks that began in 2004, the Shi'a popular movements became increasingly violent and influential within the Baghdad government. The Iraqi security forces (ISF), which were predominantly Shi'a during the US involvement, had become increasingly homogeneous, and Shi'a popular movements are suspected of having infiltrated these organizations. The uniformed ISF was unable either to control the Sunni population or protect the Shi'a population; thus, the security gap inspired the actions of the Shi'a popular movements. Furthermore, Sunni participation in the Baghdad government is likely less than wholly meaningful. It is either too small to be influential within the national political realm, or participation in the government taints the authenticity of the individuals as representatives of Sunni causes. These factors have combined to create what I consider to be centrifugal forces within the Islamic State and Shi'a popular movements—giving alleged legitimacy to each other's atrocities.

OLLIVANT: There is a fundamental question we need to ask [about how much the sectarian issue affects the rise of the Islamic State movement]. Clearly the Sunni citizens of Iraq perceive that they are being deprived and persecuted, that they are not getting what is due them, and are on the receiving end of violence and oppression and imprisonment more than others around them. The question is, how much of this is real, and how much of this is perceived? If the persecution is real, then something can be done about it. If the persecution is largely perceived, then it's very difficult to know what the government might do.

Let me give a counter narrative to that. In the last election, the Sunni parties won 19% of the parliamentary seats in Iraq. [When we talk about the major divisions of Iraqis]—Sunni, Shi'a, Kurds—the impression is that they are divided 1/3–1/3–1/3. It's absolutely not the case. The country is 2/3 Shi'a, approximately 1/6 Arab Sunni, and 1/6 Kurdish Sunni. The Shi'a population is somewhere between 60% and 70% of the country. So you start to understand that when you deal with the Shi'a majority, you are dealing with a huge part of the population. When people say this government is Shi'a-dominated, well, if it's about 70% Shi'a, that's demographically proportionate. You have to remember that. So again, the Sunni won about 19% of the seats. From those 19% of the seats, they had 30% of the ministries.

There has been lots of talk about the Sunni in the security institutions being purged. The Iraqi government does not release demographic percentages of its rank and file, so we don't know what they are. They did release the names of the top 20 military officials and what sect and nationality they come from. Again, we find the Sunni Arabs dramatically overrepresented relative to their proportion in the population. So we have to ask the question: is their sense of oppression real, or is it simply that they are no longer getting the disproportionate amount of the goods and services and attention and jobs and prestige and positions that they enjoyed during the prior regime? Should we think of them in the same vein that we think of the Kosovar Serbs or the Afrikaners and the English in South Africa? Sunnis are simply never going to enjoy the advantages they once had, and they need to reconcile themselves to their new place in society. I think that is an open question. I don't like the fact that most people seem to think it's settled.

The United States as an Ally

OLLIVANT: Very quickly, let me talk about Iraqis' perception of the United States. When I travel Iraq and talk to the Iraqi people about the United States, the first thing they will tell me is that the United States is a remarkably unreliable ally. This is the story they will tell. ISIS came through in June of last year, swept down through Mosul, pushed down to Tikrit, and took the territory we all know about. In the Iraqis' telling, which is remarkably accurate, the Iranians essentially showed up the next day, asking, "How can we help?" They provided advisors, provided weapons, provided training; they were there for the Iraqis. The United States said, "This looks a lot like a Sunni uprising against oppression to us, and we really think the Maliki regime is the problem, and we are not doing anything until the Maliki regime is removed." Or, as I put it to other people, when Iraq found itself in a crisis, the United States, rightly or wrongly, decided that it was time to burn political capital in order to accomplish our foreign policy objectives in Iraq and get rid of Nouri al-Maliki. And we accomplished that. The Iranians decided that this would be a really, really good time to bank political capital; therefore, the current outcome in which Iranian influence is clearly waxing where American influence is waning, should be utterly predictable. Who would you prefer to have as an ally? The one who is there, or the one who says, "Well, once you meet all my conditions, then I will think about it." So, that's a very real perception problem. To those of us who might have spent two or three years of our life there, this might stick in our craw a little bit, but nonetheless, it's a very real perception among the Iraqi populace.

The second thing I hear is that there is an extremely strong perception, particularly in the Shi'a south, that the United States sponsors ISIS. Now, as I tell people, this comes in what I call strong versions and weak versions. In the strong version, the United States has a fleet of black helicopters that are flying into ISIS-controlled territory and providing them with a resupply of money, weapons, and fighters. As I tell any Iraqi who tells me this, "That's just crazy talk. The United States is clearly not doing this." And we go back and forth. When you can push them off that narrative, though, they will start to peel back to what I call a warm moderate version that goes something like this: "Look, we know that ISIS is getting aid, money, fighters, weapons, certainly ideology, from American allies." They will name them: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. "These are US allies. You provide them all a lot of money, you provide them support, and they are either NATO allies or major non-NATO allies of yours. You have influence with them. If you wanted to, you could make them stop. Since you are not making them stop, perhaps you are engineering this behind the scenes and using these three states as cutouts to do your bidding and support ISIS." As I tell people, that's wrong—but it's not crazy. That is a reasonable interpretation of facts on the ground. For people who aren't privy to what actually happens in the United States government—those of us who have been in the United States government know we could never pull off anything so sophisticated—you know, it's believable to them.

US Civil-Military Relations and the Iraq War

OLLIVANT: I think that we [the United States] are in a very dangerous moment right now, particularly for civil-military relations but also for learning the right lessons from Iraq. I think we have a large story line that has been popularized in a number of recent books on Iraq, and I think our last Army chief of staff also believes it. The story goes something like this: we invaded Iraq in 2003, which was probably a big mistake. We stumbled through 2004, 2005, and 2006 not really knowing what we were doing. About the middle of 2006—well, either in the middle of 2006 or on Valentine's Day [February] 2007, depending on which version you believe—we figured out that things needed to go differently in Iraq. We started doing them differently. By 2008, thanks to the Surge and the Awakening and everything else that went along with it, we had AQI/ISI defeated.

We moved into 2009 and 2010 with great expectations, and then three things happened. Ambassador Chris Hill showed up on the scene; Nouri al-Maliki contested the 2010 election, eventually emerged victorious, and started persecuting the Sunni; and President Obama precipitously—that is the word usually used—withdrew the entirety of the US force from Iraq in 2011. Essentially, this became a "things were going fine until the politicians—US and Iraqi—screwed things up" story. "But for being stabbed in the back by these politicians, things would be much better in Iraq." This story doesn't make the United States look hard at things that it did to set Iraq up for failure. Let me give you one example. By October 2007, in Baghdad, we had recruited 40,000 sahwa (Sunni militia fighters) in Taji District. 40,000 of them! About the time we got to the 15,000-point, I asked, "Hey, what are we doing here? Do we really need 15,000 sahwa to secure Taji District? We could probably do it with a lot less than this." Of course, the response was, "More is better." More is better. We ended up with 40,000 sahwa (enlisted as a security force) in Taji District by the end of 2007. How on earth was the Iraqi government going to integrate four divisions' worth of sahwa into any type of security job? How could that possibly happen even if the Iraqi government wanted to do this? Let's accept that the Iraqi government wasn't really excited about it, but even had they wanted to do this, how on earth would they have found security jobs for 40,000 men in Taji District? I have no earthly idea.

So, my point is, I think that this narrative of "we really figured everything out and everything was going swimmingly, and then these politicians—American and Iraqi—betrayed us" is keeping us from looking hard at the things that the United States military did. Again, I was the chief of plans for Multi-National Division Baghdad in 2007. I was in the middle of this. I am partially responsible for some of the things that did not go so well. I like to think that I am trying to be reflective about that. I think that this narrative makes it difficult for us to recognize the mistakes we made in 2006, 2007, and 2008 that set the conditions for the failures that came later.

QUESTION: What are our strategic objectives as a nation concerning ISIS? Is this our fight, or should regional or local actors take the lead? How should we proceed as a nation to secure our interests in the region?

LUCIUS: What is it that we hope to accomplish in regard to ISIS? Do we want to just degrade their capabilities? Do we want to contain ISIS? Do we want to defeat or eliminate ISIS? It's important to consider what it is we want to accomplish, and it's important to consider that before you develop the policy. However, the current policy of contain, degrade, and defeat are, I think, more specifically military objectives, and I would argue that there are also political objectives, economic objectives, and social objectives that we need to consider as well. Someone mentioned that we need to bolster the Iraqi security forces, for instance, but we also need some stability within the Iraqi government, we need a capable police force, a justice system, things like that. We need to cut off the Islamic State's economic revenue. I read recently that ISIS receives between $3 million and $5 million a day from the sale of oil. So, there are also those economic and political objectives that we need to consider. If ISIS is a threat to our national interests, then there is probably a time element that we have to consider as well, which means that we would want to act swiftly so as to not allow ISIS to continue to strengthen its own capabilities.

BAKER: These concerns suggest four related efforts to address the problem of the Islamic State movement, and each comes with significant obstacles. The first is separating ISIS from the Sunni populace. This is essential. But given the conditions, is it still a viable goal? After the defeat of the Awakening movement, is there still a sense of abandonment [by the United States] among Sunni moderates, and how do we overcome this? Are there enough surviving Sunni moderates to even establish a quorum? What means are available to convince Sunnis to participate in an alternative system of government, and how do we protect them? Finally, any grassroots movement would need support from the national strategic level. Is it possible to garner lasting commitment from the government of Iraq?

The second effort is minimizing the role of Shi'a militias and building the capacity of the Iraqi security forces. I believe these two efforts are inexorably linked. The weaker the ISF becomes, the more justification exists for Shi'a militias and therefore, Iranian influence. An Iranian-controlled militia will not be able to separate the Sunni populace from the Islamic State. The US mission in Iraq committed many troops and resources to create a new ISF that would be enduring. Based on the growth of the Islamic State, the ISF were either incapable or unable to connect with the populace and therefore failed. Subsequently, given our constrained resource environment now, how long will it take us to rebuild a force that is actually capable of accomplishing those things? Furthermore, beyond recording airstrikes and building up the security forces, what other measures do we have available to us to mitigate the influence of the Shi'a militias?

The third effort, which is mostly beyond the purview of the US military, is to foster an inclusive and reconciliatory Baghdad government. Most of this effort, again, is out of our hands, but this effort is the one that enables the first two to succeed. However, the US military is in a position where it can assist in this effort. What military actions can we take to increase the overall level of influence that the United States has with the government of Iraq? How do we protect moderates in the Iraqi government at the sub­national level? Finally, what is the appetite within the government for reconciliation with the Sunni populace?

Lastly, direct kinetic engagement will likely be a part of any strategy to combat ISIS, but this comes with significant strategic dangers. Kinetic engagements at the behest of the Iraqi national government without other measures are likely to be viewed by Sunnis as repression by the "Shi'a government" and reinforce the Islamic State worldview. Last week, a well-known proponent of counterinsurgency was here [at NPS] and argued that we should dramatically ramp up the amount of air strikes we are doing against ISIS, based on his assumption that ISIS fulfills most of the criteria of a natural functioning state. While I do agree with that perspective of the "Islamic State" as a somewhat functioning state, an air campaign against the Sunni populace would seem very similar to the search-and-destroy operations conducted by the US government during the Vietnam War. It's amazing that after 14 years of counterinsurgency fighting, we still believe that a war of attrition is a viable strategy for addressing this particular insurgency.

Finally, why should we care? Why is all of this important? I would like to propose four concerns about ISIS that I think make it extremely relevant. First, the terrorist acts of 9/11, executed by individuals trained during the 1990s and 2000s, were the product of Salafi-jihadist upbringing and extremism that was fostered in obscure locations across the Muslim world. If we continue to allow a generation of young Iraqis and Syrians to grow up under that same ideology, what fruits of terrorism will that bear for the next generation? Second, although ISIS isn't likely to ever create a spectacular domestic terror event like 9/11, their business model of employing homegrown terrorism in lieu of pulling individuals into training camps to develop attacks is harder to defend than al Qaeda's previous strategy. Third, a fractured Iraq, I believe, further destabilizes the Middle East, increases Iranian influence and opportunity, and perhaps furthers the goal of establishing Hezbollah 2.0 in Iraq. This, again, forces the other Sunni states within the region to counterbalance [the increase in Iranian and Shi'a power].

Fourth, I believe ISIS is a significant threat to our largest overseas military operation right now—Afghanistan. ISIS's growth there has been frequently dismissed as a rebranding of Taliban forces who are disenfranchised. For that, I would offer an analogy from the 1990s. There was an organization that was somewhat fractured and stagnant in that there were many Pashtuns who were disenfranchised within it. A small upstart group in southern Afghanistan changed a flag, rebranded itself, and was able to become wildly successful over the next five years. Of course, that organization is the Taliban. So breathing new life into an organization with an ideological change and a new arm patch has been effective in the past.

QUESTION: How do we defeat ISIS in the realm they dominate—information operations—particularly in the cyber domain?

INGRAM: ISIS excels at creating a perception of a global conflict, whereas the heart of the conflict, in fact, is in Muslim lands. Information operations, the media campaign, propaganda, whatever you want to call it, have a central, strategic role in insurgency thinking. Why? Because it is all about creating perceptions. It's about leveraging political and military actions in the field, along with messaging to influence the perceptions of contested populations. Contested populations include potential supporters but also enemies. It's very, very difficult to describe ISIS's information operations. The sheer breadth of their campaign is immense, from local audiences to broader regional and transnational ones. If we look at their means of communication, these are as varied as local-area pamphlets, billboards, and speakers who [put up a screen and] hold movie nights, to transnational efforts, such as a magazine that is disseminated online.

My assessment is that in the "perceptions war," it is very difficult to deny that we are getting beaten. I suspect that the roots of this lie in an intellectual failing. I think that American commentary on and analysis of the ISIS information operations campaign—but even before that with al Qaeda and with other asymmetrical combatants—has tended to be very, very narrow. There is a kind of cognitive bias that has infiltrated our analysis of these problems. In the last year there have been a lot of publications about ISIS that focus on four factors or threats. One such focus addresses ISIS's central media units. The problem with that myopic focus is that ISIS actually has a multitiered organizational structure that is responsible for its media efforts. So yes, you do have those central media units like al Hayat and al Furq?n. However, the most active producer of official ISIS information operations material is, in fact, at the secondary level, and it's run by the wilayet [provincial] information officers. They are actually the most prolific producers. And then, of course, you have this more influential means of IO dissemination, the unofficial production, which some people call the "fan boys." The "fan boys" use social media to disseminate these messages.

The second popular focus is on how ISIS uses social media as a means of communication for its target audiences. I fear that this focus has resulted in confusion about the means of communication and the meaning of communication. A corollary to this is that the way we develop metrics for success have become warped. I don't know whether you are aware of the "Think Again, Turn Away" campaign and the sarcastic "Run to ISIS-land" video that was produced by the State Department? Well, there were mixed reviews on the effectiveness of these, but one of the defenses to that criticism said, "Well, look how many tweets we got. Hundreds of thousands of tweets on this! It was getting out there, it was being retweeted." In actuality it was being retweeted by the ISIS fan boys. They were retweeting it because they thought it was funny. They were mocking it. Here is something that should be really clear to everybody: if your enemy is disseminating your IO for you, you probably shouldn't think it's effective.

The third point I want to highlight is this myopic focus on ISIS's violence. You know, there is almost a hypnotic obsession with violence, and ISIS makes its videos to achieve precisely that. They want you to be hypnotized by the blood falling into a trench and flowing down. The problem with that focus is that we lose sight of its broader messaging. ISIS has extraordinarily diverse messaging, not only to its local audiences—its full spectrum of messaging is very, very diverse. I suspect that when we myopically focus on violence, we lose sight of that much broader picture, and we fall victim [to our emotions]: we end up driven by this rage, and we respond to violence rather than what we should be doing, which is soberly looking at things and analytically trying to understand what's going on.

The fourth point is this fixation on production. As if it was production that makes a difference in the efficacy of the product. There are commentators on CNN, on Fox, or whatever else, and they will mock the latest issue of Inspire [al Qaeda's magazine] and say how it's much less slick than Dabiq [the ISIS magazine]. Slick production is the glossy package that obscures what's more important, and that is the ISIS message.

From Mao to the Islamic State

INGRAM: There is no big single factor that sets ISIS information operations apart from its predecessors or its contemporaries. Those core, fundamental mechanics of ISIS's information campaign are broadly similar to the basic tenets of how Mao Zedong and [North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen] Giap and all these other guys spoke about how propaganda should actually be used. Messages should be used essentially to check the perceptions and to polarize the support of contested populations. The way you do that is by leveraging two sets of factors. The first set is the one I call pragmatic factors, which are tied to security, stability, and livelihood. ISIS messaging tries to convince the population that "we" have the most effective competitive system of control. And not only do we have the most competitive system of control, if we tell you that we are going to do something, we are going to do it.

The second set of factors, which I think are very important but which tend to be over-emphasized at times, are perceptual factors. Perceptual factors essentially relate to the cause, which is a very broad, abstract way of putting it. But this messaging plays on identity–crisis–solution constructs. For ISIS there is a very simple narrative: we are the champions of Sunni Muslims. Our enemies are malevolent, oppressive groups that are responsible for your crisis. So join us to defeat them, because we have the solutions. Regarding the core narrative, ISIS will actually interplay those different kinds of constructs. So they will put out some messaging, which I call "value reinforcing," that will say that ISIS has the solutions and all their enemies are causing crises. They have their economic reinforcement messages that will actually say: compare us, compare how good we are, to how bad and malevolent our enemies are.

ISIS has demonstrated a real appreciation for the fact that different audiences require different messaging. So ISIS information campaigns have tended to stress pragmatic factors, what I would call rational choice appeals, about making a decision between what's effective and what's ineffective. What is going to keep you safe, and what is not going to keep you safe. What is going to get you killed and your wife and children raped, and what will allow you to live a relatively happy life. To transnational audiences, ISIS has tended to prioritize those perceptual things. Read Dabiq or watch ISIS videos, and you will see that proportionally, comparatively, there is a greater emphasis on perceptual factors and nefariously playing on that core narrative.

However, even though ISIS messaging tends to stress certain things to certain audiences, it is actually when you compare that messaging to the messaging of al Qaeda Central, or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other Islamist groups, that you start to see the really subtle differences in the way that ISIS appeals to contested populations. The hallmark of an ISIS information campaign is its ability to interweave identity and rational choice appeals, and in doing so, to align those two crucial types of decision-making processes—rational and identity choice. We really struggle to try to understand why it is that foreign fighters have made the decision to go overseas so rapidly. What is it that has made these lone wolves decide to act so quickly? I think it is because the narrative is so well constructed. While narrative doesn't explain everything, I think it gives us a pretty good insight because ISIS information campaigns interweave these identity and rational choice appeals almost seamlessly. I leave you with this question: what is our narrative? ²

About the Author(s):

Ian C. Rice is a US Army Special Forces officer.
Dr. Craig Whiteside is a professor at the Naval War College Monterey.

  1. The Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP) aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the twenty-first–century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future.go back up
  2. Please see the About the Contributors section of this issue for more information on the participants. go back up
  3. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the US Naval Postgraduate School, the US Department of Defense, the US government, or any other official entity.go back up
  4. The Awakening refers to the Anbar Awakening or Sahwa movement—the 2007 Sunni uprising against the ISI on the Syrian border.go back up
  5. Abu Omar, as quoted in a speech by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, "The State of Islam Will Remain Safe," 7 August 2011, 4: back up
  6. Mao Zedong led the insurgent Chinese Red Army to victory against extreme odds in 1949. Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin was an early al Qaeda commander who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Abu Bakr Naji is almost certainly a pseudonym for one or more Salafist extremists whose writing has influenced al Qaeda and ISIS. Abu Musab al-Suri (the pen name for al Qaeda strategist Mustafa Setmariam Nasar) wrote a major treatise in 2005 on the strategy to achieve global jihad.go back up
  7. Hans J. Morgenthau, In Defense of the National Interest (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1982).go back up
  8. This refers to Zarqawi's failed first attempt to establish a terror cell in Germany in 2002. For more information, see Matthew Levitt, "USA Ties Terrorist Attacks in Iraq to Extensive Zarqawi Network," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1 April 2004: back up
  9. Karl Rove served as President George W. Bush's senior political advisor and deputy chief of staff between 2001 and Rove's resignation in 2007. go back up
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