Hilary Smith

Dr. Alan Gropman

CONF 695

1 December 2015

On 13 November 2015, the West was roused to the largest and most violent attack on a major Western city to date by the terror group Islamic State or ISIS. With around 130 innocent civilians killed in a peaceful city, quick and rash reactions flared up on what to do about the ISIS threat. There was an outpouring of solidarity with France in its time of mourning. There were calls for quick and decisive retribution by leaders and politicians (Walt). But the question that policy-makers have been scratching their heads over for months is what to do about ISIS? This paper will discuss the makeup and nature of ISIS as an organization and then reason through a long-term strategy for dealing with the threat ISIS poses to the US and her interests.

ISIS is a landed terrorist organization, a hybrid that is new in its class. In a brilliant analysis of terrorist organizations, Stewart Welch cites Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book The Starfish and the Spider that compares two types of extremist organizations to starfish and spiders. Hierarchical organizations, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, are like spiders, where severing the head kills, or severely weakens, the organization. Al Qaeda is more akin to a starfish, where there is no head that effectively runs the organization and cutting off pieces of it only creates new starfish (Stewart). ISIS is a hybrid of these two. Inside its territory in Iraq and Syria, it has a hierarchical structure that levies taxes and presides over Shariah law (Cordesman; Rosenberg, Kulish, Myers). Outside its bounds, however, it display decentralized, multi-cephalous characteristics where extremist cells can splinter off or metastasize inside countries far from Islamic State’s borders. The more that there are perceived injustices, the more fuel there is for ISIS recruiters to use in their goals. Any strategy to counter ISIS will have to take into account the mechanics and dual functionality of ISIS, its nature as both a centralized authority within its territorial bounds and its more powerful and unconventional existence as a decentralized entity with soft power hubs throughout populations in far away countries.

Now that we better understand the nature of ISIS, we will turn to its current strategy. ISIS’s strategy encompasses territorial expansion and ideological dominance. It wants to establish its caliphate in Syria and Iraq and then expand it throughout historic Muslim lands and the rest of the world (Walt). According to Dr. Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, Islamic State wants to achieve its goal by stoking the fire between Muslims and other groups and cast the conflict in terms of a religious struggle, driving moderates and fence-sitters to their side. If Western powers begin occupying Middle Eastern lands again, it will play into ISIS’s narrative and bolster its strategy. The challenge for the West and other countries in the region is not to play into that narrative, giving ISIS the support it needs.

ISIS certainly has many limitations. It has no allies, a vulnerable revenue stream, is a fledgling state, is built on distorted principles, uses overt acts of violence and repression to rule and recruit (both of which are not sustainable in the long term). ISIS is abhorred by majorities in and outside the Muslim world.

Additionally, ISIS has reached its territorial limits for the time being. It has expanded to encompass its base of Sunni Arabs and is now bounded by Kurds and Turks to the north, Iraqi Shiites and Kurds to the east, Alawites and Assad’s Russian-backed forces in the west. Sunni Lebanese, Palestinians, and Jordanians bound its southern border, but they are not interested in Islamic State, are already saturated with refugees, and were stunned by the violence with which the Jordanian pilot was executed (Roy). ISIS cannot grow easily now without expanding its base of local support to Kurds, Turks, or Shiites. It is likely to focus its efforts on projecting its influence to sympathetic listeners in countries all over the world. A new strategy to counter ISIS’s approach must be adopted.

In crafting an effective strategy against a threat like ISIS, a few things should be understood. One is to keep the ISIS threat in perspective. It is a threat, but not the only threat to the US. Devoting too much time and resources to a loud but insubstantial enemy will distract us from more pressing concerns (Rothkopf). Another is to accept the vulnerability that not every tragedy can be prevented (Cordesman). This will give courage and reasonable expectations when tragedies do occur and help prevent the bluster of political backlash, domestic intolerance of Muslim populations that feeds ISIS’s strategy, and can bring the focus back to the roots of the problem rather than treating symptoms (Cordesman; Rothkopf).

Additionally, ISIS represents the strongest manifestation of a worldwide extremist movement among some Sunni Muslim populations. Undermining ISIS without destroying the ideas it is built on will only leave the field a vacuum for the next extremist movement to fill (Walt). A sound strategy will deal with the ideas and roots of ISIS, not just the manifestation of this organization.

Finally, addressing the root causes will lead to a good strategy toward prevention and not just reaction to the manifest conflict (Cragin). Preventing and countering radicalization before it starts will deny a group like ISIS the vital soft power it needs to survive. It cuts the insurgent away from its base of support and leaves it to atrophy without the support recruitment offers it.

With these characteristics in mind, perspective on the threat ISIS poses, acceptance that most but not all attacks may be prevented, understanding ISIS as one manifestation of a larger movement of ideas, the need to address that movement, and a focus on prevention at the roots of conflict, let us now turn to creating an ISIS strategy.

In deciding on a strategy toward ISIS, US policy makers must consider America’s enduring principles to ascertain if this this is a threat that requires attention. Though this is not an exhaustive list, prominent US enduring principles include the following:

  1. “All men are created equal
  2. “All men are endowed by Creator with inalienable rights
  3. “Representative Democracy
  4. “Separation of power (checks and balances)
  5. “Freedom of religion” (Gropman)

We can see that ISIS does not share most or any of these principles. However, that does not make them a threat automatically. Their actions, as they are opposed to US actions, would make it an oppositional force to US interests. From these principles, US interests and objectives are derived. Opposition to these would make ISIS a threat to US interests. Some prominent, though not exhaustive, US interests and objectives appear below.

National Interest National Objective
1.      US remains free, sovereign, and its people and institutions are secure 1.      Maintain security of the US and her allies
2.      Healthy growth economy to provide for individual and national prosperity and resources 2.      Respond to global challenges facing the economy
3.      Stability and security for US interests 3.      Resolve disputes peacefully that threaten US interests
4.      Advancement of freedoms, democratic institutions, and market economies throughout world 4.      Protect and advance democracy across the world
5.      Strong alliances 5.      Build healthy relationships with countries sharing similar concerns

(adapted from Gropman)


ISIS’s terrorist actions in Paris, London, Madrid, and other countries tests US alliances and undermines the stability in the Middle East and other nations ISIS threatens. ISIS also inhibits the cultivation of freedom and democracy in the Middle East and abroad. Though ISIS has not yet attacked the US, the FBI has reported 900 open cases investigating ISIS threats (Brooks). ISIS’s organization and tactics pose credible, though latent, threats to US enduring principles, its national interests and objectives. Assessing this, it is requisite to create a strategy for dealing with the threat ISIS poses.

In order to understand what the best US response would be to ISIS, the domestic and international environments have to be taken into consideration. Domestically, Americans are war weary from nearly 15 years of inconclusive, undeclared wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Political will is lacking for military intervention. Expending too many other resources without much result will not produce support for a focus on ISIS (Roy). Americans want to feel safe and that they can and are doing successful things against their enemies. As a representative democracy, they and their representatives have a short timeframe in which they would like to see action against a threat and positive and immediate results from those actions. There is a need to shift expectations if strategies require a longer time frame.

Moving from the domestic environment, the international environment around ISIS is embroiled with complexity. All states oppose ISIS, but it is not their top priority, with the exception of perhaps France. ISIS functions in two failed states, the Sunni populations, from which it draws its base, were treated with intolerance and intimidation at best, and brutality and murder at worst, by their governments in Damascus and Baghdad. Retaining Assad and his brutal tactics in Syria creates more local supporters for Islamic State (Brooks). However, Russia supports Assad as its strongest ally in the Middle East and Iran has propped up the Syrian regime for decades as well. While opposed to ISIS, their first priority is not ISIS. Turkey’s main concern is separatist Kurdish forces. These ethnic Kurds are opposed to the brutality coming from the chiefly Sunni Arab Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is invested on its own borders with extremism in Yemen but is also opposed to Iran gaining power in the region. However, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia agree Assad has to go in order to defeat ISIS (Willman). Former Secretary Robert Gates asserts the US needs local partners in this fight and suggests getting on the same page strategically with Turkey and Saudi Arabia as allies (Willman). He acknowledges with others that supporting Assad against ISIS shoots us in the foot by driving more people to ISIS. He advocates stepping back from any kind of temporary alliance with Assad (Willman; Brooks).

Understanding the international and domestic realities this ISIS strategy will have to function in, we can now turn our attention to the actual ISIS strategy using the four tools of strategy. These tools, nicknamed DIME, include diplomacy, information, military, and economics. For the US, our ISIS strategy will rely heavily on diplomacy and information with well-timed military and opportunistic economic tools used throughout.

Diplomatically, we need to develop a networked response, set limited goals for creating local partnerships against ISIS in the region, and deal with the question of Assad. General Stanley McChrystal said of working against the Taliban, “it takes a network to defeat a network” (Welch). ISIS rides an ideological wave finding the vulnerable and disenfranchised with the ease of social media and recruits strong adherents to its cause. The US needs to lead a diplomatic coalition to undermine the ideas of ISIS and broadcast its own ideas. This campaign will be treated in Information, but a network will be initiated through diplomatic channels.

Additionally, Former Secretary Robert Gates is correct in calling for close partnerships with willing partners in the region to work against ISIS (Willman). An air campaign will do us little good if not eventually backed up by a ground campaign (Roy). Though more committed military action is further down the road, cultivating alliances and understandings now is essential to eventually defeating ISIS territorially and militarily. Iraqi and Kurdish forces should also be moved upon and readied to fight against ISIS if necessary. Preventing Western troops on the ground is consistent with the zero political will for another Middle East military engagement and prevents the international community playing into ISIS’s narrative that the West is threatening Muslim lands. By Muslim countries attacking ISIS, it turns its powerful narrative of religious polarization on its head and degrades ISIS’s ideas and the vital recruitment power those ideas hold.

Finally, a solution to Assad must be reached. Assad’s brutality drives local support to ISIS. With Assad and his brutal tactics in power, ISIS can never be territorially defeated (Brooks). Russia, as Assad’s ally, currently takes the position of bolstering the Syrian government. However, the US interest is in eliminating or severely reducing Assad’s ability to drive supporters to ISIS. If Assad, by either reforming or removing himself, achieves this end, it will serve US interests and be consistent with US values of human rights and equality. Talks between the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria need to take place to determine the role Assad will play and the way in which he will play it. The preference would be for him to preside over a transitional government that slowly brings combatants to the table in a representative democratic forum to determine a transition of power and new government. Whether or not Assad remains in power will be up to his people to decide.

As the diplomatic tool lays the ground work, information will be used heavily against ISIS in new and precedent-setting ways. ISIS provides a unique opportunity for cross-border, civil and public society cooperation that has rarely been seen before. During the diplomatic talks with Russian and regional partners, a framework for a unified, networked response to the ideas and information broadcast by ISIS would be inaugurated. A network would expand from country to country that broadcasts not just anti-ISIS messaging, but positive messaging that overrides the violent ideas from ISIS. Rather than adopting a theme of “the whole world is against ISIL,” a more universal theme that will engender ISIS’s targets to more moderate Islamic ideals should be adopted (Welch). One such theme is “Ijtihad and Greater Jihad.” This is a securely Islamic theme that battles with ISIS messaging on its own turf. It calls listeners to independent reasoning (ijtihad) and internal striving against sin to become the best that you are (greater jihad). This turns Islamic messaging against ISIS and undercuts its potency to use Islamic ideas as a rallying point for justified violence and brutality.

Additionally, the US should move upon its Gulf and Saudi Arabian partners to reform Islamic textbooks and curriculum produced in the Kingdom and exported to mosques throughout the world. Many of these textbooks espouse extremist or violent ideals that has influenced and helped engender the blossoming of Sunni extremism across the Muslim world. Muslim scholars taking a look at the teachings of these textbooks and truing them up to core Islamic teachings will go a long way in the long run in preventing Islamic extremism.

Militarily, the US should offer air support, but not play into ISIS’s hand by putting boots on the ground. Additionally, the US would lose all political support at home for another Middle East engagement and would likely pull out too soon and leave the region worse than they found it. This is why diplomacy and moving upon local partners to engage and take ownership on the ground for military action is so vital. It is also necessary to coordinate with Russia to de-conflict military engagements so a military spat between Russia and a NATO nation does not further strain tensions in the region. Frequent contact and a close relationship with Moscow, finger to their pulse, will be necessary to deftly deal with the tinderbox ISIS is surrounded by.

Military engagement should be pursued by neighboring countries as greater gains in the information war with ISIS are made, thereby giving confidence and purpose to local armies. If, however, ISIS levies attacks on neighboring countries, reconsidering the timetable and wisdom of military intervention in ISIS territory will have to be considered. Knee-jerk reactions to violence is not recommended, however, considering events as they happen may better inform the decision of when and how to engage militarily.

Finally, the US should take a greater role in undercutting ISIS economically. Denying support to a non-state, terrorist group is one of the best ways to combat this kind of foe. The trick is to do it in such a way that persuades those supporting ISIS, willingly or unwillingly, to turn and support you. As far as we can tell, ISIS’s greatest source of income is taxes on its local population it calls zakat (Rosenberg, Kulish, Myers). Zakat is a religious term for money collected that goes to benefit the poor. This is yet another example of ISIS’s warping of Islamic practice to suit and support its own ends and is likewise a great piece for our information warfare campaign to exploit. The US, in concert with its networked diplomatic and information coalition, can levy high taxes on oil exported by ISIS, create subsidies and incentives for merchants to take their products away from ISIS and sell at other markets, freeze bank accounts, and move upon or force wealthy donors in the Gulf to transmit their funds to more worthy causes. Their ability to persuade current funders will depend on those conducting information warfare and their ability to erode the ideas ISIS is built on.

Resources, their allocation, and elements of national power include leveraging the US’s experience and role as a leader. The US has lead past successful coalitions and is primed to lead this one. It also has a well-trained diplomatic core to reach out and build bridges with local partners. Its intelligence network is world class and able to provide timely information. Similarly, it is able to step up to the limited military roles this strategy calls for. It is limited in its resources of political capital for troop deployment and some of its diplomatic relations, particularly with Russia and Iran, need to be healed in order to act in the best way possible. Finally, It also has a robust economy that can support efforts to undermine ISIS at comparatively (compared to military engagements) inexpensive costs.

In all, ISIS is a unique and potentially dangerous catalyst in a tinderbox region. Regional and global powers are migrating to this conflicted region and none have ISIS as a priority, though it is a free-acting, wild card in a region where it has no allies to please. Its attacks on Paris and other areas have moved Western states to act in the region. It is vital the US implement a strategy that creates a broad diplomatic coalition, decides the question of Assad, and creates a networked information warfare response with positive, Islamic-based messaging to counterbalance and undercut ISIS in its chosen arena. Eventual military engagement, with local troops on the ground and US air support as needed, will also be needed to eradicate the physical presence of Islamic State and allow strengthened Iraqi and Syrian governments to occupy and govern their own territory again. This gradual process will require time and perseverance, but it is a holistic approach that will not only defeat ISIS physically, but also defeat it in the hearts and minds of those that would join it.

Works Cited

Brooks, D. (2015, November 19). Hillary Clinton Takes On ISIS. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/20/opinion/hillary-clinton-takes-on-isis.html

Bruni, F. (2015, November 21). How ISIS Defeats Us. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/opinion/sunday/how-isis-defeats-us.html

Cordesman, A. (2015, November 14). Paris, ISIS, and the Long War Against Extremism. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://csis.org/publication/paris-isis-and-long-war-against-extremism

Cragin, K. (2015, February 23). Tackling Radicalization Before It Begins. Retrieved November 27, 2015, from http://www.rand.org/blog/2015/02/tackling-radicalization-before-it-begins.html

Gropman, D. (2015, October 10). Course Introduction: A Framework for Grand Strategy. Lecture presented at Grand Strategy in Peace and WarConflict Analysis and Resolution in CONF 695, Arlington.

Rosenberg, M., Kulish, N., & Myers, S. (2015, November 29). Predatory Islamic State Wrings Money From Those It Rules. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/30/world/middleeast/predatory-islamic-state-wrings-money-from-those-it-rules.html

Rothkopf, D. (2015, November 25). Our Reaction to Terrorism Is More Dangerous Than the Terrorists. Retrieved November 27, 2015, from http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/25/our-reaction-to-terrorism-is-more-dangerous-than-the-terrorists-trump-obama-eu-isis/

Roy, O. (2015, November 17). The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/17/opinion/the-attacks-in-paris-reveal-the-strategic-limits-of-isis.html

Walt, S. (2015, November 16). “Don’t Give ISIS What It Wants” Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu/publication/25985/dont_give_isis_what_it_wants.html?breadcrumb=/project/46/international_security

Welch, S. (2015, November 20). The Starfish Caliphate: How ISIL Exploits the Power of a Decentralized Organization. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-starfish-caliphate-how-isil-exploits-the-power-of-a-decentralized-organization

Willman, D. (2015, November 29). Robert Gates calls for joint effort to fight ISIS. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-gates-20151129-story.html