The first mistake we must not make in fighting ISIS is to assume the task is simple. The challenge is stupefying in its complexity, involving, among other things, the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims, a bitter history of Western interventions including blowback from America's war in Iraq, overlapping power struggles today among at least six nations, the ongoing political chaos of the Middle East, unrelenting poverty and social and political decay throughout the region, and the power of an ISIS vision that welcomes dying in an apocalyptic battle.
Defeating ISIS demands an approach that is patient, highly sophisticated, and multi-pronged, one tightly focused on their vulnerabilities, and a thorough knowledge of the group's history, intentions, motivations and strategies.
ISIS relies much more on the power of its ideas than on the power of its guns. Their leaders have created a core ideology, mission and message that have been enormously successful in attracting recruits, ongoing fealty and financial support. That ideology combines two of the most powerful yet contradictory ideas in Islam--the return of the 7th century Islamic Empire--and the end of the world. Understanding these two elements is vital to Western strategies.
By tradition, ISIS can credibly declare a rebirth of the Islamic Empire only by holding physical territory governed by a supreme ruler, a caliph--an office that began with Muhammad but had not existed since the last Ottomans in 1924. When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph after the capture of Mosul in June 2014, he was declaring himself the legitimate successor to the Prophet, qualified to demand the allegiance of all Muslims everywhere, Sunni and Shia alike. Anyone who refuses to give their allegiance to Abu Bakr is subject to death, according to ISIS' strict interpretation of Islamic law.
For disenfranchised, desperate Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, this was an earthshaking event. Thousands flocked to join the new caliphate they had only dreamed about, and which not even Osama bin Laden had been rash enough to proclaim. "Rash" because bin Laden knew that the decision to try to control physical territory (as opposed to operating in hidden, mobile small bands as Al Qaeda does) would not only divert scarce resources to the tasks of running hospitals, repairing roads, and managing an economy, it would also make their operations far more vulnerable to airstrikes.
ISIS has chosen to take the path of ancient prophecy rather than this-world practicality. Their apocalyptic narrative goes something like this: the military fortunes of the Islamic State grow and grow, using military ground forces, sleeper cells in Europe--perhaps even stolen nuclear weapons. Terrorist attacks and refugee streams drive a hard wedge between Muslim and infidel populations around the world, so that the Muslims worldwide will have no choice but to join ISIS and become their army, overthrowing local governments. All of this draws infidel armies into a climactic battle at Dabiq in Northern Syria in 2025. The West is defeated and the caliphate is global. But it does not last long. New gods, Gog and Magog, appear and the entire planet is destroyed while all true believers are raptured to heaven. Game over.
It may sound crazy to us, but this vision is enthralling to many young Sunni men who have nothing to lose and are desperate for something great to believe in. They are buying it, signing on for the lead-up operations, and eager for the final battle that will erase the infidels and this earth while they make it to well-earned paradise.
We have to take this vision seriously and plan our strategies accordingly.
A core aim of ISIS is to goad the West into putting boots on their ground for the final battle. We must not bite. Our military choices must be subtle and constrained. We need a stiletto, not a broadsword. Certainly "shock and awe" air attacks or a massive ground invasion in Syria and Iraq would be huge mistakes, and not just because of the intense blowback from the inevitable collateral damage. Such action would be stepping into the ISIS plan, and would provide a big boost to their recruiting as they could say the prophecy was playing out.
Recent reverses on the ground in Syria and Iraq may have set back their timetable for the apocalypse. After losing the symbolic prize of Kobani last year in northeastern Syria, and then the Iraqi city of Tikrit, ISIS has more recently lost large stretches of crucial Syrian territory along the Turkish border to Kurdish fighters backed by American airstrikes. Its hold on Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, has been weakened.
But ISIS is clever and flexible in its tactics. These reverses on desert battlefields have prompted more attacks on soft targets such those that were so powerful in Paris and Brussels, and also the extension of its global reach with new strategic footholds in Libya and West Africa.
Western anger at these attacks, coupled with alarm over the huge movement of Muslim refugees into western nations, both feed the ISIS narrative. The more that "infidels" fear Muslims in their midst and react against them, the more young Muslims turn to the enticements of ISIS. And the closer we get to the final battle.
Strategic partnerships with other anti-ISIS fighters on the ground are a risky course, given that there are dozens of armed groups in Syria and Iraq of every ideological stripe. The US has already demonstrated a limited ability to pick winners. Still there seems to be a workable option in careful, constantly monitored alliances that supply arms and limited training by US special forces to more or less proven allies such as the Kurds.
Fortunately for the West, ISIS has two significant military vulnerabilities. The first is their open, desert terrain--perfect for Western air attacks against their troop concentrations, military infrastructure, oilfields and transport.
The second is their need to physically hold territory as a caliphate--a decision absolutely central to its mission and messages even if it presents a serious military liability. If ISIS loses their grip on the territory they now control in Syria and Iraq, there is no caliphate. Take away their command of territory, and no one owes allegiance to the caliph.
There would still be freelance jihadists who could and would continue to attack in the West and behead their enemies. But the propaganda power of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the demanded religious duty to immigrate and serve it. ISIS would lose its power.
Western and, to some extent, Russian airstrikes are successfully exploiting the bombing vulnerabilities. Remember the Gulf War scenes of absolute carnage when American warplanes caught fleeing columns of Saddam Hussein's troops in the open? Any significant massings of ISIS fighters would suffer the same fate, so their ability to maneuver is severely constrained.
Bombing has real costs for the West. Airstrikes have to be reconnoitered and technology has its limits, as evidenced in errant drone strikes. We need a limited number of our own special forces troops to help pick targets and guide the bombs. One of them has already been killed and there will be more.
The costs of a caliphate. By capturing towns and cities, ISIS takes on significant expenses. They must pay the costs of maintaining minimum infrastructure to avoid massive defections of the people living under their control. And since they don't have nearly enough qualified personnel in their own ranks to staff hospitals, city halls and the like, they must call for experienced people to do the jobs--and pay them. But that call has come up short, according to people who have fled their territory. ISIS is struggling to find people able to run oil equipment, fix electricity networks and provide medical care.
ISIS has been largely paying its bills with loot stolen from banks in the towns and cities they've conquered. But that can't last forever. Increasingly ISIS is dependent on revenues from oil pumped from the fields in their territory and sold to smugglers based in Turkey and elsewhere. But that oil can only be moved from wellheads by slow-moving trucks--easy targets for Western warplanes.
The caliphate project is now in some distress, according to interviews with people who have recently fled. Under pressure from airstrikes by several countries, and new ground offensives by Kurdish and Shiite militias, ISIS is beginning to show the strain. Some of their fighters have taken pay cuts, while others have quit and slipped away. Important services have been failing because of poor maintenance. And as its oil business has suffered under air attacks, ISIS has resorted to ever-increasing taxes and tolls imposed on its squeezed citizens.
Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed ISIS through airstrikes and proxy warfare appears the best military option. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq--they are hated there, and they have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can help us keep ISIS from fulfilling its mission to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.
Economic options. The West must do more to shut down all revenue streams to ISIS. Bombing oil trucks and wellheads is part of it, but non-military options are at least equally important.
We need to demand that the Turks, our NATO allies, clamp down on smuggled oil by closing their porous border with ISIS-held areas in Syria, stopping the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market.
We need to call out any nations who buy smuggled ISIS oil and use whatever diplomatic and economic levers we have to force them to stop it. Reportedly this list could include some of our friends, but if that is the case then so be it. The stakes are too high now to back away from calling out allies who need to get with the program.
We need to increase pressure on the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs to crack down on any of their citizens who send money to ISIS. If this pressuring did happen during President Obama's recent visit, it happened behind very tightly closed doors.
We need to work with the international financial community to identify and shut down all financial channels used by ISIS, the smugglers who move ISIS oil, and the buyers of that oil. The more we can limit the mediums of exchange available to ISIS, the more difficult it becomes for them to pay their bills. Cyberwar options. The Pentagon has now thrown the full weight of its cyberwar capabilities into the fight against ISIS, joining NSA and the other civilian agencies already busy at that task. Clever online messaging is absolutely key to ISIS extending its siren song to Muslims everywhere, seeking recruits and support. The more we can undermine that messaging, the harder it gets for ISIS to survive.
A final thought. The worst mistake we can make in fighting ISIS is to overreact to the threat, clouding our strategic judgment overseas and undermining civil liberties at home. Overreacting builds a climate of fear that threatens our own way of life--which is what ISIS wants to do. There have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists since 9/11. Drunk drivers in 2012 alone killed more than 10,000.
Next up: Defeating ISIS: Winning Hearts and Minds