ISIS: This Too Shall Pass
The spectacular advances by ISIS forces in Iraq in recent days have been a catastrophe for Iraq and a major setback for American interests but they are not the end of the world.
ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) now holds substantial swathes of territory and may have something like $2 billion in cash, a fleet of armored vehicles and probably more small arms than it knows what to do with. Unusually among jihadist groups, ISIS has focused in Syria on governance beyond just shooting, beheading, and crucifying people it doesn’t like. Presumably it will do the same in Iraq.
However, this will not last. For an explanation why, we can turn to probably the most brilliant jihadist strategist to have touched a keyboard: Abu Musab al-Suri. He believed that “open fronts,” such as the 1980s jihad against the Soviet Union, efforts intended to liberate and hold territory, are unlikely to succeed. The simple fact is that they cannot stand up to modern military power backed up by modern intelligence. Instead, he recommended a turn toward individual jihad because it avoided the enemies’ strengths. In other words, Al-Suri would say that the more cities ISIS captures, the more money it has to keep track of, the more armored vehicles it acquires, the more social services it has to organize and deliver, the more it is setting itself up for a fall. These things have all sorts of pernicious effects from the point of view of security: they tie ISIS to fixed territory, they create networks that can be mapped and exploited, and they provide targets to airpower and artillery. RAND analyst Blake W. Mobley, a former CIA counterintelligence officerand author of Terrorism and Counterintelligence, sums up the issue (albeit with regard to different case studies) this way: “controlled territory places a challenging but guaranteed high-value target directly in the…sights” of the terrorists’ adversaries.
Afghanistan and Somalia provide evidence of the fundamental truth of the observation that al-Suri and Mobley make. Only a small push from the U.S.-led coalition was necessary to send the Taliban regime running in 2001. In Somalia, al-Shabaab and before it the Islamic Courts Union, have had tremendous difficulties holding on to power in the face of attacks from local opponents and the Ethiopian and Kenyan militaries, and occasional American raids.
All this suggests that it should be fairly easy to reverse most of ISIS’ gains. When they are reversed—and no matter who does the reversing—the critical thing will be to portray the ISIS land grab as the latest futile gesture by Sunni jihadists always destined to lose, a waste of energy and lives that Allah did not allow to stand because of its inherent stupidity. Such an approach might allow us to salvage something positive from this debacle.
And a debacle this is. Not because of the loss of territory or armored vehicles but because of the small arms, explosives and, most of all, the money that ISIS has grabbed. Those will continue to fuel operations that will plague Iraq, the United States, and the other concerned nations for years to come. We all should all follow the guns and money and worry less about tracing the front lines in Iraq.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.