Defeating the Islamic State: Crafting a Regional Approach

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The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now calling itself the “Islamic State,” has burst onto the world scene in an impressive way in the past month, with its Blitzkrieg-like seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, Bayji, and Tal Afar. While experts in the region had been monitoring ISIL’s progress for some time, its emergence shocked the general public. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL, then furthered that shock by declaring ISIL as the core of a caliphate (with himself, of course, as its Caliph), the sole legitimate Islamic State on earth.

For the United States, crafting a policy to neutralize ISIL and its ever-expanding ambitions is a difficult proposition with no easy answers. Solutions require recognition that ISIL has been transformed by its successes from a localized terrorist group into an organized and effective political and military powerhouse that poses serious threats to the region and beyond. Fortunately, while ISIL may achieve some temporary tactical gains from declaring the caliphate, it made the strategic error of declaring all other Sunni political actors illegitimate, including Sunni nationalists and the Syrian “moderate opposition,” as well as both al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia himself. Specifically, this may provide an opening to build a coalition that includes major Sunni actors that can create and implement a regional strategy to attack ISIL.

To create such a strategy, it is important to understand what ISIL is and is not. It is frequently thought of as an al Qaeda franchise or part of the Iraqi Sunni resistance. However. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded ISIL’s predecessor organization before 9/11 as part of the global jihadi movement before the Iraq invasion. After the fall of Baghdad in 2003 it became a more active part of the resistance, explicitly targeting Shi’a Muslims to foment civil war. Only later, and reluctantly, did Zarqawi ally with al Qaeda for tactical reasons. This was never a good fit.

After U.S. forces killed Zarqawi in 2006, the organization continued its terror campaign against Iraqi Shi’a. Coalition forces and Iraqi Sunni tribes soundly defeated it during the U.S. surge. But ISIL was reenergized by the opportunity to fight the Alawite regime in Syria and has subsequently and formally broken with al Qaeda. However, its successes have transformed it into something new and singular.

A good way to think about ISIL is as a political entity superimposed over the formal boundaries of the failed state of Syria and the failing state of Iraq. It operates in total disregard of the formal borders of these two states. Its membership is international, and therefore ISIL is now a regional problem, and its new self-identification as the Islamic State, or caliphate, indicates its broader ambitions. Because of its trans-national aspirations, ISIL exercises a particular draw on the international jihadist community. The media has shown pictures of Tunisians, Bosnians, and Chechens involved in the recent attacks in Iraq, and a variety of sources suggest that there are hundreds of EU citizens and scores of Americans within ISIL’s ranks.

It is important not to overstate ISIL’s connection with the current dysfunction in Iraqi politics. It is not “an al-Qaeda army marching across Iraq” as some news commentators have claimed. It has succeeded in Iraq through a partnership with local Sunni forces. While it is true that current sectarian tensions have led Iraqi Sunnis to support ISIL to oust the Shi’a dominated government, this has happened before during the Iraqi resistance in 2004-2007. Moreover, this alliance need not be permanent; Iraq’s Sunnis, with U.S. help, decimated ISIL’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, in 2007 and 2008 because of the threat it posed to local Iraqi leaders and their way of life through their imposition of a strict version of Sharia law and other social changes they sought to impose on the local communities (e.g., forced marriages into important tribal families). Further, it will be interesting to see how Iraq’s more nationalist Sunnis, including the outlawed Ba’ath Party, react to the Caliphate announcement and similar threats to local leaders, which will no doubt occur. It is likely that these groups will turn on ISIL again once they have realized their true goal of getting Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki out of power.

However, even were Iraq stabilized and ISIL expelled from its territory, ISIL would still continue to push on the borders of other states to expand the boundaries of its new proto-Caliphate. We are particularly concerned about Jordan and the Kurdish region of Iraq as potential targets (particularly with the expansion of the latter into the formerly Sunni areas of Iraq).

This regional threat requires a regional solution, and we hope the administration, as well as other actors with significant influence in the region, are thinking in these terms. At this moment, the United States’ approach to the problem seems to be internally contradictory: In Iraq the U.S. appears to be considering making common cause with Iran to fight against ISIL, and is providing advisors to the Iraqi military, along with Iran and Russia—while in Syria it is firmly opposing Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and therefore tacitly aligned with ISIL against Iran. This may be a symptom of a lack of a regional policy and could lead to an incoherent ISIL policy.

Crafting a regional policy against ISIL would have been more difficult prior to the declaration of a caliphate. However, ISIL may have made the construction of a regional approach easier by making its designs on its neighboring Sunni states abundantly clear. While defeating Damascus and Baghdad remains ISIL’s first priority, Riyadh, Irbil and especially Amman have also been put on notice. Furthermore, whereas ISIL likely is still seen as supporting many Sunni nations’ goal of seeing Iranian interest and power in the region rolled back, they now need to balance that with the real threat that ISIL poses to them. They cannot permit it to get too strong without strategic risk. One hopes that this imminent threat has put the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the back burner for the time being. This may make forming a regional approach that includes the major Sunni nations easier than it would have been before the announcement of the Caliphate.

An obvious untapped vein of support might be moderate religious leaders—Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite, Christian and others. Civil society institutions are weak in the region, but should be engaged and allowed to exercise as much influence as they can muster. The Arab League could provide a forum in which the threat presented by ISIL could be addressed comprehensively. Leading Arab countries should be encouraged to put forward and cooperate on solutions that the United States and international community could support, as they are the most directly threatened. We do not underestimate the diplomatic challenge involved. Many of the Sunni Gulf states may still see ISIL as the lesser evil compared to the more existential threat from the Iranian regime.

The first step towards defeating ISIL in the region is to isolate it internationally, which would require regional agreement and concerted action. Cutting off its funding, its stream of recruits, and the ability of its operatives to move throughout the region are all critical. Unfortunately, cutting off ISIL’s funding, while important in the long run, will not have an immediate impact given the millions, or perhaps billions, of dollars in assets it has seized from banks in Mosul. It may be self-financing with respect to its jihadist operations through a variety of black market activities and organized criminal behavior, but even this huge amount of cash will likely not be enough to support the population it now claims to govern in the way it is accustomed to being supported. Funds for social programs, health, education and many other needs will no longer flow from Iraqi’s oil proceeds, and those who will be out of work and without the benefits they are accustomed to seeing will likely get restive.

Attacking ISIL’s illicit funding mechanisms is possible, though difficult. It would require steps such as encouraging Kuwait, in particular, to clamp down on its lax money transfer laws and exercising influence over non-standard financial institutions such as hawallahs. While these may be challenging steps, a functional regional strategy should articulate them clearly and plan to influence key governments and other actors to achieve them.

However, there is much that could be done about the movement of people across international borders (save the Iraq/Syria one, which is no longer functional). A focused effort on intelligence sharing that, at a minimum, attempted to identify ISIL members and deny them freedom of movement within and outside the Middle East region will not be a panacea, but might be a good place to start.

In the near term, we suspect that those working the ISIL problem will find themselves with few good answers and perhaps even fewer effective tools. However, this is yet another symptom of approaching this problem piecemeal. If ISIL is engaged as a regional actor that has now moved beyond being a simple counter-terrorism problem, other approaches may emerge in the diplomatic-military-intelligence nexus.

There will be a long process of both education and diplomatic pressure involved in any regional solution. But we see no alternative. The Administration should immediately begin a comprehensive regional approach to deal with this novel—and increasingly dangerous—political entity.


Terrence Kelly is a senior operations researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the director of the Strategy and Resources Program at the RAND Arroyo Center.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Managing Partner of Mantid International, LLC, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Baghdad, Beirut and Washington DC. Previously a Director for Iraq at the National Security Council, he is also a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.


Photo credit: Umar I. (adapted by War on the Rocks)