The Islamic State’s Vulnerability

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As the U.S. military joins with its allies and temporarily-aligned enemies to fulfill President Obama’s promise to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the self-proclaimed caliphate that spans portions of Iraq and Syria, it’s worth understanding the vulnerability of that foe. Understanding the Islamic State’s position should help the United States calibrate its policies to fulfill its strategic objectives without losing sight of the broader strategic picture—a risk attached to Obama’s extraordinarily ambitious goal.

Fortunes can change quickly in the world of jihadism, and there is no better example than the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As is the case with the Islamic State today, in 2005-06 many observers believed that AQI and its emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had eclipsed al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as the leaders of global jihadism. AQI and Zarqawi make for a striking, yet somewhat imperfect, analogy to the Islamic State today.

Zarqawi was extraordinarily popular with young jihadists, just like the Islamic State is now. He reveled in his own brutality, becoming infamous—and among his target audience, celebrated—for slaughtering Shia Muslims and releasing videos of his victims being beheaded. Like the Islamic State, Zarqawi controlled territory in one of the region’s critical countries. The Islamic State is, however, far more powerful than Zarqawi’s AQI was at its height: controlling more territory, mustering more financial resources, and drawing oaths of loyalty from some transnational jihadists who had previously been loyal to al-Qaeda.

Although Zarqawi appeared ascendant from 2005 until his death in June 2006, the weaknesses in his strategy soon became apparent, and they ultimately wrecked—though didn’t completely destroy—his organization. These weaknesses were apparent to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, as evidenced by a 2005 letter that current al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri sent to Zarqawi. The elder jihadist leader warned Zarqawi not to “be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers,” since young zealots “do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq.” AQI’s excesses provoked a tribal uprising (the Sahwa, or Awakening) against it, which—along with a few other factors—reversed its gains. The Islamic State’s “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, later had to essentially rebuild the organization from scratch. Though it took some time for AQI’s mistakes to catch up with it, those mistakes had always been made in the open. And so too are those of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State’s Vulnerabilities

The Islamic State’s rapid advance into Iraq was tactically masterful. But don’t be fooled. The group’s strategy is a mess. The dangers of fighting a two-front war are fundamental to military strategy and the Islamic State is literally surrounded by enemies. It at first allegedly entered Syria, back when it was still part of al-Qaeda’s network, to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, yet it spent more time fighting other rebel groups than Assad’s forces. This didn’t stop the Islamic State’s notorious blitzkrieg into Iraq, which earned the group another set of formidable foes: not only the Iraqi state, but also Shia militias and Iran. Despite this wide array of enemies, the Islamic State almost immediately betrayed its partners in early July by rounding up ex-Baathist leaders in Mosul who had aided their advance through Iraq.

With its hands already full with opponents, what was the upstart militant group’s next move? It opened a brand new front: The Kurdish Regional Government’s peshmerga forces hadn’t been fighting it, yet the Islamic State launched a surprise attack on Iraq’s Kurdish areas. The Islamic State pressed on, deploying massive military resources for the purpose of committing genocide against the Yazidis—a minority religious sect that posed no military threat to the self-proclaimed caliphate. This move would ultimately draw far more foes to the theater, including the United States, other Western countries, and some Sunni Arab states as well.

The Islamic State was fighting a two-front war before it even made its advance out of Syria. And it has been all too eager to open more and more fronts ever since.

The group’s decision to declare a caliphate almost immediately after its early June advance into Iraq—making the announcement before the month had even ended—also creates strategic problems for the militants. This dramatic move was designed to galvanize jihadists, drawing them to the theater to support the newly-won caliphate while weakening al-Qaeda. But there are obvious drawbacks: By declaring a caliphate, the Islamic State has made much of its legitimacy depend on the caliphate’s viability.

In other theaters where jihadist groups have captured significant territory, they have employed a rather standard modus operandi when confronting a clearly superior conventional military: They put up token resistance before melting away and resorting to guerrilla warfare. Al-Shabaab employed this approach in Somalia, including melting away as African Union forces descended on its last major urban stronghold in Kismayo. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies melted away under pressure from a French-led coalition designed to push it from its stronghold in North Mali. And even Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula undertook a strategic retreat when facing less daunting odds in Yemen.

It will be more difficult, if not impossible, for the Islamic State to respond to a conventional assault in this manner without destroying its own credibility. Doing so would undermine the claim of having rebuilt the caliphate, a proclamation that is the core of the Islamic State’s efforts to compete with al-Qaeda for supremacy over the global jihadist movement. The Islamic State is therefore likely to expend far more military resources than is wise to try to maintain territory—particularly Mosul, the first city where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared following the caliphate’s announcement. (In fairness to the Islamic State, it is also able to muster far more powerful conventional military assets than the other groups that melted away as their state foes advanced.)

The ways that the caliphate announcement may skew the Islamic State’s military strategy makes the brutality it has readily broadcast to the world a double-edged sword. The conventional wisdom currently holds that the Islamic State is extraordinarily social-media savvy—which is true enough—and that its message appeals to young jihadists. But Zarqawi’s message also appealed to young jihadists, and beheadings, mass slaughter, and genocide may only be “cool” so long as the Islamic State is winning on the battlefield. As it experiences reversals, this imagery may make IS toxic, just as Zarqawi’s AQI eventually became.

Calibrating U.S. Strategy

Despite the Islamic State’s weaknesses, jihadist violent non-state actors (and yes, despite its name and somewhat state-like qualities, the “caliphate” remains a non-state actor) have been very effective at one thing: not being wiped out by their state opponents. In a valuable study written for Joint Special Operations University, Derek Jones explains that one of the reasons these groups are good at surviving is that their organizational structure is designed to help them do so. Jones repeats the adage that “insurgents win by not losing,” and argues that violent non-state actors have increasingly moved toward a clandestine cellular form: clandestine in that they are designed to be out of sight, and cellular in that they are compartmentalized to minimize damage when the enemy neutralizes some portion of the network. Al-Qaeda is a good example of how difficult such groups can be to completely defeat, as its affiliates have continued to expand despite more than a decade of the most powerful nations on earth targeting the network.

Thus, the stated goal of “destroying” the Islamic State is likely overambitious since finishing off a network entirely is the hardest part. It is also unnecessary. Given the group’s vulnerabilities, rendering its claim to being a caliphate nonviable will have an enormous impact on the group; and once it’s weakened, the many enemies it has made are likely to catch up with it. This is precisely what happened to AQI previously.

Another reason the goal of destroying the Islamic State sets the bar too high is that this fight doesn’t occur in a strategic vacuum. Jihadism has been gaining strength in other parts of the world, not just Iraq and Syria, and al-Qaeda would like to reabsorb parts of the Islamic State into its network. Making the Islamic State America’s exclusive focal point, with an absolutist goal like the group’s destruction, may result in the United States winning its fight yet being set back strategically if it overcommits resources to one particular jihadist challenge.

The United States should work to bring the Islamic State’s many vulnerabilities to the fore. The current air campaign makes sense: The United States has been able to use its airpower to prevent the Islamic State from committing massacres, and has also targeted the group’s convoys. Such strikes bear a minimal risk of civilian casualties. The United States should be hesitant, on the other hand, to undertake strikes that carry a high risk of killing civilians, as those attacks can play into the Islamic State’s hands.

The anti-Islamic State coalition should encourage defections from the group’s ranks. There is certainly dissension beneath the surface, and relatively high-level defections can not only encourage others to leave its ranks but also magnify the paranoia that exists at top levels.

And the United States is clearly looking to re-establish its connections with tribal actors in Iraq, such as those who were part of the Sahwa. Those groups feel, with justification, that they were abandoned after the Iraq war. The United States shouldn’t make the same mistake again. Taking action against jihadist groups in Syria will prove difficult, and given what the Syria and Iraq theater means to this generation of jihadists, the United States is likely to have enduring interests there.

The Islamic State’s many weaknesses will soon become apparent, if they aren’t already. This doesn’t mean that the group will inevitably collapse; and even if it does, its collapse might just mean that its fighters are driven back into the hands of an old familiar foe, al-Qaeda, or other Syrian and Iraqi non-state actors. The United States should approach this fight strategically, understanding both the Islamic State’s weaknesses and also the broader context of the fight.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fourteen books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011).