The Method behind the Islamic State’s Madness


At first glance, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) strikes observers as a fanatical religious group, bent on millenarian goals and fully committed to its position as the vanguard of a new caliphate. And that is exactly what ISIL wants you to think. The reality is more mundane. ISIL is a cool-headed organization with an impressive understanding of “image management” that feeds on state failure and sectarian tensions. ISIL is not trying to expand for expansion’s sake. Rather, it is trying to “dig in” and create a mini-empire in Sunni-majority areas in Iraq and Syria. These limited goals, however, make ISIL more dangerous, not less. Managing the ISIL crisis requires recognizing three dynamics. First, there is a method to ISIL’s madness, and a coalition of pragmatists — jihadists and secular Baathists — behind its strategy. Second, a realistic assessment of the strategic environment where ISIL operates suggests that the organization is much less “irrational” or “suicidal” than often thought. Third, ISIL’s approach to territorial control is pragmatic and flexible. Thus, strategic retreats or military setbacks, such as ISIL’s defeat in Kobane, do not hurt the organization as much as it is perceived in the West.

A Band of Pragmatists

Behind ISIL’s success lies an alliance between jihadists and Baathists who play a crucial role in strategic planning, running military and information operations, and building institutions. Baathists from Saddam’s defeated regime see ISIL as their only means for survival and the best vehicle for reestablishing dominance in Iraq. The existence of this alliance suggests that we are facing not fanatics whose eyes are fixated on other-worldly prizes, but pragmatic agents who are more than willing to combine an inflammable ideology with military and administrative know-how. Scrutinizing the evolution of jihadist ideology is necessary but not sufficient to understand ISIL’s strategy.

Once we move past the myth of ISIL as a homogeneous jihadist establishment, the “method” behind the madness that ISIL projects through its strategy of savagery becomes more visible. The military logic of barbarism is all too straightforward: ISIL uses “fear factor” as a force multiplier to compel and deter both its enemies and dissatisfied factions living in territory under its control. Two additional factors inform ISIL’s approach.

First, ISIL operates in a highly competitive market for global jihadists and is capitalizing on its unique brand as the baddest, meanest, “purest” jihadi organization in the world. ISIL’s acts of violence and territorial ambitions (and, so far, ability to get away with them) are best seen as daring commercials in a long and well-devised advertisement campaign to grab more of the market share. Second, ISIL’s acts are not merely attempts to cow the Westerners into passivity (or to provoke them into over-reaction) by aggressively promoting a death cult. Rather, ISIL is aiming to present itself to a specific target audience in the Muslim world, as the righteous underdog that fights against overwhelming odds not only in the name of God, but also for the sake of justice. Take the example of the recent video that shows the burning of a Jordanian pilot. For many in the West, this is an act of meaningless savagery or even desperation, but ISIL positions this as righteous justice. The group establishes a narrative around the “crime,” in this case the civilians killed alongside ISIL fighters by airstrikes. Then ISIL instantly and directly associates the pilot with these charges. Suggesting that people who died in the airstrikes were burnt alive or crushed by debris, ISIL burns the unfortunate pilot and then crushes the cage in which he was trapped. Thus, this seemingly savage and senseless act is intended for a local audience to whom it will have meaning.

Assessing the Strategic Environment

ISIL leaders believe they can afford to present an uncompromising and fanatical front because they don’t believe the United States and its Western allies will put boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Nor does ISIL appear overly concerned about regional actors. The Iraqi government has yet to recover the reputation it buried in Mosul. Furthermore, Baghdad’s heavy reliance on Shia militia and Iranian support that reached new heights during the battle over Tikrit in March 2015 inadvertently empowers ISIL by fueling the Sunni-Shia rift on which the organization feeds. Turkey may be more capable, but several factors inhibit Ankara from leading a ground assault against ISIL. First there are the obvious economic and human costs that would be associated with such an undertaking. Second, Turkey makes for a highly vulnerable target for ISIL-inspired or sponsored terrorist attacks. Third, having bet heavily on Assad’s rapid downfall, the Turkish government categorically refuses to be involved in any cross-border operation against ISIL unless the West promises Assad’s removal from power in return.

While the Syrian military has extensive experience battling the jihadist groups, motivating Assad to tackle ISIL would be difficult for two reasons. First, Assad’s weakened forces are tied up fighting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and non-ISIL jihadist groups like Jabhat Al Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Second, Assad would be unwilling to concentrate his forces and attention on ISIL unless the West commits to a settlement where the regime remains intact and the FSA is liquated. Considering that Assad has been demonized in the West for years and countries such as Turkey adamantly oppose any reconciliation with the Syrian regime, this would be a very hard pill to swallow for the United States and its allies.

The Kurds appear to be a motivated and capable fighting force, especially in the wake of the successful defense of Kobane. However, not only are the existing Kurdish military experiences and capabilities best suited for territorial defense, the Kurds’ strategic priorities are to preserve what is deemed as Kurdish homeland, and to gain recognition as a capable and legitimate political entity. Even if the West can incentivize the Kurdish forces to go on the offensive against ISIL through promises of further recognition and support for an independent Kurdish state, Kurdish incursions into regions that are deemed outside of the Kurdish homeland will provoke ethnic tensions and elicit harsh responses from Turkey and Iran (who both have their own Kurdish minorities) as well as the Iraqi government.

This leaves Iran as a wild card. Even if Iran opts for a more direct involvement in the conflict and helps bring down ISIL, the resulting “victory” may set the stage for a post-ISIL sectarian firestorm that can drag the region into a multi-theater transnational conflict. Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war is a case in point. When the Iranian government sent — informally — its elite Quds forces to fight alongside Assad a couple of years ago, Tehran inadvertently empowered a narrative that portrayed the civil war as a Sunni-Shia conflict (despite the fact that the Assad regime has considerable Sunni support). In no uncertain terms, further Iranian involvement in Iraq and Syria can set the stage for the Middle East’s own Thirty Years’ War.

As things stand, none of the actors that ISIL defies has the will or capability to tackle ISIL head on. This allows the organization the opportunity and time it needs to build the kind of state it seeks.

Mapping Out the “State” in the Islamic State

There are two common assumptions about ISIL’s statehood. The first is that ISIL cannot sustain itself as a state-like institution in the long run because people under its rule will be too displeased with the quality of services, and eventually rise up. The second assumption is that since ISIL’s appeal comes from both the myth of invincibility it has created and its claims over territorial control, failure to capture new territory and territorial losses will break the halo surrounding the organization and will — almost automatically — pave the way for its demise. Both assumptions are misleading.

Just like most proto-states throughout history, ISIL is acting as a “stationary bandit,” raising revenue through extortion, kidnapping, and smuggling while at the same time controlling natural resources. In return, ISIL provides a modicum of security and “protection,” as well as public goods that range from subsidized bread to free education and health. ISIL also polices the streets and even manages traffic. It is true that the revenue ISIL raises from such activities (1 to 3 million dollars a day) is not all that much for a “state” ruling over six million people. The assumption that ISIL will eventually implode, however, misses one crucial dynamic: a stationary bandit needs to sustain a “standard” in its services only when it faces competition from other bandits. Simple market mechanisms are at work: unless other political actors in the region offer competitive services, ISIL can rule those lands on the cheap.

Although it resembles most proto-states in history, ISIL’s approach to territory fundamentally separates it from the nation-states that lie at the heart of the present-day international system. It is now common knowledge that ISIL declared its intention to eradicate the borders established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 (that the more accurate reference point about present-day borders is San Remo Conference of 1920 escapes not only ISIL but also many area specialists). What is often missed about this claim is that ISIL sees the very modern nation-state (with its hard borders and claims to territorial sovereignty) as a Western artifact that does not fit with the human terrain of much of the globe. By implication, ISIL is not seeking a seat at the UN and cannot care less about the dictums of international law. In short, ISIL’s challenge to the present-day territorial order is more fundamental than merely seeking to establish an Islamic state.

But what about ISIL’s claims to have re-established the Caliphate? If so, then it will be unlike most caliphates in history, which, while built around religious principles, were never only about religion. From a territorial perspective, most caliphates were transnational empires built on indirect rule that transcended boundaries. ISIL is in fact trying to build a mini-empire, in the same way land empires were conceived in the classical times from the Byzantium Empire to the Ottomans. Like those empires, it legitimizes its authority by invoking a borderless ideology, and aims to extend political control through break-neck pragmatism and institutional as well as territorial flexibility.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that ISIL is following the key principles of imperial governance: pragmatism over standardization, multi-layered administration, and considerable delegation to locals. Similarly, ISIL does not strive to create “hard borders” or impose “uniformity in administration” to create “homogenous spaces.” These principles not only have allowed ISIL to expand its “sphere of influence” rapidly, but can also explain why ISIL can afford to run a terrain of six million people on the cheap. The “territorial logic of ISIL” is also reflected in the organization’s power projection methods, which can be traced to the Islamic empires of the past, for example, the Ottoman Empire. In these Islamic empires, the disregard for hard borders and the embracing of “open frontiers” revealed itself best in the so-called Ghazi tradition. Ghazi, in its traditional interpretation, stood for the Islamic knight who served both for religious reasons as well as for the sake of bounty. Ghazis were used to expand frontiers by raiding enemy areas repeatedly, in order to soften the populations and break resistance. A cult of martyrdom was combined with a remarkably flexible and pragmatic approach not only to territorial expansion, but also strategic retreats and territorial contraction. ISIL operates under similar principles and its military performance to territorial expansion and retreat should be analyzed accordingly.

Understood through this lens, we can surmise that ISIL can absorb losses of specific pieces of land like Tikrit. First, ISIL’s ideology is not built on the notion of indivisible homeland, but rather on territorial flexibility. Second, ISIL’s reputation and appeal do not derive from a myth of invincibility as most Westerners would like to believe, but has more to do with the image of “relentless David” who fights against not only non-Muslims but also those it brands as “pretenders,” especially the Shia. As long as ISIL is able to commit its forces to fight till the bitter end and exact a considerable toll on the overwhelming forces it faces (the parity of forces was somewhere between 1:25 to 1:50 in Tikrit) while at the same time provoking sectarian reprisals on the Sunni population, piecemeal territorial losses will not have decisive strategic impacts on the fight against ISIL. In fact, the siege of Tikrit suggests that religion has a very important place in the ISIL crisis, if defined in terms of sectarian tensions.

Reverse-Engineering ISIL?

So, what can be done to defeat ISIL’s strategy? In the near-term, we have to move beyond sensational interpretations of the organization that present ISIL as a band of irrational fanatics. Doing so points towards an immediate and time-sensitive opportunity: to break the jihadist-Baathist alliance, by either trying to co-opt or at least empower the Baathist wing. This would be a challenging task, one which intelligence agencies would be best-suited for. If successful, the benefits would be substantial.

In the long run, we must target the territorial logic of ISIL directly. From a military standpoint, this requires separating the Syrian and Iraqi theaters by making it extremely costly for ISIL to transfer resources and manpower across now defunct borders. Enforcing artificial lines of demarcation is not the cheapest option and most certainly does not create as much fanfare as the “liberation” of a town does. The West must recognize, however, that such operational successes do not automatically translate into strategic victory. We are facing a strategic actor that has achievable goals and operates in an environment that it understands very well.

Ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu held that what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy. Make no mistake. ISIL is playing the long game. Slowly but surely, the organization is setting up a “sectarian trap” to establish a mini-Empire in Sunni-majority lands in Iraq and Syria. Defeating ISIL requires a long-term strategy that can undermine the organization’s strategic planning, not quick operational victories that may further destabilize the region in the long run. The worst that the West can do would be to give in to the sensational interpretations of the organization and the myth of a quick, decisive, and “cheap” victory.


Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and specializes in territorial and religious conflicts, the relationship between state-formation and production of military power, and empires. His scholarly work has appeared in numerous outlets including International Security. At the Naval War College, Kadercan lectures on the Islamic State as well as the legacies of the Ottoman Empire on present-day politics of the Middle East. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.