war on the rocks

Making Sense of the Islamic State: Four Frameworks

December 31, 2015

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to global infamy immediately trigged questions about appropriate strategies to tackle the group. Suggested strategies to defeat or pacify ISIL range from pursuing a containment policy that causes it to either “implode” or become “socialized” into the modern state system, to a “hammer and anvil strategy” that relies on local allies and airpower, to literally destroying the organization by putting Western boots on the ground. The viability or effectiveness of these strategies, in turn, depends on a simple question: What is the best way to understand the phenomenon of ISIL? The existing answers boil down to four competing interpretations: ISIL is best seen as (1) a terrorist organization (or, al Qaeda redux), (2) a band of medieval fanatics bent on utopian and otherworldly ideals, (3) an insurgency, or (4) a proto-state.

ISIL as Al Qaeda Redux

An early interpretation of ISIL suggested that the organization was either a “jayvee team” of al Qaeda or the next step in the evolution of transnational jihadist terrorism. While this perspective has become less popular, there are still a number of reasons to take it seriously. First, the organization’s jihadist ideology, at least to an extent, resembles that of al Qaeda. They cite the writings of many of the same ideologists and strategists. Second, just like al Qaeda, ISIL makes heavy use of terrorist attacks. Third, ISIL also appears to be interested in franchising its brand, a tendency that has been the trademark of al Qaeda from its inception. If ISIL is in fact al Qaeda redux, analysts should further study al Qaeda’s ideology and strategic playbook, and policymakers should focus on breaking ISIL’s network of franchises and alliances as well as cutting external financial support.

However, it would be a mistake to think of ISIL as al Qaeda redux. While both organizations desire a global caliphate, their organizational structure and short-term goals are fundamentally different. Al Qaeda is a network whereas ISIL is decidedly a territorial entity that literally lives off the land (and a local tax base). While al Qaeda has long maintained that the caliphate should be founded at some point in the future (and only when the conditions are ripe), ISIL has already established a polity that it calls a caliphate. Of equal importance is the sectarian element; while al Qaeda often chooses to underplay the confessional differences among Muslims, ISIL is decidedly sectarian, defining Shias as a primary target. This, in fact, was one of the disagreements that led to the split between al Qaeda in Iraq (which became ISIL) and al Qaeda “central.” Furthermore, al Qaeda’s “franchising” has been highly selective and involved some degree of oversight. For ISIL, franchising is carried out almost indiscriminately, as the organization seems more interested in receiving as many bayahs (pledges of alliances) as possible from all over the world. Furthermore, there is little, if any, evidence suggesting that ISIL exercises oversight over (or provides direct support for) its affiliates (with the ISIL affiliate in Libya being the outlier case, though the salience of the association is still being debated). In sum, despite the organic association between al Qaeda and ISIL, the latter can hardly be defined as an incarnation of the former.

ISIL as a Cult of Medieval Fanatics

A popular interpretation of the group emphasizes ISIL’s ideology — for example, its apocalyptic vision — as a key to understanding its true nature and strategy. Most notably, Graeme Wood in his controversial article in The Atlantic titled “What ISIL Really Wants” argues that ISIL’s goals and strategy are best understood in the context of its medieval religious nature. ISIL, in this narrative, is primarily a religious group comprised of fanatics who are bent on facilitating the end of days while also preparing for an apocalyptic battle in the town of Dabiq in Syria. The policy implications are two-fold. First, the West should keep bleeding ISIL white in Syria and Iraq through air strikes and other forms of indirect strangulation. The hope is that, as a flawed and irrational enterprise, ISIL will eventually implode. Second, more distinctively, since the primary threat is religious, the West should also combat ISIL on theological grounds. Wood suggests that non-violent interpretations of Salafism (a belief system that emphasizes an extremely puritan reading of early Islamic texts) should be empowered at the expense of the violent branch championed by ISIL.

Thus it is essential to study ISIL’s religion-fueled ideology, which explains ISIL’s appeal to foreign jihadists. This perspective, however, should be approached with great caution. First, the existing research suggests that ISIL is not necessarily “creating” a surge in the supply of global jihadists by inspiring dormant jihadists, but is in fact taking advantage of a recent boom (which took off around 2010–2011, according to a RAND report, somewhat ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring and, more intuitively, amid the outbreak of the civil war in Syria) that preceded its rise to infamy in 2014. Even then, it is difficult to suggest that it is ISIL’s ideology per se that is acting as the magnet. It is likely that ISIL’s military exploits and ability to control territory constitutes the main attraction. Second, focusing exclusively on ideology can prompt analysts to mistake propaganda for strategy. Considering that ISIL has excelled in strategic communications, it would be prudent to look beyond the discourse that ISIL is marketing. The content of its propaganda and strategic communications is not likely to hold the key to its strategic thinking.

Furthermore, a closer look at the groups that comprise ISIL undermines the “ideology/religion all the way down” thesis. Behind ISIL’s success lies an alliance between jihadists and former Baathists who play a crucial role in strategic planning, running military and communication operations, and building institutions. The existence of this alliance suggests that we are facing not a homogenous group of fanatics whose eyes are fixated on otherworldly prizes, but pragmatic agents who are more than willing to combine an inflammable ideology with military and administrative know-how. ISIL has proven itself to be a master of combining ideology and pragmatism, which explains its successful strategic communications campaign; overemphasizing ISIL’s ideology (for example, like William McCants does in his recent book), in this context, will not necessarily help us understand the group, but may in fact play into the hands of its rhetorical strategy. ISIL wants its opponents and potential as well as actual supporters to think that it is driven by ideology and that its pragmatism is merely a tool that serves the group’s seemingly puritan ideology. However, we should not be concerned about millennial fanatics who are preparing for the end of days, but about the persistence of a quasi-state run by an alliance of jihadists who have learnt from the mistakes of al Qaeda and Baathists who know how to work the human and political terrain with limited resources.

ISIL as an Insurgency

A third dominant interpretation looks at ISIL more in terms of a traditional insurgency. The logic behind this interpretation is straightforward: While ISIL may shock and awe global audiences with its barbaric acts and its revolutionary ideology, it is not the first group to do so in modern history. In the end, ISIL can be considered an insurgency with 30,000 to 100,000 fighters and, just like all insurgencies, it focuses on destroying the existing political order and building new institutions as well as securing legitimacy to establish and sustain its authority.

In general, an insurgent group may have revolutionary or territorial objectives. The revolutionary insurgencies are best represented with Marxist/Maoist thinking and practice, where the insurgent group aims to take over state institutions and remake the social and political order in its own ideology’s image. A territorial objective is usually associated with nationalist independence movements, where an insurgent group — claiming the title of spokesperson for an ethnic, national, religious, or class-based group — aims to carve out a discrete and pre-determined piece of real estate from existing state(s). The strategic implication of such an interpretation: Employ the best practices that fit the situation from the existing counter-insurgency playbook.

Adopting an ISIL-as-an-insurgency interpretation, however, has three limitations. First, ISIL’s strategy runs counter to two principles that lie at the heart of insurgency groups in the modern age. The group does not shy away from alienating local populations through extreme forms of suppression as well as brutality and it shows great interest in holding and fighting over territory. Second, ISIL’s objectives do not completely match with those of previous insurgent groups. Refusing any adherence to nationalism or the nation-state form, ISIL is not interested in carving up a discrete piece of real estate from an existing state, say, in the lines of the Kurdish insurgent group PKK that has been fighting the Turkish state for more than three decades. Furthermore, while ISIL’s ideology and political objectives can certainly be called “revolutionary,” it currently does not seem interested in or in need of (nor capable of) toppling the regimes in Baghdad or Damascus as, say, a Maoist insurgency would be. Finally, the three-stage approach to insurgency and counter-insurgency models that emanate from Maoist thinking — with its emphasis on strategic defense, stalemate, and then conventional offensive — does not apply to ISIL. It has already established its authority in parts of both Syria and Iraq and is acting more like a state than an insurgency. If “ISIL proper” is dismantled and drawn out of main population centers, it may re-adjust its operations and strategy so it can be seen as a full-fledged insurgency similar to the Taliban after it was toppled in 2001. But this is not the case at the moment.

ISIL as a Proto-state

An increasingly popular interpretation about the group’s nature and trajectory is that ISIL is an exercise in state-building and, therefore, it is best to think of it is as a proto-state. Behind this interpretation lie two factors. First, ISIL is decidedly territorial, controlling territory and defining its very existence in terms of such control. Second, ISIL is interested in governing and administering, which involves systematic and institutionalized provision of public goods. In fact, 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 services. ISIL personnel police the streets and even manage traffic. Overall, ISIL has proven itself a capable, if brutal, Leviathan, especially in a terrain that has been scarred by intra-communal violence and anarchy.

The strategic implications of this interpretation are open to debate and can be categorized into three different perspectives. First, a number of analysts suggest that ISIL can be defeated only through a large-scale conventional war, which will require boots on the ground. The second perspective, usually associated with neorealist IR scholar Steve Walt, maintains that even if ISIL graduates into “full” statehood, there is not much to worry about, as the group will be “socialized” into the international system and its ideology will fail to spread. The most sensible approach, therefore, is to contain ISIL and deter any further aggressive behavior. A third, and popular, perspective, involves assumptions about the faulty and self-destructive nature of ISIL’s statehood: ISIL is destined to implode as it fails to expand further, and as it faces piecemeal losses of territory it currently holds and shortcomings in the provision of public goods. Under such circumstances, the best way to tackle the group is to contain and strangulate it, allowing gradual loss of support for the group, not to mention financial meltdown, to take its toll.

It is true that the revenue ISIL raises from its activities (assumed to be $1–3 million 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. Given that the Baathist leviathans (e.g., Saddam and Assad) have either fallen or retreated from ISIL-land, ISIL is not facing much of a competition. Unless competing “purveyors” of public goods and relative security emerge in the region, there is little reason for optimism about ISIL’s impending implosion.

Upon close inspection, the conventional thinking about ISIL’s proto-statehood proves misleading, if only partially. The notion of “proto-statehood” assumes a specific endpoint towards which the group might be moving, usually implicitly identified as a modern state as most international relations scholars understand the term. However, we have little reason to think that ISIL wants to evolve into a modern state. The group’s discourse and institutional practice suggest that it aims to become something else. For one thing, ISIL maintains that the modern state form is a Western artifact that was either exported to or imposed on the rest of the world during the last century or so, with varying degrees of success. While there is much debate over how Islamic the Islamic State is or whether ISIL can or should be classified as a caliphate, however, ISIL’s penchant for creating a “different” kind of state does not solely come from religious considerations In fact, ISIL owes much of its initial success to a simple dynamic: The model that ISIL promotes, a sectarian mini-empire, is more in sync with the present-day realities on the ground, which make for a cocktail of chronic state failure, rising ethnic/sectarian tensions, and geopolitical competition among regional actors. ISIL is trying to create “some” kind of state, but their state-building efforts and strategies do not need to conform to the same criteria and benchmarks that we attribute to “typical” states.

So what?

While the different frameworks that are being used by analysts and scholars can help us explore different components of ISIL, they all suffer from a number of shortcomings. Put bluntly, none of these models really fit. So what path remains to attack the group as an analytical challenge? While a more comprehensive treatment is beyond the scope of this essay, a three-pronged strategy may help us tackle the puzzle that the Islamic State presents more effectively. First, analysts should not excessively rely on extant categories to make sense of ISIL, but come to terms with the fact that ISIL, to a large extent, is sui generis. Second, we should stop trying to treat ISIL as a static and unchanging “thing.” A better way to approach the group would be to think of it as an ever-changing and ever-evolving “process” (I thank Alex Wendt for suggesting this terminology). Third, students of strategy and international politics would benefit from identifying what separates ISIL from other, similar organizations (for example, as I argued in this outlet and others, its particular approach to “territoriality”) and try to build more appropriate frameworks that can help us make better sense of the group and its state-building and power-projection strategies. So far, ISIL has proven itself to be an extremely flexible and innovative organization. It is time for national security analysts to rise to the challenge by moving outside their comfort zones and thinking outside the box.


Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College, where he 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.