A Military Assessment of the Islamic State’s Evolving Theory of Victory


Brace for it, America. Terrorist attacks like those seen over the past 19 months in Western Europe will soon be occurring within the borders of the United States. The Paris attacks of November 2015, the surge in Western Europe in the summer of 2016, and now in the United Kingdom all portend a very grim future. This essay posits that the Islamic State is at a strategic inflection point and has produced a new “theory of victory.”

Battered within the caliphate, its regional wilayats under increasing pressure, the Islamic State has turned to the final component of its being — an international “cloud” of aspirants — to conduct an asymmetric urban guerrilla campaign against the civilian populations of those countries aligned against it, specifically targeting Western nations. A steady bloodletting, they calculate, will keep the Islamic State in the 24-hour news cycle, send a message of relevance, strength, and defiance to the international community, and, most consequentially, erode popular support in these key countries for the coalition war against the Islamic State. Ultimately, the Islamic State leadership calculates, this theory of victory will lead to the ultimate achievement of their political objective.

Theory of Victory

According to Bradford Lee, formerly of the U.S. Naval War College, a theory of victory is an analytical framework of “the assumptions that strategists make about how the execution of the military operations that they are planning will translate into the achievement of the political objectives that they are pursuing.”

A theory of victory, states Lee, begins with a declared political objective, a strategic concept, and an operational course(s) of action that illuminate how one envisions achieving one’s political objective. With these three elements in hand, Lee proposes that there are four assumptions one needs to make to construct a proper theory of victory.

The initial assumption involves how the enemy will react militarily — i.e., how (and how hard) the enemy will fight, and what instruments they will use. The second assumption involves what the strategic effects of a course of action will be. These can range from the military effects of killing people, destroying property, and occupying territory, to physical and psychological effects. The third assumption is how the enemy will react politically. This varies according to the nature of the enemy’s political system — i.e., an authoritarian state will likely have a different political reaction than a democratic state. The final assumption one needs to make is what the political endgame will be in the enemy regime. This describes the how and why a system at war is defeated or acquiesces to demands. According to Lee, the political endgame varies. The two that apply to the current Islamic State theory of victory are outlined below.

The first endgame can be called the “rational calculation” as it involves the basic cost/benefit calculus described by Carl von Clausewitz as the “value of the object,” i.e., where the cost of achieving the political object becomes too high, so it is abandoned. “[W]ar is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object,” said Clausewitz. He continues:

[T]he value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.

The other endgame to consider is the “internal political power shift” – a variation on the “rational calculation” described above. It occurs when a ruling government is voted out of power. With this mandate in hand, the next government acquiesces or makes peace based because it does not view the fight against the enemy as worth the cost.

The Islamic State Theory of Victory in 2017

Using Lee’s framework, one can outline how the Islamic State leadership predicts its use of their international cloud of aspirants will translate into the achievement of their political objective. The political objective of the Islamic State is to establish an Islamic State caliphate within territory taken in Iraq and Syria in accordance with the prophetic method, expanding over time to encompass all corners of the globe.

The Islamic State leadership has analyzed the nation-states of the West, examined past revolutionary conflicts, and determined that the will of the people, especially in democracies, is their most vulnerable element. As such, they subscribe to Clausewitz’s notion that to defeat a foe, “you must match your effort against his power of resistance, which can be expressed as the product of two inseparable factors, viz. the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will.”

Their strategic logic is that while they can never reduce the means of their opponents to zero, they can, over time, reduce the enemy’s will to such a low degree that the ability of their enemies to resist will approach zero. Will is exponentially more important than means for the Islamic State. Consequently, the strategic concept of the Islamic State is to wage a protracted war of attrition, targeting the political will of Western countries aligned against them.

How will their strategic concept be realized? They are pursuing an operational course of action to actively encourage, guide, direct, and materially support their supporters to conduct an asymmetric urban guerrilla campaign against civilian populations in the West. The attacks will be random, unpredictable, violent, spread beyond merely the large, symbolic cities, and ideally kill lots of people. Importantly, the results will be graphically touted and spread via the Islamic State’s use of social media.

With this plan put into action, the Islamic State has calculated how the enemy will react militarily. A June 2016 editorial titled “The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate,” from the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter is illuminating. In it, the Islamic State explains its view that Western commitments to the military campaigns in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere (Libya, West Africa, etc.) will continue, under the mistaken assumption that militarily “defeating” the Islamic State on the ground will end the threat, “such that it will be completely wiped out and no trace of it will be left.” One can reasonably assume the Islamic State recognizes that most nations aligned against it have legislative restrictions limiting the power of the military in domestic security matters. Therefore, they believe the enemy military response will be limited to a supporting role to law enforcement, and increasing physical security around high value targets such as government buildings, tourist attractions, and sporting events. They also expect that intelligence services will increase their collection efforts against them. Domestic law enforcement elements will aggressively work to track, capture or kill, and prosecute their adherents, while simultaneously demanding more effective and forceful counter-terrorism laws from policymakers.

The strategic effects of this course of action will be myriad. First, the number of Western civilian casualties will far exceed the losses of the Islamic State. The media exposure provided by constant, unpredictable attacks will boost morale and recruitment for the Islamic State, while creating a sense of psychological dread, fear, and paranoia among the populations of the West.

Economically, the attacks will bleed the West, via lost revenue from declining tourism, and people generally changing their social and recreational habits. More funds will be diverted to increasing physical security, meaning that there will be fewer funds for important social support programs. Over time this will create dissatisfaction and friction between the government and their citizens, especially as attacks continue. Increased security, new law enforcement, and legislative actions will be unable to protect the population, while at the same time alienating the security forces from the population they are tasked with protecting. The attacks will ”’destroy the gray zone’ in which Muslims live in Europe and the U.S. and force them to choose between apostasy and emigrating to fight with the Caliphate.”

As civilian casualties mount, governments will struggle with upholding their inherent social contract to protect their citizenries, while not taking actions that weaken the sovereign authority of the government: a condition known as the “democratic-governance dilemma.” Concurrently, to protect the individual, democratic rights and values of their citizenries, governments will inadvertently  provide Islamic State adherents the same freedoms and protections to plan and carry out attacks. Should governments impose laws that violate democratic norms to crack down on terrorists, they will be deemed not legitimate in the eyes of the public. This is the “liberal-democratic dilemma” of democratic states fighting terrorism.

Following revolutionary war theory, this campaign will provide time for the Islamic State to revert to a strategic stalemate or strategic defensive, reconstitute its forces and resources, and plan its next offensive steps toward meeting its ultimate political objective. For the Islamic State, the importance of gaining time to produce the political outcome desired cannot be overstated.

Importantly for democracies is the Islamic State’s assumption of how the enemy will react politically. The Islamic State believes that faced with the democratic-governance and liberal-democratic dilemmas, destructive internal debates will arise within the governments of these nations. Policymakers will reactively impose draconian law enforcement measures (e.g., aggressive surveillance, arrest, and search decrees) to protect their citizens, dedicate more funds to domestic law enforcement and the protection of infrastructure, and increase military support to law enforcement, while trying to protect the rights of the very same citizens. These divisions will dilute counter-terrorism efforts while allowing the Islamic State to continue its attacks.  Western politicians will make domestic security and greater foreign policy decisions based upon public opinion polls. Trying to straddle the two poles of action, they will be unable to satisfy either camp, nor find consensus among a coalition of countries to unite and forge a coherent policy-strategy match among the international community when it comes to terrorism.

Once the cumulative effects of interaction have run their course, the political endgame in the enemy regime will be one of the following: Western governments will abandon their political objective (e.g., the United Kingdom in Ireland in 1921) or reduce their contributions/withdraw completely from the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition after rationally calculating the cost is higher than the value of the political object of defeating the Islamic State. This is the lesson learned from the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Conversely, an internal power shift will occur within certain nations which, in line with the will of the people, bring new governments to power which make separate peace with the Islamic State. Both of these endgames played out in Algeria in 1962 with France once Charles de Gaulle came to power.

The Way Ahead

Dissecting the Islamic State’s assumptions regarding how its opponents will react to operational and strategic actions makes it easier to accomplish two important tasks. First, avoid costly mistakes by not allowing the passion in the aftermath of terrorist attacks to draw governments into making ill-informed or hasty decisions which follow the enemy’s predictive path as presented in the above assumptions. Lee labeled this phenomenon “interaction games,” where one baits an opponent into willingly adopting a self-defeating course of action. Do not overreact — it is what the enemy wants. To retool historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s observation regarding the demise of civilizations, governments die by suicide, not by murder.

If the Islamic State’s strategy is now focusing on the gap in its opponents’ defenses — using the democratic freedoms of countries as cover to plan and conduct attacks against civilians — then that gap must be made a surface. If the value of the political object of protecting civilian populations is indeed a high priority, then a commensurate amount of resources must be dedicated to that proposition. Beyond physical security, hard choices will have to be made between security and personal liberties — and what holds the higher value of the two. Counter-terrorism, says Daniel Byman, “comes with tradeoffs, and most of the time effectiveness simply means fewer attacks or less deadly ones…” In the battle against the Islamic State, each country in their own right will have to decide what tradeoffs it is willing to endure. However, in doing so, they must beware of taking what appear to be sound counter-terrorism measures, but ultimately become part of a self-defeating course of action. One seasoned observer explains:

Focused, purposeful retaliation, sound intelligence and police work, national vigilance and a resolve not to let extremists change our way of life or control of our airwaves, fears, or national debates are the essential elements of a wise reaction.

It is clear that the recent attacks illustrate that adherents unable to travel to the caliphate are heeding the (now deceased) Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani’s entreaty from September 2014 to:

[K]ill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State… kill him in any manner or way however it may be.

Accordingly, the terrorist group has accelerated its emphasis on using its adherents as an asymmetric, underground urban guerrilla force. Western counter-terrorism officials recognize this adaptation and the difficulty it presents to their efforts to achieve the political goal of degrading and defeating the group, as well as the strategy required to do so. A French official stated in June 2016 that the Islamic State is “…challenged as we adapt our strategy to their initial one, in order to start “de-sanctuarizing” them…But they will now expand to other tactics and start executing much more insidious and covert ops…The next step has begun.”

By using its aspirants to attack civilian populations in their home countries — what author Joby Warrick calls the Islamic State’s “invisible army in the West” — the Islamic State seeks to “render impotent the military advantage, firepower, and resources of the states they fight,” directly attack the will of the people, and hopes to shatter the cohesion of the coalition opposing it. “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land,” said al-Adnani in early 2016, “is dearer to us than the largest action by us and more effective and more damaging to them.” The Islamic State has made clear its new way ahead. A January 2016 report issued by the American Enterprise Institute addresses the threat of both al Qaeda and the Islamic State to the West:

Their vision is not of many disconnected random lone-wolf attacks, but rather of lone wolves merging into larger organizations that can conduct insurgency operations within the West over time. The lone wolves are meant to be the first step toward an organization that can truly bring the war into the Western heartland.

Ultimately, once the coalition is fractured enough, another reassessment will bring about a new theory of victory to transition back to the offensive and move toward the political objective of reestablishing the caliphate. The odds of this coming to fruition are nil. Unfortunately, many lives will be viciously cut short as the Islamic State implements this new theory of victory and moves to bring its dystopian vision to reality.


Michael J. Mooney is a U.S. Marine colonel, with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has commanded Marine reconnaissance units at the platoon, company, and battalion level, with other assignments to include service with a Special Missions Unit, as the Future Operations Division Chief, U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, and a Military Professor of Strategy and Policy, U.S. Naval War College. Since 2015 he has been an adjunct faculty member of the Program on Terrorism and Strategic Studies (PTSS) at the George C. Marshall Center, as well as a Senior Associate with the Naval War College’s Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups (CIWAG). The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps or Department of Defense.