Under its former name, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Sunni jihadist group was formed in April 2013, growing out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In June 2014, the group proclaimed itself to be an Islamic caliphate, renaming itself Islamic State (IS’, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being named the caliph. But while the two organizations were once formally allied, and IS ideology, rhetoric, and long-term goals are similar to al Qaeda’s, this is a new evil— a new age, post–al Qaeda, jihadist threat. Ambiguity about the nature of the organization, and the threat it presents to the world, makes it difficult to craft a sound strategy to defeat it. Truth be told, the Islamic State is too dynamic an entity to be routed by counterterrorism.
Although IS uses terrorism as a tactic, it is not just a terrorist organization. The terrorist outfit-turned-wannabe-nation-state is currently rioting throughout the Middle East, and has killed over 10,000 civilians at last count. According to Kurdish estimates from November 2014, IS controls at least one-third of both Iraq and Syria, with a population of 10 to 12 million in an area the size of the United Kingdom. Terrorist outfits such as al Qaeda or the Taliban function with a handful of members. Their motive is to terrorize the masses, but they do not hold permanent territory, and in most cases cannot, or do not, directly confront military forces. However, according to CIA estimates, the Islamic State can mobilize between 20,000 to 31,500 fighters at any given time, with other sources putting this number at as high as 200,000.
As a caliphate, IS claims authority over all Muslims, declaring that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.” Graeme Wood in his cover story in The Atlantic says, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic…Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls…. ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.” What’s more, the terror group has released propaganda images and videos, in which people are killed on the pretext of homosexuality, blasphemy, and other actions considered against Islamic law. IS’s ideologies have attracted foreign fighters from over 80 countries to join them.
The Islamic State funds itself, and engages in sophisticated military operations. “As an organization, IS has become the wealthiest militant group in the world, with assets in the low billions of dollars….” says Charles Lister, at the Brookings Doha Center. In its earlier stages, IS found benefactors in wealthy individuals from Gulf Arab states, particularly Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. But today, IS earns significantly from the oil fields it controls in eastern Syria, reportedly selling the supply at throwaway prices. According to September 2014 estimates, IS makes around $3 million a day from oil revenue, human trafficking, theft, and extortion. Additionally, Baghdadi collects a special tax from Christians in the region, called jizya. Jizya is also an acknowledgement of their subjugation to his regime. The Islamic State was estimated to be worth around a total of $2 billion, in June 2014.
Evidently then, the Islamic State is a pseudo-state, led by a conventional army. IS fighters and leaders are well-integrated into civilian populations, and usually surrounded by buildings, making drone strikes much harder to carry out. It is here that tactical ground support by local troops would come in handy. Additionally, simply killing the leaders would not cripple the organization. They govern a functioning pseudo-state with a complex administrative structure. IS’ civilian bureaucracy has an Iraqi and a Syrian arm, each headed by a deputy who supervises 12 governors. The governors oversee councils that handle matters such as finance and defense. And thus, this pseudo-state is fully capable of carrying on quite ably without Baghdadi or his closest lieutenants.
The greatest mistake of the U.S.-led coalition has been their attempt to tackle Islamic State fighters like the guerrilla warriors of al-Qaeda, with classic counterinsurgency tactics. Russia, on the other hand, has adopted a different approach by providing aerial support to President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian armed forces. In doing so, the alliance has assumed an all-out attack on a (sort of) conventional army. The concern regarding Russia striking Syrian rebel territories rather than those of IS is legitimate, but Moscow has changed its stance after a Russian plane was downed by IS, and is now clamping down hard on the group. On the other hand, the U.S. policy of a half-hearted bombing campaign only serves to alienate millions of Muslims, who shudder at the sight of their lands and people being destroyed by foreign forces. If anything, it aids IS in its efforts to recruit new warriors for its cause.
However, the good news is no government supports IS; the group has managed to make itself an enemy of every state in the region, Syria included. Despite his reluctance to work with Assad, Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, said “The only eligible ground troops are Assad’s government forces…” Thus France, and even the United Kingdom, have agreed to cooperate with Russia on countering IS. Washington must at least consider this as an option, like France, as it extends conditional support to Assad’s forces, as part of a “framework of a credible political transition for Syria.” Lastly, as a global leader, the United States should encourage regional and international powers to enact more vigorous sanctions against the group, conduct joint border patrols, and provide more aid for displaced persons and refugees. Washington’s best bet at the moment is a robust combination of limited military campaign, major diplomatic intervention, and corresponding economic efforts to weaken the Islamic State.