Understanding the operational strength and adaptability of ISIS and similar groups is certainly important and very interesting. However I keep wondering about the grand strategy of ISIS and how it appears that this will inevitably lead to their ruin.
Remember that not all armed groups and individuals are like ISIS. The primary motivation early in the Syrian revolution being the removal of Assad. I will here assume the overall news about ISIS to be true, even though there is a lot of propaganda, for “All warfare is based on deception.”
What is grand strategy?
Based on Col. John Boyd’s thoughts  as described here: ‘The Myth of Grand Strategy‘, Grand strategy is a unifying noble vision which focuses the nation’s actions to:
- Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
- Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
- Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
- Attract uncommitted states to our cause.
- End conflicts on favorable terms,
- without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.
While appearing very philosophical, grand strategic visions are not born from analysis but inspiring synthesis, or lack thereof. Primal strategies based on survival, expansion and greed being common.
Interestingly, while war is inherently extremely destructive, a grand strategy should be constructive to be effective. Technology and tactics are closer to destruction, while theater strategy and especially grand strategy are nearer to creation.
Overcome the constructive-destructive paradox of warfare by focusing on the moral and mental collapse of the enemy, so physical destruction can be minimized with both your nation and objectives intact.
While battle during early Islam was fierce, excessive pointless brutality was strictly forbidden. During the early conquests, the Muslims easily won over the conquered people by ruling much more justly than the Persians and Byzantines. People were for example free to practice their own religions, both as individuals and groups, and even had the right to be tried by their own courts regarding their internal affairs. However within one generation, moral decline already crept in when the just Rightly Guided Caliphs were replaced by royal dynasties. After that some rulers were just and some were unjust. One of the famous just rulers being for example Saladin.
ISIS while very cunning, are very unjust, especially according to the Islamic values they claim to champion. Focusing primarily on survival and security, but also expansion, adventure, deterrence and revenge. They even use the same orange jumpsuits as used by the American torturers to prove their point. Tit-for-tat.
From Osama bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America’:
“… Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple:
(1) Because you attacked us and continue to attack us. …”
VICE News: The Islamic State (Full Length), from 11m54s
ISIS dad from Belgium: “Why do we kill the infidels? (Stand up.) What have the infidels done? What have the infidels done?”
Kid: “They kill Muslims.”
Dad: “Because they kill Muslims. All the infidels?”
Dad: “Like the infidels of Europe?”
Kid: “The infidels of Europe, all the infidels.”
Dad: “God willing the Caliphate has been established,
and we are going to invade you as you invaded us.
We will capture your women
as you captured our women.
We will orphan your children
as you orphaned our children.
Group: (shows agreement by chanting “God is Great”)
Dad: “I swear to God my brothers, we are living in joy that I can’t describe.”
While from the gut, this logic is partially supported by the democracy myth:
“We are free democracies. The people rule and the politicians serve.
Thus government decisions express the will of the people.”
Consequently, “the bloodbath caused by Western invasions is by the will of their people.”
Most democratic people love claiming authority, but despise responsibility. True democracy is however a myth. Thus the people cannot be fully responsible, even if they believe the myth.
Muslim suffering is real. Western hypocrisy is real. But that does not justify killing non-combatants, even if governments truly represented their people.
Jami` at-Tirmidhi 2007
Hudhaifah narrated that the Messenger of Allah said:
“Do not let yourselves be ‘yes-men’, saying:
‘If the people are good then we will be good,
and if they are wrong then we will be wrong.’
Rather, make up your own minds,
if the people are good then you are good,
and if they are evil, then do not behave unjustly.”
Despite all this, military defense and deterrence seem to be another key motivator ISIS always champion.
VICE News: The Islamic State (Full Length), from 8m44s
ISIS press officer explaining he completely neglects his family to fight in the war.
(Defending what you neglect, a very odd human trait.)
ISIS press officer: “… No one would defend Muslims if we all sat at home with the family.”
Like for many fighters outside ISIS, one of their main motivations is not world domination, but defense of their oppressed people.
“Know your enemy and know yourself…”
Many depict ISIS as inhuman religious monsters. The danger of this perspective is that it is not factually correct. While religions and ideologies present visions, and visions are powerful motivators, visions are always grounded in very human fears and desires. Even monsters can be human. Just as a forest fire only starts under certain conditions, certain visions do not spread unless the conditions are ripe.
Experiencing years of oppression, occupation, rape, torture and murder will drive enough people over the edge to create serious problems. Thinking “extreme circumstances, call for extreme measures.” A wiser person with foresight and patience would understand that it is these extreme measures that created these extreme circumstances in the first place. It is easy to say, but very difficult to do in such circumstances.
ISIS’ grand strategy of becoming a great power by being better organized, more fierce, more ambitious and more intimidating than others, resulted in them being able to control the Sunni areas where they were the least bad available option for many of the locals.
However their grand strategy has serious weaknesses, because it causes disunity, creates a lot of unnecessary enemies and is destructive instead of constructive.
Interpreting ISIS policies in the light of the points of grand strategy
Regardless of ISIS cloaking their actions in religious symbolism, like their intentions, their actions are based on strategies very similar to those used by western actors even if their end goals are different. It is to globally increase fear, violence and chaos to promote overreaction against both innocent Muslim and Western civilians alike.
Seducing Western governments to invade or drone Muslim lands undermines the legitimacy of local governments. This can be used to attract local support, motivate lone wolf attacks in Western countries or what is most common, simply raise tension and conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western countries in general. Usually this provokes ultra-secular/anti-Muslim reactions and government policies in western countries, alienating Muslims even more and entices ordinary Muslims who simply want raise their family in peace to emigrate to relatively stable Muslim majority countries. Even ordinary people caught up in the crossfire in war zones might reluctantly join or support groups as ISIS simply for survival.
On the other side, western governments invading Muslim lands and supporting dictators is the main motivator for terrorism and outrage against the west.
Certain groups inside western nations can then use this threat of terrorism to their political or financial advantage. Planning helps but ignorance, fear and greed is sufficient. Even well intended politicians will find it difficult to escape this vicious cycle in face of terrified masses demanding solutions.
ISIS successfully applied this strategy against the Shia to further alienate the Sunni’s. Of course the Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki played his part perfectly.
Continuous polarization towards the extremes will deplete the nuanced balanced center amongst all populations. This might also be the logic between the brutality of USA’s “collateral damage” terror drones globally and ISIS’ executions.
ISIS’ “you are either with us or with the enemy” mentality creates some interesting effects related to the points of grand strategy.
“1. Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.”
External enemies usually increase internal solidarity. However forcing your army to mostly fight ‘your own people’, in this case other Muslims, will severely weaken the morale of many soldiers and risks having them join other armed groups or resulting in splinter groups fighting each other internally. ISIS being a splinter group of Al-Qaida themselves.
Furthermore, the unjust way of warfare, like killing and oppressing unarmed women and children, will definitely result in friction within the ranks. There have already been reports of desertion because of these atrocities, and ISIS killing deserters failing to escape.
The threat to internal cohesion is ingrained in their ideology itself. They declare Muslims who don’t practice their version of Islam, as apostates who deserve to be killed. This fanaticism in similar groups often results in internal disputes escalating into a situation where group members start accusing each other of apostasy.
“2. Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.”
Extreme brutality might remove any hope or just increase determination. The execution by fire of the Jordanian fighter pilot, was likely to discourage other fighter pilots from bombing them and the civilians in their territories. However the opposite often happens and enemies often become more determined, since defeat for many becomes worse than the risk of fighting.
“3. Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.”
ISIS’ “you are either with us or our enemy” mentality has resulted in them declaring all other Muslims who do not support them as their enemy. Since ISIS’ strategy results in a lot of division and conflict in their area of operations, there closest “allies”, in an ‘enemy of my enemy’ sort of way, would be those interested in “divide and ruling/containing” the affected areas using ISIS as a tool to defeat other troublesome militias, armed groups and nations. In the short term, the best “allies” of ISIS appeared to be Assad, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA. With all of them hoping that ISIS would weaken their own respective mutual enemies or rivals.
Assad used ISIS to weaken the Syrian resistance fighters, by avoiding fights with ISIS, releasing ISIS prisoners and focusing their attacks on non-ISIS groups. Turkey hopes ISIS will take care of their Kurdish problem and Assad. Saudi Arabia hopes ISIS would weaken Assad, the Shia and perhaps popular rival Sunni governments in the region which success might undermine their Islamic legitimacy. Israel and the USA can use ISIS as a means for the regional powers to eliminate each other. Israel can for example use ISIS and other Syrian rebels to break up the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah line of communications. An independent Kurdish state would also help Israel in achieving this.
ISIS likely hopes to utilize this entire mess to grow strong enough to turn the tables at the end.
“4. Attract uncommitted states (and other actors) to our cause.”
The Muslim world overwhelmingly rejects ISIS’ “Caliphate”, calling them ISIS or DAESH instead of “Islamic State” or “Caliphate”. These include the governments of all Muslim majority nations, Muslim individuals, scholars and organizations, and even other militia groups including the original Al-Qaeda. ISIS greatly transgressing Islamic values and mainly fighting and killing other Muslims doesn’t really help ISIS in winning Muslim hearts and minds. While not attracting, ISIS’ brutality discourages neutral actors from participating.
Proclaiming yourself King, does not make it so. Likewise for Caliphs. By the lowest standards you should at least be grudgingly acknowledged as the one in charge by those with power, where it counts . On the other hand, if you act like a King, some people might believe you. And everyone prefers to join a winning team over a loser. This posturing propaganda is useful for attracting individual fighters to join them.
Executing Western humanitarian aid workers just because their governments fight you, doesn’t even make sense from a revenge perspective. They aren’t even accused of spying or spreading propaganda. Why would you kill people helping you? By executing Western citizens and enticing the USA “superpower” to bomb them, they appear greater than they are, they get the sympathy of other groups and they get a morale boost by making their cause appear greater than it is. Whether the effects of these airstrikes will in the end be a net benefit or loss for ISIS is difficult to say.
“5. End conflicts on favorable terms.”
Declaring yourself to be a Caliphate usually means seeing yourself as the political entity having authority over all Muslims. So do they intend to singlehandedly conquer all Muslim majority territory by force? They even say things as, “We will raise the black flag (of ISIS) on the White House!” This implies world domination. However it appears to be just posturing. The ISIS maps of their desired Caliphate show they are focused on the Middle East. Which coincides with their defense, deterrence and revenge motivations.
Just as “democracy” and “freedom” are flexible symbols people use to reflect their own fears desires. The same is true for “Caliphate”. Many see in it their fear of a strong unified oppressive enemy, while many others see their desire for independence and security. Others see adventure, revenge and power.
Consolidating their success and normalizing relations with their neighbors at this early stage, would completely contradict the ambitious narrative they presented their followers. But what would “normal” mean in such a future Middle East?
“6. without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.”
Even if ISIS took over much of their enemies’ territories and thereby eliminated external seeds for future conflicts, which seems unlikely, they would just have more internal seeds for future conflicts since they conquer by force and treat their conquered horribly. “Manifest Destiny”, conquest and total extermination or subjugation of opponents, in the USA has resulted in suppressed rising social tensions even to this day. ISIS has undeniably sown much seeds for future conflicts. Perhaps they will eventually be able to sufficiently manage the problem. However people, especially from that region, hold grudges and have long memories.
While ISIS appears to be very skilled at asymmetric warfare, their grand strategy appears to be very flawed and seems to point at certain defeat unless they are able to reinvent themselves out of this primal strategy of pure power. But radically changing a groups central purpose can be very disruptive, since those that brought you to power will be severely disillusioned and will likely abandon you or turn against you. Many nations were founded by ethnic cleansing and genocide. But while externally brutal, often they were internally constructive and somewhat just to their own subjects. ISIS’ main strength is that their enemies are not that much better.
Grand strategy guides tactics as faith guides action. A corrupt heart will rot the body. While very cunning, I don’t really see them able to just steamroll their way to victory. However to defeat an enemy, you don’t need to be perfect or even good. Just less bad. To exist, not losing is enough.
 Colonel Frans Osinga’s “Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd”
The book www.goodreads.com/book/show/2232533.Science_Strategy_and_War
The original thesis http://chicagoboyz.net/blogfiles/OsingaBoydThesis.pdf
 Has the Caliphate been re-established by ISIS?
By Abdullah al Andalusi on June 30, 2014