Readings on the Islamic State

By Erik Goepner

What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood, The Atlantic

A provocative and interesting article, Wood suggests that while much of what the Islamic State does makes no sense to a Western mind, their actions are, largely, sensible “in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”

Wood goes on to assert that the Islamic State is, as they claim, Islamic. He yields the point that IS has attracted some psychopaths, but that the preaching of IS results from “coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Of particular interest to policy makers, Wood argues that ignoring IS’ “intellectual genealogy” will promote U.S. responses that inadvertently strengthen the group. Similarly, he cautions against assuming that if religious ideology does not matter much in Washington, it must not matter in Iraq and Syria.

What is the State of Islamic Extremism: Key Trends, Challenges and Implications for U.S. Policy?

Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, 13 February, by Lt Gen (ret) Flynn, Dr. Lynch, professor at George Washington, and William Braniff, Executive Director National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

Of note, Mr. Braniff referenced scholarly research that suggests one of the critical predictors of increased terrorist group lethality is competition among terrorist groups. Each group attempts to “outbid” the others in terms of attacks.

Image Credit: Mo Riza

Is the Islamic State the Biggest Threat Facing the U.S.?

By Erik Goepner

While the situation on the ground today remains largely unchanged to that of October last year, Americans assessing the IS threat as extremely important or critical has jumped from 36% to 84%. Might their grotesque killings and the free media advertising they receive in response explain much of the difference in threat perceptions?

Looking at the numbers, since September 10, 2001 three thousand forty-eight people have been killed by terrorists in America’s borders. If you exclude 9/11, that number drops to 51. In the 14 years before 9/11, 223 lost their lives at the hands of terrorists in the homeland.[1]

Though precisely determining the threat posed by the Islamic State is impossible, we can be more precise in defining why the threat concerns us. For many, the concern is death, more specifically a horrific death that comes as a surprise and leaves its victim feeling powerless. There is, however, no concern that the Islamic State could one day invade the U.S. or otherwise pretend to have a military force even remotely comparable to ours. They will always be Pop Warner to America’s Super Bowl winner. In the end, the concern is death.

One way, then, to compare the threat posed by the Islamic State with other threats is to look at what kills Americans. Including 9/11 and all terrorist attacks within the homeland since, an average of 234 lives have been lost per year. During the same time period, approximately 16,000 Americans have been murdered each year, 34,000 took their own lives, and more than 500,000 died annually from cancer. If you lengthen the timeframe to fifty years, the likelihood of being killed by terrorists in America roughly equates to the likelihood of being killed by a lightning strike or an allergic reaction to peanuts.[2]

Looking at the broader geo-political landscape provides another way to help place the threat of IS within the range of threats facing America. Perhaps Iran sits atop that list. On the Department of State’s list as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, their latest report, from 2013, notes Iran has “increased its presence in Africa and attempted to smuggle arms to Houthi separatists in Yemen.” These are the same separatists who recently overthrew the Yemeni government. Additionally, Iran is pursuing a nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise. Russia presents another potential threat.  In 2008, they invaded Georgia and in 2014 they annexed portions of Ukraine. Might a NATO country be next, such as Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania? Other potential threats include China as it asserts its presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere, North Korea, or even America’s rising debt which may increasingly constrain future U.S. options.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

[1] See UMD’s Global Terrorism Database.
[2] John Mueller, Overblown, see “The Limited Destructiveness of Terrorism” chapter.

What threat does the Islamic State pose to America?

By Erik Goepner 

One way to assess the threat that IS poses to America is to see what the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) says. To date, NTAS has issued no alerts regarding the terrorist threat from IS. Back in 2011, NTAS replaced DHS’ memorable color-coded system. It is also worth noting that in those intervening years, the NTS has apparently not issued any alerts about terrorist threats against the homeland.

Statements by government officials provide another way to assess the threat, and they do not appear to suggest IS presents a significant threat to America. The President’s National Security Strategy (NSS), published last week, notes that “the threat of catastrophic attacks against our homeland by terrorists has diminished but still persists.” The NSS goes on to refer to “an array of terrorist threats.” As for IS in particular, the NSS mentions them as one of several “regionally focused and globally connected groups” that “could” pose a threat to the homeland.

Rolling out the new NSS at the Brookings Institution last Friday, the National Security Advisor appeared concerned that threat concerns were being unnecessarily inflated by some. Ms. Rice cautioned, “We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism and an instantaneous news cycle,” as she characterized the threats as not existential.

Another estimate comes from the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy. This past December, he testified before a House subcommittee hearing on ISIS. His assessment? “At present, DHS is unaware of any specific, credible threat to the U.S. Homeland from ISIL.”

If Americans’ perception of the threat posed by the Islamic State substantially differs from the actual threat, our unconscious biases may have something to do with it. Ms. Rice potentially alluded to one—the availability bias—when she cautioned against alarmism and the instantaneous news cycle. The availability bias suggests people estimate the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can imagine it or remember a past occurrence. Since the sensational, yet uncommon, event is often of greater interest to the media, the public may hear more about unlikely events than they do common ones. In response, people overestimate the likelihood of rare events while underestimating the probability of common ones.[1]

Additionally, people tend to overstate threats they dread, even if the evidence indicates otherwise. The Islamic State’s gruesome videos of beheadings and the recent burning alive of the Jordanian pilot effectively evoke dread in many.

Potential biases notwithstanding, those responsible for assessing the threat and keeping the homeland safe indicate that the Islamic State could pose a threat to us, but at this time, IS does not pose a specific, credible or imminent threat.


Image Credit: The Knight Foundation

[1] See, for example, Morgan’s “Risk Assessment and Management.”

The Islamic State as Insurgency: The Growing Strength of Salafi Jihadists

By Erik Goepner

Terrorists occupy the low-end of the power spectrum. They are weaker than guerrillas, who are weaker than insurgents, who are weaker than conventional armies, who are weaker than nuclear-equipped armies. That is a point made, more or less, by the Council of Foreign Relation’s Max Boot. Successful revolutionary, Mao Tse Tung,[1] made a similar point when he noted guerrillas are but a step towards total war and regular armies. Has the Islamic State, then, progressed the Salafi jihadist movement from the weak power position of terrorism to the mid-range power of insurgency?

RAND researcher, Seth Jones, defines a Salafi jihadist group as one that emphasizes the need to return to “pure” Islam during the time of the Salaf (“pious ancestors”) and believes that violent jihad is a duty of each member of the ummah, much like daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, etc. Dr. Jones notes that between 2010 and 2013, the number of Salafi jihadist groups rose by 58%. Interestingly, the growth roughly coincided with the timing of U.S. surge operations in Afghanistan. At the end of that period, IS began seizing and holding terrain in Iraq and Syria, with some estimating they now control approximately 81,000 square miles, or the land mass equivalent of Great Britain. Professor Bruce Hoffman, author of the seminal work Inside Terrorism, suggests that while both insurgents and terrorists may use the same tactics, even for the same purposes, insurgents differ from terrorists in that they often operate as military units, seize and hold terrain, and include informational and psychological warfare in an effort to win over the population’s support.

If so, and if the Islamic State is winning over segments of the Iraqi and Syrian populations rather than just terrorizing them, then the problem set facing the U.S. would be substantially different. Terrorists can, in large measure, be defeated by police or military action, which the world’s premier military can accomplish unlike any other. If, however, IS now finds firm footing as an insurgency, broader issues must be tackled. Issues that can only be successfully resolved by the indigenous government—which we are not—or dictatorial occupiers—which we will not be.

Image Credit: NBC News

[1] See The Red Book of Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong.

The Global War on Terror Redux

By Erik Goepner

Are we destroying the Islamic State or fighting a global war on terror?

In the past six months, the U.S. launched air strikes to neutralize the al Qaeda offshoot, Khorasan group, and the imminent threat they posed. Authorities in Ohio arrested a man—apparently self-radicalized—who was planning to target the U.S. Capitol. The Charlie Hebdo attackers reportedly received funding and guidance from Yemeni-based, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The kosher market killer apparently had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Soon after, French, Belgian, and German authorities arrested more than a dozen suspected terrorists, some of whom had recently returned from Syria and allegedly may have ties to the Islamic State.

While the Islamic State dominates the headlines and Obama Administration officials repeat the defeat and destroy Daesh (nee ISIL) mantra, the President’s narrowly-named Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL speaks of a decidedly broader end goal. General Allen recently acknowledged “Daesh” as the immediate threat, but noted, “more broadly we’re interested in the underlying factors that create these problems.” He went on to talk of the collective action needed to eliminate the social, ethnic, religious and economic problems that have combined in the Middle East. He noted that if we are successful, there will be a government in Syria that “reflects the will of the Syrian people,” which will have “the happy second and third order effect of assisting in the creation of stability more broadly in the region.”

In words reminiscent of President Bush, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Secretary Kerry recently shared similar thoughts. In a speech at the Saban Forum, the Secretary observed that “even once Daesh is defeated and Syria is stabilized, our work is far from over.”

These are amazingly aspirational goals. Daesh defeated. Syria stabilized. A government in Syria reflecting the will of the people. And it would seem, a stabilized Iraq and Afghanistan, too.

Again, the similarities are evident. Also speaking at the Saban Forum, though years prior, President Bush outlined similar aspirations, “Our vision for the future: a Middle East where our friends are strengthened and the extremists are discredited, where economies are open and prosperity is widespread, and where all people enjoy the life of liberty…”

Times have changed, but the mission hasn’t. However passionately or half-heartedly we approach it, America continues to wage a global war on terror and seek the remaking of the Middle East.

Image Credit: Huffington Post

Defeating and Destroying the Islamic State: What the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq Can Tell Us

By Erik Goepner 

Afghanistan Iraq Iraq & Syria
U.S. Goal Defeat & destroy al Qaida Eliminate Iraqi WMD, “central front on war on terror Defeat & destroy Islamic State
Date U.S. initiated operations October 2001 March 2003 August 2014
Name of operation Enduring Freedom Iraqi Freedom Inherent Resolve
# countries in coalition 50 34 62
# global terror attacks the year U.S. initiated operations 1,878 1,253 11,9521
# global terror attacks 5 years after U.S. initiated operations 2,728 4,780 TBD
# global terror attacks 10 years after U.S. initiated operations 5,007 11,952 TBD
White House assessment at      +3 months Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun mission accomplished

Iraq is free

We are making steady, measurable progress
White House assessment at      +5 years We have significantly degraded the al–Qaida network” “The success of democracy in Afghanistan is inspiring We have seen significant security gains…Less visible are the political and economic changes taking place…This progress isn’t glamorous, but it is important TBD
White House assessment at    +10 years We are meeting our goals…the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq TBD
Cost: U.S. deaths 2,353 4,486 TBD
Cost: $ $686 billion2 $815 billion3 $5.6 billion4


  1. Numbers are for 2013, 2014 not yet available.
  2. Does not account for future costs, such as FY15 funding or medical care for veterans.
  3. Does not account for future costs, such as medical care for veterans.
  4. Represents budget request for FY15.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fighting the Islamic State: U.S. Objectives

By Erik Goepner

Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL,” said President Obama during his national address on 10 September 2014. Since then, the destruction of the Islamic State has been echoed as an American objective by senior leaders across the executive branch.

Such an absolute and mammoth objective towards IS, while for years the U.S. has sought reconciliation and reintegration with much of the Taliban in Afghanistan? Destroy IS, and inadvertently relieve much of the pressure against Assad, a despot who has presided over a state in which 200,000 have been killed? Is the threat from IS so severe that they must rise to the top of America’s targeting list?

A compelling argument for such an all-encompassing national priority might have been expected during the President’s national address in September. Not so. Instead, he noted the threat IS poses to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East—including American citizens, personnel and facilities located there. Quite likely, that is why part of the American Embassy staff in Iraq was evacuated in June 2014, as also occurred in Yemen, South Sudan, and Libya last year. And the threat to Americans in America? “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States,” offered the President.

Two months later, the White House repeated a similar threat assessment. Their fact sheet said IS “could pose a growing threat to the United States and others beyond the region.” The fact sheet also noted that IS posed an immediate threat to Iraq, Syria and U.S. allies throughout the region, as did numerous other groups per a State Department travel warning.

So, America will send 3,100 military members and spend $5.6 billion this year in an effort to destroy a group that could pose a threat beyond the Middle East?

That Iran and Syria will likely benefit if we succeed in destroying IS makes the U.S. choice of objectives all the more confusing. Both countries are on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism—since 1979 for Syria and 1984 for Iran. One of the most lethal killers of American service members in Iraq was the explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) provided by Iran.

At the UN, two years ago, the President said “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” It is difficult to see how the elimination of what appears to be the most capable Sunni fighting force in the Middle East will not strengthen Iran’s hand and further embolden them. The presence of American and Iranian military advisers in Iraq, and our common purpose there, appears to make achievement of Iran’s goals more likely and less costly.

As for Syria, President Obama had previously spoken of a red line regarding their use of chemical weapons and that Assad must step down, yet America now strikes Assad’s most lethal foe.


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The Right Choice?

By Erik Goepner

It has been eight years since the demise of Saddam Hussein. During his brutal reign, the dictator used chemical weapons against his own people, invaded an American ally, and went to war with one of our enemies. Across his 24-year rule, hundreds of thousands died. The intervening years since the 2003 invasion have resulted in more than 200,000 killed and the Islamic State now controls wide swaths of both Iraq and Iran. As a result, both American and Iranian forces are in Iraq fighting IS.

In the 1980s, Saddam was an ally of sorts, as the discomforting photo of him shaking hands with then-Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld suggests. Only a few years earlier, Iran had overthrown the U.S.-backed Shah, taken U.S. citizens hostage and embarked on what seemed to be a radical path. In response, America supported Saddam’s war efforts against Iran.

But, then, power seemingly having corrupted absolutely, he invaded Kuwait. Regardless of what the Ambassador did or did not say, Saddam poorly estimated the global response and a decisive military victory against the battle hardened, fifth largest army of the world soon followed. Horrible repression of revolts, sanctions and no-fly zones ensued.

Then came 9/11. If it weren’t un-American, I’d tell you we were a bit scared. Assuredly, we wanted revenge and America was ready to prevent future attacks by all necessary means. Meanwhile, Saddam was posturing for his neighbors, dropping hints about having weapons of mass destruction, while violating U.N. resolutions.

And so, in early 2003, Desert Storm II kicked off. In less than three weeks Baghdad fell. In short order, the Iraqi Army and security forces were disbanded and the government was largely crippled through de-Baathification. Regrettable remarks such as “freedom is untidy” from the Secretary of Defense and others accompanied the beginnings of the civil war they refused to acknowledge.

Almost 12 years have passed. Two hundred thousand people have been killed, the United States has spent trillions, and a barbaric terrorist group—IS—dominates much of the Iraq. America finds itself working uncomfortably close with an avowed enemy (Iran), while local militias, to include those the U.S. fought against during the war, offer the best chance for success.

Are there times when tolerating an evil yields less tragedy than a noble, yet ill-informed, pursuit?


Image Credit: Daily Paul

Terrorist Groups Sharply Criticize Pakistani Taliban for School Attack

By Erik Goepner

Fellow extremists quickly condemned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for their brazen attack on Pakistani school children. The attack began the morning of December 16th as seven armed TTP gunmen entered the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar. They killed 148 during the eight-hour siege, including 132 children. All of the attackers died, either by detonating their suicide vests or during the fighting with Pakistani commandos.

Shortly after the attack, the Afghan Taliban called the actions un-Islamic and expressed their sympathies to the grieving families. The regional al Qaeda affiliate wrote of “hearts bursting with pain and grief” over the incident.

The noteworthy criticism from the Afghan Taliban raises the question: why would TTP specifically target children and risk pushing their allies away? TTP and the Afghan Taliban both align themselves under Mullah Omar. The TTP’s top commander, Mullah Fazlullah, fought in Afghanistan during the early 2000s and reportedly had quite favorable relations with the Afghan Taliban. Additionally, Mullah Fazlullah, as both cleric and scholar, enjoyed the respect of many fellow jihadists.

Much less is known about the regional TTP commander, Umar Mansoor (aka Umar Adizai), who apparently planned the attack. He is thought to be in his mid-30s and a father of three. According to the scant reports, he attended school in Islamabad before later entering a madrassa.

So, why might TTP have targeted the children and risked alienating allies?

Did the subordinate commander, Umar Mansoor, go rogue and disobey Fazlullah or, perhaps, fail to share his plans with the TTP leader?

While there is little reported on the relationship between Umar Mansoor and Fazlullah, what exists suggests their relationship is close. If those reports are true, it becomes more difficult to accept that Umar Mansoor acted on his own.

Was the attack related to the infighting within TTP?

Somewhat, perhaps. In 2013, Mullah Fazlullah took command of TTP. His assumption represented a significant shift in TTP leadership from that of the previous seven years, as he was neither a member of the Mehsud or Wazir tribes nor a resident of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Earlier this year, the factiousness bubbled over and the Mehsud tribe formally broke with TTP.

However, it is hard to see how Fazlullah would benefit from the attack. No doubt he was familiar with Mullah Omar’s previous admonitions to be discriminant in selecting targets and the application of force. Perhaps, though, the stress within TTP resulted in the horrific, and seemingly counterproductive decision.

The most likely reason, though, may just be the one given by TTP: an attack to avenge their losses, both adults and children, from sustained Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas home to many of them. Perhaps Pakistan has finally gotten serious about fighting the Taliban and other insurgent groups. When my team and I were in southern Afghanistan in 2010, Afghan government officials and village elders alike routinely criticized Pakistan and their security service for actively supporting the Taliban. Questions have long remained regarding the Pakistani government’s resolve to fight the Taliban, with many suggesting they secretly helped “good” Taliban fighting in Afghanistan, while providing an air of commitment in fighting the “bad” Taliban who conduct attacks in Pakistan. The TTP with approximately 900 attacks over the past seven years would seem to fit the bill of “bad” Taliban.

Time will tell, but perhaps Pakistan’s latest military offensive is really having an impact on the TTP. If so, the TTP may have targeted the children to both avenge their own losses and to show, in a distorted and tragic way, that their strength remains.

Image Credit: yowoto

This Week’s Top 5 Islamic State News Stories

By Erik Goepner

  1. Are negotiations with IS inevitable?

Padraig O’Malley, professor at UMASS and veteran mediator of civil conflict, thinks so. “A way in time must be found to talk to Islamic State,” he says. “You simply will not wipe it out. It’ll just re-emerge in a different form.” He goes on to suggest few in the West understand the “phenomenon of Islamic State” and the “degree of its sophistication in attracting young people from all over the world.” For the full story, see

  1. How is IS organized and how does it operate?

Analyzing 144 documents captured between 2005 and 2010, a group of researchers observe that IS (and its predecessor, AQI) takes a “bureaucratic, systematized approach to maintaining power that makes it look in some ways more like a settled government than a fly-by-night band of extremists. Whether under the flag of the Islamic State, or ISIS before that, the group organizes the territory it administers into well-defined geographic units, levies taxes in areas it controls, and manages large numbers of fighters across a sparsely populated territory roughly the size of the United Kingdom.” Read more at

  1. IS training camps spotted in eastern Libya, and they may also have established a new presence near Tripoli. Full story available at

  1. Kurds retake town north-east of Baghdad, reversing IS’ territorial gains in Jalawla. See for more.
  1. For the latest on the incident in Sydney, see the Australian newspapers: The Daily Telegraph ( and The Sydney Morning Herald (


Image Credit: Vice