The Islamic State: 5% of the Militarization Problem

By Erik Goepner

An estimated 1,000+ militant organizations currently operate in Iraq, Syria, or both. Comprising somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million fighters, each fights for its desired piece of the power pie. Professor Robert Bates of Harvard wrote that when states fail, “those with power employ it to extract resources from those without power. The latter flock to those who offer them security, albeit often for a price…Political predation from the top is thus accompanied by the militarization of civic society below.”* The “militarization of civic society” seems an apt description for Iraq and Syria, where IS and its ~30,000 fighters comprise just 5% of the overall armed presence.

The extent of militarization within both countries represents a substantially larger problem than IS alone. The 1,000+ armed groups, however large or small, each has a different perspective on what the future should look like, and each appears to agree with Mao that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Should IS be defeated, approximately 1,000 armed groups would remain. They include the Iraqi army, of which 48% of its brigades are assessed as too sectarian to be a credible force against IS. Syria’s security forces, the next largest group, have been condemned for their systematic attacks against the civilian population, with more than 190,000 now dead. The third largest group is likely the Kurdish Peshmerga, which the U.S. has begun arming. With somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 fighters, they fight for the Kurdistan Regional Government located in northern Iraq. Their goals remain somewhat unclear, but appear to include increasing territorial gains in Iraq and, potentially, the establishment of their own nation-state. The next largest, the Islamic Front, is an umbrella group for multiple Islamist groups comprised of an estimated 50,000 fighters intent on establishing an Islamic state in Syria. Depending on which estimates are more accurate, the fifth largest armed group is either IS or the Free Syrian Army.

A sample of the remaining 1,000 or so armed groups follows:

Estimated Fighting Strength Name Description
10,000 Mahdi Army (aka Peace Brigades) Shiite; fighting IS, historically has received support from Iran
10,400 Islamic Army of Iraq Sunni Islamist, nationalist; more inclusive of others within the Iraqi jihadist movement than IS
10,000 Badr Organization Shiite; previously aligned with the ISCI
5,000 – 6,000 al-Nusra Front Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria
2,000 – 4,000 (“several thousand”) 1920s Revolution Brigades Sunni Islamist, nationalist; wants to install a state guided by Islamist principles in Iraq
1,500 – 15,000 People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish; has been linked to Democratic Union Party (i.e., the dominant Kurdish party in Syria)
1,500 – 5,000 Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) Sunni; offers alternative to al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI)
1,000 – 5,000 League of the Righteous Shiite; opposed to al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, thought to be fighting in both Iraq and Syria; supported by Iran

*see “State Failure,” Annual Review of Political Science, 2008.

Image Credit: Business Insider Australia

The Manifestos of the Islamic State: Part I

By Eric Goepner

The Islamic State’s recently released Flames of War is a sleek, 55-minute video that has led some to draw Hollywood comparisons.  Watching the film, observing its production quality, and use of branding, a viewer might conclude it represents growing capacity for the Islamic State and an increased skillfulness with respect to public affairs and propaganda.  Alternatively, the viewer might detect substantial incoherence between ideology/theology, which can be viewed as anti-Western and backward-looking (to the times of Muhammad), and the tactics they feel compelled to adopt.  Their propaganda tactics mimic Hollywood while their rhetoric deplores the West’s decadence and the technology they embrace is only created in future-oriented societies.  Either way, directly consuming IS’s source material has value beyond what can likely be learned from secondary sources alone.  For the strategy and military-minded, reviewing IS’s primary sources helps actualize Sun Tzu’s dictum to know your enemy.

Part of the picture which emerges from their primary sources suggests a reactive, perhaps helter-skelter, organization quite concerned about what other Muslims are saying about them.  The Islamic State’s press releases, speeches and videos can be as specific as the evils of the Iraqi government and the need to expand operations in Diyala province or as general as “everyone is fighting the state.”  The oscillation between the specific and general seems to have less to do with purposeful vision and strategy than it does with their current fortunes and, more importantly, the actions of others.

Both Flames of War and another recently released video indicate IS is quite concerned the public affairs campaigns of other Muslim groups are having a neutralizing effect against IS.  In a move that defies the Washington injunction to always deny wrongdoing or failure, IS includes footage of other Muslims criticizing them on issues of religious understanding and practice (see Flames of War minutes 23-24 and 4:50+ in the second video).  After, IS interestingly follows this section with graphic video of their own battle dead, only to then include footage suggesting Allah has strengthened them and given them the victory.

A year ago, in a brief video purportedly from their spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, he railed against fellow Muslim nations, specifically Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.  Then, in July of 2014, Abu Bakr, the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, offered up more traditional propaganda, beginning with numerous quotes from the Quran, extolling fellow Muslims to be and do well during Ramadan, and so on.  When he did turn his attention to the threats that concerned him, he mentioned China first.  Soon after, his threat concerns spewed forth like an unguided brainstorming session:  the Philippines, Indonesia, the Kashmir, Burma, the leaders of the non-Muslim world—“America and Russia,” and on he went.  In all, he listed 19 countries as enemies of Islam.

Around the same time, their spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, released a 42-minute meandering speech via social media.  In it, he focused on the United States and Europe before expanding his critique to the Canadians and Australians.  Finally, he took aim at the alawites and Shiites.

As for Flames of War, it appears to be targeted at the United States and, perhaps, a broader western audience.  The frequent honorifics given to Allah and quotations from the Quran are gone, replaced with footage of American presidents and military operations.


Next week’s installment will focus on the Islamic State’s recruiting message. On a related note, you might find Andrew Bacevich’s recent opinion piece on the Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV an interesting read.

Image Credit: Mashable