The Islamic State: Thoughts from the Top Think Tanks

By Erik Goepner

Annually, the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania publishes a ranking of the world’s think tanks.  Regarding the Islamic State and the coalition’s response, perspectives from senior researchers and fellows at the four top-rated defense & national security think tanks follow (i.e., the Center for Strategic and International Studies, RAND, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Brookings Institution).  The insights come from Jon Alterman, Ben Connable, Ben Barry, and Kenneth Pollack, respectively.

Overall Strategy:

  • Political settlement and reconciliation is critical (CSIS, RAND, IISS & Brookings)
    • Force collapse of IS from within (CSIS)
    • “Resurrect” power sharing arrangement fashioned by the U.S. during the surge and “recreate” a unified Iraqi government (Brookings)
  • Build an effective coalition (CSIS, IISS)
    • This is a complex endeavor: U.S., et al, want to focus on Iraq first, while the UK and others recommend starting with Syria; several Arab partners will only conduct kinetic operations in Syria; and Turkey is potentially more concerned with the Kurds than IS
    • Iraqi government needs to effectively balance outreach to Sunnis, sustaining military support from Iran, and engagement with the U.S. (IISS)
    • Those with the most to offer are the least willing to participate (i.e., Sunni states and Turkey) (Brookings)
  • Empower moderate forces (Brookings)
  • S. will “have to lead an effort of nation-building to heal the wounds of the [Syrian] civil war. It is unavoidable.” (Brookings)
  • President Obama is on the right track, not just to defeat ISIS but also to address the “wider circumstances” of Iraq and Syria (Brookings)
  • Too militarily focused (CSIS)
  • Two somewhat different approaches are needed to address the two different civil wars (Brookings)
  • Delegitimize IS’ ideology and message (CSIS)
    • IS’ information operations are quite successful, it is unclear whether Iraq and/or the coalition will effectively counter (IISS)

Political Component:

  • Place main emphasis here (RAND, IISS)
  • Sunni reconciliation in Iraq is a must (RAND, IISS, and Brookings)
    • Sunnis are primarily nationalist and, therefore, anti-Iranian, not necessarily anti-Shia (RAND)
    • Most Iraqi Sunnis “reject IS methods and philosophy” (RAND)
  • New Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi should enact all grievance resolutions available to him in one fell swoop (RAND)
  • Divisions within the Sunni polity are problematic (RAND, IISS)
    • Some Sunni leaders have been marginalized for having tried to work with unity government, perceived as having failed
    • Difficult to find one or a handful of Sunni leaders to be the face of reconciliation efforts (RAND)

Military Component:

  • Airstrikes are insufficient (RAND)
  • Build a new army in Syria to oppose the Assad regime (Brookings)
  • Iraq’s recent tactical successes resulted, in part, because of Shiite and Kurdish militia participation (CSIS)
    • But, inclusion of Shiite militias may be used by IS to kindle Sunni-Shia civil war (IISS)
  • IS has high morale and decent fighting prowess (RAND)

ISIS and Chemical Weapons

The Washington Post has reported that ISIS used an improvised chemical weapon containing chlorine to attack an Iraqi police patrol in Balad, north of Baghdad, in September, injuring 11 officers. Chlorine is readily available in Iraq given its widespread use for water treatment.

The good news is that ISIS’s use of chlorine indicates that it has not gained access to more toxic agents located at Muthanna, Iraq’s former chemical weapon production complex, which the group seized in June. That complex contains two bunkers with abandoned and degraded chemical agents and munitions that were sealed shut with concrete by UNSCOM almost twenty years ago. Breaching the bunkers to obtain the material inside would be extremely hazardous and would not likely yield readily usable agent or munitions given their age and storage conditions.

The bad news is that this attack is probably only the beginning. ISIS is the latest incarnation of the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which has had a long-standing interest in chemical weapons. AQI conducted a string of attacks in 2006 and 2007 that combined chlorine gas tanks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Due to the poor design of these improvised chemical weapons, most of the casualties were caused by the explosive component of the bomb, not the chlorine. AQI stopped using chlorine-laced IEDs due to their perceived ineffectiveness and a concerted effort by US intelligence and military forces to break up the network that had been constructing the weapons. ISIS, like AQI, has demonstrated a willingness to engage in extreme levels of violence, such as beheading captured fighters and civilians and conducting mass casualty attacks. The use of chlorine or other chemicals by ISIS fits this pattern of escalating violence and violation of norms to maximize the shock value of their actions.

Given the large swath of Syrian and Iraqi territory that ISIS now controls, the inability of local forces to launch offensive operations against ISIS, and the unwillingness of the Obama Administration to deploy even small numbers of U.S. soldiers in a combat role in Iraq, ISIS will likely be able to continue carrying out such attacks if they desire. Hopefully they will not learn any lessons from AQI’s previous experiments with this form of chemical terrorism.

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 II

The Manifestos of the Islamic State: Part I is available here.

By Erik Goepner

Potential recruits hear at least two different messages from the Islamic State. The first is a grievance-based message that can, by definition, be ameliorated over time. The second, though, appears to be timeless, albeit subject to significant waxing and waning of appeal.

God infuses this second message, which makes it enduring. With more than 80 percent of the world’s inhabitants professing a religious identity, including 1.6 billion Muslims, God is bigger than the Beatles and it is Nietzsche who is dead. However corrupt IS’ message might be, it is God-focused. Each speech begins and ends with praises to Allah. References to key Quranic figures, such as Muhammad, are common. Verses from the Quran are interspersed throughout their proclamations.

No doubt IS carefully selects certain passages and overlooks others, but in its larger context, the verses remain the expression of God. For the faithful, that can be quite powerful.

The message also endures because of its purported purity. The message calls its hearers to purity before Allah and the message itself is pure, in that it is unambiguous. Purity before God is an important pursuit for many religious people, and this pursuit often requires personal sacrifice. At God’s command, Abraham had his knife out, ready to slay his own son. Flogged for their faith, Jesus’ followers rejoiced for being “counted worthy” of suffering for God. Sacrifices seen as callings from God can have profound implications for the pious believer.

IS also communicates a black and white story. In a nod to Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot before them, grey cannot be found in IS’ messages, and with no shade of grey goes any need for doubt or accommodation. As a result, their message is particularly effective on youth, who have great capacity to see hypocrisy in others but oftentimes have not yet developed the wisdom needed to see their own hypocrisy and shortcomings.

As for IS’ grievance-based theme, it may be more successful in attracting recruits, but it need only have temporal appeal. “Upon whom do they [the Americans, Jews and rafidah] plot and conspire night and day?” The Islamic State, answers their spokesman (1:50 into the video). Transgressions are being meted out against Muslims in “Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Burma, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, India, China, the Caucasus, and elsewhere,” claims IS.

As IS tells it, the Sunnis (often represented as the “true believers”) are under siege:

  • The Egyptian Brotherhood outlawed and imprisoned, again
  • Sunnis have become second-class citizens in Iraq following Saddam’s ousting
  • They are the “out-group” in Syria (despite being the majority)
  • Israel’s treatment of Palestinians
  • Killing of Muslims in Burma

In Andrew Bacevich’s recent op-ed, he notes Syria has become “at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed…since 1980.” This latest foray he expressively phrases, “Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV.” There is no hint that the force was unjustified, but rather his article raises interesting questions about how that force may be interpreted and reacted to.

Over time, the grievance-based theme can be substantially ameliorated by the efforts of a variety of actors within the Middle East (e.g., by enfranchising Sunni communities to a greater extent or providing increased economic opportunities for youth). The God-focused message, though, may prove more problematic. While its appeal seems to vary greatly through the centuries, the 9/11 Commission noted (see ch 12, p. 362) it follows a tradition “from at least Ibn Taymiyyah [~1300], through the founders of Wahhabism, through the Muslim Brotherhood, to Sayyid Qutb [1950s].”

So what is a possible way forward? “Reform coupled with respect,” suggests Fareed Zakaria, where intellectuals and theologians celebrate and emphasize the tolerant, liberal, and modern parts of Islam, while also giving devout Muslims reasons to take pride in their faith.

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

The Islamic State: Past is Prologue

By Erik Goepner

Current estimates of IS’ fighting strength range from 20,000-31,500—up significantly from previous estimates of 10,000. They control a swath of Syria and Iraq that roughly equates to the size of Great Britain.   And now, they are putting together a governance structure to facilitate the running of their nascent “caliphate.” Potentially, their goals may be as grand(iose) as enveloping the world within their so-called caliphate.

The United States’ strategy to counter the Islamic State, as well as the strategies of other nations and international organizations (e.g., the United Nations), continues to evolve. For America’s part, President Obama recently stated that America’s goal is to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” The strategy to achieve this goal will include a “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism” component, ostensibly led by America and involving a broad coalition.

This goal, and the strategy to achieve it, sounds eerily familiar. In 2009, President Obama’s goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda. In 2003, President Bush’s goal was to succeed in Iraq—“the central front” in the war on terror—by “destroying the terrorists” (as the first of three objectives he had in Iraq). And, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush’s stated objective was to destroy and defeat the global terror network.

As for strategy, is it possible that the recently announced “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” is not that new? For the past thirteen years, America has been executing what seemed to be a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, at least in terms of where it was employed (e.g., Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Pakistan), how it was employed (i.e., all elements of national power, such as diplomatic, economic & military), and with whom it was employed (40+ nations in the “coalition of the willing”). And after thirteen years, the strategy is nothing if not “sustained.”

While the strength of the individual terrorist groups ebb and flow, a primitive measurement of IS’ current power suggests the aggregate Islamist terror potential may be higher now than at any time since 9/11. Al Qaeda’s 500-1,000 “A-list operatives” around the time of 9/11 seem to pale in comparison to IS’ 20,000+ fighters.

The post-9/11 “coalition of the willing” has evolved into today’s broad coalition. Speeches from America’s political leaders suggest this cannot be, primarily, a U.S. effort. Yet for the past thirteen years it has been just that: America’s young men and women going into harm’s way and bearing the costs. It is difficult to see how that will change now.

The past thirteen years suggest we may have set our sights on the wrong goal. On the one hand, chances are high we will fall short in achieving this objective, just as we have in defeating the “global terror network.” On the other hand, we might achieve the tactical victory at a particular space and time (i.e., defeat IS in Iraq and Syria in the near-term), but at the expense of unwittingly creating the conditions that usher forth a more severe future threat. Then, again, now could be different, and the past is simply the past.

Image Credit: NBC News

Pandora Report 9.20.14

We are introducing a new feature for the news round up—“Stories You May Have Missed.” This final section consists of fascinating articles I’ve found throughout the week that couldn’t fit in the report. This week the round up includes the UN Security Council’s resolution about Ebola, ISIS using chemical weapons in Iraq, a surprising source to combat antibiotic resistance, and of course, an Ebola update.

Lastly, you know what time of year it is, flu season is starting…don’t forget to get your flu shot!

Have a great weekend!

With Spread of Ebola Outpacing Response, Security Council Adopts Resolution 2177

On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and unanimously adopted resolution 2177 (2014). 2177 established the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) and calls on Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to speed up establishment of national mechanisms to deal with this outbreak and to coordinate efficient utilization of international assistance, including health workers and relief supplies. The resolution also calls on other countries to lift their border and travel restrictions saying that isolation of the affected countries could undermine efforts to respond to the outbreak.

The United Nations—“United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that the Ebola crisis had evolved into a complex emergency, with significant political, social, economic, humanitarian and security dimensions.  The number of cases was doubling every three weeks, and the suffering and spillover effects in the region and beyond demanded the attention of the entire world.  “Ebola matters to us all,” he said.”

ISIS Uses Chemical Weapons Against Army in Iraq

There were reports this week that the IS terrorist group has used chemical weapons in an attack on the Iraqi army in Saladin province. The reported attack took place Wednesday and Thursday in Dhuluiya, which has been under control of the group for more than two months. The attack affected approximately a dozen people.

One India—“Iraq’s Ambassador to the UN, Mohamed Ali Alhakim said in a letter that remnants of 2,500 chemical rockets filled with the deadly nerve agent sarin were kept along with other chemical warfare agents in a facility 55 km northwest of Baghdad. He added that the site’s surveillance system showed that some equipment had been looted after “armed terrorist groups” penetrated the site June 11.”

Vaginas May be the Answer to the Fight Against Drug-Resistant Bacteria

A naturally occurring bacterium found by scientists from the University of California, San Francisco, School of Pharmacy might be the key to addressing the threat of a post antibiotic future. Found in the female vagina, Lactobacillus gasseri is the basis for Lactocilin, a possible antibiotic alternative. This discovery comes at a time where the WHO has declared antimicrobial resistance as “an increasingly serious threat to global public health.”

Medical Daily—“This isn’t the only implication for the L. gasseri bacteria. Researchers are also hopeful to find similar-acting bacteria in different parts of the human body. “We think they still have bacteria producing the same drug, but it’s just a different bacterial species that lives in the mouth and has not yet been isolated,” lead researcher Micheal Fischbach told HuffPost. Even though the bacteria were harvested in females, researchers are confident it will have equal results when used in men.”

This Week in Ebola

It was a terrible week for Ebola, absolutely terrible. Above, we already learned that the UN Security Council declared the virus a threat to international peace and security, but that wasn’t all that happened. President Obama pledged 3,000 troops to fight Ebola in West Africa. The WHO said that the number of Ebola cases could begin doubling every three weeks and expressed concern about the black market trade of Ebola survivors’ blood. Eight aid workers and journalists were murdered in Guinea leaving many to fear that violence could stymy relief efforts and in Sierra Leone, the government instituted a three-day lockdown in order to help health care workers find and isolate patients.

Stories You May Have Missed


Image Credit: Wikimedia