The ISIS Paradox: Strength in Weakness

Michael W. S. Ryan
Senior Fellow, Jamestown Foundation

ISIS is a terrorist group attempting to become a state. It inherited al Qaeda’s strengths, including international networks, battle tested military doctrine and strategy, and a radical religious ideology, Jihadi Salafism. The ISIS ideology has a proven record in recruiting foreign fighters worldwide to support jihadist insurgencies and terror cells.

ISIS also has some competitive advantages over al Qaeda that make it currently more dangerous to American interests and security. These advantages include the powerful imagery of the Islamic Caliphate battling the forces of tyranny and corruption in the fires of the end-times and a mastery of online social media platforms to deliver its messages and establish its global brand. ISIS has also exceeded al Qaeda in its mastery of Islamic religious apologetics. Recruited Baathist military and intelligence specialists help plan brutally coercive governance strategies inherited from the master of rule-through-terror, Saddam Hussein. The organization’s character as an adaptive guerrilla group is allowing it to spread to dozens of new locations, vastly complicating America’s military and intelligence campaign against it.

All of these advantages, however, have inherent weaknesses to be exploited, if we have the will, patience, and a coherent strategy to attack them. For example, the ISIS group’s greatest achievement, seizing and holding territory, is also a strategic flaw, because it must defend its base with forces that cannot match the military power of the United States and its coalition. Losing territory at the center has the potential to weaken its appeal, if the United States finally mounts an effective counter-narrative and prevents  “provinces” from seizing and governing new territories.

ISIS Military Doctrine: the Guerrilla Strategic Wrapper

Much has been made of the ISIS group’s graduation from a terrorist group in Iraq to a proto-state between Iraq and Syria with a conventional military force and an actual government. However, most of its successful military engagements involve small unit guerrilla tactics, suicide bombings, and ferocious propaganda. Moreover, its government has proven to be hollow with sadistic executions a key to its survival.

Like al Qaeda, ISIS follows a three-stage Maoist guerrilla warfare strategy adapted to the Islamic context. First ISIS engages in terrorism and light guerrilla attacks to destabilize an area and induce government forces to retreat. Next they seize the area and set up primitive governance offering security, food, and basic services. Finally, as they seize more areas, they loosely consolidate “liberated” areas into a larger region that takes on the aspect of a more permanent proto-state with more conventional military forces and government.

This process is iterative, as they demonstrated in Syria and Iraq, where they can be in stage one in one location and stage two or three in others. For example, if they are driven out of a city such as Ramadi or Tikrit, they may revert there to stage one (terrorism), while preparing to retake the city and escalate to stage two. In addition, when they sustain smaller losses in areas they hold, they increase terrorist activity in a newsworthy area such as Baghdad. In fact, an increase in random terrorist attacks may often be a sign that ISIS is suffering setbacks, not as a demonstration of its strength. This is the paradox of guerrilla strategy in which weakness manifests as strength and strength often is disguised weakness.

As ISIS faces an uncertain future: regular setbacks in Syria/Iraq motivate them to expand into other areas, and their slogan, “surviving and expanding,” entails increased needs for fighters, and money to support them and their expanded holdings. Ultimately, the ISIS strategy is about influencing international news media to see them as winners, while terrorizing local population to accept what they cannot love. Both of these tactics are showing early signs of failure.

Are ISIS Wilayat as Dangerous as al-Qaeda Affiliates?

ISIS is currently fraying in Iraq and Syria as a result of the coalition effort against it and its own brutal governance. Supply lines between Turkey and Syria are problematic at best, as are lines of communication between Raqqa and both Aleppo and Mosul. Furthermore, this fractured proto-state has been forced to reduce its fighters’ pay by half and is struggling to maintain control of its captive populace. Unfortunately, this weakness at the center inevitably means that there will be signs of strength elsewhere, as long as its foundational narrative and ideology remain intact. And should the proto-state fail without a strong government to take its place, ISIS will revert to its jihadist guerrilla roots.

The ISIS group’s dramatic move of fighters to reinforce its outpost in oil-rich, chaotic Libya has the potential to become extremely dangerous. Similarly, ISIS moves to Afghanistan and Pakistan are already showing troubling progress. Pakistani police are struggling with an ISIS group in nearly ungovernable Karachi and investigating ISIS inroads among Pakistani university professors working to radicalize students. Jordan’s security forces recently thwarted an ISIS attack inside Jordan. The examples continue to multiply.

We can also be confident that ISIS is desperately planning dramatic suicidal attacks in Europe and the United States. For the moment, ISIS outposts are more dangerous than al Qaeda’s affiliates. However, al Qaeda is showing signs of a comeback in a number of areas, including Yemen, and should be expected to compete with ISIS for the title of most dangerous. The bottom line is that we are slowly making significant gains in the battle against ISIS, but we still lack a comprehensive strategy, including a strategic narrative, to stop its metastasis.

The Author is Michael W. S. Ryan

Dr. Michael W. S. Ryan is currently a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Middle East Journal. Ryan is the author of Decoding Al-Qaeda's Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (Columbia, 2013), a recent U.S. Naval War College Case Study, "ISIS: The Terrorist Group That Would Be a State" (August 2015), and numerous articles on Middle Eastern radical groups. He served in senior positions in the federal government including the U.S.... Read More

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