The Myth of ISIS's Strategic Brilliance

The group has adapted to battlefield setbacks. But that doesn't mean it factored territorial losses into its master plan.

Iraqi soldiers take a selfie in front of an Islamic State flag captured during the battle to reclaim Mosul.
Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division are photographed with an Islamic State flag, claimed after fighting with Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, on June 17, 2017.  (Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters)

As Mosul is finally freed in its entirety from the Islamic State (ISIS) and the offensive in Raqqa continues, the predictable question becomes: What’s next for the group? Without control of territory, its complex state administration project cannot function. This project was probably ISIS’s  biggest selling point in relation to its rivals in the global jihadist movement.

The end of ISIS as a functioning state project on the ground clearly does not herald the end of ISIS as an entity. In many areas long since cleared of ISIS control, the organization has continued to function as an effective insurgency with both small and large-scale attacks. Around the world, ISIS will remain a terrorist threat, as illustrated by events from Europe to the Philippines. The ISIS footprint on the internet is large and unlikely ever to be removed in its entirety. The group’s ideals will still appeal to some segments of society, whether out of disillusionment with the established order and a search for meaning in one’s life, or on account of identity crises, or all of these factors combined.

Yet these caveats do not indicate some sort of strategic brilliance on the part of ISIS, even in the losses it is facing. In a recent article, Charlie Winter asserts that losing Mosul “has long been part of [the Islamic State’s] global plan.” Based on this reading, ISIS has been planning for the loss of territory and decline of its statehood project since 2014.

But is that really the case? It is certainly true that ISIS messaging over the past year or so has tried to address the group’s contracting control of territory. Notable examples include the now-deceased spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s speech released in May 2016, which mocked the idea that the loss of Mosul, Raqqa, and the Libyan city of Sirte would mean the end of the caliphate. Instead, Adnani argued, the only real defeat would come with the end of the will to keep fighting. An editorial in the ISIS newsletter al-Naba’ in June 2016 reflected similar ideas to Adnani’s speech.

In reality, though, this shift in messaging reflects damage control and a response to the overall tide turning against ISIS, not a stroke of genius in which ISIS strategists foresaw all of this, even at the height of the group’s power. It is by no means evident that ISIS could have foreseen these losses back in 2014. While memories may fade quickly, I remember widespread predictions in 2014 that many if not most of the Sunni areas controlled by ISIS in Iraq would never return to Iraqi government control. Some of these arguments were based on the supposed unwillingness of Shiite fighters to take the fight to areas that were not their hometowns. This particular claim even had considerable resonance in late 2015, as the French professor Olivier Roy declared in The New York Times in November 2015 that “the Shiites of Iraq, no matter what pressure they face from America, do not seem ready to die to reclaim Fallujah,” only for that city to be retaken through the extensive participation of Shiite fighters several months later.

Others said that Iran had an interest in keeping Iraq as a rump state with ISIS advances stalled to exert maximum influence, and thus retaking places like Mosul would not be a concern. Proclamations of the “end of Iraq” were frequent. The tendency to rush to judgment based on developments of the day persisted after 2014, as ISIS gained control of Ramadi and Palmyra despite the coalition campaign against it. Proclamations that the Islamic State was winning and on the march quickly took hold.

The belief in the necessity of a “Sunni force” to retake Mosul has long been popular, as though the grueling, destructive fight to take parts of the city, street by street, would have been vastly different simply on the basis of sect affiliation of the forces fighting ISIS. For a time, I myself partly bought into the “Sunni force” idea in suggesting in 2014 that one would have to co-opt elements of Iraq’s other Sunni insurgent groups to take on ISIS. In fact, as quickly became evident, those groups have long been weak and ineffectual, often deluded with notions of “revolution” against the government in Baghdad.

If the claims that Mosul and other Sunni towns that fell to ISIS would be unlikely to return to Iraqi government control gained such widespread currency, what makes one believe that ISIS, which based its main selling point on its ability to control territory and run the ideal governance project, did not actually think it had a serious chance of at least enduring in a state form, even if it could not indefinitely expand and take over the world?

In fact, the presumption that the rise and fall of the group were foreseen all along ignores the internal ISIS debates over strategy that were not publicized in the waves of propaganda broadcast on the internet. For example, Abu al-Faruq al-Masri, a dissident ISIS member who was based in Raqqa and even had connections with the Shura Council that advised Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saw many of the battles being waged by the organization as pointless incineration of its fighters. On the ground, such an observation is well borne out in the case of Kobani. ISIS tried to take the Syrian border town of little value, in the face of hundreds of coalition airstrikes concentrated in a small area, all in an attempt to show defiance. The effort led to little more than losing hundreds of fighters, and eventually substantial portions of a northern border with Turkey that had until then provided easy access to war materials, commodities, and foreign recruits. In Masri’s view, one could not simply be hostile to the entire world, as that would kill the caliphate project in its cradle. Just as the Prophet Muhammad had non-Muslim allies, so too would ISIS need non-Muslim allies and to conclude treaties with non-Muslim states in accordance with the principle of “Sharia politics.” This idea of alliances and treaties with certain non-Muslims appears in at least one other internal text: Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State.

One could dismiss these ideas as unrealistic, but it’s implausible that the internal debate was a mere ruse in a master plan of intentional victory and defeat. Even though notions of alliances with non-Muslims never came to fruition, ISIS clearly tried to adapt in a bid to survive as an entity controlling territory, rather than simply go down in an epic fight that would be remembered through the ages. This involved issuing mobilization calls in attempts to defend certain areas, reducing benefits for fighters, transferring administrative personnel to military roles, introducing a new administrative framework for at least part of its security apparatus in mid-2016, and gradually restricting internet access and use for both fighters and the civilian population.

On the international stage, ISIS similarly adapted to problems it faced, eventually abandoning the model of declaring “provinces” (wilayat) in places where groups had declared allegiance to it. The last declaration of a province outside Syria and Iraq was in the Caucasus in June 2015, even as ISIS media advertise a presence in countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines. Masri had been a critic of declaring provinces, on the grounds that not all places have an environment favorable to the flourishing of a statehood project. But even Masri was overly optimistic in this regard, considering Libya to be one place outside of Iraq and Syria where wilayat could flourish—today, ISIS has no formal territorial control or governance in Libya. Again then, we see an evolution that tries to respond to challenges faced by the group, not something ingeniously planned from the outset.

It’s important to be realistic about the challenges posed by ISIS as its statehood project collapses. The whole saga of its rise and fall can be invoked as propaganda points both for and against the organization, much depending on a person’s own biases and sympathies. For the critics looking at ISIS from an Islamist and jihadist perspective, the experience shows the folly of ISIS’s own hastiness, hubris, and extremism. They will likely note Adnani’s appeal to God in an April 2014 recording that if his group were a state of “Khawarij”—referring to an early group in Islamic history and now a common term for extremists—then the state’s back should be broken and its leaders killed (indeed, many of the leaders have been killed). For the supporters and those sympathetic to ISIS, the experience will be put down to tribulations from God and the like, echoing the group’s current propaganda line.

But it’s a mistake to impute strategic brilliance to ISIS rather than acknowledging that it is an entity run by humans capable of grave errors. Otherwise, we risk becoming inadvertent propagandists for the group.