XXI Century Challenges (V): The Strategy Of ISIL


In the 6th century BC, renowned strategist Sun Tzu stated, “Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories”. To bring peace and non violence solutions in order to achieve the victory, it is a prerequisite to acquire an adequate knowledge of the enemies of human rights and democratic values. Therefore, it is critical to understand ISIL’s strategy so as to combat this extremist group, countering their strategy and resonance. As it is visible from his rapid expansion from 2014, ISIL is competent. Whether some media depicts them as medieval barbarians, the truth is their understanding of the political, military, and communication fields is remarkably modern and sophisticated.

Militarily, ISIL has undoubtedly benefited from the existence of a kaleidoscope of forces in the region fighting for their own goals. The wide range of groups in quest for power and the local, regional, and global rivalries between those forces, present a difficult environment for a long lasting compromise to defeat ISIL. For instance there is a clear fight for regional power between Shiites (Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah) and Sunnis (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, etc.), on the other hand the US and Russia have clearly manifested tensions between them, which sets an intricate context for negotiations. Before 2015, the strategy of ISIL primarily aimed at capturing territory by conventional means, turning into a de facto proto- state. Once the International coalition airstrikes started to hit their territory, ISIL adopted Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda strategy, primarily going after the far enemy. The attacks on the west in 2015 have captivated great attention worldwide in terms of planning, coordination and sophistication. For instance the attacks in Paris or the attack that brought down a Russian civilian flight in the Sinai Peninsula, have presented a new scenario for international security.

The change in terror strategy coupled with a significant capacity immensely challenges western leaders. The ISIL leadership could be aiming for deterring the West from attacking the territories it controls or preparing for a international coalition invasion by land forces. In the second context, ISIL forces would be able to turn from insurgency into only a terrorist group, presenting a similar scenario of post US invasion Iraq. However, today ISIL has many more resources, capacities and experiences compared with those of al-Qaeda before 2011. Thus, any further military intervention appears as a short viewed approach. Additionally ISIL’s growing sphere of influence that includes far locations as Libya, presents a strategic nightmare for a foreign military intervention. Many have criticised the air strikes for its inefficiency when there is no integration with land forces. On the other hand the most efficient land forces against ISIL until this moment, the Kurdish, are considered a threat by Turkey and some others groups in the region. In either case military experts affirm that to finish with ISIL’s military operations is undoubtedly easier than to end with its ideology. On the contrary, to end with its ideology and therefore ISIL’s centre of gravity, military intervention is not a solution to end with ISIL as state of terror. Effective counter-terrorism measures are those that stabilize the region, create strong political institutions, and win the hearts and minds of local people.

In a recent briefing from the Political Affairs Head on United Nations counter-terrorism efforts against ISIL, the economy of ISIL plays a central role. The report underlines ISIL’s effective mobilisation of financial resources, characterising ISIL as the world’s wealthiest terrorist organisation. Before its territorial expansion, ISIL acted as organised crime victimising businesses through the use of extortion, or robbing the resources of the Iraqi banks. In this fashion the organisation accumulated liquidity and funds to pay salaries and buy weapons for its later expansion. Yet, in order to effectively act as a state, ISIL has created an economic structure that includes a taxation system, estimated by different experts to be around $10 million US a month, and oil sales which are estimated to exceed $1.2 billion US per annum. Regarding the oil export infrastructure, ISIL uses the channels through the porous Turkish border with the black market that Saddam Hussein used in times of the embargo. The revenues of oil export and antiquities are the basis of ISIL’s finance and economy structure today. Since the targeting of exporting routes towards Turkey by the international coalition attacks, ISIL finances are in trouble and there are serious doubts this type of economy can be maintain in the long run. The economic problems go beyond the oil sector. In ISIL’s magazine, there often are requests for foreign qualified specialists to conduct state enterprise or fill out gaps within state services such as instance healthcare. In addition, through its propaganda ISIL tries to deter taxpayers from fleeing their territory.

It is in the realm of propaganda that ISIL achieves its most remarkable success. The Internet and cyberspace have become essential tools for terrorist networks. ISIL has profited the Internet to spread propaganda, extort victims and recruit new members. ISIL enthusiastically embraces web forums and social media to create a wireless caliphate. Their propaganda covers a wide range of activities and social media as Facebook, Twitter and similar social networks. The number of active users is remarkably high and their strategy is very up to date. It has become a decentralised hub for information distribution, numerous groups, individuals and pages can be present under identical or similar names. They are effective keyboard warriors, for instance Facebook pages are being used by foreign fighters in Syria to recruit their friends to join Jihad.

ISIL regularly puts out a glossy propaganda magazine also aimed at recruiting jihadists from the West. Sophisticated, slick, beautifully produced and printed in several languages including English, Dabiq magazine has three objectives spanning religious, military and political dimensions. The name of the publication itself is meant to send a message, Dabiq refers to a town in Syria where the greatest battle between Muslims and crusaders takes place as an event of the Malahim (Armageddon) according to the Hadith. However, the enemies they devote more time in the magazine are Shiite Muslims who ISIL considers “apostate Muslim”. As mentioned previously, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria has turned sectarian. Every issue runs between 60 to 80 pages, in colour and laid out with clear skill and experience in graphic design. Strikingly, Dabiq uses classic concepts of the western media as propaganda. For instance, Dabiq has its own independent celebrity system in which suicide bombers and insurgents are praised and considered martyrs. The magazine also includes angry speeches of Western politicians for their readers to study, photo reports, current events, and informative articles on matters relating to the Islamic State.

ISIL propaganda exploits the perception that estate and international institutions have failed people, and assure they can provide security, stability, and welfare to those feeling isolated and desperate. This is important because as said in previous reports, the lack of those elements within a society correlates with the increase in terrorism and violence. Their propaganda boasts ISIL victories and creates a romantic perception of the quest for reestablishment of the Islamic golden age, focusing on the legitimisation of ISIL’s rule against rivals and enemies.

Another characteristic of ISIL propaganda is the undermining of freedoms, considering themselves merely God’s slaves. Therefore, the violence, tremendous atrocities, and bloody killings are part of God’s will and very often are used by ISIL propaganda machine, showing openly their nightmarish brutality.

In order to understand ISIL it is vital to define the goal the group pursues. ISIL wants to turn into a political actor as similarly the Talibans did. Insurgency has the goal of achieving political power through different tools. The combination of irregular and conventional tactics have been extremely successful. Regardless several months of airstrikes, the threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security has not weaken. The constantly reactive rather than proactive western policies maintain the status and influence of the organisation. At the same time, it is plausible that a extremely sophisticated, adaptive and flexible group as ISIL has developed a series of alternative strategies. In case of foreign military intervention, the group could pass to an insurgency mode or even only to a terrorist version. The instability in the region, and in other countries as Libya, makes relatively easy for ISIL to find locations where it can develop actions and organise itself in the advent of any circumstance. Those alternatives suggest that ISIL ideology and terrorism cannot be defeated by guns.