How to understand and ‘throttle’ ISIS


A thorough examination of the Islamic State’s history and practices is useful for designing a coordinated and effective campaign against it—and for understanding why the group might be able to survive such an effort and sustain itself in the future, according to a new RAND report:

Foundations of the Islamic State: Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq, 2005–2010 draws from more than 140 recently declassified documents to present a comprehensive examination of the organization, territorial designs, management, personnel policies, and finances of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), both predecessors of the Islamic State. These records paint a clear picture of ISI practices and standard operating procedures. Leadership consciously designed the organization not just to fight but also to build an Islamic state governed by the laws dictated by its strict Islamist ideology.

ISI deliberately adopted a vertically integrated bureaucratic model, the report contends:

  • ISI’s bureaucratic model looked like the ideal structure al-Qa’ida operatives described in memos, but ISI replicated that structure at local levels to implement territorial control.
  • By 2008, ISI had subdivided Iraq into specific sectors but was struggling to fill its designated positions at the subnational level.
  • ISI allocated human capital rationally, with the suicide-bomber corps dominated by foreigners (more likely than Iraqis to be fanatical believers in the group’s ideology) and with intelligence and security personnel (where local knowledge was critical) dominated by its Iraqi members. However, the majority of foreign fighters were not suicide bombers.

The protests and conflicts of the so-called Arab Spring that have dominated the international headlines since 2011 all brought new dimensions of Arab political culture to the fore, notes analyst Malise Ruthven, author of Islam in the World and Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity.

In his best-selling History of the Arab Peoples, published two years before his death in 1993, the Anglo-Lebanese scholar Albert Hourani remarked on the surprising levels of political stability prevailing in the Arab world at that time, writes for The New York Review of Books:

Despite the rapid growth of its cities, and many disparities of wealth between the governing elites and newly urbanized masses who were calling for social justice, calm seemed to rule, at least on the surface. Since the military coups of the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere there had been remarkably little change in the general nature of most Arab regimes or the direction of their policies. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco had seen no dynastic changes for more than two generations; in Libya and Syria the regimes that came to power around 1970 were still in place. In 2000 in Syria, nearly a decade after Hourani’s book was published, leadership passed smoothly from father to son, while in Egypt and Libya the issue of dynastic succession was being widely discussed. 

Like many other observers of Middle Eastern and North African history, Hourani interpreted this picture of calm with an eye to the writings of Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), the Arab historian and polymath whose theories of dynastic change and cyclical renewal and especially his concept of ‘asabiyya, variously translated as “clannism,” “group feeling,” or—in Hourani’s definition—“a corporate spirit oriented towards obtaining and keeping power,” provided a prism through which contemporary systems of governance could be viewed. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report, for example:

Clannism [‘asabiyya] in all its forms (tribal, clan-based, communal, and ethnic)…tightly shackles its followers through the power of the authoritarian patriarchal system. This phenomenon…represents a two-way street in which obedience and loyalty are offered in return for protection, sponsorship, and a share of the spoils.

By contrast, during the Arab Spring, as George Washington University’s Marc Lynch writes in The New Arab Wars:

The entire regional order appears to be in freefall. Egypt’s democratic transition ended in a military coup, mass arrests, and political stalemate. Syria, Libya, and Yemen are mired in grinding civil war. Millions of refugees live in tenuous conditions, their lives shattered and their homes destroyed with little prospect of a return to normality.

The Islamic State is holding tenaciously to its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, spreading into Libya and other shattered states, and inspiring terrorism globally. The very idea of democracy has been discredited among large swathes of the Arab citizenry. The major short-term effect of the Arab uprisings has not been democratization, but rather a dramatic increase in regional interventionism, proxy war, and resurgent repression.

In ISIS: A History, Fawaz A. Gerges argues that the shift from Baathism to Islamism had already occurred during the upheavals of the 1990s and 2000s following the US invasions, when both Sunni and Shiite elites became radicalized according to “a gradual process of ideological and identity conversion…fueled particularly by armed resistance to the US occupation,” Ruthven continues:

In the general breakdown of security in Iraq as in Syria, Salafi-jihadism became, by default, the identity chosen by many Sunnis facing Iranian-dominated Shia regimes—as they saw it—in Baghdad and Damascus, and a Kurdish revival in the north. For Gerges these default identities should not be equated with religious fervor or commitment: rather he argues that Iraq, like other postcolonial states in the Arab world, has nourished traditional institutions at the expense of a nationalist project around which citizens could unite…. Sunnis and Shias feel entrapped in narrow communal identities, and battles over identity rage not only between communities but within them. 

The best way to throttle ISIS and the Nusra Front, Gerges argues, would be for Arabs to collectively resolve their spiraling sectarian conflicts and support state-building structures. In Tunisia, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, made way for secular leaders after losing the struggle to have sharia written into the constitution. This offered the rare example of an Arab state system capable of embracing change. But the prospects everywhere else seem bleaker than ever, as the clans and coteries envisioned by Ibn Khaldun strive to maintain their grip on power. RTWT

According to analyst Brian Fishman, “Zarqawi’s strategy was fundamentally designed to assert control over Sunni groups and replace tribal loyalty and Iraqi nationalism with an ideological commitment to Salafi-jihadist goals,” the RAND report adds:

ISI outlined a strategy to address broad sectarian political grievances among Sunnis in Iraq—including Sunni tribes and other Sunni militant groups in Anbar governorate—under the banner of its Salafi-jihadist ideology.

Where al-Qa‘ida built an organization focused on setting up branches around the world, ISI used this model to set up subnational jurisdictions throughout Iraq. ISI applied the model with great emphasis on controlling territory, contiguous, if possible; farming the local economy for revenue; and spreading its control and operations outward by violently applying a simple yet effective template for state-building that involved specific organizational and ideological principles and tactics, techniques, and procedures for administering territory after it had been infiltrated and subverted or overrun.

Read the report »

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