The Islamic State: Understanding And Countering Its Strategy – Analysis


The Islamic State (IS) has been fighting the combined military might of the US-led coalition for over a year without having been contained or defeated as was promised by world leaders at the start of the war. The term ‘war’ is being used after due consideration, for what is going on in the Middle-East cannot be explained as anything else. The IS has emerged in one year as the top global jihadist movement and dominates the international security scene. Its attraction to new recruits and believers alike has been the physical creation of a State, which has been declared the new Caliphate that does not recognize geographical borders.

There is a prevailing belief that the IS is the product of the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq by the United States (US) and its allies in 2003. This is only partially true—the invasion was merely the catalyst that coalesced an enduring tension. The group is more the product of the gradual encroachment of religious fundamentalism into Arab politics that has progressively weakened the social, cultural, moral and political conditions of the Middle-East and North Africa, permitting hardened religious ideology to superimpose itself over the morass.

The struggle that IS champions, while being part of the sectarian and ethnic conflict raging across the region, is more a battle to create a recognizable societal identity rather than being part of power politics.


The current prominence of the IS can be traced back to the narrative shaped by al Qaeda that was aimed at creating an Islamic powerbase that could face up to and counter the perceived, and at times actual, Western hegemony in international affairs. This was further embellished by sowing the seeds to encourage the belief of the West being the enemy and a direct threat to the well-being of Islam as an entity. The proverbial clash of civilizations was cleverly converted into religious antagonism and blamed squarely on the Western world.

The apparent defeat of al Qaeda facilitated the IS in positioning itself as the logical successor to the weakened group. It created the necessary military and political framework to move forward, with the initiative being supported by the severe disaffection and frustration of the Sunni population in Iraq. It is noteworthy that each new manifestation of political Islam is more virulently fundamentalist and extreme than the previous iteration that it replaces.

The IS now possesses a highly trained and flexible military arm and controls sufficient resources to stave off attacks by a large, multinational coalition created for the sole purpose of defeating it. The fundamental difference between the IS and al Qaeda, existing as a shell of its former powerful entity, is the IS’ explicit and declared desire to create a Caliphate. Towards this end it displays centralized control at the strategic level that increases and focuses its effectiveness.

There have been two significant consequences of the arrival of the IS on the scene. One, the concept of secularism has completely disappeared from the Middle-East. Two, the Islamic world has been engulfed by a rebellious religious turmoil created by the exacerbation of the basic schism between the Sunni and Shi’a sects, which is difficult if not impossible to pacify. The IS has leveraged this situation by institutionalizing religious ideology and further wedging the existing sectarian rupture. It directly targets the ideas and reconciliatory concepts that have kept Middle-Eastern religious extremism under check for many decades. The only redeeming factor, at least for the moment, is that the IS is still contained within the territory that it has so far captured.

The Coalition

Any coalition is only as good or as bad as the sum of its parts. The US-led coalition that is currently fighting the IS in the Middle-East consists of a number of partners who are at odds with each other and openly pursue their own individual objectives, irrespective of the coalition priorities.

The Middle-Eastern members particularly have domestic political imperatives that influence their actions on the battlefield. Some of them have continued to provide covert support to their ‘favourite’ radical groups operating in the region with their own agendas. Saudi Arabia’s position is a classic example. It is one of the major coalition members but its strategic view is clouded by Iran-phobia and the perceived necessity to be seen as the champion of Sunni Islam, not only in the region but also globally. In accordance with this belief, Saudi Arabia equates the Iran-supported Houthis of Yemen as equally damaging to regional stability as the IS. The reality is nowhere near this perception.

Turkey, a relatively new member of the coalition, considers the IS as a controllable entity that has to be harnessed to enhance its own regional powerbase. Turkey’s domestic imbroglio with the Kurds and the fact that the IS is virulently anti-Kurds makes this assumption more palatable. It also continues to emphasise that Bashar al Assad is more of a threat than the IS. Within this farce of a coalition, the US and its Western allies are trying to bottle up and isolate the IS within a designated geographic area so that it can then be deliberately targeted and destroyed. However, such an operation can only succeed if the nations with shared borders with the IS territory collaborate fully and are committed to the laid down objective. This is not the case at the moment.

The Gulf nations have created a Saudi-led coalition of their own to defeat the Houthis in Yemen, fundamentally based on prosecuting an air campaign. This air power coalition could perhaps be made the mainstay of the campaign against the IS, if and when the Western nations decide to leave. From a purely military perspective this is feasible, but the countries lack the political will to focus on defeating the IS. The friction between the members is openly visible and is indicative of the major issues that trouble the region—the distribution of power that is not accepted by all and is therefore dynamic; an inherent distrust of other nations, based on ethnicity and religious affiliations; and a common characteristic that creates an unwillingness to compromise in order to collaborate. The Middle-Eastern nations continue to harbor independent views, political positions and threat perceptions even in the face of an adversary that questions the very legitimacy of these nations.

It is more than apparent that enormous power—military, economic and ideological—is required to defeat the IS and to effectively contain the violent insurgency that is bound to follow such a defeat. The necessary quantum of power necessary to achieve such an outcome is currently not available within the coalition and is unlikely to be generated in the near-term. The situation needs immediate, concerted and decisive action. Failure will see the rapid and domino-like collapse of the Arab nations, once the first one succumbs.

The Islamic State’s Strategy

The military operations being undertaken by the IS is only part, albeit a critical one, of the overall strategy that it employs. Their operations erode the lines of distinction between terrorism, insurgency and conventional warfare, creating a new hybrid modus operandi that draws from the tactical aspects of each. The current military opposition to the IS emanates mainly from the Western coalition, which is carrying out only air strikes. The IS has adapted its operational tactics to cater for the preponderant air power that the coalition brings to bear.

However, rolling back the IS from the territories that it occupies needs ground forces in combat, which has not happened effectively till now. The only worthwhile opponents on the ground have been the Kurdish forces although they receive very limited external assistance. However, this is only the operational side of the IS activities.

While the military conflict is important, the IS focus is on systematically attacking the idea of sovereign nation-states based on artificially drawn borders in the region. As a subset of this, they are intent on diffusing the concept of nationality, nationalism and patriotism as binding factors that maintain a state as a viable entity. For the time being the IS spotlight is on Iraq and Syria. Iraq for all practical purposes does not fit the description of a viable nation anymore and is permanently divided into Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish enclaves or provinces. Syria is the battle ground for largest civil war the region has so far seen and its territory is controlled by a number of groups holding small areas. The limited national bonds that existed in the past have already been frayed in both these nations—with the sectarian violence that followed the ill-advised US invasion in Iraq; and with the civil war that erupted almost as a homage to the forgotten Arab-Spring in Syria.

The challenge to the idea of a nation-state is the fundamental difference in the IS doctrine from earlier Islamic groups and secular nationalists. Political Islam by itself is not a new phenomenon, it has been practiced even before World War II by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. However, these groups never challenged the concept of nation-states, instead they were patriots contesting for political legitimacy within the national space. Even in the question of nationalism, the Middle-East followed a different route to disenchantment. By the beginning of the Arab-Spring in 2010-11, nationalism and patriotism, as interpreted by the autocratic leaders who ruled the nations across the Middle-East, had lost much of its sheen to the general public. Even so, the Arab-Spring still functioned within the concept and constraints of a nation-state, clearly demonstrated by the very different outcomes that it achieved in Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq and Syria.

There are three elements that hold a nation together as an entity—visible state institutions; identifiable leadership; and palpable patriotism based on nationalism. At the very minimum, nationalism requires the people of the state to have an acceptance of a shared history as well as a believable narrative of a common and prosperous future. When two of the three elements fail simultaneously, the state fails, giving way to malicious sectarianism and instability. During the Arab-Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, state institutions and nationalism survived with only the leadership failing; the nations continued as recognizable entities.

In both Iraq and Syria, the state institutions failed, an almost non-existent nationalism was blown away and only the leadership survived, leading the way to the chaos that is being witnessed. The IS was quick to take advantage of the fragile situation and project itself as a stable alternative.

The IS is rooted in a strong Islamic ideology that is based on fundamentalist interpretations of the religion and wages a direct war against the concept of a sovereign state based on nationalism. Its ultimate aim is to establish a Caliphate based on adherence to Islam instead of nationalism, through expanding the existing Sunni-Shi’a divide in the Muslim world. By concentrating on Iraq and Syria as the base for their activities the IS has cleverly picked on two nations of Western creation where the population has only a tentative appreciation of nationalism and perhaps very limited understanding of patriotism, mainly because of their having been long under repressive dictatorial rule. In combination with attempts to delegitimize the non-Islamic past through the destruction of ancient artifacts and other symbols, the IS aims to demonstrate the failure of nationalism as a viable social construct. Left unchecked, the ideological disruption could even overtake nations like Turkey and Egypt that have a very strong ethos of nationalism and patriotism.

Currently the IS controlled territory extends from north-west Syria to the western approaches to Baghdad and juts north till the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. It has a de facto capital at Raqqa in Syria, and controls a total area of about 11,000 square miles, which is around the size of Belgium containing a population estimated to be around eight million. More importantly the IS provides a semblance of order in the territories that it controls, a welcome change from the complete chaos of the civil war. It has institutionalized taxes and levies that are collected by a cadre of administrative ‘officers’, and also provides civic amenities.

The IS controlled areas have their power lines repaired and sewage systems cleaned while food security is enforced. They also run a regular bus service across the border between Iraq and Syria.

It is in the education system which has been instituted that the long term objectives of the IS becomes clearly visible. The curriculum is based on Islamic studies, jihadist ideology and military training to the complete exclusion of any other subject. There is also a deliberate attempt at brainwashing the next generation at an early age by teaching them fundamentalist Islamic thought and even encouraging them to spy on their parents and report them for anti-Muslim activities if the strictest version of the religion is not being practiced at home. They are also desensitized to extreme violence by exposing them to beheadings and other callous acts against perceived enemies. By institutionalizing a strict and severe order in places where anarchy has been the norm for decades the IS is creating a foundation to build further.

The provision of public services and strict governance is the first step towards state-creation and for the general population in areas where stability has been a forgotten factor for years, it has a certain attraction. In a telling proof, a recent survey saw that one in five Syrians within the IS territory preferred the IS to the previous regime. Under these circumstances the IS knows fully well that if the Assad regime is removed, they will be able to move in to fill the void. At the moment there are no ‘moderate’ leaders who have the military or political clout to take control of the broken state if regime change is on the cards. The state-building activities ensure the longevity of the IS despite being under almost continuous military, economic and political attack for more than a year.

It is wishful thinking that the IS will vanish as an identifiable entity if it is militarily defeated, or ‘destroyed’ as Western leadership states in high rhetoric.

Further, the notion of restoring Iraq and Syria into viable states is purely utopian thinking; it is not going to happen. They are far too critically broken for any repair to be effective. The global and regional powers involved in this war against the IS have to move on beyond this repetitive mantra. The Western alignment, primarily military but also political to a certain extent, with Saudi Arabia and the Government of Iraq has so far not produced any tangible results.

One of the main reasons is that Sunni jihadist sympathy is embedded in both Syria and Iraq, the central region of the conflict. Leveraging on this the IS has clearly stated its ideology and envisaged end-state and is further boosted by its success in state-creation. IS is seen as an outlet for Sunnis to express perceived grievances and injustice against them that in turn provides the organization with long term validity.

It is also disturbing that so far the international discourse against the IS has been at the operational and tactical military levels whereas the IS themselves have always kept their narrative above this, concentrating on their overarching aim of creating a Caliphate with the military actions being only instrumental in this struggle. The opposition to the IS has so far failed to address the real issue at the strategic and ideological level. Military operations alone will never be able to surmount such a challenge.

Creating an Opposing Strategy

If the challenge or threat of the IS is to be comprehensively defeated, the West and its regional allies need to create and employ a holistic, integrated and sustainable strategy. Currently there is only a military operational concept in place, that too a disjointed one since all the coalition members do not share a common belief in the desired end-state or a common understanding of how to achieve it. Even the military operations, in its current form, could at best contain further territorial spread of the IS, but will not be able to stop them from getting entrenched in their current territorial holdings.

Dislodging the IS will require the employment of significant ground forces, which seems unlikely to take place at this juncture. Even if a ground campaign is envisaged, the forces would have to be regional and not ‘western’ multi-national, a situation highly unlikely to happen unless the regional powers start to be directly threatened.

The fickleness of Western support to the groups fighting the IS on the ground has been another factor in making the defeat of the IS difficult. The Kurds have so far been the only group who have defeated the IS on the ground. However, their supply lines are becoming strained because of the Western need to placate Turkey in order to use Turkish airbases. This backtracking from support to the Kurds may be explained away as pragmatism, but does not make operational sense. Although a member of NATO, it is difficult to consider Turkey as anything other than an unhelpful ally and therefore the urgency to appease Turkish ‘preciousness’ is not understandable. But that is the situation of the ground at the moment. The Kurds with long memories must be squirming with a sense of déjà vu.

The challenge of IS is one of ideas and ideology, one that threatens regional stability well into the future if not effectively dealt with now; the military action is only a tool. The IS already is displaying its ability to recruit Sunni Arab citizens to its fold, although the Sunni nations of the region do not seem to be aware of the seriousness of the situation.

The Middle-Eastern nations participating in the war consider the removal of Bashar al Assad from power as a higher priority than the defeat of the IS. In the bargain they are still indirectly supporting the growth of the IS. This situation needs elaboration. Saudi Arabia continues to believe that Assad and the Syrian crisis created the IS and that the group will vanish when Assad has been deposed. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries ignore the gradual radicalization of the unemployed youth in their countries. This imperceptible change has been the result of decades of misguided foreign policies, repressive and exclusionary domestic strategies, and the capricious rule of visibly corrupt and self-indulgent autocrats. The so-called regional powers have not understood that the current situation has been the result of their own ostrich-like attitude and support to both regional and global Sunni extremism.

The current alternatives to the growing stature of the IS are the existing autocracies where the rulers have no apparent stake in the societies that they rule. These autocrats cannot conclusively prove to their people that they are the better of the two evils since repression of peaceful attempts at participation in governance, and in extremis regime change, has been the norm in these countries. The heavy-handed actions against the nascent Arab Spring activities have played into the hands of the IS, boosting their appeal. The current debate is only regarding how to contain and then defeat the IS, at a military level. This ignores the fact that military initiatives aligned to achieve a ‘contain and defeat’ outcome will not lead to any lasting victory over the amorphous entity that is IS.

Defeat, in its classic interpretation, can only be meted out to a conventional military force of a sovereign nation. History demonstrates that ‘defeated’ religious and/or ideological movements almost always rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of their defeat better adapted to survive than before. The contradictory aims being pursued by the West and its allies in the military campaign further dilutes the possibility of a military defeat of the IS in the near future.

Following containment as a strategy brings a completely different facet to the war. It will be a tacit acceptance of the IS as a state and that jihadism has not been defeated in more than two decades of military operations. The strategy of containment will have to be developed in two distinct parts—the physical and the ideological. Its success will depend on both the parts functioning together.

Physical containment requires the coalition to create a watertight geographic area from within which the IS is not permitted to move, establish external contact or receive any assistance. A porous border will not serve the purpose. Ideological containment will depend on the ability of the coalition to provide an alternative narrative to counter the religious doctrine currently propagated by the IS. The employment of this strategy will be similar to the Cold War situation when democracy and individual freedom were placed as the viable alternatives to communism and collective socialism. At the moment such an ideological or religious alternative is not available to the floundering youth who are flocking to the IS. However, such an alternative narrative will have to be provided by the nations of the Middle-East if it is to gain traction and taken seriously. The regional powers will need to change their attitude towards the IS, which they clandestinely support while overtly opposing in official statements.

In order to develop a practical strategy it is necessary to appreciate the IS appeal to the people of Iraq and Syria—they provide the only ray of hope for stability in times of utmost despair. The support to IS is only partially because of a belief in their ideology, but mainly because of the lack of a viable alternative. Therefore, a successful strategy can only be built by creating a sustainable and credible alternative that opposes the public brutality and a governance system based on archaic interpretations of Islamic scriptures and medieval theological pronouncements. The religious tenets of Islam that are being twisted and misinterpreted by the IS must be rationally and ethically analyzed and explained in a manner that cannot and will not be confused as anti-Muslim bigotry. Only then will the myths that the IS is perpetuating as religious sanction for its barbaric behavior be disputed and debunked.

A workable strategy to counter the IS will have to build back confidence in the concept of a nation state and nationalism through a number of initiatives. The confidence building will have to be undertaken through regional cooperation, and altering the public perception of the role of the nation in creating law and order to establish stability. These initiatives will have to be buttressed by international assistance to the nations that are likely to become increasingly fragile. Unlike the two already failed nations—Iraq and Syria—no other country in the region must be allowed to fail as a nation state.

A piecemeal approach through a combination of military actions and ideological dialogue is unlikely to work in thwarting the IS moves. The current approach of incrementally attempting to control the IS through countering their initiatives will only squander available strategic options and strengthen the group. Rigorous containment—both physical and ideological—and a clear and demonstrated definition of the ideological alternative is the only way to deprive the IS of its religious and revolutionary attraction. Military victory in this war will not defeat the IS. They can only be metaphorically starved into insignificance leading to a gradual fall into oblivion, which is the only long term solution. Does the opposition have the wherewithal to create, and steadfastly employ such a complex strategy for the long term?


The IS is not a terrorist organization that can be defeated by traditional and outdated anti-terrorism methods. Irrespective of what the ruling house of Saudi Arabia might say, that the IS is neither Islamic nor a state, it has to be accepted that the IS is a state based on religion and with a standing army. It is also a movement nourished by an extreme and violent version of religion thriving on an anachronistic interpretation of religious dogma. The IS takes advantage of a fractured society with almost no cohesive nationalism through a cynical, opportunistic and abusive interpretation of religious ideology that creates a sense of integration.

The concept and pursuance of a modern-day Caliphate is a serious threat to the countries of the Middle-East. In order to counter the spread of IS, the first step will have to be a political solution to the Syrian Civil War facilitated by both Western, Russian and regional assistance and commitment. This will be the only way to starve the IS of its physical and ideological support base. Thereafter the national power elements of the countries of the region—economic, political and military—should be brought to bear with a non-sectarian religious ideology visibly superimposed on them. The IS can be rooted out only by the people living in the territories that it holds and to do this they need all the assistance that they can get from the regional powers. The military campaign and ideological counterattack are battles for the regional powers to fight and win, not outsiders.

Running away is not resistance, it fractures the cohesion of people facing a calamitous situation; staying and fighting is the only way forward.

First published in the blog on 22 September 2015

Dr. Sanu Kainikara

Dr. Sanu Kainikara is a Canberra-based Military Strategist and a practising Historian. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New South Wales and the inaugural Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Regional Security, Canberra.

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