In a widely read article in the New York Review of Books, an anonymous former official of a NATO country despairs of a solution to “The Mystery of ISIS.” According to the author, “nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS… None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough — even in hindsight— to have predicted the movement’s rise.”
While this piece may reflect the prevailing mood among former diplomats, political scientists are far less baffled. Many scholars have already stressed the importance of studying the Islamic State in comparative perspective and have shown that the group is far less unique among insurgent organizations in terms of brutality and state-like governance activities in territories it controls than commonly thought. The systematic study of political violence further illuminates three key elements of the perceived “mystery” of the Islamic State: its treatment of civilians, battlefield tactics and broad strategy.
The anonymous author wonders at the Islamic State’s ability to control and elicit at least passive cooperation from large segments of the Sunni Arab population in Syria and Iraq, given that most of these people do not share in the group’s religious fanaticism and recoil from its gruesome violence. How could the Islamic State prosper while violating the cardinal principle of guerrilla warfare of not alienating one’s constituency? This view fails to grasp two well-documented dynamics of civil wars: the ability of violence to shape the behavior of civilian populations and the power of shared identity in the context of large-scale bloodshed across ethno-sectarian lines. When armed actors can selectively wield violence to punish “misbehavior,” even individuals who do not share the ideological outlook tend to fall in line.
Indeed, the Islamic State’s violence toward its Sunni constituency has been highly selective, in stark contrast to its treatment of Shiite, Alawite, Yazidi, Kurdish and Christian communities. For example, in the lead-up to its takeover of Mosul, the Islamic State systematically targeted Sunni journalists, government representatives and security personnel, forcing them to leave the city or cooperate with the group. However, when in control, the organization has carefully refrained from indiscriminate and arbitrary violence against its popular base to avoid alienating it, instructing its members to be moderate with the Sunni population. To be sure, the stern punishments inflicted by the Islamic State for minor deviations from pious behavior—such as smoking—are not popular, but the population has come to appreciate the predictability of the Islamic State’s rule. As Abdel Bari Atwan notes in his book, “Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate,” sharia courts set up by the Islamic State are generally viewed as impartial and have been able to quickly resolve religious and civil cases.
In the incendiary sectarian climate of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State’s hold on the Sunni population has been further strengthened by its ability to “present itself as the sole guardian of Sunni interests” wherever it has subdued rival armed groups. Facing the unpalatable choice between Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s zealots, on the one hand, and governments that have long treated them as second class citizens and Shiite militias bent on ethno-sectarian massacres, on the other, many Sunnis living under the Caliphate’s banner have thrown in their lot with the Islamic State as the best bet to ensure their personal survival and the well-being of their communities. This pattern of ethnic polarization has characterized many other civil wars, from the Balkans to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Many have also misunderstood the Islamic State’s use of military tactics. Though the Review of Books article claims the organization defies the conventional wisdom on asymmetric warfare laid out by Mao Zedong and others, the group’s actions actually reveal a sophisticated understanding of asymmetrical combat. In fact, Mao envisioned three stages of revolutionary war: in the first one, insurgents focus on popular mobilization and assassinations of key individuals on the government side; in the second phase, they escalate to guerrilla warfare proper, with systematic hit-and-run attacks on security forces; finally, after they have acquired sufficient power and their opponent is correspondingly weakened, the insurgents graduate to conventional warfare and engage government forces in pitched battles, with the ultimate objective of inflicting on them a decisive defeat and seizing power.
The Islamic State may have adopted positional warfare sooner than most groups—Stathis Kalyvas suggests that this might have occurred to due to a combination of flat terrain and military weakness of its opponents—but it has moved seamlessly along this spectrum of tactics depending on the conditions faced on the battlefield. In Mosul, the group operated for years in the shadows, recruiting, mobilizing, and intimidating the local population, while replenishing its coffers with the proceeds of criminal activities and “taxes,” before it felt strong enough to openly take on the security forces. Much like the Taliban in 2001 Afghanistan and Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in 2011 Libya, the Islamic State rapidly adapted in the face of U.S. precision air power, eschewing the deployment of large formations of armored vehicles and using instead small-unit maneuvers skillfully exploiting opportunities for cover and concealment.
Similarly, the group’s use of diversion and surprise attacks to take on numerically superior forces on many occasions suggests substantial military know-how rather than mindless willingness to absorb losses among its ranks. Contradicting general belief, political scientists have long argued that suicide attacks are better understood as a form of “special weapons” to which non-state actors resort when facing their stronger state counterparts, rather than a mere product of religious fanaticism. In a recent article analyzing all suicide attacks from 1981 to 2008, my co-authors, Simon Collard-Wexler and Michael Smith, and I show that armed groups tend to adopt this tactic when facing states with highly mechanized military forces (i.e. those with an abundance of vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers), as suicide attackers enjoy a “comparative advantage” in their ability to get close to and damage “hardened” targets. Consistently, we also find that that suicide operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been significantly more likely than other types of terrorist violence to focus on hardened targets such as military, police and government installations, rather than civilian objectives.
The Islamic State’s use of suicide attacks does not depart from this broader trend. In its “Breaking the Walls” campaign in 2013, the group launched 24 suicide attacks with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in eight prison breaks in Iraq, enabling the escape of hundreds of experienced fighters. In the past two years, the Islamic State has repeatedly used suicide attacks to spearhead its breakthrough attempts on Iraqi and Syrian government defensive positions. Syrian insurgents groups of all backgrounds recognize the utility of such attacks. An official with al-Tawhid—the largest Free Syrian Army affiliate near Aleppo — explained his organization’s cooperation with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate: “Al-Nusra in Aleppo is much smaller than us numerically, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in the capabilities of its fighters, and the fact that they are willing to do martyrdom attacks [suicide bombings]. Given the limited weapons we have, there are instances when we need a martyrdom attack, and they provide it.”
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, there is little evidence supporting the claim of the Islamic State’s strategic ineptitude, in particular its tendency to continuously add new entries to its list of enemies. To be sure, military history is replete with instances of optimistic miscalculations, reckless gambles and outright blunders, and there are no grounds to expect that the Islamic State leadership will be immune from such mistakes—the most obvious candidate, so far, seems to be the decision to attack the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Irbil, in August 2014, triggering U.S. intervention. However, the broad outlines of its plan to achieve a Caliphate are quite sensible.
The group took on Damascus and Baghdad at a historically propitious moment, as their forces were, respectively, exhausted by two years of intense counterinsurgency, and emasculated by pervasive corruption and low morale. Moreover, contrary to much commentary, the Islamic State did not start the fight with the rest of the Sunni insurgent movement in Syria; rather, a broad coalition formed by al-Nusra, Salafi groups and battalions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army felt threatened by its growing power and decided to use force to forestall its rise in early 2014. In the spring of that year, the Islamic State bounced back “from the brink of defeat” in the inter-rebel war in Syria and went on the offensive after its dramatic growth following the takeover of Mosul across the border. The group gained handsomely from this second phase of the “war within the war,” as it managed to absorb large numbers of defectors from other rebel groups and extract resources from the civilian population previously under its rivals’ control.
In an ongoing book project on inter-rebel war, I show that the Islamic State’s behavior toward other insurgents in Syria following the fall of Mosul fits quite closely with a common pattern across a broad range of civil wars: strong rebel groups tend to use force to get rid of weaker competitors in moments when the government only poses a limited threat, so as to enlarge their pool of resources and avert the emergence of challengers down the road.
In sum, the Islamic State has behaved in ways that existing theories on insurgency and terrorism help us understand quite well. This is certainly not to deny that more research on the phenomenon is needed or to imply that being able to make sense of the group’s actions automatically makes its threat less serious. But future academic endeavors and policy initiatives are more likely to succeed if they take seriously the wealth of insights generated by students of political violence. By labeling the Islamic State a unique mystery, we are depriving ourselves of the very tools that can help us contextualize, understand and ultimately take on this organization.
Costantino Pischedda is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami and a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University’s Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance.