Author: Michael Robillard


1 Background

2 Ideology and Aims

3 Leadership and Organizational Structure

4 Recruitment and Training

5 Financing

6 Strategy and Tactics


1 Background

1.1. Origins (2003-2006)

The self-proclaimed Islamic State (i.e. ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) is a militant Sunni-Salafi-jihadist organization, operating largely in the regions of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, whose stated aim is the re-establishment of the Islamic ‘caliphate’ of 7th century Islam. Ideologically-speaking, the group is a proponent of Sharia Law and claims political and theological authority over the world’s Muslims. ISIS also believes in an apocalyptic ‘end of times’ prophecy and sees itself as a vanguard element duty-bound to bring about its occurrence by way of violent jihad. Though the Islamic State finds its origins in the formation of AQI (2004) and ISI (2006), the formation of ISIS officially occurred in 2013 when its creation was announced by the group’s leader, cleric and self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. ISIS gained mainstream prominence in 2014 with an aggressive social-media campaign showing the violent beheadings of 4 captured western journalists. This social media campaign, coupled with early military success in Raqqa and Mosul in June 2014 (signifying the official establishment of the caliphate) served to attract thousands of foreign fighters to ISIS’s ranks. The Islamic State’s de facto capital is in Raqqa, Syria and its estimated troop strength varies considerably depending on sources. For instance, in summer of 2016, US Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland estimated ISIS’s troop strength to be as low as 15,000 and as high as 20,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated ISIS troop strength to be around 80,000-100,000 in October 2014, and Reuters estimated troop strength to be somewhere between 40,000 to 60,000 in June 2015.

The origins of ISIS can largely be traced back to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq and its subsequent exit. With the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 and the ‘de-Baathification’ of the Iraqi political apparatus, the US occupation of Iraq had the side-effect of disenfranchising a considerable number of Iraqi Sunnis while creating a sizable power vacuum. With the establishment of the US-backed Malaki government, and the subsequent ‘Shiafication’ of the Iraqi government, even more Iraqi Sunnis felt themselves being politically marginalized. Shortly after the US Invasion of Iraq, in 2004, Jordanian, Al Zarqawi, leader of the then jihadist group, Jama’at al Tawhid w’al Jihad, partnered with Al Qaeda to form the franchise, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The initial aim of AQI was to target Shia innocents in an attempt to draw the US into a protracted war in Iraq that would then function as a means of mobilizing the remainder of the Iraqi-Sunni populace against the US military and Malaki government.

The relationship between Al Qaeda and Zarqawi soon became tenuous, however, as both groups began to differ over strategic and ideological aims. While both Bin Laden and Zarqawi believed in the inevitable coming of the Islamic caliphate, Bin Laden felt that the scope of Al Qaeda’s aims should be focused on the far enemy (US and Western influences) while leaving the project of establishing the caliphate to future generations. In 2005, al Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, castigated AQI and Zarqawi for targeting Shias, on the grounds that doing so would cause many Sunnis to ally with the Iraq government. His prediction was largely correct. Zarqawi was killed in a US targeted killing strike in Baquba, Northern Baghdad in June 2006.

1.2 Expansion (2006-2015)

Shortly after Zarqawi’s death, Egyptian-born, Abu Ayyub al-Masri assumed leadership of AQI and re-branded the organization as ISI (The Islamic State of Iraq). Shortly before this time period, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was arrested and detained in a US detention facility in Iraq (Feb 2004-Dec 2004) alongside many other disgruntled Sunnis and former Baathist members who were looking for ways to re-assert political power. These detention facilities became unintended breeding grounds for radicalization and future terrorist coordination. Following the deaths of Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi assumed leadership of ISI in 2010.

The US exit from Iraq in 2011 lent itself to further political instability in the region as did the Syrian civil war in 2011 which pitted Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad and the ruling class of Shia ‘Alawis’ against a Sunni majority. These two events allowed ISI to further capitalize on dis-enfranchized Sunni sentiments. In 2011, Baghdadi sent the Al Qaeda affiliate, the al Nusra Front, into Syria to help consolidate and mobilize Sunni power in this region. Tensions between Baghdadi and al Nusra’s leadership however would later cause serious political in-fighting within the group. In 2013, Baghdadi announced the official rebranding of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/ the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) and in 2014 he announced the official establishment of the caliphate. This announcement, combined with early military successes in Mosul and Raqqa caused an influx of thousands of foreign fighters into the region to join ISIS’s ranks. At this same general time period, Al Qaeda and Zawahiri announced their official break from ISIS and its project.

1.3 Present and Future Forecasting

In the last 12 months, counter-terrorism experts have seen ISIS’s strength waning both in terms troop strength and territorial control. ISIS’s troop strength in Mosul as of October 17, 2016 was estimated to be around 5000-7000. The retracting of ISIS is not, however, a sign of ISIS becoming any less dangerous. Indeed, several counter-terrorism experts argue that a retreating, fracturing ISIS might be even more dangerous in the long run insofar as the group could de-centralize and metastasize into a multiplicity of opportunist terrorist entities, leading to what Goodman refers to as ‘destructive terrorist competition.’ Lastly, at present, ISIS appears to be consciously and deliberately re-branding itself once again focusing its narrative and priorities on the ‘near’ enemy and directing the scope of its military efforts to local concerns.

2 Ideology and Aims

2.1 Salafi-Jihadism

The Salafis are a sub-sect of Sunni Islam, literally meaning ‘pious elders.’ Their core tenets involve a strict interpretation of the Koran, a belief in a duty to establish the Islamic ‘caliphate’ and institute Sharia law, and a belief in the coming of the end of times. Salafi-Islamists arguably split into 3 further sub-sects:

  1. Passive/Quietest Salafi -i.e. believe that the establishment of the caliphate and the coming of the end of times will occur on its own and hence focus on self-purification rather than violent jihad.
  2. Politically Active/Non-Violent Salafi – Believe the end of times needs to be nudged along but not by violent means.
  3. Violent Vanguard Salafi – Believe the end of times must be brought along by violent means.

Since, Salafi-Sunni-ism preaches a strict reading of the Koran and the hadiths, it views all Shia Muslims as apostates, punishable by death, in virtue of their reformist/revisionist reading of the Koran and their reluctance to pledge ‘bayaat’ to the caliph. Salafis therefore see Shia Muslims fundamentally as traitors, labeling them as the ‘near enemy’. Salafis contrast this with the ‘far enemy’, i.e. non-Muslim Christians.  Salafis regard non-Muslim jahil (or ‘ignorant’) as either being culpably ignorant, and therefore punishable, and non-culpably ignorant, and therefore non-punishable and able to reach salvation, depending upon the individual’s exposure to and reasonable chance of understanding the Koran.

2.2 The Caliphate

The intermediary phase in the Salafi grand narrative, between now and the end of times, is the establishment of the caliphate. For the caliphate to be established requires two things: 1) territorial control of the lands prophesied in the Koran and 2) leadership under the legitimate caliph. Once these two criteria are met, Salafis believe that all Muslims then become duty-bound to travel to the caliphate and to live under Sharia law. According to the Salafi interpretation of the Koran, it is considered sinful for vigilantes to begin enacting Sharia law only partially (such as the severing of the hands of thieves) prior to the legitimate establishment of the caliphate. Consequently, the practicing of certain violent elements of Sharia law only makes sense, according Salafis, when understood as a total package of social practices coordinated under the caliphate (i.e. when also coupled with free medical care, for instance). This is why many Salafis have openly criticized Saudi Arabia for its partial implementation of only certain elements of Sharia law in the absence of the legitimate caliphate. By definition, the concept of the caliphate precludes the acknowledgement of any existing state borders or boundaries within its scope. Similarly, seeking official recognition from the United Nations for legitimacy would, according to Salafi doctrine, be considered sinful, as it would count as an instance of polytheism.

In addition to territorial control of the lands prophesied in the Koran, Salafi-ism stipulates that the caliphate cannot officially begin unless the leader over this territory satisfies the necessary requirements for being caliph. Salafi-ism stipulate that in order for one to become caliph, one must demonstrate physical and mental integrity, leadership authority, and be a descendant from the tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh. Once caliph, one is duty-bound to continually wage war and under no circumstances may the caliph lose the territory of the caliphate.

2.3 The Apocalypse

While Muslims believe in the prophesies of Muhammed, to include the prophesy of the end of times, members of the Islamic state specifically see themselves as active participants in this prophecy, duty-bound to bring about its occurrence in their own lifetime. This notion of the impending imminence of the apocalypse therefore considerably distinguishes ISIS from Al Qaeda insofar as the latter sees the end of times as preordained but in the distant future. The prophetic end of times narrative tells of the Mahdi, the messianic leader of the Muslims who will appear to lead them in battle against the forces of ‘Rome’, led by the anti-christ, Dajjal. The prophesy states that this epic final battle between Good and Evil will occur on the fields of Dabiq, near Aleppo, and that the forces of Islam will diminish to only 5000 in number until they are cornered by Dajjal in Jerusalem. Just as the army of Good is about to be defeated, the prophesy foretells that Jesus will return to earth and kill Dajjal and lead the Muslims to victory.

3 Leadership and Organizational Structure

3.1 Leadership & Governmental Bodies

Caliph/Commander in Chief (Abu Bakr al Baghdadi): Iraqi national from the Al-Bu Badri tribe and descendant from tribe of Muhammed, the Quraysh (one of the necessary conditions for being Caliph), Baghdadi received his PhD in Islamic studies shortly before founding the Jamaat Jaish Ahl al-Sunnah wal Jamaa in order to fight US forces in 2003. He was detained by US forces at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca for most of 2004 and assumed leadership of ISI before its expansion and rebranding to ISIS/ISIL in 2013. He is the self-appointed and self-declared ‘caliph’ and leader of the Muslim world.

Deputy (Abu Muslim Al-Turkmani): Former Lieutenant Colonel in the Iraqi Army and officer in the Iraqi Special Forces. Second in Command.

Deputy (Abu Ali Anbari): Former Governor in charge of the ISIS controlled areas of Syria. Died March 25, 2016. Replace by (unknown).

Cabinet (Abu Abdul Kadr, Abu Louy, Abu Salah, Abu Hajar ai-Assafi, Abu Kassem, Abu Abdul Rahman, Al-Bilawi): Abu Bakr’s self-appointed team of advisors.

The Shura Council (Headed by Abu Arkan Al Ameri): this Council is supposed to include 9-11 members, all selected by Caliph Ibrahim. Theoretically, this Council can depose the Caliph but only in theory. The main task of the Council is supervising affairs the state.

Military Council/War Office (Abu Shema, Abu Suja, Abu Kifa): The Council includes three members whose task is to plan and supervise the military commanders and the actual operations in the field. The members of the Council are all appointed by the Caliph.

The Judicial Authority: Headed by Abu Mohammad al-Ani, the Authority deals with all judicial issues as well as spreading the message of the Islamic State by means of recruitment and preaching.

The Defense, Security and Intelligence Council: Responsible for the personal security and safety of the Caliph and serves to implement orders, campaigns, judicial decisions and collect and disseminate intelligence.

The Islamic State Institution for Public Information: Headed by Abu Al Athir Omru al Abbassi. The Islamic State spokesman was Abu Mohammad al-‘Adnani who was killed in a military raid and who may have been replaced by Abu Ahmad al ‘Alawani.

Evidence suggests that even if the actual leaders of the IS are killed, the system has created a succession procedure that will allow it to survive, just like al-Qaeda was able to survive even after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

3.2 Military

ISIS troop strength estimates have significantly varied, with estimates ranging from 15,000 to as high as 100,000. Average estimates land somewhere around 20-40,000 troops. Estimates also suggest up to 12,000 foreign fighters among ISIS’s ranks. Analysis of ISIS’s military demographics suggest that the average ISIS soldier is male, 26, single, quite well-educated but not an expert on the Quran. Regional fighters from Syria and Iraq round out the remainder of ISIS’s ranks, with many of these fighters coming from the disbanded Saddam Fedayeen, possessing over a decade’s worth of insurgency fighting skills in Iraq, and with a few older veterans even having served in the Mujahideen against the Russians.

3.3 Domestic/Political

The territorial areas which ISIS controls and ‘annexes’ in order to nullify national boundaries are known as ‘wilayah’ (i.e. province). Wilayah in Syria and Iraq have governing authorities to include legal, juridical, educative, and propagandistic structures. These areas also have functioning municipal agencies like police, firefighters, water and sanitation as well as 57 media production units and propaganda offices to include ISIS’s Amaq News Agency.

3.4 Affiliates & Adherents

ISIS claims affiliates in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Tunisia, North Caucasus. External Organizations such as Al Qaeda and Boko Haram have similarly pledged varying degrees of support and affiliation. ISIS is estimated, by some reports, to have up to 42 million sympathizers in the Muslim world.

4 Recruitment and Training

4.1. Recruitment Demographics

George Washington University, and Brookings put together a metadata analysis report on ISIS recruits. Here are their top findings:

  1. In their 20s (GWU found the average age is 26)
  2. Predominately male (GWU found 86% are male)
  3. Usually middle or upper class (73% of recruits and likely radicals are middle class or wealthier).
  4. More likely to be 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants (It is likely because they   don’t feel “at home” in either culture).
  5. They don’t like selfies (In Europe, over half of Facebook users post selfies, but only 1% of potential recruits do).
  6. Far more likely to use Android (nearly 70% have Android devices, according to   Brookings)
  7. More active on Twitter than average Twitter user (Brookings found 62% of ISIS supporters had tweeted within the past month versus just 13% of all Twitter users).
  8. Want to go abroad.

4.2. Recruitment Methods

The October 2015 edition of West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel breaks down the following five-part template for online recruiting which ISIS implements in different ways depending on the target’s disposition:

  1. Discovery – ISIS discovers a potential recruit, or a potential recruit discovers ISIS.
  2. Create Micro-Community – ISIS supporters flock around potential recruits to surround them with social input.
  3. Isolation – Potential recruits are encouraged to cut ties with mainstream influences, such as their families, friends and local religious communities.
  4. Shift to Private Communications – ISIS supporters encourage targets to take their conversations about ISIS into private or encrypted messaging platforms.
  5. Identify and Encourage Action – ISIS supporters probe to figure out what the target is most likely to do (usually travel to join ISIS, or carry out terrorist attacks         at home), then encourage the target to take action.

ISIS’s recruitment success, both locally and world-wide, can largely be traced to its keen ability to combine social media dissemination with the Salafi grand narrative of heroic self-sacrifice and righteous struggle as a way to capture the imaginations of (largely) disenfranchised young men (Sunnis at home, 2nd generation Muslims in the West) and to leverage this general sentiment towards the realization of its violent ideological ends. ISIS’s use of spectacular atrocities such as the beheading of Western journalists, function as the first ‘click bait’ entry point into the ISIS advertising funnel. From there, more robust articulations of ISIS ideology (and Salafi ideology more generally) can be found in online chatrooms, over Twitter and Youtube, and in ISIS’s online magazines, Inspire and Dabiq. Given the Salafi grand narrative and the supposed duty for all Muslims to travel to live under the rule of the Caliph once the Caliphate is established, ISIS’s greatest recruitment tool (and accordingly, its greatest Achilles Heel) comes down to the social media broadcasting of its increased territorial/positional success. The influx of thousands of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in 2014 after early ISIS positional successes in Raqqa and Mosul speak to this claim.

4.2 Training

While the specifics of ISIS training are still somewhat mysterious, some general trends can nonetheless be gleaned.  According to one report, new recruits training can ranges from two weeks, to one month, to 45 days, to six months, and up to one year. Training content involves a mix of military tactics and methods as well as political and sharia indoctrination. During this time period, recruits may be dispatched to military checkpoints but not to frontline combat. Upon graduation, recruits remain under supervision and can be expelled or punished in cases of noncompliance. Recruits struggling to accept the group’s message and methods may be sent back to receive remedial training to “strengthen” their faith. Recent reports have shown that ISIS is also now going to great lengths to indoctrinate and mobilize child soldiers as suicide martyrs as well as for social media propaganda. One CTC Sentinel report from February 2016, suggests that recruitment of children. For example, the rate of young people dying in suicide operations rose, from six in January 2015 to 11 in January 2016. The rate of operations involving one or more child or youth is likewise increasing. The CTC reports that there were three times as many suicide operations involving children in January 2016 as the previous January (2015).

5 Financing

5.1 Sources of Funding

Technically speaking, ISIS is the richest terrorist organization in history, with its financial assets estimated to be somewhere around 2 billion dollars. ISIS’s financial base comes from a variety of sources, mainly through the trade of vital oil and gas resources (with an estimated 1.8 million pounds a day revenue), taxation of its local populous (an estimated 900 million pounds per year), illegal drug-trading (with estimates as a high as 1 billion dollar a year revenue) and through looting of captured territories. For instance, in 2014, with the taking of Mosul, ISIS acquired an estimated 240 million pounds worth of currency from Iraqi banks. In addition to these two main sources of income, ISIS gains financial resources from a variety of other tertiary sources, namely: illegal drug trading, extortion of local businesses and agriculture, taxation of Christian communities, human trafficking, ransom from hostages, black market sale of cultural artifacts, and charitable fronts and fundraising.

Funds coming from the extortion of local businesses and agriculture are estimated to be around 5 million pounds per month. Ransom from hostage taking is estimated to be around 3 million pounds per hostage with an estimated 40 million pounds gained in hostage taking in 2014. Human trafficking revenue is estimated at 10-15000 pounds per person, with about 7000 women and children, (mainly Turkish Yazidi) kidnapped as of late December 2015. Black market sale of cultural artifacts is estimated 200 million per year.  Lastly, fraudulent charitable fronts as well as ‘combat charities’, such as SOLI, serve as yet another source of ISIS revenue.

5.2 Movement and Use of Funds and Assets

5.2.1 Financial Institutions

While ISIS has secured access to many financial institutions in both Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi government and the US department of Treasury have taken aggressive steps to block ISIS’s access to the international financial system at large. According to one industry report, as of 2015, approximately 90 Iraqi bank branches were located in territories held or contested by ISIS. In an attempt to prohibit ISIS from exploiting Iraq bank access, the bank headquarters of Mosul, Mosul Development Bank, has moved its center of operations to Baghdad. With respect to financial institutions in Syria, more than 20 Syrian financial institutions operate in locations under Iraqi control. These include the Central Bank of Syria, Commercial Bank of Syria, and Syria International Islamic Bank. The Us Treasury and European Union has designated these banks as connected with ISIS thereby causing most major international financial institutions to sever ties with them.

5.2.2 Alternative Money/Value Transfer Services (MVTs)

In addition to formal financial banking channels, ISIS also uses a variety of alternative/parallel money/value transfer services. These financial services are trusted brokers who do not use wire-transfers like banks do, but who send messages via email, phone, text, fax, etc. to local or foreign affiliates to receive or send money for a given counterpart. The MVTs then settle payments at a later date. This practice, known as Hawala, originating from 8th century Islamic trade, and involves coordination between four key parties: a money/value sender, a pair of trusted hawaladors, and a money/value receiver. The customer gives a hawala broker in one city a sum of money along with instructions for receipt (usually a password). The hawala broker then sends the money to his hawala counterpart in another city while the customer calls or emails the receiver in the receiving city with the instructions or password. The receiver then approaches the hawalador on the receiving end and gives him the password along with a small commission and the hawalador pays the receiver the agreed upon transferred amount. In addition to MVTs, ISIS has also been known to use cruder methods of value transfer such as physical smuggling of cash and gold across national borders such as Turkey.

5.2.3 Financial Management, Expenditure, and ‘Burn Rate’

While ISIS’s monetary gains are quite significant, its growing expansion, both in terms of troop strength and territorial control, necessarily entails a marked increase in spending for such things as food, water, and electricity for the local population. According to one report, ISIS pays its troops an average of 350-500 USD per month. With an estimated 20-30,000 fighters, ISIS would spend roughly $10 million per month on this expense. ISIS has also been marshalling its financial resources to make significant infrastructural overhauls such as dam repair, the restoration of stalled generators, and the upgrading of power plants and oil refineries in an attempt to increase quality of life for its population and to bolster popular opinion.  Since much of ISIS’s funding is contingent upon its ability to refine and transport oil, military defeats and setbacks or stalled efforts to expand necessarily entail further spending to recoup losses.

6 Strategy and Tactics

6.1 Conceptual Frameworks

In order to properly understand ISIS’s specific actions, it is helpful for us to understand the broader military distinction between strategic, operational, and tactical levels of combat. The strategic level of combat concerns the macro-level coordination of persons, resources, and information over time and space for the purpose of achieving the group’s ultimate political/ideological end. The operational level involves the translation of strategic ends into real-world tactical actions. And the tactical level concerns the bringing about of specific causal actions or events in the world in service of strategic ends. Accordingly, as Jeff McCausland, former Dean of the Army War College, keenly points out, ‘terrorism’, i.e. the use of violence against innocents for the purposes of achieving some ideological end, is fundamentally a tactic and not a strategy. Hence, the entire notion of a counter-terrorism ‘strategy’ is a bit of a misnomer.

6.2 Strategy

Given the distinction between strategy, operations, and tactics, the overall strategy that ISIS is employing, can arguably be described as a combination of Maoist protracted warfare doctrine and Guevaraean’ ‘focalism’ doctrine. Maoist protracted warfare doctrine conceives of revolutionary warfare as having three distinction phases: Phase 1) insurgency fighting, Phase 2) positional, Phase 3) conventional offensive. The goal of a successful revolutionary effort, according to Mao, should be to move from non-conventional, small unit insurgency fighting to the securing of a physical/geographic positional gains, to the marshalling of a conventional force towards offensive fighting and ultimate military success. Depending on circumstances, a successful revolutionary efforts constantly shifts back and forth between these three successive phases. If the revolutionary effort faces defeat at the conventional offensive phase, then it will fall back to secure its positional assets. If it loses at the positional phase, then it will shift back to decentralized insurgency tactics until a more favorable opportunity presents itself whereby it may regain those positional assets and, from there, move to conventional offensive fighting once again. Maoist doctrine is therefore a long-game strategy, one aimed not so much on winning as on not losing until the opponent’s will is broken through mere attrition.

Expanding on Mao’s protracted warfare notion, Guevara’s ‘focalist’ doctrine can be seen as uniquely innovative in that it reconceives the Clausewitzian ‘center of gravity’ as being not fundamentally located in the physical destruction of the enemy’s army or its state capital’s infrastructure, but in social symbols of power. Put another way, Guevara arguably was the first theorist to really latch on to the idea of violence as fundamentally communicative.

These two doctrines clearly permeate ISIS’s military thinking as demonstrated by its deliberate strategic advances and retreats in Mosul and in battles against Kurdish forces and by its spectacular atrocities cleverly shown and distributed throughout social media. Unlike other opponents whose strategic ends may be somewhat of a mystery, given the fatalistic grand narrative that ISIS sees itself as duty-bound to bring to fruition, ISIS’s strategic ends are arguably fairly clear: to advance along the three Maoist phases until their conventional forces are strong enough to defeat the ‘near enemy’, to use these local victories against the near enemy as well as its social media presence to recruit Muslims to the Caliphate, and to bait the ‘far enemy’, the ‘forces of Rome’, into a protracted, boots on the ground conflict in their homeland that they see themselves divinely preordained to win.

6.3 Tactics

All this being said, we can now better understand how specific tactics are meant to feed into ISIS’s higher strategic aims and ideological ends. Consequently, some of these tactics will include ‘terror’ tactics, but not all. For instance, fighting against Kurdish forces, ISIS has employed more insurgency-based tactics than terror tactics such the use of surveillance drones, improvised explosive devices, snipers, and booby-trapped houses. What’s more, in moments of battle in Mosul and Aleppo, ISIS has demonstrated more conventional tactics through the use of tanks, armored personnel carriers, fixed artillery, and mortars.

With respect to ISIS insurgency tactics from August 2014 onward, the overall ‘active defense’ style of ISIS has been reminiscent of Nazi Germany circa 1944-45. Indeed, even in retreat, ISIS has been very aggressive and dangerous, tactically speaking, with use of snipers, mobile shooter teams, IEDs, and mobile platoons making good use of the night and early morning to achieve area ‘denial’ versus last stand ‘defense’. Several counter-terrorism experts have argued however that ISIS’s aggressive active-defensive posture at the tactical level has been deleterious insofar as it has strained and stretched operational coordination and logistical re-supply of troops and equipment and has also resulted in the continual strategic loss of physical territory. Arguably though ISIS is hedging on this more aggressive tactical display in a conscious bid to trade positional losses for spectacular and highly visible and violent tactical successes as a demonstration of strength and ostensibly for future recruitment replenishment.

With respect to terror tactics specifically, ISIS’s terror tactics have been inextricably linked to its exploitation of the recent advent of social media. ISIS’s use of video-based social media, such as Youtube, arguably serves two main purposes. By its use of highly orchestrated, slickly filmed atrocities (such as the beheading of high profile Western journalists, the burning of a Jordanian pilot in a cage, the tossing of an alleged homosexual man off of a building, or the mass execution of dozens of innocents) ISIS’s social media campaign serves both as terror propaganda as well as an effective recruitment tool for adherents and sympathizers. The specific atrocity acts ISIS carries out serve an additional signaling and communicative purpose to potential recruits insofar as they are consistent with a strict Salafi reading of the Koran and Sharia punishments.

In addition to its exploitation of video-based social media, ISIS has made effective use of Twitter as a means of propaganda, information dissemination, and recruitment around the world as well. Lastly, Awlaki’s conception of ‘open source’ jihad via the vehicles of Inspire online magazine and Inspire videos (which provide do-it-yourself instructions for bomb-making and other terror tactics and encouragement for Western sympathizers to conduct jihad on their own) further harnesses anti-Western sympathies around the world and converts them into a powerful symbolic gesture of violence furthering ISIS’s overall cause. These do-it-yourself terror tactics have taken the form of homemade IEDs, mass shootings, stabbings, vehicular attacks on pedestrians, and suicide bombings all intentionally directed primarily at ‘soft target’ social spaces and institutions.


In conclusion, the phenomenon of ISIS represents the latest instantiation of a more pernicious, enduring, and underlying meme of Salafi-Jihadism more generally. As the positional, material, and troop strength of ISIS wanes, it is important for members of the US and international CT community to remember that the ‘battle-space’ in the war on terror is fundamentally to be located in the hearts and minds of individuals and that the nature of the war itself is fundamentally an ideological rather than a physical one. Accordingly, the US and greater CT community must not only be on guard for the metastasizing of the remnants of ISIS into some other form or the absorption of such remnants back into al-Qaeda, it but must also take a more active effort in propping up more peaceful and moderate versions of Islam and showcasing the liberal democratic values we are ostensibly fighting for.