Islamic State - Five Good Reasons
Global media coverage of Islamic State (IS) proliferates. In the wake of Thursday’s atrocities, the international press seems mesmerised. It displays a morbid fascination with the ghoulish and macabre horrors that are daily perpetrated by the followers of the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Opinion and predictions over the future triumph or failure of Islamic state seem to be equally divided. A UK minister recently declared that Islamic state was now de facto established and that we should come to terms with it. But if opinion is equally divided, are there factors that the global media is overlooking or failing to evaluate accurately? In this short paper I will look at five good reasons why Islamic state will succeed and five good reasons why it will not – and readers can compare their conclusion with mine!
Five good reasons why IS will succeed
One. Islamic State (IS) forces have established overwhelming psychological superiority over their enemies. Their advance seems remorseless with only minor setbacks. They soften the opposition with gruesome portrayals of what they will do to the defenders. At the same time the defenders are being groomed to believe that they are being infiltrated from behind. These tactics induce both panic and paralysis. During the assault on the major city of Mosul, the defending Iraqi army fled in panic, abandoning their equipment and ordnance. The recent fall of Ramadi to IS raises the inevitable question: why did a superior defending force retreat before a numerically inferior assaulting force? It takes a long time to rebuild a beaten army and imbue it with fighting spirit.
Two. Islamic State holds the initiative. Though surrounded by enemies on all sides, they have successfully taken the initiative to the enemy, striking where they wish. They are adept at swiftly switching forces to support operations in critical areas. Striking from the centre outwards, their lines of communication are shorter. In Anbar province they maintain pressure on the Iraqi army by switching forces between Baiji and Tikrit. When Tikrit fell they switched their assault back to Baiji and also captured the strategically important city of Palmyra in Syria. They have shown themselves well capable of maintaining the offensive spirit.
Three. Islamic State’s use of social media has been stunningly effective. Their media productions are highly professional. They have played a critical part in portraying the public face of Islamic State as an attractive and kindly environment in which welfare, health and happiness abound, centred around Islam - supported by a ruthless, totally disciplined and unstoppable army of Islamic warriors; a society in which a disenfranchised Islamic Diaspora in Europe and elsewhere can play a central role, giving their lives purpose and value.
Four. Islamic State has a backbone of competent and experienced administrators, and officers in the Armed Forces plus resources that have enabled it to create something looking like a sovereign state. It was able to recruit many disenchanted Iraqis who had been officials within the Saddam Hussein regime. More recently, a perception that the Baghdad government was favouring the Shia majority over the Sunni population led to further recruitment and support, particularly in Anbar province. Although administrative effectiveness has been degraded by the US led coalition and shrinking resources, it nevertheless continues to function.
Five. Islamic State has benefited greatly from the growing number of terrorist organisations pledging allegiance to it. Practically all of this has been done at the expense of Al Qaeda Central which is perceived to be in steep decline. By adopting Al Qaeda’s leaderless structure, IS has been able to promote and claim lone wolf attacks in a number of countries under the Islamic State banner.
Five Good Reasons why Islamic State will fail
One. Islamic State has effectively declared war on the whole world. It is not supported in its aspirations by any sovereign state. It relies for its support on individuals, many of whom have been enlisted through social media activities, and extremist Islamist organisations, most of which are internationally proscribed. It is on its own, isolated and friendless.
Two. Islamic State does not display any signs of a coherent military strategy or respect for the Principles of War. The first, and master, principle of war is Selection and Maintenance of the Aim; the second is Concentration of Force. In both Iraq and Syria, IS is fighting on multiple fronts. It is not applying the principle of concentration of force in any strategic way other than a general push towards Baghdad along the line of the Tigris and Euphrates. It has dissipated its forces on irrelevant sideshows such as its unsuccessful assault on the border town of Kobane. IS does score points for the application of a further Principle, Offensive Action, which is the seizing and sustaining of the initiative. But as it has never been applied with the two key principles of war mentioned above, it has failed to achieve strategic decisive effect.
Three. Islamic State’s aura of invincibility and unstoppable force lasts only as long as its victories. IS must constantly win to sustain its shock effect. As soon as it stops winning, its effect is spent. The Kurdish forces have repulsed major attacks on Kobane, Sinjar and the approaches to Erbil. They know they can beat Islamic State. The Iraqi army has recaptured Tikrit giving them a major morale boost. Islamic State’s psychological superiority on the battlefield is weakening.
Four. Islamic State has claimed the Arab Levant, primarily Syria and Iraq, as sovereign territory within its caliphate. This is fundamentally different to its early days as a terrorist organisation whose strength was its ability to strike and then disperse and merge into the community. Islamic state now has to defend its sovereign territory: this requires conventional forces and tactics – requiring a massive uplift in resources which they don’t have and can’t acquire, because they have no allies. Defence limits their options for maintaining the initiative: offensive action will weaken and be local only.
Five. Islamic State does not have the resources to sustain a war of attrition. The 10th and final Principle of War is Sustainability, which often proves to be the decisive factor. Armies run out of steam. This is likely to be its Achilles heel. It benefited greatly from the seizure of weapons and ammunition from the Iraqi army, particularly at Mosul. Once these are expended, IS will lack the ability to sustain operational tempo. They are in a race to achieve decisive victory - before the trigger clicks on an empty chamber.
Who will prevail?
In war, man is to materiel as three is to one. One cannot ignore the combat multiplier that the early shock victories gave IS. One cannot deny their fanatical zeal nor their ability to recruit, particularly from a disaffected Islamic diaspora. However, the most telling factor will be firepower and the ability to sustain it. There are clear indications that Islamic State is feeling the effects of attrition. Earlier this year a general directive was promulgated urging IS fighters in Syria to reinforce the Iraq front.
A few days ago, the strategic town of Tell Abiad close to the Turkish border fell to Kurdish forces. This not only allowed Kurdish forces to link up but will also stem the passage of IS recruits from Turkey to Raqqa. More seriously for IS, the Kurdish forces have now captured the key junction at Ain Issa, significantly hindering IS forces in the north of Syria. Crucially, Ain Issa lies only 30 miles north of the Islamic State’s so-called capital, Raqqa. There is no naturally defensive terrain between the two. The loss of their “capital” will put an end to their pretence of a sovereign state and psychological superiority. No amount of social media or franchised terrorist cells elsewhere will rebuild it.
Shortly after the fall of Ain Issa IS urged its followers "to make Ramadan a month of calamities for the nonbelievers". On Thursday last they launched violent attacks on Kobane and Hasakah. It was assumed that these were spoiling attacks designed to disrupt Kurdish preparations for an assault on their “capital“. A day later three lone Wolf attacks took place in Tunisia, France (as yet unattributed to IS) and Kuwait repeating a pattern established over the last few months. Much of the media has taken the view that this is IS beginning to flex its growing muscle. A more reasoned conclusion may be that the attacks reflect IS extreme alarm at the imminent threat to its so-called capital, Raqqa. IS lost many trained fighters in their futile raids against the two northern Syrian towns. To what purpose?
Author: General Searby
Major General Searby, a member of Hawki’s advisory board, is a leading expert on security matters in the Middle East and North Africa. He has been Defence Advisor to the Sultan of Oman and was Counter Terrorist adviser for North Africa and the Sahel for the UK Prime Minister until 2012.
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