default Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

Authors: Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters
Institution: Council on Foreign Relations
Publication Date: August 2014
Key words: Iraq, Syria, Conflict, Counterinsurgency, Culture and Ideology, Planning, Stabilisation


This article is a useful “primer” which explains the origins and strategy of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It shows how policy mistakes can provide fertile ground for insurgents, and how one relatively small group can evolve quickly into a potent international threat. Although events have continued to move swiftly since the article was published, the historical analysis will be useful to stabilisation planners and practitioners being deployed to areas affected by ISIS activity. It will also be of value to those involved in the planning and implementation of counterinsurgency policy at national and international levels.

Key Issues:

ISIS, also referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is a predominantly Sunni jihadist force. Its objective is to establish a caliphate – a single transnational state governed on sharia principles. The article demonstrates how a small insurgent group can rapidly transform itself into a potent force compromising national boundaries and posing a long-term international threat.

ISIS has achieved this through a multi-dimensional strategy that requires an equally multi-dimensional, tightly coordinated response. Its initial emergence reflected US policy errors in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war in 2003. More recently, ISIS has been able to exploit the chaos of the Syrian civil war through building and dismantling alliances with other groups. Policy makers need better means of anticipating the evolution and implications of these tactics, supported by local political and ideological intelligence.

ISIS has been able to recruit and train large numbers of volunteers internationally, including from the West, who in time may return as committed terrorists. This has implications for national security services, requiring more accurate and shared intelligence on the behaviours and movements of recruits. ISIS has been effective in raising substantial funds from international sponsors and local criminal activities. The tracking and interception of such funds also requires more intensive and shared counter-intelligence and anti-money laundering efforts. ISIS has been particularly effective in using mass communication methods. Countering this success requires equally effective interception and strategic communications strategies.

Overall, the level of sophistication shown by ISIS within a well-integrated strategy poses an entirely different challenge for counter-terrorism and stabilisation planners. It demands the type of multi-disciplinary, internationally coordinated response that has previously proved difficult to create and maintain, including cooperation with new diplomatic partners such as Iran.

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