Inside the ISIS Blueprint for Winning
Back in 2010, ISIS was on the downswing. The terrorist group then published a think tank-like pamphlet on how to get a country of its own.
Despite the success to come, the auguries boded ill for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when he assumed leadership of the Islamic State in May 2010. American and Iraqi troops had killed his predecessor while he was at home, which meant the Islamic State had been penetrated by its enemies. Many of the group’s leaders had met similar fates at American hands. In response, the Islamic State shifted to a strategy of clandestine terrorism to cope with the setbacks but longed to fight in the open again as an insurgent group. An Islamic state is nothing if it has no land.
On the new emir’s desk was a plan to turn things around. Between December 2009 and January 2010, Iraqi jihadists had circulated a “Strategic Plan for Reinforcing the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq.” The document has the look and feel of a DC think tank report, with analysis and recommendations for policy makers. Think pieces and after-action reports are common in the jihadist movement, but it was unusual to see jihadists openly criticize the Islamic State. The criticism was evidence of how far the group had fallen. The tempo of the Islamic State’s attacks was nowhere near its height in early 2007, and the group held no land.
The strategy paper blamed the Islamic State’s fall on a “dirty war” waged by its American adversaries, who used “awakened” Sunni tribes against it. “When the Islamic State was at the pinnacle of its power and influence, [the Americans] bombed markets, public places, and mosques, and they killed the opponents of the State, so that the mujahids were blamed. On account of things like this, we saw the influence of the Islamic State fade and disappear and the apostate Awakenings spread.”
The delusions continued. The authors of the paper spun online videos of Americans trying to disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as videos of Americans planting the devices and inadvertently blowing themselves up. The Islamic State did not provoke the Sunni tribes by oppressing them; rather, the jihadists’ enemies cleverly turned tribal leaders against the jihadists. Young men in the tribes supported the Americans only for money and for pride, styling themselves as defenders of their people.
The Islamic State has fallen, the authors acknowledged, but it will return just as the Taliban returned in Afghanistan after its defeat at the hands of the Americans. The American withdrawal from Iraq would be the time to act. “When the Americans withdraw within two years… the situation will be strongest politically and militarily for the Islamic plan to prepare to completely seize the reins of control over all Iraq.” But the authors recognized that other factions in Iraq were preparing to do the same.
The authors recommended several ways to overcome the other factions and control Iraq. Uniting them behind the “jihadist program” of the Islamic State was at the top of their list. “It is not about names and titles the Muslims would strive for. Aiding [the program] is a victory for the people of Islam and not a victory for a group, or a title, or a name.” Merely fighting the other factions without a goal would be “stupid.”
Militarily, the authors contended it would be a waste of time to focus on attacking the American forces in Iraq since they were leaving; rather, the jihadists should train their fire on the Iraqi military and police, whom the Americans hoped would continue to pacify the country for them once they left. By targeting them, the jihadists would instill fear in the hearts of potential recruits. They should focus in particular on the very few units that were capable of fight- ing against the jihadists. Attacking government troops would also force them to abandon their bases in regions of the country where they were weak. That would open up security vacuums and drain the government’s resources when it fought to protect its remaining bases. The jihadists could exploit these vacuums by seizing the territory and any equipment or infrastructure that was left behind. “Make them always preoccupied with internal problems,” wrote the authors, quoting ancient China’s preeminent military strategist Sun Tzu.
Readers might find it odd that religious zealots who hate nonbelievers would quote Sun Tzu. But the practice is common, evidence of a pragmatic streak among some jihadists. In the early 2000s, for example, jihadists celebrated the strategic insight of Abu Ubayd al- Qurashi, an anonymous author who quoted dozens of non-Muslim strategists in his magazine column, “Strategic Studies.” Among others, Qurashi cited Robert Taber’s history of guerrilla campaigns, War of the Flea; William Lind’s writings on fourth-generation warfare; the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz; and the Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. The authors of the “Strategic Plan” were carrying on that tradition.
The authors assumed guerrilla tactics would weaken the Iraqi government. But they also believed the jihadists could not establish their own state without co-opting the Sunni tribes. To do so, the authors advised the Islamic State to copy what the United States had done: give money and weapons to Sunni tribal leaders who were angry with the Islamic State. Doing so had reinforced the tribal leaders’ authority and bought the temporary allegiance of their young men. The authors admitted that “the idea to recruit the tribes to eliminate the mujahids was a clever, bold idea and will be used by any occupier in the future because they make hard work easy for the occupier, just as they provide protection against the attacks of the mujahids.” But the authors were sure the tribes would rather receive money and weapons from fellow Muslims than from foreign occupiers who disrespected their religion or promoted thugs as tribal leaders. The mujahids should follow the American blueprint of creating tribal councils and militias they can work with, but do it better. The mujahids would be more respectful of local religious practice and power structures, and they could finance the endeavor with captured booty.71 As we will see, the jihadists’ respect for religious sensitivities and power structures was sometimes more theory than practice.
Uniting the jihadists behind a single program, intimidating Iraqi security forces, and co-opting the Sunni tribes would not be enough, asserted the authors. The jihadists also needed a “political symbol” or “avatar.” Several things go into the making of such a symbol: the greatness of his sacrifices, his high morals, and his evenhandedness. The head of the Islamic State at the time, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, had achieved symbolic status. But the authors worried that none of his deputies was high profile enough to fill his symbolic shoes if he died (which happened a few months later).
In concluding their think piece, the authors stressed that jihadists have to instill confidence in those whom they rule. They could do this by protecting the people in lands they control and making them prosper, seeing to the needs of local governors and soldiers, selecting good executives and judges, ruling by Islamic law, implementing the hudud punishments stipulated in Islamic scripture, and distributing money from the treasury. Since the international media is biased against the jihadists, they said, the jihadists would need a media strategy to make sure their good works were known. The jihadists should also consider allying themselves with their opponents when they face a common enemy, just as the Prophet allied with the Jews against the pagans when they attacked him in Medina.
Blueprint in hand, the Islamic State was prepared for a comeback.
Excerpted from The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State by William McCants. Copyright © 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Reprinted by permission.