By David Kilcullen
22 MAY 2015
The precise identity of ISIS has become the subject of intense debate.
Is it a "death cult" defined by extreme barbarity and a seventh-century view of Islam? Is it the successor to al-Qaeda, a media-savvy transnational terrorist movement propagating a new-and- improved "Jihad 2.0"?
Is it a confederation of groups opposed to the Iraqi government, with primarily regional goals? Is it one side in a Sunni-Shi'a version of Europe's ghastly Thirty Years' War?
Over time, I've come to believe that ISIS is more than any of these things. In my view, ISIS is fundamentally a state-building enterprise. Simply put, the Islamic State is, or is on the verge of becoming, what it claims to be: a state.
I know this assertion is controversial, given that international leaders have been eager to deny ISIS the legitimacy of statehood. I understand the political logic - or, if you prefer, the propaganda value - of that standpoint.
But consider the definition of a state in international relations, which is generally agreed to require the fulfilment of four criteria:
• A state must control a territory;
• That territory must be inhabited by a fixed population;
• That population must owe allegiance to a government; and
• That government must be capable of entering into relations with other states.
As of mid-2015, the Islamic State already meets, or is well on the way to meeting, all these criteria.
It controls a territory that includes several major cities and covers a third each of Iraq and Syria, giving it an area significantly larger than Israel or Lebanon. This territory's resident population is roughly 4.6 million - a higher head-count than New Zealand, Kuwait or Qatar, and almost as high as Norway, Denmark, Singapore or Finland. This territory and population is administered by a government that includes not only military forces, but also civic officials responsible for public utilities, hospitals, taxation, construction and food production, a judiciary that tries cases according to a consistent legal code, and an intelligence and police service. It issues birth certificates, marriage licenses - even parking tickets - levies taxes, and undertakes public works.
(We might quibble over how effective this government is, or squirm at its brutality, but that's irrelevant - it's the existence, not the character, of government that meets this requirement under international law; otherwise places like North Korea wouldn't count as states.)
Clearly, also, the Islamic State is capable of entering into relations with other states: it exports oil through Turkey, sells antiquities on the international market, has been accused of receiving state funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, employs an official spokesperson, and issues communiques and proclamations.
True enough, it maintains no formal embassies and isn't recognised by other states, but the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (to which the United States is a signatory, and which is one of several sources for the criteria I just listed) explicitly notes that the "existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states."
If ISIS is a state, then what kind of state is it? Pretty clearly, it's a revolutionary totalitarian state, which seeks to expand by military conquest, refuses to recognise the legitimacy of other states (specifically, those defined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement that created the modern Middle East, or Iran or Israel) and wants to redraw the map of the Middle East and North Africa. It's a state that claims extraterritorial jurisdiction (under the caliphate) over Muslims, wherever they may be, and propagates a totalitarian ideology based on a specific interpretation of Islam. It seeks overseas dependencies (the wilayat or provinces in Sinai, Khorasan, Libya, Sana'a and Algeria) and maintains an international underground that supplies volunteers and furthers its interests. It's a state that sees itself in a world-historic struggle against Shi'a Islam and the West, and expects an apocalyptic showdown from which it will emerge victorious.
As a state, ISIS is also less vulnerable to disruption by the killing or capturing of its senior leaders. By late-April 2015 there were claims - of varying credibility - that senior ISIS leaders had been killed or seriously injured. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was alleged to be wounded, paralysed or even dead as a result of a coalition airstrike, while Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was reported killed by an Iranian-backed Shi'a militia. Even if both these claims prove true, ISIS resiliency is likely to prove far greater than that of a loose terrorist network - precisely because it is structured like a state.
ISIS also fights like a state. As of mid-2015, even taking into account its losses in Iraq, ISIS fields more than 25,000 fighters, including a hard core of ex-Ba'athist professionals and al-Qaeda veterans. It has a hierarchical unit organisation and rank structure, populated by former regular officers of Saddam's military. It fields tanks, heavy artillery, mortars and armoured vehicles by the dozen, reconnaissance units mounted in technicals that operate more like conventional light cavalry than guerrillas, internal security forces and infantry units of various levels of quality. It runs propaganda, intelligence and cyber-warfare activities, a recruiting network and training camps.
There's documentary evidence that professional soldiers, not terrorist amateurs, designed this structure. ISIS is now attempting to hold and defend cities using conventional urban tactics, seeking to control lines of communication, and trying to govern the area under its control and extract resources for its war effort. These resources are considerable, and include oilfields, refineries, industrial and agricultural facilities, access to strategically located water supplies, and millions of dollars a day in revenue.
But ISIS also embodies a set of potentially fatal contradictions. The first is the Ba'athist influence. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi owes his ascendancy to his Ba'athist prison-mates at Camp Bucca, to Haji Bakr's elimination of his rivals, and to the prowess of former regime officers dotted throughout the ISIS military structure. But there are persistent rumours of a split between Ba'athist and jihadist factions. If indeed Baghdadi has been killed or seriously wounded, this split is likely to worsen significantly. Either way, the former regime officers - the majority of whom, in my experience, remain secular (though willing to use Islam to manipulate and motivate others) and interested solely in regaining power - create a rift at the heart of ISIS that could tear it apart.
A second contradiction is found in the divergent interests of those within the loose and shifting confederation of ISIS allies. In Iraq, this includes Douri's network (which, even if reports of Douri's death prove true, remains strong and widespread), along with tribal self-defence forces, a Sufi militia and former insurgent groups like Ansar al-Islam and Jaish al-Mujahideen. The fact that such a diverse coalition is fighting the Iraqi government indicates just how irretrievably Baghdad has lost the confidence of Iraq's Sunnis. But it also makes it hard for the Islamic State to control its territory - each faction has different, potentially incompatible long-term goals.
A third contradiction lies in the differing goals of the primarily Iraqi leadership group of ISIS - which, I'm arguing, is fundamentally state-like and focused on controlling territory in Iraq and Syria and remaking the Middle East - and its international network. Radicalised individuals in Western democracies, or members of the overseas wilayat, emphasise the world-revolutionary nature of the Islamic State and are influenced by Baghdadi's declaration of the caliphate in July 2014, which many see as creating a religious obligation to support ISIS. They couldn't be less excited about restoring an Islamised version of Saddam's Iraq. A showdown between jihadists and Ba'athists in the Islamic State would disillusion this global network - and should the jihadists lose, the ISIS Internationale may peel away.
Stepped-up military action by the international community, far from bonding jihadists and Ba'athists together against a common enemy, is likely to drive them apart. Whereas local sectarian adversaries tend to force factions to coalesce (a pattern seen throughout the conflict since 2003), international intervention tends to force them apart, opening fissures that may create opportunities both to destroy irreconcilables like ISIS and to forge peace settlements with reconcilable groups, such as tribal fighters or Sunni nationalists.
Besides these fundamental contradictions, ISIS as a state has two critical military weaknesses. One is territorial, the other a question of personnel. ISIS doesn't govern a large, fertile, evenly populated block of territory. Rather, it controls a network of cities separated by significant distances, surrounded by sparsely populated desert and mountains, and connected by road networks, fibre-optic and telecommunications links, smuggling routes and water sources including the Euphrates river and several major lakes and dams. This renders it highly vulnerable to interdiction: it's a "network state" that can be defeated piecemeal if sufficient pressure is brought to bear on the connections between its constituent cities.
Furthermore, 25,000 fighters may seem a lot, but ISIS has nowhere near enough troops to simultaneously defend its cities against external attack and secure them against internal opposition. And there are anti-ISIS movements in Mosul, Ramadi, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor - even, after all this time, in the ISIS capital of Raqqa. An internal armed resistance against ISIS, if coordinated with an external attack on the cities it controls, could quickly overwhelm the Islamic State's defences.
If Islamic State is a state, albeit a revolutionary, totalitarian, aggressively expansionist one, then this also tells us what it's not. It is not (or is no longer) an insurgency. Nor is it a transnational terrorist movement in the al Qaeda sense - one that uses violence in a strategy of "propaganda of the deed" to provoke a global revolution. Sure, ISIS uses exemplary violence as an instrument of policy and a means of terrifying its enemies, but so do plenty of states. As Audrey Cronin has persuasively argued:
"[ISIS] uses terrorism as a tactic, [but] it is not really a terrorist organization at all ... it is a pseudo-state led by a conventional army. And that is why the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies that greatly diminished the threat from al Qaeda will not work against ISIS."
There's been a lot of hand-wringing, since the beginning of the air campaign against ISIS, about the potential for the Western coalition to be dragged back into counterinsurgency, sucked once more into the quagmire of Iraq. This fear, in my view, is massively overblown - there is no chance that Western powers would seek, or the Iraqi government would allow, a repeat of the long-term occupation and reconstruction of Iraq that was attempted after 2003.
After 2003 in Iraq, Western powers had a legal and ethical obligation to stabilise the society we'd disrupted, establish a successor government to the regime we'd overthrown, protect an innocent population we'd put massively at risk, and rebuild the economy and infrastructure we'd shattered. No such obligation exists now - not for Iraq, which is sovereign and independent, and certainly not for Bashar al-Assad's odious dictatorship in Syria.
Western countries have a clear interest in destroying ISIS, but counterinsurgency shouldn't even be under discussion. This is a straight-up conventional fight against a state-like entity, and the goal should be to utterly annihilate ISIS as a state.
David Kilcullen was a senior advisor to General David Petraeus in 2007 and 2008, when he helped to design and monitor the Iraq War coalition troop "surge." He was then a special adviser for counterinsurgency to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. From 2005 to 2006, he was Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department. He is a former Australian Army officer and the author of three acclaimed books: The Accidental Guerrilla, Counterinsurgency and Out of the Mountains. He has also been an adviser to the British government, the Australian government, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force.