The West and moderate Middle Eastern states fear ISIS and rightly so. It combines terror techniques with territorial ambitions more effectively than any group since the Bolsheviks. While many focus on the ISIS’ strengths, they neglect to point out that concerted effort could annihilate them.
ISIS currently has the weaknesses of both a sovereign state and a terror organization. This could change rapidly as they coalesce, but right now, they are very vulnerable.
Age old strategies established by Sun Tzu and others will work. In Art of War, the ancient Chinese master strategist wrote that to defeat an enemy, find that which he holds dear and attack it.
Al Qaeda was so difficult to fight precisely because it was stateless. The Bush Administration attacked its financial assets, but this did not cause attrition in their ranks.
Also British arms could not find and defeat George Washington, who valued his army more than any point on the map. He abandoned every major city to the British while building his forces to the point where they could defeat their arms. Conversely, Ulysses S. Grant knew that Robert E. Lee would sacrifice most of his forces to protect Richmond.
ISIS, like a sovereign state, has important points on the map that it will sacrifice forces to defend. According to ABC News, ISIS earns $3 million per day from its oil wells. Reasonably, a strategist should assume that ISIS will spend forces defending these assets. This would require a ground assault, not simply destroying the wells with cruise missiles.
ISIS has an estimated 30,000 fighters spread throughout the region. Search and destroy tactics likely will only scatter them more. Concentrating on something they must defend brings them together into a mass that can be wiped out. Many of them value martyrdom over self-preservation, giving anti-ISIS forces even more of a psychological edge.
Additionally, any anti-ISIS operation should include security for areas most threatened by their terror. Max Boot in Savage Wars of Peace describes “extensive patrol and night operations in platoon and company strength.” As Boot explains, this can help rebuild the confidence of local forces trying to protect their own.
ISIS also is much more vulnerable to undermining strategies than a sovereign nation-state. Its emphasis on recruiting Europeans and Americans leaves the door wide open for intelligence services to infiltrate.
In terrorist infiltration, Russian success taught the United States. Czarist Russia and the US both dealt with aggressive, entrenched, and very violent domestic terror groups in the 20th century. Before the chaos and breakdowns of World War I, Russia’s Okhrana secret police had gained the upper hand on terror. Leftist and anarchist terror groups had assassinated Czar Alexander II and killed thousands of civil service workers. The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin published propaganda and used bombs to rob banks for revenue.
The Okhrana effectively broke down these groups through infiltration. Agents would provoke the group to launch attacks that would be foiled by police. Prior to the war, Russia had caught and banished Lenin. Many of the other Bolsheviks languished in jail or fled abroad. Only the war gave that evil band new life.
J. Edgar Hoover, while despised by civil libertarians, did break the most violent terror group to ever operate on American soil. By the 1960s, the second Ku Klux Klan had operated with impunity for nearly half a century, attacking ethnic and religious minorities alike. It had burrowed into the political and economic life of states in the North and the South. Southern states in particular had their justice system subverted by this evil influence. Klan assassination of a black Army colonel gave President John F. Kennedy the national security justification to let his brother Robert take the constitutional gloves off of Hoover.
The FBI went to war with the Klan, using the same techniques previously mastered by the Okhrana. They infiltrated the Klan to provoke attacks foiled by federal agents. Churches known to be Klan friendly often unwittingly welcomed agents listening to sermons and conversations for intelligence.
Hoover’s special adaptation on Russian tactics was to sow dissent, even in families. Rumors spread about Klansmen sleeping with other Klansmen’s wives. Agents would plant women’s underwear in the cars of married Klansmen. Eventually, the running joke claimed that Klan meetings had more FBI than bona fide Klan.
The Department of Justice’s ultimate goal lay in building cases to prosecute Klansmen. Kennedy’s virtual proscription of the Klan allowed the FBI to attack it in the same fashion as German agents in World War II.
And those ideologically committed men turned into double agents surprisingly quickly.
The FBI also successfully penetrated the top ranks of the most secretive and hierarchical organized crime outfit in the world.
ISIS’ enjoyment of recruiting Europeans and Americans to their cause opens the door wide for infiltration on a broad scale. Again, the media portrays this recruiting tactic as a strength when it potentially fatally weakens them.
These weaknesses will not last. ISIS will strengthen its hold on territory and the people within. Forces supporting Middle Eastern moderation need a win and ISIS provides a suitable target.
Certainly this analysis does not take into account wider political, legal, and diplomatic factors. It only offers ideas on how to proceed once the decision is made to fight. Half measures, however, run the risk of allowing the hardiest bacteria to survive the antibiotics, reproduce, and make the disease worse in the long term. If the world is going to fight here, it must bring a full level of force and commitment to bear in wiping this plague away.