Redefining the Islamic State

Policy Paper
Aug. 18, 2011

Despite dramatic security improvements since 2006, terrorism is still rampant in Iraq. According to statistics compiled by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), between January 2008 and the end of 2010, morethan 300 people were killed every month in 200 acts of terrorism—each figure higher than in any other country in the world. These facts might strike many people as counterintuitive, because Iraq no longer receives the attention it once did from global media. Moreover, American assessments of Iraq tend to focus on sectarian violence rather than terrorism as a measure of instability, which can be misleading. Whereas sectarian violence was the dominant form of fighting in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, when the country was at its most unstable, it has been dramatically reduced. That progress is important and serious, but over-reliance on evaluations of sectarian violence for understanding the current conflict in Iraq fails to adequately account for the conflict’s evolution. As the United States and Iraqi governments debate whether U.S. troops should remain in Iraq after December 2011, policymakers in Washington should not assume that violent actors in Iraq will hew to the political and tactical contours of 2006. 

That is particularly true for al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which has evolved substantially in the last five years—mostly because of dramatic defeats inflicted by Iraqi tribal groups and the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy implemented in 2007 and 2008. As a result of those setbacks, the ISI has eschewed efforts to control territory and impose governance—initiatives that left it extremely vulnerable to counterinsurgency techniques—and adopted a more traditional terrorist model built on an underground organization and occasional large-scale attacks. The ISI’s resilience has also been facilitated by shifts in U.S. and Iraqi policy, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces to large bases and the shift of U.S. Special Operations Forces to Afghanistan.

The ISI increasingly resembles other al-Qaeda franchises that are more focused on terrorist attacks as opposed to the ISI of 2006, which was unique in its ambitious concentration on controlling territory and building a governance structure. The ISI’s new approach raises the possibility that it will emulate al-Qaeda franchises in other ways, including by trying to conduct attacks in the West. There is no definitive evidence that the ISI is increasing investment in such operations, but senior U.S. law enforcement personnel have raised the possibility in recent months, likely in response to revelations about ISI networks in the West, including an alleged facilitator of foreign fighters who was recently arrested in Canada, and following the indictment of two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky arrested in a sting operation involving logistical support to the ISI.

The ISI’s future is particularly ambiguous because of its broad strategic shift over the past three years and leadership changes brought on by the deaths of two key leaders in April 2010. Moreover, communications with al-Qaeda’s central leadership—which played an important role in shaping the group’s territory-focused strategy—is opaque. Despite the continuing uncertainty, the ISI’s resilience and evolution lead to several key findings:

The ISI is increasingly likely to attempt violent operations outside Iraq, including in the West. There are several reasons for this shift. First, the ISI’s reduced focus on territory will require less manpower from abroad, which may therefore be redirected toward external targets. Second, as the United States becomes less exposed financially, politically, and militarily in Iraq, the ISI will have to look outside Iraq’s borders to engage directly in al-Qaeda’s global strategy of bleeding and weakening the United States. Third, the ISI has suffered serious damage to its reputation, and attacking Western targets outside Iraq is the most reliable way to reverse the weakness in its brand. Fourth, al-Qaeda has embraced a strategic concept that encourages individuals and groups to strike at the West whenever possible, which suggests it may be less likely to restrain ISI efforts to attack outside of Iraq than it was previously. The ISI does have limitations that constrain its ability to operate in the West, most notably an absence of established cells, but also the lack of a charismatic ideological figure to radicalize Western recruits, such as Anwar al-Awlaki. This suggests that ISI operations in the West are likely to evolve from more structured networks—either formulated in Iraq among ISI members with mobility abroad, out of Iraqi Diaspora communities with family ties to Iraq, or from existing fundraising and recruitment networks that focused previously on ushering resources into Iraq.

The ISI benefits from Iraqi political dysfunction. Political instability in Iraq, especially that which marginalizes or disenfranchises the Sunni community, creates conditions the ISI can exploit. Although the Iraqi army is increasingly effective and is likely to be supported by U.S. advisors for the foreseeable future, there is little reason to believe that an Iraqi state with an immature political culture, a slew of violent opponents, and weak police forces will be able to stamp out the ISI.

Population-centric counterinsurgency has limited utility against militant networks organized primarily for terrorism rather than insurgency. The continued prevalence of terrorism in Iraq reveals the limitations of U.S.-led counterinsurgency operations and raises questions about the utility of COIN in operations designed to defeat groups that are not focused on territory and establishing authority amongst a local population. The U.S. counterinsurgency successes over the ISI came at a time when it was attempting to hold territory and had overreached terribly in its relationship with Iraq’s Sunnis. The ISI’s strategic and operational adjustments—retracting into regions where organic social unrest prevented stabilization, reducing its overall numbers, and increasing discipline—reduced the group’s vulnerability to counterinsurgency techniques designed to mobilize large segments of the population. Terrorist groups can survive, and even thrive, with far fewer supporters than groups attempting to control territory and govern.

Observing the limitations of counterinsurgency is not the same as condemning the doctrine or criticizing its use in either Iraq or Afghanistan. But counterinsurgency is inadequate for defeating militant networks primarily organized for terrorism, even when it includes so-called counterterrorism operations conducted by Special Operations Forces (SOF). Local governments are likely to oppose such operations if domestic militant groups do not pose an existential threat to the government. Relying on SOF to achieve counterterrorism missions obscures critical political factors that could limit the utility of that course of action.

The ISI’s resilience in the face of the reasonably successful COIN campaign in Iraq suggests that U.S. policymakers should expect that al-Qaeda elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be equally durable. Even a successful outcome of the COIN effort in Afghanistan is unlikely to prevent al-Qaeda or other international terrorist groups from utilizing Afghan territory for safe haven and planning purposes.

These findings in turn suggest several key recommendations:

American analysts should monitor the ISI’s personnel system and leadership statements for indicators of its strategic direction. It is a truism of American politics that “personnel is policy”; the same is often true in terrorist organizations. In past years, the ISI did not prioritize identifying recruits with the capacity to operate effectively in the West, which reflected the group’s focus on Iraq. Enhanced efforts to identify recruits with Western passports or the ability to maneuver in the West would indicate that the ISI is shifting its strategic focus. ISI efforts to systematically identify and/or manipulate Iraqis with family members abroad would also be an indication of its intent. Additionally, ISI leadership statements are still a useful way of understanding the group’s strategic direction. In recent years, leadership statements have been key indicators of the group’s focus on targeting Christians and its renewed effort to attack Shi’a in Iraq.

U.S.assessments of the ISI—and Iraq—should use updated metrics. Changes in the ISI’s structure and strategy have made previous metrics of the group’s strength less valuable, especially the amount of ethno-sectarian violence in Iraq. The United States needs new analytical paradigms for understanding the ISI: Specifically, the group should increasingly be measured by the standards of a terrorist organization rather than an insurgent group. Analysis of the ISI that focuses primarily on whether the group will strengthen into something similar to the organization that haunted Iraq in 2006 is likely to miss the other threats it poses, especially to targets outside Iraq

By the standard often used to define success in counterinsurgency—eliminating a movement’s ability to threaten the viability of the state—the victories over the ISI in 2007 and 2008 constitute something close to success. But the ISI’s persistence demonstrates that that standard is inadequate for securing core U.S. interests, because the group still has the potential to utilize Iraqi territory as a base for attacks even as the Iraqi government consolidates its authority. Defining victory in Iraq in traditional terms ignores al-Qaeda’s unique predilection to use terrorist tactics to target U.S. interests without posing an existential threat to the state. Viewed as an insurgent organization, the ISI has been defeated. Viewed as a transnational terrorist group, it is vibrant.

Increasingly emphasize disrupting rather than monitoring ISI support networks. A key debate among counterterrorism practitioners is whether to disrupt low-level terrorist support networks or monitor them for intelligence that leads to more important targets. In the past, emphasis on monitoring of ISI networks outside of Iraq was probably justified, but if the ISI does attempt to activate those networks for violence in the West, practitioners should increasingly emphasize disruption.

Do not stigmatize Iraqi refugee and immigrant communities. ISI networks in the West are likely to be composed of people with direct ties to Iraq. Rather than instituting selective and potentially discriminatory policies for these communities, political leaders, government officials from a range of agencies, civil society figures, and counterterrorism practitioners should engage them directly and continually on many subjects. The goal should be to reassure and welcome a traumatized community, and in doing so reassure people capable of providing information about the very limited number of bad actors. Hyperbolic descriptions of the threat and intrusive surveillance are likely to make the community as a whole more insular rather than facilitate cooperation with authorities.

For the full text of this 23-page policy paper, please click here.

Brian Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow with the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program.