Since 2014, numerous publications have analyzed different aspects of the Islamic State, from its military tactics and ideological doctrines to its governance and media operations. This article summarizes key lessons from the authors' efforts to collect, analyze, and present a holistic perspective of this movement through its own works and words dating as far back as its inception in the late 1990s. The authors present three frames through which to understand the movement's ability to navigate through spectacular highs and crippling lows: the centrality of territory and population control to its revolutionaary warfare campaigns, the deliberate routinization of its leadership and organization, and the way its propaganda has continuously been deployed to support its leaders and strategy. Seen through the retrospective lens presented here, the Islamic State movement demonstrates an approach to institutional learning and adaption that has long been central to its innovations and resilience as an insurgency.
The start of the new year was marked by a potentially fatal blow to the Global Coalition Against Daesh's efforts to achieve the permanent defeat of the Islamic State movement. Increased pressure by Iranian proxies in Iraq to drive the United States out and the United States' targeted killing of both Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, has led the coalition to shift its focus from training local partners to its own force protection. (1) While it resumed counter-Islamic State operations after a brief pause, the medium- and long-term impact of the new operational risks posed by potential Iranian backlash could jeopardize the significant progress made to prevent another resurgence of the group in Iraq. (2)
To be sure, the United States and its partners have been here before. Ten years ago, the Islamic State movement was on its knees, struggling to survive the dual decapitation raid in April 2010 that killed its then top leaders, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian al-Qa'ida veteran). (3) Not long after this strike, the United States announced that it was drawing down its presence in Iraq and handing the bulk of its counterinsurgency operations over to local forces. This, coupled with the disintegration of Syria at around the same time, was exactly what the movement needed to survive. In the years that followed, through a combination of tactical opportunism and strategic prowess, instead of just weathering the storm, it thrived.
Currently, the war against the Islamic State is on the cusp of another turning point--one from which gains against it will either be consolidated or undermined--and as policymakers weigh up what to do next, this is as good a time as any to review what drives the movement in a holistic manner that considers its full history, not just the last few years. To that end, to tell the inside story of this group in a manner that informs as to its future and not just its past, the authors have compiled a IS-chapter compendium called The ISIS Reader (Hurst/Oxford University Press). (4) In it, the authors trace the Islamic State movement (a) from its inauspicious beginnings in the 1990s as a small cadre led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (5) to the near total decimation of its first proto-state in Iraq in 2007-2008 (6) and then its remarkable resurgence less than a decade later, which saw it declare a transnational caliphate, (7) through to its most recent decline and the death of its first caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019. (8) The picture that emerges from this decades-long history is one of a strategic, methodical, and opportunistic organization that learns from its successes and failures, institutionalizes and indoctrinates those lessons to improve future performance, and ruthlessly exploits its adversaries' inattention and misunderstanding.
The authors approached this as observers who have spent their careers in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, advisory, and capacity-building roles--cumulative experience that has highlighted to them the invaluable role of primary sources in understanding this group's decision-making on the one hand and devising effective counter-strategies on the other. While the authors hope there are many lessons for scholars and practitioners in this telling of its history, in this article, they focus on just three themes: strategic culture, leadership, and propaganda. In part one, they trace the Islamic State movement's evolution since the 1990s; in part two, they identify successes and failures of its strategy formulation and implementation over time, as well as lessons that appear to have been ingrained into its politico-military approach; in part three, they consider the vital role of its leaders, outlining how the interplay of leadership, strategy, and organizational configuration has complementarily evolved over time; and, finally, in part four, they examine the strategic pillars that have persistently shaped and driven its approach to influencing both friend and foe--in other word, its media jihad.
Part One: The Four Phases of the Islamic State Movement
The history of the Islamic State can usefully be divided into four broadly distinct periods, each of which is characterized by not only certain leadership, organizational, and strategic traits, but aspirational qualities reflective of how the group intended to apply its manhaj (methodology).
The first period is defined by the leadership of the movement's founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (9) It spans from the 1990s to 2006, when al-Zarqawi was killed and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was declared. While his militant group Jama'at al-Tawhid wa-1-Jihad (JTJ) rose to notoriety during the Iraqi insurgency, it is clear from al-Zarqawi's first public speech in 1994 that the ideological influence on its strategy had deep roots. (10) A relatively young Jordanian (he was in his early 30s at the time) with no formal religious education, al-Zarqawi led the future cohort of JTJ from Afghanistan to the battlefields of Iraq wherein it would eventually, in 2004, rebrand as al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (better known as al-Qa'ida in Iraq or AQI).
The second strategic phase in its history spans from the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006 to its near decimation by the Sunni Awakening and U.S. forces in 2007-2008 and the five-year rebuild it went through in its aftermath. (11) This was a period characterized by the largely covert but capable leadership from Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, known at the time as 'the two sheikhs; not to mention Abu Umar's successor for the top spot, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was during this period that much of the organizational, strategic, and leadership traits that would later bear fruit for the movement in the 2010s were established.
The third phase spans from 2011 to 2016 and is characterized by transnational expansion and the establishment of the Islamic State caliphate. (12) Under al-Baghdadi's direction, ISI members were dispatched in late 2011 to Syria to set up shop, eventually resulting, in January 2012, in the unveiling of Jabhat al-Nusra and, in April 2013, the announcement of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham. (13) Especially after the declaration of its caliphate just over a year later, it was during this phase that the Islamic State attracted an historically unprecedented wave of foreigners to Syria and Iraq and established a string of formal and aspirant provinces elsewhere across the region and, indeed, the rest of the world. To ensure its global networks adhered to the organizational and strategic requirements of its manhaj, (14) it produced reams of doctrine during this period, spanning anything from the role of women in its ranks (15) to its approach to propaganda. (16)
By mid-2016, the Islamic State's advances stalled and began to reverse, (17) something that marked the fourth and current phase of its history. It was around this time that then spokesmen Abu Muhammad al-Adnani prepared the movement and its supporters for its imminent decline in (unbeknownst to him) his final address. (18) This period is characterized by a spiraling decline in territory, resources, and personnel, which ultimately resulted in the group being routed from its last area of control in Syria-Baghouz-in March 2019. By the end of that year, al-Adnani's replacement as spokesman (Abul Hasan al-Muhajir) and the movement's first caliph (al-Baghdadi) would be dead. But with its now well-established global network, the Islamic State movement continues to wage a global 'archipelagic' insurgency from West Africa to East Asia, with a new guerrilla caliph at its helm. (19)
Part Two: The Islamic State's Shifting Strategies
Studying Islamic State strategy over the arc of its existence, from its precursor groups to the post-territorial caliphate, helped the authors understand how the movement overcame existential challenges in the past, developed a strategic culture that informs decision-making, (20) and is able to manage the prospect of defeat today. (21) (b) The group's sequential strategies, as documented in its captured and self-published documents, have led to both stunning successes --for instance, its establishment of a caliphate proto-state--and dismal failures--consider the grinding defeat of its conventional forces atthe hands of the coalition in 2019. (22) Studying them, the authors found ample evidence of learning from past missteps reflected in new strategies, only to discover new pitfalls as the movement expanded beyond its core heartland of Iraq and Syria. (23)
Analysts attempting to make sense of the Islamic State movement's strategy often reference Abu Bakr Naji's Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Islamic Nation Will...