The Islamic State Will Not Survive – Despite Its Big Gains

Warhammer - Mark of Chaos

I am firmly in the camp which believes that ISIS, now known as the Islamic State, has overplayed its hand. They’re smart, organized, well-led, and now resource rich but they are also betting everything on a strategy that creates more enemies than allies and which will eventually force many divergent world powers to collaboratively focus their military might at deconstructing whatever the Islamic State attempts to stand up.

Any radical jihadist caliphate, or any significant attempt at one, will soon be returned to its failed state roots. Military hardware, command and control facilities, military barracks, forces on the move, and any industrial capabilities are easy targets for first world armies. We still struggle with nation building but we can deconstruct a state with unparalleled efficiency. This leaves us with the assurance that any imperialistic jihadist caliphate will unquestionably be dismantled if not pounded into fine-grained dust. Unfortunately, that only solves a small part of a much larger problem.

The Islamic State will never be much of state in the traditional sense. You certainly won’t see them tearing up the bobsled track in the 2018 Winter Olympics or chairing a UN committee. Survival, not expansion, will become their primary goal soon enough. But the end result of all of this will almost certainly be intractable chaos – not game winning stabilization. And creating chaos plays to their broader movement’s long game. Deconstructing a state, no matter how fragile, is a massive win for the forces seeking to upend the current world order even if they ultimately lose the big gamble.

The unfortunate truth in all of this is that there is a large and diverse set of forces in the world seeking to subvert the current order. Some of them have clearly defined objectives while others do not. Few of them are in agreement but that’s beside the point. All of them, thanks to technological advances, are radically empowered. The problem is that if these forces continue to march forward with the cheap and easy strategy of destabilization while the rest of the world struggles with the massively expensive and frequently unsuccessful strategies of stabilization something will eventually have to give.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State might ultimately be a footnote in history. I certainly don’t think either one of them will live long in the big scheme of things. But that does not mean that they have not been successful. They have claimed territory, if not for their own cause, for the cause of chaos. In the short term we will defeat them but if we do not learn how to fight a thousand year war, and ultimately tame the chaos, it might not matter.

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ISIS Declares Caliphate – Rebrands as “The Islamic State”

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A Brief Chat with Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily

Ambassador Lukman FailyThe Ambassador and I have traded tweets for some time now but I am honored that he agreed to take time out what must be an overwhelming schedule to answer a very short list of questions for Blogs of War readers.

John Little: Military and other forms of assistance have started flowing into Iraq from America, Iran, and others. Is the Iraqi government satisfied with the response thus far? Are critical additional steps needed?

Ambassador Faily: We welcome President Obama’s decision to send 300 US counterterrorist experts to Iraq to support our armed forces. However, the situation on the ground is developing rapidly and is a threat to the integrity of Iraq with potential regional implications. Therefore, we believe immediate and increased military assistance, including targeted air strikes, are crucial to defeat this growing threat. Time is not on anybody’s side.

John Little: President Obama and other leaders have repeatedly called on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take emergency steps to build a more inclusive government. He has flatly refused, calling the proposal a “coup against the constitution and the political process.” Has the current government essentially decided to sacrifice the territorial integrity of Iraq and hold its ground rather than tackle the difficult challenge of driving out Sunni extremists and building national unity? How does the government begin the process of unifying disaffected Kurdish and Sunni elements without making concessions?

Ambassador Faily: The Prime Minister has stated that he is committed to building a national unity government that embraces and empowers all segments of Iraqi society – regardless of religious, ethnic or regional backgrounds. The Prime Minister rejected the idea of forming a government in violation of the Constitution and outside of the April 30 elections – which would undercut votes cast by millions of Iraqis and potentially further destabilize the country. The newly elected Parliament will kick-off the process of forming a new government on July 1st. Iraq is working to build the institutions of government that can serve all of its people. Our political process is underway, but the Iraqi people are under an immediate and direct threat from terrorists now. The Prime Minister and his national security team are working to counter the current threat to Iraq and its people – and we need US assistance to turn the tide.

John Little: There are concerns that Prime Minister Maliki is interested in more closely aligning with Syria and Russia. Could Iraq, or what becomes of it, become so firmly aligned with Iran, Russia, and Syria that ties with the United States and its allies break down entirely? How can the country find unity and stability while simultaneously attempting to manage relationships with so many opposing forces?

Ambassador Faily: Iraq has chosen the United States as it’s strategic partner. Our relationship is governed by the Strategic Framework Agreement, which we don’t have with any other country. Naturally we have always sought positive relations with other countries as well, and in the perilous situation now facing us it is difficult for us to decline offers of assistance from others who share our perception of the threat. But rest assured that we will never chose to replace the partnership we have with America with any other country

You can follow Ambassador Faily on Twitter @FailyLukman where he excels at the developing practice of Twitter diplomacy.

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ISIS/ISIL: Jihadists Go for the Lulz

CBC The Current - ISIS/ISIL: Jihadists Go for the Lulz

I don’t seek out media appearances but last week was a busy one for me. I was interviewed by CBS News, BBC World Service, Jonathan Green of Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sunday Extra, and by Piya Chattopadhyay of the CBC’s The Current. I also had invitations from NPR and CTV that I, unfortunately, had to turn down due to time constraints. It was a busy week but thankfully all of the journalists, hosts and producers who reached out to me had a sincere interest in complex stories. They are my kind of people so talking to them was actually quite fun.

A thirty minute guest slot on a radio show seems like an eternally long time when the invitation is extended. But believe me when I tell you that it passes in an instant. A five minute appearance is even worse. It’s like being shot out of a cannon. I still have no idea what I said during my brief 1 a.m. BBC World Service appearance but I do know that an absolutely terrifying number of people do. So that leaves a few more thoughts on this subject that I didn’t quite get to…

It wasn’t too long ago that the hacker group LulzSec rampaged through the internet. They appeared to be an unstoppable force. They were seemingly above the law. In fact, they openly mocked it day in, day out. Throughout it all their message was magnified by non-stop attention from global media fueled by a massive social media footprint. For months the feds looked absolutely lost and outmatched. In reality, they were quite the opposite. They quietly and methodically identified the key players, picked the core group apart, then shut them down and locked them up. Along the way they leveraged the intelligence gathered and the informants created to go on a rampage of their own. The feds won and they won big. So when looking at groups like this it’s important to remember that Superpowers don’t tweet their way to lulz. They use intelligence, police work, courts and the occasional missile. And Hellfires are the ultimate last lulz.

ISIS, although far more dangerous and disturbing, has swept into the public consciousness in much the same way as LulzSec. Their spectacular success on the ground has been augmented by a clever, well-orchestrated, social media campaign. More importantly, its members and supporters speak the language of social media, and are able to build campaigns around it, in a way that few other groups have. They get snark. They understand the quirky humor and leverage it to their advantage. They know how to make their message move and how to trigger a response. They even have technical resources to help them do that. All of it would be unremarkable, actually, if not for their mission and the surrealness of unspeakable brutality juxtaposed with the odd kitten and AK-47 pic.

Still, none of this should be surprising. We are now in era where a good portion of the planet has grown up with social media. In the very near future (and in the case of ISIS right now) extremists won’t have to learn how to leverage the tools or the lingo. Everyone of fighting age will be a digital native with life in social media that likely pre-dates their radicalization. All of this social media campaigning (which still strikes some as sophisticated) will be second nature to them. And again, in the case of ISIS, it is obviously second nature to many of its supporters right now.

A rapid stream of ISIS victories, massive amounts of media coverage and millions of breathless tweets have had a powerful combined effect on the group’s image. Like LulzSec at it’s height they appear to be unstoppable. And while they are a massively destabilizing force in the region, the general public (and many journalists) should start taking a much more critical view of their propaganda. This five year projection would be a good place to start.

ISIS Trolls the Internet with its Five Year Expansion Plan

When looking at this map it is important to understand that ISIS is thriving in a near vacuum created by conflict in Syria and a completely dysfunctional Iraqi government and military. They have not been at the top of a superpower’s target list. And now, after this onslaught, the group has risen to the top of several kill lists. They are creating enemies on a massive scale. So that five year expansion plan is equal parts wildly optimistic recruit bait, psychological warfare and outright trolling. What the group really needs is a five year survival plan. Life for them is about to get much more challenging.

Technology is a Double-Edged Sword

It is quite easy to understand how a broad social media campaign helps ISIS. But their success in this area will create some problems for the group over the long haul. Their members and supporters are feeding scores of intelligence analysts across the globe. Members and supporters are being cataloged, mapped and tracked back to their real identities on a massive scale. Those hashtag campaigns that encourage supporters around the globe to check-in are also an intelligence goldmine. Some of them will use privacy tools to evade detection but mistakes will be made and when they are several services will be waiting.

Another early success for the group, the use of an Android app to boost their social media presence, will also come back to haunt them. Not only will it be a source of valuable intelligence but it illustrates a point of vulnerability for eJihadists who might be surprised to find that their next favorite app was actually created by an opposing intelligence agency or freelancer. Loose digital networks are shockingly easy to infiltrate and misdirect. This one is going to be targeted on a massive scale.

Obviously, this is a reminder that the internet will remain a persistent battlefield for governments and extremists. But it should also serve as a reminder that quick and easy propaganda victories by small forces do not translate into won wars. And governments, in case you haven’t been watching the news for the past year, know how to wage a digital war. More importantly, they know how to take an online battle into the real world on a scale that ISIS does not yet fully appreciate. They can troll the U.S. government all day with Michelle Obama Photoshops but the memes and hashtags that seem so amusing in the early stages of this conflict may be viewed with regret once ISIS realizes the response they’ve triggered.

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