Just a few months ago, it was common for many analysts to be dismissive of ISIS because of its tendency to terrorise and kill Muslims. Its popularity wouldn’t last, they confidently declared. It has been rebuked not just by al-Qaeda but even extremists preachers such as Abu Qatada for its bloodlust and being a “killing machine”.
But the leaders of ISIS have demonstrated not just extraordinary military capability and foresight, they have publicised their savagery to devastating effect: sapping the morale of Iraqi, Lebanese and even Kurdish fighters. They have worked hard to capitalise on Sunni Muslim anger in Iraq and Syria, and win over locals by creating order and providing security. As a result they have held on to vast territorial gains in a short space of time.
Over the longer term of course, this won’t be enough. ISIS fighters need to keep terrorising and killing Muslims across the Middle East to expand their Caliphate. Its leadership, which has recruited senior ex-military personnel to the organisational structure, knows they will have powerful foes to overcome.
So they will be hoping for three things. Firstly, they would want the US and other western countries to invade Iraq or conduct an extensive bombing campaign that kills civilians. No other presence has a better chance of uniting radical Sunni groups across the Middle East with ISIS, especially in a country that still bears deep scars from the invasion of 2003.
Secondly, ISIS would want the West to ally with Assad – the dictator responsible for the deaths of 200,000 Muslims over the last 4 years. Telling Muslims that the USA was allying with Assad would be the best recruiting tool that ISIS could hope for.
And finally, ISIS will want the symbolism of the United States and the UK invading Iraq, again, to destroy a Muslim Caliphate and protect their own interests. The West stood by when 200,000 Muslims were slaughtered, ISIS will say, but are willing to invade as soon as two American journalists get beheaded. They don’t want Muslims to manage their own affairs and govern themselves, ISIS will add.
All or any of these narratives would bring ISIS more recruits, more funding and more support for the Islamic State.
Later today, as President Obama unveils a US-led plan to fight ISIS, he will be in danger of falling straight into their trap. And if Britain follows Obama, we will end up facilitating it and putting our own security further at risk.
The problems with any such plan are obvious. ISIS have amassed a highly motivated ground army of approximately 20,000 fighters. It would take any national army a significant and extensive operation to destroy them. And yet, President Obama has already ruled out American ground troops in Iraq or Syria. There is no prospect of British troops returning to the region soon either.
So who will take on ISIS on the ground? The Iraqi army is woefully under-motivated, torn apart by years of sectarian infighting and has been incapable against ISIS so far. The Kurdish groups have shown themselves to be capable and motivated against ISIS, but will keep to their own areas. They don’t have the capability to extend themselves into southern Iraq or ISIS strongholds in Syria, and have been accused by Sunni groups of revenge attacks. The West could work with Shiite militias from Iran and Iraq against ISIS, but it would only heighten sectarian tensions and differences. In other words we don’t have many options.
Militarily, the only viable campaign against ISIS has to be led by a Sunni-majority country such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
We like to think of ourselves as the superior foe: the one with intelligence, strategy and superior firepower. But ISIS have shown a remarkable understanding of our our strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly: our predictability. They know we over-react. They know we over-estimate our influence in the Middle East. And finally, they know that despite all our talk of proceeding with caution and diplomacy, we end up trying to solve problems by dropping bombs.
The only effective way to counter the ISIS narrative that this was another American campaign against Muslims would be to have the Arab world lead the charge. And yet, Obama is planning to announce the anti-ISIS strategy before talking to Arab leaders about it. The UK is already discussing new military bases. This isn’t just careless planning but counter-productive.
The worst thing the West can do now is talk tough against ISIS, which helps them recruit more jihadis, without having an effective plan to back that tough talk. And yet that is exactly the trap we are falling into.