How Formidable Is ISIS?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Michael Gunter and Nahro Zagros

Dr. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University. Dr. Zagros is the vice president for curriculum development at Soran University in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Most of this article is based on Dr. Gunter’s findings during his visit to the Iraqi Kurdish region in late September 2014 and his earlier research on the situation in Syria recently published as Michael M. Gunter, Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War (Hurst Publishers Ltd., 2014). Among many others, Dr. Gunter also benefited from talks with Nahro Zagros, the vice president for curriculum development at Soran University in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and Till Paasche, a lecturer in political geography at Soran University.

The immediate origins of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)1 lie in the opportunity spaces provided by two bitter civil wars that challenged the existing state system and the borders created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of World War I: (1) The Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq that followed the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and (2) the even more horrific civil war that has been raging in Syria since 2011. Inspired by al-Qaeda’s militant stance against perceived American dominance, a significant sector of Iraq’s newly dispossessed Sunni Arabs created al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to regain the power they had lost to the Shia-dominated government in Iraq. Although repeatedly hammered by U.S. military might, including both the total air supremacy that killed AQI leader Musab al-Zarqawi and the high-tech boots on the ground, the United States and its Shia-dominated Iraqi partners only managed to (temporarily) defeat AQI. This was accomplished by using political and financial rewards to peel off significant Sunni support. The failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to continue politically engaging Iraq’s still powerful, but dispossessed Sunnis, allowed AQI to reinvent itself, especially after the United States withdrew its ground troops at the end of 2011.

At the same time, Syria’s civil war of all against all had begun. The porous artificial state border between Iraq and Syria provided sanctuary to the revitalized AQI and bases in Syria, from which the movement now known as ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) could move with relative ease. Sanctuary and bases had already been procured in Iraq due to al-Maliki’s having alienated Iraq’s Sunnis.

ISIS did not immediately emerge as an existential threat. Initial battles took places against other al-Qaeda offshoots including its official Syrian franchise, Jablat al-Nusra; more moderate Islamic groups; the supposedly more secular Free Syrian Army; Bashar al-Assad’s reduced but still formidable forces; and Syria’s Kurds now largely under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a sister of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). ISIS persevered and at times showed formidable strength, but then suddenly in June 2014 burst out of its confines and conquered Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. This major success presented the organization with large swaths of territory, a great deal of money supposedly seized from Mosul’s central bank, some of the latest U.S. military equipment from Baghdad’s U.S trained but beaten troops, and a supportive Sunni Arab population. The achievement also led ISIS to declare itself a new caliphate, the Islamic State (IS), with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi its self-proclaimed caliph. (Its enemies began calling the organization the Daesh, an Arab acronym for ISIS Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, a term that also sounded like the word for crush and quickly became derogatory).


From the perspective of early October 2014, it appears that ISIS gained its strength from a wide range of political, sociological, economic and military factors following the virtual collapse of the traditional state system in Syria and Iraq.2 Some argue that only two and a half states remain in the region: Turkey, Iran and Egypt (the fractional digit). Tribal loyalties have been reactivated. In addition, the age-old Sunni-Shia split has further torn Iraq and Syria apart. Thus, the seemingly mad violence and power of ISIS is largely a symptom of the collapsed state system.

There are, of course, a number of specific factors that should be mentioned. Despite Turkey’s denials, its earlier tacit support allowing jihadists from all over the world to transit its territory and cross into Syria, has been well documented.3 Turkey’s motivation was to enable the Syrian opposition to defeat Assad and the Syrian Kurds, who had declared a thinly disguised PKK proto-state on Turkey’s southern border. Chechnya, radicalized over the past two decades by Islamic ferment, has been one of many significant contributors to this jihadist traffic. 4

These jihadists who sought to recapture the lost glories of a resplendent Islam were bolstered by others, whether adventurers soldiers of fortune or criminals. Drugs have even been used to convince converts to launch suicide attacks, the promise of immediate entrance into paradise being insufficient.5

The beheading of their enemies is the most infamous of ISIS’s actions. The group interprets some verses in the Quran (especially in Al-Anfal and Muhammad) to justify this deed. The Surah Muhammad, in section 4, states: “So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, and then secure their bonds …”6 Another justification of beheading lies in the Surah Al-Anfal: ‘… those who disbelieve so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.’7 The ISIS method of intimidation is also supported by section 60 in the Surah Al-Anfal: “And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged.”8

Paradoxically, even some Christians and Kurds have joined ISIS whether out of sheer desire for adventure or for ideological factors stemming from perceived anti-American/Western grievances. However, the numbers in these latter two groups are probably low and should not be over-emphasized. Still, that non-Muslims and non-Sunnis have been recruited warns against facile explanations for the strength of ISIS. More relevant is the strict and uncompromising Wahhabi Islamic doctrine prevalent in Saudi Arabia, as well as financing from sympathizers in such states as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, among other states.9

Even the United States has inadvertently assisted what has now morphed into the Islamic State by lax policies that allowed many of its current leaders to escape from U.S. detention centers in Iraq.10 The list includes the caliph himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi —  who spent almost five years imprisoned at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq — as well as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Louay, Abu Kassem, Abu Jurnas, Abu Shema and Abu Suja, among others. These extremists were held side-by-side with those less radical, allowing U.S.-coalition prisons in Iraq to become recruitment centers and even training grounds for ISIS recruits. Moderates who objected to being radicalized were harassed or worse through so-called Sharia courts that spread through the prisons. Limited resources to evaluate the prisoners effectively helped obscure what was occurring. Eventually, even prisoners with strong evidence against them were still released because of the weaknesses of the Iraqi court system and the refusal of the United States to share classified information. In addition, some of the most extreme radicals who had been sentenced to death were freed by successful ISIS attacks on what were now Iraqi prisons after the United States withdrawal at the end of 2011.

ISIS has clearly learned much from its travails about how to survive to fight another day. The organization is now burgeoning because of its perceived success, dynamism and sense of destiny. The Mosul victory in June 2014 enhanced these attributes by bringing vast amounts of captured funds11 and some of the latest U.S. military equipment into the organization’s grasp. Although ISIS now seemed to be the enemy of everybody and the specific target of a hastily constructed U.S. alliance, its opponents were weakened by their mutual hatreds and lack of unity. The United States, for example, forgot Churchill’s positive reference to the devil when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and its own wartime alliance with Stalin [“If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”], and refused to admit Iran to its anti-ISIS coalition even though that Shia state was clearly one of the most effective potential opponents of ISIS. For the time being at least, ISIS could mobilize its maximum potential, while its myriad opponents were divided.

Thus, when ISIS suddenly struck the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on August 3, 2014, its vaunted military or peshmerga found themselves out-gunned, due to inferior military equipment, and initially without allies. Since the KRG was still not yet independent, American aid could only legally be channeled through Baghdad, which hesitated to give too much, lest the Kurds use it to become independent. Only after an emergency appeal from KRG president Massoud Barzani for immediate U.S. aid12 to stem the ISIS tide —a mere 20 miles away from its capital, Erbil, with its 1.5 million inhabitants — was ISIS brought to at least a temporary halt by U.S. air power. However, the current U.S. no-boots-boots-on-the-ground policy obviously encourages ISIS to believe that it can eventually triumph.


In addition to its enemies’ lack of unity, ISIS’s tactics have so far proven very successful. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gained ultimate control of ISIS on May 15, 2010, he instituted a command-and-control structure involving centralized control, but decentralized execution. Thus the central command sets the place and date of the attacks, but the regional commanders decide their own degree of participation according to local conditions. ISIS attacks where there is weakness and halts when met by significant opposition and moves on to strike elsewhere. For example, when a combination of U.S. air strikes, KRG peshmerga, and PYD/PKK forces from Syria and the Qandil Mountains stopped the ISIS drive on Erbil in mid-August 2014, ISIS quickly turned its forces against the Syrian Kurdish canton of Kobane (also known by its Arab name Ayn al-Arab).

Peshmerga fighters who faced the ISIS onslaught in August 2014 told this author that ISIS had adopted a tactic from the great Islamic (and Kurdish) leader Salahadin (1137-93) who fought the Crusaders so successfully. Along with surprise, mobility and the resulting shock, the tactic is lengthy, shaping of the battlefield or advancing in broad lines. This has enabled ISIS to find weaknesses in its foes’ defenses, concentrate its forces at the weak point, and then break through. Unlike the mercy  Salahadin famously showed his enemies, ISIS’s well-publicized reputation for brutality sometimes causes panic and flight when its troops merely advances and certainly when they break through.  With a motorized infantry column including hundreds of armed utility vehicles that could move quickly on Iraq’s open and relatively good highways, the main ISIS column from Syria joined local cells within Iraq to reach 10,000 -15,000 fighters in the lightning capture of Mosul on June 6, 2014.13

Mobility and deception have also enabled ISIS to gain local superiority in spite of their relatively small numbers. Probes and feints allow ISIS to judge its opposition, bypass strong defenses, and lure enemy forces from the primary target. ISIS usually begins its attacks with one or more mass-casualty attacks to arouse panic and cause flight. Car bombs to create chaos and overwhelm barriers, suicide attackers, fighters dressed in their foes’ uniforms, and hostage taking are all frequently used to scare adversaries and shatter morale. During their advance on Mosul, the organization also employed social media such as Twitter to announce that it would show no mercy to those who resisted. Well-publicized executions of resisters are often conducted, as in Tikrit on June 11, 2014, and Sinjar in early August 2014. ISIS’s mobility also permits it to take advantage of its foes when they thin out their forces. At Jalula on August 10, 2014, the peshmerga had withdrawn to meet a perceived threat elsewhere at Makhmour. Lacking more sophisticated intelligence capabilities, the Kurds were unaware of massing ISIS forces until it was too late.

From its inception as AQI, ISIS/IS has been skillful at identifying with tribal needs. For example, during the Iraqi civil war of 2007-08, Sunni tribal grievances proved the basis for the organization’s very creation. More recently, during the battles that raged around Jalula in August 2014, ISIS took advantage of the anti-Kurdish feelings of Arab tribes. At the same time, during the battle for Amerli, ISIS permitted Arab tribes to harvest the ripe wheat fields of displaced Shia Turkmen. On the other hand, ISIS has reacted brutally against opposing tribes, the tribal revolt at Zorwiya on July 7, 2014 being a good example.

Once the U.S. air campaign against ISIS in Syria began in September 2014, one of its stated goals was to find and support moderate forces to serve as boots on the ground. This has not been easy; the Kurds are probably the only force that meets the U.S. requirement of being relatively moderate, secular and pro-American. Indeed, the Syrian Kurds already have a proven record over the past two years of being able to hold their own against ISIS. However, there is a Catch-22: the ruling PYD is a sister party of the PKK, which is on the U.S. terrorism list. Thus, the United States has blocked itself from supporting these wildly pro-American, moderate and secular Kurds by its own anti-terrorist policies. This is compounded by the U.S. assumption that to support the Syrian Kurds would alienate the U.S. NATO ally Turkey, long an opponent of the PKK. However, this reasoning ignores the fact that Turkey itself has been openly negotiating with the PKK since March 2013.

If Turkey is now able to deal with the PKK, it would seem that the United States could deal with the PYD, especially since the PYD is not even on the U.S. terrorism list. The United States is allowing its best potential moderate ally in Syria to be slowly crushed by the much-better-armed ISIS in Kobane. To compound the irony, Turkey has chosen not to intervene, apparently believing that it would favor its national interests for ISIS to crush a pro-PKK autonomous entity on its immediate southern border. Of course, this overlooks the even more dangerous blowback that might result if ISIS replaced the PYD on Turkey’s southern border. This same short-sighted vision also kept Turkey from aiding the KRG when ISIS attacked it in August 2014.

The KRG, of course, is being supported by the United States, already with some success against ISIS after its initial attacks in August 2014. However, as explained above, the United States is prevented from supplying the peshmerga adequately because these supplies must first go through the government in Baghdad, which hesitates to send them all on to the Kurds, lest the KRG use them in an independence effort.

As for the U.S. air campaign, there are not as many targets to hit in the areas controlled by ISIS, because it would further alienate the Sunni Arab civilians living there who would suffer the casualties. Already there have been reports of such collateral damage —Sunni Arabs hit by American bombs, while supposedly being asked to quit ISIS and support the United States.14 In addition, the bombing of ISIS oil wells is probably going to be less than successful, as it is not possible to hit all of them. ISIS simply owns too many. Boots on the ground will be necessary to eliminate most of these ISIS assets. As for U.S. air power destroying ISIS bases, many fighters and equipment had already been moved before they were struck. Furthermore, the idea of bribing Sunni supporters away from ISIS with cash, as was done in the Iraqi civil war of 2007-08 will not work this time around. ISIS itself has already bribed Sunni supporters with funds stolen when it took Mosul in June 2014 or obtained elsewhere, such as revenues from captured oil wells in northeastern Syria.


ISIS’s success has been based on the virtual collapse of the traditional state system in Syria and Iraq. The United States has been slow to comprehend this fact, trying to maintain that these areas should be called former Iraq and former Syria. Neither state any longer comes close to meeting Max Weber’s famous definition of a state as being that entity which commands a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its territory. New types of entities are aborning before our very eyes. Ironically two bitter enemies, the Kurds and ISIS, are the main beneficiaries of this situation. A variety of political, sociological and economic factors are operating in addition to the more visible military ones. The United States has also been slow to understand and fully implement Carl von Clausewitz’s famous understanding that war is often politics by other means.

Nevertheless, ISIS is far from invincible and its success is not inevitable. Indeed, to a large extent ISIS has simply been lucky to face enemies already enfeebled by the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Even so, at least until recently, the Syrian Kurds have been able to hold their own against ISIS; even if Kobane falls, they will still be far from finished. Now that the United States has at least partially entered the fray, some of ISIS’s opponents are recovering and beginning to receive international help, the Iraqi Kurds being one example. What is more, as ISIS has approached Shia-populated areas in Iraq, its success has been limited. Indeed, its earlier successes may also hold the seeds of its eventual demise. Now that it actually holds ground, ISIS will be sorely tested to hold it if attacked at multiple points by foes acting in unison. If and when the military tide begins to turn, ISIS’s dynamism and sense of inevitability will be questioned and may falter.


1 For further background see U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate, Foreign Affairs Committee, The ISIS Threat: The Rise of the Islamic State and Their Dangerous Potential (Providence Research: September 25, 2014); and Joseph Spark, ISIS Taking over the Middle East: The Rise of Middle Eastern Supremacy ISIS/ISIL (Conceptual Kings, 2014).

2 See, for example, the prescient writings of Jonathan Spyer, “Do ‘Syria,’ ‘Iraq,’ and ‘Lebanon’ Still Exist?” The Tower, February 19, 2014. Http://… , accessed October 7, 2014; Jonathan Spyer, The Jerusalem Post, September 27, 2014. Http://… , accessed October 7, 2014; and Ofra Bengio, “Kurdistan Reaches toward the Sea,” Haaretz (Jerusalem), August 3, 2012. Http://… , accessed August 8, 2012.

3 See, for example, Amberin Zaman, “Syrian Kurdish Leader: Ankara Supporting Jihadists,” AlMonitor, September 3, 2013. Http:// … , accessed October 7, 2014; Amberin Zaman, “Syrian Kurds Continue to Blame Turkey for Backing ISIS Militants,” AlMonitor, June 10, 2014. Http:// …, accessed October 7, 2014; and Liz Sly, “Biden Issues Second Apology, to United Emirates, over Comments,” Washington Post, October 5, 2014. Http://… , accessed October 7, 2014, among many others. Amberin Zaman has been the Turkish correspondent for the prestigious British-based The Economist for the past 15 years.

4 Douglas A. Ollivant and Brian Fishman, “State of Jihad: The Reality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” War on the Rocks, May 21, 2014. Http://, accessed October 4, 2014.

5 One does not have to subscribe to the analyses of Daniel Pipes who sees these violent attributes inherent in even mainline Islam to admit that historically the very English word assassin is said to stem from the secretive Islamic organization that employed hashish to drug its adherents into launching suicide attacks against Crusader enemies more than 1000 years ago and that the Quran promises such earthly sexual rewards for its fallen warriors. For a recent example of Daniel Pipes work, see his “Explaining the Denial: Denying Islam’s Role in Terror,” 20 Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2013), pp. 3-12.

6  Quran, Surah Muhammad, 47:4. Source:

7  Quran, Al-Anfal, 8:12. Source:

8   Quran, Al-Anfal, 8:60. Source:

9 For background, see Josh Rogin, “America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS” The Daily Beast, June 14, 2014. Http://, accessed October 4, 2014; Martin Chulov, “How an Arrest in Iraq Revealed ISIS’s $2bn Jihadist Network,” The Guardian, June 15, 2014. Http://www.theguardian, accessed October 4, 2014; and Glen Carey, Mahmoud Habouch, and Gregory Viscusi, “Financing Jihad: Why ISIS Is a Lot Richer than Al-Qaeda,’ Bloomberg News, June 26, 2014. Http://, accessed October 4, 2014.

10 See Andrew Thompson and Jeremi Suri, “How America Helped ISIS,” International New York Times, October 2, 2014, p. 7.

11 Terence McCoy, “ISIS Just Stole $425 million, Iraqi Governor Says, and Became the World’s Richest Terrorist Group,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2014. Http://, accessed October 4, 2014. However, others latter expressed doubts about the authenticity of this event. See  Borzou Daragahi, “Biggest Bank Robbery that Never Happened–$400m ISIS Heist, Financial Times, July 17, 2014. Http://, accessed October 4, 2014.

12 Patrick Goodenough, “Kurdish Gov’t Alone in Fight against ISIS, Appeals for Airstrikes and Urgent Aid,”, August 7, 2014. Http://, accessed October 4, 2014.

13 The following discussion owes much to Michael Knights, “ISIL’s Political-Military Power in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel (U.S. Military Academy), 7:8, August 2014. In addition, see Murad Batal al-Shishani, “The Islamic State’s Strategic and Tactical Plan for Iraq,” Terrorism Monitor, 12:16, August 8, 2014.

14 “Unintended Consequences,” The Economist, October 4-10, 2014, pp. 53-54.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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