Deciphering ISIS Is More Important Than Defeating It
The Islamic State released last month the latest issue of their newsletter Al-Naba, which translates to "the news." With all the eye-catching pictorial characterizations, the enunciation of their future warfare goals, and the type of content they've produced, it doesn't suggest the group's been down and out.
The 12-page document pertains, mostly, to the Islamic State’s campaign in Iraq and Syria. They’ve outlined strategies, modalities, and warfare tactics they think would best suit their operations in the region. In particular, they’ve focused much on assassinations, their primary modus operandi. So, when the United States is finalizing its Syria withdrawal plan, Baghdadi and his men are busy nailing down their tactical operations for the future. Interesting!
The newsletter also entails and lays down the agenda with regards to launching, direct or indirect, attacks against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group the United States has been supportive of to deter ISIS from making further inroads in the region.
So, if we’re able to connect the dots, or, maybe, read between the lines, it’s obvious what message the Islamic State is sending across, and to whom, when it says it’ll, inevitably, hit the YPG. In simpler terms, the YPG wouldn’t even matter to ISIS in connection to their grand scheme of things. But, with the United States having backed the group, the message is loud and clear for the policymakers in D.C. to decipher.
Perhaps, the most interesting, and intriguing, part of the newsletter is the terrorist group's verbal assault on Saudi Arabia. The group has claimed that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has deviated from the "true" path. Again, the bonhomie between Trump and MBS is an open secret. Otherwise, there's no apparent civil war in Saudi Arabia that the terrorist group could thrive off. Also, hitting the Kingdom and launching significant attacks might jeopardize their ability to recruit new fighters. That's because the idea of hitting a country that hosts the two holiest cities for Muslims, i.e., Makkah and Medina, might not be as sell-able as compared to targeting any other part of the world.
What needs to be noted by the policymakers are the cues the Islamic State might be sending the United States’ way. Threatening directly is one thing; doing that indirectly via allies and other points of contacts is another.
In the light of the above, there are two policy recommendations the U.S. government should be willing to delve into.
First, it's about ensuring YPG remains a point of contact for the U.S. fight against ISIS. Even if the U.S. forces were to withdraw entirely from the region, it's necessary not to let the YPG fighters feel let off. Without the U.S. support, the group can crumble quickly, and once it does, ISIS would be likely to storm in and fill the vacuum. So, technically, if the goal is to keep ISIS at bay, YPG can keep the terrorists engaged in the region.
Also, there's another critical aspect of this. If the United States were to leave the group in the lurch, there's a possibility they might end up in the hands of ISIS. That scenario can make things even more complicated.
Will the Trump administration's recent announcement that there will be 200 U.S. troops stationed in post-withdrawal Syria do the trick? A big NO!
Second, the Trump administration needs to rely more on psychological operations (psyops) to decimate ISIS from within. What the current administration has been doing wrong is they're relying too much on conventional warfare patterns. The notion that "artillery conquers, infantry occupies," doesn't work with how you need to deal with ISIS. The more conventional military attacks the POTUS authorizes against the terrorist group, the more collateral damage there will be, and the more it will play into the hands of ISIS. The aggrieved people that are part of the collateral damage will create more recruiting opportunities for the group.
On the other hand, employing psyops can help the United States decimate ISIS from within. It not only helps in cracking the ideology but, if done appropriately with appropriate intelligence gathering, can also help launch pick and choose precise attacks targeted against ISIS leadership. After all, the Trump administration must come to terms with the fact that ISIS can't be defeated. It's only the ideology that can be taken care of, and, that too, by being one step ahead. It's the use of brain over brawn that bridges the gap between achieving some tactical gains and securing a strategic level victory against a terrorist organization like ISIS.
Irrespective of the course of action the Trump administration goes ahead with, it shouldn't wait for something dastardly to happen to retaliate. September 11, 2001, opened a new window for the policymakers to adopt a reactionary policy based on the evolving warfare patterns. When it comes to combating terrorism, it's about going after the plan rather than the person; it's about decoding the ideology and anticipating the next move; it's about sneaking into the mind of a terrorist; and perhaps, it's all about being proactive, rather than reactive.
Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism analyst, and currently part of the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Previously, he taught at the National Defence University (NDU) in Islamabad, Pakistan. His commentaries have been featured in outlets such as The Hill, The Diplomat, Dawn, Asia Times, Middle East Eye, The News International, World Policy Journal, and many others. He is also frequently quoted in different newspapers including Washington Post, Stars and Stripes, and others.