Terrorism Expert Explains ISIS

Professor Stephen Biddle says broad coalition may be possible in campaign against the extremist group.

The extremist organization's flag reads “There is no God but God."
September 05, 2014
President Barack Obama is working to create a multinational military coalition to combat ISIS, the Islamic militant group that released video footage last week showing the decapitation of a second American journalist.
The U.S. has launched air strikes against ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to stop its military gains in Iraq and Syria in recent months. In two chilling videos, the terrorist organization beheaded freelance writers James Foley and Steven J. Sotloff and threatened to continue killing Americans if the U.S. doesn’t stop bombing ISIS targets.
Elliott School of International Affairs Professor Stephen Biddle—an expert on military strategy, terrorism and conduct of war—has been watching ISIS use brutal violence in an effort to spread its ideology and establish a self-declared Islamic caliphate across the Middle East. Dr. Biddle spoke to GW Today about why the organization has expanded, how its tactics are affecting the U.S. government and what the international community can do to stop the movement.
Q: How has ISIS grown to exert such force in the Middle East? Where has their financial backing come from?
A: ISIS is an outgrowth of the old al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, AQI. Their expansion is attributable largely to sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria: ISIS is Sunni, and many Sunnis feel oppressed by the Alawite Assad regime in Damascus and the Shiite Iraqi government in Baghdad, facilitating ISIS’ growth as a force that purports to defend Sunni interests. ISIS has various sources of funding, but much of it is internal, via taxation of the population under their control and appropriation of local economic resources. 
Q: How has ISIS been using terror tactics to make military gains? 
A: ISIS’ recent expansion has involved military action to take and hold ground in relatively conventional ways. They are certainly willing to engage in terrorism, but their conquest of Mosul, their drive toward Baghdad and their establishment of a contiguous territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq is the product of an ability to hold ground—not terrorism. 
Video and digital media have made a difference at the margin in this, particularly in facilitating foreign recruitment, but they have not been the primary driver of these events: Sunni alienation from Shiite and Alawite regimes that have failed to accommodate their interests has been more important in ISIS’ growth than the particular media ISIS uses to communicate. 
Q: Have we seen a terrorist organization use this level of public violence before? What are the psychological implications ISIS’ crimes have on Americans and the Obama administration? 
A: Terrorism is an old, old method. High-quality videos are a new twist on a very old theme, but they represent a change at the margin rather than any profound or revolutionary change in the strategic logic or dynamics of the approach. 
Classically, terrorism is designed, among other things, to goad governments into overreaction by scaring publics and their leaders. Given this, a central challenge for governments is to respond in a way that calms public fears but does not play into the terrorist strategy of inspiring overreaction—government overreaction leads to cures that are often worse than the disease they seek to treat. 
Killing Western journalists tends to promote Western media coverage and attention, which can promote the governmental overreaction sought by many terrorist groups. 
Q: President Obama announced the U.S. will lead a regional and international coalition to combat the terrorists. What might this coalition look like and what strategies might they employ? 
A: ISIS is a potential threat to many governments, even conservative Sunni regimes, especially Saudi Arabia. In principle, one could imagine a wide range of governments cooperating to some degree to oppose ISIS, potentially including even Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, who have been waging a proxy war against each other, but who both feel threatened by ISIS. 
Obviously, the Iraqi government is opposed to ISIS, and a variety of European states who see ISIS as a potential terrorist threat may be amenable to coordinated action of some kind. A coalition this broad will be challenging to assemble and coordinate, and many members' contributions may be small. But the potential for broad cooperation exists if U.S.—and other states'—diplomacy is up to the task.