Strategy to defeat ISIS must degrade the group’s finances, leadership

A wealth of publicly available information suggests that the reemergence of the Islamic State in 2014 should not have come as a surprise, although the strength and scope of the reemergence were rightfully shocking, according to a new report. The researchers say that even before 2012, much was known about how the Islamic State financed and organized itself, established territorial control and responded to air power. That knowledge can guide efforts to counter the Islamic State.

 A wealth of publicly available information suggests that the reemergence of the Islamic State in 2014 should not have come as a surprise, although the strength and scope of the reemergence were rightfully shocking, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

RAND notes that even before 2012, much was known about how the Islamic State financed and organized itself, established territorial control and responded to airpower. That knowledge can guide efforts to counter the Islamic State.

Researchers say that any plan to eliminate the Islamic State must include a coherent strategy to hold territory after the group is expelled from an area. Those efforts should include establishing an active police or troop presence that can work with the community, gain its trust and counter the group’s reemergence.

A deadly and adaptive foe, the Islamic State seemed to come out of nowhere in June 2014 when it conquered the city of Mosul in Iraq. However, the group is the direct descendant of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State in Iraq. The group now has the goal of a global caliphate, a greater scale of territory and personnel, and growth outside Iraq and Syria. It poses a grave threat to the greater region, as well as to the United States and its coalition partners. “Coalition forces and Iraqis routed the group once so the Islamic State’s history can inform a successful strategy to defeat it again,” said Howard J. Shatz, the study’s lead author and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

History also can provide warning indicators of the spread of the Islamic State to other localities and countries. Observing a pattern of intimidation and assassinations against established government authorities can provide a first indicator of trouble. A strategy to eliminate the Islamic State should include methods to degrade the group’s finances, eliminate its leadership and potential leadership, create a better strategy to hold recaptured territory and make use of airpower.

“The group has thrived where there are deep social cleavages and ineffective government, which they have often made more ineffective through their violent tactics,” Shatz said. Actions against the Islamic State must focus both on the group’s current leaders and potential leadership because the group has a deep bench of personnel who can move up the ranks. Airpower is still an important adjunct tool against the Islamic State, and should be utilized strategically to defeat them.

Finally, researchers recommend that political accommodation with the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria is necessary to defeat the Islamic State and bring peace to the region.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division, which conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security, and intelligence communities and foundations, and other nongovernmental organizations.

— Read more in Howard J. Shatz and Erin-Elizabeth Johnson, The Islamic State We Knew: Insights before the Resurgence and Their Implications(RAND Corporation, 2015)

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