As the U.S. military joins with its allies and temporarily-aligned enemies to fulfill President Obama’s promise to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the self-proclaimed caliphate that spans portions of Iraq and Syria, it’s worth understanding the vulnerability of that foe. Understanding the Islamic State’s position should help the United States calibrate its policies to fulfill its strategic objectives without losing sight of the broader strategic picture—a risk attached to Obama’s extraordinarily ambitious goal.
Fortunes can change quickly in the world of jihadism, and there is no better example than the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As is the case with the Islamic State today, in 2005-06 many observers believed that AQI and its emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had eclipsed al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as the leaders of global jihadism. AQI and Zarqawi make for a striking, yet somewhat imperfect, analogy to the Islamic State today.
Zarqawi was extraordinarily popular with young jihadists, just like the Islamic State is now. He reveled in his own brutality, becoming infamous—and among his target audience, celebrated—for slaughtering Shia Muslims and releasing videos of his victims being beheaded. Like the Islamic State, Zarqawi controlled territory in one of the region’s critical countries. The Islamic State is, however, far more powerful than Zarqawi’s AQI was at its height: controlling more territory, mustering more financial resources, and drawing oaths of loyalty from some transnational jihadists who had previously been loyal to al-Qaeda.
Although Zarqawi appeared ascendant from 2005 until his death in June 2006, the weaknesses in his strategy soon became apparent, and they ultimately wrecked—though didn’t completely destroy—his organization. These weaknesses were apparent to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, as evidenced by a 2005 letter that current al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri sent to Zarqawi. The elder jihadist leader warned Zarqawi not to “be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers,” since young zealots “do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq.” AQI’s excesses provoked a tribal uprising (the Sahwa, or Awakening) against it, which—along with a few other factors—reversed its gains. The Islamic State’s “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, later had to essentially rebuild the organization from scratch. Though it took some time for AQI’s mistakes to catch up with it, those mistakes had always been made in the open. And so too are those of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State’s Vulnerabilities
The Islamic State’s rapid advance into Iraq was tactically masterful. But don’t be fooled. The group’s strategy is a mess. The dangers of fighting a two-front war are fundamental to military strategy and the Islamic State is literally surrounded by enemies. It at first allegedly entered Syria, back when it was still part of al-Qaeda’s network, to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, yet it spent more time fighting other rebel groups than Assad’s forces. This didn’t stop the Islamic State’s notorious blitzkrieg into Iraq, which earned the group another set of formidable foes: not only the Iraqi state, but also Shia militias and Iran. Despite this wide array of enemies, the Islamic State almost immediately betrayed its partners in early July by rounding up ex-Baathist leaders in Mosul who had aided their advance through Iraq.
Read More:The Islamic State’s Vulnerability.