The Islamic State is one of the fiercest enemies the United States has faced. This is mainly because of its strength of ideology and its apocalyptic theology.
Essentially, ISIS wants an end-of-days battle between “Rome” (represented by the West and the United States specifically) and its forces in the Syrian town of Dabiq. They prophesy this will fulfill apocalyptic literature by bringing the world to kneel at the altar of the Caliph. ISIS believes God is on its side. Members have no fear of dying and, worse, no fear in killing because God supposedly supports these efforts.
THAT IS WHY, to defeat ISIS, the United States must understand its theological standpoint and must be careful not to play directly into its hands by engaging, even rhetorically, in a “final battle.”
How would the United States help fulfill ISIS’ prophecy? First, by sending any substantial combat forces into their territory, especially around the vicinity of Dabiq. For ISIS, this is their main goal. If any non-Muslim forces engage in combat, ISIS will use this as a call to arms of the fulfillment of the prophecy of the “end times.”
In other words, they will recruit non-radicalized Muslims to their cause by declaring, in essence, “we were right; the end of times is near; see how Rome occupies us.” Thus, in their hopes, huge waves of Muslims will swear allegiance to the Caliphate, and carry out murderous acts in its name, understanding that what ISIS proclaims theologically has come to pass. In order to reap the rewards of heaven, all must wage jihad in the name of the Caliph.
THIS POINT IS something many analysts seem to miss: We cannot fight ISIS in the traditional ways of superiority of forces and power, because this actually will embolden their cause. Traditional counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations will not work either – again, it will act to fulfill their apocalyptic visions, help their recruiting efforts and embolden more domestic, lone-wolf sympathizers to attack.
What is to be done?
This does not come from an ideological perspective. War, security and terrorism are all blind when it comes to partisanship. An ideology must shape its vision to defeat the specific enemy it faces at a particular time and place. This is basic strategic knowledge dating to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. One must base security decisions off the enemy’s objectives, goals and mission – in this case, ISIS’ apocalyptic theology.
Practically, what needs to happen is the United States and the West must convince Arab-Muslim forces to become the main infantry units. These forces must be Sunni Muslim, because part of how ISIS recruits so phenomenally is by framing a message to Sunnis that the West is using Shia forces against them, and will seek to create a master/slave dichotomy in which Sunni forces represent the latter, and thus are oppressed. U.S. strategy must be cognizant of this fact. Therefore, it must appeal in a very rational choice-based perspective to Sunni forces to engage in heavy fighting.
Western special operators must be involved, along with Kurdish units, but these must remain hidden to avoid any hint of fulfilling the endgame. Air superiority also is essential and must be carried out swiftly, efficiently and carefully, targeting infrastructure and personnel. Here I mean ISIS’ oil supply, from which they generate about $1.5 million a day.
NEXT, AND PERHAPS least understood by Americans is the propaganda war. The United States will not win this war without appealing to Muslims worldwide. It must emphasize and engage in a massive counterpropaganda campaign in which experts point out the deficiencies in ISIS’ theology. The United States also must demonstrate why and how its culture, policies and lifestyle are not purposely intent on alienating or disenfranchising Muslims.
ISIS is winning the propaganda campaign right now, and the anti-ISIS coalition must fight back in terms that will appeal to those individuals ISIS seeks to recruit – in this case, lonely, alienated or conflicted individuals. This is a war that must not only be fought on the ground, but more so in the mind, and theologically based. The United States must use ISIS’ theology against itself, much in the same way it used the defects of Soviet ideology to its advantage through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
SOME SUPPORT an “invasion” of ISIS-held territory with large American forces, and discriminatory policies against Muslims (at home and abroad) by ignoring American values of religious liberty, due process and the equal protection clause, all contained within the Constitution, in an effort to secure America at any cost.
But any time a state takes away a group’s liberty, everyone loses – and in this case, those individuals play directly into ISIS’ ideology. In so doing, ISIS wins.
(The writer is an assistant political science professor at Augusta University. Follow him on Twitter: @polscountrydoc.)