Fighting ISIS: Lessons from Counterinsurgency Strategies

Chelsea Lenhart, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

After the terror attacks in Paris on Friday, November 13, politicians and pundits began to question if the United States’s counterterrorism strategies towards ISIS are effective. The day before the attack that claimed the lives of 129 innocents, President Obama told ABC News that the U.S. has “contained [ISIL].” This statement, contradicted by the events of the following day, opened  the door for critics to lash out against the President as well as current U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Policy alternatives introduced by 2016 Presidential contenders seem to exist outside of reality, from “taking the oil” to “making them look like losers.”

ISIS is not operating like a typical terrorist organization, and the U.S. would benefit from thinking beyond typical anti-terrorism strategy in order to effectively defeat ISIS.

Evolution of International Terrorism

Terrorism is very difficult to define, as it is often associated with ideological, emotional, and political aims. A 2003 report used by the American military defines terrorism as “the illegitimate use or threat of violence to further political objectives,” compared to war carried out by two or more state actors where the majority of casualties are military. Terrorists are considered illegitimate in their use of force because they primarily target civilians and non-combatants.

It is difficult to analyze the effectiveness of international counterterrorism strategies due to a  lack of research on the topic. The infrequency of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremist groups does not mean that terrorist cells are not operating. However, the measurement often used to determine if a counterterrorism strategy is effective is based on the number of total attacks carried out annually. An in-depth study conducted by the Campbell Collaboration (C2) found that there is almost a complete absence of high quality scientific evidence on counterterrorism strategies.

The paucity of evidence regarding the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism strategies has not stymied political commentators from declaring it a failure. Earlier this year, Time Magazine claimed that not only is the U.S. approach to countering terrorism failing, but that it is actually catalyzing “more dangerous [and] more committed” terrorists. Rosa Brooks, from Foreign Policy Magazine, went as far as calling U.S. strategy a “sign of insanity” because the same tactics continue to be applied with an absence of positive results.

ISIS: An Insurgency

Terrorism, like guerilla warfare, is a tactic of fighting  used by insurgent groups. Current terrorists are often characterized as small groups fighting against a larger enemy. An “insurgency” is more specifically defined as a struggle between a government and a group that does not control political power.

ISIS–also referred to as The Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh–has separated itself from previous extremist terrorist groups by actively pursuing a political agenda that emphasizes state-building. Rather than solely aiming to strike fear into the citizenry in order to subdue them, ISIS targets governments’ militaries and civilians alike to gain control of large swaths of territory. Previous terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, did not have the capacity or end goal of creating a functioning Islamic State. ISIS operates like insurgent groups of the past, such as the Viet Cong and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

Counterterrorism Strategies vs Counterinsurgency Strategies

The White House’s current strategy towards defeating ISIS focuses on four pillars: conducting airstrikes, supporting forces fighting ISIS on the ground, preventing attacks, and providing humanitarian assistance to those displaced by ISIS. These approaches are not working and treat ISIS like a small, unorganized terrorist group rather than the complex de facto state that it actually is.

Targeted drone strikes by the U.S. are failing because they do not completely remove ISIS from its territory throughout Iraq and Syria, or help rebuild communities surrounding the group’s control.

Isis chelsea 2
(Source: KTLA via CNN)

Instead, these strikes have brought retaliation from ISIS, backlash from ally countries, and a drastic increase in recruits joining ISIS’s cause. Drone strikes help ISIS’s recruiting efforts because they capitalize on civilian deaths caused U.S. drones, which sends a message painting the U.S. as the villain and ISIS as the hero.

In contrast to counterterrorism strategy, counterinsurgency strategy emphasizes protracted presence within the host nation, as well as continuous confrontation with the armed insurgent group. Previous counterinsurgency campaigns by the U.S. have also included resource and infrastructure management and humanitarian assistance. This focus on state-building is not present in current counterterrorism strategies.

Defeating an insurgency depends upon effective state building. In order for the U.S. to stop the spread of ISIS, it must work with ISIS occupied states to build up their capabilities, such as the protection of citizenry, the provision of basic needs to citizens, a trained and capable police and military force, and stable governing institutions. Investments in these resources will help eliminate the conditions of which ISIS feeds on to recruit and gain power.

Insurgent groups rely on the ability to instill fear within the civilian population of countries in which they operate. For an insurgent group to be successful, they need to undermine the governance of the country and disrupt the essential services the government provides.  However, they also need to support economic and infrastructure development to gain legitimacy. ISIS has effectively established an independent form of civil control within claimed territories, thus fully undermining state efforts to provide a peaceful and stable governance. To more effectively fight ISIS, the U.S. will need to focus on pushing ISIS forces out of the areas it has occupied and then shift the focus to winning over the “hearts and minds” of the population.

Moving Forward

There is no easy solution for defeating an insurgent group, especially one like ISIS that operates as a quasi-state in the territories under its control. The U.S. should reshape the strategy for tackling ISIS, focusing more on counterinsurgency rather than counterterrorism efforts. Politicians should heed the American public’s call for boots on the ground against ISIS and begin treating ISIS like the insurgent group that it is.  


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