Academic journal article Parameters

Understanding the Strengths and Vulnerabilities of ISIS

Academic journal article Parameters

Understanding the Strengths and Vulnerabilities of ISIS

Article excerpt

Abstract: The so-called Islamic State has emerged as a major force in the struggle for the future of Syria and Iraq with a worldview that is deeply at odds with that of the United States and its allies. In this struggle, US military and intelligence personnel must analyze the nature of this organization continuously, seeking ways to overcome its strengths and exploit its weaknesses. A discussion of such strengths and weaknesses is provided here while acknowledging constant adjustment is necessary as the Islamic State evolves.


The organization calling itself the Islamic State (IS; also widely known by the older names of ISIL or ISIS, and the Arabic acronym Da'ish) has emerged as a major force in the struggle for the future of Syria and Iraq. (1) IS's rise to world attention resulted from its capture of large areas of both countries since early 2014. The organization became especially prominent following its June 2014 lightning-swift military advance over northern Iraq, where it encountered an abysmally low level of government resistance. (2) This catastrophe prompted an international re-examination of Iraq's corrupt and sectarian government and the need to overcome the deeply polarizing legacy of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi Parliament was also shaken by the military disaster, and came under international and domestic pressure to find new leadership. Parliament correspondingly removed Maliki from his position as prime minister, and appointed him to a largely ceremonial post as one of Iraq's vice presidents. (3) The United States also intensified military assistance to both the Iraqi government and Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government and began a program of ongoing tactical airstrikes to contain and help roll back the IS advance in Iraq. Additionally, 1,600 US service members were sent to Iraq to serve as military advisors, intelligence analysts, and other needed specialists. (4) Later, a US-led coalition bombed targets in Syria.

Although IS forces did not face a serious challenge from the Iraqi military in the June offensive, the organization has fought a variety of more determined adversaries throughout its existence. IS military forces have performed well in confrontations with Iraqi Kurds, Iraq's Iranian-trained Shi'ite militias, Syrian government forces, the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, and other Syrian rebels. Eventually, it emerged as the dominant resistance group in Syria after demonstrating willingness to inflict and accept significant casualties in combat with a variety of opponents including the relatively well-armed Assad government forces. IS military victories in both Syria and Iraq have allowed the organization to seize a combined area of Syria and Iraq equivalent to the size of Jordan, containing about 6 million people. (5)

The emergence of the IS threat and its role in both Syria and Iraq has presented new challenges for the United States, Iraq, and their allies. An ongoing and evolving understanding of IS strengths and weaknesses is therefore necessary to meet American and Iraqi goals of containing, degrading, and ultimately destroying this organization as well as working with allies to develop a comprehensive strategy to meet these goals. Iraqi policy-makers, US intelligence analysts, military advisors to the Iraqis, and others will need to be especially attentive to IS to find military, political, economic, and information campaign vulnerabilities capable of being be exploited and enemy strengths to guard against and neutralize.

The Rise of the "Islamic State"

The original predecessor of IS was Jamaat al-Tawhid wal Jihad, which was formed in the terrorist training camps of western Afghanistan and relocated to Iraq in 2003. This organization rose to prominence waging war against US military forces in Iraq under fugitive Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In October 2004, Zarqawi swore allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, after which the organization was consistently referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq. …

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