ISIS and the Continuing Threat of Islamist Jihad: The Need for the Centrality of PSYOP
Defining the Problem
The National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) calls for direct military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the disruption of terror plots, the destruction of terrorist safe havens and sources of finance, a shared responsibility with allies in confronting the threat and combating radicalization to counter ISIS ideology. The Trump Administration’s NSS accurately identifies the ISIS end goal as creation of the global Islamic caliphate and notes its totalitarian vision. This strategy further acknowledges the threat posed by ISIS will remain after its territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria. While the Trump Administration put forth a series of wide ranging efforts spanning the instruments of power for insurgent warfare, the President is nearing a moment of critical decision regarding US involvement in Syria and Iraq. Early withdrawal risks abandoning the area to a reemergence of the regional caliphate as well as to Iranian and Russian influence. Declaring victory too soon could blind the US to the continued global threat of Islamist jihad. Therefore, US actions must secure the ways and means of meeting the Administration’s end goal – that of destruction of the ISIS threat and overall stability of the region — through a campaign heavily targeted on Islamist ideology and centered upon psychological operations.
This Islamic State evolved out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni Islamist terror organization. ISIS represents a politico-religious ideology based on the 7th century Islamic Caliphate that is antithetical to Western values and ideals and opposes all Muslims who do not share its view of Islam. The organization’s infrastructure or Dawa seeks the conversion of non-Muslims and to instill Islamist views in all Muslims. ISIS is a global insurgency promoting subversion from within in which Sharia law replaces political institutions. It utilizes social media to incite global support for operations and mujahideen recruitment. By 2014, at least 60 militant Islamist groups had pledged allegiance to or support for the Islamic State. Since that time, a series of attacks throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States demonstrated ISIS’s global reach as well as its ability to attract a worldwide flow of recruits. Unlike Al Qaeda, which primarily stressed a global virtual network and the spectacular terror attack, ISIS initially captured and held territory in Iraq and Syria, functioning as a state as well as an Islamist terror network. In June 15, 2014, Operation Inherent Resolve began military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In 2018, the regional caliphate in Iraq and Syria is all but destroyed by the United States and coalition partners.
ISIS’s success at establishing its transnational organization came by demonstrating an ability to acquire and hold territory while simultaneously spreading the concept of the global caliphate. It undermined competitors, attracted sympathizers, and grew in regions that were ungovernable by states. These areas include not only Iraq and Syria but also Yemen, regions of Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Nigeria, where Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and renamed itself the Islamic State’s West African Province. In 2016, terrorism specialist Rohan Gunaratna maintained that as ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, it will continue to expand in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, and SE Asia and will eventually attempt a spectacular terror act utilizing its foreign fighters. The 2015 Paris attacks demonstrated the ISIS/local nexus and the capability to carry out such an attack.
Similarly, US Director of National Intelligence Dan R Coats maintains with the loss of territory, the ISIS threat in 2018is that the organization will regroup in a long-term insurgency to reestablish itself in the region while giving priority to transnational terror attacks and global interconnection. This threat includes home country attacks carried out by ISIS sympathizers. Since 2016, ISIS has published 13 magazines in languages including English, German, French, and Arabic and released videos promoting jihad. The August 2017 attack in Spain was detailed in the ISIS magazine Rumiyah, which also called for “all-out war” against the West. EUROPOL also recognizes the long-term security challenge from the increased threat of attack in European states as foreign fighters return home or infiltrate states as territory is lost in Iraq and Syria.
The 2017 NSS highlights a successful ground campaign in Syria and Iraq in which much of the territory captured by ISIS had been retaken and the physical caliphate had been destroyed. According to the former Deputy Assistant to President Trump, Sebastian Gorka, moving from the Obama strategy of attrition to the Trump strategy of annihilation resulted in military success on the ground. This involved the setting of grand strategy and policy at the NSC and DOD levels while leaving theatre operations to the commanders in the fields as well as calling for a Muslim/Arab partnership with the US to meet the ongoing threat. Still, others see the Trump strategy as merely an amplification of the Obama strategy. Analyst Phillip Lohaus testified before Congress that despite successes certain elements of the Trump strategy remain similar to Obama’s strategy, including special forces direct action missions, airstrikes, and the use of drones. The problem remains that there is still no plan for a post-Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria: if American involvement is reduced too soon the Islamic State could reemerge.
In rightfully focusing on ideology, Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that Obama’s policy of “countering violent extremism” failed to address the underlying threat that produces the violence. She is correct, as focusing on the tactic ignores the strategical underpinnings inherent in the threat, namely that of radical Islamism. She argues that the Trump Administration took a solid step by identifying the enemy. However, the focus of US strategy must not be exclusively on violence but must go straight to targeting the spread of ideology. Trump’s promise to be a friend to moderate Muslim reformers and to screen those entering the US for radical Islamist ideology is a start, but a full policy must be developed that targets how Islamist ideology is spread. This will require a careful balance between rights and security in a democratic Republic. It will also involve an understanding of the psychology surrounding the Islamist movement and those who seek to join it.
Similarly, in moving beyond the focus on violence, Gunaratna called for a full engagement of a four-dimensional threat composed of the ISIS core in Syria and Iraq, the ISIS branches, the global ISIS infiltration, and ISIS online.In short, ISIS loss of territory does not equate to victory against ISIS due to the ability of the organization to effectively move from one style of conflict to another: from a territorial-based operation to a decentralized global mode of recruitment and attack. It is because of the nature of the threat posed by ISIS that analyst Michael Pregent testified before Congress that from a tactical and operational standpoint what is needed beyond the taking of ISIS territory is for US forces to partner with local Sunni forces that can hold territory while US Special Operations Forces conduct kill and capture operations. Strategically, the US must work toward reconciliation in Iraq and Syria as well as the dismantling of the militia. However, Pregent fears this will not occur due to Russian and Iranian actions in the area. Thus, ISIS activity will remain a recurring problem.
Countering the Islamic State requires at its center a psychological campaign targeting Iraq and Syria and ISIS threats to the United States and Europe and regions throughout the world.The concern about the creation of a power vacuum by premature withdrawal of US forces is a legitimate issue. President Trump recently indicated the United States would pull out of Syria “soon” and is considering his options, although the recent Syrian chemical attack in Douma will render that prospect moot in the short term. Whether Trump’s statements are part of diplomatic maneuvering to pressure other countries in the region and in Europe to take on more of the burden remains to be seen. However, the United States vacating the area is not a viable option, as the Islamic State will attempt to reestablish the regional caliphate and Iran will likely try to seek a permanent military base in Syria, potentially backed by the Russians. The political integrity of Iraq is necessary to counter Iran and its Shia form of Islamist militancy.
A campaign targeting ISIS infiltration into the United States as well as other host countries is also required. Expect an expansion of regional and global ISIS operations as operatives attempt to infiltrate communities to carry out attacks and inspire home-grown terrorist sympathizers. The non-radical Muslim communities of all countries should be targeted as allies against potential attack from extremist ideology.
Instead of Syrian withdrawal, military operations of seizing and holding territory should continue and a no-fly zone should be established. Operation Inherent Resolve must shift its primary focus to one of psychological operations. The combined Joint Inter Agency Task Force with US military command and operational control over all assets is critical because it allows for organizational control and the mixing of elements from CIA, State Department, and the military. Special operations forces in Syria and Iraq include Special Forces (Delta and Seal Team 6), Psychological Operations, and Civil Affairs units. The Psychological Operations focus will be on countering ISIS propaganda while Civil Affairs engages in national assistance to improve living conditions for the people on the ground so that they are willing to work with Special Forces and are susceptible to PSYOP. In general, there are three groups of Muslims present for target operations: the Islamists loyal to ISIS who must be isolated and destroyed, the Reformers who should be backed by US and coalition partners, and the vast majority of Muslims who are not Islamists and whose “hearts and minds” the coalition seeks to win over.
The Hearts and Minds of the Persuadable
The psychological component within the United States and Europe against ISIS remains the centerpiece of operations utilizing assets across the board. In the US, the department of Homeland Security becomes the lead agency with important agencies such as FBI and ATF working as part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force. As psychological operations are illegal within the US, the focus within the US is on public information. In Europe, the State Department will be the primary player in negotiation with host countries, with the National Security Council managing the effort. CIA is available for clandestine operations as needed. Specifically, in either the US or Europe, group identities will be either undermined or reinforced in those hostile and friendly groups respectively.
Host country populations will be mobilized to support Muslim reformist groups and the moderate majority, establishing intergroup linkages for possible assimilation into the population. Group and social identities of Muslims will be targeted, reinforcing those identities which bolster reformist Muslims and isolating those which reinforce radical Islamism. Given that Middle Eastern cultural and religious identity is a crucial component of worldview and that ISIS is a political religious ideology, targeting those social bonds that are vulnerable to ISIS propaganda and recruitment is a key operational element. The goal is assimilation of the moderate majority who are persuadable away from radicalization and to break potential group fusion with radical Islamists before it occurs. Preventing the radicalization of moderate Muslims by Islamists is the preferred route, as de-fusion from a group is a difficult process, and will provide a possible foundation for better future engagement with Western powers.
Alexander, Michele G., Shana Levin and P.J. Henry. 2005 “Image Theory, Social Identity,
SocialDominance: Structural Characteristics and Individual Motives Underlying
InternationalImages.” Political Psychology, 26, no. 1: 27-45.
Ali, Ayaan Hirsi. 2017.The Challenge of Dawa Political Islam As Ideology and How to Counter
It.Stanford University: Hoover Institution Press.
Coats, Dan R. Statement for Record. Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence
Community. February 13, 2018.
Europol. Changes in Modus Operandi of Islamic State (IS) Revisited. The Hague. November
Gorka, Dr. S. Battlefield Successes and Challenges: Recent Efforts to Win the War Against ISIS.
January 17, 2018. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Subcommittee on National Security.
Griffin, Bryan. 2016. Encyclopedia of Militant Islam. New York: London Center for Policy
Gunaratna, Rohan. 2016. “Global Terrorism in 2016.”Revista UNSCI/UNSCIJournal40
Holland, Steve. March 30, 2018. “Trump Tells Advisors He Wants US Out Of Syria.” Reuters.
Lohaus, Phillip. January 17, 2017. Moving the Needle From Degradation to Defeat Aligning
Ends, Ways, and Means in the Fight Against the Islamic State.America
National Security Strategy of the United States. December 2017. The White House.
Pregent, Michael. Wednesday, January 17, 2018. “Battlefield Successes and Challenges: Recent
Efforts to Win the War Against ISIS.” US House of Representatives Committee on
Oversight and Government Reform’sSubcommittee on National Security.
State of New Jersey. October 2, 2017. ISIS Poised for Attacks in Europe and Australia.
Swann, William B. Jr., Jolanda Jetten, Angel Gomez, Harvey Whitehouse and Brock Bastian.
- “When Group Membership Gets Personal: A Theory of Identity Fusion.”
PsychologicalReview12, no.3: 441-456.