Winter 2016
Number 30

Fighting the Islamic State: The U.S. Scorecard

By
James S. Robbins

On Friday, November 13, 2015, President Barack Obama insisted on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that his strategy against the Islamic State was working. “I don’t think [the Islamic State is] gaining strength,” he said. “We have contained them… you don’t see this systemic march by ISIL across the terrain.”(1)

Yet, the very same evening in Paris, Islamic State-affiliated terrorists conducted a series of coordinated, simultaneous attacks killing 130 and wounding over 400 more. The shocking massacre in Paris stood in grim contrast to Mr. Obama’s apparent complacency about the struggle against terrorism just hours before. But in a November 16th press conference at the G-20 summit meeting in Antalya, Turkey, the president showed little by way of introspection. “There will be an intensification of the strategy that we’ve put forward,” he said, “but the strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work.”(2)

Stumbling toward a strategy

The Islamic State had come a long way from January 2014, when President Obama made his infamous comment equating the group to “a JV team” in basketball.(3) Nine months later, ISIS had proven it was nothing to laugh about, having seized a vast swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, conquering several major urban areas including Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and declaring itself a caliphate. By September 2014, Mr. Obama was backing off his earlier, flippant assessment, telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he hadn’t been “specifically referring to [ISIS]” and pledging, “We’re going to defeat them.”(4)

By then, the United States had already joined battle with the Islamic State. U.S. military operations against ISIS began formally on June 15, 2014, as part of what was later named Operation Inherent Resolve. The initial weeks’ operations included surveillance overflights and provision of humanitarian assistance. On August 7, 2014, President Obama authorized the first airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. American warplanes supported Iraqi forces in the defense of Erbil against a concerted Islamic State offensive, ostensibly to “defend U.S. diplomats” in the city. There was also a successful combined operation with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, resulting in the retaking of the Mosul dam. At the time, President Obama said he would not extend airstrikes outside of northern Iraq.

A watershed event took place on August 19, 2014, when captive American journalist James Foley was beheaded, ostensibly in response to U.S. airstrikes. The dramatic killing was videotaped and widely distributed online. Then, on September 10th, partly in response to public outcry over the Foley killing, and the similar beheading of journalist Steve Sotloff a week earlier, President Obama announced that the United States would “lead a broad coalition to roll back” and “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State “through a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.” Coalition air operations began in Syria on September 23rd, with a wave of strikes by aircraft from the United States, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, intended to demonstrate regional support for the action.

However, President Obama generated concern when he admitted “we don’t have a strategy yet” for the fight against ISIS, even though military operations were already underway.(5) Initially the White House sought to pursue a limited “Iraq first” strategy, in which ISIS would be driven from Iraq before dealing with the more complex question of operations in Syria, where the United States was supporting a separate insurgent effort to overthrow the Assad government. But by October a senior administration official admitted that “we may not have time for Iraq first” because “the moderate [Syrian] opposition has been smacked and [the Islamic State] is still there, that doesn’t help.”(6)

It was not until early November of 2014 that the White House finally released a “comprehensive strategy featuring nine lines of effort to counter” the Islamic State.(7) The lines of effort enumerated by the Administration at that time were:

     1) Supporting Effective Governance in Iraq

     2) Denying Safe-Haven in Iraq and Syria

     3) Building Partner Capacity

     4) Enhancing Intelligence Collection

     5) Disrupting Finances

     6) Exposing the Islamic State’s True Nature

     7) Disrupting the Flow of Foreign Fighters

     8) Protecting the Homeland

     9) Providing Humanitarian Support

By July 2015, those “lines of effort” had been whittled down into “Four Pillars”: a systematic campaign of airstrikes; increased support to forces fighting on the ground, including supplies and military advisors; drawing on substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent attacks; and providing humanitarian assistance to displaced civilians.(8) Yet the original, more specific list remains the more authentic representation of the Administration’s overall strategy—even if its method of execution has evolved over time.

It is worthwhile, then, to see how the White House has fared on each of those fronts.

Supporting effective governance in Iraq

The “effective governance” plank is based on the idea that if the Iraqi government governs “inclusively and effectively,” it will serve to undercut the Islamic State’s appeal to the Sunni tribal leaders who either support it or do not actively oppose it. In turn, if Baghdad can undercut the Sunni grievances that serve as a driver for ISIS support, a second “Anbar Awakening” could help drive the Islamic State from Iraq. That goal, however, has proven elusive.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has attempted to appeal to Sunni leaders, with limited success. However a major difference between today and the “Anbar Awakening” period is that during the 2007 “Surge,” the Sunnis could rely on support from the U.S. military to drive the militants from their towns and villages. Now, there is no U.S. ground combat presence, and the Sunnis do not trust the Iraqi armed forces. Shi’a militia units—part of the Popular Mobilization Forces—have misbehaved badly in the Sunni areas that they have helped liberate. For example, in March 2015, Shi’a militias occupied Sunni-majority Tikrit, then commenced several days of looting and burning buildings.(9)

Prime Minister al-Abadi has pushed for a National Guard law that would bring greater balance to the composition of Iraqi forces by integrating more Sunni tribal militias, but this drive to create more inclusive Iraqi regional defense forces has stalled.(10) This is partly due to Iran’s influence over Iraq’s government, and Tehran’s drive to increase Shi’a control on the territory of its western neighbor. Thus, one contradiction in the “effective governance” approach is the unwillingness of the United States to confront Iran on this issue in any meaningful way. Sunnis claim that U.S.-supplied arms are not distributed fairly, with most going to Shi’a units. Shi’ites counter that arms supplied to Sunnis are often sold on the black market and wind up in the hands of the Islamic State.

All this leaves the Sunnis in a difficult position, since in many (if not most) cases they lack the ability to stand up to the Islamic State even if they wanted to. Indeed, when members of the Albu Nimr tribe in Hit tried to push back against insurgent rule in October 2014, ISIS massacred thousands. Sunni leaders have little trust in the United States, which they believe abandoned them, and repeated insistence from the White House that there will be no boots on the ground only serves to reinforce the belief that they cannot count on us in the future (and therefore there is no reason for them to risk their lives). The results have been predictable; in June 2015, a number of influential tribes in Anbar province declared loyalty to the Islamic State, saying it was the only way to guarantee peace.(11) For now, the Sunnis have to deal with the Islamic State as a fact of life.

Denying safe haven

Denying the Islamic State safe haven encompasses the military aspect of the strategy, including airstrikes and support for local ground forces, with the goal of “degrading leadership, logistical and operational capability,” and taking back ground. The Islamic State has indeed lost some territory since the strategy was initiated. In September at the United Nations, President Obama noted progress in the military campaign, claiming that the Islamic State had lost “nearly a third of the populated areas in Iraq that it had controlled” and “has been pushed back from large sections of northeastern Syria, including the key city of Tal Abyad.”(12) In November 2015, Kurdish forces gained control of the city of Sinjar, on the supply route to Mosul.

However, ISIS still controls the largest insurgent-run zone in the world, and without a coordinated ground campaign—whether involving U.S. troops or not—the Islamic State cannot be extinguished. An attrition strategy based primarily on airstrikes can only accomplish so much, especially when a scant 25 percent of U.S. sorties actually result in an attack.

The United States has slowly beefed up some of its assets involved in the fight. In late October, the Administration authorized the deployment of less than 50 special operations forces to northern Syria to assist Kurdish forces fighting ISIS. The Defense Department also announced it was deploying A-10 and F-16 aircraft in Turkey as part of “thickening” air operations against the Islamic State in Syria.

However, President Obama has ruled out a major U.S. ground presence, explaining that while American troops could “march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out” the Islamic State, the threat would “resurface, unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”(13) However, former Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Jack Keane told the House Homeland Security Committee on November 18th that a mostly defensive strategy was insufficient, and the U.S. “must have as good an offense to stop and defeat ISIS. We do not. We are not even close.” Keane believes that “the current U.S. driven coalition strategy with its modest improvements will fail.”(14)

Building partner capacity

“Building partner capacity” comprises various aspects of working with coalition partners against ISIS. It includes the advisory and training effort to help Iraqis defend their territory against ISIS, as well as the effort to build the integrated National Guard noted above. Other aspects include continuing regional or coalition capacity-building efforts that were initiated in the Bush administration. The most noted shortfall of this line of effort was the $500 million Defense Department “train and equip” program to “strengthen the Syrian moderate opposition and help defend the territory” from the Islamic State. This program was a conspicuous failure, having actually trained a very small number of Syrians, and achieving no impact on the battlefield. The program was shut down in October 2015—or, as the Administration said, put on an “operational pause.”

Enhancing intelligence collection

The White House strategy defines this line as the effort to understand ISIS’s “capabilities, plans, and intentions” and to share information with Iraqi and Coalition partners. In general, this is something the United States does well, especially when it comes to collecting and exploiting tactical and battlefield intelligence. However, at higher levels politics has intervened.

In September 2015 it was reported that more than 50 Central Command intelligence analysts formally complained that their reports on the Islamic State were being altered by senior officials to show more progress against ISIS and al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front in Syria.(15) Recent press reports on the investigation detail that analysts were told that assessments of the campaign against ISIS had to comport with the view of senior policymakers that progress was being made. Those who sent up more realistic assessments were instructed to “cut it out” and “toe the line.”(16)

This represents a specific form of intelligence failure in which leaders corrupt the analytic process for political purposes, rendering all subsequent products suspect. Thus, whether or not the intelligence agencies and components successfully enhanced their processes, it does not matter if the script is formulated in advance at the White House.

Disrupting ISIL’s finances

The Islamic State is the best-funded insurgency in the world, with a budget of close to a billion dollars a year. However, the ISIS income base is diverse and difficult to measure. An estimate from the RAND Corporation indicated the group gets about half their revenue from extortion and taxation in their areas of control, and another 40 percent from theft, with a small portion from kidnapping ransoms. Less than 10 percent comes from selling oil and other resources, in part because the United States has been targeting refineries and other critical energy infrastructure.(17) Another shadowy source is external donations from sympathizers living in the region. They also sell looted art, black market food, and engage in human trafficking. The sums from these sources are difficult to estimate but are probably significant.

The Coalition has made limited progress in disrupting the Islamic State’s finances, in part because of its diverse income streams. The easiest aspect to target, the illicit trade in oil, does not account for a large enough share of ISIS’s revenue to inhibit its operations if materially affected.

A more promising approach is to go after the people who facilitate the financial infrastructure. In May 2015, Delta Force raiders killed Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State’s oil and gas emir in Syria. Exploitation of the information captured in the raid, as well the leads derived from interrogating his captured wife, led to valuable link analysis of the Islamic State’s financial and leadership nodes. However, ISIS still appears to have ample funds to pursue its insurgency, and terrorism is generally a low-cost venture.

Exposing the Islamic State’s true nature

In July 2015, President Obama said, in televised comments, that “ideologies are not defeated with guns. They’re defeated by better ideas—a more attractive, more compelling vision.”(18) However, the Islamic State and its supporters have already rejected the premises of western liberalism. The radical Islamist vision is a critique and rejection of western values. The “better ideas” promoted by the White House—especially democracy and freedom of religion—are anathema to ISIS.

The only specific accomplishment in this battle of ideas has been the standing up of a messaging hub, the Sawab Center, in the United Arab Emirates.(19) Today, the Sawab Center runs a website and Twitter feed that sends out anti-ISIS messages. However this is a weak effort; in October 2015, the Sawab Center had 12,400 Twitter followers, and sent out about a dozen tweets a day. By contrast, the Islamic State and its followers send out an estimated 60,000 Twitter messages a day. The Sawab Center’s website has an Alexa webpage ranking of 6.6 million, which means it gets web hits in the low hundreds per day. So when President Obama dismissed ISIS as “a bunch of killers with good social media,” it was a backhanded admission of their significant achievements in the information domain.

More importantly, ISIS does a great job of “exposing its true nature” all by itself, with sophisticated information operations campaigns and well publicized brutality. Indeed, ISIS has from the onset promoted a compelling vision of an eschatological, apocalyptic Islamic ideology that attracts followers from across the globe. The Administration says it is “working with our partners throughout the Muslim world to highlight [the Islamic State’s] hypocrisy and counter its false claims of acting in the name of religion.”(20) But the Administration seems more determined to convince the American people that ISIS does not represent Islam, rather than address the Islamic State on its own terms. In fact, it seems willfully to misunderstand the nature and challenge ISIS represents by reflexively writing Islam out of the equation. The White House simply dismisses the Islamic State’s message as a “twisted ideology” without being able to explain why so many are attracted to it, and offering nothing remotely as compelling to counter it. This is a recipe for failure.

Disrupting the flow of foreign fighters

To date, ISIS has attracted some 25,000 fighters from some 100 countries around the globe.(21) Most have slipped into the Islamic State zone of control through Turkey, and better border security plus pushing ISIS back from sections of the border zone have probably had some positive impact.

However foreign fighters still flock to the Islamic State, and, perhaps more importantly, they also leave the region. This represents a critical threat. It is the same dynamic seen in the 1980s in Afghanistan, the 1990s in Chechnya and Bosnia, and the 2000s in Afghanistan and Iraq—foreign fighters go to the battle zone, and those who survive take their experience, knowledge, ideological orientation and legitimacy back to other countries to continue the jihad. By one estimate, 1,200 foreign fighters have returned to Europe in the past few years, including five of the French attackers in the November 13th Paris massacre, as well as the attack’s Belgian mastermind.(22)

The flow of fighters is not simply to and from the ISIS heartland in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has received pledges of loyalty from about three dozen radical Islamist groups in 18 countries stretching from east Africa to Southeast Asia.(23) ISIS is increasing out-of-area operations and bases in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Afghanistan. So interdicting the flow of foreign fighters heading for Iraq and Syria may direct the flow elsewhere. Even stopping the flow at the source has its hazards. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the shooter in the October 2014 terror attack in Ottawa, Canada, was an interdicted foreign fighter who, denied the opportunity to use his talents in the Middle East, wreaked havoc at home.

Protecting the homeland

The administration has pledged to “use the criminal justice system as a critical counterterrorism tool, work with air carriers to implement responsible threat-based security and screening requirements, and counter violent extremism here at home.” The best that can be said is that to date there have been no mass casualty ISIS-related attacks in the United States on the scale of the Paris massacre. However this does not mean there is no threat. In July 2015, FBI Director James Comey said that ISIS had surpassed al-Qaeda in terms of the danger that it poses to the U.S. homeland.(24) The threat, moreover, is expanding; by November, the FBI reported that there were almost 1,000 active ISIS-related investigations ongoing inside the United States.(25)

Humanitarian support

The most acute failure in implementing U.S. strategy against ISIS to date has been at the humanitarian level. The strategy pledged to “continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced and vulnerable in Iraq and Syria.” However in the year since the strategy was formulated, the humanitarian emergency in the region has metastasized into a global refugee crisis. This underscores the general failure to move toward a resolution of the civil war in Syria, as well as to provide adequate safe haven in the region for the displaced and vulnerable. It also illustrates a lack of leadership in being able to convince partner states in the region to accept the refugees. Thus, a local and regional problem has become an internationally destabilizing crisis with domestic political implications for European countries and the United States.

The refugee crisis also has national security implications related to the Islamic State. ISIS has threatened to send 500,000 of their people into Europe pretending to be refugees.(26) This was an idle threat, since there are probably far fewer than half a million ISIS followers worldwide. However it would not take many terrorist infiltrators to conduct deadly and disruptive operations in western target nations, including the United States. The FBI has said it does not have the resources to properly vet the tens of thousands of refugees the U.S. will accept. And the Obama administration plan to salt these refugees in communities nationwide only disperses the problem to the level of local law enforcement officers who lack the training and resources to know who among the refugees might constitute a threat.

Failing grade

The Administration’s nine-point strategy is a useful framework for addressing the Islamic State threat. But it has failed on the level of implementation. Each of the nine “lines of effort” has produced special challenges that the United States has failed to address to date.

One pervasive issue has been a shifting definition of the desired end goal. The strategy itself was billed as an “effort to counter” the Islamic State. Two months earlier, however, the president had said he would “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. The Administration has also discussed diminishing and containing the threat. A more uniform objective, with a strategy tied to that specific endpoint, could well help clarify the means by which to overcome the separate challenges the country now faces in fighting ISIS.

In the end, however, a strategy is useless without the leadership to see it through. At the November G20 summit, President Obama dismissed calls for a more resolute approach to combating the Islamic State, saying he was “not interested” in “pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning” or other similar “slogans.”(27) This view of Mr. Obama’s own leadership role, and that of the United States, perhaps best sums up why the Islamic State continues to flourish.

James S. Robbins is Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.


1.    “Obama on ISIS: ‘We Have Contained Them,’” RealClearPolitics, November 13, 2015, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/11/13/obama_on_isis_we_have_...

2.    Rebecca Kaplan, “Obama Faces Questions on ISIS Strategy After Paris Attacks,” CBS News, November 16, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-asks-more-nations-to-step-up-in-fight-...

3.    David Remnick, “Going the Distance,” New Yorker, January 24, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/27/going-the-distance-david-re...

4.    Steve Contorno, “What Obama Said About Islamic State as a ‘JV’ Team,” PolitiFact, September 7, 2014, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2014/sep/07/barack-ob...

5.    Chelsea J. Carter, Catherine E. Shiochet and Hamdi Alkhshali, “Obama on ISIS in Syria: ‘We Don’t Have a Strategy Yet,’” CNN, September 4, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/28/world/meast/isis-iraq-syria/

6.    Elise Labott, “Sources: Obama Seeks New Syria Strategy Review to Deal with ISIS, al-Assad,” CNN, November 13, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/12/politics/obama-syria-strategy-review/

7.    White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “FACT SHEET: The Administration’s Strategy to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Updated FY 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations Request,” November 7, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/07/fact-sheet-admini...

8.    Tanya Somanader, “President Obama Provides an Update on Our Strategy to Degrade and Destroy ISIL,” White House blog, July 6, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/07/06/president-obama-provides-upda...

9.    Raed El-Hamed, “Ramadi and the Debate Over Shia Militias in Anbar,” Sada, May 21, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=60168

10.  Raed El-Hamed, “The Challenges of Mobilizing Sunni Tribes in Iraq,” Sada, March 17, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=59401

11.  “ISIL Wins Support from Iraq’s Sunni Tribes,” Al Jazeera (Doha), June 4, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/06/sunni-sheiks-pledge-allegiance-isi...

12.  White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism,” September 29, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/29/remarks-president...

13.  Howard LaFranchi, “Will Paris Prompt US Boots on the Ground in Syria?” Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 2015, http://m.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2015/1116/Will-Paris-attacks-p...

14.  Gen. John M. Keane, testimony before a joint hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and House Committee on Homeland Security, November 18, 2015, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/HM/HM00/20151118/104192/HHRG-114-HM00-Wst...

15.  Kristina Wong, “Report: Analysts Claim US Military Altering Intelligence on ISIS War,” The Hill, September 10, 2015, http://thehill.com/policy/defense/253188-report-analysts-claim-us-milita...

16.  Catherine Herridge, “Emails Show DOD Analysts Told to ‘Cut It Out’ on ISIS Warnings; IG Probe Expands,” Fox News, November 23, 2015, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2015/11/23/emails-show-dod-analysts-told...

17.  Sarah Almukhtar, “ISIS Finances Are Strong,” New York Times, May 19, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/19/world/middleeast/isis-fina...

18.  President Obama, Remarks on Countering Violent Extremism, July 6, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/WhiteHouse/videos/10153595743579238/

19.  White House, “Remarks by President Obama at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism.”

20.  White House, “FACT SHEET: The Administration’s Strategy to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Updated FY 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations Request.”

21.  “UN Says ’25,000 Foreign Fighters’ Joined Islamist Militants,” BBC, April 2, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32156541

22.  Lori Hinnant and Raf Casert, “Over 1,200 European Jihadis Have Returned in the Past 2 Years,” Associated Press, November 17, 2015, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/11/17/over-1200-europea...

23.  Hannah Fairfield, Tim Wallace and Derek Watkins, “How ISIS Expands,” International New York Times, May 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/21/world/middleeast/how-isis-...

24.  “ISIS Poses a Bigger Threat to U.S. Than Al Qaeda, FBI Chief Says,” Associated Press, July 23, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/isis-poses-bigger-threat-u-...

25.  Kellan Howell, “FBI has Nearly 1,000 Active Islamic State Probes Inside U.S., Cops Reveal,” Washington Times, November 14, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/14/fbi-has-nearly-1000-acti...

26.  Hannah Roberts, “ISIS Threatens to Send 500,000 Migrants to Europe as ‘Psychological Weapon’ in Chilling Echo of Gaddafi’s Prophecy That Mediterranean ‘Will Become a Sea of Chaos,’” Daily Mail (London), February 18, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2958517/The-Mediterranean-sea-chaos-Gaddafi-s-chilling-prophecy-interview-ISIS-threatens-send-500-000-migrants-Europe-psychological-weapon-bombed.html

27.  Nick Gass and Nahal Toosi, “Obama Rejects Calls for Change in Anti-ISIL Strategy,” Politico, November 16, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/obama-antalya-215924

Cover image credit: By thierry ehrmann [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons