Small Wars Journal

Clemency and the Sword: Using Amnesty as a Weapon to Fracture and Defeat ISIL

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 12:50am

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

Clemency and the Sword: Using Amnesty as a Weapon to Fracture and Defeat ISIL

Matthew Mullarky


Policy-makers have struggled to come to grips with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) since they first began to attract large numbers of recruits following battlefield successes in 2014. Their combination of terror tactics, conventional forces, and a well-developed and sophisticated propaganda campaign has made the group a multi-faceted threat. That the group operates and holds territory in Iraq and Syria, in particular, complicates US policy in the Middle East and it makes it much more difficult to deal with ISIL as a separate unitary threat.[i] Furthermore, the United States is unable to devote its full resources and attention to combating ISIL, as it must maintain its commitments with its partners in the Pacific and with NATO. While some analysts predict that ISIL will slowly but gradually decline throughout 2017, the organization has proven to be both resilient and dangerous in defeat.[ii] Policy makers have been unable to develop a strategy to reduce ISIL’s appeal and unpredictable lethality. Furthermore, the organization’s “winner’s narrative” obscures their real setbacks and preserves ISIL’s brand, even as they are defeated in the field and lose territory.[iii]

Britain’s early 18th-century campaign against The Republic of Pirates can provide policy-makers with some much-needed guidance alongside tried and proven ideas. Three centuries ago, beginning in 1715, the British Empire’s interests were threatened when pirates took over an abandoned colonial town and fort at Nassau formed a pirate haven with a primitive government.[iv]  The Caribbean was a contested, but also neglected backwater for four different great powers. The Royal Navy rarely patrolled even its waters.[v] The Nassau based pirates used this permissive environment to cut off a significant portion of Britain’s north Atlantic trade. The pirates had grown from a nuisance to a danger. A decade later, in the 1720’s, Britain had concluded a successful anti-piracy campaign that is estimated to have reduced piracy in the Caribbean by 90%.[vi] The campaign succeeded, in part, because the empire deployed much needed ships and marines to militarily confront the pirates. Even more importantly, the King bolstered the conventional military deployment by shrewdly offering the pirates amnesty before military action began. The King’s offer politically divided the pirates and made it impossible for them to mount a unified or organized resistance, which in turn facilitated Britain’s ensuing conventional military and police actions.[vii] In short, amnesty destroyed pirate resolve, acted as a force multiplier, and expedited Britain’s anti-piracy victory.

ISIL’s composition and deteriorating military situation make employing amnesty, in conjunction with a well-publicized and strong conventional military push, a viable option. ISIL’s sophisticated propaganda network and media savvy often allow the organization to shrug off real world setbacks with its winner’s narrative. Sowing active dissent and disloyalty within the organization’s ranks and following up with clear and highly visible battlefield successes will directly undermine their messaging, effectiveness, and hasten the organization’s collapse.

The Republic of Pirates and Britain’s Anti-Piracy Campaign

The Caribbean, at the turn of the 18th-century, was a hospitable region for piracy. Colonial powers had established distant and isolated outposts and then turned their attention elsewhere.  A combination of infrequent and lightly armed patrols, intersecting colonial borders, the Caribbean’s many remote islands, and a handful of abandoned towns and fortifications allowed the pirates to take over and implement an informal set of codes and government based in Nassau.[viii] While this establishment only had a handful of a legitimate government’s trappings, historians now view it as a quasi-polity. The Pirates at Nassau called themselves The Flying Gang, thought now they are better known as the Republic of Pirates[ix].

While the pirates preyed upon both large and small commercial and trading vessels, they enjoyed popular support in the public imagination. This resulted in both the public’s tacit approval of the Republic’s existence and actions in the Caribbean and drew new recruits. Some of these recruits joined the pirates out of a romanticized desire for fame and fortune. This period saw the rise of figures such as Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch and “Black” Sam Bellamy. These figures were independent of any real government and piracy and their positions as captain enabled them to amass fame, fortune, and ships capable of matching the Royal Navy’s patrol frigates.[x]

Many pirates were actually former commercial sailors, who were ill-treated and among Britain’s poorest citizens. Being a sailor in the early 18th-century was dangerous – occasionally deadly – and often unrewarding work. A ship’s captain often withheld wages or would offer crew an IOU to be fulfilled at an unspecified date and his word was essentially law. There are even records of captains murdering their crew and going unpunished. Comparatively, life as a pirate promised greater and more equitable pay and a vote in the ship’s operations. The sense of adventure was also a powerful incentive for younger recruits who wanted to explore and feel in charge of their own destinies.[xi]

Similarly, many pirates were also ex-privateers who had taken to piracy out of necessity, to support their families, or a desire for more money. Regardless of their precise motivations and longer-term goals, financial pirates found it very difficult to integrate back into normal society, even when they desired to do so. Pirates were outlaws and rarely were able to see their homes or families again without the fear of being hanged for their crimes. While some enjoyed the risk and sense of detachment, many financial pirates found themselves unintentionally stuck as pirates for life.[xii]

While many took to piracy for financial gain, there was another large contingent that did so for political reasons. A large cohort of pirates, including Charles Vane aimed to create and maintain a network of pirates that could support and re-establish the exiled English Stuart monarchy and depose the recently installed Hanoverian dynasty. Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, at various times, also seemed to undermine Britain’s maritime trade out of a personal vendetta.[xiii]

The pirates, mixed motivations and all, initially started off as a barely organized nuisance, but the permissive environment allowed them to grow. The abandoned bay and colonial fortress at Nassau gave the pirates a secure base of operations where they could meet, plan, and coordinate larger and increasingly more ambitious raids. Historians estimate that, at the height of its activity, upwards of 700 pirates would base themselves out of Nassau. As individual captains became more experienced and burnished their reputations, they competed with each other for influence by organizing more ambitious, more profitable, and more destructive raids.[xiv]

The pirates’ ambitions allowed them to dominate the region while also taking them far beyond the Caribbean. “Black” Sam Bellamy met his death in a shipwreck off the New England coastline. Blackbeard himself would go on to lead a now famous raid on Charleston, South Carolina. Conversely, Charles Vane conducted a series of raids within the Caribbean that effectively cut off all legitimate trade in the Bahamas.[xv]

The pirates continued to refine their technique as they gained more experience. While today, pirates have a reputation for wanton brutality, they were often opportunistic in what ships they targeted for boarding. Furthermore, savvy captains would assiduously curate their reputations on the seas to intimidate civilian crews into submission without any resistance. Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch was a master of this technique. He lit flammable materials under his hat to produce a burning and smoke-filled mane around his face that made him appear more fearsome. At the same time, he also formed a reputation for not harming crews that did not resist boarding and seizure. Over time, many crews decided that allowing Blackbeard to board their ship unmolested was preferable to the gruesome fate would await them after a losing fight with his heavily armed flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge.[xvi]

Over time, Nassau’s defenses and the growing number of increasingly skilled, wealthy, connected, and well-armed pirates firmly established the Republic as an unignorable threat to the British Empire’s interests. Great Britain’s monarch, King George I, responded by appointing Woodes Rogers as the new Governor and Garrison Commander of the Bahamas and dispatched him to defeat the pirates and restore order. Rogers used his personal connections and wealth he accrued from his own maritime trading business to assemble a squadron of seven ships and 550 soldiers and sailors to take Nassau by force.[xvii]

As Rogers prepared his force, King George agreed to Rogers’ suggestion to issue a royal proclamation, on September 5, 1717, decreeing that any pirate who surrendered to a British governor within a year would be pardoned of all piracy offenses committed before January 5, 1718. Rogers and the King intended for the amnesty offer to weaken the pirates’ resolve before Rogers’ flotilla arrived at Nassau. This worked to Britain’s advantage, as it collectively put the pirates in a dilemma. If they stayed united, their strength, numbers, and Nassau’s defenses may have given them a fair chance of resisting Rogers’ attack.[xviii]

However, this was not to be. The King’s pardon appealed to many of the financially motivated pirates – the former sailors and ex-privateers – that wanted a chance to return home to a normal life. Where previously, many believed that they had gone down an irreversible path to a life as an outlaw, the proclamation offered them a second chance. While the offer did nothing to sway Vane and the other politically motivated pirates, there were not enough of them in Nassau to mount an effective defense. Roughly half of the pirates on Nassau are estimated to have been pro-amnesty. Rogers landed at Nassau on July 27, 1718. Some of the pro-Stuart hold-outs, including Vane, put up token resistance to buy themselves time to escape; but by then, Nassau was inhabited primarily by pro-amnesty pirates.[xix]

The King’s proclamation had several important second-order effects, even after Rogers re-established the colonial government at Nassau. First, it made it more difficult for the pirates to trust each other, which hindered their ability join forces against Rogers on the sea or to conduct their own combined raids that occurred during the Republic’s height. The offer of amnesty meant that anyone could turn themselves in at any moment. Even the politically motivated Blackbeard turned himself in to the colonial governor of North Carolina. This distrust was only further amplified when several of the pirate captains accepted the King’s amnesty and used their skills, knowledge, and experience to become privateers and hunt down the hold-outs that were once their colleagues. The Crown incentivized and rewarded ex-pirates that did so with bounties.[xx]

Overall, amnesty fractured the once unified Republic of Pirates and made it much more difficult for pirates to be pirates. They lost their protected bases and could no longer trust each other. Individually, even the most cunning pirates proved less dangerous and much easier to track down. Contemporary British records indicate that the strategy was a resounding success. The British estimated the worldwide pirate population to be about 2000 people between 1716 and 1718. By 1725, the estimate was fewer than 200. Britain’s shrewd combination of amnesty and a powerful, well-known military threat brought an end to the once dangerous Republic of Pirates.[xxi]

ISIL as a Modern Analogy to the Republic of Pirates

While separated from each other by three centuries, there are a number of important parallels in which ISIL resembles the Republic of Pirates and this suggests a way forward. However, analysts should always be circumspect when making historical analogies as no circumstances are entirely alike. This section will refine the analogy by examining key similarities and important differences while also highlighting some unknown factors.

Key Similarities

First and foremost, like the Republic, ISIL is a multi-national group that skirts international borders, operates in areas of interest to multiple powers, and represents a threat to the international community, writ large. Just as the Nassau-based pirates went on raids up and down the Atlantic, the Syrian and Iraq-focused ISIL have a presence or affiliates in Libya, Nigeria, and the Philippines[xxii] and have launched attacks against Europe and the United States.[xxiii]  Their local power and global reach has given them a range of global and local enemies ranging from the United States and France; regional states including, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E;[xxiv] to local non-state groups, such as the Kurds.[xxv]

Both the pirates and ISIL also have a strong understanding of how to shape narratives and the public’s imagination to the advantage. In the 18th-century, Blackbeard’s reputation as terrifying but also as a man of his word, spread throughout the Caribbean in the form of news and rumors shared between sailors and captains. Just as Blackbeard shaped and used his reputation to his advantage, ISIL has developed a sophisticated social media presence that attracts new recruits and intimidates adversaries. Videos of beheadings, hashtags like #calamitywillbefallUS, and frontline propaganda about life in ISIL controlled territory paints the organization as attractive defenders of Sunni-ism with a “winner’s narrative” that cows weaker opponents into submission. Furthermore, ISIL’s media campaign works closely with its military arm to burnish its successes and minimize its losses. Writers elsewhere have suggested that defeating ISIL’s “always winning” narrative will be the key to toppling ISIL. This will mean that any strategy that plans to defeat ISIL will have to both defeat them in a military sense to rollback their gains and beat them in such way that their defeat is undeniable and inevitable.[xxvi]

Recruits also join both organizations for varying reasons. People became pirates in the 18th-century for a combination of personal, financial, and political reasons. Similarly, Research on ISIL’s recruitment practices and propaganda shows a sophisticated system that is tailored to appeal to audiences that includes disaffected westerners looking for a community and a sense of purpose and prison inmates seeking ways to support their families.[xxvii] While these different groups     are all ISIL members, their motivations for joining and commitment to the group can vary greatly from the organizations highly radical core.

Britain’s efforts to divide the pirates through amnesty worked so well precisely because of the pirates’ varied motivations and levels of commitment. Financially-motivated pirates were given a chance to return to a normal life without facing prison-time or possible hanging. While the core group of political pirates largely didn’t accept the amnesty, there were not enough of them to effectively resist Britain’s military response.[xxviii] Today, ISIL has a radicalized core that is integrated and dedicated to the group’s mission. However, research and word from defectors also suggests that there is a large and disillusioned cohort that feels abandoned and betrayed by ISIL. The motivations vary. Some find themselves shocked by the violence once they arrive, while others are dissatisfied to be tasked with manual labor and janitorial duties, rather than serve as a frontline fighter.[xxix] Regardless of their precise reasoning, there may be a sizable cohort that would abandon ISIL if they believed they had the opportunity.

Finally, like 18th-century Britain, the United States has other global concerns that require time and attention and limit its resources. All of the great powers in the Caribbean, including England, had to balance their Caribbean concerns against continental intrigues and extensive overseas empires. At this point in time, England already established colonies in Canada and the Atlantic seaboard. Domestically, the recently established Hanoverian dynasty had to prove its legitimacy against the deposed Stuart monarch in exile, trying to regain the English crown. As such, while Britain’s was very powerful, it had few powerful resources it could send to fight the pirates directly.[xxx]

While the United States has an interest in defeating ISIL and denying it territory, it also must balance this with a need to assure its European allies of its NATO commitments while maintaining a strong presence in the Pacific during a changing strategic environment. The incoming administration will also be looking to establish itself after a contentious election. Taken together, this means that US policy-makers will have a very limited set of resources to use and will need to creatively employ them.

Important Differences

While there are many important similarities between the Republic and ISIL, there are also some important differences to keep in mind when comparing the two.

Britain was able to institute its strategy against the pirates unilaterally, while the current political and military situation will require that any US plan will need to incorporate its partners at some level. The U.S. will need to work with partners and allies to provide steady air and ground access in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Additionally, unless the US is willing to commit a large ground force, it will also be reliant upon partner states and local forces to contribute troops. Overall, the U.S. will have to carefully balance politics between its allies and partners in ways Britain did not. This will be a challenge as the United States’ anti-ISIL coalition features actors with different, and sometimes competing, interests as well as different views on the ultimate fate of the Assad regime and the inclusion of Kurdish forces in the coalition.[xxxi]

Another key distinction is the place that the Republic had and ISIL has in the larger international and criminal order. The pirates based at Nassau represented a preponderance of the Caribbean-based pirates, but ISIL is not the only extremist organization in the Middle East. For that matter, ISIL and its affiliates have a presence that goes beyond the Middle East.[xxxii] So defeating ISIL, through amnesty or otherwise, will not be the silver bullet that Roger’s anti-pirate campaign was, though it will be disruptive and sow dissent.

Unknown Factors

Records lost to history and ISIL’s relative recency means that scholars and analysts today have an incomplete picture of both organizations. It is difficult to determine what proportion of ISIL’s recruits would turn themselves in if given a chance, what terms they would find most appealing, and how ISIL’s different constituent groups – that is young westerners, former prisoners, laborers, etc. – are distributed across its territory. While it is impossible to comment on these unknown factors in a substantive way, it is important to recognize that they could shape an anti-ISIL strategy.

However, from what can be determined, the data and analogy suggest that ISIL is vulnerable to similar strategy to the one that Britain employed against the Republic of Pirates. While the United States’ position is different, and in some ways complicated, by its coalition, this does not intrinsically alter ISIL’s vulnerability to a similar plan

Practical Considerations for Weaponizing Amnesty to defeat ISIL

ISIL’s global reach and many affiliates, combined with the previously mentioned unknown factors, means that there can’t really be a one size fits all approach, even for weaponizing amnesty. The conditions may vary greatly from state to state and even town to town. It will be up to policy-makers to determine what the correct balance of tools is when implementing an amnesty-based strategy.

Military Considerations

Woodes Rogers assembled a powerful and sizable force that set sail for Nassau together, all at once. This not only made the transit safer for his ships and men, but it also forced the Republic to deal with a much more dangerous threat than what they were used to. The clearly raised stakes made accepting the king’s amnesty that much more appealing than risking a fight with warships and soldiers. The pirates undoubtedly knew that their companions were all making a similar mental calculation, which created dissent and further incentivized accepting the amnesty long before Rogers’ flotilla appeared on the horizon outside of Nassau.[xxxiii]

A corollary of this is recognizing that different areas will require a different step up in a military threat based on the strength of a target’s defenses and what level of resistance the target was already used to facing. Nassau had a large pirate population but generally faced little in the way of organized resistance until Rogers arrived. Rogers’ fleet was much more powerful than anything the pirates faced previously.[xxxiv] Similarly, policy-makers and commanders will have differentiate between an embattled area, such as Mosul, which would likely require a larger step increase in force to over-awe ISIL forces, and a more remote outpost that had been removed from the frontlines.[xxxv]

Amnesty Considerations

Policy-makers should ensure that the amnesty offer is, or is at least presented, as appealing as possible to potential defectors.  The United States can do this by borrowing techniques from ISIL itself, announce the planned amnesty to re-direct attention away from some other claim, hi-jack a trending pro-ISIL hashtag with news of the amnesty. The U.S. and its partners can use ISIL defectors, journalists, and other information we have on the organization to contrast ISIL’s propaganda of fighting towards a climatic and apocalyptic final showdown, with the reality of an organization on the decline, killing other Muslims – even the Sunnis they claim to defend – failing to provide basic necessities for communities they occupy, stifling freedoms that many are used to, and using their recruits for manual labor and janitorial work.[xxxvi]

This can then be contrasted to life of those that defect and take amnesty, who can see their families again, a way for them to contribute productively to their communities again, enjoy the freedoms and culture they had at home, no longer live in fear of their recruiters. Different states could throw in a financial incentive to the more action-oriented and offer a bounty on higher-ranked members of ISIL. The higher-ranked members are more likely to be part of the highly-motivated core that would not take the amnesty. Putting a bounty on these local leaders will further incentivize those that joined ISIL for financial reasons to abandon the organization. More importantly, it will make the leaders distrust their subordinates even if there are no defections, but especially if there are.[xxxvii]

Recommended Follow-up Actions

There is still more work to be done, even after an operation using amnesty has concluded. First, the U.S. and its partners should create a thoughtful post-mortem on what did and did not work and use that data to further refine its best practices. Additionally, the United States and its partners should publicly tout any of its successes and feature some of the amnesty defectors in future anti-ISIL messaging. The defectors chosen to be featured should be those that speak against ISIL’s propaganda and support the US-led’s coalition messaging. Chiefly, that ISIL is not winning and is on the decline, that ISIL does not support or defend Muslims – Sunni or otherwise, that its recruits are given menial tasks in contrast to the heroics they were promised, and that there is a way out for those that are offered amnesty.

In this way, amnesty allows the U.S. and its partners to directly undermine ISIL’s propaganda campaign, by combining battlefield success with messaging that shows ISIL crumbling from the insides. Winning organizations don’t have disgruntled defectors. Messaging that demonstrates that will go a long way toward hastening ISIL’s defeat.

Likely Challenges

To be successful, the United States will have to overcome some challenges. As before, ISIL’s global nature means that there is no single policy that can be universally applicable, so it will be up to policy-makers to determine the best way to navigate these difficulties.

Cooperating with Partners and the Fate of Foreign Fighters

ISIL has a large cadre of foreign fighters that extends its global reach[xxxviii] and further complicates any amnesty program, since states will have to work out what to do with them. Potential defectors, especially those from the West, will likely want to return to their old homes and not remain near the frontlines. Different states will need to agree on terms for amnesty and a re-integration program, as well as ensuring that defectors are safely detained and transferred to their homes. Ideally, the amnesty terms and means of transportation back home would be as appealing and as universal as possible, so that potential defectors can easily understand them


A common objection, and fear, of any amnesty program is that someone could take advantage of the opportunity and trust created to lawfully return to their home and then continue committing crimes with less scrutiny than before. This fear is especially acute with ISIL, given that the organization has recruited locals, including westerners, to attack their own communities. Truthfully, recidivism, on some level, is likely inevitable. It is impossible to guarantee that everyone that accepts the amnesty will be committed to not joining an extremist organization or committing acts of terror and violence for the rest of their lives.

However, Britain’s anti-pirate campaign again provides an example and a way forward. In 1718, Edward “Blackbeard” accepted amnesty but then continued piracy in North Carolina. Worse still, Blackbeard did so with the colonial governor’s unofficial approval. Blackbeard would raid ships and then fence what he took to the governor. Blackbeard continued to do this until 1718, when he was killed by agents sent by the colonial governor of South Carolina.[xxxix]

Blackbeard was dangerous after he rescinded his amnesty precisely because he was Blackbeard. He had years of experience being a captain, managing a crew, understanding requisitions, and assaulting and seizing ships. He had all of the experience he needed to be a dangerous pirate after he was          granted amnesty. Even so, his capabilities were greatly diminished compared to what they were at Nassau. He was without support, was forced to keep a low profile, and could only operate safely in North Carolina where he enjoyed semi-legal protection. Despite Blackbeard’s experience, expertise, and fortuitous circumstances, he was still unceremoniously killed by a handful of men sent by a rival of his political patron. This was not the same Blackbeard as the one at Nassau.

Furthermore, most pirates weren’t Blackbeard and most ISIL members don’t have the specialized expertise to construct an IED. According to ISIL defectors, many new recruits get stuck as laborers and janitors. These are the types of people, the ones that feel abandoned even by ISIL, that are most likely to defect and accept amnesty.[xl]

Post-Amnesty Programs

Another way to reduce recidivism is by implementing robust post-amnesty programs. At their most basic, these can include screenings of defectors intending to return to their homes abroad and it can also include job-search and substance abuse programs. Attending these programs can serve multiple purposes.[xli] They can be included as a feature in the amnesty program as a way for defectors to re-acclimate to life back home. It can be used to further counter ISIL’s propaganda and messaging of helping young people find a place to belong by helping them fit in their communities back home. Lastly, attendance in these programs can be made mandatory for defectors and a way to keep track of them during a key transition period.


Britain’s campaign against the Republic of Pirates demonstrates that amnesty can be an effective weapon and force multiplier when used against an inherently fractious organization and combined with a strong military force. Today, ISIL fits that description. Using amnesty, policy-makers can take advantage of ISIL’s many different constituent groups and wide appeal and use those tools against the organization. Furthermore, a successful amnesty program that draws in many defectors will be a powerful rebuke to an organization that prides itself on its “winning narrative.” Recent battlefield reversals have already shown that ISIL can be defeated in the field. Amnesty is the weapon that can discredit it as an organization and defeat it from within.

End Notes

[i] Zachary Laub, “The Islamic State.” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified August 10, 2016,

[ii] Scott Stewart, “The Islamic State in 2017: Rotting from the Outside In.” Stratfor, last modified January 12, 2017,

[iii] Ryan Pereira, “The Islamic State’s Social Media and Recruitment Strategy: Papering Over a Flimsy Caliphate.” Georgetown Security Studies Review 4, no. 1 (2016): 121

[iv] Colin Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007, 11, 112-113.

[v] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 11.

[vi] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 320.

[vii] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 225-226, 247-248.

[viii] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 11, 112-113.

[ix] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 112-113, 158-160.

[x] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 4-5, 7-9, 156-58.

[xi] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 18, 40-44.

[xii] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 64, 87, 225.

[xiii] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 3-4, 205-7, 230.

[xiv] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 112-113, 158-160, 268.

[xv] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 185, 245, 249-253.

[xvi] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 205, 243.

[xvii] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 166-168, 247-248.

[xviii] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 225-227.

[xix] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 228-229, 264-266.

[xx] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 226-229, 257-258.

[xxi] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 320-325.

[xxii] Stewart, “The Islamic State in 2017.”

[xxiii] Karen Yourish, Derek Watkins, Tom Giratikanon, and Jasmine C. Lee, “How Many People Have Been Killed in ISIS Attacks Around the World.” The New York Times, last modified July 16, 2016.

[xxiv] Kathleen McInnis, “Coalition Contributions to Countering the Islamic State.” Congressional Research Service¸ August 24, 2016.

[xxv] “Where the Kurds Fit in 2017.” Stratfor, December 29, 2016.

[xxvi] Pereira, “The Islamic State’s Social Media and Recruitment Strategy.” 124-127

[xxvii] Tiffany Tse, “ISIS and Recruitment: How Do Demographics Play a Role?” Carnegie Mellon University, April 29, 2016. 5-18.

[xxviii] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 228-229, 264-266.

[xxix] Tse, “ISIS and Recruitment.” 20

[xxx] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 3-5, 11.

[xxxii] Laub, “The Islamic State.”

[xxxiii] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 166-168, 247-248.

[xxxiv] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 11, 247-248.

[xxxvi] Pereira, “The Islamic State’s Social Media and Recruitment Strategy.” 121-127

[xxxvii] Tse, “ISIS and Recruitment.” 20-22.

[xxxviii] Laub, “The Islamic State.”

[xxxix] Woodward, The Republic of Pirates. 292-297.

[xl] Tse, “ISIS and Recruitment.” 22

[xli] Pereira, “The Islamic State’s Social Media and Recruitment Strategy.” 148-150.


About the Author(s)

Matthew Mullarky graduated from Georgetown’s Security Studies Program in 2016 with a concentration in US National Security Policy. Before attending Georgetown, he researched and wrote about economic and energy issues for the Minnesota House of Representatives. Matt has previously written, published, and presented on hybrid warfare in Estonia.


Outlaw 09

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 2:45pm

I seriously doubt many even know this study exists..when we address both Shia and Sunni aspects of Islam....studies as this are critical....…

The Islamic Imagery Project

March 1, 2006

Author(s): Combating Terrorism Center

The study of Islamic imagery has been the exclusive domain of art historians and museum curators, with pre-modern art being the central area of interest. Thus, there is a palpable lack of information on modern imagery associated with political Islam, especially imagery that is produced by radical, and often violent, Muslim groups. Nowhere is the dearth of critical research more apparent than in the study of jihadi organizations. These organizations have had a brief but prolific history in the production and distribution of visual propaganda and have arguably created their own distinct genre of Internet-based Islamic imagery. While the tragic events of September 11 highlighted the importance of understanding the ideology and methods of jihadi groups, the process of achieving this understanding is still at the early stages, and the remaining areas of ignorance are profound.

The current study on jihadi imagery, the first of its kind, is an important step in this process. Herein, visual propaganda is considered to be more than just a host for textual messages; rather, it is treated as an expressive medium unto itself—one which communicates ideas just as effectively, and sometimes as explicitly as the written word. We regard jihadi imagery to be a primary vehicle for the communication and diffusion of jihadi ideas, and an essential tool utilized by radical ideologues, terrorist organizations, and sympathetic propagandists, which plays to the particular religious and cultural experiences of their audience. Therefore, understanding how these images work, what ideas they convey, why they are employed, and what responses they may elicit is vital to our struggle against the influence of jihadi organizations and the violence they create

They have been communicating with us for years..we just have not understood their visual langauge.

Jeff Goodson

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 5:55pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

It's a good article you linked by Hassan Hassan, and a good point by you. It's been clear for a long time that information warfare is and will continue to be an especially important element in fighting this particular Islamic religious war.

You're not the only one who gets this, by a long shot. Most recently, it has been pointed out by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her new book on Dawa, and incorporated as an element of her approach to (finally) addressing the core of the problem: Salafist religious ideology. Specifically, she calls on the administration "to fight the war of ideas by disseminating a counter-dawa message, highlighting the work of Muslim reformers and non-Islamist Muslims."

Clearly, an aggressive information warfare campaign would go far beyond that. I have no idea the extent to which such an element of the war may or may not be in development, but if it's not it should be.

And with that I'll step out of this part of the debate.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 3:09pm

In reply to by Jeff Goodson

THIS goes more to my comments......

Publishing jihadi critics exposes myth of jihadi unity, effectiveness, as we've seen on social media, says @hxhassan

Social media helps us to properly chart extremism
Hassan Hassan
April 16, 2017 Updated: April 16, 2017…

There are Sunni's and Shia out there in the social media world who have taken on IS and AQ on their own and get virtually no support other than other social media commenters....therein lies the total US failure in this info war..JUST as we are losing to the Russian info war....

The 3rd anniversary for raqqa is being slaughtered silently , 3 Years of reporting 3 years of Suffering .#Raqqa #Syria #RBSS

A terrible price paid by @Raqqa_SL for resisting #IS and #Assad. But still they continue to try to provide information to the outside world.

Right now we run from such social media engagement attempts.....

This is the BOTH the carrot and the stick....that I refer to....

EACH and every guerrilla war takes a totally different approach...what worked on the VN CORDS program will not work with serious jihadists.....

Face it we the US are basically failures when it comes to a robust 300% driven info war against anyone who is using info warfare against us..

Jeff Goodson

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 10:12am

In reply to by Outlaw 09


Thanks for the personal recollections on CORDS-era amnesty in Vietnam. If it hasn't already been written up for general consumption and the record, it should be.

As I made clear in a different comment (below), I'm not against amnesty and didn't mean to imply so in my original comment to the author. Amnesty has its place in irregular warfare--a prominent place, as your historical note on VN and many other examples attest. There was an analogous 'amnesty' program in Afghanistan, for example, and indeed amnesty as an element of warfare--conventional or irregular--has and continues to enjoy extensive use for intelligence and other reasons that go far beyond simply removing another enemy combatant from the battlefield.

Also as your note attests, however, the "stick" part of this carrot-stick element of war--destruction--included robust application of B-52s, death after capture, and prison. Vis-a-vis ISIS foreign recruits, my argument is simply that the stick part of the equation has not been applied to them vigorously enough. Directly targeting them more frequently for elimination, and a 'no-return policy' for those who survive by their country of origin, would provide the kind of robust downside incentive to seek amnesty that B52s, execution and prison did in Vietnam.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/16/2017 - 6:47am

In reply to by Jeff Goodson

YES VN can in fact show us the way forward if we are even willing to acknowledge that simple fact of life....

In 1969, the SVN military/government at the nudging of CORDS started what was called the "line crosser program"...or Choi Hoi program....and flooded then SVN with literally tons of line crosser paper leaflets inside Cambodia and SVN...I mean literally tons of paper..... cannot believe how many NVA/VC POWs I took that had this leaflet hidden in their clothing....

BTW the intelligence gained from them was massive and concise for the first time in the entire war...

By late 1969 early 1970, the actual line crossers numbers leapt from a few singles to hundreds in a week...both VC and NVA regular troops. They were treated with respect...given new clothes and money kept in "unarmed guarded detention centers" where employment courses were given along with the standard political reeducation classes. Then they were released into the SVN society...

Simple choice for NVA/VC...POW camps or "line crosser detention centers"....

As an interrogation tactic I would offer a captured POW a chance to take the line crosser status in exchange for info that could be verified......worked like a charm.....they were happy as was I...

Some at some point did jump ship and headed back to their former employers and continued to fight BUT surprisingly large numbers did not return to the fight and when NVA captured all of VN these line crossers were sent immediately to NVA reeducation centers called commonly prisons as they were no longer trusted.....or killed outright as traitors...

We often used this line crossing program as a weapon system...meaning once we identified a NVA unit on the move..they would be bombarded with leaflets...tracked and then hit with a B52 strike and the line crosser numbers jumped from that unit...or units that were hit in bunker areas in the same fashion.

There was the standard argument inside DoD and VN that the program cost money...was not effective and did not "win" the is normal for US operations...

BUT in mid 1970, we killed a top level COSVN courier headed North with a handwritten letter to Giap from the COSVN Commander addressing the serious nature of the line crosser threat....the heavy B52 losses and low morale...

The COSVN commander laid out the estimates of his line crosser loses and they are in the tens of thousands in just one year and psychologically they were having a morale impact on his remaining troops...

I have often stated here that we in the West are seriously missing an opportunity in understanding why there are those that joined IS or AQ that fought and then have basically turned their back on IS and or AQ and returned home...while maybe not dropping their radical views of Islam...they are not longer an enemy combatant willing to kill in name of Islam in the West....amazing what killing up front and personal sometimes does to one's own morale values....

There was recently a Sky video interview of a Brit who had fled Mosul who then fled to Raqqa and then onto Turkey with his wife and extremely interesting interview that never really made it into US MSM.....

Basically the interview survived one complete 24hr news cycle and then that was the end of it....

The WHY they now distance themselves is critical in understanding how to compromise an ideologically driven narrative....

One will never "completely defeat an ideology" but one can openly create questions in the minds of those leaning in that direction until at some point it becomes a common thread and the recruitment dies off on it's the narrative turns out to be seen as completely false....

We have repeatedly seen this with virtually every European/ME terror group out of the 60/70/80s....even the "Jackal" just got prison in the end and he was a cut out for Assad in those days...

Have we learned anything since VN in guerrilla warfare?...not really...

Information warfare is the key...and right now I have never seen a total US commitment to drive that train in a serious fashion...oh yes defense contractors will do it for you but at a cost to the taxpayer and with little to no results that can effectively be seen.....

Why is takes time...effort and commitment. WITH time the biggest single factor.....all aspects that we the US do not do we are always in a hurry to "see results"....

Recently I read this in social media out of the UK.....

"The US military constantly writes about "Lessons Learned" and we really nothing "learned"....

We (meaning UK military) use the title "Lessons to be Learned" and we then attempt to learn....

Literally how many thousands upon thousands of "Lessons Learned" documents and how many hundreds of contractors/military personnel are involved in their production....AND how many trees have we killed along the way....entire forests...

BUT have we really "learned anything from them"???????

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 5:21pm

In reply to by Jeff Goodson

The chasm between simplistic and simple is huge. I assure you my position is the latter. But as Einstein said when faced with similar attacks on his work - 1000 experiments can't prove I'm right, but a single experiment can prove I'm wrong. You have not yet made your case.

I will come back tomorrow to dismantle your examples, but you are still mired in interesting tactical characteristics that offer little toward understanding the strategic nature of the conflict you are in.

Jeff Goodson

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 1:56pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Lumping everything together as "criminal enterprise," and distinguishing only between profit vs. political motive, establishes a benchmark in oversimplifcation of the real world. The attempt to find commonalities and draw lessons about COIN from common denominators between insurgent organizations is useful up to a point, but taken too far it relegates to irrelevance the enormous diversity of motives classified as "political" (vs. financial).

Communist insurgents, nationalist insurgents, the northern Irish and Salafist fanatics would all fall under the "political" side of that definition, for example, but they are extremely different in culture and motivation. Those cultural and motivational differences affect why they fight, what they fight for, and how they fight, and therefore what is required to effectively counter them.

What is required is careful examination of the details of their motivation(s), in order to tailor countermeasures accordingly. Socioeconomic development, for example, went a long way towards helping resolve "the troubles" in northern Ireland--or so I'm informed by some of those who grew up with that insurgency there. But in spite of huge improvements in Afghanistan over the last fifteen years, social and economic development is having only marginal impact in the fight with the Taliban.

I'm not arguing against amnesty as an element of counterinsurgency. Indeed, in the famous RAND study that tested '24 concepts against the historical record' of 59 core insurgency cases, RAND found evidentiary support for the concept of "amnesty/rewards" in case outcome. But RAND defined its support for the concept as only "minimal," one of only 7 of the 24 concepts for which there was not a "strong degree" of evidentiary support.

That said, RAND points out that the relatively low level of evidentiary support for amnesty reflects their analytical methodology, and that "while we cannot determine whether winners offered amnesty or amnesty offers led to victory, we can tell that amnesty is correlated with victory." The report is here:…

I'm not opposed to amnesty; it has its place. But that place varies from insurgency to insurgency, and both spatially and temporally. My point is that hard power response to jihadis, including jihadi volunteers, is way underrated and way under-used.

You can generalize all you like, but religious wars are different. And Islamic religious wars are different from other kinds of religious wars.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 11:09am

In reply to by Jeff Goodson

Actually the distinction is one of a criminal enterprise for purpose of profits, vs. a criminal enterprise for purpose of politics.

The ideology aspect of current political conflict is so overblown as to defy both logic and words.

And history tells us two things related to this post:
1. Every successful insurgency had the critical requirement of an ideological narrative that resonated with the aggrieved population the insurgent or UW organization sought to leverage, but that also took a position that the targeted government thought itself either unable or unwilling to adopt; and
2. Every successful COIN campaign that did not merely suppress the insurgent actors through the brute application of state power, has included a robust and genuine reconciliation program.

We can twist our facts to suit our bias, but we can not escape our nature.

Jeff Goodson

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 4:32pm

Interesting argument, Mr. Mullarky.

I would submit, however, that by far the most germane difference between today's Salafist fanatics and 18th century Caribbean pirates is that the pirates were largely driven by financial gain, while the Salafist fanatics are driven by ideology. And not just any run-of-the-mill social or economic ideology; Islamic religious ideology. As such, your argument strikes me as largely a comparison of bears and frogs.

While there are some lower-level recruits who may not be driven to the fight principally by ideology--I suspect that many of these 16-26 year old males are motivated by the possibility of finally getting access to sex (as politically incorrect as that may be to write about)--they are still bought-in to the notion of a global Islamic caliphate and sharia law. There are no Presbyterians among the ISIS recruits.

I've argued before for using hard power to reduce ISIS foreign recruitment, with special emphasis on much more aggressive high value targeting of recruits and a stringent "no return" policy:…

After all, there's nothing like the fear of real consequence to dissuade those potential recruits who yet remain dissuadable.

But in any case addressing recruitment won't solve the core problem. The problem will be solved when the root of the problem--fanatical Salafist ideology--is addressed. And right now about the only coherent approach to that is the one put forth by Ayaan Hirsi Ali here:…

It isn't perfect by a long shot. And all of it's not actionable, at least not now. But it is, finally, a start at getting past our predominant focus on jihadi tactics ("terrorism"), recruitment, and financial networks, and aiming at the core of the problem: the ideology itself.

Mr. Mullarky,

You make some important points, but I would counter that we can look to other historical examples where fanatical adversaries were prepared to cease resistance and surrender unconditionally.

Towards the close of World War II, following the Anglo-American invasion of France, German forces began surrendering to these forces en masse. Yet the Germans were not prepared to surrender so easily to the Red Army, and put up desperate resistance past even Hitler's suicide. Furthermore, Germans fighting against the Soviets often fled west in order to surrender to Anglo-American forces. This disparity enraged Stalin as the Red Army continued to suffer higher losses than the Anglo-American armies, who took ground faster and far more prisoners.

Why? The Allies had presented a united front against Germany, denying Berlin the ability to negotiate separate armistices, and stating common objectives. Nor were the Anglo-Americans particularly “friendly”, given their vast bombing campaign against German cities, and they retaliated against Waffen-SS POW massacres in 1944. Arguably, the Western Allies killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians during the war through bombing, whereas German civilians only began dying in similar numbers as the result of Soviet mistreatment after the end of hostilities (in NKVD camps and during deportation).

Yet the Germans had the perception that unconditional surrender to the Western Allies was preferable to capture by the Soviets. They had the perception that they could be treated fairly and survive, even though there was no amnesty offered, and clemency only was practiced years after German’s surrender.

Obviously, there are military factors that drive armed formations to cease fighting, including exhausting ammunition, suffering significant casualties (e.g. 30% or more), having no path to victory and having no path to retreat. However, whether we look at the desperate defense of Berlin or the suicidal bayonet charges of Japanese soldiers in the Pacific, we can see a stark difference between those instances of resistance and say those of the forces of France (Vichy) and Italy. In terms of organizational psychological factors, we can probably infer the following as being drivers of resistance:

(1) The perception that surrender will result in torture and/or death

(2) The perception that the adversary will harm or murder soldiers’ families

(3) The perception that the adversary is cruel and unfair (ethically and legally)

Conversely, we can probably infer the following as being drivers of surrender:

(1) The perception that surrender will not involve torture or death

(2) The perception that the adversary will not harm soldiers’ families

(3) The perception that the adversary is merciful and fair

With respect to Daesh, there are strong psychological drivers to resist to the death:

(1) Those members from Iraq are certain that their families will be oppressed by Shias

(2) Members do not believe that they will be treated as POWs

(3) Members expect torture and execution from Shia militias and soldiers (cruel)

(4) Members believe that an Iranian-led Shia Front is pursuing sectarian cleansing in Iraq and Syria

(5) The former Ba’athists who probably do not believe in Daesh’s ideology do not see a reason or opportunity to defect back to the Iraqi government

(6) There is a sense that Daesh is unfairly accused of crimes while Shia crimes go unpunished (unfair)

The key to Daesh’s military success and organization are the former Ba’athists who were first alienated by the U.S. in 2003 when Iraq was under Bremer’s disastrous rule. Yes, Gen. Petraeus bribed them to stop the insurgency and was hailed as a greater strategic genius than Churchill, but there has to be a better way to integrate them into Iraq politics and society, without paying them to be quiescent warlords.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: only a Sunni Arab army can defeat this Sunni Arab insurgency once and for all. I have strong doubts as to whether the Iraqi troops, comprised as they are of many Shia militias, can be “touched” by the “better angels of [their] nature”.