Small Wars Journal

ISIS’s Identity Crisis

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ISIS’s Identity Crisis

Nicholas T. Williams

As France reels from the most recent terror attack in Nice, no group has officially claimed responsibility. ISIS supporters have taken to twitter to unofficially claim responsibility for the attacks as retaliation for the death of Abu Omar Shishani.  The attack claimed 84 lives and appears to answer the call by ISIS leaders for followers to conduct attacks in a similar method. In the midst of mounting losses against a US led coalition, ISIS has struggled to maintain its narrative. It has been adamant in its self-identification as a state but struggles to function as such seemingly more concerned with terrorist strikes than governance.

In 2014, ISIS tore across Syria and Iraq exploiting the Syrian Civil War and a vacuum left in a post-US Iraq. Their ability to hijack the Sunni narrative relied heavily on a marginalized Sunni population exasperated by Iraqi political sectarianism and the Syrian revolution. The self-proclaimed Islamic State promised a seemingly viable alternative to the Syrian and Iraqi governments bolstered by its own claims of a truly Islamic State with professionally produced media providing the proof. At its peak, ISIS had effectively achieved proto-statehood, blurring the lines between nation state, terrorist organization, and PR company, masquerading as a functioning government while simultaneously funding, facilitating, and exporting terrorism abroad.

Two years since its formal self-proclamation as a state, ISIS’s identity crisis centers on its claims of governance. The US led Coalition has succeeded in degrading ISIS’s military capability, as the organization continues to lose territory they are faced with a reality check as they lose credibility as a self-proclaimed state. The Coalition’s progress along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys serves as a very real threat to ISIS’s core as they continue to trade territory for security in an effort to maintain their narrative of a cohesive Islamic State. ISIS will continue to prioritize holding their Syrian strongholds and shift fighters as needed to preserve combat power. ISIS’s economy of force is most apparent as they melt from cities pressured by Coalition advances while maintaining a reserve capable of conducting insurgent like attacks in order to destabilize and undermine Coalition efforts.

US led efforts to diminish ISIS’s governance capacity have been woefully unsuccessful without supporting lethal effects. However, targeting ISIS’s governmental capacity quickly becomes a wicked problem, any action to solve one problem worsens another. The US has struggled to provide a credible counter narrative in ISIS controlled areas. Lethal targeting via kinetic strikes against ISIS held infrastructure undermines ISIS’s ability to govern but immediately impacts the civilian population and significantly hinders any post ISIS transitional government’s ability to provide services. Nonlethal efforts to highlight the increased cost of living and decreased quality of life under ISIS solicit comparison to life under the Regime, recognized as a greater evil within ISIS controlled areas.  Research indicates that the number one factor in displaced Syrians fleeing their homes is safety from airstrikes. A distant second is the quality of life under ISIS’s strict enforcement of Sharia law. Coalition nonlethal efforts to weaken ISIS’s legitimacy are immediately undermined by lethal efforts to hinder ISIS’s capacity to govern.

ISIS’s self-defined weakness is their steadfast claim to statehood. They recognize their need to continue expansion in order to survive as highlighted by their Dabiq publication tagline 'Remaining and Expanding’. As Coalition efforts continue to squeeze the self-proclaimed state they have been forced to backpedal on their party line. Increased calls for terrorism versus immigration and “Strategic” shifts in leadership and fighters outside of the self-proclaimed caliphate point to the writing on the wall. The next year will be critical in the fight against ISIS, constant pressure supported by a consistent counter narrative will be essential in crippling ISIS’s ability to maintain their narrative as a cohesive Islamic State and highlights their failure as a proto-state. Defeating ISIS, both militarily and in the information environment, creates time and space for a transitional government to provide services to populations desperate for relief as ISIS struggles to define itself in a post caliphate world.

About the Author(s)

Nicholas T. Williams is an Army Officer with Infantry and Special Operations experience in the Middle East.