Small Wars Journal

ISIS is Not a Terrorist Organization

Tue, 12/29/2015 - 3:14pm

ISIS is Not a Terrorist Organization

Ajit Maan

Given the climate of U.S. public opinion about U.S. intervention in the Middle East it is not surprising that the current administration has focused its foreign policy objectives on counter-terrorism.

But that priority limits our position to a defensive one. Further, the term “terrorist organization” offers little insight and limits our understanding and approach. ISIS is an insurgent organization using terrorism as a tactic.

The American public is wary of getting into what it views as quagmires, particularly in the Middle East, but is less hesitant when it comes to fighting terrorists who we view as a direct threat to the US. As a result, we have intervened in Syria to fight ISIS but not Assad.

While ISIS certainly employs terrorism as a tactic, and the label is one that de-legitimizes an opponent, the label also obscures the facts.  To call it a terrorist organization is to mislabel it.

Traditionally, groups were identified as terrorist groups if their goal was ultimately to effect policy through intimidation. The policies in question were regionally specific: Ireland, Israel, even as specific as the green line separating Muslims and Christians in Beirut. What we are witnessing now is something closer to criminal psychopathology than terrorism. And the aims of these groups are not regionally specific but often international in scope. Moreover, the tactics have gone beyond intimidation to affect policy.

Terrorist organizations do not typically hold territory. They are generally comprised of small numbers, and they cannot prevail in a military confrontation. They pose an asymmetric threat. ISIS, however, has impressive military capabilities, has an estimated 30,000 man army, and conducts itself as a global criminal enterprise looting its victims, exchanging hostages for millions in ransom, stealing and selling antiquities, imposing taxes, routinely engaging in extortion, creating and imposing laws. It has demonstrated a disregard for national borders and is holding territory in Iraq and Syria. In the first six months of 2014 it took Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Tikrit, and al Qaim, while the world watched in disbelief.

And ISIS has a decidedly genocidal aspect. Its victims are not just means to an end. The “end” of the mass executions by ISIS is to rid the earth of targeted populations – never mind the effect on the rest of us. Terrorism is just one tactic groups like ISIS employ in addition to conventional military operations, unconventional warfare techniques, state-building and even humanitarian aid. ISIS has even issued its own currency.

If we understand ISIS as an insurgency using terrorist tactics, their goals are comprehensible. Insurgency is the strategy; terrorism and guerrilla warfare are its tactics.

Because ISIS is not simply a terrorist organization, what is required to deal with this threat goes beyond the CT strategies of any one country. It is going to require joint military tactics to contain its expansion on the ground and to protect soft power initiatives designed to counter its media appeal, stem recruitment, and ensure diplomatic progress.    

A light military footprint may be tactically advantageous in short-term local conflicts, but our focus on counter-terrorism strategy leaves us unfocused on other forms of instability in the region that can undermine our interests in the Middle East.

In order to get ahead of the game we should focus on preventing and mitigating regional conflicts. Regional instability and non-functional states create a vacuum that terrorist organizations are ready to fill. Even if it were possible to kill off every member of ISIS, new groups would form to take its place as long as core grievances are not addressed. When governments are too fragile to operate, and when fringe groups have greater capacity to address the needs of populations than their governments, some organization is going to take advantage of that vacuum.

Robust diplomacy combined with conflict resolution and mitigation strategies can potentially disrupt conflicting tensions and reduce the level and scope of the antagonisms and civil disorder that extremist groups require in order to flourish.

We should not think of the marker of success as having the solution to every problem. Success would be the reduction and containment of conflict. And it is not our job to do this alone but we have a vested interest in partnering with vulnerable states, like Yemen and Iraq, to help invigorate their governance and defense capacities. Insurgency happens when governance fails.

The real threat from these groups to the US isn’t the acts of terror they perpetrate. The real threat results from the regional instability they create or take advantage of. When they become insurgencies or function as states we are in big trouble. And that is where we are now. Containment from here on means stabilizing the region through partnerships and protecting civilian refugees.

Now is the time to take preventative action. This does not mean exporting democracy. It means resolving, or at least mitigating, conflict with the goal of making states less vulnerable to civil war and promoting regional stability by providing local support and capacity building to regional allies and creating new ones.

The situation in Syria has left over 12 million people displaced, has de-stabilized much of the Middle East, has created an unprecedented refugee crisis that has not been addressed - and the situation rages on with no end in sight.   

The refugee crisis threatens to become something more if not for intervention.

Sustained military attacks kill a few fighters, more civilians, and heighten the instability that generates mass exoduses and the desperation that ISIS capitalizes on. It also reiterates the narrative of extremist Sunnis that they are under attack. Military attacks presented on social media and the instability they create on the ground as well as the feeding they do to the extremist narrative provide a perfect breeding ground for further recruitment.

ISIS’s real or imagined attractions may fail to deliver but so have countries like Syria failed to deliver. Removing ISIS militarily, even if it were possible, without removing the elements that enable it to flourish is not a good strategy.

Frustrated with the complexity of the problem, some voices have called for a conventional war. But to fight a conventional war against an unconventional enemy is a losing proposition that would deplete our resources and the majority of the American public simply would not get behind such a move. We would not win. Do we withdraw and take an isolationist stance? We cannot. Our own stability and security is too interdependent on the rest of the world’s stability and security.

We must cooperate with other countries that are equally or more threatened by ISIS’s advance and advocate joint diplomatic endeavors to assist refugees and local forces like the Kurdish Pesh Merga. And together we must wake the UN out of its slumber.  When millions of people are ousted from their homes by a global criminal enterprise it is time for the UN to act.

About the Author(s)

Ajit Maan, Ph.D., Vice-President for Research and Analysis, ENODO Global, is author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies.



Sun, 01/03/2016 - 7:20pm

Bill, it is not about «tactics», but «essence». Descending from AQI, ISIS was essentially a terrorist organization with aspirations to be a state (under a «Caliphate» form).

Of course in several senses all terrorism - including state terrorism (how the term was coined, after the French Revolution, something we tend to forget)- is «tactical», or about «tactics», and not an end in itself.

In some cases the real goal was the «liberation» of specific territories, the creation of «true» «socialism» or «communism», the defeat of the «bourgeois» world order, of monarchies, of «tyrants», of the «capitalist system», etc. In others, like in this instance, it is about the re-creation of the mythical Caliphate.

If Al Qaeda would have remained with stable and undisputed footholds in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali, stretches of Sahara and Sahel, the Philippines, Irian Jaya, e.a., it could have looked a lot like what Daesh is today. The difference is that in all of those regions AQ was a competing power, and not the dominant one, or was repressed, or was annihilated, or went dormant (or morphed into Daesh).

So, as a conclusion:

*Even if territorially defeated in Syria and Iraq (or that new piece of land made of failed states we could call «Syriaq»), Daesh will continue to live as an «ideological» entity through its cells, youth brigades, front organizations, preachers and social media all around the world, and in particular in Europe and the Maghreb.

*And even if defeated in its «ideological» core in Europe and North Africa, the cyberspace or the propaganda battlefield, it could remain as a «pocket state» in parts of Iraq and Syria.

*So it is not only about counter and anti - terrorism, but conventional warfare, COIN, unconventional operations, special forces insertion, intelligence, surveillance, cultural and propaganda - if you want, «information» - war, psyops, civilian affairs, nation rebuilding, etc etc.


Bill M.

Sun, 01/03/2016 - 1:28pm

In reply to by nrogeiro


Comments below are rough thoughts only that may suggest we need to reframe the problem. In the end, your label may prove to be the most useful. At the moment though, I think we’re missing something by defining organizations by the tactics they use.

No one is arguing that ISIL does not employ terrorism as a tactic, so do a lot of states. We don’t call those states terrorist organizations; it would serve no purpose beyond some minimal propaganda objectives. We call them state sponsors of terrorism. We do not define states by the tactics they employ.

Left wing terrorist groups in Europe (Red Army, Red Brigades, ETA, etc.) were generally small cells that only employed terrorism, so it was convenient to label them terrorist organizations. Would it have been more accurate to call these left wing groups revolutionary movements? Movements that employed terrorism as their principle tactic to pursue their strategic ends (they failed in all cases).

Does it even matter? Labeling a person or organization has value from a legal perspective and the associated authorities to pre-empt, counter, or respond. There is some value in putting a label on a group to get authorities to conduct counterterrorism, but in so doing do we miss the bigger picture? If we miss the bigger the picture, do we risk defining the problem incorrectly and developing an ineffective strategy because of that? Does ISIL sponsor terrorism? Yes. Does that make them a terrorism organization, movement, or state sponsor of terrorism? Yes If we only conduct counterterrorism operations, will we defeat them? Questionable.


Sun, 01/03/2016 - 8:14am

1. ISIS, Daesh, ISIL, IS, SCSSCI (So called State So called Islamic) or whatever you want to call it, is «technically» and legally a terrorist organization aspiring to be a state, and with some elements of this one (precarious possession of internationally non recognized territory, precarious administration over this one, a semblance of civil service, a territorial army, «taxes» and even a GDP, etc.).
Its roots - for the ones that have been studying it carefully - are clearly in the AQ universe and the Zarqawi insurgency cum terror campaign, and its ideological and operational ambition is currently to substitute the «old» AQ with a new form of Jihad.
The generational, ideological and jurisprudential dispute between AQ and Daesh is largely ignored here, but it remains crucial to understand the complexity of the problem.

2. Initially Daesh progressed in Syria and Iraq as the most «efficient« protector of Sunni communities, but soon it revealed its face as oppressor of the same and elimination of moderates, rivals factions and local authorities. This made cities like Raqqah and Mossul largely like kidnapped and blackmailed towns, after initial jubilation due to the departure of corrupt or unpopular Iraqi and Syrian «civil servants».

3. A major flaw in this article is the minimizing or almost silence about the real terror network established by Daesh in Europe, its main strategic objective (not US or Israel). This network is made on one hand of the regeneration and changing of allegiance from AQ of alienated mostly young communities (Olivier Roy has done a superb set of studies on this, following in part he M. Sageman «bunch of guys» archetype) in several EU and non-EU countries (including the Balkan area, the Caucasus and Turkey), and on the other of totally new entities with different principles and MO, as has been discovered successive operations against the Sharia4 cells and more arcane things like the Rawti Shax network.


Nuno Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal

(*N. Rogeiro authored in January 2015 «O Mistério das Bandeiras Negras - Passado Presente e Futuro do «Estado Islâmico», Verbo Ed., Lisbon, Portugal). («The Mystery of the Black Banners - Past, Present and Future of the 'Islamic State'»). This was the first major international work on ISIS, with access to privileged documents and a 2 year investigation in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, Iran and Egypt.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 12/30/2015 - 10:44am

"The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world."

- Alexander von Humboldt

We often forget that only 30% of Americans even have a passport-- of those only 6-9% really use them and we wonder why our worldview is driven by mainstream media......or far worse Fox News/CNN.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 12/30/2015 - 9:56am


Like Bill, I agree with your primary premise, but take slightly different perspectives on how I understand the problem and what solutions I believe most likely to address US interests at reasonable cost and lowest likelihood of provoking even larger problems in the process.

To call ISIS a "terrorist organization" is as accurate, and misleading, as calling the United States a "counterterrorist organization." Yes, it is something we do, but it hardly defines who, what or why we are.

I think we come to the most helpful and clearest understanding of ISIS when we think of them as the government of emergent de facto Sunni Arab state carved from the territories and populations of Syria and Iraq. This is a state that does indeed rely heavily on terrorist tactics, but many emergent states feel it necessary to employ some form and degree of terrorism to break away from the existing structure(s) they are challenging. Take the case of the emergent state of Israel from British Palestine as a modern example; or the case of the emergent Vietnamese state from French Indochina. It is worth noting that both Israel and Vietnam are legitimate, responsible members of the international community today.

ISIS also conducts state-based unconventional warfare with bases of revolutionary energy among Sunni Arab populations around the globe. They have out-competed AQ for this market. It is also worth noting that neither AQ nor ISIS created this market, they just recognized it for what it was and outcompeted host nation government, Western governments, and organizations like the UN for influence over this market. In many ways, the West is like Kodak or Bell telephone - unable to turn loose of a world that operated in a way they saw as proper, to embrace a changing world as it actually is.

We focus on symptoms and we flail at symptoms, and we yearn for the good old days for the certainty of the Cold War standoff and the market share we once enjoyed. The result is that we are wishing for what no longer exists in one hand, and pissing away our influence as a nation on the international stage in the other. We all know which one is filling up first...

To "defeat" ISIS converts this from a weak little landlocked state with few (admitted)friends, no air force, navy or WMD, and little in way of economic potential; back into a fragmented, disorganized violently competing collage of revolutionary insurgency groups. Last time I checked, the US is pretty good at dealing with the former, but has a pretty checkered history in dealing with the latter. I think the advice of Napoleon is on point: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." ISIS is right where we want them, but we are too blind to see it.

Currently ISIS leadership is "all in" - they either succeed together, or they fail (and die) together. Put a reconciliation deal on the table and watch their leadership fragment as they begin to doubt and distrust each other as to who might be taking the deal, and who remains dedicated to the currently espoused vision of a Caliphate. Recognize the need for the emergence of a Sunni-governed state or state-like entity to emerge. Not defined by us, but with our commitment to support its emergence. And recognize that Iranian-led Shia influence expansion, and Saudi-led Sunni influence contraction must be restabilized once again. Taking out Saddam set forces in motion that we cannot fully understand or appreciate - yet they are real all the same. We should use our influence to drag the Saudis and Iranians to the table and force the talks to draw a new line of detente between these two ancient competing forces.

But to throw a simplistic "terrorist" label on actors, or to try to "defeat" one of the symptoms? I see little that helps US interests there.


Concur with this to a point:

"But that priority limits our position to a defensive one. Further, the term “terrorist organization” offers little insight and limits our understanding and approach. ISIS is an insurgent organization using terrorism as a tactic."

It is a state consolidating control in parts of Iraq and Syria, it is an insurgency in the Sinai, Libya, etc., and it uses terrorism as a means to attack the far enemy in the West to erode their support for continued military operations against them. The key point though, as you have stated, is they are not a terrorist organization, and viewing them as such means we miss the larger picture by focusing on one of the tactics they use. Furthermore, we magnify the effects of terrorism with our media and political discourse.