Friends, Countrymen, Political Animals: The ISIS Strategy


Raffi Pounardjian, MBA Class of 2016Raffi Pounardjian NYU

When ISIS began to take the center of the geopolitical stage in 2013 and 2014 by capturing the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, many doubted their staying power, reach, and ability to launch attacks against the West. In an interview with the New Yorker in January of 2014, President Obama said: “if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Six months later, ISIS captured Iraq’s 2nd largest city of 1.5 million people, Mosul. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then declared that his organization had established a global caliphate of which he was the caliph.


Source: Institute for the Study of War

ISIS is a cruel and barbaric terrorist organization, but we must not forget that it is also a political actor with political goals and a strategy for achieving them. When ISIS started making videos of their decapitations, mass executions, and the destruction of historic artifacts and landmarks, the world believed that ISIS was signing its death warrant because it believed that the major powers would undoubtedly unite to defeat such an obvious and horrific threat to civilization. Instead, ISIS has expanded its power, conquered large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility for the deaths of 224 people by blowing up a Russian plane over Sinai, and murdered 129 people and wounded over 300 in coordinated suicide bombings and mass-casualty attacks. To give you a sense of how serious and impactful this attack was, consider that these were the first suicide bombings in French history, a curfew was imposed on Paris for the first time since 1944 when the Nazis controlled the city, France closed its borders, and the state of emergency declared by Francois Hollande gave French authorities the power to search homes and seize weapons without a warrant.


ISIS has been able to achieve these victories in large part due to the political strategy it has pursued over the past two years. This strategy has been to be so extreme and so horrifying, that it supplants Al-Qaeda and all other terrorist organizations as the group leading the charge against western decadence and imperialism. By posting videos of themselves putting people to death in the most terrible ways and murdering innocent civilians on planes and in concert venues, ISIS captures the awe and the admiration of many living in the Middle East and the West alike. ISIS casts itself as the only pure and uncompromising group protecting Islam and combating Zionism and what many view is the West’s malicious influence in the Middle East and the rest of the world. The result has been to attract thousands of people from around the Middle East and most importantly, the West to rally around the flag of ISIS. Thousands of ISIS fighters come from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and even the United States. This gives the organization the unique and valuable asset of recruiting members with citizenship in the nations it wishes to target on a scale for which Al-Qaeda could never even hope.


The other part of ISIS’s strategy entails eliminating any kind of middle ground between themselves and the West, forcing in the minds of some, a choice between the West and the brutal, hard-line ISIS. ISIS has declared in its videos that it wants to eliminate “gray area” between itself and the West. The organization wants the West to respond to these attacks by overacting, cracking down on Muslims, and alienating them into its arms and the ranks of its soldiers. The success of this strategy is yet to be seen and I do not think it is likely, but we should not discount it. Some parties in Europe with ties to fascism and xenophobia have been doing well in the polls in recent years due to what many Europeans fear is the Islamization of their respective countries. Golden Dawn in Greece and the Swedish Democrats are two examples of what could occur elsewhere if ISIS is successful in its strategy and we are not successful in stopping it.

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