What Can We Learn from ISIS?

In this week’s professional discussion I would like to consider the value of unlikely role models. We tend to look to those who resemble us for wisdom, both as individuals and organizations. Furthermore, we tend to want to look to those that are “better” according to seemingly objective criteria. I would submit that this perspective is too limited and for that puts at risk real opportunities to grow in wisdom and capability. Enjoy the read and please join the fray at #CCLKOW.


Last week the Marine Corps announced that it would re-brand its MARSOC units under the historic Raider moniker.

The grand history of the Marine Raiders is generally well known. Less well understood is that the Raider tradition is not a single, coherent thing. Two Raider legacies emerged from the war, as Mike Edson and Evans Carlson were given tremendous leeway in command to create their units as they saw fit. And here is where it gets very interesting, because Carlson’s Raiders were formed with a heavy dose of Chinese/PLA influence.

Evans Carlson was unique for many reasons. Most compelling for me, he was a man who took lessons and wisdom wherever they appeared regardless of source. This was nowhere more true than in his travels with the various Chinese forces confronting the Japanese in 1937. There Carlson had the opportunity to study closely the operations and values of the irregular warfare the PLA had adopted to fight the Japanese. Seeing their generally positive results – on the battlefield, within the units, and among the people in and near the Japanese occupation – impressed him. Many of the concepts he saw validated in China would be adapted and implemented within his Raider unit, to include the iconic battle cry, Gung Ho.

Consider that for a moment. The United States, which by the eve of WWII was already militarily potent, was taking lessons in warfare from what would have been considered at the time as a third rate army. Looking only at their record on Guadalcanal suggests that the PLA practices were indeed valuable to the Raiders. And yet conventional wisdom would never have identified the PLA as a role model for American military capabilities.

From the perspective of military innovation, from tactics to strategies, we find ourselves in very interesting times. In every corner of the globe there are niche military formations which, for their poverty and irregularity, for their freedom from institutional legacies and traditions, have taken what they needed from any sector to cobble together capabilities to relatively good effect. ISIS, for example, has created social media as a potent “arm” of its forces. Jihad by tweet won’t win any conflicts, but it certainly enhances ISIS’ interaction with its own audience and those it is trying to woo. That is but only one small piece of the innovation afoot in warfare. Even a military super-power could benefit from consideration of these advances, no matter that it might mean learning from an unlikely role model.

So, the questions for this week are:

In what areas do Western military capabilities lag behind contemporary weaker or lesser forces? That is, where might they benefit from an unlikely role model?

What or who is your unlikely role model of choice?


18 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from ISIS?

  1. Even if we’re not all that vulnerable to conquest by traditional WMD’s, we may be vulnerable to financial warfare. Such attacks, and similar accidents, could wreak more havoc than otherwise on our economy. Fortunately there are possible solutions. To sign a petition to the President and Congress, please Google “Defending Against Financial War,” and select the URL which has 763/125/828. (Please tell your friends and relatives, too.)

  2. WhereHaveAllTheSoldiersGone says:

    One thing all military men can learn from this ISIS (IS/ISIL) – military does the fighting only and not the hollering, the hot air, or any unnecessary verbal belching. For hatching bellicose statements/plans, please let the national leaders handle it. This way, soldiers fight soldiers, civilians need not get caught in a crossfire. ISIS has become what it is today because very powerful military men wanted to control the Levant (without consulting their civilian leaders). Amen.

  3. Some very thought provoking questions .

    I will waffle initially on this and say that I do not think we (or anyone) can have a likely or unlikely role model when it comes to warfighting. I think what we are seeing in today’s operating environment is exactly what Clausewitz said about war being more than a true Chameleon. The character of war is constantly adapting and changing due to the myriad (most political) conditions that exist. To have a role model might mean that we stagnate.

    Sure, some of us lament that the Russians with their “new generation warfare,” or the Iranians with their Iran Action Network or the Chinese with their Three Warfares (or even their Unrestricted Warfare) and even ISIL/ISIS/IS are more agile and less “politically encumbered” and better able to operate in the modern operating environment (and in some ways are defining the parts of the modern and new operating environment) I think most of us realize these are apples and oranges comparisons and that we in the US and the West will never emulate these foes nor do we want to emulate them (but we have to be very much aware of how they are operating and why – e.g., understand their strategies). I want our nation to be able to protect our interests, uphold our values, and do strategy well (or at least good enough because we can never be perfect in terms of strategy in the rapidly changing contemporary operating environment).

  4. Steve Metz says:

    Draft of my forthcoming essay on it:

    For Islamic extremists, particularly the most angry and violent, al Qaeda is yesterday’s news. From Yemen to Africa, fighters are leaving al Qaeda affiliated groups and joining the ultra-radical and violent movement known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This gives some worrisome hints about the future of extremism in the Islamic world.

    The ascendance of ISIL is due, in part, to al Qaeda’s failures. Over the years much of the funding it used to energize and stoke militant movements was cut off or dried up. Pummeled by the United States and its allies, al Qaeda’s leaders hunkered down in a desperate and sometimes futile attempt to stay alive or avoid capture. The best they could do was to push out an occasional missive or vainglorious video. Hidden deep in Pakistan’s tribal areas, al Qaeda’s leaders lost touch with the new generation of militants who saw its ideas and ideology as “stale, tired, and ineffectual.” Its focus on the “far enemy”–the United States–rather than Islamic governments which it called the “near enemy,” backfired. Rather than deterring the United States through terrorism or insurgency as planned, bin Laden and his cohorts inflamed American passion and brought destruction to their organization.

    ISIL, under the leadership of a militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, adroitly filled the vacuum left by al Qaeda’s stumbling. It proved skilled at appealing to angry young Muslims though social media and was better than al Qaeda at generating its own resources, thus avoiding one of the vulnerabilities of bin Laden’s group. ISIL’s extreme violence proved a powerful recruitment tool for sociopaths willing to kill and to die. In this sense, ISIL was more attuned to the modern world where only shrill radicalism attracts attention. Moderation and patience are boring, particularly to impassioned young militants hungry for attention. ISIL instinctively understood this, exploiting the brutality pioneered by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, perhaps the most pathological of bin Laden’s followers.

    But as much as anything, ISIL has moved to the fore of transnational Islamic extremism because it appears successful. While al Qaeda had no major victories after the September 11 attacks on the United States, ISIL fighters, steeled by combat against the Syrian regime, launched a lightning conventional military attack in northern Iraq which seized Mosul and several other cities, crushed Iraqi security forces, and captured huge stockpiles of weapons. It then declared the creation of a “caliphate”—something al Qaeda promised for years but never delivered. Each victory increased its appeal and drew more followers frustrated by their lack of success elsewhere.

    Unintentionally, America’s counterterrorism strategy helped ISIL trump al Qaeda. For all of bin Laden’s murderous intent, he did think strategically. Al Qaeda used violence to attain specific political outcomes. There was a rationality to it, however repugnant. ISIL uses violence more astrategically, an expression of primal rage and a way to draw raging supporters rather a means to a strategic end.

    The Obama administration’s hesitation to become involved in the Syrian civil war made it easier for ISIL to coalesce and gain combat experience. And now the administration’s decision to launch military strikes against ISIL, while necessary and morally justified, is further burnishing the group’s image. That American aircraft and drones are attacking ISIL rather than al Qaeda shows militants and potential militants exactly who Washington considers the leader of the violent Islamic extremists.

    What, then, does ISIL’s rise suggest about the evolution of violent Islamic extremism? For starters, al Qaeda may not willingly cede its leadership in the transnational jihadist movement. To regain the luster it feels it deserves, al Qaeda may attempt a spectacular attack on the United States or some other vulnerable target to show that it still carries weight among extremists. Al Qaeda is also trying to deepen its involvement in in Syria, even talking of committing Taliban fighters to the conflict.

    ISIL itself has probably reached what strategists call its culminating point–the time when an offensive has run out of steam. When conventional militaries hit their culminating point they pause, rest, bring up additional troops and material, then try to restart the attack. It is doubtful, though, that ISIL can do this. With U.S. air strikes, international assistance to Kurdish forces, and Iranian involvement in bolstering the Iraqi government, ISIS is unlikely to take any more major cities. Soon it is likely to repeat the mistakes of early al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, alienating the local people and soon facing outright opposition, possibly abetted by the United States. Once this happens it will be hard pressed to defend its newly declared “caliphate,” much less expand it.

    When ISIL’s advance stops and the challenges of administering what it has seized mount, it will face infighting. U.S. attacks may force its leaders to hunker down just like al Qaeda’s. In response, ISIL may try to attack the United States. But it shows no sign of the careful, long term planning and preparation that allowed al Qaeda to do this, particularly given the heightened American vigilance, so its chances of success are slim.

    ISIL may soon devolve into simply one more terrorist group than can murder almost at will but not govern or administer anything. But then there is the chance that some new, perhaps even more violent successor will emerge. While the United States and its allies have damaged, perhaps even smashed the authority structure of Islamic extremism, no one has addressed the anger, frustration, and sense of injustice that fuels it. There is little sign that the governments of Islamic nations or organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood can do so, as least in the short term. Until the Islamic world generates effective and just systems of authority that can mute the anger of young men and channel their energy into productive and nonviolent endeavors, one violent extremist movement after the other will peak and then decline, only to see a new one take its place.

  5. MuddyWaters says:

    Capabilities: Technologically, none: but maybe we are so advanced that we forget that tech is just a force multiplier and that even first generation weapon systems might have a place in the modern battlespace (the bayonet still has a decisive psychological impact, as proven recently in both Iraq and Afghanistan).

    That said, it is the ability to harness mass media through effective propaganda that really sees these unconventional (in modern Military terms; perhaps, because they are more numerous and widespread groups like Al shaabab, IS etc are actually conventional these days?) threats succeed. The West no longer believes its own politicians, its own establishment, effectively ceding this vital ground. We need effective Press Officers who can tell the truth, but also a credible populace to believe it.

    Unlikely Role Model: Personally, give me Goebbels or Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf; anybody who can turn imminent defeat into unlikely victory deserves a try (not withstanding their less than moral or ethically acceptable political beliefs)!

  6. RIBICULOUS says:

    As a serving British Army Officer, I can tell you that one of the things that my colleagues and I most identify about the ISIS model as something to learn from is their complete disregard for the health and safety, red tape, risk-aversion of a modern western army. As repulsive as it may be, ISIS does not have to worry about Service Complaints, Unpleasant Working Allowances, Protecting Information legislation and all the myriad bureaucracy that so encumber armies that try so hard to match the social standards of their populations. In the same way that heavily laden British and American troops lumber after light fighting Taliban due to the body armour and kit that their home nations and militaries insist they wear now, lest they incur massive litigation in the event of injury or death, we are institutionally hampered by our increasing insistence on equality, protecting individual rights and “putting up an umbrella” against litigation and complaints. How can an army that sometimes seems more concerned about speed-gunning soldiers driving around Camp Bastion possibly compete in terms of sheer energy and single-minded aggression with an organisation that has scant regard for the niceties of such side-issues?

    I do not counsel a return to the dark ages. This is a debate of shades of grey. Our soldiers deserve to be treated fairly and well, with the best equipment for the job in hand. But if and when we next face an enemy that is a serious threat in terms of numbers and capability, we may need to be willing to give the assumption of risk back to junior commanders and worry less about “freedom from” than “freedom to”. We suffer from a mindset born of the end of a prolonged campaign instead of the expeditionary mindset that we need to fight an enemy like ISIS.

    • john mosby says:

      Very good point, and to amplify it: even within the Islamic paradigm, ISIS are trying really hard to avoid their own ‘red tape.’ They avoid making specific pronouncements on fine theological points so that they can be a ‘big tent’ Sunni movement, and indeed this may explain their homicidal conduct vs Shia, Christians, Yazidis, etc – show your bona fides against the external enemy, and don’t get bogged down with internal differences.

      Their members have a wide variety of facial hairstyles, clothing, etc – no one seems to be running around whipping members for too-low thobe hems or other uniform violations. They exploit social media, including music videos, to the fullest, without worrying about WWM(pbuh)D with this or that technology.

      Their motto seems to be “victory first, nice stuff later” – which we should have as our own motto!

    • Neutral says:

      seems more concerned about speed-gunning soldiers driving around Camp Bastion

      One assumes you’ve not had to write to someone’s family explaining how he was run over and killed by some idiot driving too fast in Bastion.

    • I take your point. In regards to social media, I know that I am calculating everything I say online to ensure I am not going to get blindsided later on – and maybe that hampers my ability to “influence” as well as ISIS – even though I’m not sure if I am supposed to be influencing at all.

      “How can an army that sometimes seems more concerned about speed-gunning soldiers driving around Camp Bastion possibly compete in terms of sheer energy and single-minded aggression with an organisation that has scant regard for the niceties of such side-issues?”

      On this, the answer is technology and professionalism. While it’s true that we’re hampered down by regulations, armor, and more, it is that stuff in the aggregate that allows us to circle a drone over a target for hours and launch missiles at them. There are certainly places where we’ve gone too far – the blue ink example, for sure – but we’re not supposed to be fighting the enemy with primal rage anyway.

  7. RIBICULOUS says:

    No, but I have taken 3 hours to get to the site of a massive IED strike to conduct a casualty extraction because some idiot kept making me come back in to the operations room to fill in the correct paperwork for the patrol and then redo it IN BLACK INK NOT BLUE.

    I was talking about institutional priorities, not individual paradigms.

  8. M.M. McCloud says:

    As a Marine, I approve of this article. With that being said, I agree with Colonel Maxwell, there is no “template” that will give us all our answers. One small quibble with the article, this quote “ISIS, for example, has created social media …” does not compute to me. ISIS did not “create social media” they just “adopted and utilized it in a successful fashion for their targeted audience”.

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