The Islamic State. The risk of underestimating its power as a looming state actor – by Emilio Palmieri

The Islamic State (IS) is a shocking reality. Over the last year, it has been able to consolidate itself into a “state-like” manner as a result of the victory of the insurgency that erupted in the contested territorial area between Iraq and Syria after the departure of NATO and US forces and the struggle against the Assad regime respectively.

US military doctrine defines an insurgency as a “protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, a military occupation government, an interim civil administration, or a peace process while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy”. Insurgency uses a mixture of subversion, sabotage, political, economic, psychological actions, and armed conflict to achieve its political aims.

With this regard and for the last year, IS has been proficient in gaining large swaths of territory stretching from the northern-eastern part of Syria to the center region of Iraq (the so called “Daesh”). Within this territorial domain and since then, IS has been running a justice system based on the enforcement of the shaaria law, according to a radical salafi and takfir interpretation. In essence, a kind of a legitimacy has been acquired. No questions about that.

Using the DIME framework (Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economics), we can assert that these elements of national power are being used to exert force on an international level. IS has been using a Diplomacy of sorts, especially when dealing with the hostages being held captive or forcing people to flee (like the Yazidis). With regard to the Information factor, IS has demonstrated an information campaign capability, being able to effectively employ propaganda messages harnessing contemporary social media tools.  As for Economics, huge amount of money coming from different sources (both criminal and state-sponsored) are currently being administered. Again, no questions about that either.

Now, with regard to the Military factor, the hybrid warfare paradigm is presently being employed. IS has showed a twofold state-oriented capability: one conventional, direct expression of state power, primarily used within its borders (both physical and virtual): examples are heavy weapons system, tanks, cyber warfare, biological warfare. The other unconventional, specifically used outside of its borders, more special operations-like, through the employment of subversion and terror tactics.

With the present article we do not want to speculate that had the Coalition stayed longer in Iraq, we might have been looking at a different evolution affecting the region; or we might be working closely with a reliable alley today. The goal here is trying to shed light on a few insights about the risk of underestimating the strength of the Islamic State as a looming state actor, exploiting the content of a recent statement posted by the IS spokesman Abu Muhammad Adnani entitled “Die in your rage”; the document can be seen as an interesting intellectual platform in order to find indications and warnings pertaining to the topic.


So rejoice, O Muslims everywhere, for your State … is becoming stronger and stronger… Remaining … and expanding … the good news of the Islamic State’s expansion to Khurāsān”.

The current IS intent is not only to consolidate its political grip into the Daesh domain; but the transnational aspiration is represented by the expansion of the IS territorial borders to include the Khurasan (the land comprising Pakistan and Afghanistan) and other regional areas that can be united under the banners of the Caliphate.

Lines of operations.

O Jews, O crusaders, O Rāfidah, O murtaddīn, O sahwāt, O criminals, O enemies of Allah altogether! … We will defeat you here and attack you in your land … muwahhidīn  in  Europe  and the disbelieving West and everywhere else, …  target the crusaders in their own lands and wherever they are found … liberation of the lands of al-Haramayn and the Peninsula of Muhammad …”.

The old pattern of far/near enemy still applies here: the IS has clearly identified its adversaries. With reference to the operational capacity to strike “in their own lands and wherever they are found”, the concept seems to be echoing the operational legacy of the Syrian strategist Abu Musab al-Suri when he talks about the de-localization of the militant action. In his memoirs, the writer has synthesized the theory using a catchy sentence “nizam, la tanzim”, which means “system not organization”: to be effective, the militant network needs to be flattened, decentralized, disperse and has to tend towards the individualization of the action.

Operational organizational design.

“ … soldiers of the Islamic State who are in Khurāsān … you saw what a single Muslim did with Canada and its Parliament of shirk, and  what our brothers in France, Australia, and Belgium did …”

Focusing on the organizational design, IS has essentially developed a threefold operational configuration of reference:

  • soldiers operating within the borders and belonging to organic military units performing conventional tasks;
  • a more structured network-oriented legion of militants belonging to the foreign fighters (going to)/returnees (coming from) international scene, trained and battle-hardened, with the primary mission of acting as agents of influence outside IS borders, doing unconventional warfare (supporting IS-related insurgencies abroad) and terror strikes (hitting soft-targets). Examples of the first can be found in insurgencies currently carried out in Libya, Algeria, the Pakistan-Afghanistan zone, Nigeria by IS-supported affiliates; examples of the second attribute are the France attacks (even though only the kosher market assault can be directly attributed to an IS affiliate, while – for the Charlie Hebdo operation – the Yemeni branch of al-Qa’ida took credit for the action);
  • a loose-structured open-source warfare made up of homegrown/lone operators, inspired by the IS political intent, adhering to the fundamentalist religious lines of efforts, performing unstructured attacks against targets of opportunity located mainly in the West hemisphere. With this regard, the anarchist-like operational pattern applies: we can find features of this organizational connotation in the recent Ottawa, Brussels and Sydney attacks.

Centers of gravity.

Applying the concept of center of gravity as the “source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act” to the IS operational organizational design, the following paradigm can be highlighted:

  • soldiers: operating in a “sanitized environment”, the IS military conventional component relies heavily on the local population which is the main source of its strength (recruiting basin, economic support, logistical sustain);
  • agents of influence: going to/coming from hot-spots, freedom of movement seems to be the critical factor supporting their operational activities, mainly in the West (both in their role of unconventional warfare operators and when tasked with terroristic strikes);
  • homegrown/lone operators: they usually operate without having structured links with IS. As a consequence, the viral takfir ideology can be regarded as the source of power allowing them to act in this kind of operational approach.

Tactics techniques and procedures.

“… with an explosive device, a bullet, a knife, a car, a rock, or even a boot or a fist …”.

As for the TTPs that are currently being employed by the IS military structure, whether it be conventional or unconventional, several operational courses of action can be appreciated. Especially for the proxies (be they agents of influence or lone operators) a common critical denominator is the need for the attackers to gain the relative superiority over the target: in order to accomplish the mission, speed, surprise, maneuver, initiative are deemed essential elements that affect in a significant way the outcome of the violent action.

So what.

Given this looming reality, we have got to avoid running the risk of downplaying IS ability to operate as a state actor; on the contrary, we should be looking at IS as a state-like structure without fearing to do that.

Since its formal foundation, the Islamic State has showed its ability to:

–    wield authority and legitimacy over a territory;

–    draw its source of power through a competing international “DIMEing” approach;

–    be provided with an aggressive ideological-political intent;

–    pursue internal and external lines of operations;

–    employ conventional and unconventional operational methods;

–    adapt its military organization in a structured or unstructured fashion, so that the goals are being accomplished accordingly;

–    be supported by a set of strategic centers of gravity relating to the operational organizational design;

–    dictate an operational tempo, especially through the exploitation of proxies out of its borders (agents of influence and lone operators).

Possessing military power, IS has adopted an effect-based approach: “there were many others who killed, ran others over, threatened, frightened, and terrorized people … we promise … a continuation of their state of alert, terror, fear and loss of security”. The IS-sponsored militant action has to be oriented not only towards causing direct physical damage against the enemy; as a matter of fact, IS has constantly demonstrated a proclivity for second-order effects pertaining to the psychological and propaganda domain.

Bottom line, the Islamic State seems to be representing a far greater threat than the one we might have expected. The more we lose sight of this fact, the more we allow IS to grow and hone its state-related offensive capabilities, the more it will be exploiting our fears.