Assessing ISIS

In 2014, a militant group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIL, but more generally known as ISIS, burst into official and public attention with some military victories in Iraq and Syria in the middle of the year—particularly by taking over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.

Cries of alarm escalated substantially when ISIS performed and webcast several beheadings of defenseless Western hostages. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was soon insisting that “The threat ISIS poses cannot be overstated”—effectively proclaiming, as columnist Dan Froomkin suggests, hyperbole on the subject to be impossible. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham de­emed the group to present an existential threat to the United States, and the media quickly became canny about weaving audience-grabbing references to the arrestingly diabolical ISIS into any story about terrorism.

The challenge presented by ISIS has become perhaps the most important and consequential foreign policy issue for the United States today. And a poll conducted a few weeks ago asked the 83 percent of its respondents who said it closely followed news stories about ISIS whether the group presented “a serious threat to the existence or survival of the US.” Fully 77 percent agreed, more than two-thirds of them strongly.

Unlike other groups designated as terrorist organizations, ISIS actually seeks to hold and govern—and then expand its control over—territory. ISIS obtains finances by selling oil and antiquities and by extorting, or taxing, people under its control. Key to its success or failure is whether it will be able to fund itself through such activities and whether its social and economic viability can be undermined.

It is this issue that will be central to a discussion by two experts at 4pm on May 18, 2016, hosted by Cato (a reception will follow). Howard Shatz is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, and Jacob Shapiro is Associate Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and the author of the prize-winning The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations. I will be moderating the discussion.

There seems little doubt that since its advances of 2014, the vicious group’s momentum has been substantially halted, and its empire is currently under a form of siege. And, by holding territory, it presents an obvious and clear target for airstrikes and other methods by military opponents.

Even by late 2014, it was finding that its supply lines were overstretched and its ranks of experienced fighters were being thinned. Over the course of the next year, it lost some 40 percent of the territory in Iraq that it had held at its peak in 2014. In late 2015, it tried to push back by launching three offensives in northern Iraq using, among other things, “armored bulldozers.” The offensives were readily beaten back.

By 2016, ISIS was in retreat in many areas, and frontline commanders were observing that “They don’t fight. They just send car bombs and then run away. And when we surround them they either surrender or infiltrate themselves among the civilians….Their leaders are begging them to fight, but they answer that it is a lost cause. They refuse to obey and run away.”

ISIS is finding that actually controlling and effectively gov­erning wide territories is a major strain. And it has to work hard to keep people from fleeing its brutal lumpen Caliphate.On close examination in fact, its once highly-vaunted economic capacity—selling a lot of oil and antiquities, for example—may be proving to be illusory.

Even in late 2014, there were reports indicating that ISIS was experiencing major problems with providing services and medical care, keeping prices from soaring, getting schools to function, keeping the water drinkable. And by the end of 2015, in part because the territory it controlled had diminished so much—thereby reducing the number of people it could tax (or extort)—ISIS was forced to reduce the salaries of its fighters by half. Those salaries, it appears, constitute two-thirds of the group’s operating budget.

By 2016, there were increasing reports of financial strain and clashes among senior commanders over allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and theft. Not only was the tax, or extortion, base much reduced and oil sales disrupted, but the huge cash windfall from the seizure of banks during the group’s season of expansion in 2014 was now reportedly mostly gone.

Does this indicate that ISIS is being fatally degraded as a threat? Can it maintain itself despite these setbacks? What might be required to break its still-substantial control over wide areas and large cities in Iraq and Syria? What are the best options for the United States and its allies to pursue? These questions will be very much on the agenda on May 18.