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US Counter-Islamic State Strategy: It Could Be Worse

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Technical Report

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NDU/JFSC Joint Advanced Warfighting School NORFOLK United States

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Islamic State IS is not the first extremist organization to combine violent acts with territorial control. But unlike previous Jihadist groups, IS has established the framework of a proto-state, with a unique combination of political acumen, takfiri jihadism, brutal but effective governance, and a credible conventional combat capability. And unlike other Jihadists groups, like al Qaeda, IS is not simply a hyper violent terrorist organization. Moreover, its source of strength does not stem from a charismatic leader or an attractive ideology, but rather the broader regional sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia. In response to this perceived existential terrorist threat, President Obama launched a US counter-IS campaign in September 2014. This counter-IS strategy, which aimed to degrade, and ultimately destroy, IS through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy, fit neatly within the broader and long held GWOT strategic construct. Yet, by disregarding the Arab-Persian regional rivalry that fuels the Sunni-Shia divide and enabled IS to rise, the Obama administration discounted the central political problem of returning Sunni-Shia divide to non-violent relations, and instead applied a military-centric counterterrorism solution. This paper asserts that the emergence of IS is a manifestation of a broader Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict. Without mitigating this conflict as the primary driver enabling the IS proto-state, the current US military strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy IS is unlikely to achieve US political objectives. This Sunni-Shia violent strife results from the combination of weak governments pursuing sectarian policies and external state actors attempting to influence internal political factors for larger strategic ends. IS is both the result of this political environment and a manifestation of the essential problem, but not the problem itself.

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  • Unconventional Warfare

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