Islamic State’s Bloody Decline

Washington’s pundit class has interpreted the Islamic State’s recent turn toward international terrorism as proof of its growing strength, but it may actually represent the opposite, the group’s recognition that its “caliphate” is under stress and shrinking, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Large-scale armed insurrection tends to move through identifiable phases that correspond roughly to what Mao Zedong described many years ago. In Mao’s formulation, the first of three phases emphasizes organization, propaganda, and the establishment of cadres and a presence in the areas in which the revolutionary movement intends to operate.

The second phase is more violent and typically includes operations we would describe as terrorist attacks, as well as larger scale guerrilla warfare. The purposes of this phase include demonstrating the strength and vitality of the movement and eroding the will and resources of the adversary.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative, known as Jihadi John and identified as Mohammed Emwazi, the target of a drone attack that the Pentagon announced on Thursday.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative, known as Jihadi John and identified as Mohammed Emwazi, the subsequent target of a lethal U.S. drone attack.

The third phase includes a transition to conventional military operations, on a big enough scale to sweep to a final victory. This sequence tracks the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s road to power and, in modified form, the strategy and trajectory of some other movements such as the Viet Minh.

Such strategies do not always succeed. Groups such as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka followed a similar course of using terrorist attacks and rural-based guerrilla operations as steps in growing strong enough to challenge for power. In their cases they followed that course successfully for a good while, and came to pose a very serious challenge to the established order in each of their countries before being finally beaten.

Failure of the strategy can involve, as long as the movement is alive, a walking back from a later phase of operations to what was supposed to be only an earlier one. Failure at conventional military operations and large-scale guerrilla warfare may mean resorting to small-scale terrorism. Sendero Luminoso still exists, and is on the U.S. official list of foreign terrorist organizations, even though the Peruvian military essentially defeated it about a decade ago.

Something similar occurred with the Algerian war for independence, even though the National Liberation Front (FLN) achieved its political objective of becoming the ruler of an independent Algeria. The FLN won politically when Charles de Gaulle bowed to the inevitable in satisfying Algerian nationalist aspirations, but the French army had bested the FLN militarily.

By the time Algeria got its independence in 1962, the FLN’s violent operations had been reduced to sporadic terrorism. Those operations were matched on the other side by terrorist operations of the Secret Army Organization, consisting of French settlers and renegade military officers who resisted giving up Algeria.

The radical Islamist group known as ISIS has exhibited some of the same sequencing as have other violent movements, although ISIS has tried to compress the schedule significantly, especially with its proclamation of a caliphate. (Mao didn’t proclaim establishment of the People’s Republic of China until October 1949, when his party had won the Chinese civil war and the opposition Nationalists were fleeing to Taiwan.)

The compression has helped ISIS in catching the opposition by surprise. One major reason for the initial dramatic gains of territory by ISIS in Iraq was that the Iraqi army was trained and equipped at the time to deal more with insurgency than with larger conventional attacks, which was the form that much of the ISIS offensive took.

In more recent months ISIS has lost ground, literally and especially in Iraq. The recapture of Ramadi by Iraqi government forces is part of that development and reflects an improved ability by those forces to deal with the late-phase conventional operations to which ISIS had moved more quickly than anyone expected.

ISIS has been exhibiting other strains and difficulties, including in trying to keep its fighters paid. The group’s longer term prospects are still handicapped by its having no allies, and by a record of rule that is abhorrent to most people who have witnessed it directly and that has little appeal to anyone other than those on the ISIS payroll who are on the dispensing rather than the receiving end of the group’s cruel variety of governance.

As ISIS declines, it is likely to resort increasingly to international terrorism. It will do so for the same general reasons that other movements that have been pushed backward along the Maoist timeline have focused on terrorism. If one is not succeeding in large conventional operations, one relies more on smaller asymmetric ones.

In the case of ISIS, increased reliance on international terrorism should be all the more apparent in that it represents a departure from the group’s earlier focus, much different from the strategy of Al Qaeda, of concentrating on building and expanding its so-called caliphate. The terrorism will serve the purpose of demonstrating continued vitality of the group and keeping it on the mental maps of potential recruits.

We will need to recognize such a change in emphasis for what it is, as well as recognizing the reasons for it. There will be a tendency to equate more ISIS international terrorism with greater overall ISIS strength. Bowing to that tendency will be an error in analysis, and it will play into the hands of the group.

The decline of ISIS will be violent. The violence should be taken seriously and must be dealt with, but when a decline is occurring we nonetheless should understand that it is in fact a decline.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

15 comments for “Islamic State’s Bloody Decline

  1. sdf
    February 2, 2016 at 09:30

    I think that is one of the such a lot vital information for me.
    And i am satisfied studying your article. However wanna statement on few common things, The
    site taste is ideal, the articles is actually nice : D.
    Excellent activity, cheers

  2. Abe
    January 23, 2016 at 19:29

    Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, have increased provocations against both Syria and Russia in attempts to widen a war that is now winding down in favor of Damascus.

    Turkey attempted to trigger a wider conflict with Russia by ambushing a Russian warplane, evidently with both US approval and assistance. Israel has continued attempting to provoke Syria into war, by striking targets in and around Damascus itself. Saudi Arabia had recently hosted militant groups operating in Syria, to meet in Riyadh. Many of these groups are direct affiliates of Al Qaeda.

    So even as the US claims for its part of the “peace deal” it seeks to fight terrorism in Syria, its oldest and stanchest ally in the region is hosting the leaders of various terrorist groups, colluding over how to continue the fight more effectively.


    Syria and Russia must […] remain entirely realist about the enemy they are fighting, and the true motivations, intentions, and future ambitions that drove this conflict in the first place. Peace was never part of the West’s plan, and so peace cannot be part of Syria and its allies’ solution.

    Fully defeating the West’s proxies on the battlefield, securing Syria’s borders, and creating a military deterrence to prevent direct Western military intervention – which includes further incursions into Syrian and Iraqi territory by Turkey, Israel, or any other Western proxy in the region, are the only conditions from which any “peace deal” can then be struck with the West.

    Syrian Peace Will Be Decided on the Battlefield, Not in Vienna
    By Tony Cartalucci

    • David Smith
      January 24, 2016 at 14:43

      Two months ago Cartalucci claimed Syria was in the “mopping up phase”, now the war is ” winding down in Syria’s favor”. He needs to provide some evidence for his claims. His standard of victory by Syria is correct, but Syria is very far from that.Cartalucci is an eager cheerleader, not a realistic analyst.

    • Abe
      January 24, 2016 at 16:01

      Two months ago the ISIS supply lines to Turkey were being interdicted so effectively that ISIS patron and NATO attack poodle Turkey was ordered to shoot down a Russian aircraft near the Syrian border.

      The Russians promptly installed their air defense systems and there have been no further air offenses from Erdogan.

      Western propaganda has been in overdrive. Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have stepped up efforts to make sure that the war does not wind down in Syria.

      Cartalucci is certainly supportive of the Syrian government’s efforts to rid its nation of mercenary terrorist forces.

      Cartalucci’s analysis is realistic.

      On the other hand, you, David Smith, have an annoying habit of passing NATO gas.

      • David Smith
        January 26, 2016 at 13:37

        You neglected to include the evidence that the war is ” winding down” in Syria’s favor.If, over the next six to ten months we see the Syrian Government regaining most of the population centers of the east with the terrorists permanently in a defensive posture, then yes Syria will win. A indefinate length war with terrorists holding most of their present territory is all they need to win. Syria must regain nearly all its sovereign territory to win ( Syria could live with a Khurdish Automonous Region within its western borders, a possible formula for an alliance with Kurds for ultimate Syrian victory).

      • Abe
        January 26, 2016 at 15:28

        “winding down” – transitive verb – to cause a gradual lessening of usually with the intention of bringing to an end

        The mercenary terrorist forces in Syria have ceased advancing and started retreating. That’s why the US-Israel-Saudi-NATO alliance is getting ever more desperate.

        Cartalucci’s analysis is realistic and his claims are measured.

        On the other hand, you, David Smith, make “if…then” declarations about what Syria “must” do and when, entirely without support of evidence.

        In fact, the evidence clearly indicates that Syria has been at war with mercenary terrorist forces since the Daraa attacks of March 2011.

        Contrary to US-Israel-Saudi-NATO propaganda, the terrorist forces in Syria are not “rebels” and the war is not a “civil war”.

        The terrorists invaded Syria from NATO territory (Turkey) and from the territories of Iraq, Jordan, and the principal US ally in the region, Israel. All this is well documented.

        A long-standing US-Israel-Saudi-NATO goal is to break up Syrian territory by leveraging a Kurdish Autonomous Region, using the Kosovo strategy to dismember the Syrian state.

        So keep on passing NATO gas, David Smith. Your flimsy contentions are easily refuted.

  3. Zachary Smith
    January 23, 2016 at 16:44

    We will need to recognize such a change in emphasis for what it is, as well as recognizing the reasons for it.

    Recognizing changes is an important factor with regard to the backers of ISIS as well. It sure does look as if that group has had its run, and the US of A is one of the backers who is deserting the ship and actually turning on its creation.

    From the CyprusMail:

    U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday that the United States and Turkey were prepared for a military solution against Islamic State in Syria should the Syrian government and rebels fail to reach a political settlement.


    My totally uninformed deduction is that Plan A – the use of ISIS as a tool to take out Assad – has failed, and it’s time for Plan B. Turkey has a great big military which hasn’t been used yet, and the neocons seem to have found an acceptable way to utilize it. Turkey has a base or two in Iraq already, and has very recently moved into Syria to throw ISIS out of the border town of Jarablus. Never mind that there wasn’t actually a battle – just a toe-in-the-water invasion of Syria which obviously had the blessing of the US via Joe Biden. And of course Israel. Since Israel is really determined to destroy Syria, their backup plan involves the Kurds.

    {side note – I apologize for this link to the batshit crazy Ron Paul site. Not that the story is bad, but the association definitely is. I’m often jarred when I follow a link to find a rational and well written article about this-or-that only to see it alongside others claiming the 1969 moon landing didn’t happen. That vaccines and/or global warming are a govenment plot}

    Israel sees a Kurdish nation as being extremely destructive to Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. So what’s not to like? They’re arming the Kurds and giving them all kinds of advice.

    Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have bulldozed, blown up and burned down thousands of homes in an apparent effort to uproot Arab communities in revenge for their perceived support for the so-called Islamic State (IS), said Amnesty International in a new report published today.

    Now just where do you suppose the Kurds learned that? The Kurds are burning their bridges to the civilized world, and will be forced to fall back on their thieving and murderous mentors – the same folks who taught America’s police to treat us all as Palestinians.

    From the shitty little apartheid state’s point of view, it’s a darned good scheme. Cheap oil from the dependent Kurds as well as spreading havoc among some remaining Muslim nations. Best of all, as usual others are dying for Greater Israel. Not to mention that those others are also paying the bills for all the destruction.

    Pure guesswork here, but I’d predict Turkey will be the major player to end up holding the bag this time.

  4. Abe
    January 23, 2016 at 16:11

    Western terrorism is not really discussed, although its most extreme and violent forms are battering the world relentlessly and have for a long time, with hundreds of millions of victims piling up everywhere.

    Even the legionnaires and gladiators of the Empire, like the Mujaheddin, Al-Qaida, or ISIS, can never come close to the savagery that has been demonstrated time and again by their British, French, Belgian, German or US masters. Of course they are trying very hard to match their gurus and bread-givers, but they are just not capable of their violence and brutality.

    It takes “Western culture” to butcher some 10 million people in just one single geographic area, in almost one go! […]

    They say that ISIS is decapitating their victims. Bad enough. But who is their teacher?

    For centuries, the empires of Europe were murdering, torturing, raping and mutilating people on all continents of the world. Those who were not doing so directly, were “investing” into colonialist expeditions, or sending its people to join genocidal battalions. […]

    These were just innocent civilians; people whose only crime was that they were not white, and were sitting on land occupied and violated by the Europeans.

    The Taliban never came close to this, or even ISIS!

    To this day, the Namibian government is demanding the return of countless heads severed from its people: heads that were cut off and then sent to the University of Freiburg and several hospitals in Berlin, for medical experiments.

    Just imagine, ISIS chopping thousands of European heads, in order to perform medical experiments aiming to demonstrate the superiority of the Arab race. It would be absolutely unthinkable!

    Local people were terrorized in virtually all colonies grabbed by Europe, something that I have described in detail in my latest 840-page book “Exposing Lies of the Empire”.

    What about the Brits and their famines, which they were using as population control and intimidation tactics in India! In Bengal at least 5 million died in 1943 alone, 5.5 million in 1876-78, 5 million in 1896-97, to name just a few terrorist acts committed by the British Empire against a defenseless population forced to live under its horrid and oppressive terrorist regime!

    What I have mentioned above are just 3 short chapters from the long history of Western terrorism. An entire encyclopedia could be compiled on the topic.

    But all this sits far from Western consciousness. European and North American masses prefer not to know anything about the past and the present. As far as they are concerned, they rule the world because they are free, bright and hard working. Not because for centuries their countries have plundered and murdered, and above all terrorized the world forcing it into submission.

    The elites know everything, of course. And the more they know, the more they put that knowledge to work.

    Terrorist trade and experience are passed on from Western masters to their new Muslim recruits.

    The Mujahideen, Al-Qaida, ISIS – on closer examination, their tactics of intimidation and terrorization are not original at all. They are built on imperialist and colonialist practices of the West.

    News about this, or even about the terror that has been inflicted on the Planet by the West, is meticulously censored. You would never see them on the programs broadcast by the BBC, or read about them in mainstream newspapers and magazines.

    On the other hand, the violence and ruthlessness of the client terrorist organizations are constantly highlighted. They are covered in their tiniest detail, repeated, and “analyzed”.

    Everybody is furious, horrified! The UN is “deeply concerned”, Western governments are “outraged”, and the Western public “has had enough – it does not want immigrants from those terrible countries that are breeding terrorism and violence”.

    The West “simply has to get involved”. And here comes the War on Terror.

    It is a war against the West’s own Frankenstein. It is a war that is never meant to be won. Because if it is won, god forbid, there would have to be peace, and peace means cutting defense budgets and also dealing with the real problems of our Planet.

    Peace would mean the West looking at its own past. It would mean thinking about justice and rearranging the entire power structures of the Planet. And that can never be allowed.

    And so the West is “playing” war games; it is “fighting” its own recruits (or pretending to fight them), while innocent people are dying.

    No part of the world, except the West, would be able to invent and unleash something so vile and barbaric as ISIS or Al-Nusra!

    Look closer at the strategy of these group-implants: it has no roots in Muslim culture whatsoever. But it is fully inspired by the Western philosophy of colonialist terrorism: “If you don’t fully embrace our dogmas and religion, then we will cut off your head, slash your throat, rape your entire family or burn your village or city to the ground. We will destroy your grand cultural heritage as we did in South America 500 years ago, and in so many other places.”

    And so on and so on! It would really require great discipline not to see the connections!

    How the West Creates Terrorism
    By Andre Vltchek

    • Peter Loeb
      January 24, 2016 at 06:40

      “How the West Creates Terrorism
      By Andre Vltchek
      (from “Abe’s” comment above)

      Neither “Abe” not Andre Vitchek touches Zionism’s cruelty from its
      inception, including its roots in pan-Germanism, as well as last
      week’s murders, dispossessions etc..

      The roots of American empiricism go farther back.

      “We are going to fight…” said Andrew Jackson to his troops in
      1812. “We are the free born sons of america; the citizens
      of the only republick now existing in the world and the only
      people on earth who possess rights, liberty, and property which
      the[y] dare call their own,,,” (cited in Michael Paul Rogin””FATHERS

      The Vitchek analysis in COUNTERPUNCH NEWS (see above
      link) is otherwise excellent.

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • David Smith
      January 24, 2016 at 14:25

      If we want to read one of Andre Vltchek’s angry, chip on his shoulder, rants we can go to CounterPunch. But there is no need to read Vltchek, as its always the same: White People Bad, Very Bad. NonWhite People Good….. Vltchek lives in Pattaya and travels frequently to Europe and North and South America, where does he get his money?

  5. Abe
    January 23, 2016 at 15:59

    The Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are reporting today that US troops have taken over control of the Rmeilan airfield in northeastern Syria’s Hasakeh Province, the first US military base inside Syria.

    The SDF reported that the Kurdish YPG, their largest faction, previously controlled the base and handed sole control over it to the US, as a route for the US to bring them weapons and to launch warplanes from […]

    The operation appears legally dicey, at best, as while the base was nominally under the control of the Kurdish YPG, who are closely allied to the US, the Obama Administration has refused all coordination with the Syrian government, and certainly doesn’t have Syrian permission to establish military bases on Syrian soil.

    US Troops Take Over Syria Airbase: Kurdish YPG Gives US Sole Control Over Base
    By Jason Ditz

  6. January 23, 2016 at 12:53

    emanating from the middle east there exists an ideology based on Islam. it calls for cleansing the land of non-Sunni Muslims, especially non-Muslims. this ideology is politely called salafism.
    it is rooted in the 18th century, and bound to the saud clan. the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab calling for purity, and oneness of god are at the core of this ideology. the alliance between wahhabi and saudi has created the kingdom of saudi Arabia.
    wahhabism is propagated across the globe by the saud clan. this is true … they fund schools which teach this to Muslims in Europe and North-America. a quick google search will find reputable sources to back this claim.
    it behooves the saud clan to keep Muslims bound to a backward ideology, since it keeps them in power. everyone must be devout, pure and chaste … except of course the saud clan chiefs/princes who travel abroad to indulge in drugs, and sex.
    it is obvious that those death squads unleashed on the non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, inclusive secular Sunni Muslims (people who are Sunni because their parents are Sunni), are being trained, armed, and funded by the wahhabist kingdom through turkey, a nato member.
    those death squads are “WAHHABIST militants.”
    WAHHABIST militants bent on genocide, TRAINED, ARMED, and FUNDED with the FULL SUPPORT of western elected officials.

  7. January 23, 2016 at 12:49

    As long as the West continues to bomb them back to the Stone Age, such cheap, wishful thinking will make little headway as it is just making more new recruits for Isis.

    • January 27, 2016 at 01:33

      There are a lot of rebellious Arab street-players at the table right now, calling and raising all bets, and a few of them have some pretty decent cards showing, but the game will not be over and the pot won until all the cards have been dealt, all bets and bluffs called, and the cards shown… in which case they had better have some good cards in the hole. That sumbitch Jew-Israeli dealer has been known to stack decks and mark cards and, it is rumored, some of the Arab players at the table are in cahoots with him.

    • January 27, 2016 at 01:33

      There are a lot of rebellious Arab street-players at the table right now, calling and raising all bets, and a few of them have some pretty decent cards showing, but the game will not be over and the pot won until all the cards have been dealt, all bets and bluffs called, and the cards shown… in which case they had better have some good cards in the hole. That sumbitch Jew-Israeli dealer has been known to stack decks and mark cards and, it is rumored, some of the Arab players at the table are in cahoots with him.

Comments are closed.