Red-Teaming ISIS

If the Islamic State’s (ISIS or ISIL) intent behind the deadly attacks in France was to cause death, pain, and panic among Western societies (what transnational jihadists call “the far enemy”) then mission accomplished. But more importantly, what is ISIS’s ultimate purpose for this act of mass murder in Paris and possibly others in the future? What reaction from France and perhaps other Western governments is ISIS hoping for? If we come up with the wrong answers, we could help the enemy’s cause.

Digging into the history of ISIS, providing explanations of its near-term and long-term goals, assessing its capabilities and the multidimensional threat it poses, and even trying to predict its future, are all necessary to understand this complex actor. But it is not enough. Alternate perspectives on how ISIS thinks and operates can help policymakers better evaluate the effectiveness of the anti-ISIS campaign, which thus far has produced few results. Through creative “red teaming,” an analytical tradition on which the US government relied heavily during the Cold War to improve its policies toward the Soviet Union, we can start identifying blind spots and test unstated assumptions about this organization.

The Atlantic Council’s Middle East Peace and Security Initiative (MEPSI) held three simulations over the past two years to systematically examine the strategic setting involving ISIS and the US-led coalition. We at MEPSI continue to explore how ISIS’s preferences—or what economics literature calls strategic choices—are influenced by those of the US-led coalition (and vice versa) and how behavior and policy by each side tries to adapt and evolve as a result of this continuing strategic interaction. The previous two war games—The Coming Stalemate and The Escalation Challenge—emphasized a host of tactical and operational aspects of the conflict and analyzed more immediate policy responses by the coalition to various unfolding crises.

In the third and final war game, held in recent weeks, participants examined the conflict’s centers of gravity over a longer period of time to better understand the United States’ long-term goals in Syria and Iraq and the strategies to pursue them. The most thought-provoking insights were generated by the Red team, which played ISIS (participants included current and former US government officials and intelligence analysts with Iraq-Syria responsibilities as well as experts from the region) and sought to both counter the coalition’s aims and pursue its own goals. Those insights are particularly pertinent and prescient in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

For the Red team, the single most important objective was two-fold: survival and long-term relevance. A Syria-first strategy would help fulfill this goal, knowing the strategic significance of the Syrian safe haven for ISIS. Should the United States and other involved parties start making diplomatic progress toward ending the conflict and bringing about relative stability, it would drastically decrease ISIS’s staying power. Continued civil wars guarantee its relevance, which meant that for Red, actively working against or at least delaying attempts at diplomatic breakthroughs, societal reconciliation, and political engineering in Syria and Iraq by local and intervening powers was a must. To do that, Red would:

  • Conduct spectacular terrorist attacks against Western cities and targets to distract or overwhelm international diplomacy and possibly provoke Western governments to overreact and deploy ground troops—an ideal scenario for Red. As if on cue, days after the war game, the Paris attacks took place.
  • Conduct sectarian attacks and target specific religious shrines across the region, but particularly in places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan where weaknesses in the monarchy can be exploited. While Lebanon was the latest ISIS terrorism target in the region, Saudi Arabia’s Shia mosques have been hit twice over the past few months.
  • Drive a wedge between the United States and Turkey by attacking Turkish sites of social, theological, political, and military value and “leaving a Kurdish calling card.” The gap between Washington and Ankara on ISIS exists because the former sees the Kurds as more dangerous than ISIS. ISIS will seek to exploit this schism.
  • Provoke Russia into full-scale war by publicizing the killing of its personnel and encouraging like-minded jihadists in Chechnya to conduct terrorist attacks deep inside Russia. Russian or Western deployment of soldiers to fight would complete the ISIS narrative of a war on Islam.
  • Keep recruiting foreign fighters by mastering the information campaign.
  • Increase the costs for Turkey and other coalition parties to discourage a heavy ground offensive from Turkish territory into western Syria or western Iraq.
  • Commit resources and manpower to launch new military fronts in Kirkuk and Erbil to create as much chaos as possible in both cities and distract the Turkish and Iraqi governments.
  • Infiltrate Israeli territory from the Golan Heights and conduct attacks, possibly inciting the Israel Defense Forces to intervene militarily in the conflict, which could cause direct conflict with the Russia-Iran-Assad axis and lead to greater regional instability.
  • Prevent population centers in areas under ISIS control from leaving so they can be used and exploited in the fight. The more collateral damage by intervening powers targeting Red, the better. Maintaining territory is not as important as maintaining populations in those territories.

No matter how we looked at the ISIS challenge, it brought us back to one or a combination of these fundamental problems. How could ISIS be defeated if the Sunnis—the main ISIS constituency—continue to be alienated, insecure, and marginalized in national Syrian and Iraqi politics? How could ISIS be countered when armed forces in the Middle East lack discipline, professionalism, proper training, effective leadership, and command-and-control capabilities? Many sheikhs and religious institutions often help ISIS’s cause by spreading divisive messages and fomenting sectarian animosities, allowing the group to gain recruits from a pool of hundreds of thousands young men who are bereft of hope and economic opportunity stemming from corrupt politicians’ willful denial of collective security and political stability. Regional countries cannot even agree on the collective threat it poses or how to cooperate to counter it. ISIS survives, not necessarily due to its own capabilities, but to the weaknesses and contradictions of its adversaries.

ISIS surely will not wait for regional and international stakeholders to formulate a comprehensive strategy. It will continue to counter efforts to achieve breakthroughs on the battlefield and in diplomacy. While survival and relevance seemed like reasonable goals to adopt if you are playing Red and thinking like ISIS, the question remains: What is the best way to ensure survival and relevance? Red team members smartly devised an “E3 strategy”—entrench, exploit, and expand—but each element had weaknesses that the anti-ISIS coalition could exploit. For ISIS, it was a matter of degree. How much entrenchment is possible in the face of relentless attacks by the coalition? What kind of tradeoffs would be acceptable? How much can ISIS exploit local populations before they revolt, as they did with Al-Qaeda in Iraq? Even those threatened with death will fight for the opportunity to live free lives. How much expansion without risking overstretch?

Red team members could not properly engage all these questions due to time constraints, but these are precisely the issues that we in the public policy community should be thinking about. Sometimes the best course of action against the enemy does not have to be direct, it can be indirect by forcing it to make mistakes and the wrong tradeoffs.

Bilal Saab is a Resident Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. 

Image: (Photo: A still of an ISIS video called "Al-Farouq Institute for Cubs".)