Carlos Lopez/USMC

Understanding ISIS’ Trinity

Several weeks ago an upstart violent Islamist organization declared it had succeeded – where Al Qaeda and others before them had failed – in establishing an Islamic caliphate. In the time since this declaration, ISIS has generated a great deal of media airtime by continuing to take territory in Iraq and Syria, and then more recently published a video of the public beheading of an American citizen. ISIS is clearly angling to become the new voice of radical Islamic extremism and indicates an interest in unifying a broad range of supportive actors under its “caliphate.”

Leaders around the globe have condemned the organization and rumors of imminent U.S. action abound. ISIS is certainly guilty of genocide, severe brutality, massacre, rape, and murder, but is it truly “the” new global movement? Or is it just another group scrambling to engage an already saturated market of violence? ISIS thinks that it has beaten Al Qaeda to the goal of a caliphate, but in reality, it has offered little more than extreme violence and bravado in support of staking its claim.

We need to better unpack ISIS to understand its significance and – maybe more importantly – to determine approaches to assure its demise. To actually accomplish in practice what is has already claimed in rhetoric, we suggest ISIS must accomplish, but not in any order, at least two of the following three criteria: Own territory; establish or secure sponsorship of a marginally functioning state power; make a viable claim to ideological authority.

Presently, ISIS can lay claim to territory, but it is not well-positioned to make headway on either of the other two. These provide avenues of approach for us to ensure its undoing.

Own territory

Gaining ground is about securing the people as the environment and battleground to achieve sponsorship and ideological authority, but to what end? In classic insurgency parlance, ISIS has succeeded in gaining geographic territory as clearly explained on the map from the Institute for the Study of War below.

The map can and did raise alarm bells quickly and indeed, of the three criteria we discuss; it is in this area alone that ISIS has made the most credible claims of success. However, it is worth noting that the ISIS presence abuts an area under Kurdistan’s control and straddles Syria and Iraq who are not in compliance with their occupation.

Institute for the Study of War. (Click to enlarge)

Certainly, ISIS’ aim is to turn Syria and Iraq Red as it fills in the holes and it will be in an effort to prevent this that the United States may begin using hard power to push back.

However, territory alone is not sufficient for ISIS to become the global threat some fear. Without state establishment or sponsorship and/or some claim to ideological authority, ISIS’ ability to credibly claim a caliphate will remain elusive, and its ability to use it to achieve the goals it seeks will be nearly impossible.

Establish or secure sponsorship of a marginally functioning state power

In its haste and enthusiasm to declare a caliphate, ISIS appears to have forgotten what a caliphate actually is. Historically and functionally, a caliphate is a state and therefore carries with it all the institutions and responsibilities thereof. Bin Laden’s captured hard drives revealed as much as he reflected on what went wrong. ISIS has demonstrated competence in spreading dissent and sewing chaos but has yet to show any affinity for actual governance. As the Muslim Brothers in Egypt recently learned, the chasm between active opposition and productive governance is hard to traverse and fatally costly to mess up. Even if Iraq and Syria were to conclusively fall to ISIS, its success as governor in the aftermath is far from assured.

The alternative to fulfilling state functions themselves is for ISIS to secure support from other states, but this support has not been forthcoming.

Quite the contrary. While ISIS is goading residents of existing states to come and join its “jihad,” the states from whence they came are organizing their resources to limit their damage once they return. Leaders in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are responding by decreasing tolerance of other forms of domestic Islamist opposition.

Far from applauding the return of the caliphate, states in the region have taken an aggressive stance against the concept and any potential manifestation of it inside their respective borders. While ISIS is facing no shortage of human resources, its failure to secure either the function or support of a state will weigh with increasing heaviness on its ability to make additional progress towards the establishment of a real caliphate, much less convince existing states to unify under one.

Make a viable claim to ideological authority

When state power or support is not available, some organizations have demonstrated an ability to leverage ideological authority in their stead. As Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah have taught us, organizations can increase their influence without having the resources or approval of a state. However, what Hamas and Hezbollah had that ISIS does not, was a reasonable ideological narrative that persuaded potential followers that they held a valid and credible claim to ideological legitimacy. Hamas has consistently grown in power in the Palestinian territories by repeatedly highlighting the inertia of Fatah’s leadership in the advance of Israeli territorial expansion.

ISIS is not in a position to secure a comparable claim. In part, this is the case because it has attempted to enter a marketplace of violence already chock full of similar ideas. Al Qaeda cornered the market on asymmetrical warfare against the West in pursuit of a caliphate, and ISIS chose to attempt to establish its caliphate in overt defiance of Al Qaeda’s authority. Indeed, in the last year, Al Qaeda and ISIS traded colorful accusations of takfir and Al Qaeda now regards ISIS as a rival and traitor rather than an ally.

The recent indication that Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) supports ISIS is more about AQAP’s “celebration” of the beheading episode rather than any real warm feeling, as a formal approval would require AQAP to dislodge from the original Al Qaeda – a move that makes little ideological or practical sense. On the other end of the spectrum, the Muslim Brotherhood has monopolized domestic opposition to secular rule for decades, showing an enduring fortitude despite uneven relationships with their respective regimes, and ISIS has done nothing to suggest that it is interested in taking this approach.

With the exception of the declaration of its alleged caliphate, ISIS has thus failed to offer any ideas that would distinguish it from other radical groups with more resources and experience. Yet it has managed to isolate itself from the groups that it needs to unify to give this claim any viability. Ultimately, the leadership of ISIS cannot rival the religious leadership of Al Qaeda, much less the Egyptian al Azhar, and as such, it has no claim to the ideological legitimacy that might position it to overcome the challenges of its limited state power.


Clausewitz insisted that strategy in war had to account for a trinity of symbiotically related elements. The strategist who failed to incorporate emotion, chance, and reason into his calculus, according to the often-quoted Clausewitz, was a poor strategist indeed. In that same vein, we offer an alternative view to many commentators at this crucial time that while ISIS has demonstrated a clear capability to gain territory, the other two points of the trinity are as yet still lacking and can be exploited as a counter.

The implications for American policy are significant. Pentagonian rumblings indicate that ISIS’ grab for territory and Foley’s murder may be met with a show of U.S. hard power and follow-on shows of strength as necessary to “whack a mole” ISIS into submission. President Obama would do well to equally focus on the other two elements of the trinity and to use them as approaches to unpack ISIS’ weakness and to exploit in order to ensure its extermination.

Foley’s murder demands a response and ISIS territorial success must be weakened. But President Obama should also encourage, rather than condemn the independent actions of states in the region (i.e. Egypt and the UAE) as they respond to transnational extremist threats. During his remarks at the American Legion National Convention Obama spoke about the need not to go it alone, but to build an international coalition. Linked to recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) GCC Secretary-General comments about preventing external intervention in domestic Islamic issues, maybe it is time for America to drink the Kool-Aid of independent ally action when it is broadly aligned to our desired outcomes.

He might also think about continuing to support religious authority where it is best placed and to urge moderate state responses to internal opposition, lest ISIS gain legitimacy by fiat when all moderate opposition voices have been silenced.

It is too easy to conclude that an attack to push ISIS from its ill-gotten gains in territory will complete the mission; it will not. The trinity of ISIS would be better defeated by fostering Iraq and Syrian action to defeat ISIS, rewarding independent actors for the contributory actions, while encouraging moderate Islamic states to continue to retain religious authority. The ISIS monster must be slain, the best way to accomplish this is now the issue.