Targeting the Islamic State’s leaders will not defeat the expanding terrorist group because of a “deep bench” of trained operators who can quickly replace the dead, says a new report by a Pentagon-supported research group.
Released Monday, the report comes as the U.S. top brass has declared a “stalemate” in its war against the Islamic State in its Iraq and Syria stronghold, while the 25,000-strong terrorist army of jihadis continues to grow via new foreign recruits and now operates in nearly 20 nations.
“Any coherent plan against the Islamic State must aim to eliminate, not merely degrade, its leadership and potential leadership,” according to the report compiled by the RAND Corp., a nonpartisan think tank. “The coalition has successfully targeted numerous senior leaders, but the organization’s focus on creating a deep bench of personnel means that attacking individual leaders will not destroy the group. Replacements will rise, and any damaging effect will be temporary.”
The report’s analysts, Howard J. Shatz and Erin-Elizabeth Johnson, also said that to do real damage to the Islamic State’s hierarchy, the U.S.-led coalition must not just kill the leaders but also confiscate their computer hard drives in order to identify more leaders and where and how they operate.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, is both a bureaucratic organization and a terrorist army. It operates under five “fundamental pillars,” RAND researchers said: security; Islam-based Shariah law; military forces; administration and recruitment; and a far-flung media and social media operation.
The Islamic State establishes each of these pillars inside every bloc of territory it captures, so the civilian population is quickly controlled. Islamic State commanders, for example, immediately impose Shariah law and make contacts with local imams to carry out their harsh demands.
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“To be successful, the coalition must do more than take out key leaders,” the RAND study said. “It must eliminate entire layers of high-level managers, such as an administrative emir and his administrative committee. The capture of the group’s computers, memory sticks and other records would multiply these effects, because they would provide valuable information about group personnel, organization and activities.”
The problem is that killing lower-level managers and confiscating computer devices requires U.S. special operations troops deployed on the ground. To date President Obama has shown no indication he is willing to expand the war beyond daily airstrikes and the U.S. training and advising Iraqi troops.
As the researchers noted: “Capturing such information would likely require increased U.S. involvement in combat situations.”
The Institute for the Study of War, a nonprofit staffed by former military officers and civilian analysts, issued a report this month that said the Islamic State has established affiliates in 17 African and Middle East countries.
“ISIS is executing a global strategy to defend and expand its territory within Iraq and Syria [and] to foster affiliates and exacerbate disorder in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia,” the ISW report said.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, an ISW scholar, said the Islamic State has lost small sections of territory in Syria and Iraq.
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“Overall, it has grown in both geographic states by its expansion outside of the immediate Iraq-Syria region, and it has grown in its attractiveness to new recruits,” Mr. Dubrik told The Washington Times. “Part of the attractiveness is the lack of any other alternative to the kind of governance in which they are living.”
He said that a key gap in the current coalition strategy is that it has a war objective to destroy the Islamic State but no unified political plan to create an alternative.
“Our approach to the coalition, from my standpoint, has been not well guided,” he said.
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer, said that a stalemated war is emboldening the Islamic State to branch out.
“The perceived American weakness to defeat ISIS has encouraged the creation of extremist franchises across North Africa, the Mideast and portions of Central Asia, all pledging their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS caliph,” Mr. Maginnis said. “Further, ISIS could soon have a robust terrorist capability in Western Europe because of ISIS-trained fighters who infiltrated the flow of Mideast refugees flooding the continent.”
One of the fieriest critics of Mr. Obama’s Islamic State strategy is Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Obviously, ISIS is winning in Iraq,” Mr. McCain said at a July hearing, where he asserted that 75 percent of coalition planes are returning from missions without using any weapons because there are no forward air controllers on the ground to point out targets.
“So the Iraqis have to do it, but without American assistance — including airpower, including forward air controllers on the ground — we’re going to see this stalemate,” he said.
The RAND analysts said that even if coalition fighters retake territory, the job is really just beginning because the Islamic State will shift to tactics of infiltration and assassination.
“It has successfully maintained underground networks in areas that had been liberated,” the report said. “This means that after the Islamic State is thought to be expelled from a town, the trust of the community must be gained so that intelligence can be collected.”
J.D. Gordon, a retired Navy officer and former Pentagon spokesman, said that liberation will be a tall order in Iraq given that the Islamic State controls Sunni Muslim areas, and most of the anti-Islamic State fighting is being done by Iranian-supported Iraqi Shiites. Iran also is backing President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.
“Any ground troops battling ISIL on behalf of Syrian and Iraqi regimes are doing Iran’s bidding,” Mr. Gordon said. “It doesn’t make any sense to destroy ISIL, only to then hand those Sunni areas back over to Shia leaders.”
Mr. Gordon’s war plan: “It’s time for the international community to consider the best option is partitioning Syria and Iraq into smaller states where Shia, Sunni and Kurd regions can all have autonomy over their daily lives. Then a pan-Arab Sunni force can actually liberate Sunni areas under ISIL control without being seen as occupiers.”