The Islamic State Movement’s Terror Strategy and the Strategic Response


‘[T]he world today has been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: the camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr and hypocrisy’.[1]

Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is – either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a “third” ideology).[2]


In his declaration, ‘France is at war’, President Francois Hollande, noted that there could not be a war against civilisation because the Islamic State movement do not represent a civilisation. In essence, ISIL is barbarism. The enemies of liberal democracy subvert Western laws of armed conflict, the ethics of war and international humanitarian law: they attack while concealed by the population, do not adhere to the truth in their information operations and declare that their intention is to inflict mass casualties on those who do not conform to their ideas. Their treatment of prisoners is on a par with the worst atrocities of Nazism. The Western concern to protect civilians is not a priority for ISIL. Disturbing and unpalatable it may be for the civilised critics of war, like those who refuse to contemplate battling ISIL on the streets of our cities, the attacks in Paris underscore that the character of war has changed and so must our response.

It is well-established that extremists live in a binary world, where force and compulsion occupies a central space. Intolerance is not only a characteristic of extremism; it is a line of policy. In the wake of large-scale terrorist attacks, including those in Paris in January and November 2015, it is understandable that after a wave of revulsion and shock, then profound and moving sympathy for the innocent victims, there is incredulity at the targets selected and the manner of the murders. Yet, for those in the position of formulating a response, there are immediate security and policing considerations to attend to, and then, as the tactical picture of the attackers’ identities and their operations become clearer, so adjustments are required to the response at the operational level. Beyond that, a longer term strategic approach is required, and this will demand a much more extensive, deeper and comprehensive analysis, and ultimately may require new policies altogether.

Francois Hollande made it very clear that he believes France, and by extension, the rest of the world is ‘at war’ with terrorists. There were plenty of critics who argued after 9/11 that it is not possible for a state to wage war on a concept like terrorism, and there were significant difficulties with applying the label of war to the processes of guarding against, deterring, detecting and pursuing terrorists. In light of such enormous attacks, the public expects a more determined and clear cut line of policy than say, asking for patience to complete investigations. Moreover, asking for the perpetrators to be ‘brought to justice’, seems to be inadequate. A mass casualty atrocity, such as the one that occurred in Paris on 13 November, is not merely a routine police investigation into a tragic murder. The scale of the attack, the repeated attacks on France and French interests, fulfils the criteria of an act of war. Moreover, the consequences and reaction, in mobilising the people of France and elsewhere to passionate indignation, accompanied by intense pain and the desire to respond with some gesture or counterstroke, has the hallmarks of war.

A sense of loss, not just for the apparent peaceful life of Paris ante bellum, but also for innocent people who died in such a brutal and atrocious way, has a sad and long history. That loss is in part rationalised as a moment when the world, or a part of one’s world, is changed forever. After 9/11, this claim was heard frequently, and not without justification, but it has been the expression that also characterised the beginning and ending of the world wars, and every significant conflict since 1945. The paradox is what appears to have changed is, in fact, a common characteristic of war. It is, by definition, a recurrent and unchanging aspect of war’s nature.

Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth century Prussian staff officer who authored On War (1832), is much cited because of his willingness to describe war beyond the field manuals of his own age. Amongst the crop of quotations which have stood the test of time was his warning not to try to change a war into something that is alien to its nature. One had to seek to understand what sort of struggle one was engaged in, and while analysts over the years have identified a form of mirroring which can occur between belligerents, Clausewitz recognised that, in people’s wars especially, adversaries would try to seek out and attack the points of vulnerability of their enemies. Clausewitz also noted that war tended to lurch to the more extreme, which was itself a product of the dynamic interactions between the adversaries as they search for the decisive ‘edge’.

A generation after Clausewitz’s death, Europeans started on a path to restrain war with conventions, principles and legal instruments. When diplomacy appeared to fail between the major powers, leading to a catastrophic global war in 1914-19, there were efforts to place that function on an institutional footing, first as the League of Nations, then as the United Nations. It is admirable that the UNO is starting to address the actions of terrorists, but it is also revealing that the instrument for dealing with wars between states is foundering when it is confronted by war between smaller, non-state entities against the states the UNO represents. 

Describing the Islamic State movement as a state is just as erroneous as misjudging a state’s response to a terrorist organisation. What is required is a careful calibration of policy based on a clear understanding of the character of the war one is confronted with, and the nature of the adversary. Clausewitz called for a ‘rational calculus’, the alignment of ‘ends, ways and means’, as a strategy. The United States, a year ago, admitted it had ‘no strategy’ towards ISIL, in part because the Obama administration was keen not to be dragged into another Middle Eastern conflict where American interests were not threatened directly. There was talk of ‘containment’, assisted militarily by airstrikes by manned and unmanned aircraft. Critics pointed out that airstrikes were the ‘ways’ delivered by ‘means’, but without defined ‘ends’. Francois Hollande has been more specific: the destruction of Islamic state forces to render it incapable of attacks like the one in Paris. The United States has now clarified that its policy ends are the annihilation of ISIL too.

Diplomats have been willing to point out that the military instrument should be used in conjunction with other tools of strategy, but emphasise again the need for a set of defined ends. If ISIL was to be crushed in Syria, what, in fact, would replace it and whose government and troops would control the space they occupied? And who pays for it all? But offering only a diplomatic solution, even if one was able to get agreement between the regional powers and the major states engaged there, cannot change the situation on the ground. Military means were required to break the military momentum of ISIL during its advance through Syria and Iraq. Defeating will also require a military approach.

The Chinese author of the Art of War, Sun Tzu, wrote that the acme of strategy was to defeat the enemy’s strategy, rather than his military forces. ISIL strategy is nevertheless at times rather ambiguous: Are their ‘ends’ to create a spiritual-militant state, entitled the caliphate, or is their objective now simply ‘a way of life’, that is, to wage war for its own sake? The short answer is both. Extremist movements want both territorial control and a simple, irrefutable ideology to control the people within that space and to terrorise those that lie outside it. ISIL also still possess some dichotomy in their ways. It is not yet clear whether they have opened a new front because they are under intense pressure in Syria and Iraq; or whether they are have an expanding strategy because of perceived success. History is replete with examples of both responses, including the Provisional IRA, the Taliban, the Haqqani network, as well as states and empires. What is clear, from the ‘ways’ of ISIL, is that Europe has easy targets through its open borders, accessible societies and vulnerable cities.

In terms of ‘means’, there is much debate among analysts: in relative terms, ISIL has limited munitions and resources compared with the states arrayed against it, but there do appear to be clandestine state and private sponsors. ISIL needs manpower, firepower, credibility, and security but, in attacks against Western cities, the numbers are almost irrelevant: the Mumbai attacks of 2008 were carried out by 5 men; Westgate in Kenya by c.8, and the same number against Paris. What happens if there are 20, or 100? Detection would be easier, but the consequences of an attack would be very significant indeed.

To defeat the enemy strategy, the West will look to use levers of national power to persuade (or force) others to comply with their interests and their will; to fulfil their national interests and uphold their values, and, of course to continue to exist. In the case of a rival state, interests can be identified, and states tend to be constrained to follow the rules of statehood, through economic exchange and diplomatic relations. ISIL, like Al Qaeda, is not governed by such constraints, and there are few corresponding shared interests. To defeat ISIL’s strategy would therefore require denying ISIL a state. But their more complex ends, preventing their ‘way of being’, namely to wage war indefinitely, is more long-term and would demand a calibrated military effort.

If ISIL’s ‘ways’ are now to attack Western populations, the West cannot protect cities and their public with a complete guarantee of safety. ISIL may occasionally score successes, but judging by the response globally as well as within France, such attacks tend to mobilise tougher resistance, greater resilience and, more remarkably, international cooperation between former rivals. Finally, in the case of defeating ISIL’s ‘means’, this would require either ISIL’s ability or capacity to wage war (which is the French government’s view), or a campaign to render it irrelevant.

There are several constraints on France and its Western allies. It cannot appeal to decency, restraint or rules, as ISIL is already waging war in contravention of established norms. It cannot deter, since deterrence only works if an enemy is willing to be deterred through weakness or concern for losses. It cannot use containment: not only has this policy not worked, it is an inadequate measure and if perpetuated, our losses will be high. Failing to tackle ISIL resolutely has already condemned to death and neglect thousands in the Middle East and North Africa. The situation in the Middle East is the twenty-first century’s greatest humanitarian disaster to date.

There are, however, strategic opportunities. ISIL is not a Caliphate, it is a Criminal State. There is plenty of evidence to show that ISIL lacks popular support across the Muslim world, but there needs to be a concerted campaign to cut off international support through a diplomatic offensive. Historically there are plenty of examples where terrorist financing, if suddenly severed and its leaders discredited, led to collapse of the movement. There is an opportunity too to mobilise our own populations in the West in a programme of Civil Defence, ending the feeling of powerlessness against our assailants. More important still, the attacks on France have given major states a common cause and that is the greatest opportunity of all.

In policy terms, one cannot entirely ‘prevent’ terrorist attacks. We cannot ‘contain’ as it would be too limited and costly. In the event, to ‘pursue’ appears to be the least worse option, offering some chance of realising our goals of defeating ISIL’s strategy and rendering it incapable and irrelevant. France is at war.