Obama’s ISIS Strategy Could Thwart Bannon’s ‘War on Islam’

Many of us have been concerned about how a Trump administration would respond to a terrorist attack in this country. Along with others in the administration, Steve Bannon seems particularly anxious to ignite a global war on Islam. An attack would provide just the fodder he is looking for.

While something like that might still happen, this report indicates that it is much less likely that such an attack would be organized by ISIS.

[ISIS], now confronting its own eventual fall, is devising a modified survival strategy that may involve surrendering control of its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria but seeks to preserve a virtual version of it online…

The plan reveals a level of desperation for a terrorist organization that has seen its territory shrink rapidly over the past year. But it also serves as the latest example of the group’s innovative approach to using the Internet and social media — first to draw recruits to the fight in Iraq and Syria and now to preserve the loyalties of its dispersed followers…

Beyond losing territory under military pressure from the United States, Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has seen the flow of foreign fighters into its ranks plummet — from as many as 2,000 a month two years ago to as few as 50, according to recent assessments.

The group began altering its propaganda themes last year to prepare followers for the collapse of the caliphate, depicting its mounting battlefield losses as ­noble and inevitable struggles, in contrast to the triumphant messages that had previously dominated its output.

While it’s not likely that we’ll hear it from the Trump administration, this news demonstrates that President Obama’s “containment strategy” as a way to defeat ISIS is working. That’s because it was based on this understanding of how ISIS is different from al Qaeda.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it.

To defeat these efforts, the Obama strategy was to coordinate with allies to target ISIS leaders/infrastructure, train and equip Iraqi forces to re-take territory, and cut off access to new recruits as well as finances. In the end, the goal was to cause the so-called “caliphate” to collapse by itself. Beyond sparing innocent lives, that approach provided the following benefit:

In weighing whether to attack or contain the group, there’s one other consideration that hasn’t yet received enough attention: The ideological benefits of allowing it to collapse by itself. No one uses communism to rally rebels anymore (save for a few small groups in India); the collapse of communist states in the 1990s demonstrated to everyone how ineffective the ideology was at running a modern economy…

As the Soviet Union was to communism, so ISIL is to jihadism: the purest articulation of a noxious ideology of governance, which incidentally has little connection to Islam. If we allow it to fail, then it will be clearly a failure of ISIL as an idea. The same is not true of a military defeat at the hands of Western forces. Given its deep structural weaknesses and its symbolic value in the global war of ideas, our best strategy is almost surely one based on containment, allowing the group’s motivating ideology to destroy the group from the inside—and thus more rapidly find its proper place in the dustbin of history.

If ISIS is reduced to developing an online propaganda message based on nostalgic reminiscences of what the caliphate might have been, it’s pretty clear that we are witnessing the end stages of this plan’s success.

To get an on-the-ground view of how that is happening in eastern Mosul (which has been re-taken from ISIS by Iraqi forces), take a look at the thread that starts with this tweet from Rukimini Callimachi.

She goes on to say that the plan to re-take Mosul has been more time-consuming and tricky since they didn’t bomb at will – but attempted to preserve both life and infrastructure. Residents were encouraged to stay and now life is returning to pre-ISIS normal.

Wouldn’t it be grand if the long-term success of President Obama’s plan to defeat ISIS was able reach into the Trump era and thwart Bannon’s desire to ignite a global war on Islam? It might be the last flicker of competence we’ll see for a few years. But it would be such a welcome relief from the daily chaos we’re living through these days.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .