By Major Matt Cavanaugh
I’ve actually written quite a bit on ISIS to date, so it may be prudent for those that are unfamiliar with WarCouncil.org to visit some of these other short essays in order to provide some broader context:
- “ISIS Won and Four Fundamental Factors that Explain Why”
- “Destroying Value: ISIS, The Anaconda, and War On The Cheap”
- “ISIS’s Achilles Heel”
Moreover, I’ve also written about Sun Tzu, most recently with respect to the War in Afghanistan:
“Teaching Sun Tzu can be fairly straightforward – and kind of tough. For example, what does he mean when he writes that ‘what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy?’ (Griffith translation, p. 77). Moreover, he writes that this should take precedence over other options – like attacking the enemy’s alliances, army, and cities (in order). That sounds great – sort of like telling a trader to “buy low, sell high” – but what does it actually look like?”
So how does the core of Sun Tzu’s strategic logic describe ISIS? How can we use Sun Tzu to understand ISIS strategic behavior?
Let’s start with American strategy. The President’s speech on ISIS on September 10, 2014 included language that US non-military strategy would include, among other things, efforts to counter ISIS’s “warped ideology.” More specifically, “It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.” So a key part of US strategy is informational. The US is doing this in two ways. First: denying ISIS legitimacy as a state actor, which can be seen in the seemingly infinite versions of what to call “them” (Daesh, ISIL, IS, Islamic “State,” and my favorite – “The Group That Calls Itself A State”). Second: the more of what the world sees of ISIS the more it will mobilize global public opinion against them.
Here’s how ISIS is running Sun Tzu’s counsel to attack the informational part of US strategy. The public executions target Westerners (they’re not doing this to everybody – they just let 350 Yazidis go) and are truly barbaric but simultaneously are the most violently theatrical way of demonstrating territorial control. Moreover, these hostage situations necessarily force states with captive citizens to negotiate with ISIS as if they were a state. Lastly, ISIS’s specific selection of journalists for targeting deters future reporting, which denies us part of our informational strategy (same playbook the Russians used in Crimea).Read More