Since the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and its announcement ofthe creation of the Islamic State in 2014, the Islamist terror group has been the scourgeof the Middle East and a signiﬁcant security concern for Europe and the United States.At its peak ISIS controlled upward of 40 percent of Iraq and Syria; it had establishedafﬁliates in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Nigeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan,Pakistan, and the Caucasus; and it had designs on the Philippines. It had enslavedminority populations (including Yezidis and Christians) in the Levant, conductedbarbaric acts of rape, torture, and murder against its captives, and instilled a radicallyharsh version of Sharia law in the areas it occupied. Furthermore, ISIS has conductedor inspired terror attacks in a number of other countries worldwide, including Turkey,France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh,Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and the United States. Destroying ISIS and its afﬁliatesand discrediting its ideology are clearly in the best interests of the United States and itsallies and partners around the world.The goal of the United States and its allies must not be just the defeat of ISIS, but its totaleradication. We have seen the result of defeating but not destroying a radical Islamistorganization in the recent past. During the surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, US and Iraqiforces along with tribal auxiliaries crushed al-Qaeda in Iraq, the most virulent terroristorganization in the Middle East at the time. The failure of the Obama administration tocomplete its destruction, however, led to the group’s rebirth as the Islamic State of Iraqand al-Sham, or ISIS. We cannot afford to make the same mistake again. ISIS must bethoroughly crushed.Destroying ISIS begins with eliminating its self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Belatedly,the Obama administration is ramping up US capabilities in the region to assist partnersin conducting operations toward this end. The air campaign that began in the summer of2014 proceeds apace, with forty-ﬁve thousand members of ISIS killed by US and coalitionairstrikes since then.
The US-coalition train-and-equip effort has revitalized signiﬁcantportions of the Iraqi Army, bolstered the capabilities of the Kurdish peshmerga, and helpedto create effective Kurdish and Arab forces aimed at ﬁghting ISIS in Syria. Strides have beenmade in cutting off ISIS’s ﬁnances, especially its revenue gained from oil smuggling. Iraqiforces (along with, in some cases, the unhelpful assistance of Shiite militias) have retakenTikrit, Baiji, Ramadi, and Fallujah. Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga forces have closedin on Mosul, the battle for which will determine the fate of ISIS in Iraq. Syrian Kurds and
allied Syrian Democratic Forces have dealt ISIS setbacks in Syria and are preparing for anassault on Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate. Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad,with help from Russian airstrikes, have retaken the ancient city of Palmyra.Challenges remain before the coalition assembled to destroy ISIS can drive a stake throughits heart, and even more signiﬁcant obstacles will present themselves once that task isaccomplished. ISIS is likely to ﬁght to the death for Mosul and Raqqa, putting to the testthe capabilities of the rebuilt Iraqi Army and the various rebel forces opposing ISIS inSyria. Unlike in Ramadi, where fewer than 1,000 ISIS ﬁghters fought to retain the city, inMosul there are between 3,000 and 4,500 ISIS ﬁghters prepared to ﬁght and die.
Theyhave had more than two years to fortify the urban stronghold, which will undoubtedlybe littered with roadside bombs, buildings triggered to explode, and other obstacles.Several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians remain trapped in the city as well, meaningthat any assault will likely cause a humanitarian catastrophe. Nevertheless, for ISIS to bedestroyed, Mosul must be taken.The Obama administration has armed Iraqi formations, but has limited its support toKurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces, equipping the latter only with small arms. Theadministration should ramp up this support to include antitank weapons and mortars,giving these forces the punch needed to ﬁght ISIS on equal terms. In Tikrit and Ramadi,US airpower proved decisive in supporting attacks by ground forces on enemy positions.Its importance is likely to be magniﬁed in the decisive battles ahead. To ensure Iraqi,Kurdish, and friendly Syrian ground forces engaged in combat receive the air supportthey need for the assaults on Mosul and Raqqa, US advisers and forward air controlteams should be embedded in their formations for these battles.There is little doubt that Mosul and Raqqa will eventually fall. Indeed, recent intelligenceestimates view ISIS as a “shrinking and increasingly demoralized military force.”
Attacksby Turkish Army and rebel forces in August captured the last ISIS outposts on thenorthern Syrian border, effectively sealing off the Islamic State from the outside world.Without a means to replenish ﬁghters lost in combat, the days of ISIS are numbered. Butas with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, these decisive combat operations will prove tobe the easy part of the campaign. More difﬁcult will be knitting together a political solutionto provide the Iraqi and Syrian people under the former control of the Islamic State ameasure of autonomy to prevent the reemergence of ISIS or its ideological successor. USdiplomats should be seriously engaged in shaping a political solution to the recurrentproblem of Sunni disenfranchisement from their governments. The Iraqi military needsUS assistance to take Mosul; therefore, American leverage with the Iraqi government is atits peak right now. US diplomats should demand a real plan for dealing with the aftermathof battle now rather than trying to piece together a political bargain after Mosul falls, foronce that happens, all bets are off and the free-for-all for control of Mosul and its environsbegins afresh.
As hard as the creation of a political solution is likely to be in Iraq, where Iranian pressureis likely to hinder Baghdad from reaching out to the Sunni minority, it is even harder inSyria, where al-Assad has absolutely no interest in building bridges to the country’s Sunnimajority. Syria is a wicked problem that has no immediate solution. Due to the Obamaadministration’s unwillingness to arm the Syrian rebels and the support given the regimeby Russia and Iran, al-Assad’s forces are well on their way to seizing the bulk of “usefulSyria,” the area in the western third of the country containing the country’s vital economiccenters and where most of the population lives. Even after Kurdish, Syrian, and US forcesdestroy the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa, the Sunnis living in the area will still seethe againstthe depredations wrought on their community by the al-Assad regime. Absent a politicaloutcome that gives Syria’s Sunnis a degree of autonomy, the son or grandson of ISIS willeventually emerge from the carnage.Destroying ISIS afﬁliates around the world requires a coordinated campaign using all formsof power: diplomatic, informational, military, economic, ﬁnancial, intelligence, and legal.Underlying the strategy against ISIS should be a policy of subjecting the organization andits afﬁliates to unrelenting and constant pressure wherever the group exists. Drone strikes,Special Forces raids, and support of friendly government and proxy forces all have a placein this war. But the war against ISIS must extend beyond the military means of power. Itmust, for instance, extend into cyberspace. ISIS cannot be allowed unimpeded access tosocial media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram or the freedom to establishand maintain websites where it can post propaganda to inspire the radical fringe of Islamicsociety. The United States and its partners must continue to exercise ﬁnancial and legalmeans to impede and eliminate terrorist ﬁnancing. Intelligence agencies and domesticcriminal investigative bureaus must focus on ISIS and its afﬁliates as well as al-Qaeda and itsrelated organizations. Perhaps most important for the long run, the United States should useits diplomatic levers to convince the Islamic world to denounce ISIS, al-Qaeda, and afﬁliatedorganizations and to encourage imams to condemn radical Islamism from their positionsof inﬂuence inside mosques.Beyond targeting ISIS afﬁliates in their various locations, the United States must do moreto support effective governance in weak and failing states. Nation-building has becomea much maligned term of late, but the United States and its allies can bolster indigenousgovernments to help them ﬁght ISIS and other radical Islamist groups that ﬁnd sanctuarywithin their borders. Those who disagree that the United States can be successful at thistask should look at Colombia, where US assistance to the Colombian government, alongwith a strong local leader, led to the defeat of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias deColombia, or FARC. The United States should engage similar strategies with states such asLibya that are struggling with ISIS afﬁliates.The destruction of the ISIS homeland in Syria and Iraq and pressure applied to its afﬁliatesaround the world, however, are necessary but insufﬁcient requirements for its complete
destruction. The fallout from the dismantling of the caliphate will be an increase in terroristactivity elsewhere. As ISIS comes under increasing pressure in the Levant and Mesopotamia,more ﬁghters are likely to migrate (or return home) to Europe. FBI director James Comeyrecently warned, “The threat that I think will dominate the next ﬁve years for the FBI willbe the impact of the crushing of the caliphate, which will happen. Through the ﬁngersof that crush are going to come hundreds of hardened killers, who are not going to dieon the battleﬁeld. They are going to ﬂow out.”
Europe’s leaky immigration system andthe European Union’s open borders will ease the transit of potential terrorists onto thecontinent. Once there, they can integrate into local and diasporic Islamic communitiesto gain support before planning, preparing, and executing terrorist attacks. France andBelgium are already in the jihadist crosshairs, but Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands,Denmark, Sweden, and other nations with signiﬁcant numbers of Islamic immigrants willalso be at risk.Despite more extensive barriers to immigration and refugee ﬂows than Europe, the UnitedStates will not be immune to ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks. Thorough vetting of refugeesand immigrants from countries with ISIS afﬁliates is essential to maintaining the securityof the homeland. There is some concern that radicalized refugees could ﬁnd their way toEurope, gain citizenship, and then travel to the United States to conduct terrorist attackswithout the need for a visa. This is possible, but unlikely; there are plenty of targets for thesewould-be terrorists to attack in Europe without undergoing the expense and complicationsof coming to the United States to wage jihad
and possibly being caught in the process bythe more efﬁcient security arms of the US government.Of more concern for the United States, and Europe for that matter, are homegrown terroristswho become radicalized through social media or other avenues for propaganda. In democraticstates, there is a constant struggle between security concerns and the protection of civilliberties. In the past, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security has shied awayfrom looking at social media due to privacy concerns. For example, the State Departmentrefused to look at the social media postings of San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik,even though she was not a US citizen at the time she applied for a ﬁancée visa to enter theUnited States. These sorts of policies must change, or the United States will be vulnerableto ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks for the foreseeable future.The destruction of ISIS, however, begins with the annihilation of its self-proclaimedcaliphate. Its obliteration will send a clear and strident message to would-be adherents:by signing on with ISIS, they are joining a losing cause. No one likes a loser, which iswhy al-Qaeda in Iraq no longer exists. Knocked onto the canvas during the surge, theorganization eventually survived, but its name lost marketing vitality in jihadi circles.Rebranded as ISIS, the group made a comeback in the chaos of the Syrian civil war. Itis time once again to knock out ISIS, this time for good, and consign it to the dustbinof history.
1 Kristina Wong, “General: 45,000 ISIS Fighters Killed in Two Years,”
August 11, 2016,http://thehill.com/policy/defense/291179–general–isis–fighters–becoming–easier–to–kill.2 Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr, “US, Iraqi Troops Close in on last ISIS-held City,” CNN, September 17, 2016,www.cnn.com/2016/09/16/politics/us–troops–mosul–base/.3 W. J. Hennigan and Brian Bennett, “US Intelligence Indicates a Weaker Islamic State,”
August 28, 2016.4 Deb Reichmann, “US Oﬀicials: IS Losses on Battlefield Won’t End Threat,” Associated Press, September 8,2016,http://bigstory.ap.org/article/5c4d20622dd74c778a19676a25f16f8a/us–oﬀicials–losses–battlefield–wont–end–threat