ISIS Ideology: The Cancer that Spreads

By Joe Gabbard

The Islamic State (IS) has captured the world’s attention. Since its inception, IS has waged a brutal insurrection against civil authorities, committed atrocities on a mass scale, generated a sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis, and recently executed two major terrorist attacks that has left the rest of the world befuddled. Indeed, this does not even come close to encapsulating the full extent of its terror, or its origins and history, and neither its goals and ambitions. Frankly, that is beyond the scope of this article. What can be said is that IS is fueled by a twisted religious ideology that is preying on disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Much is to be said of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its implications, but that is neither here nor there, and what remains is a terror state that is perpetuating barbarism.

Aid worker: Davis Haines is executed by ISIS militant while filmed in September 2014.

While understandable, the West too often becomes so enamored with the online beheadings and the other incomprehensible human rights violations that it ignores the underlying root cause of the disease. Therefore, the West unleashes on a relentless campaign of sorties, drone strikes, and night raids, without a coherent strategy that tackles the fundamental issues. Consequently, Muslim men throughout the ranks of IS, indeed, the greater Middle East, are treated as cannon fodder, who are easily replaced without any consequence to the overall mission. Addressing the symptoms does nothing to kill the disease.

This does not mean the western coalition against ISIS should decrease its tactical goals, in fact, I will argue that the U.S. should dramatically increase its commitment against IS. However, the U.S. needs to offer a more holistic approach that looks to cure the cancer that is currently reshaping contemporary Middle East. The cancer is the IS ideology that is appealing to the young, angry, and restless and that which is spreading throughout the world. George Orwell famously said that Fascism “was appealing because Hitler was offering struggle, danger, and death, and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet . . . We ought not to underrate its emotion appeal.”[1] The Islamic State has offered the Muslim masses the same nihilistic ideology and many have found it alluring and heeded the call. The purpose of this memo is to lay out clear objectives that will not only reduce the war-fighting capabilities of ISIS, but also address the dangerous ideology that is permeating throughout the Muslim Ummah. Therefore, I will recommend four policies total, divided between a tactical and ideological approach, that will provide a comprehensive plan to defeat IS.

Map of the Syrian Civil War, the Iraq Civil War (2014-present), and the Lebanese insurgency, Wikipedia Commons, 2015. The area in grey is occupied by ISIS forces. 


Defeating IS Tactically

The Obama administration has clearly outlined its policy goals concerning IS, yet to effectively transition from “containing” IS to “defeating” IS will require a much more substantive approach than is currently being employed. The White House is relying on limited air strikes, combined with support to “moderate” rebel and Kurdish factions in order to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS. Mr. Obama has chosen an approach that avoids an all-out conventional war to address the issue, yet to eliminate the IS plague the U.S. must be prepared to employ any action that is compatible with the just war doctrine. Furthermore, this is indeed a two-front war and the defeat of IS is inseparable from the ousting of Mr. Assad. The Assad regime is part of the problem and the Syrian President’s actions are enabling  IS to expand and perpetuating the violence.

  • The U.S. must escalate its air strike campaign, dispatch more military advisors and JSOC special operators, and provide the necessary support to rebels in order to overthrow the Assad regime. Furthermore, the air campaign must be escalated to ensure that the Islamic State’s access to resources and land is denied.
  • The U.S. must be prepared to work with all moderate factions in Syria to overthrow Assad. In order for this to happen, the U.S. must dispatch more military advisors to ensure greater support and collaboration with the rebel groups. The Kurds have proven themselves a capable ally and possess the motivation and potency to fight IS. Therefore, JSOC should assign a small team of special operators to each peshmerga squadron to expand the rebel’s war-fighting capabilities.


Coalition airstrike on ISIL position in Kobani, October 2014. Wikipedia Commons.

Defeating ISIS Ideologically

The Islamic State is a symptom of a much deeper narrative that is pervading throughout Middle Eastern Sunnis. Sunnis in Iraq and Syria have experienced alienation from both Mr. Assad and former Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki, which in turn has led to ubiquitous hopelessness and cynicism. IS has capitalized on this nihilism by offering an apocalyptic ideology that transcends the sufferings of this temporal world.

  • The U.S. needs to implement a Counter Insurgency (COIN) strategy in Syria that resembles the Petraeus Doctrine employed during the Iraq surge in 2008. Petraeous’ COIN strategy mobilized Sunni tribes, termed the “Sunni Awakening”, to push back against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to IS. Furthermore, this strategy was effective in Afghanistan. Village Stability Operations initiatives were pursued by JSOC operations in order to effectively build up local security forces to assure stabilizing governance. The war against the Islamic State’s ideology will be won village by village. JSOC operators proved themselves just as skilled at cultural navigation than at warfighting in Afghanistan. We should put boots on the ground in Syria to encourage, support, and mobilize a Sunni uprising village by village.
  • The United States, along with its partners in the United Nations, needs to push for a new Sunni state.The Middle East borders were drawn post-WWI without due consideration of where natural ethnicities may lie and the result has been almost a century of sectarian warfare. A Sunni state within the Middle East will ensure a voice to the many disenfranchised Sunnis. Furthermore, a Sunni state offers an identity, indeed a hope, to combat the Islamic State’s nihilistic ideology. To defeat the Islamic State, create a state.


[1] Ishaan Tharoor, “What George Orwell said about Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’”, The Washington Post, February 25, 2015,

JoeJoe Gabbard is an ExPatt Board member. He is currently a first year student at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of International Commerce and Diplomacy majoring in Intelligence and Security.  Joe attended Centre College for undergraduate where he majored in International Relations with a minor in History.  His interests include national security, theology, and philosophy and is passionate about researching how these disciplines are interconnected and related.

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