The real threat of a-symmetric conflict with ISIS

The real threat of a-symmetric conflict with ISIS

״ In consequence, there were good seeds from good plants, and bad seeds from bad plants. But seeds are invisible. They sleep deep in the heart of the earth’s darkness, until some one among them is seized with the desire to awaken. A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late.

It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces . . .״

-Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince

The most relevant question associated with a country’s terror threats is how to overcome such a threat on the home front. The West, with United States in the lead, is reluctant to initiate a direct military confrontation with the Islamic state organization. The strategy employed by the Islamic state creates a threat to the western world, which leads to hesitation and avoidance of potential conflict. If the west decides to act, the right actions to be taken remain a debate. After all, what can be done with ideas of young Western fanatics affected by Muslim ‘romantic’ ideas of Jihad.

Modern warfare is characterized by a-symmetric conflicts, in which one party is significantly more powerful than the other. Such conflict is exemplified in the relationship between the United States (as well as other western countries) and ISIS. The effectiveness of a-symmetric conflicts can be measured by the hesitation of Western countries to enter into a military confrontation with terrorist groups like ISIS. Western countries have learned that an a-symmetric conflict illustrates the strengths of the weaker organization as well as the weaknesses of the stronger military. Against these organizations, Western military cannot use wide force in the traditional ways. The attempt to protect conventional laws of war, while these terror organizations do not hesitate to use population as human shields, weakens the strength of Western military. In addition, fighting prolonged battles encompasses numerous disadvantages to the country involved. Such detriments include extensive loss of life as well as the economic price paid during such conflicts.


The West has two approaches of fighting a-symmetric conflicts. The first approach is the enemy oriented approach, proposing that fighting against these groups should be managed the same way as fighting other conventional armies. Even though this approach is effective at times, it poses a problem in the case of ISIS. Even if the Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by the United States will defeat this terror organization on the ground, their radical ideology will remain alive. This method would treat the symptoms but not the idea.

The second approach involves direct access to the hearts and minds of populations threatened by such organizations. This approach focuses on mobilizing the civilian population against these organizations, which could actually prevent the source of its support. This approach is not appropriate in case of the Islamic state because the organization is not fighting in favor of an occupied population (like the Hammas in the middle east are for example), but they are fighting to occupy a sovereign territory in order to bring about religious order. All ideology opponents are considered infidels and are to be executed.

The tactics the United States employs in dealing with ISIS are based on harming the organization’s core, which is achieved by killing its senior figures. These tactics are beneficial for damaging the organization’s infrastructure since senior roles in the organization are of particular expertise and such eliminations could harm key organizational structure. The United States, which led nine years of continuous warfare in Iraq, and is still fighting in Afghanistan, made ​​it clear that it will not send ground forces to combat areas and will fill the role of an “air support” for the Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers who fight against ISIS. In theory, this tactic takes the United States out of direct confrontation, but at the same time it makes it extremely difficult to bring about any achievements.


The real threat of ISIS comes from European and American citizens, who travel through Turkey in order to join the organization. Sometimes these travelers are not even Muslims by birth, making them even more committed to radical ideology. This can be attributed to freedom of religion and expression in the West as well as the romantic portrayal of Islam. Such representation dates back 1,300 years when Mohammed led the Islamic Revolution under the black flag to the east. In addition, these immigrants witness weak Arabic countries led by leaders who are not as devout to Islam as they are, be “torn apart” by their close association to the West. Articles written in the late 50’s by Hassan Al-Banna (the father of the Muslim Brotherhood organization) inspire such opposition, claiming having close ties to the west provides Western countries with more authority.

After the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda announced victory over the atheist’s communists and started to act in small groups all over the world. They believed that in order to spread global jihad they must hurt the West, especially the United States. Such ideology led to the plan and execution of the September 11 terror attack. ISIS however, is a mass organization that understands that controlling sovereign territory gives legitimacy. ISIS may be considered a national separatists movement, they are confined to a specific territory in order to establish an Islamic state under the laws of Sharia. This confinement to specific territory makes ISIS more static and defensive, allowing them to be a target. Even though this works in favor of their enemies, the United States still confronts the risk of terrorist attacks on her soil.

The West must rethink fighting in a-symmetric conflicts. History has proven that local populations that are threatened by these organizations have a better chance at victory. This is true since these populations fight passionately against their oppressors, disregarding the cost that comes with war. If these local populations are trained well, they have a chance at defeating an organization like ISIS, which is successful at fighting against detached bases and villages but may not be as successful when the enemy is a large well-trained force. Even though the American government’s decision to train the Syrian rebels could be an appropriate solution to the ongoing conflict, recent event have proven that the United States has failed in building the Iraqi army over time.


In summary, the real threat comes not from the organization, but from the change in combat action. Just as al-Qaeda transformed after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and transitioned to terrorist activity overseas, ISIS may evolve and expand its threat to areas outside of its now confined territory. If the organization will be defeated militarily, the fighting volunteers from Western countries could return to their home countries and act as initiators of radical ideology. Security mechanisms need to be developed as a method to suppress “ideas” and prevent attacks from home.