I’ve read and watched a plethora of reporting on the Islamic State, and decided I’d set out to give a little base-line information on just what that group is, what they’re attempting to do, and why they’ve been so successful. The majority of information in the U.S. press is tainted by politics, with viewpoints, first and foremost, designed to damage a political party as opposed to informing the American public on the nature of the threat.

As I began writing, I realized that the true problem wasn’t misinformation on the Islamic State. The true problem is that the average American doesn’t understand the phenomenon of terrorism, and thus falls prey to whatever blow-hard expert talking head has to say. Therefore, I decided to take a step back and provide, in as concise a manner as possible, a definition of terrorism for the layman.

Up front, I’ll say this isn’t a PhD dissertation. Much like Stephen Hawkings “A Brief History of Time”, I’m going to condense things for explanatory purposes. And yes, I just compared myself to Stephen Hawkings, so that you’ll think I’m a genius.

Terrorism, as a bogeyman, has been a relatively new phenomena for the United States. By this, I mean that terrorist attacks which have affected national interests have only been around since the 1960s. Yes, there has always been terrorism, like there has always been crime, but only in the modern era have we seen terrorism capturing the national debate.   But some acts we have called “terrorism” aren’t, and words have meaning.

For instance, a man could run over a child on a bicycle. The facts are what they are. A truck hit a child on a bike, killing her. The intent, however, is decidedly important. Did the man, while texting on a cell phone, not see the child? Or did the man see the child and swerve to hit her while laughing maniacally? Two words will matter here. Manslaughter and Murder. Both will decide that man’s fate, and both should be applied in accordance with the action. It’s no different with terrorism. Words matter. People throw that term around so much it ceases to have meaning, but it should.

Why am I so concerned about a definition? Surely, it’s defined, right? Actually, no, it’s not. In fact, in the United States, we have no overarching definition of terrorism. Our own United States Code – the law of the land – has two separate definitions. We can’t even agree in our own law. Beyond that, every single organization in the government has its own definition. Each is similar, but all have distinct differences.

  • USC Title 18 calls terrorism : “..activities that involve violent… <or life-threatening acts>… that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State and… appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;
  • USC Title 22 says: The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.
  • The National Counter-Terrorism Center says: “premeditated; perpetrated by a subnational or clandestine agent; politically motivated, potentially including religious, philosophical, or culturally symbolic motivations; violent; and perpetrated against a noncombatant target.”
  • The Department of Defense says: “the unlawful use of — or threatened use of — force or violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives.”
  • And the grand-daddy of them all, the United Nations, in a convoluted definition that nobody agrees with, says: “Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby — in contrast to assassination — the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperiled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought,”

It’s easy to say, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”, but that’s only because nobody agrees on what terrorism actually means. It is definitely not black and white, but it’s not completely gray either.

In truth, this entire blog came out of a class I taught while a professor of military science at the Citadel. I made the mistake of assuming that everyone understood the phenomena as I did, but that wasn’t the case. My class was not effective because I hadn’t laid the groundwork for what “terrorism” actually meant. So I set out to fix that, starting from scratch.

The first question I asked the class was to give me an example of terrorism. To tell me what act that had happened in the past was terrorism. Invariably, I was given a suicide attack, be it 9/11 or an example of someone with a bomb strapped to their chest in a hotel. At that point, I showed this video, from the movie Platoon.


After it played, I asked, “Is this terrorism?”

Immediately, I was told, “No.” I said, “But why? You just told me a suicide bomber was terrorism? He’s a suicide bomber!” Inherently, the students understood that the attack wasn’t an act of terrorism, even though the method of engagement was precisely what they had described as such. Something was different. Which brought up the primary distinction for a terrorist attack: The method is irrelevant. It’s the intent, and the intent alone that matters. Nothing else counts.

Terrorism has a unique target set. Namely, the physical target of the attack is not the target of the operation. The true target isn’t the one who dies. The true target is everyone watching. And that is the cutline for any act of terrorism. Period. The method of engagement matters not a whit. All that matters is why the attack was perpetrated. ISIS doesn’t cut off heads or burn people alive because the death is the endstate. They do it because the death targets everyone watching. And that is terrorism.

In the “Platoon” example, the bomber was attempting to blow up the U.S. command and control node. If he had run into the wrong bunker, and blown up a bunch of cooks, he would have failed. In essence, his target was the target of the operation, and to miss it would engender failure, which is why my cadets had some cognitive dissonance. They had learned the method of engagement played into what a terrorist does, but also understood inherently that this attack was different. A terrorist cares less about the target’s physical or mental capabilities and more about its psychological impact. His target is outside the scope of his blast. A suicide bomber could decide to blow himself up in a mall next to Victoria’s Secret, killing the hedonistic infidels shopping. If he were to show up at the mall and find it closed, he could simply stroll down the street to the next best thing, killing people at a restaurant. In essence, the target he attacks, is not the target.

This distinction may seem small, but we have called terrorist attacks in the past precisely because of the method of attack. I’ll be a heretic now, because our first supposed experience with “suicide” terrorism was Beirut, in 1983, when a Shia militia drove a truck full of explosives into our Marine Barracks. On the surface, this is clearly terrorism, because how could it be anything but? A guy committed suicide by blowing up a bunch of Marines. The truth is a little bit more nuanced.

We came into Lebanon’s civil war to separate the warring factions. When we did, we gravitated to those we trusted. We needed cooks, drivers, and other facilitation in the country. Who did we choose to do this? Christians, naturally. The opposition, consisting of a plethora of different sects, saw us choosing sides. It’s irrelevant that we weren’t. Perception is reality. The Shia militias decided that they could win the war against the other sects on their own, but not if the Americans sided with one. We were no longer neutral. In their eyes, we were in the fight. They attacked us, using a suicide bomber, in an effort to get us to leave. And they succeeded. We fled the country shortly thereafter.

Beirut is called a terrorist attack precisely because of the method of engagement, but the question remains, why didn’t they just blow up the barracks with an F-16? Or artillery? The answer is obvious: because they didn’t have that. They had a guy willing to give his life and a truck full of explosives, and they attacked. But it doesn’t make it terrorism, anymore than the Platoon video does.

On the other hand, plenty of attacks against the United States are most definitely terrorism, but called something else. The prime example is Nidal Hassan at Fort Hood. He expressed on multiple occasions how he was displeased about the current actions in Middle Eastern countries, and wanted to cause the United States to rethink its actions. He didn’t kill the people at Fort Hood because he thought THEY were integral to the success or failure of our missions. They were nothing more than random targets who happened to wear a uniform. He did it precisely because he wanted to strike fear in the heart of our military establishment. The target wasn’t the target. And yet, the administration called that workplace violence, primarily because of the method of attack.  I have no doubt that if Hassan had blown himself up, it would have been called terrorism.

This distinction is absolutely crucial when describing acts as “terrorism”, but it is all too often lost in the shuffle based on the method of attack. The next time a suicide attack occurs, ask yourself, “What was the objective? Was the target THE target, or was it the people watching?” On September 9, 2001, Ahmad Shah, a leader in the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, was killed in a suicide attack by Al Qaeda precisely because AQ knew the terrorist attack that was going to occur in two days, and considered him a threat for retaliation due to his relationship with America. While 9/11 was terrorism, that action wasn’t.

But why on earth would a terrorist even want to do such heinous acts? What’s the point, other than just plain evil? The truth: Because it works.

In 1972, Black September, the military wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. For the PLO it was a debacle. They were vilified on the world stage, the entire action horrific, and Yasser Arafat (the head of the PLO) repudiated the event, swearing off violence. But then a strange thing happened. The PLO’s ranks swelled with recruits. The world, while ostensibly shocked by the action, also took notice of the PLO’s perceived grievances. The Palestinians had been fighting to regain their land for over twenty years, since 1948, with everyone on earth oblivious. After 1972, the world took notice. A mere two years later, in 1974, Yasser Arafat, a non-state actor, spoke in front of the United Nations. By the end of the 1970s, the PLO – a non-state organization – had more formal diplomatic relationships (86) than Israel itself (72).

Bottom line, terrorism works, but it’s not a guarantee of success. Sometimes the tactic backfires, causing the terrorists to create their own self-destruction. A renowned scholar of terrorism, Brian Jenkins, said, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead,” in essence that the level of violence is directly tied to the level of public interest. But this doesn’t explain some horrific acts conducted in the name of various groups. Al Qaeda could have gotten a lot of people watching without killing 3000 in the world trade center, ISIS did not need to burn alive the Jordanian pilot to get an audience, and Zarqawi didn’t need to murder hundreds of Muslims in Iraq in an effort to expel the United States, so what explains it?

All terrorists groups are different, with different goals, constituents, and motivations, but they can be classified with a simple model to determine which ones are prone to horrific acts.


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The north-south axis represents the goals and motivations of the group, with an organization seeking purely political change at the top, and an organization driven solely by internal motivations at the bottom, usually religious. The east-west axis represents the constituency of the group, with west being an organization in which any human on earth can belong and the east being a rigidly prescribed, exclusive membership. The further a group moves to the south-east – into the exclusive/redemptive zone – the greater the chance for large scale violence. The further a group moves to the north-west – the political/inclusive zone – the less likely mass attacks will be.

The reason is that the group has constituents, and must act in a manner that does not harm them or their interests. The more inclusive the group, the less likely it will attack for fear of harming its own recruiting efforts. If anyone can be a member of my group, and I’m seeking political change, any attack will potentially cause a backlash from the very people I’m seeking to co-opt. On the other end, if my group consists solely of six-fingered men under five feet who believe they are bringing about the end of days, I have a large target set to attack, as I don’t care what anyone else thinks other than those few.

As a real world example, the Irish Republican Army was formed to expel the British from their country. While the “troubles” had some religious overtones, it was primarily a political fight. In the same vein, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was created to purge Israel from historical Palestine. While still a political goal, it had/has some redemptive qualities revolving around Islam. Both groups fall on the center scale of inclusive/exclusive, because while they welcomed help from other parties, generally, to be a member, you had to meet certain requirements – Be Irish/Catholic or Palestinian/Muslim.

This combination of characteristics tends to tamp down massively destructive attacks, but does present a clearly defined target set. The PLO/Hamas could never attack other Muslims, but any Israeli was fair game – within limits. It still must answer to its own constituents – other Palestinians and actors on the world stage – and cannot (or should not) conduct an attack that would harm those interests. This is precisely why Hamas officially denounced 9/11 and currently denounces ISIS. It doesn’t want to get lumped with those groups because it has political goals and needs allies within its own community and the outside world. In the same vein, at the height of the troubles in Ireland, the IRA could count on funding from Irish Americans to help the cause. Burning someone alive would turn off that tap, harming the very political goals they sought to achieve.

Which brings us to the Islamic State, the furthest organization in the south-east corner, and thus the most dangerous. They are a group of mass psychopaths that is literally seeking to engender the apocalypse, and you’re either with them or against them. Period. Anyone not adhering to its extreme brand of Islam is the enemy, an apostate, and should be killed. Not simply avoided, but slaughtered. The entire world is its target, to include any and all Muslims not under its banner, and it has an internal, psychotic worldview driving them to attack. This means that it is the most likely group on the planet to attempt mass casualty events. It has the redemptive motivation and absolutely no checks on the target set. Which is precisely why it conducts such horrific acts. It would seem to be crazy to want to make an enemy of every single Muslim nation through its horrific actions – be it beheading 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, and making an enemy of the most populous Arab country on earth, or burning alive the Jordanian pilot, thus stiffening the Hashemite Kingdoms will to fight – but in their minds, those countries are already the enemy.

Not even Al Qaida is this extreme. Although a Sunni group, Al Qaida splits the world into Islamic believers and infidels. While attacking infidels is a “Muslim’s duty”, attacking other Muslims is seen as wrong, regardless of sect, something that created a rift with the precursor of ISIS, Al Qaida in Iraq.

Every beheading, crucifixion or burning ISIS conducts is solely for the audience watching. It wants the west to invade. It has an end of days utopia based on the apocalypse that involves a showdown between the true Caliphate and everyone else. They would like nothing more than to have us – the west – attack them. It would be playing right into their end-of-days plans. So why would we do that? Why get involved in another mid-east war?

Because their idiotic worldview should not alter our view of what’s right. Immediately after 9/11, I had a quote on my desk from General Tecumseh Sherman. It read: “War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.”

That, in a nutshell, is what I feel we should do to the Islamic State. Eradicate them from existence with a scorched earth policy that has no equivocation. None. Kill them wherever we can find them. Stamp them out like roaches fleeing the light. Kill them without remorse. Show them that their chosen path is death. Then provide the death.

We’re spinning our wheels on whether we’re politically correct talking about Islam or whether we’re causing more people to join the fight, but really, none of that matters. Calling them Islamic radicals does not convey legitimacy. It’s simply a fact of what they are, and they already have all the “legitimacy” they crave by declaring a caliphate. Our nomenclature of them will in no way cause the fight to become harder. In fact, it may do the exact thing we’re so afraid of: cause the average person to combine all of Islam with those psychopaths. By not specifying a distinction, and yet continuing to call them ISIS – as in the Islamic State – we’re subconsciously conflating the two.

We have an enemy. Period. It’s called the Islamic State. I give a flying f**k if they’re Wicken, Christian or Muslim. They have no human capacity for reason and are the most heinous thing the modern world has ever seen. They act like it’s the middle ages, and conduct themselves with absolute violence against anything they view as unjust. And they will be coming here. I completely understand that any action against them could be used against us in a religious context, but I’m also apparently in the minority who understands that such actions will be used against us regardless. It’s already happened. They want to call it a holy war. Fine. They want to call it the apocalypse. Fine. They want to call it the end of days. Fine.

I call it one thing: Eradicating murderers. We can do that. We shouldn’t hamstring our actions by worrying about creating future extremists. Yes, there is the potential for backlash, but the current threat is so grave it must be dealt with. Would we worry about future Nazis based on freeing Auschwitz? Yes, I brought up the die-hard Nazi bogeyman, but I did it for a reason.

There is a school of thought that’s prevalent in the current debate, which is that any action against the Islamic State – or any action even mentioning Islam – only increases their recruitment effort because it legitimizes them. In effect, that there’s a finite group of people who are going to go radical, and we don’t want to encourage them to do so. This is incorrect, as any study of radicalization will show. There is a group of folks who are prone to becoming radicalized, but allowing the Islamic State to exist is increasing the recruitment call.

It’s hard for the average American to understand, but the fact that they proclaimed a caliphate is a siren call to other jihadists. Every minute that bastardization of statehood exists only strengthens them, whether they’re gaining actual terrain or not. It isn’t a static fight. Every minute ticking by solidifies its authority, and every minute past that recruits more members.

There is a counterinsurgency theory called the “oil spot”. Succinctly put, if an element pacifies one hamlet, then another, and another, the pacified areas will expand, connecting like oil spreading on water and defeating the insurgency. ISIS has taken this theory and turned it on its head, using the oil spots not to pacify, but to conquer. Their claim of a caliphate is causing others to swear fealty to them in lands far removed, such as Libya and the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. We need to break that cycle, and its center of gravity is precisely the caliphate they claim. ISIS has to hold the terrain to exist, because there is no caliphate without land. It’s a physical thing. Take that away, and ISIS becomes just one more group, fighting for attention.

Some will say it’s an impossible task, because “You can’t kill an ideology,” and this is true. But you can defeat it. Just ask the Nazis or Sendero Luminosa. In 1944 the Nazis ruled almost all of Europe. Today, they’re called skinheads and they conduct petty crime. Does the ideology exist? Yes, but it’s no longer a threat. Sendoro Luminoso was a Marxist/Maoist movement in Peru that acted not unlike the Islamic State. Led by Abimail Guzman, a nihilistic murderer, they slaughtered peasants unmercifully, lopping off arms and burning people alive. By 1992, it owned vast amounts of terrain and was on the outskirts of Lima, the capital. There was a real concern that the movement was going to topple the government. On September 12, 1992, Guzman was captured, along with a treasure trove of intelligence. Today, the ideology of the Shining Path still lives, but it’s relegated to the jungle and constantly hunted, its control over the countryside gone.

Because the ideology of the Islamic State exists does not mean it’s a forgone conclusion that it will succeed. It’s not a zero sum game. We can defeat it, and we should, sooner rather than later.

On social media, I asked for questions that folks would like answered on the Islamic State. Thanks so much for all your thoughtful responses. I was overwhelmed by the number, and apologize that there is simply no way to answer all of them without an enormous amount of work. The following are the most often asked FAQs.

  1. “Why does the Islamic State have so many different names? ISIL/ISIS/Daesh?” They are all really saying the same thing.  First, ISIS is usually mispronounced as the Islamic State of Iraq and SYRIA, but what it really stands for is the Islamic State of Iraq and al SHAM, with al Sham meaning “greater Syria”, going down through Lebanon and encompassing most of Jordan. ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with the Levant meaning roughly the same thing as al – Sham – greater Syria. It just depended on who did the translation from Arabic, with one simply including the Arabic term al-Sham, and another actually translating al-Sham into English by using the term “Levant” – the closest English word to al Sham – but they both mean basically the same thing.  Daesh is the Arabic acronym of the same name – Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq wa al-Sham. The Arabs aligned against the Islamic State prefer Daesh because the acronym also sounds a lot like the Arabic verb meaning “to crush underfoot”. The Islamic State, of course, hates the name Daesh for this reason.  ISIL is the acronym that was placed on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list, and thus has stuck with the US Government, while ISIS received greater play in the media. It’s no different than Osama bin Laden. When I first started chasing him, he was called Usama bin Laden, or UBL for short. By the time he was killed, he had become OBL, but it meant the same person. In the end, we should have just stuck with the English phonetic acronym of the Islamic State’s own Arabic term – DAESH. After all, we call Hezbollah, Hezbollah, not the translation “Party of God”, and we use AQ for al Qaida, not “TB” for “The Base”.
  1. “Should we put ‘boots on the ground’ to quash ISIS?” That depends on how you define “boots”. I don’t believe we should invade with legions of tanks and infantry. This should be a Muslim fight, and Iraq itself should take the lead. Having said that, we should embed advisors with those units – and I believe we will. The simple fact is that we ceded influence to Iran when we left Iraq, and this allowed ISIS to flow into the turbulence that followed. We need the support of the Sunni tribes to eradicate ISIS, and yet the brunt of the fighting right now is being conducted by Shia militias under the sway of Iran, a situation that will guarantee no support. Embedding within the official Iraqi army, providing them the firepower and preventing them from committing reflexive atrocities, will tend to marginalize the militias and increase our ability to coopt the Sunni tribes because they trust us a hell of a lot more than they trust Iran or the militias. The problem with this approach, as I said above, is that time is not on our side. Every minute we spend training Iraqi troops for the big push is another minute for ISIS to grow in strength and slaughter anyone who might potentially fight them. They lived through the Awakening, and are conducting a cleansing of the areas they hold of anyone who participated in that action, killing whole tribes. If we wait too long, there won’t be any Sunnis left to coopt. This answer is about breaking the ISIS hold of terrain in Iraq. Syria is a whole other mess of fish.
  1. “What’s the difference between ISIS and Al Qaida?” The precursor to the Islamic State was Al Qaida in Iraq, a terrorist group led by a Jordanian named Abu Musab Zarqawi. He carried the mantle of AQ in Iraq, but had the same extreme view of Islam as the current Islamic State. In Iraq, he set about trying to engender a sectarian bloodbath because he believed the Shia in Iraq were just as bad as the Americans. He killed so many Muslims that Bin Laden himself sent him a request to stop it. He didn’t. Eventually, because of his viewpoint of either being with him or against him, he engendered his own demise. The Sunnis in al Anbar revolted – the famed Awakening movement – and his group was decimated. They still existed, calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq, but in hiding. Fast forward to 2011, and Syria is now in chaos. The official Al Qaida offshoot fighting the Syrian regime was Jabhat al-Nusra. The Islamic State joined the fight, changing their name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL – depending on who’s doing the translating). They claimed to be the representative of Al Qaida in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra took offense to this and appealed to AQ leadership, Zawahiri. He sided with Jabhat al-Nusra, telling ISIS to either get into the fold, or leave. ISIS chose a third option, which was to fight al-Nusra. They denounced AQ as apostates and began their campaign of slaughter and terror, killing AQ as easily as they did Christians or Alawites. Essentially, Al Qaida is the more moderate of the two groups (I can’t believe I typed that), with ISIS about as extreme as could be.
  1. “Do we need to fear ISIS attacking us in another 9/11 type event?” Yes. Most definitely. They have stated over and over again that they are coming, and if history has shown us anything, it’s that such groups don’t hide their intentions.  Laptops captured in ISIS controlled territory have shown a fascination with biological and chemical weapons, and an earnest desire to weaponize them. Currently, ISIS is fighting to exist, but sooner or later, if allowed to continue, it will conduct a horrific attack.
  1. “How are they financing their fight? How do they make money?” Initially, like other extremist groups, ISIS relied on donations from patrons to function. After they took over Mosul, they stole every dinar from every bank that city had, which gave them a pretty good bit of working capital, some speculate as much as $430 million. Since then, they’ve managed to take over roughly 60% of Syria’s oil fields, extort taxes from every person they control, and have a lucrative hostage ransom racket going. None of this is sustainable, as they don’t have the expertise to work the oil fields, have to sell the oil at a steep discount on the black market, any hostage taken now pretty much realizes he or she is dead, and taxes can only be extorted from someone who has money to pay – which is slowly but surely drying up. Currently, there are rumors that they’re harvesting organs from victims and selling them on the black market. I’m not sure I believe that, but it’s been reported.
  1. “How come it’s always the Americans who have to do the dying? Can’t we let others clean up this mess?” First, it isn’t always the Americans. After our ill-advised intervention into Libya, jihadists looted the Ghadaffi armories, then took their weapons to Mali, almost causing the country to fall and creating one more failed state. We, as Americans, did little. France launched “boots on the ground” and fought them, stabilizing the country. Just because it doesn’t make the news in America doesn’t mean that nothing is being done. Second, like it or not, America is one of the few countries that has the ability to project force into the region. We’re still a global leader, and leading from behind does not work. The good thing about ISIS is they’ve managed to scare the hell out of every Arab country around, and it’s not going to take a lot of convincing to get them involved in the fight. The harder problem will be managing the outcome vis-à-vis Sunni Arab countries fighting alongside Shia Persian militias. It’s a delicate business that requires leadership, but it’s worth it.