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The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) lost approximately 14 percent of its territory in 2015, leading to hope that it might be possible to contain the group until it collapses under the strain of administering a state. That is an attractive idea. If correct, it would save the international community from a more robust, and therefore more perilous, intervention.
ISIS is not, however, the first Islamist terrorist group to create a proto-state in the modern era. The Somali terrorist organization al Shabab conquered and administered territory long before ISIS did. Studying al Shabab’s experience provides clues for ISIS’ possible trajectory, and little comfort that the group can be contained until it withers away.
In early 2007, al Shabab rose from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of Islamist groups that had conquered most of southern Somalia. Its success provoked neighboring Ethiopia to invade and scatter the group. But al Shabab, previously only a minor partner in the ICU, waged a ferocious counterinsurgency that eventually drove the Ethiopians from the country.
The anti-Ethiopian campaign hypercharged al Shabab. Fighters—including scores of Americans and other foreigners—flocked to its banner, drawn by the group’s mix of nationalist and Islamist appeals. Al Shabab eventually cornered the internationally backed federal government, along with its protector, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), in a sliver of the capital, Mogadishu. At its zenith, al Shabab controlled about one-third of Somalia, or approximately 81,000 square miles.
ISIS, at its own peak, controlled over 30,000 square miles. And there are many parallels between how ISIS operates in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and how al Shabab ruled its subjugated lands. Although it never declared a caliphate, al Shabab created an extensive administrative state featuring a bureaucracy responsible for everything from financial matters to relationships with pirates. It divided its territory into areas headed by governors and military commanders, and in the southern port city of Kismayo even boasted a number of committees meant to collectively administer the city. Al Shabab’s fighting force was similarly regimented, composed of six formations responsible for different regions of the country. It also had specialist branches such as the Amniyat, the intelligence and secret police unit. ISIS, too, has a bureaucracy, one that is even more sophisticated and extensive than al Shabab’s.
Al Shabab funded its state in various ways. It developed a sophisticated and comprehensive taxation system that brought in tens of millions of dollars every year. It collected taxes under the guise of zakat, an Islamic tithe, and frequently collected a much higher rate of zakat than religiously required. The group justified the excess as a wartime necessity, just as ISIS does.
The cruelty of life under al Shabab is comparable to that under ISIS. Al Shabab chopped off the limbs of thieves, stoned women—including a 13-year-old girl—for alleged sexual misconduct, and exercised control over the pettiest matters, even banning soccer and certain mobile phone ringtones. Such harshness eventually helped drain al Shabab of support, and in 2010 a reinforced AMISOM leaped out of its defensive crouch, eventually pushing al Shabab out of all of its major strongholds. U.S. drone strikes took a toll on al Shabab’s high-ranking officials as well, including killing its emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September 2014.
Predictions of ISIS’ inevitable collapse rest on the notion that the Islamic State is a failed state with intractable funding, administrative, and constituency problems.
Despite the setbacks, al Shabab retained its core of around 5,000 fighting men by frequently ceding territory to avoid direct battle with the militarily superior AMISOM. Its strategy has been largely vindicated. It still controls much of Somalia’s Middle Juba region, and launches frequent and effective attacks in Mogadishu and beyond. In the last eight months alone it has overrun three AMISOM bases and committed a string of atrocities in neighboring Kenya.
Predictions of ISIS’ inevitable collapse rest on the notion that the Islamic State is a failed state with intractable funding, administrative, and constituency problems. The history of al Shabab, however, suggests that thinking about such a force as a traditional Westphalian state is perilously limiting.
That is not to say ISIS has not created a type of state. It has. But it is not a conventional one with the vulnerabilities that come with being a member of the international community. It is unfettered by borders or international norms. Even the most rogue of rogue states is still constrained by its dependence on the international monetary system, for instance, or its need to curry favor with a patron state. ISIS is aloof from such dangerous entanglements.
Rather than following the trajectory of a failed state, then, ISIS will likely evolve and innovate as needed, just as al Shabab has done. Al Shabab moved from functioning primarily as a terrorist group to functioning as an insurgency and then as a proto-state to now operating as all three, depending on the circumstances. It still governs the rump of its territory but fights as an insurgency in contested areas, staging hit-and-run attacks on military bases. In areas in which it cannot muster a force strong enough for a traditional assault, al Shabab relies on terrorist tactics, such as its attacks in Mogadishu and in neighboring Kenya.
ISIS has already displayed the same economic resilience and cleverness as al Shabab.
ISIS has shown a similar aptitude for shape-shifting. It grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. forces had decimated. It regrouped in Syria, taking advantage of the bloody civil war there to begin building a state that it rapidly expanded back into Iraq in 2014. It now operates primarily as a proto-state complete with a conventional army featuring artillery, tanks, Humvees, and surface-to-air missiles. Its state-building has succeeded dramatically beyond what al Shabab was able to accomplish, but it almost certainly retains the ability to morph as needed.
Those arguing for containment further believe that the current hodgepodge of anti-ISIS initiatives will wear away at the group while it crumbles from within. They rightly observe that ISIS relies heavily on money extorted from its “citizens,” and hope that ISIS’ profound brutality will eventually drive so many people out of its territory that its revenue will dry up.
Yet life under al Shabab is as blighted as it is under ISIS, and many Somalis have never fled the group, despite almost certainly having had the opportunity to escape over the last eight years. Some cannot bear to abandon their ancestral homes and livelihoods. Others probably stay because they fear al Shabab’s punishment if caught escaping. Some support the group, either because they share its ideology or because it brought a measure of stability and predictability to war-torn areas.
Al Shabab has also cleverly adapted to pressure on its funding. When it was pushed from the southern port city of Kismayo, many analysts predicted the group’s finances would collapse as it could no longer rely on hefty tax revenue from the port, especially the lucrative charcoal smuggling trade.
Yet according to the United Nations, adjustments that the group made resulted in its charcoal revenues likely increasing after AMISOM took Kismayo. It focused more on sugar smuggling, taking a significant slice of a trade that in total is worth as much as $400 million a year. It took advantage as well of corruption in Somalia and its neighbor, Kenya: the smuggling is facilitated by the Kenyan military occupying Kismayo, which, for a cut of the action, turns a blind eye to the charcoal exports that have been sanctioned by the United States and United Nations.
ISIS is, happily, being buffeted financially. People are fleeing its despotism, depriving it of extortion revenue. Its trade in antiquities is unsustainable, and the windfalls it reaped from capturing Iraqi banks were likely one-offs. U.S. President Barack Obama recently announced that the United States would ramp up its attacks on ISIS’ lucrative oil trade, which will bring more financial pain for the group.
Yet ISIS has already displayed the same economic resilience and cleverness as al Shabab. It wrings money from a wide range of sources, including a sophisticated system for pumping and distributing oil. It may also be bringing in millions every month through a complex arbitrage scheme.
And, just as with al Shabab, ISIS’ true power is its control of significant swaths of territory and numbers of people. As long as it controls territory it controls the people who live there and the economic activities they must engage in to survive—a constant opportunity to extort money. Worryingly, support for ISIS may actually be growing in Mosul, further diminishing the hope that the state will collapse for lack of popularity.
This means that there are few options other than an aggressive campaign to wrest away ISIS lands. The idea of a ramped-up intervention, however, raises understandable concerns about playing into ISIS’ hands. One of the group’s end-times mythologies involves the armies of Rome (in ISIS’ interpretation, the United States is a suitable proxy) meeting the armies of the caliphate in an apocalyptic confrontation in Syria.
Simply because ISIS has a strategy, however, does not make it a good one, particularly as it requires Jesus intervening to secure victory. The losing side of every conflict has a plan it believes is a winner, and the United States should not reflexively adopt the obverse of ISIS’ strategy. ISIS wants to lure the West in, but if the West escalates with a smart, determined strategy of its own, ISIS will find it has gravely miscalculated.
Building the right strategy for fighting ISIS requires thinking about the problem in the right way. The group has created a type of state, but it is sufficiently distinct from a conventional one that shoehorning it into the failed state framework is a mistake. Policymakers should instead consider the fight against al Shabab: the world cannot simply contain ISIS and wait for it to fizzle out, as alluring as the idea is.