New Foreign Affairs Ebook Explores ISIS’ Mission and Challenges for U.S. Strategy

March 20, 2015—The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has metastasized throughout the Middle East, taking great swathes of territory into its self-proclaimed caliphate. The group’s expansion has resulted in widespread bloodshed, exacerbated a refugee crisis, and dominated the U.S. national security agenda.

The ISIS Crisis, the latest Foreign Affairs ebook, offers a broad range of analysis on the group and considers the real questions worthy of debate: What does ISIS want? How great a threat does it pose, and to whom? How can it be stopped?

The compilation’s opening package, “The Challenge,” illustrates ISIS’ ideology, mission, and the factors that have informed its rise. In the section,

  • Georgetown University doctoral candidate Nick Danforth argues that Western pundits and nostalgic Muslim thinkers have misrepresented ISIS’ self-declared caliphate as the latest iteration of an historical institution. In fact, the idea of a caliphate is nebulous and malleable;
  • Barak Mendelsohn of Haverford College and the Foreign Policy Research Institute explains why ISIS’ emergence in Iraq constitutes an “ideological blow to al Qaeda,” and how ISIS’ wealth, territory, and legitimacy among influential jihadi scholars will likely propel its success;
  • Will McCants of the Brookings Institution shows that although both al Qaeda and ISIS aspire to build an Islamic state, ISIS’ 2013 proclamation of its authority over Iraq and Syria dismembered al Qaeda and replaced it as a leader of the global jihad. Yet despite its “success in capturing jihadists’ imagination,” the group’s “physical incarnation makes it vulnerable to attack”; and
  • Nimmi Gowrinathan of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery argues that although ISIS’ significant female membership has confounded experts, it actually makes sense. For most females, “joining the fight is sometimes the only way to survive,” as the alternative reality is one of rape, harassment, and deprivation.

Articles in the ebook’s second section, “The Fronts,” map out ISIS’ internationalization and investigate its appeal to foreign nationals:

  • ISIS has its eye on the prize with its push into embattled Libya, a potential mecca for revenue-boosting oil, weapons, and contraband. But these gains should not be overstated, according to Control Risks analyst Geoffrey Howard. ISIS will struggle to navigate the “maze of competing local, ethnic, tribal, ideological, and political groups” that do not necessarily follow sectarian lines. Libya is “undoubtedly exposed” and could become a haven for recruitment, but “an ISIS stronghold in Libya is hardly a fait accompli.”
  • ISIS officially entered Egypt when the northern Sinai movement Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to the group last November. Johns Hopkins University scholar Khalil al-Anani attributes this escalation to Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sisi’s brutal crackdown on dissent, which has radicalized militant groups and young Egyptians alike.
  • Brandeis University’s Jytte Klausen considers how the West can calibrate policy to mitigate the danger of returning foreign fighters.

The final section includes analysis on Washington’s ISIS strategy:

  • Steve Simon of the Middle East Institute proves that President Obama’s delicate “balancing act” against ISIS—battling the group without aiding or fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria—is unsustainable. U.S. attempts to preserve legitimacy among non-jihadist opposition groups are bringing it “perilously close to entry into the Syrian civil war.”
  • The tactics Washington has used to combat ISIS mirror those used against al Qaeda, but they will not yield the same results, maintains George Mason University’s Audrey Kurth Cronin. ISIS is not a “terrorist organization, pure and simple,” as Obama has described it. Rather, it is a pseudo-state equipped with an effective army that uses terrorism as a tactic.
  • Robert A. Pape, Keven Ruby, and Vincent Bauer of the University of Chicago contrast the merits of two prominent approaches to combating ISIS:  a robust U.S. military deployment in partnership with Turkey to dislodge ISIS’ strongholds in Iraq and Syria, and an expanded U.S. air campaign that would undercut ISIS’ economic and military centers of gravity and empower a broad Sunni resistance.

Also in this section, Foreign Affairs asked seventy-three experts whether the United States should significantly step up its military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The results show a deep divide among them: thirty-three disagreed with elevating U.S. military efforts­, twenty-eight agreed, and twelve remained neutral. The scholars also rated their confidence level on the answers given and provided comments on their stances.

The ISIS Crisis is available as a PDF and in the Foreign Affairs iPad app. The book will soon be available on the Kindle and other ereader platforms as well as print-on-demand through For more information about the ebook and other Foreign Affairs titles, please visit

Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922, is an independent magazine of analysis and commentary on foreign policy and international affairs. In recent biannual surveys, Foreign Affairs has been ranked among the top ten most influential media outlets by the independent research firm Erdos & Morgan.


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