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Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of strength

Tags: isis

Why the need for this series?

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute conducted an intensive multi-week exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. ISW and CTP will publish the findings of this exercise in multiple reports. The first report examined America’s global grand strategic objectives as they relate to the threat from Isis and al Qaeda. The second report defined American strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria, identified the minimum necessary conditions for ending the conflicts there, and compared U.S. objectives with those of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in order to understand actual convergences and divergences. This third report assesses the strengths and vulnerabilities of ISIS and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to serve as the basis for developing a robust and comprehensive strategy to destroy them. Subsequent reports will provide a detailed assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria and present the planning group’s evaluation of several courses of action.

Learn more about this series.


The key findings of this second report are:

  • ISIS and al Qaeda are Salafi-jihadi military organizations with distinct sources of strength. The groups interact differently with the populations among which they operate. These differences create distinct requirements for destroying each organization.
  • U.S. strategy must operate against both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra simultaneously. Attacking the source of ISIS’s strength—its territorial caliphate—is relatively straightforward to describe. Expelling ISIS’s hybrid forces from terrain and setting conditions to prevent their return is a much more complicated task with which American and Western militaries are nevertheless familiar. Jabhat al Nusra, however, is primed to benefit from ISIS’s defeat by moving into territories from which ISIS has been cleared. Current efforts that focus on ISIS first and plan to address Jabhat al Nusra second (if at all) have a high probability of facilitating Jabhat al Nusra’s expansion.
  • Current U.S. policy appears to assume that depriving ISIS of its control of Mosul or ar Raqqa will lead to the organization’s collapse. That assumption was likely valid in 2014 and early 2015, but it is no longer true. ISIS has established itself in multiple major urban centers, including Fallujah, Palmyra, and Deir ez Zour. Any of these cities in Iraq or Syria could serve as a de-facto capital for its caliphate were it deprived of Mosul and ar Raqqa. ISIS must be driven from all urban and major rural population centers in Iraq and Syria if it is to be destroyed.
  • Jabhat al Nusra draws strength from its intertwinement with Syrian Sunni opposition groups. The slow pace of U.S. strategy and its exclusive prioritization of ISIS are facilitating Jabhat al Nusra’s deeper entrenchment within the opposition. It is not possible to attack this intertwinement directly, and even most indirect efforts will likely be counter-productive. Identifying means of separating Jabhat al Nusra from the opposition in order to destroy it is the most difficult intellectual task in developing a strategy for Syria, and the one on which the planning group is continuing to focus.
  • All operations against Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS must be integrated into a single coherent strategic concept that takes account of the divergence of interests between the U.S. and its European partners, on the one hand, and Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other. As the recent Russian-Iranian-regime envelopment of Aleppo shows, Moscow and Tehran are pursuing objectives antithetical to American interests and their operations will further radicalize the conflict in ways that entrench ISIS and al Qaeda.
  • The U.S. and its Western partners will have to conduct multiple simultaneous and successive operations whose exact course cannot be described fully in advance. The initial operations must focus on altering the conditions on the ground in order to expose Jabhat al Nusra’s sources of strength to attack. They must alter the popular narrative that the West has abandoned the Syrian Sunni Arabs in favor of Iran, Assad, and Russia. This task will be impossible as long as the West offers the Sunni no meaningful support in the face of the Assad regime’s imminent threat to their survival as individuals and communities.

Editor’s note: The following is a brief excerpt from the third report in the US Grand Strategy Series. Download the complete report at the link above or read the report on your desktop computer at the bottom of this page.


The United States and Europe face mounting threats of terrorist attacks in their homelands directed or inspired by al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). The conflicts in the Middle East have destabilized the region and are feeding sectarianism globally, creating conditions ripe for al Qaeda and ISIS recruitment and expansion. Current counter-terrorism operations have not contained these threats and will not prevent additional attacks in the West. Al Qaeda and ISIS seek to bring their wars to the West and will succeed in doing so as long as they hold their regional bases in Iraq and Syria.

Al Qaeda and ISIS operate across the Muslim-majority world and are gaining strength. Their local campaigns generate insecurity, drive sectarian conflict, and co-opt local militant Islamist groups into the global Salafi-jihadi movement. Their global insurgency seeks to overthrow the secular international state system, and terrorism is but one tactic among many al Qaeda and ISIS use to advance their objectives. Seemingly local conflicts—such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—serve to build a global insurgent base. Salafi-jihadi militant organizations that pursue only local objectives for now constitute the core of this base and provide al Qaeda and ISIS with the necessary capabilities the groups need to reconstitute and generate threats against the West.

The Iraq and Syria theater is the primary source of the al Qaeda and ISIS threat. ISIS reconstituted from the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq (or al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers) in 2011-2013 and began setting the stage for its rapid conquest of Iraqi territory, including the June 2014 capture of Mosul. The ISIS Caliphate is contiguous across the Syrian-Iraqi border, and the group fields an adaptive terrorist army. Its message of victory is resonant: foreign fighters pour into Iraq and Syria to live under and fight for the Caliphate. ISIS media campaigns are nuanced and far-reaching, exploiting publicity from social media and tailoring recruiting messages to specific demographics. Its attraction to would-be recruits is evident in the steady pledges of support and dedications of attacks around the world to ISIS.

Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, has established itself within the Syrian opposition over the course of the civil war. ISIS drove it out of its original base in eastern Syria, and it is now thoroughly intertwined in many of the opposition military and governance structures in Western Syria. The safe haven Jabhat al Nusra maintains in Syria is and will remain critical terrain for al Qaeda globally. Jabhat al Nusra leadership signals Syria-focused objectives for the moment, but it has not disavowed future attacks against the West. Already, al Qaeda devotes significant resources to its Syrian base, including having sent a team of veteran operatives to advise, train, and share strategic and tactical expertise.

The public schism between ISIS and al Qaeda over the former’s attempt to subsume Jabhat al Nusra in April 2013 divides the global Salafi-jihadi movement into two rival camps, but it has not weakened either group. The competition is instead driving cohesion within the movement and raising the bar for success. The Salafi-jihadi movement is now more capable, more potent, and more resilient as a whole. Destroying either al Qaeda or ISIS alone while leaving the other in place will not secure vital American national security requirements. The U.S. and its partners must also destroy the non-al Qaeda, non-ISIS Salafi-jihadi base on which both groups draw. Any strategy that does not achieve these three aims will ultimately fail, whatever temporary success it might appear to have.

The Obama administration is pursuing a strategy that is not designed to operate against Jabhat al Nusra or other Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria. It initially dismissed the emergence of both ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra as threats to the U.S., describing the groups’ objectives as local and highlighting the undesirability of engaging in complex foreign conflicts. The administration framed the initial American intervention in Iraq as one grounded in humanitarian concerns over ISIS’s mass atrocities against Iraqi ethnic minorities. It defined America’s immediate objectives as degrading ISIS leadership and disrupting its advances to allow the re-formed Iraqi Security Forces to conduct a ground campaign against the group to defeat it. American officials continue to cite leadership attrition and percentage-control of terrain in Iraq as metrics of success against ISIS even as the group strengthens globally. Current discussions surrounding a counter-ISIS intervention in Libya revolve around the same metrics. The U.S. had also been conducting targeted airstrikes against an al Qaeda cell embedded with Jabhat al Nusra in Syria that is or was involved in imminent, direct plots against the U.S. homeland or U.S. interests prior to Russian military intervention.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has framed U.S. objectives against the Islamic State differently since January 2016: “The three key objectives of the counter ISIL military campaign are first, to destroy the ISIL cancer’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria by collapsing its two power centers in ar Raqqa and Mosul. Second, to combat the metastasis of the ISIL tumor worldwide. And third, to protect our people at home.” This conceptualization is more accurate, but still insufficient to achieve U.S. vital national interests. The identification of ar Raqqa and Mosul as ISIS’s two power centers, or in military technical terms, centers of gravity, in Iraq and Syria might have been accurate in 2014 but is no longer, as this paper will argue.

The U.S. furthermore is not otherwise acting against Jabhat al Nusra or any other non-ISIS Salafi-jihadi group. American strategy in Iraq and Syria both rest on facilitating diplomatic and political resolutions to the conflict without weakening Jabhat al Nusra or its Salafi-jihadi allies and then relying on local partnered forces to conduct ground campaigns against ISIS. Such a strategy is likely to ensure al Qaeda control over a significant portion of Syria, even if ISIS is defeated.

The current U.S. course of action in Iraq and Syria thus cannot secure U.S. grand strategic interests. ISIS is not contained in Iraq and Syria: it is established in the Sinai and Libya and expanding its influence in Afghanistan. ISIS cells exist in Europe, and there will probably be another organized attack on the continent mirroring the tactics used in Paris in November 2015. ISIS reaches into the U.S., too, with reports of recruiting across all 50 states and the potential for another inspired attack like the December 2015 San Bernardino attack. Jabhat al Nusra is meanwhile strong and growing, and is working to convince other Syrian armed opposition groups to adopt its ideology and objectives. Jabhat al Nusra is a core component of the al Qaeda network and probably poses the most dangerous threat to the U.S. from al Qaeda in the coming years. It cannot be carved away from al Qaeda’s global ambitions. Its resources, capabilities, and sanctuary strengthen al Qaeda globally.

The current U.S. approach to Iraq and Syria will thus preserve at minimum a robust al Qaeda safe haven in Syria, and most likely an ISIS safe haven in Syria and continued presence in Iraq. Such an endstate is not acceptable. The planning group assessed in the first two reports of this series, Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe and Competing Visions for Syria and Iraq: The Myth of an Anti-ISIS Grand Coalition, that the U.S. must pursue a strategy that destroys ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Salafi-jihadi militant base in Iraq and Syria.

Destroying ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Salafi-jihadi militant base in Iraq and Syria is one of the critical requirements for securing American interests. There is no simple solution, and publicly palatable courses of action, such as airstrikes, are inadequate. ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra derive their strengths from different sources in Iraq and Syria, and the planning group assessed that the U.S. will have to define distinct and nuanced approaches to defeat them in different parts of the theater. This paper explores the nature of both groups to identify their centers of gravity, critical capabilities, critical requirements and critical vulnerabilities to serve as the basis for the development of such approaches. The task will not be easy, but neither is it impossible. It is, in any event, essential for securing the American people and way of life.

ISIS center of gravity analysis 


ISIS and al Qaeda enjoy durable and resource-rich safe havens. These sanctuaries provide each organization with all the necessary capabilities to continue to generate threat nodes in Europe and the U.S. for the foreseeable future. The U.S. must develop theater-specific strategies to defeat ISIS and al Qaeda groups, prioritizing among the most dangerous and durable safe havens. These include Iraq, the Egyptian Sinai, and Libya for ISIS as well as Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria for both ISIS and al Qaeda. The first two reports in this series examined the relationship between regional safe havens, the capability of these organizations to conduct spectacular attacks in the West, and the overall conditions required to destroy both ISIS and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, the two most critical safe havens.

The purpose of studying the ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra visions, objectives, and way of war in the earlier papers is not only to identify the enemy correctly, but also to allow the framing of a counter-strategy. Jessica Lewis McFate characterized military doctrinal methodology for doing so in 2014.

A counter-strategy requires knowledge of the enemy’s sources of power that allow him to act and factor continuously into his strategic calculus. The critical elements of strategic power possessed by ISIS are identifiable through analysis of its military strategy. The elements of strategic power are doctrinally expressed through a study of an enemy’s center of gravity. Center of gravity is a strategic construct introduced by Carl von Clausewitz to describe the primary source of an enemy’s strength. The identification of enemy Centers of Gravity emerged into the military craft through the following passage of his master work, On War:

“Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.”

Center of gravity studies have been expanded in the context of U.S. military planning doctrine to include Critical Capabilities, Critical Requirements, and Critical Vulnerabilities as additional expressions of Strategic Power with which to evaluate a military enemy.

Critical Capabilities are essentially the enemy’s means; Critical Requirements are his constraints; and Critical Vulnerabilities are his deficiencies. These concrete planning factors translate directly into an enemy’s strategy, and they can be targeted directly to achieve linear battlefield effects. A center of gravity, on the other hand, requires a broader understanding of the behavior of the enemy system, and thus it requires a comprehensive assessment of the other elements of the enemy’s strategic power. Targeting a center of gravity achieves nonlinear destructive effects against an enemy. This study will therefore identify the Critical Capabilities, Critical Requirements, and Critical Vulnerabilities of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra before providing an assessment of their Centers of Gravity, which may be targeted in order to achieve exponential effects upon the enemy.

Center of gravity:

Control of terrain to serve as a physical caliphate is now the principal center of gravity of ISIS because it provides religious legitimacy, military capacity, the ability to impose governance, and a globally resonant message.

The Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham’s declaration of its caliphate in June 2014 fundamentally altered the basis of its own legitimacy. It also changed the global discourse within the Salafi community about how to advance the movement. The declaration of the Caliphate has created an ideological split within the global Salafist movement, in fact, with al Qaeda leaders and loyalists rejecting the validity of the Caliphate and, thus, of ISIS. ISIS previously alternated between being an insurgent group that did not control territory and a quasi-conventional force that did. The declaration of the Caliphate requires ISIS to continue to control and govern terrain, however. ISIS without territory and people to rule is no longer ISIS. Control of terrain to serve as a physical caliphate is now the principal center of gravity of ISIS because it provides religious legitimacy, military capacity, the ability to impose governance, and a globally resonant message.

The control and governance of terrain is also a center of gravity from the standpoint of the threat ISIS poses to the West. Possession of uncontested safe-havens; populations from which to extract resources and recruits; and terrain in which to conduct advanced training, weapons development, planning, intelligence, and media functions all constitute the core capabilities that allow ISIS to generate attack groups to operate within the West at will, as discussed in the first report of this series. Depriving ISIS of territory it can govern will severely degrade the organization’s ability to support frequent and sophisticated attacks against Europe and the United States.

ISIS is a resilient organization, however, and depriving it of terrain is not tantamount to defeating, let alone destroying it. The planning group assesses that the loss of all of its territory will drive ISIS back into a terrorist-insurgent mode, possibly with a significant number of ISIS members rejoining local al Qaeda affiliates, thereby strengthening them. The elimination of ISIS control and governance of territory is thus a necessary but not sufficient condition for defeating ISIS itself and must be part of a larger effort to defeat al Qaeda affiliates and the Salafi-jihadi groups with which they are allied in order to achieve lasting success.

ISIS grand strategic objectives and concept of operation

ISIS aims to expand its caliphate to include all historically Muslim lands and to provoke and win an apocalyptic war with the West. ISIS pursues these objectives through mutually supporting campaigns in Iraq and Syria; in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia; and in the wider world. ISIS maintains affiliates in nine countries and supporters in many more. This global presence allows ISIS to project a narrative of constant victory. Operations outside of Iraq and Syria give ISIS strategic resiliency. Control of territory outside of Iraq and Syria will allow ISIS to survive even if it loses control of governed spaces in Iraq and Syria, as we shall see.

ISIS strategic objectives

  • Maintain the physical caliphate
  • Expand the caliphate to include all of “Dar al-Islam,” or historically Muslim lands
  • Assert unchallenged authority as a caliphate
  • Win an apocalyptic war with the West

Continue reading this report in the PDF viewer below. Or download the report here.

© 2016 by the Institute for the Study of War. All rights reserved.

Source: New AEI Feed
Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of strength

This post first appeared on RightForAmerica | Left And Right… On Purpose…, please read the originial post: here

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Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of strength


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