Image courtesy of SBS News. Image courtesy of SBS News.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

I’ve actually written quite a bit on ISIS to date, so it may be prudent for those that are unfamiliar with to visit some of these other short essays in order to provide some broader context:

Moreover, I’ve also written about Sun Tzu, most recently with respect to the War in Afghanistan:

“Teaching Sun Tzu can be fairly straightforward – and kind of tough.  For example, what does he mean when he writes that ‘what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy?’ (Griffith translation, p. 77).  Moreover, he writes that this should take precedence over other options – like attacking the enemy’s alliances, army, and cities (in order).  That sounds great – sort of like telling a trader to “buy low, sell high” – but what does it actually look like?”

So how does the core of Sun Tzu’s strategic logic describe ISIS?  How can we use Sun Tzu to understand ISIS strategic behavior?

Let’s start with American strategy. The President’s speech on ISIS on September 10, 2014 included language that US non-military strategy would include, among other things, efforts to counter ISIS’s “warped ideology.” More specifically, “It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.”  So a key part of US strategy is informational.  The US is doing this in two ways.  First: denying ISIS legitimacy as a state actor, which can be seen in the seemingly infinite versions of what to call “them” (Daesh, ISIL, IS, Islamic “State,” and my favorite – “The Group That Calls Itself A State”).  Second: the more of what the world sees of ISIS the more it will mobilize global public opinion against them.

Here’s how ISIS is running Sun Tzu’s counsel to attack the informational part of US strategy.  The public executions target Westerners (they’re not doing this to everybody – they just let 350 Yazidis go) and are truly barbaric but simultaneously are the most violently theatrical way of demonstrating territorial control. Moreover, these hostage situations necessarily force states with captive citizens to negotiate with ISIS as if they were a state. Lastly, ISIS’s specific selection of journalists for targeting deters future reporting, which denies us part of our informational strategy (same playbook the Russians used in Crimea).

But Sun Tzu also tells us to attack our opponent’s alliances.  ISIS is doing that as well.  Look strategic effect of the Jordanian pilot’s execution.  The Wall Street Journal reports that in Lieutenant Muath al-Kasasbeh’s town of Karak that in the immediate aftermath of the news, hundreds of protesters partially burned down the governor’s office and that a relative of Lieutenant Kasasbeh could be heard yelling “the government was lying!” (referring to previous government reports about the pilot’s disposition). Certainly, many Jordanians support King Abdullah II, but the article cites experts assessing that “the killing puts Jordan in a difficult situation. The king can’t appear to retreat from the coalition, but [the Lieutenant’s] death could put pressure on Jordan to lower its profile.”  Executing the Jordanian pilot sows domestic unrest in Jordan, which in turn impacts the US-Jordanian alliance; perhaps not fracturing, but certainly cracking, the relationship between the two.

All this suggests that ISIS are not led by simple, brutal thugs.  They are led by a thinking, purposeful command team that is employing socially horrifying violence in sophisticated ways to achieve their ultimate aim: an Islamic state/caliphate.

The real question is what to do with this knowledge?  How should the US counter these moves?  Two quick suggestions: first, regarding information: support the journalists.  Create a sort of public-private partnership (i.e. PBS-like) which supports freelance journalists that want to cover specifically-designated war zones while maintaining an absolute, iron clad commitment to their freedom to report the truth as they see fit. Provide them transport, medical training, guaranteed communications, and ultra-low cost insurance (stop short of payment).  If we’re serious about the information component to our strategy, partnering with George Clooney and his organization is one way to go.  Secondly, regarding Jordan – give them a blank check.  I recognize the moral hazard in that statement, but we’re never going to get better than King Abdullah II in this neighborhood. He’s got a tough situation (particularly the refugee crisis!) and we should double down on that relationship privately even if means a separate appearance in public, i.e. King Abdullah II may have to distance himself somewhat from the US to satisfy domestic political concerns.