Twenty years since the September 11, 2001, attacks and in the wake of the Taliban’s resurrection to control much of Afghanistan in 2021, it seems fitting to reflect on the tumultuous history of another jihadist insurgency that achieved extraordinary successes against seemingly impossible odds: the Islamic State movement. At the peak of its conventional powers in 2014, the Islamic State controlled around 100,000km2 of territory, an estimated total population of almost ten million people, and the major cities of Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, Raqqa and Dayr az Zawr on either side of the Syria-Iraq border.
The Islamic State’s occupation of Mosul has become emblematic of the movement and its terrifying and tragic potential whether in Iraq and Syria or elsewhere in the world. Yet the three years in which the Islamic State controlled Mosul, with largely conventional politicomilitary activities, is an historical and strategic anomaly for the group. After all, most of its multidecade history has been spent oscillating through the early phases of an insurgency campaign characterized by guerrilla military and governance (i.e. unconventional politicomilitary) activities. The persistence of the Islamic State threat, indeed its metastasizing in recent years to now have a presence in dozens of countries across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, is a reminder that there remains much to be learned about this movement and how best to confront it. This study aims to contribute to other scholarship that has applied an overarching insurgency model to analyze the Islamic State’s approach to insurgency theory and practice.
There is a second, much broader issue it considers too. Despite western nations enjoying unprecedented military, technological, intelligence, and resource advantages over any single nation or coalition of nations, it has been insurgencies in Asia and the Middle East that have defeated western powers and their allies. While many western nations are focusing on rising concerns about the global ‘great power competition’ and dealing with an unprecedented COVID19 pandemic, the fields of research and practice still need to grapple with how best to understand and confront modern insurgencies. Indeed, rather than diminish the need to understand this type of irregular warfare, 21st century conventional power imbalances and intensifying great power rivalries makes this avenue of applied research as important as ever. This study hopes to humbly offer its insights to that discourse.