ISIS’s global ambitions

Jessica Lewis McFate and Harleen Gambhir write: Last week’s Pentagon briefing outlined plans for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake Mosul from Islamic State, also known as ISIS. This strategy largely assumes that if ISIS is expelled from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, pushed out of Anbar province and degraded in Syria, the organization will collapse because its narrative of victory will be tarnished and its legitimacy as a “Caliphate” will end.

That may have been true some months ago. But ISIS has adapted more quickly than U.S. strategy has succeeded, and it is pursuing a deliberate strategy to offset its tactical losses in Iraq and Syria with territorial gains in the Mideast and globally.

ISIS’s often stated objective is to “remain and expand.” This is not a mere defensive measure to preserve its combat power from destruction. Nor is it a mere recruiting slogan designed to replace some 6,000 ISIS fighters that Washington estimates have been killed since U.S.-led coalition airstrikes began in August. As Ms. Gambhir concludes in her recent Institute for the Study of War “ISIS Global Intelligence Summary,” open-source reporting indicates that ISIS is executing a complex global strategy across three geographic rings.

What the intelligence summary calls the “Interior Ring” is at the center of the fighting and includes terrain the group is named for, specifically Iraq and al Sham—i.e., the Levantine states of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine. The “Near Abroad Ring” includes the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, extending east to Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISIS has claimed auxiliary operations or established what it calls “governorates” across this region.

The “Far Abroad Ring” includes the rest of the world, specifically Europe, the U.S. and Asia. Here ISIS is most focused on nearby Europe, which it terms “Rome” as a reference to the Byzantine empire, the great power adversary in decline during the rise of the early Islamic caliphs. ISIS distinguishes between established Muslim lands and those that host Muslim diaspora communities, and it uses different but interlocking strategies in each ring to expand its influence. [Continue reading…]

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