October 29, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State: An In-Depth Report

• The group known as The Islamic State is now a chimera of secular Ba’athist and religious takfiri ideologies; the organizational skills of the former help channel the motivational fervor of the latter

• The group acts as a cancer feeding on the monetary bloodstream of the local host populations it controls in Iraq and Syria: of the group’s estimated $3 million daily income, the systematic taxing/extorting of daily economic life is as important as the sales of the oil production it currently controls

• The problem of foreign fighters joining The Islamic State is certainly global but it is in no way evenly distributed: over half of the estimated total come from just five  countries: Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey

• The group’s use of decentralized social media to spread highly-produced imagery has made each of its thousands of online supporters their own ministry of propaganda, with a consistent yet-still dynamic message reaching its target audience of disaffected youth

• The future of the group depends on whether alternative centers of power in both Iraq and Syria are able to offer sufficiently credible assurances of a better life, in order to persuade the uncommitted majority who live under The Islamic State’s dominion to risk their lives in opposing it.


The Soufan Group issued a special report today addressing the history and rise of the group known as The Islamic State. Released in tandem with PBS Frontline’s 10/28 broadcast of “The Rise of ISIS,” The Islamic State takes an unprecedented in-depth look at the group’s operations across Iraq and Syria.


In June 2014 The Soufan Group released a paper on Foreign Fighters in Syria in response to the widespread concern that many might return home to become domestic terrorists. Since then, the so-called Islamic State has continued to expand and attract recruits. It has provoked an international response—led by the United States—that has drawn over 60 countries into a military coalition targeting the group. But what do we actually know about the Islamic State beyond its videos of horrific violence and the apparent tenacity of its fighters?

TSG’s Special Report on The Islamic State looks at the origins, evolution, and current structure of group, and examines its military, administrative, financial, and propaganda operations. The paper shows that The Islamic State is largely an Iraqi movement and has been active in the country in one form or another since 2003. Although severely degraded by U.S. and Iraqi forces in a series of successful operations, culminating in the death of its two main leaders in mid-2010, the Syrian civil war has transformed the group and allowed it to grow from a clandestine terrorist organization under pressure into a still clandestine, but highly visible proto-state that threatens the whole of the Levant and beyond.

The report shows how senior Ba’athists have joined with Sunni tribal leaders and salafist/takfiri fighters to create an organization that has been able to exploit the political and societal fault lines of the region. The paper argues that without both national and regional policies that address these divides, The Islamic State will continue to survive, however intense the military campaign against it. And the longer it does survive, the more that the discipline and organizational skills of the Ba’athists will allow the extremists within the movement to consolidate their rule and trap their Sunni tribal supporters in the increasing sectarianism of the battle.

However, the report also argues that although The Islamic State has been able to hold onto many of its territorial gains despite military efforts to dislodge it, its weaknesses and vulnerabilities are likely to be most exposed in the administration of the territory it holds. It lacks technicians and professionals, and is doing nothing to educate new ones. Nonetheless, it may take time before the group’s deficiencies precipitate its collapse, and the longer it survives the more the local population will assimilate to it and become vested in the decisions of its courts and the licenses issued by its bureaucrats.

The Islamic State has proven itself militarily competent and is largely self-financing, but the number of its core supporters is small, perhaps 30,000 of which half are foreigners. This is a weakness but also a comment on the conditions in the region that have allowed it to thrive. It has expanded into areas of both Syria and Iraq where confidence in government is so low that even the backwards-looking and vicious policies and practices of The Islamic State seem to some a viable alternative. It is here that action must be taken to defeat it.


Click here to access a copy of the full report.


For tailored research and analysis, please contact:

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 9.32.42 AM