5. Don’t claim territory unless you can feed the people. In his 2010 letter, Bin Laden warned:
The issue of providing for basic needs is a matter that must be taken into consideration before taking control of nations or cities. If a controlling force, that enjoys the support of the majority where it has taken control, fails to provide for the basic needs of the people, it will lose their support and will find itself in a difficult position that will grow increasingly difficult with each passing day. People will not bear seeing their children die as a consequence of a lack of food or medicine.
ISIS pays no heed to this guidance. Its founding literature says that for people who fall under its dominion, “improving their conditions is less important than the condition of their religion.” In Fallujah, a city ISIS has controlled for six months, the Red Cross reports “a severe shortage of food, water and health care.”
6. Don’t fight with your allies. Bin Laden tried to rein in the fratricidal belligerence of ISIS’s precursor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq. He asked his associates to “resolve any conflicts between all of the Jihadi entities in Iraq.” He cited these conflicts as a lesson for the Yemenis, whom he cautioned against confrontations with potential Muslim partners:
Many Iraqis joined the mujahidin against the Americans until some mistakes happened when some of al-Anbar tribe’s children were attacked without a reason of self-defense (they were not a threat to the mujahidin), but they were registering in the security force compound. This attack resulted in the tribe working against the mujahidin.
The lesson is lost on ISIS. It refused to cooperate with al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. It attacks other Syrian rebels. On June 8, ISIS bombed Kurdish offices in Iraq. On June 22, it destroyed the homes of members of a Baathist organization that has been crucial to ISIS’s success in Iraq. It also killed family members of a leader of another Iraqi Islamic militant group. Now some of the Baathists are fighting ISIS, and Kurdish militiamen are helping the Iraqi Army recapture towns.
7. Don’t alarm your enemies prematurely. In 2010, Bin Laden advised his followers in Yemen not to escalate the war there, in part because “the emergence of a force in control of the Mujahidin in Yemen is a matter that provokes our enemies internationally and locally and puts them on a great state of alert.” The Saudi rulers, once alerted, would “pump huge funds into recruiting the Yemeni tribes to kill us. They will win over the swords of the majority, which will put the Mujahidin force in Yemen under enemy fire” at a time when “the capabilities of our brothers there are not yet such that they can enter this sort of struggle.”
ISIS displays no such patience. It has earned and roused enemies with reckless haste. Its fighters have seized crossing points on the Syrian and Jordanian borders. They attacked the Turkish consulate in Mosul, carting away staff members and their families, purportedly for “investigations.” They seized 31 Turkish truck drivers, reportedly demanding $5 million in ransom. They attacked a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra. In three days, they raced hundreds of miles from Mosul to Baghdad, vowing to “invade the Shia in their homes.”
Now the Syrian military, which had previously steered clear of ISIS, is bombing ISIS militants in Iraq. Thousands of Shiites are signing up to reinforce the Iraqi Army. The United States and Iran—sworn enemies for decades—are exploring a limited partnership to stymie ISIS’s advance. Political factions are trying to organize a multiethnic government in Baghdad. The Turkish government is almost certainly drawing up plans to strike back. ISIS is creating a war between itself on one side, and every Iraqi constituency and adjoining country on the other. That’s not chaos. It’s unity.
We’ve been here before. Eight years ago, jihadists in Iraq made the same mistakes. They alienated the public and were driven out by tribes that had fought alongside them. They’ve returned as ISIS only because Iraq’s government persecuted Sunnis and ignored the tribes. Now the jihadists are back to doing what they do best: destroying lives, communities, and themselves.