The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is scaring the hell out of everyone. It has infested Syria, overrun Iraq, alarmed Iran, and convinced U.S. politicians it’s the most dangerous terrorist organization ever. But frightening everyone isn’t a long-term growth strategy. ISIS is destroying itself.
Al-Qaida, the organization from which ISIS recently split, understands this truth. For years, Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants tried to explain to their affiliates the folly of unchecked brutality. In letters and directives captured in the 2011 raid on his compound, Bin Laden stressed the importance of patience, discretion, and public opinion. His advice, boiled down to seven rules, forms a clear outline of ISIS’s mistakes.
1. Don’t fight civil wars. Bin Laden recognized that battling for territory against local governments was a lousy way to get to theocracy. In a 2010 letter, he explained why this wouldn’t work in Yemen:
As for the local enemy, such as if the Yemenis were to begin a long battle against the security services, this is a matter that will weigh on the people. As time goes by, they will begin to feel that some of them have been killed and they will start to want to stop the fighting. This would promote the ideology of secular governments that raise the motto of pleasing all sides.
ISIS rejects this rule. It calls itself a state. It measures its progress in territory. It’s trying to control as many as 40,000 square miles with an estimated 10,000 fighters. Meanwhile, the parties that have won seats in the new Iraqi parliament are scrambling to form a government that can appease all sides and pacify the country, just as Bin Laden anticipated.
2. Don’t kill civilians. That was Bin Laden’s principal regret. He called for guidelines that would instruct jihadists to avoid “unnecessary civilian casualties.” Mass bombings in mosques and other public places, he lamented, had resulted in “the alienation of most of the nation from the Mujahidin.”
ISIS spurns this guidance. It has slaughtered civilians in Syria and Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. It targets not just enemy soldiers but anyone who has worked for the government. In Syria, an important cleric renounced ISIS because it blew up children and other civilians. In Iraq, Baathists fighting alongside ISIS have promised to restrain it from killing “innocent people.”
3. Don’t flaunt your bloodlust. One of the captured al-Qaida letters, believed to have been written by Bin Laden or his aide, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, urges al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate to “stay away from words that will affect the people’s support to the mujahidin.” The letter says the group must “carefully write our statements in order to avoid all accusation against us from the enemy, who accuse us of being animals and killers.”
ISIS advertises its savagery. It chops off people’s heads. It vows to kill every Shiite. It posts videos in which captives are shot dead and moving cars are machine-gunned. A week ago, ISIS uploaded photos purporting to show its fighters executing 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers. “The filthy Shiites are killed in the hundreds,” said one caption. “The liquidation of the Shiites who ran away from their military bases,” said another. “This is the destiny of Maliki’s Shiites,” said a third. “Look at them walking to death on their own feet,” said a fourth. It’s hard to imagine propaganda better designed to repulse the public and galvanize the enemy.
4. Don’t rule harshly. Bin Laden was a theocratic fundamentalist, but he cautioned his allies to avoid the “alienation from harshness” that was “taking over the public opinion.” The worst offender was Somalia’s al-Shabab. In a 2011 letter, Bin Laden urged Atiyah to “send advice to the brothers in Somalia about the benefit of doubt when it comes to dealing with crimes and applying Shari’a, similar to what the prophet (PBUH) said, to use doubts to fend off the punishments.”
When ISIS captures a city, it follows this rule at first. But soon, the nice-guy act disappears. The group seizes property and humanitarian aid. It executes Christian and Muslim “apostates.” Two days after taking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS banned booze and cigarettes, instructed women to stay home, and announced that government employees who failed to repent would be put to death. This behavior antagonizes Sunni fighters who have collaborated with ISIS. “In some areas that ISIS has taken they are killing our people, they are imposing their Islamic laws on us,” one tribal leader told the New York Times. “We do not want that.”
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.