Michael Rubin: Why Has ISIS Been So Successful?

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Iraqi soldiers drag the dead body of an ISIS member near Mosul, Iraq, on December 5. Michael Rubin writes that it is time U.S. military and intelligence authorities understood how ISIS managed to achieve militarily what it did, for the likelihood of facing down similar Islamist movements in the future remains high. Mohammed Salem/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

When the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) is defeated in Iraq and/or Syria, the time for celebration and political grandstanding will be short-lived.

After all, even if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's caliphate ends, he has already laid the groundwork for its successors.

And, unless the United States, Iraq and Iraqi Kurds are able to capture and kill or imprison tens of thousands of foreign fighters and perhaps even more local ones, ISIS veterans will live to fight again, potentially destabilizing dozens of countries when and if they return.

Indeed, after U.S. Navy Seals killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda affiliates appeared to compete with each other to stage attacks in order to assert their primacy in a post-bin Laden-era.

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It's essential, therefore, to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible about how ISIS managed to surprise everyone and seize so much territory in its initial 2014 operations.

Here, scholars and analysts have a jump start thanks to the work of Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla, the director and deputy director at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism at George Mason University, respectively. The pair is best known for their recent book, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate, but they are very prolific.

They have now published online a lengthy study of ISIS's intelligence operations as told by defectors to which they have had access. They describe how ISIS works to gather information on those living under its control, as well as how it seeks to gather intelligence on areas into which they seek to expand.

In addition, they discuss ISIS's logistical support inside Turkey, recruitment and vetting for would-be jihadis who appear but are not known to recruiters, as well as interactions with other militant groups and intelligence services, including those of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

For example, they explain ISIS strategy before attacking new areas:

Well before their arrival, the Emni [ISIS's intelligence unit] also places well paid informants in villages they intend to invade to map out the political and ideological stands of those living there. Upon capturing the village, and given they have already categorized the people, their modus operandi is to quickly order and carry out assassinations of those they have identified as enemies, or incapable of working with them.

They also show how fear permeates not only the civilian population but also the apparatchiks within ISIS:

The Emni also carefully studies the population of areas they gain control of to safeguard their positions and to eliminate all dissenters inside the borders of the "Islamic State." Having learned well from Saddam's totalitarian state, paid informants are placed everywhere inside ISIS, creating a widespread fear of defying the group in any manner.

ISIS defectors were even skeptical of their own family members, including young children, fearing that they may have been turned into informants. Some observed children as young as 6 and 7 years old being trained and deployed for intelligence work. ISIS cadres also reported that they were loath to divulge to other members their doubts and disgust with ISIS's brutality for fear of being informed upon and punished.

There will be much more to be gained if U.S. authorities can seize ISIS intelligence documents and assets before governments such as Turkey's or perhaps even some elements within the Kurdistan Regional Government who might want to cover up their own complicity.

But, at the very least, it is time U.S. military and intelligence authorities understand just how ISIS managed to achieve militarily what it did, for the likelihood of facing down similar Islamist movements in the future remains quite high.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.

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Michael Rubin: Why Has ISIS Been So Successful? | Opinion