Defining Daesh is Essential to Defeating It

June 9, 2015
Defining Daesh is Essential to Defeating It
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

In a May 2015 recording purportedly made by Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s apocalyptic vision was made abundantly clear:

“Islam was never a religion of peace.  Islam is the religion of fighting…No one should believe that the war that we are waging is the war of the Islamic State.  It is the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it.  It is the war of Muslims against infidels…O Muslims, go to war everywhere.  It is the duty of every Muslim,”[1]

While Daesh may drape itself in the language and imagery of a resurgent ninth-century Islamic Caliphate, the foreign volunteers drawn to their organization are very likely not compelled by its bizarre religious vision.  It is certainly true that most Muslim religious leaders oppose the interpretation of Islam presented by Daesh.  Yet, in the United States and Europe, one is continually confronted with calls to “correctly” label this group as either an “Islamic” or an “Islamist” terrorist organization.  Defining it in this way is problematic in two important ways: First, focusing on its Islamic nature reinforces Daesh’s religious claims of supremacy and inadvertently supports the narrative it uses to legitimize its actions and recruit supporters.  Secondly, focusing on “terrorism” ignores the larger political context and objectives of the organization and undervalues the considerable resources Daesh commands.  It is true that in order to properly confront a problem one must fully understand it; as Sun-Tzu said, “one who knows his enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.”[2]  To successfully confront and ultimately defeat this threat, we must place it in proper context politically and militarily.

In March 2014, more than 250 Islamic scholars and thinkers from around the world gathered in Abu Dhabi for a “Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies” and issued a fatwa, or religious edict regarding proper Islamic living.  Their fatwa charged,

“How can any Muslim who understands the texts and aims of Islamic law call for war against all other nations?  One who does so is foolish, ignorant of the true nature of Islam as well as the realities of today, and seeks to sow corruption in the land.”

They further warned against accepting the religious orders issued by Daesh,

We call on them [Muslim youth] to remain steadfast in the face of the empty claims and promises made before them and to live the Islamic law properly so that they will not be confused and duped into confusing falsehood with truth.”[3]

In response to news that a large number of British Muslims travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh, a group of British Imams, led by Usama Hassan, published their own fatwa against the group in 2014, finding that,

“IS [Islamic State, Daesh, or ISIL/ISIS] is a heretical, extremist organisation and it is religiously prohibited (haram) to support or join it; furthermore, it is an obligation on British Muslims to actively oppose its poisonous ideology, especially when this is promoted within Britain.”[4]

Also, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, through its General Iftaa’ Department issued its own religious ruling against Daesh saying,

“it is unlawful for anyone to join it parallel to every terrorist organization that sheds people’s blood, labels Muslims as disbelievers, violates people’s honor and usurps their properties…Moreover, Islam calls for mercy, love, and rejection of terrorism and extremism, which represent envy, rancour, and hatred.  Those who joined this terrorist group have disobeyed the injunctions of Allah and His Apostle, deviated from the righteous path, and fell in manifest error, for Allah says (what means): “if any one disobeys God and His Apostle, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path.” (Al-Ahzaab/36).”[5]

The conclusion from these collected rulings is that the primary claim made by Daesh is demonstrably false; it cannot be the single Caliphate to which all Muslims must swear obedience when so many respected religious experts flatly reject the organization as heretical and corrupt.  Yielding to repeated calls to label Daesh as “Islamic” or “Islamist” would give the group precisely the rhetorical credence it lacks.  While it is difficult (or even impossible) to completely counter the effectiveness of the master narratives used by these extremist groups, it is certainly much easier to avoid feeding those narratives and providing rhetorical support.

For example, the “Western Crusader” narrative that casts all Western influences as merely the continuation of the Roman Catholic Crusades of the twelfth century can be effective because the Crusades are a matter of historical fact and cannot be denied.  However, distinctions can be easily made between present-day foreign policy choices and the Crusades that occurred more than eight centuries ago.  More importantly, Western powers can avoid lending evidence to the Crusader narrative by being careful with the language they use to describe their policies.[6]  Perhaps the most famous recent negative example would be President George W. Bush’s describing the United States’ counterterror campaign as a “crusade” in 2004.  In the case of the so-called “Islamic State” the single best rhetorical weapon against it is to undermine its religious identity and legitimacy.

Finally, if we broaden the scope of this analysis to include violent groups other than Daesh, pretending there is a single unifying, religious impulse shared by all of them, we ignore the social and political milieus in which these various extreme groups grew and evolved.  It would be a serious error to paper over the very real cultural, linguistic, political, and economic differences between such groups as Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, or the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While it might be politically expedient to lump these groups together into one large, ideologically monolithic network—either to heighten the sense of danger for domestic audiences, or to simplify complex political phenomena for domestic popular consumption—such a classification risks applying the wrong tools to the wrong problems.

But is it terrorism? 

            According to the United States Army Counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual, an insurgency is “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.”  Putting it in other terms, the manual goes on to say that an insurgency is “an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control.”[7]  Therefore, as defined by the US government, an insurgency is an effort organized with the goal of militarily overthrowing an existing political order, to eventually replace that order with something new.

Terrorism, on the other hand, is violent political speech. What distinguishes terrorism from other forms of violence (even asymmetric warfare) is that the death and suffering of the immediate victims of violence is intended as a means to some other end.  The terror group is not particularly interested in their victims, but rather their audience is the survivors and people who might be in a position to give the terrorist group what it wants.  Michael Walzer defined the boundaries of terrorist violence as:

“it is the difference of aiming and not aiming—or, more accurately, between aiming at particular people because of things they have done or are doing, and aiming at whole groups of people, indiscriminately, because of who they are.”[8]

If the goal of warfare is the destruction of enemy forces, as Clausewitz defined it, then the goal of terrorism is to induce compliant behavior on the part of the audience to violence.  Terrorism is coercion—I hit him to get you to do what I want.

            Insurgencies can employ terrorism as a tactic—in fact they often do to undermine the people’s confidence in the government the insurgency is trying to overthrow.  Terrorism is also employed by insurgent groups to coerce support from a population.  But it is important to maintain the distinction: terror is a tool, a means of communication.  It is defined not by who commits a particular act, but by the intention of the act itself.  Insurgencies have broad politico-military objectives that include radically altering a political system.  This is what Daesh is attempting to do.  Indeed, by erasing the established borders between Iraq and Syria, and replacing the legitimately constituted governments in the territory it holds, this is precisely what it has done.  The mere fact that one can refer to “it” on a map and say that “it” governs in any practical sense immediately distinguishes Daesh from traditionally defined terror groups like al-Qaeda, or the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Audrey Kurth Cronin argued in Foreign Affairs that when President Obama defined Daesh, as “a terrorist organization, plain and simple,” he was precisely, and completely mistaken.  She asserts that the organization “hardly fits that description, and indeed, although it uses terrorism as a tactic, it is not really a terrorist organization at all.”  She concludes that, “if ISIS [Daesh] is purely and simply anything, it is a pseudo-state led by a conventional army.”[9]  The fact that Daesh seems to defy definition among sensible, well-intentioned people raises the possibility that it could represent different things to different audiences.  Ross Harrison has aptly suggested that this is in fact part of the problem:

“ISIS represents a threat with three different faces. To the United States and its western allies, it is a terrorist organization. However, for Arab states, ISIS represents an insurgency without political boundaries that threatens the survival of countries…When examined from a regional perspective, ISIS represents the spearhead of a broader movement threatening to sunder the Arab political order that has existed since the end of World War I.”[10]

Why such a fuss over defining what Daesh is precisely?  What practical end is served by this apparently academic discussion of terrorism versus insurgency?  We return again to the helpful instruction that only though properly understanding your enemy can you hope to defeat him.  We are shocked and appalled by the cruel methods employed by Daesh and we rightly recoil from their violence; our senses are truly “terrorized.”  However, to focus solely on the trauma caused by their existence is to ignore the political-military realities ultimately represented by that trauma.  Daesh is a self-supporting, autonomous political entity with a large, capable, conventional military led by experienced Saddam-era officers.  Governing territory in Iraq and Syria allows it to effectively “tax” the population under its control.  Absent the legal authorities of the properly constituted governments there, Daesh can loot banks, businesses, and natural resources.  It has captured a sizable fortune in military hardware, much of it among the best of its kind coming from the United States to the Iraqi Army that was then abandoned when the latter was routed from places like Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah and now Ramadi.

            Misperception leads to the misapplication of strategy.  Traditional counterterror strategies are not effective against insurgencies.  Although counterterror and counterinsurgency strategies are often employed together, they are very different approaches with different assumptions about the application of lethal force and the role of the local population.  “Rather than being mutually reinforcing, they may impose tradeoffs on each other, as counterterrorism activities may blunt the effectiveness of counterinsurgency approaches and vice versa.”[11]  Cronin argues that neither traditional models of counterterror or counterinsurgency will be effective,

“The sobering fact is that the United States has no good military options in its fight against ISIS [Daesh]…the policy that best matches ends and means and that has the best chance of securing U.S. interests is one of offensive containment”

For Cronin, this means simultaneously weakening the group militarily while building and retaining regional cooperation against it.

            It is important to place Daesh in its proper context.  It is a sectarian insurgency that seeks to supplant established political orders with its own.  Though it clearly wishes to be perceived as a righteous expression of Islam politically resurgent, it is widely condemned as a heretical, corrupted organization.  In this context, it is important to 1.) not feed or otherwise legitimize its religious claims of supremacy, or reinforce the narratives it employs to recruit and gain support.  2.) apply an appropriate political-military response that confronts the sizable resources Daesh owns with a coordinated regional effort.  That effort must also account for the sectarian dimension of the political conflict that in part fuels this crisis.  Only with the crisis properly categorized and situated in its political-military context will it be possible to organize an effective, creative, and flexible solution.

[1]. BBC Online News Service, “Islamic State Releases ‘al Baghdadi message’” found at:, accessed May 17, 2015

[2]. Sun Tzu, Art of War, Translated by Ralph D. Sawyer, Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado.  P. 179.

[3]. “This is not the path to paradise: a response to ISIS” (English translation) found at the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies:, accessed May 17, 2015.

[4]. The Sunday Times Online News Service, “UK Imams Put Fatwa on Jihadists” Published online August 31, 2014, at, accessed May 17, 2015

[5]. The General Iftaa’ Division of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, “What is the ruling of Sharia on those who join the Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL?”  found at, accessed 17 May 2015

[6]. For a thorough discussion of master narratives and their role in strategic communication, see Halverson, Jeffry R, H.L. Goodall Jr., & Steven Corman.  2011.  Master Narratives of Islamic Extremism.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[7]. Headquarters, Department of the Army & Headquarters, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Department of the Navy.  (2006)  Field Manual No. 3-24/Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5: Counterinsurgency, Ft. Leavenworth: Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate.

[8]. Michael Walzer.  1977. Just and Unjust Wars, A moral argument with historical illustrations.  New York: Basic Books, The Perseus Book Group, p. 200.

[9]. Audrey Kurth Cronin.  2015.  “ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group.”  Foreign Affairs, 94(2):87-98.

[10]. Harrison, Ross.  2012. “Towards a Regional Strategy Contra ISIS,” Parameters, 44(3):37-46.

[11]. Boyle MJ. “Do counterterrorism and counterinsurgency go together?” International Affairs, 86(2): pp. 333-353.