ISIS: From Near-State to Persistent Problem

ISIS: From Near-State to Persistent Problem
(David Des Roches, April 22, 2022)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

David Des Roches is an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies. Prior to this, he was the director responsible for defense policy concerning Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Prior to this assignment, he has served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as the DoD Liaison to the Department of Homeland Security, as the senior country director for Pakistan, as the NATO operations director, and as the deputy director for peacekeeping. His first job in government was as a special assistant for strategy and later as the international law enforcement analyst in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

An Airborne Ranger in the Army Reserve, he was awarded the Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan. He has commanded conventional and special operations parachute units and has served on the US Special Operations Command staff as well as on the Joint Staff.



Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today, I am delighted to welcome back to the Westminster Institute a veteran speaker for us, and that is Dave Des Roches, who is associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies at National Defense University. Prior to his appointment at NDU, he was the Defense Department director responsible for policy concerning Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Before that, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Liaison to the Department of Homeland Security, as senior country director for Pakistan, as NATO operations director, and as deputy director for peacekeeping.

An Airborne Ranger in the Army Reserve, Colonel Des Roches was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan. He has made 105 military parachute jumps. He was the first West Point graduate to have majored in Arabic Studies. He has commanded conventional and special operations parachute units and has served on the U.S. Special Operations Command staff as well as on the joint staff. He has also obtained advanced degrees in Arab Politics from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, in War Studies from King’s College London, and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is the author of Dominance Versus Disruption: Asymmetry in Gulf Security.

Dave has previously spoken at Westminster on the subjects of: “The Push and Pull of Religious Extremism: Who are the Terrorists, How are They Recruited, What can we do?” and, more recently, on the “Ongoing War in the Persian Gulf: Why Does it Matter to the U.S.?” Today, he will address the subject of: “ISIS: From Near-State to Persistent Problem.” Welcome back.

David Des Roches:

Thanks, Bob. It is a pleasure to be here. Well, thanks. It is always an honor to be with the Westminster Institute and even virtually, I can feel the love through the camera, so hopefully, I will provide a diverting moment of time, and I know that our interlocuter here will challenge me with questions. So, first, I want to show you all my contact information. I tweet and blog a lot of things that will be of interest. Very few of it is my own. Usually, it is things that are sent to me by other people. Currently, I have leaned towards heavy analysis of the Ukrainian-Russian war.

Why ISIS Matters

ISIS, Daesh, as those of us who know Arabic refer to it, the Islamic State, was a truly unprecedented phenomenon. It was a non-state actor that managed to acquire most of the trappings of a state. It controlled land on two sides of an international border, the hated Sykes-Picot dividing line between Iraq and Syria, which they, with great flourish, demolished, thus saying, you know, we have eliminated the legacy of colonialism.

They managed to inspire followers and fighters all around the world. And they have also managed to attract affiliates, which, even while they have gone underground in their heartland of the Sunni regions spanning the border between Iraq and Syria, we find in places like the Philippines, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, North Africa, Central Africa, as well as lone wolf terrorist attacks in Europe, the United States, they continue to inspire. So, they form a phenomenon that has a global impact that threatens the security of the United States and its partners and that still seeks to overthrow the world order.

ISIS in Ascendance (2014-2015)

At its height, it controlled a great amount of territory, and that was 2014, 2015. What you basically saw were the eastern parts of Syria under Bashar al-Assad were ungoverned. Assad had focused his security forces, together with those of his protectors from Iran and Russia, and proxies brought in under Iranian leadership from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and Iraq, they had focused on the line running north south from the Turkish border to Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and everything between that the Mediterranean Sea.

The east for the most part, with the exception of Palmyra, was uncontested, and it actually served Bashar al-Assad’s purposes to have the eastern part of Syria under the control of Daesh because then he could characterize all opposition to his rule as ISIS, as global Islamic terrorists. And indeed, when Russia first intervened in Syria, they called for a resurrection of the global alliance that had defeated fascism in World War II. They called for that to be resurrected and to fight against Islamist terrorism. Just as Russian forces today wear the colors of the victory ribbons for the World War II battle in Ukraine, they did the same thing when they entered into ISIS [controlled territory].

On the eastern side of the border in Iraq, what we saw was ISIS manifested itself primarily in Sunni controlled areas. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, the Iraqi Prime Minister very quickly purged the ranks. As a matter of fact, as the last U.S. convoy crossed the border in Kuwait, [Nouri al-Maliki] purged the ranks of Sunni officials and converted the Iraqi government into an arm of his Ad-Dawa Party, great portions of which fell under the influence of the Iranian government. And as a government, it devoted itself not so much to providing services but rather to advancing the agenda of the traditionally oppressed Shia of Iraq. This obviously did not sit well in the Sunni areas.

And you recall the initial massacres and advances of ISIS, hundreds of soldiers being marched off to Camp Speicher where they were executed, Shia senior officers in Mosul and places east of that, abandoning their post, making haste to Baghdad, and leaving their soldiers to be massacred. This reflected in large part the development, particularly of foreign fighter cadres within ISIS, but it also reflected the fact that the civilian population, predominantly Sunni, did not support the government and was happy for anything that could represent the interests of Sunni Islam against the hated and often Iranian-led Iraqi government, which had been captured by Shia political movements.

The Situation in Syria Now

So, over time, we see in in this chart how the territory under the control of ISIS has shrunk. The United States and coalition partners were invited back into Iraq. Without any invitation, [they] took action in Syria after the execution of American and British hostages, and began to support the Iraqi government, primarily through the counter-terrorism services, and then stood up or at least enabled the Syrian Democratic Forces, which primarily is Kurdish leadership. And that group, which is multinational, but again, the core of it is Kurdish, began conquering ISIS-held territory in Syria.

That has led us to a situation that we see today, which is one that is kind of unusual in that you have a vestigial coalition presence in the north of and the east of Syria, a U.S.-led coalition allied with primarily Kurdish forces, although not exclusively Kurdish forces, and then a small area on the border with Jordan around al-Tanf, where again you have anti-Bashar al Assad forces that are allied with U.S. forces. The rest of the country is controlled by Syria and its proxies, its Russian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies. And then we see occasional raids from ISIS dead enders who have managed to remain in the Syrian desert or in Iraq. And there still is a significant number of those, but again, they do not control land, so basically, they have moved from a near-state to a terrorist organization.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

The first leader of ISIS, of course, was al-Baghdadi. Al Baghdadi was an interesting figure, a charismatic one. His Islamic credentials, his credentials of Islamic scholarship, were legit. He was a graduate in theology from a respected Iraqi university. His official pronouncements had decent scholarship. Basically, he knew his references. Of course, he called for the establishment of a caliphate, which meant an Islamic State, under terms that brook no dissent.

Basically, he declared that he was enacting the will of God and enacting the state, and that all true Muslims were to either join him, make hijra and fight under his army, or to support him remotely. And if you did not do that, then you were either guilty of apostasy or you were a pagan or one of the Peoples of the Book, Jews or Christians, who should be subjugated to the true rule of Islam as embodied in Baghdadi’s Islamic State, but you would not be accorded full rights.

Baghdadi’s Global Call and Chaos

This was a call for global revolution and global dominance. And in areas where there were substantial, disaffected Islamic populations, areas with ineffective government, like the states of the Sahel, which are among the poorest and most corrupt in the world, this call to arms was very, very, very effective and welcome, in large part because these local movements were seeking a coherent, global framework with which, quite frankly, to scare the hell out of government forces.

After the establishment of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, we saw the pledging of affiliate statuses [from] numerous organizations in failed, failing, or risk of failing states. Mali was almost taken over by an Islamic State affiliate. We have seen violence by Islamic State affiliates throughout the Sahel, most notably the killing of several U.S. soldiers in Niger, which led to many Americans to first try to find Niger on a map, and second, questioning the government as to what on earth we are doing with soldiers in a place so remote and isolated.

We saw in the chaos of Libya, an Islamic State affiliate rise and for a brief moment seize places of ground, conducting a rather gruesome, visual execution of Egyptian Copts who had been working in Libya. In the Sinai Peninsula, the militants there pledged allegiance to Daesh and engaged in a years-long battle with the Egyptian security forces, which appears to have been suppressed in large part because of the Egyptians enlisting the nomadic tribes in the Sinai in their cause. In the Philippines, of course, in Afghanistan, and possibly in the other republics of Central Asia, [we have seen ISIS].

Al-Baghdadi eventually, following the collapse of the Islamic State and the sustained military campaign to reduce its strongholds in Mosul in Iraq and then finally Raqqa and Syria, became basically a refugee in his own country, hiding out in a safe house where he was eventually tracked down by U.S. forces and blew himself up prior to capture.


He was replaced by Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Raman al-Mawla, known as Hajji Abdallah. He was very much an interim leader. He did not have the same credentials of Islamic scholarship. He was basically a man who was available, a person who knew the organization but did not necessarily have the same cachet within the organization, and he was killed earlier this year in his safe house, which was in rebel-controlled parts of Syria, again by U.S. forces. Unfortunately, the location of this was capitalized on by Bashar al-Assad as well as his Russian patrons as saying, you see, everybody who fights the Assad regime is Daesh.

After his death, he was replaced by a new leader known as Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. The al-Hashimi al-Qurashi is a tribal designation. The Quraishi means that he is a descendant of the Prophet. We are not sure if that is true or not. We are not quite sure who he is. We are not quite sure what he is because given the past track record, you do not want to provide too much biographical information on yourself if you are the leader of Daesh, but the provinces of ISIS in the Sahel, in the Sinai, and elsewhere have pledged their allegiance to him. I think my most credible guess based on people who know is that in actuality, he is Jumah Awad al-Badri, who is the older brother of al Baghdadi, the first caliph of Daesh. Regardless of who he is, he presides over an organization which has lost little of its fervor but much of its capability, and still remains a profound security challenge, not just in Iraq and Syria but also to the West.

Jihad According to ISIS

Let me go into a little bit of theology here now and the nature of jihad to kind of explain how the organization has changed. In Daesh theology, there are two types of jihads. The first is called Jihad al-Tamkin. Jihad is a loaded word in Western political discourse or in analysis of it. There have been some people who taken literally and as used by ISIS leaders, it means the campaign to extend the rule of Islam and to subjugate all those who oppose it, but it can also mean and apologists for not necessarily Daesh but practitioners of a more quietest form of Islam say it actually refers to the inner struggle to refine oneself, make oneself a better person.

Asking people what the definition of jihad is is often used as a litmus test to say okay, are you easy or soft on Islam, are you awake. And some view this is an incipient threat that needs to be confronted. And if you do not understand the difference, then you are likely to be sucked in and reduced to a position of subservience to triumphalist Islam. But in the Daesh usage, the ISIS usage, jihad is to conquer, [a] full-on militarist [campaign].

Jihad al-Tamkin refers to the form of jihad in government, once you are in government, once you are in power, how you use your power to advance the rule of Islam and to glorify Islam as interpreted by ISIS and by ISIS doctrine. And so, this refers to making literally the example of the Prophet as literally stated out in the Qur’an or as reported by others in the hadith, the words of the Prophet, and interpreted by religious scholars that ISIS takes its cues from, which is not the entire body of Islam as the religious scholars but rather a select audience, to implement the world as Islam requires it, according to Daesh’s [understanding of jihad].

We saw this take place in a number of areas. And indeed, some of these things, like the prohibition against corruption, was welcomed by some of the population under Daesh that had been used to rapacious, ethnically dissimilar officials of the Iraqi government, particularly, moving in and extracting petty bribes on every occasion. But what you saw are things [like], for example, campaigns against drug smugglers, and drug usage, and drug taking, the impetus to try to coin money, which is actually a duty of a government under this interpretation of Islam. All of these were advanced and Daesh did not neglect services. There was trash collection, the normal functions of government, justice being written out according to Islamic principles.

Of course, large parts of this conflict with the modern world; executions, amputation of limbs for theft, things of that nature, things which we feel have no place in the modern world, did have a place in ISIS. And that, of course, led to a lot of conflict and there was also mistreatment of prisoners or people who were not members of [ISIS, or who] did not practice Islam according to the precepts of ISIS. But that form of jihad was the focus of ISIS while it controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria.

Since ISIS has been defeated militarily, they have shifted to the second form of jihad, Jihad al-Nikaya, which is the jihad when you are out of power. It means to confound the powers, which in their ideology lack the legitimacy conferred by their interpretation of Islam, and so this refers to things such as attacks on government facilities, attacks on banks, the use of car bombs, taking of hostages and sometimes executing them, and more importantly, raids on prisons. And we have seen a lot of this both because it is the precept of the Jihad al-Nikaya as well as because it is just a tactical necessity.

So, what has happened in military terms is Daesh has gone from being a near state to reverting to a low-level insurgency stroke terrorist organization. They are not controlling land, they are incapable of controlling land for large periods of time, so they do not attempt to do the functions of government, but rather they do the functions to subvert the existing government, to undermine its legitimacy, and in some instances things like conducting marriages or something like that among the faithful to take over some of those functions, to sap the legitimacy of the government and eventually supplant it.

They have moved back to an earlier stage of insurgency stroke terrorism. This would be familiar to anybody who has studied guerilla movements. If you look at Che Guevara, it is kind of the same thing, where you try to undermine the government and then eventually supplant it with your own ideology as the guiding precepts rather than the one that you had before. And that is where we are now, so we have moved back to the early days of the insurgency. They are looking more like al Qaeda and less like the Islamic State that we saw, that collected customs duties and erased the border between Iraq and Syria.

So, where is ISIS today?

ISIS Today

Well, they really lost a lot of personnel numbers. The estimates are that they have between six and ten thousand fighters. I am talking about in Syria and Iraq. The other movements are affiliates. There is no real control and there’s no evidence of mutual support among these movements. There is a possibility that they draw from the same funders, which are scattered all over the world, but in Iraq and Syria you have six to ten thousand.

This is a significant number of people. This is a number of fighters who if they want to, can mass at unexpected locations and overwhelm government facilities for a small amount. So, they will continue to carry out lethal attacks for the foreseeable future, and these lethal attacks have the ability to overwhelm the Syrian, Iraqi coalition forces in some places.

There are over ten thousand ISIS personnel that are being held in prisons mostly run by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Some of these [prisons have a disproportionate number of ISIS prisoners]. Al Sina prison has three and a half thousand [ISIS prisoners], of whom 700 are children, the so-called cubs of the caliphate. These pose a real problem for governments because you have children who have been thoroughly indoctrinated, who are in a horrible position where, quite frankly, they probably are either being preyed on by the most ideologically committed members of Daesh or they are being indoctrinated into themselves becoming ideologically committed. And they are being held in conditions that, quite frankly, are inhumane.

And what we are finding is that many of the foreign fighters are included in these numbers as well, and some of these foreign fighters come from Western democracies, which quite frankly do not want them back because they know that they are likely to pose a security challenge, but they do not have the legal tools within the framework of a modern liberal democracy to effectively prevent these people from committing acts of violence. They would either have to be watched on a full-term basis, which requires about a hundred police officers around over the course of a year. To keep a person in continuous surveillance, you need about 100 police officers. That is prohibitive. They cannot be incarcerated because modern, Western, liberal justice does not allow you to do that.

We have seen the ineffectiveness of de-radicalization programs, most notably the London Bridge attacks, where a person who was graduating from a de-radicalization program turned and murdered his supposed mentor in that program. So, this is a problem and quite frankly it exposes a lot of hypocrisy on the part of Western countries that have spent years criticizing the United States for things like Guantanamo Bay. Informally, some of these government officials when approached about the need to take back their citizens, have said, well, could you move them to Guantanamo Bay?

And the other problem we have is the Syrian Democratic Forces, which, again, are predominantly Kurdish, are wondering how long do we have to keep these people? Because it is a security burden, it is very expensive, and they are aware that this is a ticking time bomb. As we can see, some of the children in these camps, particularly the Al-Hol camp, which is just horrendous, it is huge, [have been preyed upon by ISIS indoctrinators]. There have been shootings, there have been murders, there have been attacks. There is evidence of extortion, of ethnic violence, of violence by Islamic State hardliners against those who wish to move away from it, and indoctrination of children.

But it is one of those situations where people are just kind of turning their eyes away and hoping that the situation will resolve itself somehow, that it will just go away. It is too hard for countries to deal with. There are some people, foreign fighters from places like [Xinjiang], Uyghurs, who quite frankly it would be a gross injustice for them to be returned to China. They will be executed on arrival. There are others from Central Asia who know they are in it for the long run. And then, of course, we have the ones from Western countries, much smaller in numbers but [they pose] serious problems. And a number of them are being handed over to the Iraqi criminal justice system if they are of Iraqi nationality. That creates its own problems.

We have seen a few small instances of citizens being returned to Western democracies. Just this week, we saw the trial of one of the surviving members of the so-called Beatles, the four ISIS members with British citizenship or British residency, who were involved in the torture of Western hostages while ISIS was at its ascendancy. But make no doubt, this is an incubator of radicalism. This is a problem, and it is not going to get better. And what we saw just before the Ukraine war, [which] pushed everything off the face of it, was we saw an attack on one of these prisons where ISIS went and freed hundreds of hardened fighters to replenish its ranks. We can expect a lot more of this in the future.

The second problem that ISIS continues to pose, and bear in mind they are already six to ten thousand hardened fighters, so the second problem is with six to ten thousand hardened fighters, if you are going to stop them from causing problems, you need to have effective governance. That is the only way to neutralize them, but in Syria and Iraq, we do not see effective governance.

In the areas that have defeated ISIS militarily, those are now primarily controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which as I said earlier, are primarily Kurdish. This is not a recipe for success. I mean what we have are Arab parts of the world that are controlled in large part by a Kurdish-led force, and eventually there will be Arab resentment over rule by a different ethnicity, [which] will eventually manifest itself in conflict, maybe not outright, people joining ISIS, but passive support is really all you need when you have such a large volume of that, just an unwillingness to contact the security forces to counter ISIS movement.

Similarly, on the Iraqi side of the border, it looks as though Muqtada al Sadr, who is a Shia cleric, got the largest number of votes in the most recent Iraqi election. And when he forms a government after about a year in the Iraqi function, it is quite likely that – it is quite possible that this government will again not be effective at representing the interests of Sunni citizens but rather will be simply a manifestation of Shia superiority in Sunni areas. And if that is the case, we could expect support, active and passive, for the predominantly or the overwhelmingly Sunni ISIS and its six to ten thousand fighters to rise. Insurgency theory tells us that when you have poor government services and an unrepresentative government, those are the conditions that are ripe for insurgency.

So, will ISIS again control an area the size of Texas and both sides of the international border? Probably not, but will ISIS continue to be an active security threat to Iraq, to Syria, and to global security interests? Will it continue to inspire foreign attacks in the West? The answer I think to that is undoubtedly yes, and quite frankly I think that the nations of the world have taken a vacation from the history of ISIS. But ISIS is not defeated, it is merely dormant, and it is something that perhaps we should focus our attention on again. And I think that is it, Bob. Is that okay?


Robert R. Reilly:

Dave thank you very much. Let me ask you a question since you touched upon Islamic theology a bit. Islam is the religion of success, not only in that its adherents are promised paradise if they follow the ways of the Prophet and the Qur’an and hadith, but success in this world as well, which if they do not have, can potentially point them to the fact that they may not be on that path. Now, that is one of the arguments that groups like ISIS have used. However, they have been crushed. Now, has that lack of success, has their military defeat do you know caused any kind of internal convulsions in the ideological sense where they begin to question their own legitimacy?

David Des Roches:

Yeah, good question. Well, so there is such a large body of Islamic thought. Because of the hadith of the Prophet, there are more Islamic theological sources than there are Christian theological sources. You have to start getting into medieval commentary to approach that same volume, so basically, any position can be argued or disarmed from a position of authority, and then you argue over the strength of the hadiths and things of that nature. I think there has been a discussion as to what is happening, but I think that quite frankly the defeat of the Islamic State fits in perfectly.

And I have to tell you that my friends in Saudi Arabia and all that would say the ‘so-called Islamic State,’ and I think that is a key [distinction]. I think that almost everybody rejects this formulation, so the defeat of Daesh does fit in with it because, as with most defeated movements that have a strong ideological component, they attribute it to treachery and they attribute it to departing from the true path, and this is a constant theme. If you read Jerry Falwell’s speeches from the ‘70s, if you [read the speeches on] the fall of Vietnam, if you read Meir Kahane’s exhortations before the 1967 war or the various founders of the settlement movement in Israel, or if you read the Ayatollah Khomeini, the themes are always the same.

We were once a great people. Our legacy is that we control our area, our lands, the area around our lands, or even the world. Our legacy is that we control something. We do not control it. Why is that? Because we have departed from the original, usually divine handed down guidance. We have neglected the true path and we have allowed traitors and people who [are] apostates to prosper in our midst and to mislead us from the true path. That is universal among all of these fundamentalist movements. It is a universal thing, and I think we are seeing it in Daesh as well.

Robert R. Reilly:

Now, when they did have the Islamic State, of course, it was a huge magnet for, as you pointed out, foreign fighters, including those from the West but also from other Muslim countries, that here at last is this caliphate, right, of which we have dreamed, in which we used to have. Even though there is now the third caliph of the Islamic State as you pointed out, they do not really have a state or a home, so that had to considerably erode their attraction to both foreign fighters or is it just a matter that there is no place for these people to go if they are attracted?

David Des Roches:

Good question. So, among radical Islamist thought, there are two schools. There is the Al Qaeda school and the Daesh school. And in 2014, when Daesh was having all these incredible battlefield victories, a couple things happened. Osama bin Laden, of course, he was a charismatic figure. He was dead. The main al Qaeda movement, the guys living on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, all the original leadership, had been killed or died out. And the people who took them over were Egyptians. Basically, the leadership is the people who led the Egyptian al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya in the 1990s, and they are not charismatic. They are dogmatic. They have very limited appeal. They do not have any star power.

So, the folks who were of a Muslim background, who were dissatisfied with the world order in their country and very few of these people lived in Muslim states. They lived in Muslim-majority, secular states. They saw their needs were not being met. If you tended to look towards radical interpretations of Islam as a solution your properties, the more attractive option was Daesh, not al-Qaeda. They tended to affiliate with al-Qaeda, and you saw this in Somalia. The al-Shabaab [members] in Somalia are going to fight whoever is in charge as long as they are not in charge.

It is kind of like a franchise or a hotel, that one day it is Hyatt, and then the next day it is Marriott. You pick the franchise that you think can help you achieve your goals, but the hotels [are] kind of the same. It is not like they burn all the beds and get new beds in. What we have seen with Daesh, the big thing that made the difference, was Daesh declared the caliphate. Osama bin Laden said we will not do that because we feel it is premature. Daesh did that, and a lot of people who were wavering between the two said, okay, that is the way to go, and look, they have done it.

So, now what you see is that the majority of that, these affiliates, have pledged their name to Daesh, but it is not because they so much believe that they are a province of a global caliphate as that they have allied with the brand that scares the hell out of people the most, that allows them to engage in negotiations with the government from a position of strength, things like that. And paradoxically, the place where it now looks like they are gaining ground most quickly is like eastern Mali, western Niger, Burkina Faso, places that in the past had been marginal to the struggle.

Robert R. Reilly:

The Islamic State had a very sophisticated communications strategy and implementation, slick online magazines, videos, and so forth. Now, that has been substantially degraded also, has it not? And would that also help contribute to a weakening of the appeal?

David Des Roches:

Yeah, so the Islamic State was producing glossy magazines in English and other languages. They were producing videos in English in other languages. You recall there was a video with a bunch of foreign fighters masked, speaking colloquial English of Australian and American English dialects, showing their passports and burning them at the height of Daesh. A lot of that has fallen off. We still see videos making their way out there. The foreign language recruiting stuff seems to have died down just because it is getting harder and harder to do. I think that is a function of the degraded organization, not a function of degraded desire. I think that if they are able to reconstitute themselves, we will see that again.

Robert R. Reilly:

Now, you spoke in a very humorous way of different franchises. You can go from Hilton to another kind of [hotel], another brand of hotel, but these franchises are in competition with each other, and in the hotel world that is easy to explain. They want to make profit and have more territory, but how would you characterize the antagonism between Islamic State and the other competing radical Islamist ideologies?

David Des Roches:

Yeah, boy, that is a good question, yeah. The Islamic State theology is so absolute that if you disagree with it, you are an apostate. And in that interpretation of Islam, the penalty for apostasy is death, full stop. And what really caught my attention in one of the issues of Dabiq, the Islamic State magazine, there was an article written by a Finnish convert to Islam. I can understand why this person was so radical because it was 2015, I guess, so Ramadan was in the summer, so if you are in Helsinki and you are a practicing Muslim, you have to fast for like 22 hours a day.

But the whole article was on nullifiers, this concept of nullifiers, which I think is critical to providing the Islamist framework for horrible actions taken supposedly in the name of religion. And the idea was that you can fast, you can give Zakat, you can pray five times a day, but if you are friends with a pagan, that is a nullifier, that there is one action you can take and that will render all of your other components of Islamic life null and void, and make you the same, [and] not just [that], it makes you an apostate or a pagan, both of which are have no standing in the Daesh theology view of the world.

What we have seen [is] we have seen fighting between the Taliban and Islamic State in Afghanistan, and that is because both sides believe the others to be apostates. And as we know, when you look at religious warfare, it is bad between believers and unbelievers, but it is really bad between different flavors of believers who believe the other believer is doing it wrong. I mean look at the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. Something like that is when it gets really, really brutal, and that is kind of what we are seeing between Daesh and the different factions that are jockeying for it.

So yeah, it is not strictly a commercial, it is not a choice of brand, but it is important to note that in places like West Africa, Libya, although they are kind of out of the ball game now, but Sinai, Somalia, Daesh and al-Qaeda are not really able to enforce their will. It is locals making decisions, saying which brand, which theology do we want to be associated with.

Robert R. Reilly:

But it is particularly ironic in Afghanistan, that they have an Islamic emirate back in the saddle there, and then in Khorasan, the Daesh people are fighting them. I understand one considers themselves purer than the other, but sort of on what basis do they [fight each other in Afghanistan]?

David Des Roches:

Okay, good question, so Khorasan refers to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, so it is bigger than that, and so one of the primary nullifiers of Taliban legitimacy in the eyes of Daesh is the Taliban accommodation with Pakistan, which is a corrupt, and in their view apostate, government, that also has the ability to [fight the nonbelievers], that has a nuclear capability, so it could theoretically be in the service. It could be a great conquering force in the service of the caliphate, but instead the Taliban chooses to accommodate this government, which has an army that it spends at least as much time securing commercial ventures for itself as it does defending the Pakistani state and certainly has long ago abandoned the forced proselytization that Daesh sees as essential to Islam.

Robert R. Reilly:

Dave, when you mentioned the nullifier effect, if you do not follow all of these things, you transgress. One, you are you are no longer a Muslim, and you are an apostate and therefore liable to be killed. Islam has had experience of this kind of thing before. In fact, not too long after its inception in the form of the Kharijites.

Now, I have read contemporaneous reports of how the Kharijites behave, and all you have to do is switch the weapons used, and it could be an account for exactly how some of the most radical, modern Islamist groups behave today, including Daesh. It is a replication of it in a way, and they have the same ideology. You deviate in one way, and you are no longer a Muslim, and that is why they killed Ali.

Now, let us just say the general strain of Islam found the Kharijites repugnant, but it took well over a century to extirpate this movement, which then retreated to a shadow of its former self into Africa or in into northern Africa. From the experience of these past years and the witness within the Islamic world largely to the damage that these people have committed, do you see [or] have you seen the level of repugnance at their behavior, and at what mainstream Islam considers a distortion of their faith? Do you see that growing and [do] you see a determination even though Daesh can take advantage of the Shia Sunni split and local disinfections generally, do you see a growing repugnance and dissatisfaction to the point that they themselves are not going to allow these people to succeed again?

David Des Roches:

Yeah, oh absolutely. I mean look, the fighting done against Daesh was done by Muslims. Let us not forget that. It was done by Muslims, and it was done by the Syrian Democratic Forces, and it was done by the Iraqi counterterrorism forces. One of the issues of Dabiq was devoted to [the King of Saudi Arabia]. They had a picture of the King of Saudi Arabia with the target on him on the cover, and basically, in Catholic terms, it was an ex-communication of the entire hierarchy of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. When you looked at the global, anti-Daesh task force that was set up, task forces that were set up under U.S. domination, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, all of these countries played an important role in that, including in the counter financing mode. When you have an organization that characterizes 98 percent of the Muslim world as either apostates or schismatics, that is not a recipe for a broad base.

Unfortunately, the attraction [is still there] because so much of the world is misgoverned. You saw that the greatest source of foreign fighters was Tunisia on a per capita basis. And Tunisia was viewed until the recent coup as the only success of the Arab Spring. It is a secular republic. It is very Westernized, so what it showed goes back to the counter-insurgency principle, the importance of good governance. I would argue that the persistence of corruption, particularly petty corruption, the having to pay off somebody to get your kid in the school, not so much the corruption like you see in Nigeria, millions of dollars disappearing from the national oil company, but that petty corruption appears to, I think in my mind, is one of these major drivers of disaffection, which provides the fertile ground for the insurgency.

In the ’60s, [it] would have a communist tinge, but because communism has been so discredited in Muslim countries, it now has an Islamist tinge, but the real venom is directed towards other Muslims, and other Muslims have realized that. And I was talking to a group of military officers from a Muslim country. I made the point. I said look, if Daesh were to drop in here and take over, you would all be beheaded as apostates. I just have to pay a tax, so you guys are in trouble, not me. And there is a recognition of that. There is a recognition of that.

Now, as always when you are engaged in coalition warfare, and this is coalition warfare, every coalition member thinks every other coalition member is not doing enough, is not doing his share, but there is a recognition of the threat, I think.

Robert R. Reilly:

Now, when I had the privilege of teaching some Muslim officers years ago at the same National Defense University, we were discussing this very issue in a class, and I was trying to lay out the ideology back then of al-Qaeda, and one of the more senior officers from an Arab country said we hate these people. And I said, but colonel, that is not good enough. You have got to both understand them, and also it is their ideology that is having an appeal, [so] you have to be able to counter that ideology. And since as you pointed out there are many affiliates, I do not know how many today there used to be, what, about 18 back in seven, eight years ago? Are there more today or fewer?

David Des Roches:

I honestly do not know. I would have to look at a map, yeah.

Robert R. Reilly:

Is the need for that war of ideas aspect and countering the appeal of Daesh still present in the Arabs and other Muslims, and are they engaging in it through their own media?

David Des Roches:

Good question. I think they are. The problem is in many of these countries, these are not democratic countries, the positions are appointed, so you can talk to a leader, and they will say yes, we had our leading theologians sign a letter that says this is not Islam, this is not compatible with Islam, Daesh should be done, but the problem is when you get down to the individual level, the person who is struggling, who thinks the game is rigged against him, who is dealing in a government that is highly corrupt, and who knows that the leaders who signed that letter are there either put there by the government or they maintain their position with the acquiescence of the government, that reinforces the Daesh narrative.

So, what is required, and this is this is one of the points that our partners miss, the lack of democratic accountability is not just the Western fetish that we do out of foolish consistency because we want the rest of the world to look like us. We in the West actually believe that our form of government enhances national security. I mean the United States and Canada fought a war every 20 years from 1757, before the United States was formed, all the way up until about 1860. There were cross-border instances really [until] 1880 [with] Louis Riel. So, that is 130 years of warfare between the United States and Canada along a long border that is indefensible.

My parents are Canadian immigrants, and I was an officer in the United States Army. How did we solve that? Well, a big part of it is both countries have democratic institutions, democratic systems of government that were responsive to the needs of its citizens, and this boiling over of grievances that should be dealt with governance into violence just became unthinkable, became stupid. The idea of conflict between the United States and Canada, that is what the National Hockey League is for, right?

Too many times when I talk to people in the Arab world, they think that I am just projecting, that I have this foolish consistency, but this form of accountable government and effective government as a counterinsurgency theory, whether we are talking about communists in Latin America or ethnic division in Africa, Biafra, whatever, or whether we are talking about the Islamic State, effective government is the way to deal with it.

And the greatest challenge and least amount of attraction I have had in my dealings in the region is trying to convince people of that as a security imperative, not as something to make the Americans happy that is a challenge.

Robert R. Reilly:

But of course, in a certain perspective, from one Islamic angle, it is precisely that kind of government that is representative democracy, which is itself haram.

David Des Roches:

Yes, so I mean one thing that drew a lot of people off this is we saw in London, where if you want to see really radicalized Muslims, [look to London], where I think in one of my talks I have like the cover where the guy is saying democracy can go to hell, yeah. And so, it is kind of like we are bringing a football bat to the game, and what is important is for people [to see democracy as a tool to counter terror]. The Saudis and some other governments have made steps forward where they talk about consultation and the importance of shura as an Islamic concept of government and it is [a step towards accountable government].

I do take the point that if you go too quickly, you make the mistake we made in Bosnia, or with the elections after the fall of Mubarak. You have to take time to build institutions so that you get legitimate [government], so that you do not just give gangsters the veneer of democratic legitimacy, which is what we did in Bosnia.

But it is important to realize that reform and security are not two separate issues. They are related. The dangers and the benefits from reform are seen in the much longer term, but they are real and they do exist.

Robert R. Reilly:

And that is obviously something they have to do for themselves.

David Des Roches:

That is something they have to do for themselves, and reform is hard.

Robert R. Reilly:

We have not been successful in trying to do it for them.

David Des Roches:

Well, some would argue that we have not put a whole lot of effort into it, that it has just been lip service. A lot of compromises were made during the Cold War.

Robert R. Reilly:

No, I mean 20 years in Afghanistan, the long presence in Iraq, etc.

David Des Roches:

Yeah, yeah, that is right. The Iraq [intervention] I think is a good example of what did we do? We held elections, which basically just divided the country on secular lines, and that proved to be dysfunctional. That election led to a triumphalist mode, not a republic, small r republican, mode of government where everybody has a basic level of guaranteed rights, but to democracy as two wolves and a sheep are arguing over what is for lunch, where the people with the most said okay, we are in charge, I am everything, you are nothing, you work for me, which bred the resentment which led to the public, if not support at least acquiescence, for the rise of Daesh as an anti-Shia mechanism.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, we can point to Daesh affiliates in Mozambique and Niger, as you pointed out, these other African countries, but from what you said, it would seem to me the point of greatest danger would be a resurgence within Iraq itself should the government fail to come to the realization of the various things you are talking about, that it cannot just be two wolves fighting over who gets to eat the sheep.

David Des Roches:

Yeah, but honestly I think I am hopeful for Iraq. I think people get it.

Robert R. Reilly:

They have suffered enough. They have got to understand something.

David Des Roches:

Yeah. When we killed Qasim Suleimani, everybody overlooked the other guy in the car, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, who was the deputy commander of the popular militia. I have argued his death was more significant than Qasim Suleimani’s. You kill the leader of the Quds Force, there will be another leader of the Quds Force. He may be more effective, he may be less effective, but he will be replaced, and he will have the weight of the Iranian state behind him.

Abu Mahdi al Muhandis was irreplaceable.

He was an Iraqi who had faithfully served the Iranian state and the interests of the Iranian state more faithfully than most Iranians, and [who] had embedded himself into a position of authority and influence within the Iraqi security apparatus. And up to that point, we the United States had engaged in some sort of self-restraint where if a person had acquired the veneer of a national position, he was hands off, and so I think that kind of showed that no, no, no, no, for the Iraqi state to be effective, it is going to have to represent Iraqi security interests. So, I am kind of hoping that both the common realization that look, this happened once, we do not want it to happen again, as well as removing a few key bad actors from the screen will prevent this from getting too serious.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, Dave, in light of everything you have said, you mentioned earlier that our attention and the attention of Europe and other parts of the world have been deflected by the war in Ukraine. Has it been deflected to the extent that Europe is no longer addressing itself to the problems that the Islamic State presents, and is the United States remaining focused on this as a real and perhaps growing danger? And if not, what should the policy be?

David Des Roches:

Well, good question. So, the Iraqi government is focused on this. The Syrian government, of course, is not, and the Syrian government I would argue [that] for Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy, it serves his purposes for him to make control of everything from Aleppo down to Damascus west of that he has that. The east does not really matter, and as long as there is an active insurgency there, he can present himself as the bulwark of civilization against this barbaric violence. And his Russian patrons, until they run out of money, and they are starting to realize that the money that went down that Syrian rat hole, those billions they are never going to see again, so they are starting to get a little nervous about that, so that is going to be a problem.

But on the Iraqi side of the border, I am actually sanguine that they have recognized the mistake they have made. I think that oddly enough, I thought I would never say this, but Muqtada al-Sadr, a man who spent a lot of time hiding out in Iran from the United States, seems to have recognized that the interests of Iraq are not the same thing as the interests of Iran, and hopefully the conditions that gave birth to Daesh in Iraq will not be replicated.

The bigger question is I do not think Obama, Trump, or Biden has a strategic plan for Syria. I do not think they have an idea of what they want to do. The American presence in Syria is there to prevent bad things from happening, and you can list them all off, but keeping bad things from happening is not a strategy, and this is a bipartisan failure over three administrations. And the question is how long can the Syrian Democratic Forces swadizon? How long can they maintain rule until the local population turns against them?

Robert R. Reilly:

Outside the question of Syria, we are going to make you double-hatted, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.

David Des Roches:

Well, both of my classmates have held that position at the same [time].

Robert R. Reilly:

What policy would you formulate to address the Islamic State problem today?

David Des Roches:

A good question. I think the first thing I would do is internationalize the problem of the detainees who cannot return. Honestly, our partners have buried their head in the sand on this, and we cannot allow that to happen, so it may be something like British internment, where they took people and put them on an island in the Indian Ocean or something, but there has to be something better than just this chaos, criminal activity, prostitution, desperate people trying to survive. And the only people who have money are people who support ISIS because ISIS funnels money to them.

And so, people who want to break from this cannot get out. There is no way for them to get out, and they do not have any money, so they have to do things that they do not want to do. That is not in our interest. And we are raising a generation of radicalized children. No good will come of that, so that is the first thing. And I do not know if it is you take an island in the south Pacific or something and start to separate people out, and we have never been good at that, but we cannot just roll over and find the cool side of the pillow and hope that that problem goes away.

The second thing I would look at is there really needs to be a comprehensive discussion of what it is we want to do with Syria. Most of our anti-ISIS measure in Syria has been through the Syrian Democratic Forces, and either we need to come to an accommodation as to how they are going to govern, how they are going to fund themselves, how we are going to support them and the ways they are going to conduct themselves. So far that has worked remarkably well, but you get a bad leader in there, and the West does not support things when you get bad optics, so I think we need to build something institutional, institutionalize it one way or the other.

And if it becomes a semi-autonomous region like the Kurdish Region or Iraq does, okay, so do it, but let us do it as a result of planning and calculations and weighing risks instead of just organizational inertia, what engineers call scabbing on to the design. Let us do it by design instead of scabbing. That is the second thing.

And then finally, I think that we do need to look at how – and this is something I wrote on at the Army War College. It did not go over well, but one of the most disturbing characteristics of the rise of Daesh for those of us in the West were the number of not so much immigrants as children of immigrants to the West who proved to be supporters of ISIS. And I think there needs to be a comprehensive examination of how people who move to countries in the West become citizens of that country.

And I think a lot of this has been assumptions that, well, were valid in the days when it took three months to get from Europe to the United States by sailing ship. You were not going to just casually go back, and you maybe read a newspaper once a month, but now you have constant television in foreign languages. I think we need to have a discussion about what citizenship means in the modern world, how people acquire it, what its obligations are, and how we ensure that citizenship does not just become a license to propagate primordialism.

And I mean I am a Montreal Canadiens fan who was raised in Los Angeles, okay, so I know how strong the pull of primordialism is, but I think that is something we need to look at because quite frankly these things are based on historical accident, and technology has nullified that, so I think we need to have an honest discussion about that because that is really, I think, what really shocked people more than anything else at least in this part of the world. Does that make sense?

Robert R. Reilly:

It does. I recall a short story from Great Britain, “My Son, the Islamist” or “My Son, the Radical.” A London cab driver who is first generation, I forget, Pakistani, cannot figure out why his son is being radicalized and why he is choosing this super austere or way of life and why he so dislikes Great Britain. And he says to his son, I do not get this, don’t you understand you can do anything here? And his son responds, I know, that is the problem. So, there was that certain sort of aimlessness in the youth’s life that is solved by the appeal of the radical, Islamist ideology, so I think that is it.

David Des Roches:

Yeah, or any kind of [radicalization]. When you look at radicalization of anything, if you look at the Weather Underground in the ’70s, I mean I have always said that a lot of people that support Islamic State 30 years ago would have been communists, or they would have been Red Brigades, or Aldo Moral. This is a condition of human nature. It is not really a problem with Islam. Islam is the framework that is being looked at now because socialism and communism were discredited, and before that it was anarchism.

And as long as you have a dominant world order and people who lose out from that dominant order, it is liberalism and its discontents. As long as you have that, those people who feel left out or feel lost or adrift are going to seek some sort of organizing principle, and a certain small percentage of them are going to be violent. This is just the nature of humanity, I think, and unfortunately, yeah, some people are dogs who like to run around, some people are rabbits who want to go in a dark place and into walls.

Robert R. Reilly:

It is interesting that it is the second generation because what you often find, and this is true in this country, as you know a lot of Muslims, as do I, when I have asked about this question, aren’t you worried about the [Muslim immigrant population], and I say no, you do not understand that the Muslims who come to this country are usually leaving a country that is in a highly dysfunctional state, sometimes because of the particular brand of Islam that that state is imposing, and they do not come to the United States to replicate the dysfunction from which they are fleeing. So, that is the first generation. By the time you get to the second generation, if they do not find any direction in their lives, they could become a Montreal hockey fan. They could revert and say no, it must be back there, the direction in my life. Well, anyway. Any closing comments?

David Des Roches:

Well, I want to bring back the base principles of counter insurgency, which is my first love, which is this is all a function of governance. People focus on the religious veneer and then they get in an argument over religion and stuff like that. At the end of the day, it comes down to governance, and if you have effective governance, you do not have this kind of problems. If you have ineffective governance and that can take many forms and it can be a place that is otherwise perfect, but there is a specific beef, then you have problems, so look at governance first. And the veneer and the facade are not as important as governance. And this idea that somehow governance is different from security is the cardinal error, the cardinal error.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I am afraid we are out of time right now and I would like to thank our guest Dave Des Roches from the National Defense University for joining us today to discuss the Islamic State today I invite you to go to the Westminster Institute website and to our YouTube page to see what other offerings we have on other subjects such as Ukraine, Russia, China, and also to Dave Des Roches’ earlier programs that he has done with us that I mentioned at the beginning of the program. Thanks for joining us. I am Bob Reilly.