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الدولة الإسلامية التي عرفناها

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Research Questions

  1. What was known about the Islamic State by the end of 2011?
  2. How can taking a second look at some of what was known yield new insights into the group's weaknesses and guidance for combating it?

The group calling itself the Islamic State poses a grave threat, not just to Iraq and Syria but to the region more broadly and to the United States and its global coalition partners. A deadly and adaptive foe, the Islamic State seemed to come out of nowhere in June 2014, when it conquered Mosul. However, the Islamic State of today is the direct descendant of a group that Iraq, the United States, and their partners once fought as al-Qa'ida in Iraq and then as the Islamic State of Iraq. The wealth of publicly available information about the group indicates that the Islamic State's reemergence in 2014, and especially its methods and goals, should not have come as a surprise, although the strength and scope of that reemergence were rightfully shocking.

The history considered in this report provides information known by the end of 2011 about the group's origins, finances, organization, methods of establishing control over territory, and response to airpower. Now that the Islamic State has reemerged, countering it can rely, in part, on the great deal of accumulated knowledge available. Because Iraqis and coalition forces routed the group once, the group's history can inform four components of a successful strategy against the Islamic State: degrading the group's finances, eliminating its leadership and potential leadership, creating a better strategy to hold recaptured territory, and making use of airpower.

Key Findings

By the End of 2011, Much Was Known About How the Islamic State Financed and Organized Itself, Established Control, and Responded to Airpower

  • The group's financial strategy hinged on raising money locally rather than focusing on donations. The group exhibited sophisticated financial management and reallocated money among different units.
  • The group was (and is) bureaucratic and hierarchical. This created a bench of personnel knowledgeable about managing a terrorist group that intended to become a state.
  • The group's approach to establishing territorial control began with infiltration and ended in conquest. Clandestine assassination and intimidation campaigns have been in the group's playbook for more than a decade.
  • Airpower proved to be an effective tool against the group and something that it feared. Airpower was used to target leaders, was employed in combined arms operations, and was instrumental in transporting U.S. personnel to conduct operations against specific targets.

The Islamic State of Today Is a Direct Descendant of Its Predecessors

  • The group now has the declaration of a global caliphate, a greater scale of territory and personnel, and growth outside Iraq and Syria.
  • Because Iraqis and coalition forces routed the group once, the group's history can inform components of a successful strategy against the Islamic State.

History Can Provide Warning Indicators

  • The group has thrived where there are deep social cleavages and ineffective government.
  • But the group also created ineffective government through assassination campaigns.
  • Observing a pattern of intimidation and assassinations against established government authorities can provide a first indicator of trouble.


  • The coalition against the Islamic State must degrade the group's finances.
  • Any coherent plan against the Islamic State must aim to eliminate its leadership and potential leadership.
  • A better hold strategy once the Islamic state is pushed out of an area is essential. After such a defeat, an active police or troop presence needs to be established to work with the community, gain its trust, and counter the group's reemergence.
  • Airpower is still an important adjunct tool against the Islamic State.
  • To defeat the Islamic State, political accommodation with the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria is necessary.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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