According to most public analysis, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or its latest iteration as the Islamic State (IS), is a serious regional threat but not yet a direct threat to the United States on the order of 9/11.  Reforms instituted after 9/11 have protected the American public for the most part, but the system struggles with a threat that is serious but not imminent. In the case of ISIS, it might well be that the United States is within the Islamic State’s lengthy planning cycle for attack – and the blow could fall first on the world petroleum market through subversion of regional partners such as Saudi Arabia.
Relationship to al-Qaeda
Before determining what kind of threat the IS poses to the United States, one must first define what it is and what strategy it is likely following. Despite the well-known rift with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, ISIS under any of its previous names has never been more than a nominal member of al-Qaeda, occupying a space somewhere between a fellow traveler and an affiliate. On October 17, 2004, after months of negotiation, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance (bay‘ah) to Bin Laden. However, al-Qaeda leaders could try to persuade but could never give direct orders to al-Zarqawi or his successors. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or “Caliph Ibrahim” as he now styles himself, claims never to have sworn allegiance to al-Zawahiri after Bin Laden’s death. Thus, IS does not consider itself a splinter of al-Qaeda. Instead, the Islamic State is a rival to al-Qaeda’s leadership within the larger “jihadist movement.” In its area of operations, ISIS has been more successful than al-Qaeda, while the Islamic State is the fulfillment of al-Zawahiri’s constantly foiled dream as expressed in his 2001 book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner:
Controlling a portion of land proved elusive in the face of an American campaign using weapons for which al-Qaeda has no defense. The closest al-Qaeda has come to its goal has been through its most dangerous affiliate, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Al-Suri’s Analysis of the Failure of the 1982 Insurrection in Syria
To appreciate ISIS’s approach to its operations in Syria and Iraq, it is useful to review the record of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood insurrection in Syria that ended in utter failure. Syrian jihad ideologue Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri established his reputation in jihadist circles by writing a strategic history of this insurrection against Hafiz al-Assad. Al-Suri participated as part of the self-styled “Fighting Vanguard” and was in a position to provide his observations on the reasons for the failure (for which he accepted a share of responsibility). He published these observations separately in short articles that formed the basis for jihadist training in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  These lessons are certainly known to the leaders of the major jihadist groups in Syria and have been influential in Iraq since al-Zarqawi launched his “jihad.”  Al-Suri identified 17 general “bitter lessons” of the failed insurgency and one hopeful lesson – the possibility of mobilizing a Sunni Muslim population for “Islamic jihadist revolution.”
The overarching reason for the Brothers’ failure, according to al-Suri, was the lack of a comprehensive strategy before the insurrection was launched. ISIS has been following a clear plan based on the same strategic outline that inspires AQAP. This plan, given in broad strokes by Abu Bakr Naji and in keeping with Maoist dictates, urges local commanders to compose detailed plans based on the salient economic, geographic and social aspects of the area targeted for insurrection.  ISIS has both an overarching plan and different detailed approaches in Syria and Iraq – harsh in its relations with other groups in Syria and more accommodating in Iraq. It is worth noting that Naji advised his readers/students (who often came from urban settings) to study books on the sociology of tribal groups that could end up becoming allies. Tribal groups have become a major factor in both Syria and Iraq.
Al-Suri urges jihadists to avoid weaknesses such as failing to explain the ideology and objectives of the revolution; low political and revolutionary awareness and weak religious indoctrination within the population and recruits. Clearly, ISIS has made its ideology, objectives and required indoctrination trademarks of its operations in response to al-Suri’s guidance.
A key weakness noted by al-Suri, the practice of having jihadists spread in numerous competing organizations, is one of ISIS’s intractable problems. Its attacks on fellow jihadist groups in Syria form major propaganda material for competing jihadists and other rivals. ISIS’s call for other groups to offer allegiance to the newly proclaimed caliph is aimed at this problem but is far from being able to solve it. In Iraq, an important number of its allies do not share the movement’s ideology. Over time, this weakness, if not ameliorated, could become an existential liability for the Islamic State.
Another ISIS liability often cited in the Western press, its relatively small fighting force, could be considered a strength. Al-Suri points out that when the first bullets began to fly in Syria in 1982, the Muslim Brothers accepted a large number of recruits whose lack of preparation or dedication to a central ideology weakened the group’s effectiveness. Al-Suri characterized this as a dependence on “quantity rather than quality” in recruiting. ISIS has chosen to keep its ranks small and highly flexible while depending on allied groups from local areas to provide additional manpower to ease the consolidation of captured territory and increase its capability to conduct further terrorist attacks.
Other causes of the failure of the 1982 Syrian insurrection addressed by ISIS include the inability to communicate ideas internally and externally; dependence on outside support rather than self-sufficiency; dealing with neighboring regimes as though they were reliable supporters; maintaining a leadership in exile away from the theater of operations; allowing the leadership to operate openly rather than clandestinely and failing to learn lessons from earlier jihadist insurrections. The point is not that ISIS has excelled in these areas; but their actions demonstrate that they thought through these issues and applied corrective actions in many cases. For example, they make use of outside sources, but they are mostly self-sufficient for resources.
In his eighth “bitter lesson,” al-Suri criticizes the Muslim Brotherhood for allowing its fighters to become mired in a war of attrition with the powerful central regime on its terms rather than using proven terrorist and guerrilla tactics. ISIS’s leaders appear to have decided that they would take the criticism of other jihadists when they minimized operations against Bashar al-Assad’s forces inside Syria and devoted themselves to setting up a rudimentary state straddling the border with Iraq instead. Their pragmatic willingness to sell Assad oil from captured fields and to attack other jihadist groups has prompted conspiracy theories that ISIS is a product of the Assad regime and is working closely with it. The reality is simpler: ISIS wanted a state of its own over any other objective.
ISIS has demonstrated various levels of success in addressing the remaining “bitter lessons.” Unlike the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS has successfully regionalized its operations. One may well criticize ISIS’s handling of populations under its control, but it has a deliberate system of governance, which has enjoyed mixed success. It has applied its harsh interpretation of Islamic law in conquered areas, but it has also promoted vaccination campaigns and even a consumer protection service. It has also shown the ability to step back from its harshest practices on occasion. 
Al-Suri noted that the Brotherhood had not been able to use religious scholars to mobilize the people. Although the most influential Salafi-Jihadist scholars such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qutada al-Filastini continue to support al-Qaeda, ISIS has been able to engage the allegiance of lesser figures such as Abu Humam al-Athari. As early as July 21, 2013, al-Athari wrote an essay not only arguing for al-Baghdadi’s role as the Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful), but also asserting that he is the most qualified to sit “in the caliph’s seat.”  The cleric provided a genealogy tracing al-Baghdadi’s lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and asserting that the leader is a member of the noble Quraysh tribe, as well other attributes associated with the ideal Muslim leader that neither al-Zawahiri nor Bin Laden could claim. One may judge how powerful al-Athari’s arguments were by the fierce refutations issued by ISIS opponents. In this way, al-Baghdadi engaged at least part of the religious community to lay the groundwork for his self-declaration as caliph almost a year later. Successfully inspiring al-Athari and other religious figures in Syria, Iraq and beyond addresses another shortcoming cited by al-Suri, the failure to transform preachers into active jihadists.
One of the most important of the “bitter lessons” cited by al-Suri was the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to mobilize Sunni Muslim Arab tribes and Kurds. There is little doubt that a great measure of ISIS’s success in both Syria and in Iraq is due to its alliances with tribes.  Without tribal allies, the relatively small ISIS force would struggle to gain territory and find it impossible to hold it. At the same time, the tribes will always have their own agenda, which will diverge from ISIS’s goals, especially if ISIS stops winning. The Kurds have resisted efforts by ISIS to co-opt them and will fight the jihadists when necessary. The best the Islamic State can hope to gain from the Kurds in current conditions is a stalemate. Taking on the patriotic Kurds in their own homeland would be a dangerous gamble.
The Strategy: Next Steps
We should expect IS to continue to foil predictions. However, if they are following Abu Bakr Naji’s strategy for establishing an emirate, we should be able to see the broad strokes of the Islamic State’s strategic thinking.  Naji’s strategy has been adopted by AQAP’s leader, Nasir Abd al-Karim al-Wuhayshi, and extolled by another influential ISIS supporter, Abu Sa‘ad al-Amili. To paraphrase the AQAP leader’s advice to other Muslims about judging al-Qaeda, we should look at Naji’s book, Idarah al-Tawahhush (Administration of Savagery), and look at what ISIS is doing before deciding whether this jihadist group is following a rational plan or simply running boldly on a tightrope over a deep canyon.
Naji’s plan would have ISIS conquering areas after the mujahideen have driven out central government forces by using terrorist tactics and mobilizing the population to their side by polarizing society using money and sectarian politics. They would place these areas under the control of a primitive government one step above a state of nature, which would be accepted by people desperate for security. The mujahideen would introduce more government services over time and expand these areas while defending them from government counterattacks by arming the local population where possible and continuing mujahideen guerrilla operations to compel government forces to defend fixed locations, such as the capital, major religious shrines and economic targets. They would expand each area they control and merge them with others under their control or controlled by ex-military or tribal groups. They would offer the tribes booty taken during their insurgency to gain their allegiance.
As a real state begins to appear viable, the mujahideen leaders would send out a worldwide call for administrative experts, managers, judges and others who might help govern a complex state. We know from abundant reporting and IS’s first magazine Dabiq that ISIS and now IS have already engaged in all these practices and more in Naji’s playbook. This does not mean ISIS is following Naji as a recipe, but it does mean that more attention needs to be paid to Naji’s work as experts devise a strategy to defeat ISIS without the use of U.S. military ground forces. More importantly, if the Islamic State is following Naji we should expect them to focus on undermining Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and developing a plan to disrupt the flow of energy to the world’s economies from the Arabian Peninsula. We should also expect the Islamic State to eventually inspire attacks inside Europe and the United States, with AQAP apparently ready to help in both endeavors if the opportunity arises.
Dr. Michael W. S. Ryan is an independent consultant and researcher on Middle Eastern security issues and a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. He is the author of Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (Columbia University Press, 2013).
1. This article is based on a presentation the author delivered at a recent symposium at the U.S. Naval War College’s Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups.
2. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner (Fursan Tahta Rayah al-Nabi), 2nd ed., As Sahab Publishers, p. 215, http://www.tawhed.ws/a?a=3i806qpo. See also Michael W. S. Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle against America, New York, Columbia University Press, 2013, p.72.
3. Al-Suri, Mulahazat Hawla al-Tajribah al-Jihadiyah fi Suriya (Observations concerning the jihadist experience in Syria), http://www.tawhed.ws/a?a=hqkfgsb2.
4. Compare Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Jabhat al-Nusra’s New Syria Strategy” (in Arabic), al-Hayat, January 14, 2013, (English trans. by Al-Monitor, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ar/politics/2013/01/jabhat-al-nusras-new-strategy-in-syria.html#).
5. See Abu Bakr Naji, Idarah al-Tawahhush: Akhtar Marhalah Satamurru biha al-Ummah (The Administration of savagery: the most dangerous phase through which the ummah will pass), http://www.tawhed.ws/a?a=chr3ofzr.
6. For an analysis of the soft and hard aspects of ISIS’s governance, see Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office,” The Atlantic, June 13, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/the-isis-guide-to-building-an-islamic-state/372769/.
7. See Abu Humam al-Athari, Madd al-Ayadi li-Bay’ah al-Baghdadi (Extend hands in allegiance to al-Baghdadi), July 21, 2013. This essay may be found on the Free Syrian Army’s website, but is also available in a number of formats on various online storage sites, e.g., https://ia600904.us.archive.org/4/items/baghdadi-001/al-Baghdadi.pdf
8. For an analysis of the relationship between ISIS and tribes in Iraq, see Nicholas A. Heras, “The Tribal Component of Iraq’s Sunni Rebellion: The General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries,” Terrorism Monitor, June 27, 2014. For tribes in Syria, see Aaron Zelin, “Al-Qaeda in Syria: A Closer Look at ISIS,” parts I & II, Policy Watch 2137 & 2138, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 10-11, 2013.
9. See also Alistair Crooke, “The ISIS’ ‘Management of Savagery’ in Iraq,” Huffington Post, June 30, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alastair-crooke/iraq-isis-alqaeda_b_5542575.html.