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Two ways of looking at the power of the Islamic State

President Obama’s request for authority to go after the Islamic State reflects concerns that the group is rapidly expanding. But there is a contrary view out there, too. 

Islamic State released a video on Sunday purporting to show the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians kidnapped in Libya.
REUTERS/Social media via Reuters TV

President Obama’s request for new authority to pursue Islamic State fighters, including the limited use of ground troops, reflects concerns that the group is rapidly expanding its franchise — a fear made real by the recent mass beheading of Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach.

But there is a contrary view out there, too: that hidden behind the headlines, the extremists are beset with big internal problems, and that their movement is hollowing out. Some of these problems are the result of the U.S.-led military campaign against them. Others are of their own making, a consequence of extreme ideology and a penchant for gruesome violence.

These two ways of looking at the Islamic State are not mutually exclusive, and if the campaign waged against Al Qaeda in the past decade is any guide, the group — if not the extreme ideology and grievances that spawned it — will be defeated by a combination of concerted external pressure and its own vulnerabilities.

Spreading beyond Syria and Iraq

Lets look at the first possibility, that the group’s power continues to grow: On the surface, the signs in recent weeks have not been promising. In this BBC analysis, Mark Urban argues that results of the first six months of the air campaign have been “at best mixed.” While the U.S. and its allies have made limited progress in Iraq, they have neither a strategy in Syria, nor much hope of creating one. Essentially, it’s a broader iteration of the same problem that has bedeviled the Obama administration since the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad nearly four years ago – too many competing demands and no good options.

Meantime, he notes, enthusiasm for taking part in the campaign cooled, particularly among Gulf Arab states.

After the horrific immolation of captured Jordanian military pilot Moaz Kasabeh, militants followed up Sunday with the release of a video showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya. The incident, the first of its kind outside of Syria or Iraq, seems aimed at making the point that the Islamic State’s reach is expanding. And this New York Times report cites U.S. concerns that the movement is attracting allegiance not only in Libya, but in a number of other countries far from its stronghold.


But while few believe that the Islamic State will collapse on itself anytime soon, those more inclined to focus on its weaknesses often cite developments hidden by the headlines, and the lessons of Al Qaeda’s overreach.

Everyone more or less agrees that the Islamic State’s momentum in Syria and Iraq has been broken. It has lost some territory — notably the Syrian border town of Kobane after a long, bloody battle. But compared to the vast stretches it controls, the loss of turf is tiny.

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More significant is the number of its fighters that have been killed. The U.S. military’s Central Command recently estimated the figure at 6,000 out of perhaps 30,000 combatants, including half of its top commanders — however that might be defined. But new recruits have continued to flood in.

Air strikes also appear to have put a sizeable dent in the group’s finances, reducing its oil income by perhaps half and putting a strain on its claims to be governing an actual state – which requires it to provide services and pay salaries.

This analysis by Michael Pregent and Robin Simcox in Foreign Affairs lists a litany of other troubles, including coup attempts and its treatment of its foreign volunteers, including reports that scores who tried to leave were executed.

And just like Al Qaeda, which in its day alienated many people across the Middle East with indiscriminant bombings, the Islamic State has created a large — and growing — PR problem for itself. The killing of the Jordanian pilot and the Egyptian Christians outraged those societies, including influential Muslim clerics.

Islamic State leaders might not care. But they might find they care more about the reaction of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments. Jordan is widely considered to have one of the most capable intelligence services in the Middle East; Egypt one of the biggest armies. 

As Pregent and Simcox point out, only months after Al Qaeda attacked three high-end hotels in Amman, Jordan, in November 2005, its leader in Iraq — the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi — ended up dead in a U.S. airstrike, to which Jordan contributed important intelligence.

For his part, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi is not known as a great humanitarian, and his country’s Coptic Christians are a downtrodden minority. But the beheading of Egyptian Christians gives him chance to build some domestic solidarity and support for his battle with Egypt’s own religious extremists.

It didn’t take Sisi long to respond. On Monday, the day after the video surfaced, he ordered warplanes to bomb targets in Libya and urged a broader campaign against the Islamic State.