Why Is the Islamic State So Resilient?

by Emile Nakhleh

As the Islamic State continues to conquer territory in Iraq and Syria, and as the Assad regime teeters on collapse and the Iraqi government loses credibility, many in the West are wondering why the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) remains resilient despite the frequent coalition airstrikes. If the Islamic State’s brutality is so abhorrent and its rule so medieval, why does it continue to garner wide support among Sunni Arab Muslims and attract increasing numbers of would-be young jihadis from Western countries?

In an attempt to answer these questions, recent media analysis has focused primarily on the complexity of the Syrian and Iraqi political and social environments and on the pitiful performance of the Iraqi army on the battlefield, especially in the fight for Ramadi. A deeper analysis of the continuing IS blitzkrieg and its ideological appeal points to other and perhaps deeper explanations.

The Success Factor 

It might be trite to say that “success breeds success,” but it does. The Islamic State has used the conquest of Ramadi in Anbar Province in western Iraq and Palmyra in Syria as effective propaganda tools to attract more recruits and radicalize potential supporters. The IS exploits its “success” to highlight the poor performance of the Iraqi and Syrian armies and the “un-Islamic” nature of the regimes it’s fighting.

The IS seems to play a clever zero-sum propaganda game. The IS claims its side of the coin reflects coordination, determination, thoughtful planning, and goal-oriented order of battle. By contrast, IS video and YouTube messaging shows the Iraqi and Syrian armies in disarray. Instead of fighting IS and holding their positions, they are retreating. Recent statements by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi calling for more American military support and his growing reliance on pro-Iranian Shia militias to retake Ramadi play well into the IS psychological campaign to win the hearts and minds of Sunni Arabs.

As long as Iraqi troops have no mission and no unifying nationalist goal to fight for, their will to fight remains elusive. The Iraqi prime minister took umbrage at the recent painfully truthful statement by the American defense secretary that the Iraqi army lost the battle of Ramadi because they had “no will to fight.” Despite massive coalition air strikes against IS positions and the 24/7 counter-messaging campaign by the United States and other Western countries, IS remains potent and capable of projecting success for itself and defeat for the opposing regimes.

The Brutality Factor

Western audiences are rightly appalled by the ghastly brutality of the Islamic State and are often bewildered why such brutality has so far not turned Sunni Arab public opinion against it. The simple, inconvenient truth is that such gruesome violence is not unique to the Islamic State. Across the Middle East, Arab citizens have routinely suffered from their regimes’ violent repression. Thousands of innocent civilians are languishing in prisons in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen, and Libya. Human rights reports have documented many cases of illegal incarcerations, sham trials, torture, and rape.

IS-type brutality unfortunately is not an anomaly or an exception in most Arab countries. The imposition of mass death penalties in Egypt and the vicious treatment of Shia and other minorities in the Gulf states are but two examples of regime repression and terror.

Although cable news channels in the United States, for example, constantly tout the IS violence in their “Breaking News” reports, Arab citizens wonder why these news outlets barely mention regime violence against their citizens. Juxtaposed against regime repression in many Arab countries, the Islamic State’s brutality doesn’t seem so exceptional, nor has it undermined its standing among Sunni Muslims in Iraq and the wider Levant.

As some of these Sunnis watch Western governments cozy up to repressive Sunni Arab regimes—including in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and elsewhere— they find Western media reports decrying the brutality of the Islamic State less compelling. Iraqi Sunnis are especially incensed at Washington’s perceived tolerance of the Abadi government’s continued discrimination against them.

The ongoing so-called debate in Washington about “who lost Iraq” and “who created IS” and the blame game that some neo-cons are playing against the Obama administration for pulling American troops out of Iraq are an exercise in disingenuous sophistry. The invasion of Iraq and the Rumsfeld-approved decision by Paul Bremer in 2003 to disband the Iraqi army begat the first insurgency, which led to the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its morphing into IS.

It’s the height of dissemblance for Paul Bremer to claim, as he did recently on Fox News, that President Obama’s decision to pull all US troops out of Iraq helped create IS. Having served as the “Grand Vizier” of Baghdad’s “Green Zone” after the US invasion in 2003, Paul Bremmer would do well to go back and relearn the recent history of that beleaguered country. In any case, neither the Islamic State nor Iraqi Sunnis are paying much attention to this “inside the Beltway” Washington babble.

The Ideology Factor

The Islamic State has used its Caliphate ideology, which resonates with many Salafi Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, to generate political and financial support. Simply put, this ideology calls for the resurrection of the Islamic (read Sunni) Caliphate in the heartland of Sunni Islam or the Levant. Sunni school children have studied for centuries that in its heyday the Islamic Caliphate existed in Damascus under the Umayyads for approximately a century before moving to Baghdad under the Abbasids where it lasted for four or five centuries. Shia Islam developed in southern Iraq (today’s Najaf and Karbala) in the last two decades of the seventh century.

The Salafi-Sunni-Caliphate ideology, to which many Saudi Salafi Wahhabis adhere, views the Shia as “apostates” that should be killed. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the Islamic State has sponsored or encouraged bloody attacks against Shia co-religionists in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The Caliphate ideology calls for the establishment of an Islamic community or ummah ruled by leaders who behave in an Islamic way. For IS, and even for al-Qaeda, today’s Sunni rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan, for example, are not true Muslims and are considered the “near enemy.” Therefore, they are legitimate targets.

In light of this, some Western policymakers have correctly pointed out that the ideology of IS is more of a threat to the region and its leaders and less so to Western countries. The growing numbers of radicalized Western youth, however, could become a gathering threat in their societies.

The Resource Factor

The Islamic State is wealthy, well resourced, and well armed. It has accumulated millions of dollars from banks it captured or broke into, from illicit trade, from oil fields, and from donations from the Gulf and elsewhere. IS has also captured tons of sophisticated weapons from Iraqi military camps and storage places after Iraqi forces have fled or were defeated. It has purchased other weapons on the black market through Iraqi military officers. IS has benefited heavily from the corruption, greed, and graft in Iraq and Syria.

Unlike al-Qaeda, the IS has no shortage of weapons, funds, or recruits, which should keep it going for at least one-three years. However, if the Islamic State’s opponents were able to contain it in a specific territory, its access to resources—weapons, money, and recruits—would be curtailed. An effective containment strategy would portend its demise.

How to Stop ISIS?

Identifying the root causes of IS is not rocket science. Its resiliency and persistence result from the domestic policies of repressive regimes, radical Sunni ideology, citizens’ grievances, and the availability of resources. IS has utilized all of these causes effectively and brutally. It has placed many of its facilities inside or near populated areas in Syria and Iraq because it has counted—and correctly so—on the American-led coalition’s hesitancy to bomb populated areas, which could cause large numbers of civilian deaths. Yet, I have argued previously on this blog that several steps could be taken to contain ISIS and force it to remain a local or regional phenomenon.

Containing ISIS requires an American regional strategy with the goal of moving forward with the following steps:

  • Work with Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurds to form a ground fighting force to encircle IS. The US could provide intelligence, transport, and logistics.
  • Work with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to bring down the Assad regime. The US should refrain from assisting al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to achieve this goal.
  • Strongly encourage the Abadi government in Baghdad to include Iraqi Sunnis in the governance of Iraq. Economic opportunities and high-level government employment should also be extended to the Sunni community.
  • Persuade Arab dictators to open up their political systems and explain to them clearly and forcefully that autocracy is a relic of the past and that rulers should establish working partnerships with their citizens.
  • Work closely with the new Saudi leaders to curb the spreading of radical ideology in the name of Islam. If Saudi Arabia balks, the United States should make it clear that American interests and American values are not mutually exclusive and that the current mess in the Middle East is not sustainable. The regional states have the primary responsibility to chart a new trajectory for the region.

The United States could take the lead in helping bring the region back from the brink without necessarily putting boots on the ground. If it takes these steps, the US can help contain and ultimately defeat IS. If not, the Islamic State’s resilience, resources, and reach could enable it to break out of the Levant and into Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Though one has sometimes disagreed with the author and his political orientation, this article makes some excellent points and contains the seeds of a solution. This lay reader’s sense is that: (1) the Sunnis in Iraq cannot be marginalized but must be invested in the future of Iraq; (2) the US must be willing to work through the UN as part of a real coalition that includes Iran and Russia and others; (3) the US must not be training and enabling the very forces it claims are terrorists, but instead should use its sanctions against them and anyone who aids them- especially since it already has the power to do so and has misused it so effectively against Iran; face it without mercenaries funded by the Saudis and aided militarily by the Turks and Israelis, the movement would probably collapse- so why let the Saudis pay these people and the Turks provide supplies and supply routes and the Israelis provide intelligence, buy illicit oil, and bomb Syrian installations? (4) the US must respect the will of the Syrian people and accept the legitimacy of the Syrian government and the territorial sovereignty of the country- and do the same with Iraq.

    The chaos may be part of our neocons’ agenda, but it is destroying our own country, its geopolitical influence, economy, value system and moral fibre….and our security (maybe not in the US itself, but for innocent Americans traveling everywhere else in the world who will more and more become the target of anti-American hatred). Let’s get real: 330 million Americans live in a world of over at least 1 billion Muslims and 7.5 billion people overall, and with real issues of global sustainability, so if we can’t cooperate and get along, we may all become toast. I can’t imagine any caring and serious parent or grandparent wishing that on their family, friends or community.

  2. Marco Polo: “The fanatic Muslims behead, while the rest hold the feet”

  3. Excellent points Emile Nakhleh. However, funding and fighting know-how and strategies are provided by others and not all of it is because of ISIS robbed the banks banks or its leaders being the Sadam’s ex-military personnel! Saudi and the US are complicit in ISIS adventurism! There hasn’t been any indication and/or a coordinated effort by the two countries working thru the UN for eliminating this ruthless and terrorist group! The joint agenda is very obvious and simple:
    1. To get rid of Assad and install a Sunni regime
    2. To destabilize non-inclusive regime in Iraq and force it to either go away or become inclusive
    3. To spit Iraq into 3 states for Shias, Kurds and Sunnis as a back up plan
    4. Marginalize Iran in the region
    5. Allow and fund Israel to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah

  4. The failure on deal with ISIS is part of a broader failure. In order to fix its ISIS strategy, the US must first admit all that it’s doing wrong, and by all I mean all. Our entire foreign policy is fundamentally wrong and it’s doomed the failure, but we could never admit that. We could never admit that our so-called “American Exceptionalism” is nothing more than imperial hubris and the same historical laws that apply to unexceptional nations really do apply to us too, that you can’t always assume to be right no matter what stupid decisions you make, that you can’t engage in never-ending wars and expect to do any better than all the bygone empires, that long term interest always trumps short term gain, that when can’t let foreign lobbyists, defense contractors and international oil conglomerates write your foreign policy for you. We just keep padding ourselves on the back, bragging about our greatness and blame all the failures on convenient fall guys. The Iraq war, for instance, wasn’t merely the fault of W and Darth Vader, though they were complicit. It was the fault of an entire system rigged to keep getting us into this sort of mess.

    The trouble is very few politicians in this country are willing to admit how wrong our foreign policy has been at least since WWII. Because of that we’ll go on to make the same mistake over and over. Our political system has decided to pay the price of painting over those mistakes instead of fixing them, instead of taking the bitter pill of admitting that this path will only lead to the doom of the empire. It was for the same reason that we have never admitted how on principle (and not because of war strategies) we were wrong in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and pretty much in all of Middle East, we’re not going to admit our strategy of dealing with ISIS is destined for the same typical costly and disgraceful failure as all others.

    As long as we believe our own BS we’ll keep paying the price, and it’s painful to watch this slow-motion crash.

  5. Turkey under Erdogan will never confront ISIS. It would destroy the economical success Turkey has got in the last decade. Erdogan has unleashed Islamist forces for the sole purpose of toppling Bashar al Assad and expand its hegemony on Arab countries by using them as a market client to Turkey’s industries. The trouble is that Bashar al Assad was not toppled, Turkey’s economy is weakening, there is more instability with millions of syrian refugees and above all the Islamist fighters are blackmailing Turkey.
    Turkey is in a bind. That explains Erdogan’s hysteria when he realizes that not only he failed and lost the support of his citizens but he is exposing the country to possible violence from the Islamist fighters turned into ISIS. Erdogan is arrogant and revengeful. He will not put his hatred aside for a a better future in the region. We have seen his relation with Isreal not solved because of his stubborness. As long as Erdogan is in power, the area will continue to live in violence.
    To advance in a solution, Erdogan must go and leave the power to a moderate turkish leader, such as Gul, who would re-establish relation with the Syrian Government on the basis of non-interference and cooperation. A sunni-alawi-shia cooperation will set an example in the region. As for Bashar al Assad, until now there is no other leader with similar charismatic power and nationalism in Syria, therefore he will stay.
    I hope this weak election in Turkey will show the way out to Erdogan. That’s the only hope.

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