ISIS Application of Sun Tzu’s Art of War

In his May 18 article for the RAND blog (ISIS: Weakened but Still Potent), Collin P Clarke delivers an assessment of the possibilities of future for ISIS. In a critical piece of insight, he notes that ISIS,

seeks out weak states and ungoverned spaces and inserts itself into local conflicts in an almost parasitic manner…”

What is interesting is the apparent use that ISIS has generally made of Sun Tzu’s military maxims in this regard, especially in terms of their early expansion. The apparent military acumen of ISIS has serious ramifications on the way we must understand this new breed of extremists/terrorists, and consequently on the functional ways in which they can be engaged. I want to make clear at the outset that I do not support ISIS, nor any other terrorist/extremist organization in any way. That being said, their efforts (especially those in the early 2013 period) are militarily astounding; and should be understood as such, if we’re to find an effective solution to such developments.

Sun Tzu said:

He whom the ancients called an expert in battle gained victory where victory was easily gained. Thus the battle of the expert is never an exceptional victory, nor does it win him reputation for wisdom or credit for courage. His victories in battle are unerring. Unerring means that he acts where victory is certain, and conquers an enemy that has already lost. [1]

The expert at battle seeks his victory from strategic advantage and does not demand it from his men. He is thus able to select the right men and exploit the strategic advantage. He who exploits strategic advantage sends his men into battle like rolling logs and boulders.[2]

These two principles are, for Sun Tzu, paired together by the pursuit of strategic advantage (shih) of a capable commander. We can rephrase and combine them in the following way: The pursuit of war as such, i.e. fights against opposing armies etc., is not the goal of war, and thus should not be the goal of a capable commander. The capable commander does not pursue war, but takes victory by strategic strikes against those targets whose lack of defense makes the victory a foregone conclusion – maximizing the strategic advantage, minimizing cost to his own military, and moving like a force of nature from one victory to another.

In many cases of ISIS victories, like Raqqa, Mosul, etc. the pundits tried to write off ISIS because those victories were, essentially, foregone conclusions. With the civil war in Syria, the government and the rebels both focused all their attention on the western region of the country, leaving Raqqa unprotected. In Iraq, the Sunni/Shi’a split meant that the Iraqi military stationed at Mosul withdrew without fighting, essentially surrendering the city. However, these ISIS victories tell us far more about the organization than the pitched battle for a village on the Turkish border.

It takes deep understanding and foresight to win Raqqa and Mosul, in one fell swoop, without fighting. It takes a keen mind to exploit the chaos across state lines, and annex an area the size of Syria, with minimal cost and against limited resistance. A pitched battle may make for a better movie, but is an inferior approach strategically.

ISIS takeover of Syria is an astounding feat. With limited fighting, against limited resistance, ISIS laid claim to about 60% of Syrian land. Granted, that land was not well populated, and contained only two cities of note (Raqqa and Palmyra), but 60% nonetheless. This feat was achieved by the ISIS exploitation of existing conflict and chaos. However, unlike the various rebel groups, they expanded by exploiting the vulnerabilities left behind in the rebel v. government and rebel v. rebel fights. As the two sides exhausted themselves and their resources, ISIS swooped in and simply took the region out from under them.  Similarly, where the region was not of particular interest to the government or the rebels, ISIS moved quickly to integrate it into their state. This trend is particularly apparent when viewing the timeline of various factions fighting in Syria, followed by the region becoming ISIS territory immediately afterwards.

Similarly, we see the regions of ISIS expansion limited primary to Sunni regions of both Iraq and Syria. This ensures that the scale of popular opposition is minimized (by going after the regions that are already theologically aligned with the professed ISIS position), and yields the highest possible recruitment potential. The recruitment potential is especially interesting, as ISIS annexes territory with minimal fighting (and initial atrocities), while providing the first semblance of coherent social order the regions have seen in a long while – particularly in Iraq.

This use of strategic advantage by ISIS paid off well in the initial phases of their expansion, and helps account for the surreal rate at which an extremist/terrorist organization was able to take and hold immense swaths of territory across two nations.

The majority of Western intervention policies have failed to pick up on this fact, and thus funded (and continue to fund) the rebels “against ISIS.” Meanwhile, all the effort spent into training, equipping, and advising the rebels (not to mention ineffectual bombing of ISIS by Western powers), ended up being solely directed at exacerbating the Syrian conflict and unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the rebel v. government and rebel v. rebel fighting – while ISIS continued to press their advantage.

The second form of ISIS utilization of Sun Tzu came in the form of recruitment methods. The “traditional” in-person recruiting has been severely hampered in the West since 9/11, by varieties of surveillance and other measures. However, ISIS took to social media instead – the undefended portion of the recruitment space – and found staggering success (as many as 50,000 foreign fighters by some estimates). Even with the attempted crackdown on cyber-recruitment, the cyber-sphere remained generally undefended (because the Western powers failed to properly identify the size and scope of the threat), while ISIS remained sufficiently flexible to keep adapting past the ad hoc defense methods – like shutting down twitter accounts. Again, we see the principle of going after undefended targets, with the foregone conclusion of success.

The last form of ISIS utilization of Sun Tzu is the group’s use of drones. While the US efforts in Iraq focus on ground troops and a “one inch at a time” policy, ISIS is finding new and (terrifyingly) innovative ways of bypassing those measures. Lately, the new weapon in the ISIS arsenal is drones; used for reconnaissance and payload delivery, these devices include both off-the-shelf and home-made varieties. This has allowed ISIS to spy on the opposition, as well as produce IEDs that literally fall out of the sky – while getting around radar detection.

Attacking undefended spaces is about more than just physically attacking the least-manned areas. It is about using continually adaptive practices to bypass enemy defenses, and create favorable circumstances that make victory inevitable – at least locally. As long as our tactics remain reactive, the enemy will continue to have initiative and keep us on our heels. The TSA, for example, provides a great model of what does not work: they began scanning shoes after a terrorist brought a shoe bomb on board a flight; they began full-body scans after a terrorist brought an underwear bomb on board a flight; they began restricting liquids after terrorists brought a liquid bomb on board a flight. By defending against threats only after they materialize, we’re essentially hoping that all future enemy practices will be no different than their past practices – thus the “new” defense measures will work.  But even in this brief summary of TSA failures, we see that such a model is destined for failure.

We must stop thinking of war in “traditional” terms, given that we have not fought a “traditional” war since WWII, neither have we won a non-traditional war since. Unless we update our military model to reflect the realities of the threats we face, we will forever be in a position of reactive, after-the-fact, hindsight-based system, that seems to guarantee a future catastrophe.



[1] Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Tr. Roger T. Ames. In The Book of War. Ed. Caleb Carr. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. Pp. 83-4.

[2] Ibid. Pg. 87.