Airstrikes Alone Will Not Defeat ISIS

Shehryar Haris, JHU


In Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque, a burly man draped in all black stood at the minbar and declared the rise of the so called Islamic State. Three years later, US-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces have significantly debilitated the caliphate’s grasp of territory in Iraq and Syria. Over 40% of its territory has been lost in Iraq and all of its territory has fallen in Libya. Strongholds like Raqqa and Mosul have been liberated, and in August alone the US carried out over 5,000 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq[1].

Yet in spite of these strides, ISIS remains a threat. Military victories are only one part of a solution to a more problematic war centered around propaganda;the world is not getting safer.

ISIS has carried out the most terrorist attacks in 2017, with 369 attacks and 2463 fatalities[2]. Even though two thirds of their leadership has been killed in key areas, militants have clung to Islamist ideology for motivation. This pernicious ethos of the Islamic State continues to attract fighters and inspire attacks across the world.

Although most attacks are confined to the Muslim world, the West still faces harsh threats from extremists, both directly and because of refugees displaced from attacks in their home countries. Simply defeating ISIS militarily in Iraq and Syria does not stop the so-called “soldiers of the caliphate” from carrying out attacks in Germany, Kenya, or the Phillipines.

What is making these attacks more pervasive on a global scale is the prospect of a terrorist diaspora within the next few years[3], as James Comey has argued. As ISIS militants are defeated in Syria, they will have no choice but to flee; many will come to the west. Terrorists have already travelled to over 80 countries across the world to fight under the same cause[4]. It does not matter that the organization of these fighters is tenuous; they still have the capacity to do harm.

Although some jihadists will remain in the Levant, recuperating to the next terror organization that fills the vacuum, many will travel abroad and fight in new theaters of terror across the Middle East, leading to new civil wars[5]. This will exacerbate the current refugee crisis and further destabilize the region.

However, by simply ignoring the ruins of the Islamic State, we may face consequences reminiscent of when the US toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime[6]. This may lead to a rise in new fundamentalist offshoots, seeking to exact revenge over their Western oppressors. This is not to advocate for nation building but rather, to approach a similar problem with a more cautious approach.

The former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Admiral James Stavridis, has long advocated the use of “smart power”. Smart power, he claims, is the combination of both hard and soft power. That said, our current approach has employed a heavy hard power focus. James Stavridis has said that “we are excellent at launching Tomahawk missiles; we need to get better at launching ideas.” Soft power is what we are lacking.

We can kill as many militants as we want; however it is in our best interests to convince them and others who may join their ranks that the pillars of Western democracy and freedom are key values to a successful society. It is imperative for us to persuade the disillusioned and disenfranchised to steer away from the grasp of radical extremism.

Smart power is not a revolutionary concept, but it is often clouded in today’s military heavy rhetoric. We have used it several times in the past successfully to resolve areas of global concern. For example, the US had productive dealings with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government of Colombia. Additionally, the Balkans in the 90s were headed toward ethnic cleansing, yet through the calculated use of hard power and soft power, the region was stabilized[7].

According to Stavridis, the proposed $54 billion increase in the Pentagon’s budget for the next fiscal year is a step in the right direction. Rather than relying on military might in the fight against ISIS, it could be more productive to funnel funds into cybersecurity, special operations forces, and propaganda[8]. This modus operandi echoes President Reagan’s use of both military might (by expanding the arms race), as well as “Evil Empire” rhetoric that arguably brought an end to the Cold War.

While one may argue that the Soviet Union and ISIS are two very different threats, arguing that the former was a rational state actor, that the latter refuses to comply with global order, this is not the case. Robert Pape has argued that even terrorists have end goals, and for them, the ends justify the means[9]. With the case of ISIS, their goal is to create their vision of an Islamic Caliphate across the world at all costs.

To defend against this vision, firstly, the war on the ground and in the air must continue. Defeating militants will deplete the caliphate’s manpower. Military victories for us will weaken the Islamic State’s capacity to wage war both in terms of manpower and morale.

Secondly, we must show prospective fighters the perils of life in the Islamic State. Over 27,000 fighters have fled the west to join the Islamic State in the Levant alone. We must convince young men how becoming a militant will only bring misfortune and suffering. This can not only be achieved through a propaganda war, but also through the active involvement and denouncement of Muslim leaders in the West[10].

Mosques must completely disavow extremism. This will prevent tragedies like that of San Bernardino and the Pulse Nightclub from occurring. Muslims in the West bear a unique responsibility and privilege, for they have the opportunity to speak out against and challenge radicalism in a way those abroad cannot.

The 21st Century presents us with unique threats. ISIS is only one of them. The use of smart power will allow us to win the war of ideas, dissuading those who may have otherwise joined the fold of extremism. Continuing our military efforts with a combination of more subtle ideological battles will allow us to significantly debilitate the power of Islamic State ideology.




[1] Losey, Stephen. “Airstrikes against ISIS hit all-Time high.” Marine Corps Times, Marine Corps Times, 6 Oct. 2017,

[2] “Terrorist Incidents Map.” PeaceTech Lab,

[3] Josh Gerstein and Jennifer Scholtes, “Comey Warns of Post-ISIL Terrorist ‘Diaspora,’” Politico, September 27, 2016.

[4] Clarke, Colin P. “The Terrorist Diaspora: After the Fall of the Caliphate.” RAND Corporation, 13 July 2017,

[5] David Malet, “Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Persistence in a Global Context,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2015, pp.454-473

[6]Blinken, Antony J. “The Islamic State Is Not Dead Yet.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 July 2017, East&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=Marginalia&pgtype=article&_r=0.

[7] Barrett, Olivia . “ Talking ‘Smart Power’ With Admiral Stavridis .” US News, 25 July 2013,

[8] “America Needs Smart Power, Not Just Hard Power.” The Cipher Brief,

[9] Pape, Robert A. Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism. Random House, 2006.

[10] PragerUniversity. “Islamic Terror: What Muslim Americans Can Do.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Mar. 2016,


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