Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future.

Summary:  In this last chapter of his series GI Wilson summarizes how 4GW works for the Islamic State, and forecasts their future.  As he explained in earlier chapters, we have to see the world differently to defeat foes who use 4th generation methods. This is the 4th and final chapter of his 4 part series. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

See The World Differently
To win at 4GW we must learn to see the world differently.

Backward “and” Forward: 4GW Orientation On War – part 4

Our 4GW foes organize in innovative ways

The success of ISIS and allied extremists is more than just uncovering creative tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs). ISIS in many ways reflects the metamorphosis we witness with the appearance of third generation street gangs. Third generation street gangs with global networks, reach, and sustaining revenue streams to support gang operations (see “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels, and Net Warriors“, J. P. Sullivan, Transnational Organized Crime, Autumn 1997. Gangs are often the “yellow canary” in the mine shaft offering indicators, warnings, and profile features of emerging 4GW TTPs.

Mitchell Prothero writes a chilling synopsis of the ISIS profile in “How 2 shadowy ISIS commanders designed their Iraq campaign“, McClatchy, 30 June 2014:

Assembling a coherent picture of how ISIS executed its transformation is something U.S. intelligence officials will be striving to do in coming weeks as they examine what happened to the U.S.-trained Iraqi army. But interviews with a wide range of people — including a former British military officer with ties to Saddam-era Iraqi officers, activists with ties to ISIS, and an intelligence officer for the Kurdish peshmerga militia — provide an imperfect but consistent picture of how ISIS became the most powerful and effective non-state military organization on the planet, with access to billions of dollars in military hardware, territory that includes millions of residents, and something few jihadist groups have ever had: a coherent strategy for establishing an Islamic state.

Our current adversaries are ideologically driven, capitalizing on fanaticism, and frequently linked by clan-tribal networks. The linkage also includes loose coalitions of criminal actors, non-state, and failed-state actors. All of whom can make for strange bed fellows operating outside the nation state context. These 4GW bad actors challenge our national security capabilities that are designed to operate within a nation-state framework. Beyond that framework, our traditional structures and conventional military have great difficulties engaging such threats.

Our adversaries’ operational theme emphasizes people and ideas not just high tech hardware. ISIS is successfully operationalizing beheadings and the psychology of fear — much like Al Qaeda did with improvised explosive devices in Iraq. With ISIS we again will re-learn it is far more difficult to kill an idea and ideology than the enemy itself.


How to plan for defeat in 4GW
How to plan for defeat in 4GW

The future of the jihad

I suspect ISIS and radicalized affiliates will eventually co-opt Al Qaeda altogether.

Their operational modus operandi for the time being will be to further leverage the mental and psychological aspects of war in tandem with the physical. ISIS will continue to use the internet and social media for recruitment, funding/donations, intelligence gathering, information operations, radicalization, communication (along with non-electronic means such as secure couriers/messengers), inciting loner attacks, and networking. Networking, terrorizing, swarming tactics, co-opting and infiltrating will play a major role in ISIS ongoing operations as well as merging the old with the new imaginative ways.

  1. Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World by John Arquilla (2011).
  2. The End of War As We Knew It, John Arquilla, Third World Quarterly, March 2007.

Recall the lack of imagination before the 911 attacks. Many never imagined terrorists armed only with box cutters could turn commercial airlines into improvised cruise missiles. As one observer said, “our failure was not an intelligence failure but a failure of imagination” (“Terrorist Organizations And Criminal Street Gangs“, Sandia National Laboratories, 21 November 2002). Also see my paper “Abundance of Planning failures“.

Consider the implications of ISIS getting 3-D printer technology and materials. How long before ISIS or radicalized loner try to use Ebola or another communicable disease as a cheap bioweapon? The threats posed by 4GW and hybrid warfare are stark. No doubt our huge lumbering bureaucracies such as DOD and DHS are too big to be effective let alone adaptive and agile. To defeat ISIS and ISIS-like-variants requires ISIS-like TTPs and an adaptive-agile organizational network not micromanaged by the White House or other layered obese agencies.

Envision small independent action forces and cells combining the old and new operational TTPs and hardware: Boots on the ground comprised of “rough men with rifles and lasers” sophisticated at co-opting, targeting, pseudo-operations, foreign internal defense, and infiltration, supported overhead by persist death clouds oblivious to weather. Dealing with radicalized extremists we must clearly understand these words from long ago…

”The victor is not victorious if the vanquished does not consider himself so.”
Quintus Ennius, the father of Roman poetry.


Is This How They See Us?
Is This How They See Us?

Posts in this series about 4GW, reflecting on 25 years of 4GW defeats

  1. Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW.
  2. William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future.
  3. What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?
  4. Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War — #1 of GI’s series.
  5. DoD defends itself against dangerous new ideas about 4GW. — #2 of GI’s series.
  6. 4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours. — #3 of GI’s series.
  7. Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future. — #4 of GI’s series.
  8. 4th Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare & Unconventional Warfare: Similar but not Interchangeable. By Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMS, retired).

For More Information

(a) How ISIS Rules“, Sarah Birke, New York Review of Books, 29 January 2015

(b)  Posts about ISIS, the Islamic State

  1. Before we start a new war with ISIS, let’s remember how we stumbled into the last two
  2. The long-simmering conflict in the Middle East breaks out, surprising US experts
  3. America plays the hegemon while ruled by fear and machismo. FAIL.
  4. The solution to jihad: kill and contain our foes. Give war another chance!
  5. One day in America shows our eagerness for war. We’ll get what we want.
  6. America and the Islamic State both hope to change the world with rivers of blood
  7. “SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before.
  8. What the US doesn’t understand about ISIS, & must learn soon — By Ahmed Rashid



10 thoughts on “Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future.”

    1. Duncan,

      Many States have started with less. What makes a “State”? There are specific criteria. The more of these they possess, the stronger and more durable they are. The most important attributes:

      1. Control of armed forces, or even monopoly of armed force in its borders.
      2. The ability to levy and collect taxes.
      3. An administrative mechanism to execute its policies.
      4. Territory in which it is the dominant political entity.
      5. Control of borders.
      6. Legitimacy (not love) in the eyes of its people.

      ISIS has all of these, to varying degrees, in its core zone of control. How long they can maintain that remains uncertain. I doubt external forces will dislodge them. As I predicted in 2007, Iraq has broken into 3 parts — and nothing on the board today can reunite them. They remain vulnerable to internal foes, however.

      1. Duncan,

        You might find this of interest, showing how they’ve quickly established a functioning government: “How ISIS Rules“, Sarah Birke, New York Review of Books, 29 January 2015.

        Also, I’ve added a For More Information section to the post. You might find these give you a different picture of ISIS than your comment implies.

  1. Col. Wilson,

    This is a really nice overview of 4GW and 3 GEN Gangs. I thank you GI for bringing these important issues back into view.

    Another perspective on third generation gangs and war-making (and state-changing) is found in a 2007 paper on an earlier evolution of gangs-war overlap in Iraq that Dr Robert Bunker and I co-authored. In that piece which initially appeared at Small Wars Journal, we looked at gangs in Iraq and contrasted them with gang potentials in Central America and Mexico.

    See: Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Iraq & the Americas: 3 GEN Gangs Lessons and Prospects,” Small Wars Journal, 30 April 2007.

  2. Looking back. What do you think would be the fate of ISIS and its related Islamist militant groups given their crushing defeats?

    Does this lead to a more stronger Islamist insurgency as the slow and stupid are cleared out? Or does this lead to their demise altogether?

    1. Infowarrior,

      “What do you think would be the fate of ISIS and its related Islamist militant groups given their crushing defeats?”

      That’s what the Brits asked themselves in January 1778 about the American revolution. It’s a misreading of the situation. They’re small guys fighting giants. Survival after 15 years of war with the US is a triumph. That they (their movement) is stronger than on 9/11 is an unimaginable triumph. They are known around the world. Feared by their foreign infidel imperialist foes. They have tens of millions of followers and occupy some territory.

      Compare with their condition on 9/11. What are these “crushing defeats?” Another 15 years of such defeats and they’ll own the Middle East.

      I gave a more accurate picture in Who will find the key to power: America or the Middle East’s jihadists?

      {The people of the Middle East} seek to find a formula to unite them on a path to prosperity — making them again world leaders. The 1960s secular nationalist revolutions burnt out (with the assistance of the Saudi-Israel-US coalition). Al Qaeda was the Mark II, using Sunni Islam as the focus. While our national security elites were telling us to wet our pants daily in fear, readers of the FM website read in 2008 that it too had burnt out.

      The Islamic State has built the Mark III model, with an even more extreme fundamentalist version of an Islamic political regime. I doubt this will work. But the path is more important than the individual steps. They’re seeking to create a spark that sets their people aflame. The Darwinian Ratchet — driven by our killing — produces ever more competent leaders. They’ve adopted the West’s powerful technology and business methods. All they lack is a Unique Selling Proposition, the proper feature mix that both sells and functions. The group that gets that right will sweep the Middle East — and perhaps even into the wider Islamic world.

      They’re powered by our opposition (we’re the perfect scary enemy to unify them) plus the oppression of their corrupt national leaders. I believe that someone, somewhere, sometime will put the pieces together — and the world will change.

      To understand what’s happening I suggest starting with Business 101 tells us what to expect next from jihadists: good news for them, bad for us. Then read Jihadists will prosper using the methods of America’s entrepreneurs.

      1. I see. So Russian Intervention only increases the darwinian ratchet. As the far more effective Kurds and now SAA are winning against groups like ISIS.

        Is this right?

      2. Infowarrior,

        I would class the Saudi’s in the same basket as the Americans and Russians, all attempting to fight the jihadists. To stick with the biological metaphor, an infection can be eliminated with sufficient force — but anything short of that tends to make it stronger.

        Looking at this more broadly, my guess (emphasis on guess) is that sources of authority of most regimes in the Middle East are exhausted (except Iran’s). Bombs and troops at most buy time to reform these regimes. I doubt the will do so. So the jihadist challenge will surge again.

        As a historical analogy, consider the Mau Mau rebellion against the Brits. They were crushed, but they succeeded — they brought down the Brit’s colonial regime in Kenya. The jiahdist movement might eventually get crushed, but still terminally weaken many regimes in the ME.

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