We’re not ready for what comes after ISIS

Summary: ISIS was stronger than al Qaeda. The next jihadist group – there will be another – will be stronger than ISIS. Here is the reason why. We are not ready for them. This is a follow-up to We celebrate the death of a foe. It shows our weakness.

“What does not kill him makes him stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888).

ISIS March in Syria
Photo from jihadist website on 14 Jan. 2014. ISIS marching in Raqqa, Syria.

AQ: The Mark One modern jihadist group

Al Qaeda is a militant Sunni Islamist multi-national organization founded in 1988 by Osama bin LadenAbdullah Azzam, and other Arabs during the Soviet-Afghan War. It became a loose global network, with some degree of central control and financing – but decentralized operations.

The attacks on 9/11 were its master-stroke, one of the more successful military operations in history – and one of the most cost-effective (details here). How we reacted to it put America on a new path.

The response to 9/11 by the nations of the world crippled AQ. The US took the lead, although I suspect the Saudi Princes contributed much or most to this program after jihadist terrorism in the Kingdom (with some AQ involvement) increased after 2004). It became a franchising outfit. But without control and support from a strong central HQ – like McDonald’s provides its local stores – most sputtered out.

A generation of recruits were brought into the war, trained, and gained experience. Some of the most competent survived and the incompetent were killed or captured. They learned much from AQ’s experience. Some of them carried their knowledge and experience to their next employer.

The Islamic State: the Mark Two version

ISIS, AKA the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is the Mark Two version of an Islamic jihadist organization. Originally founded as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 1999 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2003 it joined the fight against the US and its allies in Iraq – and decentralizing in order to survive the harsher environment. The organization’s leaders pledged allegiance to AQ in October 2004.

ISIS grew in numbers and power far beyond AQ at its peak. But its leaders wanted to rule. So they boldly but prematurely took ISIS from a stage one insurgency (building strength, gaining allies, waging 4GW) to stage two – holding territory. In stage one the guerilla is invisible, moving through the people like a fish through the sea (chapter 6 of Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare). Moving to stage two, however, gave its enemies – and they made a lot of enemies – a target to attack.

They were crushed (but, like al Qaeda, not eliminated).

Mark Three jihadists

The surviving members of ISIS will take their lessons and experience to the next organization. Other jihadists are watching and learning as well. Somewhere from this will come the Mark Three jihadist organization. It will be better than AQ and better than ISIS.

I doubt that we are learning to fight the jihadists as rapidly as they are learning to fight us.

Darwin’s Ratchet makes them stronger

“We know that the Darwinian Ratchet can create advanced capabilities in stages – it’s a process that gradually creates quality – and gets around the usual presumption that fancy things require an even fancier designer.”
— William H. Calvin’s The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996).

My first posts about the Iraq War in Sept 2003 and Oct 2003 discussed the Darwinian Ratchet (possibly its first mention in military theory). We kill insurgents, but this spurs recruitment of more while alienating the local population (a pattern that we now understand but we still repeat). I showed an even worse effect: we culled the pack of insurgents – eliminating the slow and stupid while clearing space for the more fit insurgents to rise in authority. Hence the by now familiar pattern of a rising sine wave of insurgent activity: successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but larger and more effective. To which we reply with more killing.

We lock ourselves into a “Red Queen’s race” in which we must run ever faster just to stay abreast of our enemies in the Long War. Since they learn faster and try harder (it’s their land), we fall behind. This helps explain our inexplicable (to us) defeats in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. Richard Dawkins explains its effects: “As the generations unfold, ratcheting takes the cumulative improbability up to levels that – in the absence of the ratcheting – would exceed all sensible credence”.

Darwin’s Ratchet makes each version of the jihadist movement stronger than its predecessors. See more about it here.


There will be a Mark Three jihadist group. We are not ready for it. We will never be ready so long as our response to each group is mindless killing.

This is a follow-up to We celebrate the death of a foe. It shows our weakness.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Islam, al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and especially these about the long war …

  1. The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds.
  2. A look at al Qaeda, the long war – and us.
  3. Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.
  4. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.
  5. How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game.
  6. A top jihadist explains how to win the Long War.

Two books about the Islamic State.

The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution by Patrick Cockburn.

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate by Abdel Bari Atwan.

The Rise of Islamic State
Available at Amazon.
Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate
Available at Amazon

21 thoughts on “We’re not ready for what comes after ISIS”

  1. Baruch Spinoza was the first that did some serious criticism of the Bible (albeit just the Old Testament, basically just on his own people); I believe the first guy to finally seriously criticize the New Testament was Thomas Paine, and got ostracize for it.

    Now, these days, most people don’t really take the Old Testament and New Testament seriously.

    The problem with the Qur’an is that it still very much carries a lot of power. It simply needs to be combed with a really fine comb, like what Spinoza did; and attacked like what Paine did with the New Testament.

    For a start, the whole difference between Suras revealed in Mecca and those revealed in Medina need to be ID’ed and promoted as such to Muslims, by Muslims themselves. Both Spinoza and Paine died lonely deaths (though Paine was more an ahole, while Spinoza was just wanting to life a quiet life).

    We’ll need to make it worthwhile.

    So instead of spending so much taxpayer money going towards fancy gear, cool equipment, money to buy off bad guys, which is now in the trillions, why not pour just a few thousands into funding some good Quranic criticism work, and spread that work around in the Muslim world,

    more bang for your buck. And back the Sufis. Get the Omanis to get out of their shells too. Push ’em to balance Sauidi Arabia and Iran. Qatar/UAE tried to, but in the end, they are just more Wahhabis, and just oil rich baffoons, Omanis have a cooler practice of Islam. I’ve always wondered why we never

    pushed Oman to do more.

    1. The commentator on NPR pointed out that ISIS, with its leader a descendant of Mohammed, declared a caliphate. Larry has linked to Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate by Abdel Bari Atwan. IMO, the Darwin Ratchet will also work to make a caliphate a real possibility. Our actions are weeding out those who would follow the Spinoza and Paine route by the growth of unpopularity of anything Western. Secular Muslims will be viewed as traitors first on a shame basis, but if Iran is an example, later as actual criminals. Thus, not only are our actions promoting a Mark Three version of terrorists, but we are plowing and seeding the hearts of the people for these new terrorist leaders.

      You need to know when to fold’em. Kenny Rogers: The Gambler.

      1. I do agree with Trump’s pull out of Syria, though done too hastey but i assume everyone was telling him to stay (for the Kurds, for the oil, for this and that). So he pulls out , and lets everyone else work around that.

        John, I’m not talking about more atheists/agnostics per se, i’m talking about putting out new info about the Qura’n, not really new, but just promoting stuff like Mecca/Medina difference, promoting less violence which are found in the Medina suras, so undermined those.

        Russian troll farms (scaled up by Chinese).

        There are Muslims most in fact that already view ISIS/AQ as takfiris literally those who go around making unbelievers of people, which believers don’t appreciate.

        Oman, is a place that’s very conservative, but no takfiris, I’ve never heard of a foreign fighter that hailed from Oman. Different strain of Islam, one that’s conservative but doesn’t go around judging other Muslims as unbelievers.

        We simply need to enlist Russian troll farms (Chinese to scale it up) to push all this Spinoza/Paine treatment on ISIS type caliphate-wanting folks.

        As for Mark Three, for me it’s very unlikely especially with the new path Saudi Arabia is forging now, w/ its new crowned Prince. They have neutered their religious police, and have opened up like UAE and Qatar have, hence the friction now with both.

        Look, Eastern Syria and Western Iraq were the unlikeliest places for Wahhabist/takfiris to settle, but we kinda cleared the field for them. First in Iraq, pushing established desert tribes/clans towards them, since Iran was backing the East Side of Iraq and we left,

        then we undermined Assad’s hold which was already weak, precisely because the son is not the father.

        I agree with your fold’em, let Russia have ’em. My proposal is tailor made for Russian troll farms. But we do wanna invest in Muslims we can call our own, look at Singapore with its Malay Muslims; or Russia with its Tartar Muslims. So continue funding the Spinozas and Paines out there.

        the UAE has Western Universities, so too now with Saudi Arabia, its more Western businesses for the UAE. Push Oman styled Islam too. And Sufis, who are mostly in Syria & Turkey. The Muslim Brothers are still in Egypt but they are neutered, unlike Hizbullah who practically rule Lebanon (whose playbook they’ve copied).

    2. The higher criticism of the Christian scriptures was largely done in the 19c, with dating of the various books, the patient deciphering of their probably sources and composition.

      Something similar has already been done for the origins of Islam. There is a very accessible account in ‘The Shadow of the Sword’, but there is much much more and very detailed work that can be found by searching on the web. Eg Patricia Krone’s work and much more.

      I am only a general reader. My impression from a fairly superficial and partial reading of this work is that almost none of the traditional accounts of the origins of Islam have any historical evidence at all of the sort we usually look for in conventional accounts of history, including the locations of key events, and even the historical existence of the Prophet himself.

      In common with the Christian tradition, the closer you get to the date of the original events, the less detailed the accounts become, and the less corresponding evidence there is for them. Stuff like inscriptions, coins, archeology. Direction of facing of the older religious buildings.

      Just two examples of the kind of thing that is brought out by this work. Why was it, when the Arabs took Jerusalem, that the intellectuals there spent much energy trying to figure out what the conquerors’ religion was? They were after all the most theologically sophisticated lot the world has ever known, finely attuned to doctrinal differences. But they couldn’t figure it out. Makes no sense if the conquerors were on a jihad to install their religion, does it?

      Why is it that earlier coins and inscriptions make no reference either to the Prophet or to the religion? Why does the Koran include references to seeing Sodom and Gomorrah daily, and to rich pastures in the vicinity, if this was directed initially to people living in Mecca?

      You have similar questions about the Christian gospels: why is it that the earliest books, Paul’s epistles, make so little reference even to Jesus himself, and contain no hints of the incidents that we find detailed in Mark, and even more detailed and circumstantial in the Synoptic Gospels? This association of detail with time is so marked that the Higher Critics actually used it as a test to help them date – the more detailed the account, the further away from the supposed events.

      The work has already been done, and its been documented and argued for extensively not only by Western scholars but also by some dissidents of Arab origin, who for obvious reasons have kept their identity anonymous.

      In the end evangelical religions do not fade because of argument, they fade away for two reasons. One, the most important, is if there is no force being applied by the state to enforce at least observance, and to prohibit dissent and questioning. The second is (and it leads to the collapse of the first) if circumstances make it seem totally out of date so it loses credibility with policy makers.

      Christianity in the West has encountered both, having been founded on a state enforcement under Constantine, which fell into disuse during the 18th and 19th centuries in most countries, and this in turn liberalized disbelief.

      The Nomenklatura in the Soviet Union lost their faith in Marxism-Leninism first. As that progressed, enforcement and prohibition of dissent gradually stopped.

      It may be a long wait in regard to Islam, as long as you have sufficient regimes like Pakistan and Saudi who are prepared to enforce it with draconian penalties for blasphemy. In the meantime, containment is probably all there is. As George Kennan suggested with Communism, and he has been proved right.

      1. Paul was after all a late comer, having never met Jesus himself, nor really his followers. His “in” was his story on the Road to Damascus.

        As for Islam’s historicity, I thinking it’s more historical than say Christianity (I’m agnostic by the way… but enjoy reading about this stuff, so thank you for the book recs)
        precisely because of the Sunni vs. Shi’a split which happened early on. it’s like twins split at birth studies, aside from minor issues like who should run the Caliphate (with the Shias coming up with their Imamite version, focused on blood lines), these two Sunni and Shia basically are in agreement historically.

        So i don’t really entertain this whole was there even a Prophet Mohammed, or was Mecca real, etc. etc. if you have two groups who are violently opposed with bad blood from the git go, yet agree on history, tells me their narrative is pretty spot on. it’s the interpretations and traditions that followed. That ‘s where IMHO we can make a difference, but you’re right too that reason applied to faith, doesn’t negate faith… but it gives those who aren’t fanatical a chance to breathe.

        for example, the Shias love attacking Aisha as some whore that colluded with her dad to manipulate the Prophet. goes back to tradition and interpretation. Sunnis of course love her, but the point is both of them don’t vary in narrative.

        Jesus, they can’t even get the Resurrection story correct. you’d think the Resurrection was the most important part of the story. and they can’t even agree, all 4 Gospels differ in how it happened. forget Paul. the Gospels themselves don’t even have a common narrative for the Ressurection. What happened? Who knows.

        Compared to the Qur’an, the oldest theyve found agree 100% with the ones used now. Sure, there’s evidence that the Qur’an was made uniformed under the 3 or 4th Caliph, within 30-60 years of the Prophet’s death with all other editions burnt. But again here, one needs to just look at the Quran used by the Shias, its the same. So the Quran looks like its the same , or very close to the same, compiled during Mohammed’s time.

        I’m open to these Satanic Verses theory from the haddiths, but w/out the original Qur’ans, hard to prove.

        I also like the theory that there’s a bunch of Assyrian/Arahmaic words in the Quran, the early scribes were former Christians after all. so maybe more linguistic criticism is necessary. But unless really old editions of the Quran surface not much can be done, like did the Gospels , ex. Mark whose ending was shorter than previously known, with the women seeing the tomb empty and left “trembling”. Done. Which IMHO is a better ending, w/out belaboring the magical stuff.

        He’s not there. Period. Seek and ye shall find.

      2. “Direction of facing of the older religious buildings.”

        They didn’t use compasses,

        they mostly used astronomy back then. Even the ka’aba, the direction Muslims pray is set up directionally according to astronomy. the ka’aba, that black cube, pre-dates Islam (they say it’s Abraham’s house or some bs like that) But various ka’abas which are simply cube structures line up and down the former Nabatean franckensense route.

        I think, people just had to rest and pray back then, and smart entrepreneurial arabs, constructed ka’abas. Just so happened Mecca’s ka’aba became the most famous one today.

        But i noticed even today Mosque directions tend to be arbitrary. Sure if you have money and construct your own Mosque from the ground up, you can use the latest GPS. but its not how they did it back then. OR,

        if you’re mosque is in a strip mall or some old church, you’ll have to adjust to the building. Sure, pray East towards the ka’aba, or if you’re in Australia northwestly direction. but there’s not really a direction police in Islam.

        But originally, mosques prayed towards Jerusalem early on. They didn’t always pray to Mecca.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masjid_al-Qiblatayn this mosque is the best illustration, Qibla is direction of prayer, ‘tayn’ denotes two, So mosque of the two Qiblas.

      3. Also read Ibn Warraq.

        Its impossible to read far in the mass of recent scholarly material and still think that the orthodox accounts of the origins are well evidenced in the way that we would expect other historical accounts of the past to be evidenced.

        Was there an historical Prophet, and if so was he as characterized in the tradition? There is no evidence that would persuade us if offered on another completely neutral historical assertion.

        It could be correct or not, we have no real idea. The attempt in both Christianity and Islam is to root the beliefs in historical fact. It should not persuade the sceptical in either case.

        More to the point nowadays however is to carefully scrutinize the practice and doctrines of the religion of today. Never mind what did or did not happen in obscure corners of the world 1500 or 2000 years ago. What will determine the future of these religions is how they meet the changes in society that happen in the next 100 years. That is also what should determine whether we join one of them.

        When a religion falls from favor, it can happen with extraordinary rapidity. In my own lifetime, churches in northern Europe have gone from being full to being empty and services which once filled them have come only to be attended by a few old ladies. This didn’t happen because of the higher criticism of the Bible or persuading people that there were intellectual questions about the historical accounts.

        It happened because of a loss of conviction by the elite, and the consequent lack of enforcement and sanctions on not practising. People just started to find the whole thing incredible and rather silly, and there was no forcible intervention to stop them saying so, and to make them get back to regular church attendance.

        It may happen to Islam, but its going to take a while, and as long as you have Islamist regimes like Pakistan or Saudi, it will take a very long time.

      4. “This didn’t happen because of the higher criticism of the Bible or persuading people that there were intellectual questions about the historical accounts.”

        I pretty much agree with you on everything, but i guess this is where we differ.

        Sure most folk won’t read Biblical/Quranic criticisms, too academic but still these works are read, then distilled, then dumbed down some more, then eventually, you get works like “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “the Last Temptation of Christ” or “the Satanic Verses” or all of Dan Browns books,

        In Syria, the Shias and Christians were fond of this book titled “Mother of Believers Eats her Children” which basically was slander of Aisha in story form. They loved it. then ,

        Thomas Paines importance , I believe was his last book “Age of Reason” , it may not have been popular in America or England, but the French took to it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Reason#%22Vulgar%22_language (he was the guy that hand delivered the key to the Bastille from Lafayette to George Washington, and why the key now hangs in Mt. Vernon Washington’s home)

        then to satire, to comedy , to cartoons, by then you get only your old ladies going to churches, but instead of praying, just baking and playing bridge.

        What’s interesting here in Socal is the Mexican/Hispanic community now embracing Pentacostalism, as you well know this community is hard core Catholic in the past, now they are fast becoming protestants, but instead of the boring Protestanism of most Americans,

        they are embracing the party atmosphere of Pentacost worship (i believe coming from the poor of Appalachia), which is alot of music , speaking in tongues, going crazy, sweating, etc etc. whether you’re a believer or not, you gotta admit that would be more entertaining than, having to sit and stand, repeat, sit and stand, then kneel on cushioned kneeling furniture…

        Also, most Americans tend to go to Super Churches now too, no more quiet corner churches. I surmise its because of the concert atmosphere. music, big venue, etc.

        Religion as entertainment i believe will be en vogue soon. As excuse for revolution, they’ll find something else. So if you wanna become a millionaire, set up a Pentacost church channel for Spanish speaking audience, and then a Super Church of similar taste, kill two birds with one stone.

        People will just give you money. They want to be entertained, it’s more therapeutic than salvation. They just wanna go to a dance party and/or concert, but about Jesus.

  2. Endless wars…So how do we stop them? Soul searching? These terrorists have no soul.

    Question on “troops”; How many are in a troop? It’s thrown around in numbers from one to thousands. Most say 28 “troops” moved in Syria. I read a safe number is ~100 military personal in a troop.

      1. Larry,

        “Why is ISIS or whatever in the ME our problem?”

        The way I understand it, this administration will be fighting from our own shores, as much as possible, in the near future. Still our problem, but a different strategy.

        “Re: troops – It is usually used as a synonym for “soldiers.” As “we have troops in Syria.”

        Thanks, but that doesn’t answer my question. Was it 28 soldiers or ~2800 soldiers? Or some number we’ll never know?

      2. Ron,

        “The way I understand it, this administration will be fighting from our own shores, as much as possible, in the near future.”

        There is zero evidence of that.

        “Or some number we’ll never know?”

        Perhaps we’ll know, eventually. The Deep State does not believe in telling the proles too much. As during the Cold War, they would keep secret things known to us and the Soviets.

      3. Because SOCOM is running the show re ISIS you should never know it.

        But that’s another topic to discuss, is SOCOM another military branch??? it has almost the same funding.

        How can SOCOM a whole theatre of operation? don’t get me wrong, the fact that most didn’t really know crap about Syria ops til now says SOCOM is doing good.

        But are they a the 5th branch of the military now??? what of Space Force???

        The Marine Corps is jockey to lead in the Pacific theatre again, we were in China first last century. But will SOCOM be able to jockey for that spot too???

      4. Larry,

        “There is zero evidence of that.”

        Not yet. I hold Trump to his campaign promise of getting out. The evidence will be when I see troops coming home from the ME.

      5. Ron,

        “I hold Trump to his campaign promise of getting out.”

        That is the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. Sad, too. But learning from experience is often hard.

      6. Larry,

        “That is the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. Sad, too. But learning from experience is often hard.”

        Never Trumpers have no faith. lol

  3. Is it relevant to the argument that Al Qaeda and ISIS appeared to have different focus and different goals. AQ was focused on attacking western nations whereas ISIS seemed to be focused on establishing the caliphate. Long term the caliphate would have been a threat to the west but that wasn’t their stated goal, according to Zawahiri. Since the caliphate can’t exist without territory it is dead for now. Does that mean that those leftover fighters will turn back to the AQ model or will they continue to try to find ways to establish a new caliphate, allowing them to be destroyed in place by coalitions of interested parties?

    1. Heresolong,

      “Is it relevant to the argument that Al Qaeda and ISIS appeared to have different focus and different goals”

      Neither one had a consistent set of goals throughout their lives. Both evolved in many ways. Hence, I suggest looking at them as groups of people rather than org charts and mission statements.

      “but that wasn’t their stated goal, according to Zawahiri. ”

      It obviously became their goal in 2014, with their capture of Mosul.

      “Since the caliphate can’t exist without territory it is dead for now.”

      I doubt they are interested in playing by our rules or definitions. In June 2014 they proclaimed themselves a worldwide caliphate. Perhaps they intended to become like the Roman Catholic Church, ruling RC’s while not controlling their lands. Perhaps they had no single concept of their future, and like most movements – just evolved.

      “Does that mean …”

      I doubt that they know. I’m certain that we don’t know.

  4. The surviving members of ISIS will take their lessons and experience to the next organization. Other jihadists are watching and learning as well. Somewhere from this will come the Mark Three jihadist organization. It will be better than AQ and better than ISIS.

    I doubt that we are learning to fight the jihadists as rapidly as they are learning to fight us.

    Yes. The only solution is containment and time. You cannot defeat a fanatical evangelical religion militarily. But time and containment can do it for you.

  5. It’s almost starting to look like we should stop being manipulated into fighting other countries’ wars for them. Hmmm…

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