Understanding the Enemy: Inside the Mind of the Islamic State

Understanding the Enemy: Inside the Mind of the Islamic State
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, Nov. 17, 2014 (AP photo by Vadim Ghirda).

This week, military planners from more than 30 countries are gathered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, to plot their approach against the so-called Islamic State (IS). On the other side of the world, IS is probably mulling its strategy as well. It is easy to imagine how different the two sessions must be, yet the two groups do have one thing in common: Both know that if their strategies are to work, they must first try to get inside the mind of their enemy.

Anticipating what the enemy will do—what security experts call “red teaming”—is never easy, particularly when the antagonists are as different as the two in this conflict. Yet it is vitally important and well worth the effort. While the coalition is probably deep into red teaming, it cannot know precisely what the strategists of IS are thinking. But it can at least imagine what the extremists consider their central choices.

Sound strategy starts with a balance sheet laying out strengths and weaknesses. The goal of strategists is then to exploit their strengths and capitalize on the enemy’s weaknesses. So what, then, might the Islamic State’s balance sheet look like?

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