7 May 2017

Rolling Back the Islamic State

by Seth G. Jones, James Dobbins

What are the Islamic State's ideology and objectives? 

What possible strategies and primary instruments of power should the United States and its allies employ against it? 

What specific steps should be taken to defeat and prevent the reemergence of the Islamic State in the countries where it controls territory and population, such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and Nigeria? 

What other steps should be taken around the globe to counter the Islamic State's capacity to recruit fighters, raise funds, orchestrate a propaganda campaign, and inspire and direct attacks? 

The Islamic State is a byproduct of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq and the subsequent American departure in 2011. At its peak in late 2014, the group held more than 100,000 square kilometers of territory with a population of nearly 12 million, mostly in Iraq and Syria. Beginning in 2015, the Islamic State began to lose territory as it faced increasingly effective resistance. Still, the Islamic State continues to conduct and inspire attacks around the world. This report assesses the threat the Islamic State poses to the United States and examines four possible strategies to counter the group: disengagement, containment, rollback "light" (with a reliance on local forces backed by U.S. special operations forces, Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence assets, and airpower), and rollback "heavy" (adding the employment of American conventional forces in ground combat). The authors conclude that the United States should pursue a light rollback strategy. They also recommend additional steps, such as rebalancing counterterrorism efforts to address grievances, loosening restrictions on U.S. military operations, increasing U.S. military posture in Africa, and tightening restrictions in the Islamic State's internet access.

Key Findings

The Ultimate Goal of the Islamic State's Strategy Is to Establish a Pan-Islamic Caliphate 
The Islamic State has no intention of containing itself within certain countries or regions but seeks to expand its power and influence. 

Numerous Salafi-jihadist groups across the world have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. 

While the Islamic State Has Lost Territory and Support, It Continues to Pose a Terrorist Threat to the United States and Its Allies 

The Islamic State has lost considerable territory since 2014 in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and Nigeria. 

Polling data indicate declining support across the Muslim world for the Islamic State and its ideology. 

The Islamic State continues to conduct and inspire attacks around the globe. 

The group's global footprint includes eight formal provinces outside Iraq and Syria; over a dozen informal provinces; and tens of thousands of inspired individuals across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and North America. 

The United States Should Pursue a Light Rollback Strategy Against the Islamic State 

The advocates of disengagement and containment argue that the Islamic State will eventually burn itself out. But the defeat of the Islamic State would be at best distant, and the group could still plot or inspire attacks. 

The employment of large numbers of American troops in ground combat would likely give rise to local resistance. 

Key components of a light rollback strategy include the use of American airpower, special operations forces, and intelligence units to enable local partners to liberate territory held by the Islamic State. 


Rebalance counterterrorism efforts toward governance, political, and economic steps. 

Loosen restrictions on U.S. military operations in conflict zones. 
Increase U.S. military posture in Africa. 

Tighten restrictions on Islamic State internet access. 

Adequately fund rollback operations.

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