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opinion | J.M. Berger

Fighting the many-headed Hydra of ISIS

There are strong, early indications that terrorist attacks in (from top, left; counter-clockwise) France, Tunisia, Kuwait, and Syria are linked to ISIS.

Terror broke out around the globe Friday, as militants suspected to be aligned with the Islamic State carried out gruesome attacks in France, Tunisia, Kuwait, and Syria. It should be noted that it is too soon to authoritatively attribute all four attacks to ISIS, but in each case there are strong, early indications of the group’s involvement.

It was a deadly week for the militant organization, but not its deadliest. In November, ISIS slaughtered more than 300 Sunni tribesmen, and it recorded as many in a single day in August, with hundreds more in the surrounding weeks.

As one of the largest extremist groups in recent memory, ISIS has the luxury of attacking on multiple fronts, using multiple methods, and it has increasingly displayed its willingness to do so.


In France, early reports suggest a so-called lone wolf attack, carried out by ISIS supporters with minimal or no direct support by the organization (in the form of money or training). Our understanding of the assault on a gas plant southeast of Lyon may evolve in the days to come (unconfirmed reports suggested the attacker had been employed at the plant), but the tactic is one ISIS has definitively deployed with unprecedented success in recent months, including in Garland, Texas, where two attackers, egged on by ISIS supporters over social media, tried to shoot up a contest to draw the Prophet Mohammed.

In Tunisia, at least two gunmen opened fire on a beach resort, killing dozens of tourists, the third such assault in scant months. In March, a group of three terrorists assaulted the Bardo Museum in Tunis, similarly targeting the tourist industry. Both attacks fit the model of a small to medium-sized terrorist cell, although the perpetrators may be linked to a larger ISIS presence in the country. The third attack, a shooting at an army barracks, appeared to conform more closely to the lone wolf model.


In Kuwait, a suicide bombing that killed at least 25 was immediately claimed by a formal branch of ISIS, making it a classic organized terrorist operation, the sort of thing that once represented our dominant understanding of terrorism.

In Kobane, Syria, the assault was terrorist, but the targets were decidedly civilian. It opened with suicide bombings and escalated to rocket fire and sniper attacks, leaving scores of civilians dead. But there was a military dimension to the attack as well, as fighting broke out with the Kurdish forces guarding the town, and diverting the Kurds’ attention and perhaps resources from recent advances into ISIS territory in Syria.

The diverse nature of all this violence is emblematic of the threat ISIS represents, and the frustration facing the coalition to defeat it. ISIS is not simply a hybrid organization, it is a hybrid of hybrids, and old paradigms are of limited use in confronting it. It is a proto-state, but also an insurgency, and also a terrorist network. As such, no single approach — such as traditional war, counterinsurgency, or the new counterterrorism model of targeted killing — can fully address its structure. And melding these diverse approaches within a coalition of nations with starkly different reasons for fighting ISIS is a task of Gordian complexity.

To win recruits, ISIS works on local political divisions, but also taps into sectarian strife, while also exploiting the mechanism of an apocalyptic cult, and even simply buys support using its ample bankroll. Thus, no single strategy to counter its ideology and philosophy is adequate to the task.


As the civilized world moves forward to combat ISIS, our challenge will be to devise a strategy that combines all these threads harmoniously, more like a symphony, and less like a Rube Goldberg machine. This is a daunting challenge, given the makeup of the coalition and its inability to come together on basic and necessary goals, such as what sort of end state should be sought in Syria.

ISIS may not be capable of winning in the long run, but until we can confront its complexity in a proportionately coherent manner, it is probably not in much danger of losing any time soon.

J.M. Berger is coauthor of “ISIS: The State of Terror’’ and a nonresident fellow at Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World.