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The Strategic Logic of the Islamic State

LONDON – The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) continues to pose a serious challenge not just to the Middle East, but to the entire world. While the efforts of a US-led coalition have weakened ISIS, destroying the group has proved difficult – and it has continued to inspire attacks in faraway places, from Brussels to Bangladesh.

To understand how to defeat ISIS once and for all, we first need to comprehend its strategy. And make no mistake: even if the ISIS-associated international attacks seem random, the group’s global crusade does have a strategic logic.

ISIS is fighting for its survival. It has neither the money nor the manpower to fight anything like a traditional war against the US-led coalition and its local allies – at least not for long. What it does have is a message that resonates with certain groups – typically marginalized, disenchanted, and tormented young men – within a broad range of countries, in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere. And it has become very good at tapping these sources of manpower.

The group’s spokespeople have repeatedly called on followers and supporters worldwide to strike its enemies, particularly in the West. Inspiring lone wolves and stay-at-home groupies or tight-knit local cells to launch attacks in distant, unpredictable locations is the ultimate weapon of the weak in asymmetric conflicts. It enables ISIS to reap all of the benefits of an attack, while incurring none of the costs.