How to Defeat the Islamic State

Former Captain Blake Hall briefing scout and sniper team leaders prior to a raid on a high value target in Baghdad in July, 2007

By Blake Hall with Michelle Seaton


There are only about 5,000 Americans who enjoyed access to a dedicated interpreter while actively patrolling Iraq’s cities between 2003 and 2010. That’s a small number of people who know what the country is like, who have interacted with its citizens, and who have staked their survival on the information and help given by those citizens. For those few Americans like me who have walked Iraq’s streets, the loyalties and motivations of Iraq’s dizzying assortment of different ethnic, religious, and political factions are much easier to parse for we interacted with the locals, and alternately trusted our lives to them, broke bread with them, or defended our lives from them on a regular basis.

Within the small group of 5,000 Americans who understand ground truth from first-hand experiences, I had an exceptional experience. During the height of the sectarian violence in Iraq from July 2006 to September 2007, I led a platoon dedicated to hunting down the senior insurgent leadership of what we then called Al-Qaida in Iraq as well as the various Shi’a and Sunni militias that proliferated across the country in the wake of the American invasion. I led combat missions in Mosul for six months and in Baghdad for nine months as well as raids on targets near Fallujah, Lake Thar-Thar, the Al-Muthanna Chemical Weapons Complex, and Karbala. By several metrics, my platoon was the most effective high-value target platoon in the Iraqi theater when we left that country in 2007.

Snipers from the author’s platoon watch for targets in Baghdad.

To understand the rise of the Islamic State, you first have to comprehend this map of Baghdad that illustrates how ethnic cleansing transformed that city.


Between 2005 and 2007, Baghdad’s demographics shifted from a mostly Sunni Arab city with mixed ethnic and religious neighborhoods to a Shi’a Arab city with stark physical boundaries separating the different sects. I patrolled in every neighborhood in Baghdad while this shift took place. My understanding of the situation in Iraq comes not from the neatly colored map you see above but from what it represents: I saw first-hand the pain, suffering, cruelty, and hatred that slowly split the city apart. Because my platoon hunted each of the rival sect’s leaders, I had direct access to the ambitions and strategies of each group’s leadership as well as a unique, front row seat in Mosul and Baghdad to the tectonic, societal shift that effectively ended Iraq as a country during my deployment.

I could trace the ever changing edges of the sectarian boundaries by following the violence in Iraq’s neighborhoods. Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs comprise a majority of Iraq’s population long repressed, and at times massacred, under Saddam. Typically, they would establish a small foothold in a Sunni Arab neighborhood. Outnumbered three to one by the Shi’a, the Sunni Arabs in Iraq didn’t stand a chance without the protection of Saddam’s Sunni dominated security forces. So, once the defensible perimeter of a neighborhood had been breached, Shi’a death squads, often wearing the uniforms of the post-Saddam Iraqi security forces, would sweep across the interior of the exposed neighborhood like a wildfire, killing Sunni Arabs and appropriating their property, pausing only when they reached a fire break such as a highway or canal where the next Sunni enclave awaited. Within each of Baghdad’s neighborhoods in 2007, I could point out those fault lines as they shifted over time and tell you why the different groups were trying to kill each other, and me and my men. And I could tell you the types of weapons they would likely to employ to do so.

The dirty secret of The Surge that took place in 2007 is that the timing of that campaign coincided with the completion of Baghdad’s ethnic cleansing as depicted in the map above. The latent religious tension within Baghdad’s neighorhoods had already dissipated, so violence in Iraq was on the way down, troop surge or not. Those of us on the ground understood that Shi’a and Sunni Arabs could no longer live next door to each other without killing one another. So, we didn’t mistake whatever stability The Surge brought for success.[2] Peace just meant the Shi’a Arabs were largely finished massacring the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad.

Dora, Baghdad in August 2007. A Sunni Arab neighborhood, Dora was the scene of intense fighting between Shi’a militias and Al-Qaida fighters. The local citizens were caught in the middle.

As someone who witnessed the brutal efficiency of the Shi’a death squads first-hand, I was not surprised at all when the Shi’a pushed the Sunnis out of Iraq’s political process as soon as American forces left Iraq. American forces represented the only neutral force left in the country and, therefore, the last hope for long-term rapprochement. Still, it always felt like we were risking our lives and losing our friends to shore up a levee against an inexorable sectarian tidal wave that we knew would eventually wash over that levee and then the country. It was apparent that Iranian security forces had effectively taken over Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior when I left Iraq in 2007. And the Iranians will never allow the Sunnis to share power in Iraq.

To stabilize Iraq, it is no longer enough to address the political isolation of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. America now has to deal wih the fact that Iraqis are now geographically separated along religious and ethnic lines. That is a much more intractable problem to solve, and it is a reflection of the deep political divisions in Iraqi society – divisions that continue to tear the country’s societal fabric apart today.

America and the West must present a legitimate, secular political alternative to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in order to defeat the Islamic State, that much is clear, but the real question is whether or not the Iraqi state can, or should, be salvaged. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs will never trust whatever promises come from the Iranian controlled Iraqi government in Baghdad, nor do they trust America, with good reason. Unintentionally, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent insistence on democracy brought about a brutal Tyranny of the Majority that allowed Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs and Iranian security forces to use democracy to settle old scores against Iraq’s Sunnis.

On September 10th 2014, the President echoed former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comments[3] during the early years of the Iraq war when he stated: “We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves.”[4] I can only interpret a statement like that to mean that the President does not understand how the civil war in Iraq largely destroyed any notion of what it means to be an Iraqi or the role that America played in facilitating that war by creating a power vacuum. When I think of Iraq in 2007, I think of a patrol where we passed the corpse of a man in Ameriyah laying prostrate by the side of a road, a hatchet sticking out of his head, while people in the neighborhood walked past him as if nothing was amiss. I think of Besma, a young Shi’a Arab mother who walked across five miles of violent neighborhoods with two children under the age of five to ask American forces for justice after militants killed her Sunni Arab husband for marrying her, a Shi’a. She was pretty, with liquid brown eyes the color of rich soil, and smeared mascara around the edges of her eyes. When her voice quaked with grief as she told me her story, I felt overwhelmed with compassion for her and frustration at America’s inability to prevent her suffering.

When I see that map of Baghdad, I see Besma, I hear her voice, and the overwhelming emotion that washes over me is one of loss. I don’t think Besma could do more than she did to rebuild Iraq. But I think she was braver than I would have been under the same circumstances.

To understand the broad appeal of Islamic State to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, you have to understand the decisions made by the Bush Administration that allowed Al-Qaida in Iraq, the predecessor to the Islamic State, to establish a powerful presence in Iraq in the first place. Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs outnumber Iraq’s Sunni Arabs by three-to-one, so enforcing democracy in Iraq meant the Sunnis would never win an election again. When the Bush administration decided to disband Iraq’s mostly Sunni military and then to impose a de facto ban on Sunni Arab participation in the new Iraqi government through de-Baathification, America effectively provided no incentive for Iraq’s Sunnis to participate in the new Iraq. We humiliated them. Quite frankly, I found myself reflecting that if I was a young Sunni Arab male in Iraq that I would probably be an insurgent too. General Petraeus, then the commander of the storied 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, recognized this reality. He traveled to Baghdad in 2003 to communicate to the Bush administration that “You know, your policy is killing our troopers.”[5]

Over the last thirteen years, America’s foreign policy has consisted mostly of defining what we don’t want: Saddam, Al-Qaida, Qaddafi, Boko Haram, the Islamic State. But we have failed to define what we do want. Rather than pausing to define the ultimate aim of our involvement – the very point of war for military action is just a means to a political end – we have rushed ahead anyway: Ready, Shoot, Aim. Unfortunately, we now have quite the track record of removing one monster only to find a more brutal monster in his place.

This global war will never end without a coherent American strategy and we don’t have one for Iraq and Syria at the time of this writing. President Obama has articulated a plan to arm a group of so called “moderate” rebels who have no clear leader and whose primary political goal is to overthrow the Assad regime, not to defeat the Islamic State. Beyond the slanted diction in the label – Syria’s rebels are not moderate by any American standard – members of those groups freely admit fighting alongside fighters from the Nusra Front, Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria,[6] and some of the rebel groups have signed a formal non-aggression pact with ISIS which defeats any interest we might have in partnering with them. [7]

If Syria’s Sunni Arab rebels defeat Assad’s Shi’a Alawite military, then it is virtually certain that Syria’s Shi’a Alawites and the minority populations who fought with them, including Syria’s Christians, will be slaughtered. Syria’s rebels are Sunni Islamists as well so it is also virtually certain that extremist elements of that movement will emerge that are hostile to the United States and the West with no central government capable of keeping them in check. That’s exactly what happened in Libya.

Even if successful, the Obama administration’s plan will be a failure. A true strategic plan would outline new borders for Iraq and Syria that reflect the natural interests of the groups who live on that land, particularly for the Kurds who are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state. Given this void, I will propose a plan that takes into account the political forces that are allowing IS to regenerate and to grow in strength faster than our bombs can kill members of the group.

First, our leaders must understand and articulate the ideology that this group has ingested, and that means understanding the deep roots of Salafism in Saudi Arabia. Without understanding that, you can’t fully understand the Arab Spring, and how the US got on the wrong side of it. Nor can you fully understand why Bin Laden planned an attack against the twin towers against the advice of everyone around him,[8] and why the war that followed the 9/11 attacks was such an unqualified success for him personally and for the Salafi-Jihad he believed in. Without this clarity of understanding, we can’t see how strategic deficiencies in our detainment system actually strengthen the Islamist groups we are fighting. We can’t realize as a country that we are losing a global war against the Salafi-Jihad. By understanding why we are losing, we can then create a strategy that allows us to win.

Ibn Taymiyyah, Saudi Arabia, and the Salafi-Jihad

It is not by chance that Osama Bin Laden and 15 of the 19 men who performed the 9/11 attacks were all citizens of Saudi Arabia, because it is the birthplace of the Salafi-Jihad, the religious ideology that fueled Bin Laden and his followers. It would be impossible to understand the Cold War without grasping that war’s association to Communism. Likewise, it is impossible to understand America’s conflict against the Islamic State, Al-Qaida, Ansar al-Sharia, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab without understanding the Salafi-Jihad.

The salaf refers to the first three generations of Muslims following the death of Muhammed in 632. Sunni Muslims, who believe that the tradition of the Prophet and the consensus of the Muslim community, the Ummah, provides the basis for Islamic law, venerate these particular generations of Muslims due to a saying attributed to Muhammed where he claimed: “The people of my own generation are the best, then those who come after them, and then those of the next generation.”[9]

While most schools of Sunni thought seek to interpret the Quran’s legal prescriptions from the consensus of contemporary generations of Muslims, a tradition that allows for Islam and Shariah law to adapt to more contemporary viewpoints regarding legal punishment, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a 9th century Islamic scholar, gave birth to the Salafi movement, an ultra conservative sect of Islam that rejects any modern interpretations of Islamic law.[10] Hanbal stated that it was only possible to verify the consensus of the Muslim community during the salaf when the Muslim community was gathered in one geographic location; therefore, all of the other schools of Sunni thought that rested on the collective interpretation of later generations of Muslims were false. In this manner, Hanbal enshrined the salaf’s barbaric 7th century legal traditions that included draconian punishments like the amputation of hands for theft and stoning women to death for adultery.

Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century Salafi scholar, loosened the Hanbali definition of legitimate legal consensus by expanding it to later generations of Muslims outside of the salaf but only for the community of the religiously learned, the Ulema. This point is important for it allows for a contemporary consensus of Sunni Muslim clerics to undermine the religious rationale of the Islamic State. But, like Hanbal, Taymiyyah also rejected other creeds of Islam and members of other religions as apostates or takfir, unbelievers. Taymiyyah’s actions and writings provide a barbaric playbook for the horrific actions of the Islamic State today. For example, he insisted upon the death sentence for a Christian accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammed in 1294,[11] and he believed that shrines to saints were an affront to Islam.

The Islamic State’s decision to blow up the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul at the Nabi Younis Mosque on July 24, 2014 is a direct reflection of Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings. The financial link between Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideology and the Islamic State, however, originates from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a tribal pact made in 1744 between Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a disciple of Ibn Taymiyyah, and the House of Saud. Muhammed Al-Wahhab wished to aggressively purify the world of the deviant behavior that he perceived around him. He stated, “Those who would not conform to this view (Salafism) should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated.”[12] Wahhab’s definition of takfir, unbelievers, included fellow Muslims and his depraved prescription for dealing with them explains the Islamic State’s persecution of Iraq’s Shi’a Muslims, Yazidi, Christian, and Turkmen.

Al-Wahhab had been expelled from Najd, today a central region in Saudi Arabia, for razing the grave of a Companion to Mohammed, a site revered by locals, for personally organizing the stoning of a woman for adultery, and for cutting down a group of trees considered sacred by the locals. While Wahhab had loyal followers, he needed protection and a political benefactor. Muhammed bin Saud, who ruled a territory adjacent to Najd, welcomed Wahhab to his land where Wahhab proposed a deal: “You are the settlement’s chief and wise man. I want you to grant me an oath that you will perform jihad against the unbelievers. In return you will be imam, leader of the Muslim community and I will be leader in religious matters.” The modern state of Saudi Arabia still rests upon this agreement. The terms Wahhabist and Salafist are largely interchangeable today because Saudi Arabia is now inextricably linked to the current Salafi movement. When Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) discovered oil in Saudi Arabia in 1938, the Salafi movement, backed by billions of Saudi petro dollars, exploded across the world.

While the tribal pact between the House of Saud and the Salafis continues to this day, the relationship is highly unstable. The House of Saud has had to put down several Salafi revolts led by the descendants of Wahhab. In 1929, Abd al Aziz of the House of Saud had to kill the Salafi warriors in his army after they refused to obey his orders to stop attacking adjacent territories with the goal of subjugating them to the Salafi ideology. In 1979, the House of Saud again had to defeat a Salafi group led by Juhayman Al-Utaybi after several hundred of his followers took over al-Haram, the Great Mosque at Mecca and Islam’s holiest site.

Unfortunately, the 1979 incident at al-Haram scared the Saudi royal family so much that it perversely incentivized them to export the Salafi ideology abroad even more aggressively in an effort to bolster the royal family’s religious credentials. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the House of Saud capitalized on the invasion as a golden opportunity to re-direct Salafi-jihadist ambitions to Afghanistan and the world and therefore away from home. Osama Bin Laden, the most well-known Salafi-jihadist of our era, began his rise to prominence as the leader of the Salafi-Jihad during the fighting in Afghanistan.

In 2008, Assad Moghadam published an essay for The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point[13] that clearly articulates the salient points of the Salafi-Jihad. The essay explains the jihadist religious ideology, the unique challenge it presents, and the importance of calling it out explicitly so that American leaders can create a mythology, like Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” label for the former Soviet Union, that allows the American people to understand the threat in plain terms and to defeat it. Without understanding this enemy, American leaders have been unable to create a coherent national strategy. And this lack of a strategy continues to put American military forces and aid on the wrong side of the fighting, a situation that was particularly true during the so-called “Arab Spring.”

While America passively watched as Mubarak fell from power in Egypt, Bin Laden anticipated that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would facilitate the political goals of the Salafi-jihad by observing: “There is a sizable direction within the Brotherhood that holds the Salafi doctrine, so the return of the Brotherhood and those like them to the true Islam is a matter of time, with the will of Allah.”[14]

It is axiomatic that the United States of America and Osama Bin Laden should have diametrically opposed political goals, yet America did nothing to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood, a Salafi Islamist group, from assuming power from Hosni Mubarak, a secular dictator, in Egypt. We seemed to have no idea that one of the primary goals of bin Laden and his followers from the beginning was to topple secular governments in the region and replace them with pro-Salafi regimes. Their idea of success has always been to build an ultraconservative Islamic caliphate. The residents of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, found out what that looks like early this summer. Within days of the city’s fall, IS fighters were in the streets distributing new required textbooks for school children based on the Salafi doctrine, books that require children to deny certain national boundaries, ignore scientific discoveries and remain ignorant of any other religion. Horrified parents throughout the city kept their children home from school in September, and threats from the new government soon followed.

Saudi Arabia is responsible for spreading a perverse, violent brand of Islam that is rejected by most of the Muslim world. American leaders should not be afraid to call it out explicitly because highlighting the radical nature of the Saudi brand of Islam helps to empower mainstream Muslims to explain the difference between Salafi views and moderate Muslim doctrines to the American public.

The first step to defeating the Islamic State requires a re-definition of the conflict America has been fighting since 9/11 as the Global War against the Salafi-Jihad.

Sayyid Qutb, Osama Bin Laden, and Al-Qaida

Sayyid Qutb, a prominent early leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, influenced the doctrines of Al-Qaida and the Islamic State more than any other 20th century thinker. Qutb’s writings are virulently anti-American due to the corruption he perceived in American society while attending college in America. Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, one of Osama Bin Laden’s college friends, attested to Qutb’s influence when he remarked that he and Bin Laden both “read Sayyid Qutb. He was the one who most affected our generation.”[15]

During the 1940s, Qutb spent two years studying in Washington DC, Colorado and Stanford University where his Islamic identity and hatred for the Western way of life became more pronounced. Qutb did not hide his disgust for the American way of life in his writing, raging against America’s “individual freedom, devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives” the animal-like “’free mixing of the sexes’” and the “vulgarity which you call ‘emancipation of women.’” Qutb insisted that Muslims have a duty to spread shariah to all countries by force. He wrote, “Any place where the Islamic Shari’ah is not enforced and where Islam is not dominant becomes the Home of Hostility (Dar-ul-Harb)… A Muslim will be prepared to fight against it, whether it be his birthplace or a place where his relatives reside or where his property or any other material interested are located.”

Qutb’s writings shaped the worldview of Osama Bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaida, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the former Washington DC area imam turned leader of Al Qaida’s franchise in Yemen until he was killed by an American drone strike on September 30th, 2011. Sayyid Qutb’s younger brother, Muhammed Qutb, taught Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama Bin Laden regularly attended Muhammed Qutb’s lectures at King Abdulaziz University. Anwar Awlaki, who began to read Sayyid Qutb’s writings in prison, wrote that he would become “so immersed with the author I would feel Sayyid was with me in my cell speaking to me directly.”[16] The Egyptian state executed Sayyid Qutb in 1966 for his attempt to assassinate the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but the power of his writing endures.

The Near and Far Enemy

The ultimate goal of the Salafi-jihad is the restoration of the Islamic caliphate. In order to achieve this goal, the Salafis believe they must defeat two enemies: the Far Enemy, America and the West, and the Near Enemy, the secular Middle Eastern monarchs and dictators. While the majority of Salafi-jihadists focused on the Near Enemy, Osama Bin Laden chose to focus on attacking the Far Enemy first.

Bin Laden’s strategy was highly controversial. Some jihadists believed that the response from America and the West might wipe out the Salafi movement, but Bin Laden was undeterred. Emboldened by his experiences fighting the Soviet Union, Bin Laden’s goal was to isolate the Near Enemy from the support of the Far Enemy and then topple the secular regimes one by one. The 9/11 attacks represent a continuation of Bin Laden’s strategy, yet Bin Laden could not have anticipated that those attacks would compel the Far Enemy to attack a Near Enemy regime instead of focusing solely on destroying Al-Qaida.

Given the Salafi-jihadists strategy, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a colossal blunder for America and an unforeseen boon for Bin Laden and other Salafi groups. In one action, the Far Enemy, America, toppled a Near Enemy regime, Iraq. By subsequently disbanding the mostly Sunni Iraqi Army and banning Ba’ath Party members from government jobs, the Bush administration effectively barred Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslim community from participating in the new Iraqi state, a de facto act of political warfare that drove Iraq’s Sunni Arab community straight into the arms of Al-Qaida in Iraq, the group that eventually evolved into the Islamic State, and fueled an insurgency in Iraq that has never ended. President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq accomplished something that no Salafi-jihadist group had been able to achieve on their own – the removal of a Near Enemy regime and the opportunity to establish an Islamic caliphate.

By October 2004, Bin Laden was openly gloating about the situation in the press: “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy… All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”[17]

Bin Laden’s analysis was sound. The 9/11 attacks cost Al-Qaida $500,000. Today, America spends $1.3 billion per week in Afghanistan and $7.5 million per day in Iraq. In combat, I have personally seen insurgent countermeasures that cost less than $100 defeat DoD systems that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Despite President Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq, his administration has perpetuated the same strategic error in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. By actively intervening to topple Moammar Gaddafi in Libya just as Gaddafi’s forces appeared set to crush the revolt that started in Benghazi, the Obama administration bombed in support of Salafi Islamist groups fighting against a Near Enemy regime. Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of politics by other means; through that lens, the American military directly supported Al-Qaida’s political ends. The short-term results speak for themselves. It is hard to imagine that an American ambassador and his security detail would be dead, the Tripoli airport closed, and American Special Forces conducting frequent operations in Libya if Gaddafi’s security forces were actively policing the Salafi groups. We do not know the long-term results, but thousands of surface to air missiles are now in the hands of Salafi groups in Libya. It is difficult to understand how Gaddafi’s removal has made Americans safer, or how Gaddafi was worse than the groups that have replaced him.

In Egypt, the Obama administration let Hosni Mubarak fall in favor of The Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb’s organization. In Iraq, Vice President Biden squandered the last opportunity to choke off Sunni support for Al-Qaida in Iraq[18] by endorsing Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shi’a Arab aligned with Iran, to continue as Prime Minister of Iraq over Ayad Allawi in 2010 despite the fact that Allawi, a secular Shi’a, had won more seats in the national election, had the support of Iraq’s Sunni electorate, and did not have Iranian ties. In Syria, President Obama approved aid to Sunni Arab groups, including Islamist groups sympathetic to Al-Qaida’s ideology.

Understanding America’s misadventures in the Middle East post 9/11 in the context of the Salafi-jihad and Saudi Arabia’s support for that ideology across the globe explains why American support for Sunni Islamist groups not named Al-Qaida or the Islamic State resulted in tragedy in Libya and will end in tragedy again in Syria and as often as America repeats the error. Sunni Islamist groups, Al-Qaida, and the Islamic State are all shades of the same thing because they share the same Salafi ideology, if not equal brand recognition. When America arms Sunni Islamists, we aid our own enemy. We arm people sympathetic to the men who flew the planes into our building on 9/11. On April 27 2013, the New York Times reported, “ Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” Saudi Arabia significantly contributed to that state of affairs by funding Sunni Islamist groups in Syria sympathetic to the Salafi ideology. In Syria, the Islamic State grew with the help of Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Michael Ware, an Australian journalist who embedded with insurgents in Iraq while reporting for Time Magazine, extensively documented how the Salafi ideology gradually co-opted a Sunni nationalist insurgency in Iraq, turning a mostly secular insurgency into a religious one. Saudi financing played a significant role in enabling the radicalization of the insurgency in Iraq because Saudi dollars flowed to the Salafi groups. To adopt the position that Sunni rebel groups in Syria would somehow be able to resist the rise of the Islamic State is to ignore the actual rise of Al-Qaida in Iraq, now the Islamic State, through a nationalist Sunni insurgency in Iraq. As nationalist Sunni Arab rebel groups ran out of money, Saudi Arabia’s influence grew, and the Salafi ideology leapt into the Sunni consciousness in Iraq.

While the Islamic State is hardly the entire responsibility of the Obama administration, an unbroken series of blunders by the Bush and Obama administration together have enabled the Salafis to establish their caliphate. The miscalculations made by the Bush and Obama administrations are more sickening because the weakest and most helpless communities in Iraq and Syria are bearing the brunt of the Islamic State’s horrific Salafi ideology. Keeping those minority communities safe was the only good thing I could point to from my time in Iraq. Now, that is gone too.

By stripping away the secular dictators who have historically controlled Salafi Jihadist groups, America and her Western allies are effectively assuming the burden of keeping these jihadist groups in check within the countries that are de-stabilized. America’s military is neither prepared to assume this burden nor are the American people ready to accept the types of tactics that must be employed in order to defeat an enemy that does not respect Geneva, beheads children, and crucifies Christians.

Strategically, we do not have the money to continue to fight the Salafi groups the way we fight them today. Tactically, this enemy presents an enormous moral challenge, for warfare is reciprocal by nature. This brutal enemy must be contained, and my time in Iraq has convinced me that our rules of engagement and our legal system, as they exist today, preclude America from winning a conflict against the Salafis unless American forces are fighting them through a proxy.

The Salafi-jihadists are indoctrinated, cold-blooded killers who will attempt to spread their brutal ideology across the world unless they are dead or in prison. If indefinitely detaining the worst insurgents at Guantanamo or waterboarding senior insurgent leaders is considered a controversial means to combat this enemy, then America does not have the capacity to effectively replace a dictator’s security forces in the fight against this enemy whose ideology is so potent that their fighters can behead innocents in cold blood.

By catching and releasing virtually all of the insurgents we have caught in Iraq, America’s detention system effectively incubated the Islamic State in American prisons where the militants consolidated their command and control structure. The New York Times reported that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, “handpicked many of his deputies from among the men he met while a prisoner in American custody at the Camp Bucca detention center.”[19] This reporting matches my experiences in Iraq: nearly one-third of the insurgent leaders my unit captured, including the second in command of an Al-Qaida vehicle bomb network responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, had already been captured and released from an American prison.

The situation is so frustrating that I do not believe there is an adjective to capture my emotions. Salafi-jihadists do not stop killing because they spend a year or two locked up in prison. When released, they are smarter, more resolute, more lethal, and, worst, more coordinated by virtue of the network they built while in prison. In hindsight, raids I led that resulted in the capture of high value targets may have actually increased the lethality of the Islamic State. That thought makes me nauseous. Many of the men we captured in Iraq from 2003 – 2010 are crucifying people in Syria and beheading members of minority communities in Iraq today. Not least their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who spent several years in an American prison.

Those men have made no secret of their plans to execute a successful attack on the American Homeland and they may succeed. If American ground forces are sent back after them, it is imperative that we don’t fight the same “catch-and-release” war that we fought in Iraq for seven years and that we are fighting in Afghanistan this very day. The United States of America is incapable of defeating the Islamic State militarily until the problems with our detention system are fixed. In the meantime, drone strikes and air strikes are the most effective tool in our arsenal, because they allow us to kill targets without dealing with the legal issues that accompany detention. These flaws are important because any effective strategy to defeat the Islamic State must account for key operational constraints.

Whatever Hussein, Gaddafi, Assad or Mubarak are or were –- a complicated question given the questionable borders established in the aftermath of World War I — their forces did not attack my country on 9/11. They did not bomb the USS Cole. They did not bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. In fact, their security forces actively contained and eliminated Salafi-Jihadist groups.

The men who flew the planes into our buildings on 9/11 were all Salafi jihadists. The men who killed Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi were Salafi jihadists. The British militant who beheaded James Foley is a Salafi jihadist. A dictator who fears death and the might of the American military would never perform any one of those actions. Despite this reality, American policy makers have consistently sided, by action or inaction, with Sunni Salafi jihadists and their allies against secular dictators, after 9/11.

In short, America has actively and repeatedly aided the implementation of Osama Bin Laden’s strategy rather than consistently opposing Salafi jihadists.

How to Defeat the Islamic State

The Salafi-Jihad is a religious ideology dedicated to the establishment of shariah law across the world and it attracts fighters to its ranks by speaking to local political grievances. The groups that fight for the Salafi-Jihad, such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaida, can be defeated by simultaneously undermining the religious justification for the movement while addressing the political issues that spur young Sunni men to its ranks. To accomplish these goals, Sunni clerics must attack the religious rationale underpinning the Islamic State’s brutality while America must demonstrate the political courage needed to rectify the political isolation of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria that makes it so easy for the Islamic State to recruit young Sunni Arab men.

On September 24 2014, more than 120 Sunni Muslim clerics from around the world, including the current and former grand mufti of Egypt, eight scholars from Cairo’s renowned Al-Azhar University, and other well known Sunni leaders, released an open letter denouncing the Islamic State. The letter, which quotes the Quran and Hadith extensively, is a critical step for it deconstructs the religious arguments advanced by the Islamic State in order to justify their barbaric actions. Still, the letter should not be conflated as a purely positive development for the letter justifies tenants of political Islam that treat non-Muslims as a separate class without the same rights as Muslims. The concept of jizyah, a tax levied upon non-Muslims under Shariah law (separate from zakat, the tax levied upon Muslims), effectively represents taxation without representation in perpetuity for non-Muslims.

Without the protection of fundamental, equal rights available to all, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of religion, democracy cannot flourish. In American culture, freedom and democracy are usually interchangeable as terms because we recognize they are two sides of the same coin. Every citizen must be free and with equal rights for a true democracy to thrive. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet Islamists reject equal freedoms for non-Muslims. It is critical for American policymakers and American citizens to understand this distinction because it means that Islamists, if democratically elected, will strip away the freedoms and rights of non-Muslims.

This is a nuance that American policy makers have yet to grasp. America is arming Sunni Islamist groups even as Syria’s secular minorities, including Christians, have flocked to the Assad regime, not because they love Assad, but because the Sunni Islamist groups are worse. If our military gains in Iraq and Syria are to achieve positive, lasting political ends, then America must successfully navigate this dilemma.

To understand why the Islamic State is growing in Syria and Iraq, you have to understand how those countries came to be after World War I when the British and French created them as state. In 2002, Jack Straw, then the UK’s Foreign Secretary, remarked, “A lot of the problems we are dealing with now – I have to deal with now – are a result of our colonial past.” Straw’s remarks referenced the Sykes – Picot Agreement of 1916, the agreement that formally established the states of Syria and Iraq.

Much of today’s suffering can be traced back to this agreement and to Mark Syke’s infamous remark that preceded it at a Downing Street meeting on December 16, 1915 where he stated: “I should like to draw a straight line from the “e” in Acre (in Syria) to the “k” in Kirkuk (in Iraq).” The resulting borders, partially drawn with a ruler on a map, furthered British and French economic interests, but they effectively scuttled the possibility of a stable government of any kind in Iraq by combining Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs, and Sunni Kurds – three groups with fundamentally different interests and aspirations – under one government. To make matters worse, the British had promised the Arabs independence in exchange for their cooperation against the Ottomans during World War I. The Sykes – Picot agreement negated this promise and rightly infuriated the Arabs. Lawrence of Arabia, the famous British military officer, heroically attempted to prevent Sykes – Picot from happening but he was ultimately thwarted.

Almost a century later, there is still political capital to be mined from invoking the name of this agreement and all that it implies about Western greed and ignorant meddling. Small wonder then that in Abu Bakr’s first speech after declaring himself Caliph of the Islamic State, he said, “And this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes – Picot conspiracy.” Iraq’s Arabs revolted against the British in 1920 just two years after the end of World War I. Like the mostly Sunni Arab Iraqi insurgency composed of Saddam’s former officers that I fought in 2006 – 2007, bitter officers from the defeated Ottoman Empire’s army led the 1920 Iraqi insurrection against the British. In fact, one of the Sunni nationalist militias I fought in Iraq called themselves the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

In large part, the post-colonial legacy the British left in Iraq is why America’s strategy to replace Saddam with democracy has failed miserably. Without a strongman to hold the country together by force, the divisions between Iraq’s different sects emerged and a slow civil war has ensued. As the majority power, Iraq’s Shi’a Arabs had an opportunity to be inclusive after The Surge but when they opted for revenge Iraq effectively ceased to exist as a state. What is morbidly fascinating to me is that the current fighting in Iraq and Syria has largely unwound the Sykes – Picot agreement along underlying religious and ethnic lines as the false border between Syria and Iraq vanished while Iraq itself split up into three different states: Kurdistan in Iraq’s north, a Sunni state in Iraq’s west stretching up to Aleppo in Syria, and a Shi’a state that runs from Baghdad to Basra. Currently, Iraq’s Kurdish state is very friendly to America and her interests; Iraq’s Shi’a state is controlled by Iran and will be opposed to American interests over the long-term; and, Iraq and Syria’s Sunni state, which is primarily run by the Islamic State, is rabidly hostile towards America and the West. The Islamic State’s growth, though terrifying to the West, is fueled by the long history of Sunni Arab grievances against the West from the betrayal of Sykes – Picot to the invasion that toppled them from power in 2003.

Still, every crisis presents both danger and opportunity. From my experience, most of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs despise Al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Many of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are fond of the Western way of life. (Johnnie Walker is an especially popular brand of alcohol over there.) Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have welcomed the Islamic State with open arms not because they like them but because they are desperate and view them as less dangerous than the Shi’a militias and death squads that terrorized them in Baghdad.

The destabilization of Syria that separated the country’s Sunni and Shi’a populations and brought about the political isolation of the Assad regime has gifted the Obama administration with a golden opportunity to back the formation of a new, legitimate government for Iraq and Syria’s Sunni Arabs. This new government could resemble the profile of our closest allies in the Middle East like Jordan and, over time, Turkey.

To defeat the Islamic State and to further American interests, the United States must create a legitimate secular, political alternative for Iraq’s Sunnis. The first step to win is to define the optimal outcome for the region, to identify the incentives of local actors who would be aligned with our political ends, and then to take an honest look at our constraints in order to craft a viable strategy to achieve our goals.

To start, the region needs new borders that reflect that natural interests of the groups on the ground that they contain. Fortunately, the one silver lining to eleven years of sectarian warfare is that there are now very clear de facto borders that reflect the underlying interests of the actual groups of people living within them. A reformed Iraq and Syria should look like this:

The goal is not for Syria’s Sunni rebels to defeat Assad because the western part of Syria is Alawite and has many non-Muslim minority sects that might be massacred should the US-backed Sunni Arab Syrian rebels triumph. The goal should be peace and security for all of the groups enabled by legitimate, secular governments. By imposing a no-fly zone for Assad’s air force over the new Sunni state in Syria, the United States can partition Syria relatively quickly into a Shi’a Alawite state and a Sunni Arab state without involving ground troops. This move would satisfy the Gulf Arab states and the Iranians, though the Assad regime would certainly protest, but, more importantly, it would unwind the false borders drawn by the British.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. They are also the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East after the Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Recognizing a new Kurdish state is not only the right thing to do, it simply formalizes what everyone on the ground has known for the better part of a decade – Kurdistan exists as a de facto state. They have a legitimate claim to the land and it is high time that America demonstrates the political courage needed to recognize their struggle for self-determination. America should arm and support the Kurds to the maximum extent possible where they are fighting for Kurdish territory.

Iraq’s current government is effectively an Iranian controlled Shi’a state that only controls Iraq’s Shi’a south. After being slaughtered at the hands of the Shi’a in Baghdad, Iraq’s Sunnis will never let Shi’a security forces back into their towns and cities. And now that the country has been ethnically segregated it is far too late to talk about political inclusion in Baghdad. There was a chance for reconciliation but it is gone now. Iran runs what is left of Iraq now and its leaders will rule there by proxy for a long time, especially now that the Iraqi Army has disintegrated and Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have rejected the Iraqi state that remains. It must seem absurd to the secular Kurds defending Kobane that the United States is more willing to support an Iranian backed Shi’a Arab regime in Baghdad over a secular people who love democracy and America fighting for the basic right to self-determination. It is certainly an absurd (and heartbreaking) state of affairs to me.

The best outcome for America is for a secular, pro-western leader along the lines of Mustafa Kemal, who established Turkey as a secular state in the aftermath of World War I, to govern Iraq and Syria’s Sunni Arabs instead of the Islamic State. This Sunni Arab leader would have to defeat the Islamic State, Al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, as well as the various groups of Syrian Islamists that might oppose him. America can accomplish all of these objectives with money, special forces, and our air force while leveraging Iraq and Syria’s tribes and secular Sunni Arab fighters rather than conventional American ground forces.

During The Surge, General Petraeus paid Sunni Arab tribe leaders more money to kill Al-Qaida in Iraq fighters than the Al-Qaida in Iraq fighters were paying the tribes to kill Americans. The tactic was highly effective but impermanent because even then America didn’t have a political strategy to win in Iraq. America can win by employing the same tactic again but coupled with a meaningful political objective for the Sunni tribes – the establishment of a secular Sunni state that preserves the tribal structure of Arab society within the borders of what used to be Iraq and Syria.

Ali Hatem, the foremost Sheikh in Iraq’s Anbar province, is the most likely candidate for the task. By funding him so that he can buy the tribes, backing him with American special forces and air power, and motivating him with the prospect of leading a legitimate Sunni government recognized by the West, the Sunnis would finally have an alternative to the Islamic State and other Islamist groups. Given that the Sunni rebel groups represent Saudi Arabian and Gulf state proxies while Assad’s forces represent Iranian proxies, this approach is necessary if America even has a chance at defeating the Islamic State and replacing it with a legitimate, pro-Western government that won’t further destabilize the region.

When this secular, Sunni leader wins – an inevitable outcome with the right support — then Iraq and Syria’s Sunnis will have legitimate, secular political representation. For this reason, the Islamic State’s ability to recruit will be greatly diminished. Additionally, the new Sunni government will be responsible for policing the remnants of the Salafi-jihadist groups. In short, if America achieves these well-defined political goals, the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria will have a secular, pro-Western government committed to ensuring that the Islamic State, once defeated, stays defeated. But that battle need not involve America or her conventional troops directly.

The United States’ current “strategy” for Iraq and Syria prescribes military action without defining the political purpose of that military action. If anything, the last thirteen years should stand as an indelible lesson that such actions inevitably make the United States less safe over the long-term. We can defeat the Islamic State but we require a leader who can give us a vision of what a new Iraq and Syria should look like after we are through.

We have to hurry. Millions of lives are at stake. The clock is ticking.


An Army Ranger, Blake Hall led a platoon of scouts and snipers hunting high value targets in Iraq for fifteen months during 2006 – 2007. He was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for leading his men during a firefight against insurgents in an action senior commanders credited with saving twenty American lives.

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