Recent Articles


Whiteside (Forthcoming May 2018). “Suffer, the Weak Must: A History of the Galactic Civil War,” in Strategy Strikes Back, Brooks, Amble, Cavanah, and Gates (eds), Nebraska University Press.


Whiteside and V. Mironova (Nov 2017). “Adaptation and Innovation with an Urban Twist: Changes to Suicide Tactics in the Battle for Mosul,” Military Review, Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Press,



“In Search of the Virtual Caliphate: Convenient Fallacy, Dangerous Distraction,” War on the Rocks,

Haroro Ingram and Craig Whiteside

September 27, 2017

The virtual caliphate emerges from this description as much more than just a cute phrase to highlight that the Islamic State will use the internet to spread its propaganda and build networks. The claim is that cyberspace will become the primary means by which the Islamic State will seek to remain relevant by transferring its efforts online (even if only temporarily). Having written extensively on the history and strategic logic of the Islamic State’s strategic communications, the idea that the Islamic State will retreat to a virtual caliphate makes us extremely uneasy. This concept obscures more than it explains. Our fear is that it is informing strategic and policy decisions more likely to hamper than enhance efforts to defeat the Islamic State.


Whiteside (Oct 3, 2017). “Political Primacy, Strategic Risks, and ISIL after the Caliphate,” IraqInContext (blog),

As always, it is instructive to look at the past to try and come to grips with these questions – with the caveat that though history never repeats itself, it is as Mark Twain once said “often constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” ISIL is under tremendous pressure and has lost tens of thousands of fighters and most of its territory since its high-water mark in early 2015. There are signs of defections, infighting, and the migration of large sums of money out of the remnants of the caliphate into the dark corners of finance. In sum, the Iraqi government’s strategy to regain sovereignty of its territory seems to be working.

With every strategy, however, there are risks that lurk in the background and are shaped by the path taken to achieve the desired ends. The Abadi Administration made the difficult decision to rely on its highly professional forces, primarily the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) and to a lesser extent – the Federal Police – to retake Mosul.  This self-limitation, designed to improve the perception of government legitimacy and prevent sectarian passions from tainting the successful liberation of Iraq’s second largest city, has shown excellent results in the polling of Sunni Iraqis, who in some cases support the government more than parts of the Shia population – a dramatic turnaround.


A Pedigree of Terror: The Myth of the Ba’athist Influence in the Islamic State Movement

Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 11, No. 3, June 2017

by Craig Whiteside


The presence of former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the Islamic State is well documented in hundreds of news reports and recently published books, and has become a staple in almost every serious analysis of the group. Attempts to measure the actual impact of this influence on the evolution of the group have left us with a wide diversity of views about the group; some believe it is a religiously inspired group of apocalyptic zealots, while others see it as a pragmatic power aggregator whose leaders learned to govern as the henchmen of Iraq’s former dictator. This article examines the impact that former Ba’athists made on who joined the Islamic State, how the organizational structure evolved, and the origins of its unique beliefs that inform strategy. The author relied on captured documents from multiple sources and Islamic State movement press releases collected since 2003 for this examination. The findings reveal that despite the prominence of some highly-visible former regime members in key positions after 2010, the organization was overwhelmingly influenced and shaped by veterans from the greater Salafi-jihadi movement who monopolized political, economic, religious, and media positions in the group and who decided on membership eligibility, structural growth, and strategic direction. This analysis should hopefully correct some inaccuracies about the origins and evolution of the group.

Key words: Ba’ath, Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, Iraq, Salafi-jihadism


Tending Flowers in the Desert

ICCT The Hague (July 2017)

The Abadi administration should be recognised for the tremendous momentum it has developed since the dark days of the summer of 2014. But before we celebrate prematurely, it must be pointed out that there are some troubling indicators that efforts to stamp out IS in Iraq, while effective in the short term, might give the movement a lifeline to survive well into the future.

This article focuses on three problematic and underreported counterinsurgency tactics executed by the government’s various security forces: population expulsions, extrajudicial killings, and mass incarceration.


Winning the Blame Game: The Caliphate of Complete Disaster

ICCT The Hague (July 2017)

…This selective attention to the sectarian element of the war, by taking incidents and rhetoric and embracing victimhood, helps IS media officials create what Haroro Ingram terms “the crisis”, which only IS can solve thanks to their superior ideology and shared identity. IS portrays all aspects of the war – whether it be the presence of foreign advisors (Western or Iranian), bombing raids, or the acts of sectarian militias – in the framework of this existential crisis. The battle of Mosul is no exception, and the biggest event that has happened in the war in three years. Accordingly, how should the anti-ISIL coalition go about preventing IS’s narrative from becoming a reality not only for Sunnis in Iraq, but accepted elsewhere in the world?


Charting the Future of the Modern Caliphate

War on the Rocks, 3 May 2017

with Colin Clarke

The slow demise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) caliphate project since 2015 has proceeded to the point where it is realistic to ask the following question: What next after the caliphate? As the battle of Mosul moves slowly to its inevitable conclusion, analysts are confidently predicting the end of ISIL — complete with a “Reichstag moment” — as the group continues to hemorrhage territory, lose access to its tax and extortion base, and find less things to celebrate in its media operations.

Unlike its rise from relative obscurity, where the group made its own luck and forged its destiny with a patient strategy and competent execution of the military campaign that won it considerable territory in Syria and Iraq, ISIL’s future survival will be determined less by its own agency and more by the actions of others. This complex interaction of actors, local and foreign, with its unpredictable effects leads to a number of possible trajectories for the decade-old movement that calls itself the Islamic State.

for rest of article, link below:


The Enduring Fight against the Islamic State

Macdonald-Laurier Institute, For Inside Policy, Mar 10, 2017

with Rasha al-Aqeedi

The impending fall of Mosul has analysts and policymakers asking, “what is next after the Islamic State?” Both the central nervous system (Raqqa, Syria) and the heart (Mosul, Iraq) of the so-called caliphate are under severe pressure, and their loss would be an important milestone in the rollback of this infamous and odious collection of terrorists, genocidaires, criminals, and revolutionaries. At the same time, the Islamic State has witnessed the loss of its crown jewel affiliate in Libya, dousing hopes of further expansion in the fragile Sahel region. These are important indicators of the direction the self-proclaimed caliphate is heading. Yet the past history of this movement should give us pause in believing that these catastrophes will inevitably lead to a rapid collapse or demise of a very coherent organization that has demonstrated its resiliency in its decade-plus existence.

Iraq is where the Islamic State was born, and is likely the only place that can demonstrate to the rest of the world how it can be defeated.










Session Three, Panel 6: Information Warfare and the War on ISIS

Kings College London, Jan 2017

Chair: Dr. Peter Busch, KCSC; Senior Lecturer, KCL

• Dr. Craig Whiteside, Associate Fellow, ICCT; Associate Professor, Naval War College Monterey. ‘Lighting the Path: the Evolution of the Islamic State Media Enterprise (2003- 2016)’ (0 – 32 min)

• Dr. Vladimir Sotnikov, Senior Research Associate Institute of Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. ‘How the Islamic State (IS) Uses Information Warfare’ (32 – 58 min)

The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond

United States Institute for Peace (USIP), Dec 12, 2016, coauthor

This report is a collaboration by 20 experts on the Middle East, Islamic extremism, and jihadism who held a series of conferences between August and November 2016. “The Jihadi Threat” reflects the broad — and often diverse — views of the coauthors. Not every one agreed on all points, but the variety of findings, trend lines, and scenarios for the future covers the best thinking about the evolution of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates.

The United States Institute of Peace was the primary sponsor of this initiative, with the backing of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Fifteen other think tanks and universities were represented in the Working Group on Extremism. The goal was always to reflect the widest expertise and the full spectrum of views.

The navigation bar along the right side includes links to six sections of the report. The first is an overview examining the future of extremism. The second, third, and fourth sections profile ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, respectively, and lay out future scenarios for each group. Part five is an analysis of key drivers of extremism ― state frailty, ideological upheaval, conflict zones, foreign intervention, socioeconomic factors, and technology. The sixth and final section outlines policy considerations for dealing with jihadi movements.


Lighting the Path: the Evolution of the Islamic State Media Enterprise (2003-2016)

Published by the International Centre for Counter Terrorism-The Hague (Nov 2016)

By Craig Whiteside

The media products of the revolutionary movement known as the Islamic State (also IS, ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) have received a significant amount of attention from analysts and journalists alike. While extremely helpful, most of this effort is focused at performing content analysis of fairly recent products. As part of the Counter-Terrorism Strategic Communication (CTSC) project’s effort to better understand propaganda messaging in the 21st century, the author of this Research Paper examined primary documents and other media published by the Islamic State movement during its entire existence in order to develop a history of the media department since 2003. The framework for analysis focused on the interaction between key media leaders, the ever-expanding structure and institutions, and the process of innovation used to experiment with different media techniques in different phases of the group’s evolution. Based on this history, the paper presents six observations about the media department and its role in the larger movement – in the hopes that this knowledge will be helpful in efforts to combat this particular group and its inevitable imitators in the future.


The Islamic State’s Coming Rural Revival

By William McCants, Craig Whiteside

Sunday, October 23, 2016, 10:22 AM

Editor’s Note: We’ve seen this move before. Once again, the Islamic State is on the run, and once again, we are hoping that this is the beginning of the end. Not so fast, contend my Brookings colleague Will McCants and Craig Whiteside of the Naval War College. They look at the period between 2008 and 2011 when the Islamic State’s predecessors went to ground in Iraq and draw lessons for how the group might behave a second time around.


New Masters of Revolutionary Warfare: The Islamic State Movement (2002-2016)

Perspectives on Terrorism (Sep 2016)

by Craig Whiteside


The Islamic State, despite its longevity, prolific media enterprise, and high profile, escapes easy definition by policymakers, academics, and the media. An examination of the movement using Mao’s revolutionary warfare framework, particularly his three stages of conflict, provides a more holistic view of the organization for both understanding and action. As part of an exploration, Islamic State captured documents and press releases were examined to establish the innovations and breadth of its adaptation of Maoist principles of guerilla warfare and the evolution of the theoretical influences on the doctrine from previous Salafi-militant experiences and publications. This research provides valuable insight into the return of a powerful method of insurgency as well as a glimpse into the vast pseudo-clandestine insurgency that is the Islamic State movement.


The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) is not well understood at this point. This paper starts by comparing the Islamic State to the Vietnamese communists in a revolutionary warfare framework and makes a causal argument that the Islamic State’s defeat of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement in Iraq was the key to its successful establishment of control of most Sunni areas and the mobilization of its population for support. Islamic State operational summaries and captured documents are used to quantitatively establish the impact of the subversion campaign against the Sahwa and Iraqi government and trace the efforts of operatives in tribal outreach and recruiting. This research provides a valuable insight into the return of a powerful method of insurgency as well as a glimpse into the vast clandestine network that provides the strength of the Islamic State movement.


Presentation: The Islamic State and the Return of Revolutionary Warfare

TRENDS Research/Stimson Center panel on the Islamic State, March 2016



(On Track, The Conference of Defense Associations Institute [Canada], Summer 2016)


Haroro Ingram and I write about three leadership transitions and their effect on the rise of ISIL (p. 38-43).


Don’t Kill the Caliph! The Islamic State and the Pitfalls of Leadership Decapitation (War on the Rocks Jun 2, 2016)

Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Haroro Ingram and I write about the evolution of the Islamic State’s leadership and the second order consequences of removing charismatic leaders from organizations.

Don’t Kill the Caliph! The Islamic State and the Pitfalls of Leadership Decapitation


The Moral Hazard of the Fight against the Islamic State in Iraq (War on the Rocks, 22 Feb 2016):


Can defeating the Islamic State lead to even bigger problems for the United States?


Vol 6 No 1 cover front

CTX Magazine (Naval Postgraduate School and the Global SOF network), January 2016

The Return of the Zarqawists: How to Deal with the Islamic State Movement
Edited by Ian C. Rice and Craig Whiteside, US Naval Postgraduate School

Edited transcript of a panel with Brian Fishman, Doug Ollivant, Casey Lucius, John Baker, and Haroro Ingram.

The purpose of the panel was to answer a series of questions about the Islamic
State movement’s return from near-defeat in 2007–2008. How was it able to
return, and what were the factors that allowed its rise? What is the nature of the
organization and its ideology? What aspects of insurgency, counterinsurgency,
and irregular warfare are present in this current conflict? At what level should
the United States be involved? Finally, how do we defeat the robust capability of
the Islamic State movement in the realm of information operations?

(P. 50-63)



Nobody Expects the Islamic State!

War on the Rocks (Oct 2015)

My Review of Will McCant’s new book on ISIS



Small Ball Warfare: An effective way to get back into a ballgame

How the Islamic State used “small ball” tactics to control territory

War on the Rocks (Apr 2015)


A case for terrorism as genocide in an era of weakened states

Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways toward terrorism and genocide

Volume 8, Issue 3, 2015

Genocide is often linked to the rise of the nation state, although it is clear that it has existed as long as warfare itself. The Armenian genocide and the Jewish Holocaust are examples of attempts by states to kill off specific sub-populations based on their identity. The advent of globalization, the rise of non-state actors, and the weakening of the state have opened the door to a new phenomenon: terrorism as genocide. Since 2003, the Islamic State movement has carried on a campaign of targeting Iraqi Shia and Yazidi civilians resulting in thousands of dead. This targeting has proceeded apace, regardless of leadership changes, funding, or relative strength of the group. This paper argues that the Shia and Yazidi in Iraq are subject to a genocidal campaign by ISIS, based on a quantitative analysis of attacks on civilians and the existing United Nations frameworks for the prevention of genocide. Furthermore, a bias against non-state actors as possible perpetrators could blind the international community to slowly unfolding genocidal campaigns. Both of these factors highlight a looming challenge to the United Nation’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine that has been mostly ignored by the media and policymakers.


Behind the Revival of the Islamic State

Musings on Iraq (Joel Wing’s blog) (June 2015)

My interview deconstructing popular but faulty narratives about the rise of IS


If only there were real Ba’athists in the Islamic State

Conference of Defense Associations Institute blog (Canada)

Discussion of the popular but misleading idea that IS was built by Ba’athists, as if jihadists hadn’t gained enough experience and knowledge over the last three decades to build their own organization. A close look at the FRE that actually joined showed they ditched their Ba’athist colleagues for ideology… a long time ago.


But Who Will Guard the Guardians?

Atlantic Council’s After the War: The Future of War writing contest (finalist)

What happens in the future when wars don’t end? My attempt at Sci-fi.



Mosul: A Bridge Too Far?

War on the Rocks (Spring 2015)

The tiny little problem with trying to take Mosul

(update Feb 2017: still not taken!)



Catch and Release in the Land of Two Rivers

War on the Rocks (Dec 2014)

The impact of our prisoner releases from Camp Bucca on the growth of IS

(spoiler alert: it was a dumb idea that apparently lasted for 7 years)














War Interrupted: Part I – The Roots of the Jihadist Resurgence in Iraq

War on the Rocks (Oct 2014)

The return of the “state” and its campaign against the Awakening

War Interrupted: Part II- From Prisoners to Rulers

How prison releases and escapes gained IS some much needed experienced middle managers in their fight to retake Sunni Iraq in 2013-4.


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