Recent Articles


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

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


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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