Conflict and Cooperation, Middle East Crises
Amir Bagherpour PHD, Ryan Greer | Mar 2017

Countering ISIS

Estimating the Impact of the Counter ISIS Campaign with giCompute Analytics Platform

Summary

Global Impact Strategies (giStrat.com) applied giCompute, an advanced decision analytics platform, to estimate the impact of the global effort to counter ISIL. The effort to defeat ISIL requires multiple lines of effort and coordination between allies and sometimes adversaries. Estimating the impact of the various lines of effort, particularly those that require political solutions and cooperation, is challenging to policymakers, researchers, and war fighters. For military strategists, the most challenging puzzle is understanding the potential as well as the limitations of military action in accomplishing the political objectives necessary for victory. giCompute serves as a new platform for bridging the gap between qualitative information describing the current situation and the quantitative measurements necessary for estimating the impact of issues involving multiple stakeholders and numerous factors.

  • giCompute results indicate the global effort to counter ISIL has succeeded in containing and weakening the terrorist organization. However, the results also indicate the global effort has limitations in defeating ISIL due to local political constraints, most notably the Iraqi and Syrian governments failures in providing more equitable concessions such as security and power sharing arrangements to aggrieved Sunnis at both local and national levels of government.
  • Diverging interests between Gulf Sunni Arabs and Iran are most stark in the effort to defeat ISIL. Utility calculations indicate Iran’s best payoff occurs under status quo conditions where ISIL is contained. These results suggest that Iran does not want ISIL to win but does not benefit if it is fully defeated either. A defeat of ISIL would require significant concessions to aggrieved Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq, conditions that neither the Iraqi government, Assad regime, or Iran are willing to fulfill. This appears counter-intuitive given Iran is one of the most active foreign ground components in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. However, if military gains on the ground do not lead to a political settlement between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq along with Sunnis and Alawites in Syria, the global effort against ISIL falls short of defeating the terrorist organization.
  • Monte Carlo simulations comparing the trajectory of the counter ISIL campaign prior to the recent executive order restricting travel from six countries (Syria, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Iran, and Sudan) to the trajectory following the order reveals a diminishing effect on the likelihood of defeating ISIL. This is caused by a reduction in the perceived effort to address the humanitarian crisis in the region. This diminishes the overall counter ISIL coalition’s willingness to respond to the humanitarian crisis, thereby constraining one of the significant lines of effort necessary for defeating ISIL.
  • Although the comparison shows the executive order reduces the likelihood of ISIL being defeated, the results also suggest ISIL will likely not be strengthened or significantly regain momentum.

 

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Background

Beyond a Terrorist Group: ISIS as a Quasi-State

Following the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in June of 2014, much of the international effort for countering ISIS focused on tactical activities such as preventing the smuggling of oil, tracking the sale of antiquities, tightened monitoring of remittances from abroad, preventing the flow of fighters, and kinetic military activity aimed at weakening the group’s fighting capabilities. After years of misdiagnosing ISIS as merely a terrorist organization, many government officials and thought leaders came to realize that at its apex, the group operated as a quasi-state controlling a territory the size of Belgium.[1] As the global effort to counter ISIS began improving in 2016, the so called Islamic State began to lose its territory along with financing sources such as foreign donations, oil revenues, and antiquities.  Despite substantial loss of territory and finances, analysis of ISIS financing from 2014 through early 2016 reveals the organization continues to maintain a bureaucracy that can effectively tax or extort resources from the population through a cadre of administrators and armed enforcers.[2]

As the Shia dominated, Iranian backed government in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria retake the territories under ISIL control, most Gulf Arabs and other Sunnis in the region continue to view the conflict through a sectarian lens.  Sunni’s dislike of the Shia, Assad regime, Iran, and the Iraqi government grows as they continue to suppress Sunnis in Western Iraq and Syria. As observed by the recent offensive in Mosul, this is part of the process for taking back territory from ISIL. Under these circumstances, it is questionable whether Iraq and Syria can regain their prior stature as consolidated states. The more likely path is the continued fragmentation of Iraq into three de-facto territories, a Sunni West under persistent contestation between ISIS, Shia militias, and the Iraq government, coupled with a non-existent border that joins it with ISIL in Eastern Syria, a Kurdish North, and a Shia South. Conditions for fragmentation in Syria are complex and there appears to be a severe Balkanization of the country.  The return of the country back to the status quo ante is highly unlikely.  As a significant portion of the global effort will be focused on degrading ISIL in Western Iraq, the terrorist group might attempt to rebalance its resources in locations where the Counter-ISIL coalition efforts will be disjointed.  Defeating ISIL will require coordination and resolution of differences between Gulf Arabs, Turkey, and Iran, which will not happen in the foreseeable future.  Success would also require significant concessions to Sunni populations by both the Iraqi government and the Assad regime in Syria.  This is necessary so that embattled populations supporting ISIL and other extremist groups will no longer turn to ISIL or other extremist organizations. As long as the Iraqi and Syrian governments oppress Sunni populations, the ISIS insurgency will survive.

 

About giCompute

About the giCompute Decision Analytics Platform

giStrat applied its analytics platform, giCompute, to estimate game theory based benefits (payoffs) of the major groups and actors regarding the counter ISIL campaign by ranking their known preferences across several factors.  giCompute incorporates the principles of game theory and decision science to calculate the positions leaders adopt and more importantly the impact of their actions on the overall outcome. Using this process, we estimated the overall utility values of the various factions and stakeholders involved in the region on the variety of potential outcomes related to defeating ISIL.  These calculations helped us estimate the degree to which leaders would support and influence outcomes related to defeating ISIL. Game theory is a subfield of micro-economics focused on the mathematical study of conflict and cooperation between decision-makers.

Results

Results: Projected Positions and Outcomes Pathways

Subject matter experts and analysts ranked the known preferences of key groups across six determining factors deemed most significant in countering ISIL: (1) Military support to counter ISIL partners; (2) Stopping ISIL financing and funding; (3) Disrupting the flow of foreign fighters; (4) Addressing the humanitarian crisis across the region; (5) Countering the ISIL Brand; and (6) Gaining concessions by the Iraqi government and the Assad regime.[3] Using this process, experts leveraging giCompute determined the estimated utility value each country and relevant stakeholders and groups placed on the variety of potential outcomes related to local, regional, and global efforts to defeating ISIL. The utility value calculation identifies the utility maximizing position, an estimate of the most preferred choice for the various stakeholders.

Outcome Pathways and Determining Factors

Below are the defined outcomes and the factors associated with each of those outcomes

Determining Factors

Military Support to Counter ISIL Partners – Military cooperation on the Coalition side, as well as force strength on that of ISIL is critical in determining which side will win.  At the time of this writing, over 18,000 strikes have been carried out against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, including by Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, and the UK.[4]  Other cooperative efforts include pooling of ammunition and providing advisors to Iraqi military components to strengthen their efforts in the theater of battle.[5]

Stopping ISIL Financing – ISIL finances are derived principally from taxes and extortion of the populations under its control. By conservative estimates, between 2015 and 2016 ISIL had approximately $1.5 billion in annual revenue. About $1.1 billion was generated by taxation, $300 million from oil and smuggling operations, and the remaining $100 million from minor operations such as sale of antiquities and foreign donations.  The international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has worked with member states to encourage them to identify ISIL-associated individuals to be sanctioned, share financial intelligence, identify oil produced in ISIL-held territory, and identify potential donations to ISIL via social media.[6] Cooperating states have long taken efforts to shut down the accounts of sanctioned individuals and block their use of the international financial sector through cooperation with correspondent restrictions.

Disrupting the Flow of Foreign Fighters – While ISIL’s foreign fighter force has waned, at its peak, some estimates suggest that ISIL boasted 30,000 foreign fighters from as many as 104 countries.[7]  Although the flow of foreign fighters has slowed down substantially,[8] the threat still poses a challenge to many countries, especially when many of these fighters return to their countries of origin.[9] There are a range of means to disrupt the this process, ranging from prevention of the radicalization and recruitment of foreign fighters, to leveraging border security protocols to block their travel, to arrest and prosecution.  In September 2017, the UN Security Council issued guidance to Member States to enact comprehensive laws and policies to counter the flow of individual seeking to join ISIL.  Since that time, over 40 countries have put new laws in place,[10] and importantly, countries have increased the sharing of information in order to screen suspect travelers who may be border-crossing foreign fighters, such as through INTERPOL, EUROPOL, or the sharing of other criminal or traveler information; INTERPOL is now used by at least 60 countries to counter foreign fighters, a 400% increase in recent years.[11] Moreover, states exchange expertise and best practices for, among other purposes, reducing the radicalization and recruitment of fighters, known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs and practices (see “Countering ISIL’s Brand” below).

Addressing the Humanitarian Crisis in the Region  As Syria’s civil war enters its sixth year, more than 500,000 have been killed, seven million displaced, and over four million living as refugees outside the country.  The conflict in Libya, liberation of Mosul from ISIS in Iraq, and persistence of the conflict in Afghanistan will contribute to the displacement of people, contributing significantly to a rise in human trafficking flows. How the coalition partners respond to the refugee crisis and how it will be perceived by those embroiled in the fighting will have an impact on overall coalition efforts.

Countering the ISIL Brand – Both locally and internationally, the pull to fight with ISIL is a key source of its resources through the recruitment of fighters.  Returning ISIL fighters and attacks inspired by them are now a concern throughout the world. The Coalition has encouraged the sharing of information on how to prevent radicalization and recruitment, including through CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) Summit in early 2015,[12] the United States’ creation of the Global Engagement Center, and the UAE development of the Sawab Center.[13] CVE efforts such as those in Vilvoorde, Belgium brought that region from one where ISIL was successfully recruiting new members, to one that completely halted recruitment.[14]

Concessions by the Iraqi Government and the Assad Regime – At the core of ISIL’s strength is support from the local populations. Moreover, the local political demand that led to ISIL’s recruitment or at least the absence of local actors quashing it in its infancy is likely related to the sectarian dynamics within the region, magnified by global Shia-Sunni dynamics.  Defeating ISIL will require coordination and resolution of differences between Gulf Arabs, Turkey, and Iran, which is unlikely on a broad scale in the near term.  Long-term success against ISIL within the region requires significant concessions to Sunni populations by both the Iraqi government and the Assad regime in Syria. At the core of ISIL’s strength is support from local populations. This resulted into a significant tax base because it was being perceived as a better alternative to the Iraqi and Syrian governments. Although ISIL’s expansion in Iraq has been halted, they continue to govern in parts of Syria and Iraq. As the Shia dominated Iranian and U.S. backed government in Iraq retakes the territories under ISIS control, local and regional Sunnis view this through a sectarian lens. Local Sunni populations will remain opposed to the Syrian and Iraqi governments unless there are significant concessions and security assurances provided to them.  Short of significant concessions given to the Sunni territories, Iraq will likely continue to fragment into three de-facto territories, a contested Sunni West with a non-existent border than joins it with ISIL in Eastern Syria, a Kurdish North, and a Shia South.

A RAND study on how terrorist groups end showed that the top two reasons terrorist organizations end are that its members choose non-violent means to accomplish their objectives or local law enforcement arrests all of its members.[15] Underlying both means is the need for local politics to play a key role, whether by filling the political void through non-violence that the terrorist organization opted to fill through violence, or through support of local law enforcement; as the RAND authors note, “One of the most important costs [to terrorist organizations] is the withdrawal of popular support.”  For ISIL’s part, its influence in the region – and accompanying freedom to operate – largely grew out of then-Prime Minister Maliki’s administration’s sectarian favoritism and the resulting political backlash.[16] Without a solution to these political problems, it is unlikely that local communities will rise to help police arrest ISIL members or for recruits and potential recruits to ISIL’s cause to choose non-violence.

Estimated Payoff Results

Below is a table of the estimated utility payoffs score (net benefits) for each of the major groups and stakeholders involved in countering ISIL.

Definitions

Payoffs: The scenario closest to the current reality (status quo) is indexed at a score of zero. Any payoff score greater than zero is a better option than the status quo, while any payoff score less than zero is worse than the status quo. giCompute generates these group and stakeholder payoffs (i.e. utility value or net benefit) by first capturing stakeholder preferences across the factors defined in the issue setup. giCompute then sifts through the full combinations of possible payoff scores to identify the true payoff that corresponds to each scenario outcome.

Egalitarian Outcome: The egalitarian outcome calculates the average payoff of the stakeholders across the various outcomes. It assumes all the stakeholders are equal in vote or influence.

Influence Driven Outcome: The influence driven outcome is a calculation of the aggregate payoffs for each outcome when considering the weighted influence of the various stakeholders and groups.

Cost of Friction: The relative cost of friction is defined as the degree of disagreement between the various stakeholders and groups across the scenarios.

Outcome Trajectory

giCompute utility results indicate that in the near-term ISIL will likely be contained and degraded, but will not fully defeated. When accounting for veto players such as the Iraqi government and the Assad regime, giCompute results indicate that ISIL is less likely to be defeated because neither set of actors seeks to provide the necessary concessions such as power sharing and more equitable governance to the besieged Sunni population. The utility results suggest the degree of ISIL’s weakening will be determined by the level of commitment by coalition partners. It will also be determined by the extent to which the interests of non-coalition actors such as Iran and Russia overlap with counter-ISIL objectives. For instance, European partners such as France and NATO have stated a shared objective of defeating ISIL. However, the level of effort and the actions needed for defeating or degrading the terrorist organization go beyond their preferred level of commitment or the cost Europeans are willing to endure. This is evident when comparing European utility payoffs across the various scenarios regarding the effort to counter ISIL; utility payoffs for both the EU and France are negative under the scenarios where ISIL is significantly degraded or defeated, leaving the status quo as the most preferred outcome.

Diverging interests between Gulf Sunni Arabs and Iran are most stark in the effort to defeat ISIL. Utility calculations indicate Iran’s best payoff occurs under status quo conditions where ISIL is contained. This suggests that Iran does not want ISIL to win but also does not want not want it lose. A defeat of ISIL would require significant concessions to aggrieved Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq, conditions that neither the Iraqi government, Assad regime, or Iran are willing to fulfill. This appears counter-intuitive given Iran is one of the most active foreign ground components in the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. However, if military gains on the ground do not lead to a political settlement between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq along with Sunnis and Alawites in Syria, the global effort against ISIL will fall short of defeating the terrorist organization.

Comparing Current and Projected Landscapes on Counter ISIL

Below is a comparison of the stated position of the various actors versus projected landscape which is the maximum utility value calculations.

Current Landscape

Projected Landscape

Results: A comparison of the current stated landscape compared to the calculated utility maximized landscape indicates ISIL will continue to be degraded. However, when considering veto players such as the Iraqi government and Assad regime, the effort to counter ISIL will fall short of defeating it.

Estimating the Impact of the Executive Order Restricting Travel

Considering the Administration’s travel restriction, the likelihood of cooperation could be called into question.  Foreign leaders have criticized the restriction and – in some cases – called for retribution, and cooperation with U.S. forces could be diminished.[17] This could change the outcome, as assessed using this methodology.

Pathway Assumptions Prior to Restriction

Pathway Assumptions Following Refugee Restriction

Trajectory Prior to the Executive Order Restricting Travel

Trajectory Following the Executive Order Restricting Travel

Results: A comparison of the trajectory landscape prior to the travel and refugee restriction versus the trajectory after the restriction indicates the likelihood of defeating ISIL diminishes marginally. This is caused by a reduction in the perceived effort to address the humanitarian crisis in the region. This diminishes the overall counter ISIL coalition’s willingness to respond to the humanitarian crisis, thereby constraining one of the significant lines of effort necessary for defeating ISIL.

Friction and Convergence Between Stakeholders

Degree of Convergence: The charts below show the range of utility payoffs for the stakeholders across the various defined scenarios. Misalignment of the bars and colors within the bars indicates disagreement between stakeholders. Alignment indicates agreement.

Results: The chart above reveals divergence of interests within the effort to defeat ISIL. The clearest divergence occurs between the governments of Iraq and Syria on one side versus the aggrieved Sunni populations on the other side. The Sunnis seek significant concessions in regards to autonomy and security while the governments waging war on ISIL in the besieged territories refuse to provide substantial concessions.

Reliability Testing: Monte Carlo Simulations

Description: The graphs below depict results from the Monte Carlo simulations. The Monte Carlo method uses repeat random sampling to solve problems or obtain numerical results. giCompute uses Monte Carlo simulations to allow users to test how the outputs react to randomly generated inputs over many trials. Users can direct the platform to run between one and forty randomized alternative futures. Users can also determine how many factors and factor options to randomize. The output shows the percentage the model results in each outcome over the specified number of simulations. An outcome is more likely when it has a higher win percentage.

Results: Monte Carlo simulations were conducted across 40 alternative futures with a 90% variance probability and a change of ±10% in stakeholder influence. In each simulated alternative future, we randomized two factors and two factor options while keeping the remaining factors constant. Monte Carlo simulations indicate the overall effort to defeat ISIL will result into the continued containment of terrorist organization. However, the defeat of ISIL is unlikely. A comparison of Monte Carlo simulations on the Counter ISIL effort prior to versus after the attempted travel restriction indicates the policy slightly reduces the likelihood of defeating ISIL. However, the comparison also indicates that regardless of the restriction, ISIL is unlikely to be strengthened or regain any momentum.

         Prior to Travel and Refugee Restriction

          After Travel and Refugee Restriction

 

Conclusion and Policy Implications

The global effort to defeat ISIL requires multiple lines of effort and coordination between allies and sometimes adversaries. Estimating the impact of the various lines of effort, particularly those that require political solutions and cooperation, is challenging to policymakers, researchers, and war fighters. For military strategists, the most challenging puzzle is understanding the potential as well as the limitations of military action in accomplishing the political objectives necessary for victory. giCompute serves as a new platform for bridging the gap between qualitative information describing the current situation and the quantitative measurements necessary for estimating the impact of issues involving multiple stakeholders and numerous factors.

giCompute results indicate the global effort to counter ISIL has succeeded in containing and weakening the terrorist organization. However, the results also indicate the global effort has limitations in defeating ISIL due to local political constraints, most notably the Iraqi and Syrian governments failures in providing more equitable concessions such as security and power sharing arrangements to aggrieved Sunnis at both local and national levels of government.

References

[1] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/feb/11/islamic-state-territory-now-size-belgium-lawmaker/

[2] http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ICSR-Report-Caliphate-in-Decline-An-Estimate-of-Islamic-States-Financial-Fortunes.pdf

[3] Note: this is a slightly modified version of the international Coalition to Counter ISIL’s five-pronged approach.  See, e.g. https://www.state.gov/s/seci/ or http://theglobalcoalition.org/mission/

[4] https://www.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/0814_Inherent-Resolve

[5] http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/12/who-has-contributed-what-in-the-coalition-against-the-islamic-state/

[6] http://www.fatf-gafi.org/publications/methodsandtrends/documents/financing-of-terrorist-organisation-isil.html

[7] see e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/17/30000-foreign-fighters-syria–iraq-2014-terrorism-report; https://www.icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ICCT-Report_Foreign-Fighters-Phenomenon-in-the-EU_1-April-2016_including-AnnexesLinks.pdf

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/flow-of-foreign-fighters-plummets-as-isis-loses-its-edge/2016/09/09/ed3e0dda-751b-11e6-9781-49e591781754_story.html?utm_term=.7c3cf9950d85

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/09/27/its-not-just-funded-by-oil-and-looting-how-the-islamic-state-uses-agriculture/?utm_term=.2f137dff3585

[10] http://theglobalcoalition.org/countering-foreign-terrorist-fighters-progress-update/

[11] http://theglobalcoalition.org/foreign-terrorist-fighter-flows-decline-past-year/

[12] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/18/fact-sheet-white-house-summit-countering-violent-extremism

[13] http://theglobalcoalition.org/mission/countering-daeshs-propaganda/

[14] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vilvoorde-the-brussels-district-fighting-radicalisation-with-kindness-a6791186.html

[15] “Counterterrorism is just as much about hearts and minds as it is about policing and intelligence. It requires taking calculated actions that do not alienate Muslims.” Jones, Seth G. and Martin C. Libicki. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008. http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG741-1.html

[16] http://www.vox.com/2015/11/19/9760284/isis-history

[17] http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/19/iraqs-prime-minister-says-country-wants-off-travel-restriction-black-list-dismisses-us-seizure-of-oil.html

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