US Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda

Why is the US Grand Strategy series needed?

detroying_al_qaeda_isis_planex_cover_700x410The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute conducted an intensive multi-week exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. ISW and CTP will publish the findings of this exercise in multiple reports.

The first report examined America’s global grand strategic objectives as they relate to the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda. The second report defined American strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria, identified the minimum necessary conditions for ending the conflicts there, and compared U.S. objectives with those of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in order to understand actual convergences and divergences. The third report assesses the strengths and vulnerabilities of ISIS and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to serve as the basis for developing a robust and comprehensive strategy to destroy them. The fourth report recommends a course of action (COA) that represents the best possible path forward for the United States that the ISW-CTP team could identify based on an evaluation of American interests, the current political-security dynamics, and forecasts of various actors’ plans. The ISW-CTP team tested 15 different courses of action to destroy both ISIS and al Qaeda without jeopardizing wider American interests or accepting undue cost or risk.

Subsequent reports will provide a detailed assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria and present the planning group’s evaluation of several courses of action.

Report 1 | Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential threats to the US and Europe

Summary: The terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, California have focused the West again on the threat that militant Salafi-jihadi groups pose to its security and way of life. They have provoked France, Britain, and the United States to increase their military efforts against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. They have demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that ISIS can be indefinitely contained within Iraq and Syria, the Middle East, or even the Muslim-majority world. They have revealed the inadequacy of current strategies to address the threat. These tragedies have thus created space for a serious discussion about the nature of the threat and the responses required to counter it.


Download the Report PDF | Learn More About This Report | Report One-Pager 


Report 2 | Competing Visions for Syria and Iraq: The Myth of an Anti-ISIS Grand Coalition

Summary: The United States is at risk of an escalating wave of terrorist attacks at home and against American targets abroad. Europe faces an even greater risk of such attacks. The tide of refugees from Middle Eastern wars combined with the terrorist threat is undermining central pillars of the European idea, particularly the free movement of peoples throughout the European Union. Fear of Salafi- jihadi attacks is fueling anti-Muslim sentiment in both the U.S. and Europe, threatening the ideals of tolerance and diversity that are core tenets of both societies. Growing anti-Muslim sentiments will cause more Muslims on both sides of the Atlantic to feel marginalized and alienated, which will drive even more terror attacks. This cycle is precisely what the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) is counting on to allow it to bring its fight into the heart of the West. Al Qaeda will benefit as well. The West must act thoughtfully and decisively to avert the danger now confronting us.


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Report 3 | Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of strength

Summary: The United States and Europe face mounting threats of terrorist attacks in their homelands directed or inspired by al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). The conflicts in the Middle East have destabilized the region and are feeding sectarianism globally, creating conditions ripe for al Qaeda and ISIS recruitment and expansion. Current counter-terrorism operations have not contained these threats and will not prevent additional attacks in the West. Al Qaeda and ISIS seek to bring their wars to the West and will succeed in doing so as long as they hold their regional bases in Iraq and Syria.


Download the Report PDF | Learn More About This Report | Report One-Pager 


Report 4 | America’s Way Ahead in Syria

Summary: This report recommends a course of action (COA) that represents the best possible path forward for the United States that the ISW-CTP team could identify based on an evaluation of American interests, the current political-security dynamics, and forecasts of various actors’ plans. The ISW-CTP team tested 15 different courses of action to destroy both ISIS and al Qaeda without jeopardizing wider American interests or accepting undue cost or risk.


Download the Report PDF | Learn More About This Report | Report One-Pager 


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