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By Mr M. Blythen


The Middle East holds a prominent spot in New Zealand’s heritage. Many families (mine included) have relatives still lying in those distant lands, kiwis that made the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of adventure, defence of our values and ‘doing the right thing’.

100 years after our first forays into the region, New Zealand is once again preparing to send military forces to Iraq to assist in training the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to defeat Daesh (a.k.a. ISIL) and restore Iraq’s territorial integrity.  Our efforts, as before, are part of a wider Coalition of like-minded countries that perceive the threats emanating from regional instability too great to ignore.

During the development of the Regional Campaign Plan (RCP), there has been much debate within Central Command (CENTCOM) – the combatant command responsible for the United States’ military interests in the region – on how to develop an effective strategy to counter Daesh and prevent its reemergence.  A key part of CENTCOM’s analysis – within the military line of effort – has been to clearly define Daesh’s strategy, capabilities, requirements and potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited and lead to the organisation’s defeat.



The aim of this paper is to identify the Daesh Center of Gravity which, when negated, will lead to the defeat of Daesh.



Daesh has declared itself as the Islamic ‘State’, the foundation for a caliphate.  Currently, its main point of difference – perhaps its only one – from other similar organizations (AQ, Taliban, Haqqani Network) is that it draws authority and legitimacy from controlling a population. As such, population control is assessed as the Daesh CoG.



In its quest to create an Islamic state, the extremist organization Daesh (an acronym from al-Dawlah al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa ash-Sham, being the Arabic equivalent of ISIL) poses a significant regional, if not global, security threat.  Daesh’s vision is grand, with designs on Saudi Arabia, Israel, and major attacks on the West, declaring that its jihadis will eventually “invade Rome and then conquer it”[1].  Its progress and profile have been enhanced by the sophisticated use of media delivering a global propaganda and recruiting campaign.

Daesh is currently much more than a terrorist group, or even a military force.  The organization has exploited the internal strife in Syria and sectarian divide in Iraq to seize a sizable territory as the foundation for its caliphate vision; the elimination of post-colonial and “artificial” borders to form an Islamic State.  To manipulate the population, it has demonstrated a capacity and capability (albeit semi-effective) for finance, judiciary, governance and other civil services.

Although Daesh’s military assets and leadership have been degraded by kinetic actions, it persists as a significant menace.  It continues to spread its tentacles, undermining central authorities and gaining influence over the populace.  For example, in many areas of Iraq, Daesh control is preferred over that of the Iranian-influenced Shia-heavy Iraqi government.  The ‘normalization’ of life under Daesh’s control has made the local population increasingly less likely to resist or expel the extremist threat.

Daesh has proven to be a complex and adaptive enemy that cannot just be militarily defeated on the battlefield; it is a product of the region’s ills and a ‘system’ that must be comprehensively destroyed by dismantling its sources and enablers[2] rather than just attriting its symptoms.



The Center Of Gravity (CoG)

The CoG is a much-touted but often misunderstood and misapplied concept.  It encourages a search for some single vital core that holds an actor’s structure together.  According to Clausewitz’s theory on war, if this core can be identified and successfully attacked, it is supposed that the entire system will unravel.  For the same reason, equally important is identifying and protecting our own CoG and vulnerabilities.

It could refer to “… a target, or a number of targets. which might constitute a source of enemy strength and/or a critical vulnerability, found in the physical, psychological or political spheres which might, if attacked, have by itself, or alternatively in combination with other events, a decisive effect or else possibly result in consequences with potentially decisive effects”[3].

To use a chess analogy, the CoG may be the Queen – a strength and main source of our opponent’s power, or the King – a centerpiece or vulnerability whose loss will lead to the opponent’s collapse[4].

A CoG may not necessarily be related to its actual military might; it might be an economic factor, a social factor, a religious factor, a logistics factor, a political factor, or a combination of any and all — a capital city or a particular member of an alliance – that once defeated would cause the whole to crumble.  The CoG does not have to be a tangible thing.  For both Vietnam and Iraq, the US CoG was public support – something the enemy understood and attacked with vigour.


The Daesh Aim

Understanding the means, ends and strategic calculus of the enemy equips the strategist to identify the enemy’s critical elements of strategic power then design an appropriate counter-strategy.

The Daesh aim is to establish an Islamic State where the caliphate – as an enduring system of Islamic political-religious leadership – can be implemented and observed.  It requires a Caliph (in this case, self-declared by al-Baghdadi), a (willing?) community, and a territory (state) where the beliefs and protocols can be practised.  It also needs a high degree of legitimacy and acceptance from the wider Muslim world, endorsements that are currently absent.


The Daesh Strategy

According to its magazine Dabiq, Daesh’s grand strategy is predicated on military force to seize terrain and establish control before subsequent political and religious authority is attained over the citizens.  Concurrently, rigorous political messaging at local and global levels provides a religious narrative to justify its actions.

The practical tasks to establish and defend a sizable community of followers within land acquired through military conquest are:

  • Shaping operations destabilize civil governance and generate conditions for civil war (e.g. Daesh exploits the opportunities that rifts present, drawing strength from the complex circumstances that are independently causing Iraq and Syria to fail, including domestic civil and sectarian cleavages, authoritarian leadership, and polarizing regional stressors).
  • Military forces then wrest control of land, cities and infrastructure from the state.
  • In the wake of victory, social control is enforced through coercion, incentives, information operations, assassinations, and civilian displacement.
  • Exploit infrastructure and resources to provide revenue and leverage (e.g. dams, oilfields).
  • Strategic messaging to publicize victories (actual or not), recruit new fighters, attract skilled professionals, and legitimize actions through religious rhetoric.
  • Functional governance (public services, law enforcement, and judiciary) then legitimizes the strict religious authority.

To carry out the practical tasks outlined above, Daesh depends on an inter-dependent triad of critical capabilities to wage war, build state capacity, and connect with a global audience:

  • A traditional military capability that Daesh uses to wrest physical control from the modern states’ central authority and hold what it has gained.
  • A political capability to provide essential state functions within the territory that Daesh controls.  This enhances Daesh’s legitimacy as a movement that can govern, not just fight.  The ability of Daesh to deliver effective governance is essential to retaining its control and perceived legitimacy over a populace.  It is only by being the ‘preferred option’ over a central government that Daesh can retain local authority.  If Daesh was to lose this local popular support (i.e. there was a better alternative) the population would likely make Daesh’s presence untenable.  Therefore, governance is a critical (and targetable) requirement that Daesh relies upon to maintain influence over a populace.
  • A messaging capability to strategically and locally ‘influence’; Daesh can broadly and rapidly inform and persuade its target audience in the information space.

Daesh’s strategy relies on the compliance of the local population.  This compliance (tolerance?) currently exists in Iraq because the majority Sunni may not necessarily support Daesh’s objectives or ideology, but do see it as a better alternative than Iraq’s current Shia-dominated and prejudicial government.  Self-interest has primacy.  Although the dynamics and circumstances in Syria are slightly different, the Daesh strategy is comparable.

As Daesh’s military conquests transform through statecraft and normalize into accepted legitimate authority, the potential for the Coalition to gain the population’s assistance or even endorsement to remove Daesh becomes smaller.  Unless it is interdicted, the more time Daesh is provided, the more it establishes the services, routines and influence that cement it into permanence.

Underpinning DAESH’s rationale is ideology.  Daesh’s radical interpretation of Islam (extreme Wahhabi/Salafi) provides the movement with a powerful attraction, recruiting tool and, most importantly, source of inspiration and motivation.  The fact that the ideology is drawn from Islam (albeit a perverted version) makes targeting it a complex proposition: it would be impossible to defeat, eliminate or convert the necessary critical mass of believers/followers to remove the fundamental idea; and there is a risk that attacking Daesh’s beliefs (as opposed to the organization and its methods) could be interpreted as an attack on Islam itself.  Ideology is therefore assessed as a critical requirement for Daesh, rather than its CoG.


The Daesh CoG

The Daesh CoG rests on the ‘critical capabilities’ triad identified above.   Daesh has declared itself as the Islamic ‘State’, the foundation for a caliphate.  Currently, its main point of difference – perhaps its only one – from other similar organizations (AQ, Taliban, and ANF) is that it draws authority and legitimacy from controlling a population.  This is achieved by ‘carrot and stick’ governance of the people.  Incentives such as financial rewards, provision of services, and a ‘Sunni-favorable’ environment reward those who conform.  Conversely, those that don’t comply face harsh penalties, including death, usually by a brutality that echoes back to previous eras.

Without a ‘state’, Daesh loses its point of difference, much of its income stream, its symbolism, and its relevance.  Whilst the powerful motivation of ideology is acknowledged, without physical territory and the inherent population for Daesh to govern, Daesh’s statecraft becomes immaterial, its military capability becomes severely disrupted, and it much of its messaging rhetoric loses credibility and legitimacy with the target audience.

As such, population control is the Daesh CoG.


Counter-Daesh Strategy 

With this in mind, the counter-Daesh strategy needs to have a greater counter-insurgency focus; less concerned with attriting the enemy’s combat capabilities (particularly now the operational momentum has been checked) and more directed toward degrading Daesh’s ability to govern and winning over the local populace.

A key component for success against Daesh in Iraq is removing Daesh’s popular support from Iraq’s disaffected Sunni population; that is, providing them with a superior alternative.  This effort requires significant reforms from the Government of Iraq towards representative, inclusive and equitable structures and policies to build a unified population that prefers and actively pursues central Iraqi governance over that of Daesh.  To gain the people’s ‘ownership of the problem’, and mitigate a potential sectarian or civil war there must be outreach and engagement with the estranged Sunni. For success against Daesh in Syria, Daesh must be prioritised as the worst of all the enemies and a political dialogue must be made the highest priority to end the Syrian civil war NOW and focus all efforts on defeating Daesh in that country via a counter-insurgency strategy.

The physical tasks necessary to remove Daesh’s influence at the local and global levels are:

  • An effective counter-messaging strategy that serves to:
    • Expose DAESH’s battlefield losses and vulnerabilities;
    • Expose DAESH’s human rights violations and atrocities;
    • Expose the suffering and dissatisfaction of populations living under Daesh control;
    • Discredit Daesh’s religious rhetoric and integrity; and
    • Degrade the recruitment of foreign fighters.
  • Remove Daesh’s ability to deliver the goods and services (e.g. food, fuel, judiciary and other civil services) that promote its credibility and proficiency to govern the population.
  • Improve and promote the performance, influence and legitimacy of central governments appropriate to the cultural and historical conventions, (e.g. an inclusive central authority for national strategy with execution through decentralized governance and security).
  • Generating effective security for the populace that shields them from the effects of local coercion, crime, and corruption. Ideally, this is via law enforcement and judicial agencies rather than military elements.



Daesh’s strategy doesn’t require the whole-hearted support of the local population, just compliance.  This is being achieved through incentives, coercion, displacement, a lack of viable of alternatives, and manipulation of the population’s normal behavior (e.g. markets, prayers).

Daesh’s key point-of-difference (controlling territory) via population control (the CoG) must be negated; it cannot lay claim to being the ‘Islamic State’ if there is no ‘state’ (territory and citizens).   Most importantly, the popular support of the local inhabitants must be gained and held through a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign.  If this can be done, the job of regaining the ground ceded to Daesh across Syria and Iraq will be much simpler.  Preferably, the indigenous population, security forces and law enforcement will lead the efforts to reinforce statehood, a sense of ‘ownership’, and territorial integrity.

Ultimately, success will only be achieved if Daesh is no longer perceived as the preferred governing authority, it lacks the means to enforce compliance, and the region’s underlying causal conditions are addressed.  The roots of the issue lie in repression in Syria and Sunni grievances in a post-Saddam era Iraq.  A failure to fully redress these factors – whether Daesh is removed or not – will only lead to more aggravation, continued instability and further bloodshed.

[1] DAESH Dabiq publication, July 28, 2014

[2] Currently assessed as its leadership, military capabilities, financial means, ideological messaging, governance tools and popular support.

[3] Clausewitz, “On War” (as translated by Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976)

[4] Recommended reading is “The Art of Maneuver”, Robert Leonhard, 2009