In a well-argued article in the current New York Review of Books, an Anonymous author – formerly with NATO) laments: “It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”
On principle, one would tend to argue that in an asymmetric conflict, the weaker has no choice but to innovate. “Going by the book” is deadly, for the stronger will catch him going by the book. Viruses are able to overcome our body’s defenses only by rapid and unforeseeable mutation.
The anonymous author admits as much, when he argues: “The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice.” They are improvising, not going by “best guerrilla warfare” as written in NATO counterinsurgency manuals.
More precisely, the author argues: “This is confirmed by US Army studies of more than forty historical insurgencies, which suggest again and again that holding ground, fighting pitched battles, and alienating the cultural and religious sensibilities of the local population are fatal.” If this is the conclusion of 40 studies, then there one is baffled by the incapacity of the US Army to “feel” a revolution.
Let me focus on “holding ground.” The conventional wisdom is that revolutionaries should not hold ground, for they would succumb to pitched battles. Yet, most revolutions started with or created a sanctuary. Castro in the Sierra Madre; Algerians in the Kabyl Mountains; Mao Zedong in Yan’an; for Iran, it was the US Embassy in Teheran; the US Revolution found its ground at Valley Forge; La Bastille was the symbol of territory liberated from the French king.
IS (the guerrilla group calling itself “Islamic State”) needs to balance the deep emotional need for having a sanctuary as symbol of sovereignty and the reality that it is difficult to defend ( it has succeeded so far). The choice of Mosul as the first “liberated town” does not surprise me. Mosul, I suspect, holds deep historical significance for the people of the Middle East. France and Great Britain bickered mightily over it after the defeat of the Ottomans. To all in the region, Mosul is a remainder of the indignity at being parceled out like pieces or real estate.
Furthermore, IS presents itself as a theocracy. Theocracies need territory too. In his first encyclical Ad beatissimi Apostolorum Principis, Benedict XV, writing after WWI had broken out (1 November 1914), lamented that the lack of territorial sovereignty hampered his efforts for peace (his explanation was that only states talk to each other).
Art. 2 of the Treaty between the Holy See and Italy (one of the three parts of what was then called the Conciliazione Agreements of 1929), states: “Italy recognizes the sovereignty of the Holy See in the international sphere as an intrinsic attribute of its nature, in conformity with its tradition end the requirements of its worldwide mission.” (my translation)
Is it that baffling that a budding theocracy feels the need for a sanctuary? A flag needs to be planted to signal the reconquered dignity. It is worth a thousand guerrilla attacks.
 ANONYMIOUS (2015): The mystery of ISIS. New York Review of Books, LXVII, 13, pg. 27
 James BARR (2011): A line in the sand. Britain, France, and the struggle for the mastery of the Middle East. Simon & Schuster, New York.