Confidential conference calls in which the head of US Special Ops forces in the Middle East asked academics and business leaders for help in understanding the Islamic State has revealed how the US military is grappling to understand and fight its newest enemy.
Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata hosted the conference calls this summer and fall with nearly 40 experts in industry, academics, and policy, according to notes and minutes on the calls that were leaked to the New York Times and published today. Nagata seemed most interested in understanding what makes the Islamic State (IS) so attractive to young Muslims that thousands would leave their homes to join the fight. The experts told him that the IS "capacity to control" a population was particularly significant.
"What makes IS so magnetic, inspirational?" he asked, according to the Times. "There is a magnetic attraction to IS that is bringing in resources, talent, weapons, etc., to thicken, harden, embolden IS in ways that are very alarming."
The call offered a glimpse into how the military is struggling to catch up with the new threat. Patrick Skinner, director of special projects for the Soufan Group, told VICE News that it's heartening to see the US military asking these types of questions and trying to understand what might lead to success and failure in a battle with a new foe.
"We have to question everything — what are we doing, is it working, and even before that, what does it mean to succeed, what does that look like? We have to look at the psychology of ISIS and we're studying them, but also the psychology of the region, and of us. What does success look like and is it achievable?" Skinner said.
He said the US military is very good at stopping another military's operations, but not as good at fixing the underlying problems that give rise to groups like the Islamic State.
"We're the world's medic. We can stop the bleeding but we need a doctor to cure the patient, and we can't do that with strikes," Skinner said.
According to the Times, Nagata alluded to the Islamic State's success with social media and online propaganda, and seemed bewildered by the fact that the group has souvenir t-shirts and mugs. He said he believed the US needs "people born and raised in the region" to help understand and combat the group.
"I want to engage in a long-term conversation to understand a commonly held view of the psychological, emotional, and cultural power of IS in terms of a diversity of audiences," he said.
"What we have been asked to do will take every ounce of creativity that we have," he added. "This may sound like a bizarre excursion into the surreal, but for me it is about avoiding failure."
During the same time frame as Nagata's calls with his brain trust, major changes took place in the Islamic State landscape: airstrikes by the US helped contain and weaken the group, but the Islamic State also grew in numbers and in its level of violence, according to new reports.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Sunday that the Islamic State has executed 1,878 people in the past six months in Syria alone. A majority of the killings — 1,175 —were of civilians, including eight women and four children.
They've also killed more than 500 soldiers fighting for Syrian President Basher al-Assad and 81 fighting with the al-Nusra front, the report said, along more than 100 of their own fighters who had joined IS ranks but later changed their minds and wanted to leave. According to the United Nations, more than 15,000 foreigners have traveled to join the Islamic State and al-Nusra this year.
Some of the most recent violence perpetrated by the group has been against doctors in the Iraqi city of Mosul who refuse to treat Islamic State fighters, according to the Kurdish news company Rudaw.
Dr. Firas al-Hamdani, the head of the Republican General Hospital in Mosul, told Rudaw that two of the hospital's surgeons had been executed by an IS firing squad on Sunday, and their bodies had been brought to the hospital's morgue.
The Mosul Health Department told the news organization that the Islamic State had ordered all doctors to work around the clock to treat wounded fighters and issued threats to punish those who refused.
Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institute, told VICE News that the situation in Mosul is an example of how the Islamic State is not as adept at governing territory as they are in acquiring it through force.
"People who have made their bones in military organizations try to translate that into governance. They use military fiat, they want something to happen so they just order it to happen. Whereas anyone who has done governance understands it doesn't work over the long term. Doctors can't work 24 hours. They will collapse, the system will collapse," he said. "It's very clear ISIS has no idea how to govern a society and provide services."
Both Shapiro and Skinner pointed out that life in Mosul and Raqqa is worse for most residents than it was under the Iraqi government. Many have fled to regime-controlled areas because the quality of life in the Islamic State-controlled cities has become so much worse. Electricity has been cut off, water is sometimes undrinkable, schools are closed, and hospitals are not functioning well.
"Those things are super hard to do in a war environment, and what's interesting is that organizations that are good at fighting wars and providing security on the streets, there's no reason to think they would be particularly good at those things," Shapiro said.
As the US tries to figure out its strategy against the Islamic State moving forward, it will have to understand the hopelessness of the failed Iraqi state and the ongoing civil war in Syria, Shapiro said. Though it may be able to use military tactics to contain IS, it will have to figure out how to address — or whether to address — those underlying problems of warring tribal factions and failed government, just as Nagata is.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @CurryColleen