How do you take down a multinational corporate entity (MNC) bent on destruction and world domination? Would you eliminate the board of directors? Take out the CEO and CFO? Target logistics or finance? Disrupt production capabilities? Those are the questions we are faced with when deconstructing the Islamic State (ISIS) from an analytical and operational point of view, because ISIS isn’t just a terrorist group, it’s a functioning multinational entity that operates like a big business. ISIS may have started out as a mom and pop terrorist organization, but it has steadily evolved to become an international terror phenomenon, spreading its vision and exporting its product, terrorist ideology and action, throughout the world.
In this sense, ISIS operates much like a franchise brand, where franchisees get corporate training and support, access to the target market, use of the corporate logo, the benefit of an established corporate logistics and finance model, and piggyback off a successful corporate messaging campaign. ISIS employs robust public relations department to secure market share, recruits talent just like an HR department, exploits multiple revenue streams to support operations, and even operates a charity arm to increase support in the marketplace.
Let’ start with public relations. Branding and messaging has really set ISIS apart in terms of terrorist groups. The communications division in charge of messaging and marketing ISIS ideology rivals that of AT&T or Facebook. ISIS has leveraged the internet and social media platforms, designed by and for liberal democracies, to spread terrorist ideals bent on undermining western ideals. Using these platforms, ISIS has conducted a successful corporate branding campaign, using slick marketing materials, video, chat rooms, online materials, to market its message. For those targeted for recruitment, whether as active or passive supporters, ISIS has the option of moving its messaging to real life, encouraging action, identifying and employing “shareholders” to support ISIS logistics, finance, training, and operations. The success of ISIS in this area without question. ISIS social media, internet presence and written propaganda is dispersed in staggering global mass media campaigns. This is noteworthy not only for the reach of the campaign, but the low cost at which ISIS can produce and distribute their message. ISIS relies on their network to not only act as distributors, but content creators, innovators, and to build on the ISIS message to inspire their “shareholders” extended network of friends and family.
The ISIS human resources division actively recruits “workers” and headhunts top talent. For example, ISIS recruited an Egyptian petrochemical specialist, enjoying his retirement in Sweden, to come to Iraq and Syria to help organize the ISIS distribution and logistics program. By recruiting this specialist, ISIS could continue to provide local populations with gas and propane and generate much needed revenue. Using a third-party logistics system, where the drivers of the product were not members of ISIS, but local contractors, meant that
Understanding that diversification is key to growth and stability, ISIS relies on multiple revenue streams to support operations. ISIS relies on its supporters, essentially “shareholders” in ISIS, Inc., for “investment” in the form of money and “sweat equity” in the form of labor, logistics, planning, operations, media and recruitment activities. However, ISIS does not operate by donations and sweat equity alone. ISIS, like any multinational, has numerous investments and investors. ISIS has its hand in illegal oil sales, weapons, drug, and human trafficking and numerous other sectors that bring in money to support the parent company. For example, shipping and selling oil taken from Iraq and Syria has generated millions of dollars for ISIS. These activities highlight the ability of ISIS to identify buyers, obtain product, fulfill orders, on a global scale, all while being tracked 24/7.
For the feel-good side of operations, ISIS operates as a quasi-NGO, delivering food, providing outreach to those in need, and creating local jobs as a means of gaining passive support and attracting large donations. ISIS provides work to locals, using third-party logistics, ISIS often uses non-ISIS members as drivers to move oil and gas. This serves a twofold purpose for ISIS, first when the coalition bombs a truck carrying ISIS contraband, but driven by a local, it creates more local resistance to the coalition. ISIS gave them jobs and fuel, the coalition didn’t. This doesn’t mean they are ISIS supporters, but they are ISIS beneficiaries and for local populations struggling to obtain basic needs, their focus is survival, not politics. Although passing the hat is not the main source of income for ISIS, the “charity” aspect of ISIS attracts donations, including large donations from wealthy contributors, which helps keep ISIS operations well-armed and equipped.
Franchise, multi-level marketing, or pyramid scheme – whatever business model you want to apply to the ISIS terrorist conglomerate, the question remains, how do we change our tactics to effectively combat this threat? The US and coalition forces cannot bomb an idea. So, what is the key to shutting the ISIS corporate doors? Assessing this from a business standpoint, the tactics of the US are just not staying ahead of the competition. Looking to business world for inspiration, we should strategize as though we are assessing a corporate competitor, because we are essentially competing in the marketplace for the hearts and minds of existing and prospective ISIS supporters.
To undermine ISIS, we need to understand the ISIS corporate model and adapt quickly to counter ISIS tactics. The warfighter must have the ability to fight, change tactics and get ahead of the enemy in real time. Unfortunately, this has proven hard to do when cumbersome governmental organizations, top heavy with bureaucrats and weighed down by a slow acquisition process, move at a snail’s pace and constantly argue over methods, rather than results. Wars are not fought with men and guns, they are fought with money and bullets. A truly integrated approach to essentially dismantling the ISIS corporate structure is needed. One designed to counter the ISIS PR machine, create an HR vacuum, disrupt ISIS revenue and logistics, and replace ISIS community outreach with meaningful economic growth.