09/10/2014 09:56 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Is ISIS Not as Powerful as You Think?

Whether you recognize them as ISIS, ISIL, or by their preferred moniker, the Islamic State, the franchise deemed too extremist for al Qaeda has been demanding the world's attention. It persecutes religious dissidents and holds public executions. It raises funds through kidnappings and bank robberies. Perhaps even scarier to Americans, it gains recruits through a slick social media campaign. The federal government and the media have hit a note of bipartisan accord on ISIS: that we should all be very, very afraid.

But could the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham fall just as quickly as it rose to prominence? As terrifying as its actions have been, are we looking at the kind of terror that establishes itself as an enduring power, or the kind that expels itself with its own brutality? Examine the group's situation, and you might be surprised to find the distance between ISIS's ambitions and its less-than-favorable situation.

Its First Priority is an Islamic Caliphate -- Not Attacking the West

Unlike al Qaeda, which focused most of its energy on a holy war with the infidels in Europe and North America, ISIS is almost single-mindedly concerned with the area it controls. Its larger project, according to one of its press officers, is "to build an Islamic state to cover every aspect of life," an ambitious undertaking to say the least. It's why they take journalists hostage instead of summarily executing them -- they're only interested in terrorizing the West when it directly benefits their interests at home.

That isn't to say that the group is somehow incapable of attacking us. It's estimated that a thousand or more of ISIS's troops were recruited from Western nations, and the possibility of terrorists with Western passports is enough to make us reasonably worried.

But it is to say that their first priority is an incredibly draining one. As if reinstating an ancient order of caliphates or "successors" to the prophet Muhammad weren't difficult enough, the fighters have spent most of their time cleansing Shiite Muslim and religious minority populations instead of building infrastructure. Sustaining a war against governments in Syria and Baghdad is difficult -- making a state capable of imposing strict Sharia law on all its citizens while also providing them with basic amenities seems almost beyond hope.

Its Resources Aren't Going to Last Very Long

As former Pentagon official Janine Davidson put it, "ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations." Having seized somewhere between 500 million to a billion dollars from public banks, the huge oil refinery in Baiji, and Iraq's largest dam, it's understandable that people would be impressed with the assets acquired by a once-negligible splinter group. But seizing resources is something very different from properly utilizing them.

According to Frank Gunter, a former economic advisor in Iraq writing for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, ISIS's economic situation is far from comfortable. The Baiji refinery has been poorly managed and maintained, and, as a result, it's "extremely inefficient, producing an excessive amount of heavy fuel oil, which few electrical generators in the ISIL territory can use." In combination with the failing and possibly dangerous Mosul dam, this puts an energy crisis on a very near horizon for ISIS.

Its agriculture, which wouldn't normally be a problem in the farm-heavy territory ISIS controls, is also suffering. "The chaos caused by the ISIL takeover has disrupted the complicated process of managing water flows," writers Gunter. "As irrigation water is diverted to those with better political connections, reduced food production is likely." It seems like a functioning Islamic State will be impossible until ISIS makes peace with its neighbors and within its territory, allowing it the time and resources to establish proper infrastructure, agriculture, and trade.

It Isn't Making Many Friends

But at this rate, peace isn't coming any time soon. ISIS is surrounded by hostile parties: not only are the once-divided Baghdad and Kurdish governments united in their opposition to the extremists, but so are Iraq's neighbors, Syria and Turkey. That means that its resource problems can't be solved with outside help. Neither country is likely to help funnel and refine ISIS's oil, or refrain from using vital water from the Euphrates before it reaches Southern Iraq and dries up.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state and a source of religious and political legitimacy in the region, has shown its hostility to extremists before: if the country joins President Obama's recently formed coalition, it would do much to undermine popular support of ISIS as the new caliphate. If the Saudis do stand against ISIS, some say that Iran might join as well, resulting in an unprecedented alliance between two militarily powerful rivals in the region.

And given the brutal tactics ISIS has employed thus far, a local insurrection isn't out of the question, either. Some of the money stolen from Iraqi banks was intended to placate current and former government employees in occupied territory. Gunter, who thinks ISIS has a corruption problem, argues, "a portion of the liberated funds will probably disappear into the personal accounts of some of the ISIL leadership." By adding the disgruntlement of Iraq's more powerful class to the brutalization and starvation of its lower ones, ISIS is left with little resources, fewer friends, and almost zero options.


I'm not trying to argue that we shouldn't be fearful of ISIS, but I do think it's important to gauge exactly how much fear is appropriate before we start deciding what to do about it. ISIS has thrown thousands of people into poverty and displacement, but acting out of self-interested terror will only exacerbate that poverty. The restraint and prejudice with which we handle this crisis has the potential to not only discourage extremism in Iraq, but to improve sentiment towards the US for being a thoughtful partner in this battle, not a destructive aggressor.