Identifying and Structuring the Objectives of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) and its Followers

The “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) poses a growing threat to Iraq, Syria, its neighbors, and the West. To develop an effective strategy to counter its actions, it is important to know what ISIL wants and why is it so attractive to its followers. In a recently accepted paper in Decision Analysis, we identified and structured the objectives of the leaders and followers of ISIL and their interrelation. Obviously, it is not possible to obtain reliable information through interviews. To overcome this problem, we analyzed the transcripts of interviews with 59 subject matter experts (SMEs) and analyzed speeches of ISIL leaders and selected Internet sources for identifying the objectives of ISIL leaders and followers. Both approaches lead to objectives hierarchies of leaders and followers.

We used two completely independent approaches, both using standard decision analysis concepts and techniques.  In the first approach, the 59 SMEs were asked, among other things: What are ISIL’s strategic objectives and why is ISIL so attractive to its followers? Based solely on these transcripts, one of the authors (von Winterfeldt) extracted SME statements relevant to the objectives of ISIL leaders and followers. In the second approach, another author (Siebert) used open sources, mostly speeches of the leaders of ISIL and selected Internet sources of ISIL advocates and commentators. Both analysts structured the statements they collected into objectives hierarchies.  The analysts did not communicate about their activities during the two months of their work.

Having completed the two separate efforts, the analysts compared results and created two combined objectives hierarchies:  One for ISIL’s leaders and one for its followers. The objectives hierarchies for the ISIL leaders were very similar; but the open source search produced many more objectives for the ISIL followers, including some humanitarian and materialistic objectives, that the SMEs had omitted.

ISIL leaders` strategic objectives are related to religion and power (the contributing fundamental objectives are added in brackets): 

  • Recreate the Power and Glory of Sunni Islam (Implement a Pure and Strict Version of Islam, Give Meaning to Lives of Sunnis)
  • Expand Islam and Sharia Law Worldwide (Purge the World of Anti-Islamic Forces)
  • Establish a Caliphate in Iraq and the Levant (Function as a State and Provide Services)
  • Control and Govern the Islamic State (Eliminate Current Rulers in Iraq and the Levant)

ISIL is more successful in recruiting because they offer a broad range of causes to join the organization, in contrast to Al Qaeda who focus on “expel Westerners” or Destroy Israel. The followers` strategic objectives are:

  • Humanitarian Fulfillment (Support Humanitarian Causes, Support Sunni Causes)
  • Religious Fulfillment (Have Spiritual Fulfillment, Implement a Pure and Strict Version of Islam, Fight for God)
  • Personal Fulfillment (Have Power, Improve Material Situation, Improve Self-Esteem, Belong to a Brotherhood of Fighters, Attack Westerners and Jews, Pursue Sanctioned Violence and Brutality)

The paper discusses how the objectives can be used to develop strategies to oppose ISIL’s expansion and to counter ISIL’s recruitment efforts. For instance, knowing that ISIL’s followers seek material goods, excitement and a brotherhood of fellow fighters suggests to counter these objectives with stories of returning ISIL fighters and reporting their hardship and disillusion.

Furthermore, our paper provides an analysis of the interrelation of the objectives hierarchies for leaders and followers. Our key result is that the objectives of the leaders and followers complement each other very well. Followers pursue objectives that also promote the achievement of objectives important to the ISIL organization. ISIL’s pursuit of their means objectives also promotes achievement of objectives important to ISIL followers. In case, counter measurements reduce the achievement of leaders` or followers` objectives, ISIL will tremendously lose its influence.

Regarding methodological innovations, the approach of independent analysts developing separate objectives hierarchies from different sources seems promising. 


Siebert J, von Winterfeld  D, John RS (2015) “Identifying and Structuring the Objectives of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL) and its Followers,” Decision Analysis, Permalink: