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IWP students relive the 2014 ISIS crisis

ISIS Crisis 2018

Above: IWP students on Team Iran and Team Iraq “negotiate” during the ISIS Crisis exercise.

“I think that ISIS Crisis provided [students] the opportunity to see how quickly and easily lines can be drawn through the Shia-Sunni divide.”
– IWP student Ryan Sherba

In late September, 14 students in Professor Aaron Danis’ Violent Non-State Actors in the Contemporary Security Environment course (IWP 683) had the opportunity to replay the Summer of 2014 crisis when ISIS forces broke out of Syria and overran a sizeable chunk of northern Iraq, to include the major Iraqi city of Mosul. 

“Students and interns fill out one of six teams: three state actors (the United States, Iraq, and Iran) and three non-state actors (ISIS, the Kurds, and the Sunni tribes of Iraq).  Each team develops a strategy using the tools of statecraft prior to the game that they have to implement against live opponents who may either be working with or against them, or just playing them off.  The strategies are graded based on content and how well the teams implement them,” said Prof. Danis.  Each game turn represents 2-4 weeks of real time, so the 6-turn game covers the 6 crucial months when the United States, Iraq, and its new Coalition allies tried to stem the ISIS tide before the group could reach Baghdad.

This particular wargame is known as a Matrix game, and ISIS Crisis was designed by a Canadian professor and military officer for use in student settings.  It has been used by the Canadian military and at the US Army War College.  Game components (a map and counters) and rules are available for free on the Internet, and easily can be modified to fit almost any learning objective. 

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Above: The dire situation on 29 June, 2014.

Prof. Danis explained that: “Matrix games are argument-based free-play games, meaning the team players can come to the game board and argue for almost anything you can attempt to do in the real world.”  If the umpire does not feel a team’s argument is strong enough to grant it outright, the players will roll dice to resolve the action.

The goal of this game is to expose students to the difficulties of developing and implementing strategy, and the unique circumstances of working with or fighting against one of several violent non-state actor (VNSA) archetypes (terrorists, insurgents, criminals, and militias).  They present challenges whether you are playing as one of the VNSAs in the game, or one of the state actors.  Iraq in the game also controls Shia militias; foreign fighters flow across the Turkish border to build ISIS’ strength; and non-violent, non-state actors such as Doctors Without Borders make an appearance to assist with refugee camps.

Prof. Danis has run the VNSA course twice now, and it has proven popular, with full enrollment and good reviews. “The integration of team building exercises and strategy development really helped me understand what a strategy and policy war room would feel like,” said student Matteo Moran, who was on the ruthless Team ISIS.  IWP plans to run the course again in the fall of 2019.

“The ISIS CRISIS Game was a fantastic experience that taught me how important it is to be able to adapt when things don’t go as planned. It was eye-opening to learn how decisions can have unintended consequences that are difficult to envision ‘in the moment.’ The ISIS CRISIS Game reinforced what IWP continually stresses in its curriculum: to think in an integrated, strategic fashion.”
-Tobias Brandt, Team Iran

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Above: Much like their real-life counterparts, Team USA tries to make sense of the Iraq situation from half a world away, powered by pizza.