Above: IWP 683 Students and interns conduct an after-action review at the conclusion of ISIS Crisis.
“The problem with violent non-state actors in the Middle East is that they have their own primary goals that they wish to fulfill. So, when those violent non-state actors try to form an alliance with nations such as the Republic of Iraq and the United States, their interests conflict.”
-IWP Intern Bernard F. Barillo Jr., Team Sunni Opposition
“As boxer Mike Tyson once said: Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
-IWP 683 Student James Capella, Team ISIS
On Saturday, October 9, 2021, Professor Aaron A. Danis held this year’s ISIS Crisis exercise as part of his Violent Non-State Actors in Today’s Security Environment (IWP 683) course. This pol-mil wargame reflects on the political and military status of the states and violent non-state actors (VNSAs) during the summer of 2014. The map shows territories in northern Iraq and the Iraqi city of Mosul under ISIS control, as well as all the surrounding countries. The first turn of the game starts on July 29, 2014, when ISIS forces were advancing to Baghdad. Eight students of the IWP 683 course and three interns participated as players assigned to 1 of 6 national or VNSA teams: The United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, sometimes rendered as ISIL), the Republic of Iraq, the Sunni Opposition, and the Kurdish Regional Government.
Before the simulation took place, members of each team determined their strategy based on the real-world objectives of the role they were playing. Teams held informal negotiations with their counterparts to reach a common agenda. Additionally, Prof. Danis advised the participants to watch the PBS documentary The Rise of ISIS. This video gave students an understanding of the nature of the ISIS threat in 2014 and the actions taken by the United States and Iraq in response to the growing crisis as the group overran chunks of Iraqi territory. On the day of the simulation, each team had determined its action for the first round.
ISIS Crisis is a matrix game. It is a type of wargame in which players can argue about the advantages and disadvantages of an action, with an adjudicator to referee the actions. A player declares an action and why it is pursued. Opposing players argue against it. Players outside of the room can negotiate with other teams and consider other viable options.
By the end of the fourth turn, ISIS was not destroyed, but its forward momentum had been blunted. As in real life, ISIS remained a significant threat by the end of this wargame’s narrative (October 2014).
Although ISIS in Iraq eventually was defeated by a global coalition of state and nonstate actors in 2018, ISIS-affiliated groups continue to spread. Its supporters in places such as Afghanistan, Africa, and East Asia are active. ISIS-inspired attacks in the U.S. mainland remain a concern to law enforcement agencies. Although the events of ISIS Crisis took place seven years ago, the threat of ISIS continues to the present day.