LinkedIn tracking pixel

The ISIS Crisis Simulation tests students’ ability to implement strategy

“Fighting a three-front war is hard.”

–Bernard Barillo, who played the ISIS Commander

On Saturday, 18 November, students in Prof. Aaron Danis’ Violent Non-State Actors in Today’s Security Environment (IWP 683) course convened for the annual playing of the ISIS Crisis simulation.

This wargame simulates the political and military crisis brought on by the sudden breakout from Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, sometimes rendered as ISIL).  The group quickly overran large portions of Iraq, including its second-largest city of Mosul, with over 2.5 million people.  The map represents territories in northern Iraq, as well as all the surrounding countries. The first turn of the game starts on July 29, 2014, when ISIS forces were advancing on Baghdad. Students of the IWP 683 course participated as players assigned to 1 of 6 national or violent non-state actors (VNSA) teams: ISIS, the United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran, 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 state or non-state actor objectives from 2014. Teams negotiated with 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, the atmosphere of fear and shock it created, and the initial actions taken by the United States and Iraq in response to the growing crisis as the group expanded its reach.

The USA and Iraq discuss how to stop ISIS - ISIS Crisis November 2023
The USA and Iraqi players meet to find a way to stop a rampaging ISIS insurgency.

“I have been running this simulation annually since 2018, and every game has a life of its own,” said Prof. Danis. “Each group of students reads the situation on the ground differently. A lot rests on the shoulders of the ISIS player(s) and how aggressive they are. In the real world, the ISIS strategy was doomed to fail, as the group attacked every neighbor surrounding its fledgling Caliphate, all but guaranteeing that these neighbors would push back.  It took 5 years, but ISIS was eventually defeated in Iraq.”

Board Game for ISIS Crisis November 2023 showing Fallujah recaptured
Iraq recaptures Fallujah from ISIS, which was knocking at the door of Baghdad. Supporting U.S. airstrikes inadvertently killed civilians, however, so airstrikes were halted for a turn to recover.

The class simulation only covers the critical first 4-5 months of the Coalition response, but students learned important lessons.  Jared Wobser, who played hard-luck Iraq, stated that he had a “new-found appreciation for the complexity…of [Middle East] relationships which expanded capabilities but also constrained many different options.”  At one point the Iranian player, Ryan Senavitas, took control of half of the Iraqi Shia militias, just as Iran did in real life.  Eric Stauffer, playing the stuck-in-the-middle Kurds, “reached an agreement of ceasefire just to survive to the next round.”  Carlos Silva, playing the USA, did his best to “herd cats” between his erstwhile but sometimes duplicitous allies.

Prof. Danis offers his course every fall semester if students are interested in enrolling.

The ISIS Crisis team prepares for the hotwash, November 2023
The anti-ISIS team faces off with the ISIS Commander (left) at the start of the post-game hotwash. Fear not, it wasn’t as serious as it looks!