Is ISIS Winning?

United States Navy Memorial

701 Pennsylvania Ave NW

Washington, DC

September 15, 2016

5:30 P.M. ET

Video: Event Recap

Event Summary

On Thursday, September 15, 2016 the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University hosted the debate: “Is ISIS Winning?” Debaters included Peter Bergen, Vice President, New America and Professor, Arizona State University; Sebastian Gorka, Vice President and Professor of Strategy and Irregular Warfare, Institute of World Politics; The Honorable Mary Beth Long, CEO, Metis Solutions, LLC and Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs; and Douglas A. Ollivant, ASU Senior Fellow, Future of War Project, New America. The Honorable Juan Zarate, Chairman of the Financial Integrity Network and Former Deputy National Security Advisor for CT, served as moderator.



On Thursday, September 15, 2016, The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University hosted the debate: “Is ISIS Winning?”

The debate centered on whether civilized societies are winning or losing in the global war on terrorism and particularly in the fight against ISIS.


Arguments that ISIS is not winning:

  • The counter-ISIS campaign is rolling back ISIS territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has not gained any new territory there since 2015. The cities of Mosul and Raqqa will probably be liberated within a year’s time. As a result, ISIS is seeing declining financial revenues and a plummeting stream of foreign Jihadist fighters.
  • ISIS without territory will lose appeal. ISIS’s goal of becoming an Islamic caliphate is clearly failing, and this undermines the group’s central ideological claim that it is a state. However, as ISIS dissipates, Americans have to be careful that another iteration of global jihadism does not rise in its place.
  • Important not to confuse ISIS’s occasional tactical success with strategic victory—ISIS may be carrying out more terrorist attacks abroad, but this is actually a sign of the organization’s weakness, rather than a sign of strength.

Arguments that ISIS is indeed winning:

  • ISIS is the first caliphate in modern age, with territory in multiple countries—not just in Iraq and Syria but also in places like Nigeria and Afghanistan. ISIS is also carrying out and inspiring more attacks abroad, including in Europe and America.
  • The metric of ISIS’s success is not territory—it’s their brand. The ISIS brand and ideology is succeeding. It is managing to inspire terrorists all over the world at an unprecedented rate. The fact that people in the West are scared and that ISIS has become a major topic in the current U.S. presidential campaign, means that ISIS’ strategy is succeeding.
  • ISIS is thinking long-term. The first generation of ISIS children is being born on ISIS territory. This next generation of ISIS fighters will know nothing other than terrorism and is therefore guaranteed to constitute a long-term menace.


Mary Beth Long pointed to the need to admit ISIS’s ability to influence people and called for developing an effective counter-ideology strategy — strategic communications and/or “psy-ops” – as an integral part of the anti-ISIS coalition effort.

Sebastian Gorka warned against “drinking the kool-aid” on ISIS: i.e., believing that the group is surely losing because the military or media say so. ISIS is merely the latest iteration of jihadism and it has arguably gotten stronger since 9/11. ISIS must be defeated by the United States, just like other totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism were defeated.

Douglas A. Ollivant warned against becoming complacent in the fight against terrorism after ISIS loses. Americans need to maintain pressure by focusing on the ideological component in the fight against terrorism, and using tools such as sanctions and financial monitoring.

Peter Bergen identified two opportunities: to utilize ISIS defectors to speak out against the group, and to do a better job getting out the message that ISIS is indeed on a losing streak.

Video: Full Event