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How Intelligence Failures Contributed to ISIS Territorial Gain in Iraq

By Dr. Brian Keith Simpkins, Ed.D.

In early July 2017, the Iraqi government regained control of Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), thereby ending a bloody and destructive nine-month campaign. ISIS controlled Mosul for almost three years after seizing control of the city in June 2014. With Mosul back under Iraqi control, the main focus of the fight against ISIS turns to Raqqa in Syria, where international-backed forces are zeroing in on ISIS forces.

[Related: Understanding the Ideology of Terrorism]

While progress is being made against ISIS in Iraq, it is beneficial to examine the intelligence failures that contributed to the ISIS territorial gains in Iraq in 2014 to avoid similar mistakes.

How Intelligence Failures Facilitated ISIS’ Rise in Iraq

Erik Dahl’s (2013) Theory of Preventive Action can help examine the Iraq intelligence failures. In fact, Dahl’s theory can be easily applied to other notable intelligence failures such as 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and the national intelligence estimate that led to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Dahl’s theory focuses on the type of available intelligence (tactical versus strategic) and policymaker receptivity to the intelligence. More specifically, the theory defines that the collection and production of tactical intelligence has the potential to influence policymaker decisions as it is more specific and highlights the need for immediate and/or specific action. Conversely, strategic intelligence is less precise and focuses more on long-term goals related to foreign policy and international security. As for policymaker receptivity, one can easily deduce that policymakers are more influenced by and prefer tactical intelligence. Using these two concepts (type of intelligence and policymaker receptivity), can help explain the pre-incident intelligence failures leading to the 2014 ISIS territorial gains in Iraq.

Intelligence Collection Methods

The first factor of Dahl’s theory deals with the type of intelligence that was collected by the U.S. intelligence community (IC). Prior to the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, the U.S. military and the IC collaborated to develop one of the most successful battlefield intelligence systems in history (led by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command [JSOC]), which relied heavily on human intelligence (HUMINT). Both the U.S. military and CIA utilized extensive networks of operatives and analysts within Iraq focused on HUMINT. The CIA station in Baghdad was the agency’s largest overseas station in the world during the Iraq War. Utilizing overt and covert (clandestine) collection methods, HUMINT operations provided tactical intelligence on insurgents and their movements, including those of former Iraqi Republican Guard members, some of whom became important figures in ISIS.

[Related: How Syrians are Using Cyber Community Policing to Fight Terrorism]

However, when the military withdrew in 2011 so did the important intelligence assets, thereby creating an intelligence-collection vacuum in its wake. After the U.S. military’s withdrawal, HUMINT operations ended (even the CIA ceased clandestine operations in Iraq). As a result, the IC had to rely solely on satellite imagery and signals intelligence (SIGINT) for intelligence collection.

[Related: Why Overt Intelligence Is Important But Often Undervalued]

The problem with reliance on SIGINT intelligence was that ISIS used human couriers for message transmission (thus nullifying SIGINT) and was able to bypass satellite imagery by blending into the social environment. In essence, ISIS became better at denying HUMINT collection strategies while the IC became worse at HUMINT collection.

As a result of inadequate intelligence collection, the IC started producing more strategic intelligence and warnings instead of the more useful tactical and specific intelligence and warnings. The IC was now relying on intelligence that was overly broad, lacked specifics for senior officials, and provided little benefit when given to the Iraqi army to respond to ISIS.

As Dahl (2013) states, “strategic-level intelligence and warnings are surprisingly easy to acquire and are often readily available before major attacks, but they are unlikely to be acted upon by decision makers, and in any case too general to be useful” (p. 22). Ultimately, even though the IC raised warnings about ISIS, the inadequacy of the collected intelligence resulted in an underestimation of the will and capability of ISIS and an overestimation of the will and capability of the Iraqi army.

Policymaker Reception to Strategic Intelligence Reports

The second factor of Dahl’s theory and its application to the 2014 ISIS territorial gains in Iraq deals with policymaker receptivity. In 2014, the Obama administration was not receptive to the strategic intelligence regarding the ISIS threat in Iraq. This was mainly due to the Obama administration’s reluctance to get drawn back into Iraq after pledging and ultimately getting U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Further, at the time, the Obama administration was focused on the Syrian civil war and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which caused the administration to be blind to the ISIS threat. In addition, the Obama administration felt that ISIS could be checked and rolled back at Fallujah and Ramadi. Despite warnings by senior IC and military officials, the Obama administration was not receptive to the intelligence (which was strategic and not tactical) and, therefore, failed to adequately confront the ISIS threat.

Lessons Learned

Overall, there were intelligence failures by the IC as well as policy and leadership failures in the Obama administration in response to the ISIS threat in 2014. Based on Dahl’s Theory of Preventative Action, an attack is most likely to succeed if there is strategic intelligence/warning (instead of tactical intelligence/warning) and low policymaker receptivity.

As illustrated above, this was exactly the situation and pre-incident intelligence failures led to the 2014 ISIS territorial gains in Iraq. Specifically, the IC was collecting inadequate intelligence to inform policy makers (due to the withdrawal of intelligence assets) and providing only strategic intelligence/warning to unreceptive policymakers who were focused on other matters and underestimated the ISIS threat.

The failure in responding to the ISIS threat in 2014 especially underscores the importance of HUMINT operations as well as the need for tactical intelligence and for policymakers to be receptive of, and take action based on, available strategic intelligence when appropriate. The IC must also look back at previous intelligence successes and try to repurpose what has worked in the past. As militant groups associated with ISIS are attempting to gain control of territory in the Philippines, it is imperative that the United States does not let what transpired in Iraq repeat itself elsewhere.

ISISAbout the Author: Dr. Brian Simpkins is the Principal Investigator and Co-Director of the Bluegrass State Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence (BGS IC CAE) and Associate Director of the Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) Justice and Safety Center. Dr. Simpkins is also a part-time faculty member with EKU where he teaches courses in intelligence, critical infrastructure protection and resiliency, and homeland security technologies. In 2016-2017, Dr. Simpkins served as the Program Director of the Institute for Research, Innovation, and Scholarship (IRIS) for the School of Security and Global Studies (SSGS) at American Military University in which he focused on faculty and student research engagement.


Dahl, E. (2013). Intelligence and surprise attack: Failure and success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and beyond. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press

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