The Strategic Calculus of Mass Murder: Why Genocide?

Approximately three years ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) erupted onto the international stage. ISIL’s rise to prominence was heralded by an unparalleled level of social media prowess, coupled with lightning operations and tactics, as well as the mass murder of prisoners alongside the seemingly wanton application of violence upon Iraq’s civilian populace. Their barbaric practices horrify Western audiences, who to this day are at a loss for why such brutality is committed against our fellow man. Is it just possible, though, that the mass murder of Iraqi civilians and prisoners serves not to fuel some insatiable bloodlust, but rather to achieve some overarching strategic goal. I would like to expound upon why ISIL’s Neanderthalic tactics may be tailored to achieve said goal.

As historically has been the case, it is doubtful that the foot soldiers of ISIL have any perception of whatever grander strategic objectives they’re achieving for the Caliphate whenever they participate ethnic cleansing or combat operations. ISIL fighters are functionally merely pawns doing their commander’s bidding, pawns willing to sacrifice themselves to kill dozens in the name of the Caliphate, but pawns all the same.  At the tactical level, they might even accept the narrative peddled by the ISIL’s media arm, that ethnic and religious minorities are lesser beings to be exterminated or used as pleased.[1] But ISIL’s decision makers and strategists are privy to a larger picture than their underlings. This isn’t to say they don’t share a cynical world view with their subordinates, only that they ordered or permitted these mass killings be conducted in pursuit of intermediate goals somewhere between simple barbarity and the Caliphate.

ISIL’s Strategy of Violence

The first and most visible of these intermediate goals is to stimulate a mass exodus of civilians.[2] As unlikely as it might seem given ISIL’s reputation of savagery, these large swathes of migrants are more useful to them alive than dead. Although no one could have predicted exactly what would occur, ISIL has conducted itself as if its planners believed a large injection of refugees into the West would cause some measure of exploitable turmoil. This munificent behavior may help explain why many of ISIL’s genocidal acts have been somewhat beneath their full capacity for violence. For instance, ISIL forces massacred 5,000 Yazidi men in Sinjar, and subsequently besieged 40,000 more Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain in 2014. Rather than continue the onslaught against the stranded, starving Yazidis on the mountain, they were content with merely isolating them. Because ISIL neglected to complete the eradication of the Yazidis, the large throng of survivors were permitted to join the ever expanding pool of refugees after the siege was relieved. This approach was remarkably restrained for a paramilitary group that would go on to sacrifice thousands of footmen in a doomed offensive on Kobani less than a month later. If this were a simple campaign of mass extermination, a determined ISIL advance could have eradicated the Yazidis, but that’s not what ISIL’s strategists had in mind.    

Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains as they fled from Islamic State are rescued by Kurdish forces. (E. Yorulmaz/Getty Images)

The second strategic goal ISIL’s various mass murders are designed to achieve is already fairly well documented: to shatter the morale of those opposed to the Caliphate. These massacres conveyed a rather brutal message resulting in 39,000 Iraqi soldiers routed by a few hundred men in dusty Toyotas. This second objective has been discussed elsewhere, and if for some reason it requires fleshing out that can be discussed in subsequent articles.

The History of Mass Violence as Strategy

The Assyrians: The Assyrian war machine was noted for its brutality and the wholesale slaughter of those who opposed them or might oppose them. Horrific acts were a matter of pride and devotion to the Assyrian gods. But the vulnerable geography of Assyria meant Assyria’s warrior kings needed to strike fear into the hearts of those who might oppose them. Similarly, ISIL is beset on all sides by fearsome adversaries supported by the strongest nations on Earth, giving anti-ISIL coalition a vast margin of conventional superiority.  Compounding their firepower deficit, is the presence of coalition forces in large numbers along ISIL’s only major natural boundary in Iraq, the Tigris river; and the presence of Kurdish forces along both sides of ISIL’s recruit supply line in Turkey. This shows why it is understandable that ISIL might exhibit such gruesome behavior; as the Assyrians have shown us, they truly have no option in the matter.

The Romans in Palestine: During the third Jewish-Roman war (otherwise known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt), the Romans were exhausted after subjugating multiple fierce rebellions and insurgencies; so they razed more than a thousand villages and fortresses, in the process putting at least half a million Jews to the sword. These acts of mass murder so effectively crippled the Jews of Palestine that they were largely pacified for over a century. While the roles of superpower and fearsome rebel were reversed in this instance, there are still parallels to be drawn from ISIS control of its occupied territory. In the Deir ez-Zor province of Syria, ISIL forces massacred close to 300 civilians for collaboration with Assad regime forces before withdrawing. ISIL, like the Romans before them, came to the grim conclusion that one effective method of breaking resistance is to target the civilians who render aid to enemy combatants, effectively dissuading villagers from helping those opposed to it.

Terken Khatun, the mother of Khwarezm Sultan Muhammad, captive to the Mongols (Wikimedia)

The Mongols: Ghenghis Khan and his descendants were infamous for their savagery, and were responsible for the deaths of untold millions, many directly resulting from wars of conquests. In their offensive war against the Khwarezm empire, Mongol riders would conquer city after city, killing the aristocrats and soldiers, while using unskilled labor as human shields for their subsequent assaults. The Mongols also used tales of their mass murders as a tool to frighten their enemies into surrendering in a relatively bloodless manner. Like the Mongol hordes that thundered across Asia minor centuries ago, for ISIL defensive fighting isn’t their most practiced method of waging war.  To compensate for their operational deficiencies, ISIL has chosen to emulate the Mongols in the sense that they are gruesome on the offensive and fairly aggressive on the defensive.   

Woodcut from 1499 depicting Vlad III "the Impaler" (Markus Ayrer/Wikimedia)

Vlad Țepeș and the Ottomans: Vlad Țepeș (of Dracula fame), has inspired centuries of horror through his mass slaughter and impalement of civilians and noblemen. But what the horror movies tend to leave out is the severe strategic predicament in which Vlad’s Wallachia found itself. To its South lay the Ottoman Empire, a veritable juggernaut during the 15th century, and prone to conquering smaller nations. After a night attack in which the Wallachian’s smaller army severely bloodied a massive Ottoman invasion force, Mehmed II, Conqueror of Constantinople began a march upon Vlad’s capital Târgovişte. On the route there, he discovered the impaled corpses of 20,000 Turkish soldiers, and promptly returned to Constantinople in disgust/awe. ISIL is in a somewhat similar predicament, in that they are enveloped by nations that are vastly superior to them in terms of demographics, economic vitality, and military strength.

There are counterexamples, of course, with murderous behavior perpetrated by states without clear strategic value. The Holocaust, while certainly fulfilling the qualifications of brutal mass extermination, is not a suitable instance of strategically driven mass murder. Rather than creating any operational advantages (and quite possibly the opposite as thousands of German soldiers were tied up in death squads when they could have been used at the frontlines), or furthering any realistic strategic goals (apart from Hitler’s delusional desire for Lebensraum), the Holocaust was driven purely by the homicidal desire for ethnic purity.

"Caesar's Invasions of Britain" by Edward Armitage. (Wikimedia)

In a similar vein, the butchering of one million Gauls by Caesar’s legions during his Gallic Wars also did not further any strategic objectives. While most of the killing was not without purpose, the vast majority of it is more readily attributable to the zeal of Roman soldiers than any strategic end goal. In other terms, the death of so many Gauls was not a means to an end, but an end in itself. For instance, in the famed siege of Alesia, rather than put the inhabitants of the beleaguered city to the sword, Caesar opted to take the survivors prisoner (although many thousands of Gauls likely did perish in the siege).


To understand mass violence and devise effective interventions, one must break from the popular notion that mass slaughter is purposeless barbarity. The next time the Islamic State or some other actor perpetrates an act of mass violence during a military campaign, we must ask ourselves what the leadership might hope to gain or achieve, and why decision-makers would allow such insanity. There may be a method to their madness, or an underlying strategic rationality being masked by their barbarity.  

James Griffin is an undergraduate with a passion for military strategy and its subfields. He hopes to integrate himself within the Pentagon think tank circuit after he graduates.

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Header Image: Kurdish Peshmerga forces inspect a site in northern Iraq marked in Kurdish with a sign reading, "Kurdish mass grave." (Dalton Bennett/AP)


[1] The Islamic State's magazine provides an apt example of the form of media that the Islamic State uses to stoke religious fervor. While they have other  magazines and media, this can convey the intended message. 

[2] The Soviet Union did something similar during the Panjshir VII offensive of their war in Afghanistan, where they depopulated the region where they intended to advance using heavy bombardment. See, for example, Brian C. Hawkins, "Soviet Counterinsurgency Operations in Afghanistan (1979-1988)," (master's thesis, United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 2010).