Quite suddenly, all eyes are riveted on the Islamic State (IS). Ever since its self-proclaimed "emir," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the creation of a new "caliphate" during a speech in Mosul, Iraq this June, his group has become global public enemy number one.
The Islamic State is "beyond anything that we've seen," both in terms of its ambitions and its capabilities, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned last month. Similar sentiments abound within the global counterterrorism community, which has made IS a near-singular focus in recent weeks. At the recent summit of the International Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Israel, one of the preeminent gatherings of its kind, IS was the dominant topic of discussion over four days of meetings and workshops. Iran and Hezbollah, both of which remain pressing security challenges for the Jewish state, received remarkably short shrift. And Russia's actions in Ukraine—which U.S. and European leaders have termed a type of "hybrid" warfare that has significant implications for the West—got nary a mention.
All of this attention has served to inflate the image of the Islamic State, positioning it as the next great adversary of the West. Often overlooked in this discourse, however, is the fact that IS suffers from some real limitations and strategic constraints—vulnerabilities that need to be understood and exploited as part of any serious Western strategy.
First, the Islamic State's size is relative, in both human and territorial terms. The CIA now estimates that IS could have upwards of 31,000 men under arms. That number makes it one of the largest terrorist groups on record. (By way of comparison, the State Department's counterterrorism bureau gauges al-Qaeda's "core" and its two most potent affiliates, AQAP and AQIM, to number in the low thousands—although, when indirect affiliates such as Nigeria's Boko Haram and Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyya are factored in, the number is considerably higher).
As impressive as this is, however, it is still far too meager to administer the group's current holdings. Experts now estimate that the group controls territory straddling Iraq and Syria exceeding the size of the state of Maryland. Controlling such a landmass requires massive manpower and materiel—something that IS, even with its growing ranks and current, deep pockets—will find it difficult to amass and sustain.
Second, the Islamic State is less popular than commonly understood among the constituency that really counts: Islamists themselves. As counterterrorism expert J.M. Berger recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, with a few notable exceptions, IS seems to be experiencing considerable difficulty in wooing other significant jihadist groups to its cause despite its battlefield successes. Al-Qaeda, in other words, remains the ideological center of gravity for Islamic militants—at least for the moment. That is perhaps why, rather than consolidating control of the territory it already possesses, the group is now actively taking the fight to ideological competitors like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria as a way of burnishing its brand.
Third, there is good reason to believe that the current force strength of the Islamic State is "soft," and could diminish quickly. The group may have become a magnet for foreign jihadists eager to fight in the next great holy war, but the growing administrative and policing responsibilities that it will need to assume in the weeks ahead may not appeal to many of these zealots. Nor will all of them stay and fight to the end if IS begins to sustain serious battlefield reverses as a result of U.S. and coalition military operations. As a result, an attrition of forces—perhaps even a significant one—is reasonable to expect in the weeks ahead.
None of this means that urgent action is not needed. Like a rising tide, the Islamic State's successes so far have elevated its status among extremists the world over. Denting the group's mystique and appearance of invulnerability is therefore key to eroding its global standing. Moreover, the longer al-Baghdadi's "caliphate" remains in existence, the easier it will be for his followers to frame Western action against it as a new crusade, or a civilizational conflict pitting the West against Islam.
For these reasons, time—and determination—remains of the essence. But the United States and its allies do themselves no favors by making the Islamic State out to be a more formidable foe than it actually is. Just like al-Qaeda, the organization from which it sprang, IS has real vulnerabilities that can and should be leveraged.