I recently had one of the more rewarding teaching experiences of my career when I had the opportunity to present two lectures on the background of the so-called “Islamic State” to U.S. Marines from Company B, 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion. These were not just any Marines, mind you, but Marines from the reserve unit I once proudly served in as a sergeant.
The opportunity came up when my wife Michele and I, at the suggestion of Gunnery Sgt. Robert Germano, an old friend from the unit and a veteran of both the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, decided to go to the 2015 Marine Corps Ball. It was held at a location only two miles from our home and as busy parents who do not get out much, it seemed like an ideal way to spend an evening in great company and honor the Marine Corps for its many sacrifices on behalf of this country. While there, we sat and dined with numerous veterans (with special thanks to Phillip and Patti Wright and Jack and Sheila Caulkins) who made us feel extraordinarily welcome.
Images: Our friends Gunnery Sgt. Robert Germano and Natalie Auth (L); Me with Gunnery Sgt. Philip Wright and his wife, Patti (center left); Master Gunnery Sgt. Jack Caulkins and his wife, Sheila (center right); Me with my wife, Michele (R).
We were also impressed with the extraordinary courtesy we received from the many unknown Marines we interacted with throughout the night. No longer able to fit into my dress blues from 20 years ago, I was wearing a suit and undoubtedly looked like an out of shape history professor, out of my element in comparison to so many fit young warriors sharply dressed in their Marine Corps dress blues. Yet throughout the evening, doors were constantly opened for us, we were referred to as “Sir’ and “Ma’am” by Marines of all ranks, and we were welcomed to join many conversations. I suspect having a charming wife by my side throughout the night helped with all of this quite a bit, but I digress…
While I met a number of fascinating Marines that evening, the most compelling was the guest of honor, a Marine Staff Sergeant who had lost both his legs in the war in Afghanistan. When he spoke, a room filled with hundreds of celebratory people respectfully quieted down so that one could have heard a pin drop. His touching words were full of optimism and hope- but particularly love for his country and his fellow Marines. Perhaps it was the scotch, but for the first time in many years, I felt a bit teary eyed as I listen to his talk. I was impressed by this man who had given so much for his country, but still loved his Marine Corps and the brothers and sisters that continued to take care of him long after he had come home. When he finished his talk, full of good cheer, the Staff-Sergeant encouraged the room to continue with its festivities, even insisting on it, and the party ramped back up again in his honor. My wife even insisted that I dance with her a bit, during which I thought I was doing much better than the video evidence unfortunately showed the next day.
Later two Marines hosted a smaller get together in some rooms upstairs, to which we were kindly invited. Let’s just say that I owe those Marines, Michael Arthur and Thomas Massey, a bottle of cognac and that Michele and I are grateful for their kindness. But while there, I also had the chance to meet the commanding officer of Company B, Capt. Luis Jones.
Capt. Jones is the leader of a Marine unit that fought with great honor in recent wars, to include the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. Without question, he is a serious man with serious responsibilities. Yet as both an officer and a gentleman, he was wonderfully approachable that evening as well. As I was so enthusiastic about being back in the company of Marines that evening, after being away from such an environment for so long, he kindly endured my enthusiasm and was very generous with his time and thoughts on a host of issues.
At some point in our conversations, I explained to Capt. Jones that I am a history professor and that I have been carefully studying the Islamic State over the past 18 months, since they first came to international attention in June of 2014. At that point, our discussion become more serious. As a commander, one of his concerns is the readiness of his Marines, and at some point in our conversation, the idea of my presenting a briefing, detailing the background, ideology, levels of support, and scope of the Islamic State’s presence to his unit came up in the conversation. He said that young Marines need to keep this threat, as well as other potential threats, on their radars, as they may well end up fighting them at some point. A discussion introducing the basics and presenting the facts as we understand them up to this point, emphasizing why the Marines of his unit should be aware of the potential threat of the Islamic State, would be the goal of such a talk. I was enthusiastic about the idea, seeing it as a small way in which I could offer something to these fine Marines who so regularly have risked their lives for us. Consequently, I corresponded with him after the ball and we set up two talks for his Marines on January 9th and January 23rd, 2016.
Preparation for the first talk was expectedly a bit different than would normally be the case for one of my lectures at the college. Marines listening to a lecture meant to help them better understand a threat to world peace, one that they could be called on at any time to confront, is a bit more daunting of a task than more typical lectures given on a college campus. Indeed, the talk began with a stern command by Capt. Jones, in no uncertain language, for his Marines to listen carefully, emphasizing the importance of what they were about to hear. Even though those Marines had been training all day, they sat up and listened attentively. As far as I could tell, nobody was checking their cell-phones for text messages or talking during the lecture and all eyes were to the front. A couple of Marines sitting on the front row even held M-16 rifles, as they had previously been on duty providing security for the unit. I was reminded of the old Bob Hope line, who, when giving a USO show to heavily armed troops in Vietnam, famously quipped, “Boy, this is a tough crowd.”
I began my talk with the recent and more well-known history of the Islamic State since June of 2014, when they first came to international attention through their conquest of the Iraq city of Mosul. To get their attention and some sense of the scope of the Islamic State’s activities, I graphically described a host of barbaric and gruesome actions carried out by the group, ranging from the genocide and enslavement of the Yazidi people, to their slaughters of Shia Muslims, Christians, Homosexuals, and Sunni “apostates.”
Then I considered the Islamic State’s broader and less known history dating back to their founding by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and their transition to new leadership under their current “caliph,” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Other aspects of the talk considered the Islamic State’s ideological and theological motivations, to include their Salafist influences, as well as the extent to which Salafist thinking has proven popular in some parts of the Muslim world, particularly with the most militant groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, and others.
Moreover, I had the opportunity to consider how widespread Islamic State propaganda is online, and its influence in stirring over 30,000 (at least) foreign fighters to join them over the past 18 months. Indeed, at last count, the Islamic State now had militant affiliates in nearly 20 other nations beyond their self-proclaimed “caliphate” stretching from Syria to Iraq. In some cases, as in Libya and Nigeria, thousands of fighters have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State and routinely carry out acts of war or terrorism on their behalf. I emphasized that they are a cancer that only seems to be growing overall, even if they have been pushed back in Iraq recently.
Map: Map showing some of the nations where militants have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State.
All of the topics mentioned above are the kinds of issues, in one form or another, which I might discuss in the history classes I normally teach (e.g. Holy War in the Christian and Islamic Traditions, Western Civilization to 1589, etc…).Yet while such historical information provides useful background for the Marines listening to the talk, and hopefully led to them to think more carefully about the broader threat that the Islamic State poses to international security, the tactical, manpower, and logistical aspects of the Islamic State’s ability to fight were perhaps more important. Fortunately, parts of my talk did address some of these issues, even if in hindsight I wish I had done so a bit more fully.
Concerning such issues, I covered the troop strength and funding of the Islamic State, which has been called the most well-funded terrorist state or organization in history. This is because they get their funds from a variety of significant sources. First, they plunder financial institutions and resources. When they captured the Iraqi Bank of Mosul, for example, they seized up to 450 million dollars (although I should mention that their cash stockpiles have been targeted recently by coalition forces, significantly reducing their holdings).
Above: Reported image of an Islamic State cash stockpile (after raiding the Bank of Mosul)
Second, and related to the first point, the Islamic State reaps huge benefits by capturing enemy equipment and weapons, as was the case when they invaded Iraq in 2014, and many in the Iraqi army abandoned millions of dollars in weaponry, vehicles, and munitions. Third, they carry out illegal oil sales that reportedly netted them over one million dollars per day. Fourth, they control a land mass previously estimated to be the size of the U.S. state of Indiana (although they have been pushed back recently in Iraq), with a population living under their rule of anywhere from 10 million to 2 million, with the mostly likely estimate at around 6 million people. The population’s size under their political authority is significant in terms of funding because it serves as a taxable resource for the Islamic State.
All of these funding sources insure that Islamic State fighters, in comparison to other rebel groups taking part in the Syrian Civil War, are generally better paid and that they can field a very large force of fighters. The estimated size of the fighting force of the Islamic State varies from the far too low estimate of 20,000 to 32,000 to the far too high number of 200,000 (given by Kurdish commanders based on the ability of the Islamic State to employ conscription among the population it controls).
These and related issues brought the most interested questions from the Marines, as during my second talk I was essentially asked (paraphrased), “What should I expect if I am on the ground and fighting these guys?” By this, I assumed, the Marine meant to ask how their forces are organized and how do they operate in a straight up fight (e.g. in platoon size units, squad strength, weapons capabilities at this level, etc…). Aside from some brief comments on the irregular nature of the Islamic States’ tactics they have employed in past battles (e.g. the capture of Mosul in June, 2014), I was cautious in noting that I am not as up to date on their small unit tactics as I would like to be, assuming before any immediate conflict they would be better briefed on immediate frontline enemy tactics by their commanders according to the best military intelligence available at that time. Yet I learned from the question, as if I ever present this sort of talk again, to this sort of audience, I will research these kinds of issues and cover them more thoroughly- particularly the equipment, weapons, and organization of the Islamic State’s military forces (e.g. they have many captured APCs and tanks, but no air force, they are equipped with both captured M-16s and M-4s, as well as AK-47s, etc..).
A final important topic I considered in the talk was the threat the Islamic State poses to the United States, and more specifically their efforts to target U.S. military members at home. In considering the issue, I highlighted how (by one count) there have been 82 Islamic State related arrests in the United States and that there are currently over 1000 investigations related to the group at various levels of law enforcement. Moreover, I highlighted recent examples of Islamic State inspired terrorism in the U.S., centered on the recent San Bernardino attack that left 14 dead and 21 wounded. Part of the reason for emphasizing such threats was to heighten awareness that unfortunately these Marines, as they rank among America’s most highly regarded warriors, are a prime target of jihadists. Indeed, when the Chattanooga terrorist attacks resulted in the deaths of four Marine Corps recruiters, social media accounts run by Islamic State supporters responded very enthusiastically. Moreover, the Islamic State has posted the names and addresses of members of the U.S. military online, calling on their supporters to attack them at home.
To drive home the point that this is not a problem only in the far off Middle East, or in distant California, I highlighted recent local arrests in North Florida of Islamic State sympathizers, as well as how military residents of North Florida were among those who had their personal information posted online in an effort to get sympathizers to kill and terrorize them at home.
Suspected ISIS Terrorist Arrested in Jacksonville- http://www.news4jax.com/news/local/suspected-isis-terrorist-arrested-in-jacksonville
ISIS ‘kill list’ targeting Northeast Florida residents- http://www.news4jax.com/news/local/isis-kill-list-targeting-northeast-florida-residents
Jacksonville mom fears for life under ISIS threat- http://www.wtsp.com/story/news/2015/03/25/jacksonville-mom-fears-for-life-under-isis-threat/70459922/
The point was, as Marines, they need to be aware and careful. This topic also seemed to draw considerable interest from Marines during both the formal Q & A that follow the talk (lasting around 25 minutes) as well as the questions from individual Marines who came up to speak with me one on one after the event.
Once both talks were over, to include the Q & A sessions that followed, I then had the opportunity to briefly speak to Marines of all ranks, one on one, about a host of topics. After the first talk, I had at least a half dozen younger enlisted Marines gather around at one point, each politely waiting their turn, to say hello and thank me for coming before asking further questions about a variety of topics. The questions ranged from follow ups on the material I had just presented to questions related to their desire to use their G.I. Bills to go back to college. One even suggested, as the holder of a degree in political science, that he would like to follow my path to become a professor! In those cases, I insisted that they contact me so that I can help them to whatever extent I could. Nearly every conversation with these motivated young men ended with a firm handshake and a declaration of “Semper Fi!”
After the second talk, I recall a group of officers, primarily, speaking with me immediately afterwards. Based on my brief impressions, I came away seeing them all as impressive men, well-educated and well informed, physically fit, and committed to their duties as Marine officers. They reflect extraordinarily well on their commanding officer, Capt. Jones, who after my other lengthy discussions with him revealed him to be perhaps the most thoughtful and well-read of them all. Indeed, I came away from these talks inspired by the extraordinarily high quality of the people serving in our Marine Corps and comforted to know that such men are defending us.
So, as you may be able to tell by now, this was not the typical college lecture. Far from it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy teaching and view my duties in the college classroom as importantly as the Marines view their duties. I stay in touch with a number of my former college students, particularly those who have inspired me in some way. Indeed, many of them continue to inspire me as I see and hear of their many achievements after moving on from my classes. But spending time with these Marines was special. These warriors, many of them already combat veterans, take a discussion about one of their future potential enemies very seriously, as an important component of their readiness and preparedness. If my talks were successful in fostering awareness and readiness, as their commanding officer had hoped, then I certainly count them as among the most important lectures I have given.
Addendum: My college’s newsletter did a nice write up on my experience. http://www.fscj.edu/bluewavenews/february-2016.php#fscj-news2