Maneuvering within Islam`s narrative space
January-March 2018
By: Brian L Steed

For center of gravity to be influential in maneuver a series of assumptions must be played out in full. First, we must assume (as we have) that center of gravity does in fact exist. Second, that the actor can identify the center of gravity. It isn’t enough that it exists, but the actor must also understand it well enough to know the right way to then attack or undermine it. Third, the center of gravity must be able to be targeted. In the case of a physical center of gravity, this means that the actor is able to deliver some weapon against the target. Fourth, resources targeting the center of gravity can reach the target. In World War II, this was particularly dangerous as numerous bombers were destroyed on the way to targets and the targets were often not engaged as a result. Fifth, the resources, once at the target area, can accurately engage the target. Sixth, the center of gravity can be targeted enough times to achieve the desired effect. Rarely does one blow achieve results. For this to work, sufficient blows must be delivered. Finally, the opponent cannot develop effective countermeasures.

ISIS provides an excellent example for this discussion of center of gravity. If ISIS has a center of gravity – and this is open for debate – then this center of gravity does not exist in the physical space; rather it exists in the narrative space. Thinking of it this way, what can ISIS not afford to risk or to lose? Salvation. ISIS has declared a caliphate and that caliphate must control some terrain to have validity, but in today’s world it is possible to imagine virtual terrain or small areas of a remote island in some distant archipelago. It isn’t necessarily linked to cities or deserts or mountains in Iraq or Syria. Taking away terrain may not overthrow ISIS. What happens to ISIS if one takes away their definition of salvation? If no one believes the ISIS salvation narrative, will anyone flock to their banner or conduct attacks around the globe in their name? The answer is no. Therefore, this must be their center of gravity.

For the purpose of this argument, the actor is the US government. The seven assumptions are addressed in brief. This is a linked series. If any one of the series fails, then the likelihood of achieving the success promised by Clausewitz is minimal. First, there is a center of gravity and it is the ISIS-defined notion of salvation. Second, can the US government understand this center of gravity? The answer here is problematic as few people have the training to grasp the Koranic and hadithic exegesis necessary to fully understand the argument. Third, can the US government target salvation? How could it? This isn’t something to be delivered by a bomber or a tank. Additionally, the US government is probably not deemed credible in the religious debate as it is typically seen in the Middle East, specifically, and among Muslims, in general, as either a Christian or secular nation. Fourth, assuming that the United States can target the center of gravity through messaging, how can those messages reach the target audience – those fighters who believe in the salvation message or those potential fighters inclined to believe? Will they believe the message delivered? Fifth, will the message be accurate enough to actually achieve target effects – in this case, fighters leaving the ISIS army or potential recruits who instead remain home and peaceful. The final two assumptions are linked in that it is questionable that no countermeasures will be developed to prevent the message from having effect before it can happen often enough.

This example is crucial to understanding maneuver in the narrative space. The linked series of assumptions explain the problems with understanding both the position and the relative advantage gained by holding that position. This also provides the relationship of maneuver with respect to a specific enemy. It is unlikely that Al Qaeda, for example, has the exact same center of gravity as does ISIS, and therefore it is nearly as unlikely that the position of advantage – the objective of the maneuver – is the same. Just as for each enemy on each different terrain on battlefields around the world, there is no one predesignated position of advantage. Each battlefield and opponent must be understood independent of previous battlefields and opponents.


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