Strategy is the overall plan of action to achieve a measurable goal. It is the series of actions on a theater-wide scale that contribute to victory or defeat. While ISIS has released several documents and videos giving some ideas of its strategy, even more can be determined by examining their targets, their actions in multiple spectrums of warfare, politics, and information, and their history.

ISIS has stated its goals in several places, including the recent propaganda video Flames of War. At the beginning of Flames, the narrator states that ISIS is “a mission that would herald the return to the khilafah [caliphate] and revive the creed of tawheed [monotheism/Islam]. It was the establishment of the Islamic State nourished by the blood of the truthful mujahideen to unite the ummah [referring to the entire Islamic religion] on one calling, one banner, one leader.”

The goal of pretty much every violent Islamist group has been the establishment of an Islamic State. This was a stated goal of AQI before it became ISIS, and before it declared itself actually to have achieved the goal of creating such a state in 2014, when it changed its name again to simply the Islamic State, and declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be “Caliph Ibrahim,” a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. (Although the man behind the kunyah [alias] of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been born in Samarra, not Baghdad.)

From 2003 to 2012, AQI/ISI was unable to go head-to-head with the conventional Coalition forces in Iraq. As a result, their strategy was limited by their logistics and available combat power. They attacked Coalition forces with mostly indirect fires and improvised explosive devices, while simultaneously attacking infrastructure, conducting terror operations to dissuade the populace from supporting the Coalition-backed Iraqi government and to demonstrate the inadequacy of both that government and the Coalition forces to keep them safe, and attacking the Iraqi Security Forces and government officials in order to break down the government’s resistance by way of terror and assassination.

Improvised explosive devices (a fancy term for what had been called “bombs” for decades of terrorist attacks up until 2003 Iraq) began appearing, targeting American and British vehicles, shortly after the collapse of Saddam’s Iraqi Army. Initially constructed primarily from the leftover military munitions that Saddam’s people had cached all over the country, they were effective terror weapons that had a similar effect on Coalition forces as the booby traps employed by the Vietcong in Vietnam in the 1960s and early ’70s. In fact, some of them were set up identically; a report from 1967 described a landing zone near Da Nang that the Viet Cong had sown with 155mm artillery shells to be detonated by command wire. Most of the early IEDs were more 155mm artillery shells set off on command by simple electrical detonators, triggered by an insurgent watching from nearby.

The IEDs, coupled with mortar and rocket attacks, all of which could be placed and triggered easily, followed by the emplacers and triggermen getting away quickly and unencumbered, were designed to wear down the occupying forces. Without the combat power to defeat an adversary in a stand-up fight, the militant turns to bleeding him slowly. It is a death by a thousand cuts, with each cut being a dead or maimed soldier or Marine.

The steady attrition, regardless of how high the actual body count was served a moral and political purpose beyond simply killing kufars (infidels). The insurgents believed—and history has generally shown them to be right—that the steady diet of funerals and missing limbs would turn the distant American populace against the war. While Islamist propaganda tends to paint the Western reluctance to continue in the face of such casualties as softness and cowardice, their leadership likely didn’t care, as long as it worked to drive Coalition forces out of the country.

Not all IEDs were necessarily aimed at Coalition forces. Markets, government buildings, and Shi’a mosques were all considered valid targets to the AQI bombers. In fact, AQI began such a focused campaign of violence aimed at Iraqi Shi’a that the organization was rebuked by Osama bin Laden himself, who remonstrated that the Shi’a were still brother Muslims. While it is likely that this was largely due to an apparent alliance of convenience with Iran (most of the components for explosively formed penetrators that were used in IEDs in Iraq increasingly around 2006–2007 came from Iran, and Zarqawi had actually worked out of Tehran for a time), the hatred between radical Sunni and Shi’a has not abated much since the initial split.