Islamic State goes from ‘junior varsity’ to all pro in 8 months, Admiral Kirby says

In an Aug. 22 press briefing, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, attempted to defend President Barack Obama’s poorly timed statement in January where he referred to the Islamic State as a “jayvee team.” This is what Obama had said in an interview with The New Yorker while answering a question on the resurgence of jihadist groups in Iraq:

The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

Below is the reporter’s question about equating the Islamic State to “a junior varsity team,” and Kirby’s answer:

Q: In January, the president equated ISIL’s capabilities to that of a junior varsity team, so, which seems to be in direct contrast with what the secretary said yesterday. I was wondering if there had been new analysis or done to get to the secretary to that position?

And does that mean that ISIS is getting stronger?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would make a couple of points. One I would point you to what the president said yesterday or the day before about ISIL and the threat that they posed, as well as comments made by Secretary Kerry, and of course you’ve heard what Secretary Hagel said. I think everybody has the same view here about the threat posed by ISIL not just to Iraq, but to the region.

There’s no divergence. This is August. You’re talking about comments that were made in January. ISIL — and we’ve been watching this for months. They have grown in capability. I’ve said it from the podium as have others. They have grown in capability with speed, helped along by resourcing from some of their own criminal activity, as well as donations and ransoms and helped along by a sanctuary that they have in Syria. So, we’ve all been watching this. They have advanced in capability. And we — we saw the speed with which they gained ground and held ground in northern Iraq earlier this summer.

So, it’s a — the real answer to your question is, it’s a constantly changing, fluid situation, and their threat continues to grow. And that’s what led us to where we are today, which is that we believe it does pose an imminent threat, and it’s a threat that we need to take seriously.

Kirby is defending the indefensible. The Obama administration and Kirby would be better served admitting that it was a mistake to underestimate the Islamic State. As a senior military officer, he knows that it is impossible for the Islamic State to have gained the capacity to take on two states (Iraq and Syria) and control large regions in both countries in the span of just eight months.

Those of us who have been watching the Islamic State (previously known as al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State of Iraq, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham) have warned that the group has been gaining in strength since 2012. For example, this deadly raid on Haditha in March 2012 shows that the group had regrouped and developed the capacity train, plan for, and execute sophisticated operations against Iraqi security forces.

Watch the video linked above that shows the Islamic State’s assault on Haditha in 2012. The tactics used in that attack weren’t developed over the past eight months. These tactics have been on display in both Iraq and Syria over the past three years. The alarm bells should have been ringing in the Obama administration once the Islamic State seized Fallujah and several areas in Anbar province in January. Instead, the president grossly understated the Islamic State’s abilities. And today, administration officials are referring to the group as a dangerous global threat while the military is launching airstrikes against the group daily and is planning to expand its operations, possibly into Syria.

Administration and military officials shouldn’t bristle when asked why they failed to properly assess that danger of the Islamic State. They should admit their mistake and articulate a strategy to defeat the group. Even if a new strategy contradicts previous campaign promises to end the war in Iraq.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • m3fd2002 says:

    I watched REAR ADM. KIRBY’s press conference. Was not impressed. I agree with Bill Riggio’s comment about fessing up to underestimating IS. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves as to the capabilities of IS. They are competent in the Arab theater, probably along the lines with Hezbollah. But, they can’t match a professional western force.

  • pre-Boomer Marine brat says:

    Kirby is a PR flack. You can easily Google his bio on He’s had only one “line” tour of duty, his first. Since then, he’s been a headquarters operator.
    One in particular of the squadron commanders I had in the Tonkin Gulf would have made Kirby have an accident in his pants. A fire-eater, one of the pilots who took out the bridges that the “Toko-Ri” movie was based upon.
    Kirby doesn’t pack that kind of gear.

  • Evan says:

    Agreed, this brings up a part of the problem here at home.
    Leadership, or the lack thereof.
    Real leaders do not attempt to complain, blame, or explain.
    Real leaders don’t try and defend the indefensible.
    Real leaders accept responsibility for mistakes, even if it wasn’t primarily their fault, they accept responsibility, simply by virtue of being a “leader.”
    It’s a part of our social/cultural problems here at home.
    Similar to the ” I want it all now, but I don’t have to work for it, the world just owes it to me,” attitude that I unfortunately see all too often in and amongst my generation.
    Everyone wants the credit when things go right, but no one wants to be accountable when things go awry.
    Why? Why do we look at things like making mistakes, and see them as things to be avoided and shunned and denied at all cost? This is not right, and the truth is that we need to see problems and mistakes for what they are; Opportunities.
    Opportunities to correct these mistakes, to learn, grow and progress, and do better next time. Opportunities to develop ourselves mentally and otherwise, to become something more, something better, and to realize some measure of our true potential. Those beautiful possibilities are only possible if we make mistakes. The real trick is changing our attitudes toward these issues.
    To defeat IS, ANF, whoever, is undoubtedly going to require strong leadership. From the top on down. So, let’s do it, let’s be strong and smart and capable. Let’s hold our leaders accountable, insist that they hold themselves accountable, and learn, change, and grow from our missteps and incongruities.

  • This is exactly why I am ‘enlisted class’….not ‘officer class’. Officers are the military’s politicians and they suck. They look at a hydra with two new heads and act like its something they have never seen before……gutless & pathetic.

  • Dan says:

    Great write-up, Bill.
    Ownership of mistakes, a natural byproduct of war and transparency has been a discussed subject on SOFREP recently too. And great article on “warontherocks” about not BS’ing the American public is also a great additional read.
    We need to be very careful how we respond to the IS. A successful strategy by AQ/AQI, et al has been to goad the west into an angered response against the militants that they can (have) successfully use as propaganda to infer the attack(s) against AQ/AQI et al are in fact against the Muslim world.
    Improving public perception through complete transparency could help unite support at home, and abroad. Maintaining the cloak of suspicion does nothing to help combat this very real threat to humanity.

  • Paul T says:

    Arming Islamists to fight inside Syria thru Turkey & Jordan was such a Bad idea for the region & all Christians in the ME.

  • Evan says:

    Come on man, gutless and pathetic? Sheesh…
    I’m a former enlisted Infantry Marine, and I understand some of your feelings, in general, towards the officers….
    But, I had good officers. Strong, smart, capable men who truly cared for their Marines.
    Not every single one of them was a shining example of combat prowess, but overall, they were good guys.

  • Arjuna says:

    your confidence regarding the abilities of Western armies is not comforting. I served in one of the professional Western forces myself and I don’t see any victories from the past thirteen years’ efforts by said Armies. I am humbled and steeled when I read accts from SF on the ground in Iraq today describing the high levels of TRADOC ISIS maintains. They fight like our operators (or any elite commandos), they retreat tactically and with weapons, and they use drones in the sky ahead of their columned movements. They even shut down all the cell networks in Mosul when their daddy gave his little speech. These guys are smooth. How much better do they need to be to gain America’s respect??

  • donowen says:

    In Vietnam I knew within several minutes who I was flying against NV pilot, Chinese or Russian. Your enemy determines your level of response and ultimately whether you have the equipment, skill set, courage and frankly a little luck to win. Certainly ISIS has been fighting worse than JV… They do not have the technology to frankly fight anyone other than equally or lesser equipped JV. So this analogy falls apart because ISIS has no reason to be anything other than a well organized bunch of guys with decent communications gear in Toyota trucks, RPGs, 50 cals and artillery- A good 19th century army. They are great at slaughtering people and I’m sure could be trained to good cow and pig butchers. 10,000 special forces, helicopter gunships, etc and these characters are back to JV or rather dead JV. Let’s do this.

  • DR says:

    Real leaders also do not make decisions based on popular opinion or what the political ramifications will be but rather with commitment to what is right and wrong. Real leaders demand excellence and surround themselves with like minded individuals, each expert in their field. We are certainly lacking that in the oval office — what we have is the blind leading the blind or even worse the near-sighted leading the blind.

  • Kate says:

    In reference to this and the ABC News article you posted a link to, “ISIS is an ‘Incredible’ Fighting Force, US Special Operations Say,” who is the major player behind these guys?
    I strongly suspect that this group is receiving some kind of support by a major player outside of the Middle East. Could it be the Russians, the Chinese or someone else? Is it possible this could morph into a proxy war of some sort?
    Key Reasons for suspecting this:
    1.) According to our special ops, the ISIS fighting force is behaving much differently than the Iraqi military did. Their movements are far more strategic. Who taught them this strategy?
    2.) The have SOF tactics, techniques and procedures. The NATO forces aren’t the only ones with special ops. Both Russia and China have them. Although Russia is an ally of Syria, an having an internal enemy might give Syria an additional incentive to keep Russian forces there. Meanwhile, Russia wouldn’t mind having something to distract us from the situation in Ukraine. China also wouldn’t mind having something that distracts us from the “Pivot to Asia,” and I suspect some of their companies (all of which are at least partially owned by the Chinese government) are profiting from weapons sales… (Then again, the Russians have plenty of weapons to sell too.)
    3.) If administering crucifixion as a punishment were a disease, it would have been considered eradicated until this year. Interestingly, there is an ongoing “outbreak” of this “disease” among ISIS, and in January, there was a reported “case” of this disease among pro-Russian sympathizers in Ukraine. If this were the re-emergence of an “eradicated” disease, epidemiologists would conclude that the “case” in Ukraine must have had some sort of common contact or interaction with the “cases” in ISIS… It is well documented that Russian special ops have been active in Ukraine. Is it possible that they have also been interacting with ISIS? (However, social media can inspire copycat crimes, so these two “outbreaks” could be completely unrelated.)

  • David says:

    I think that the commenters and the article are missing something in the administration statement. ” I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes,…”
    Here, he is saying something that is quite true — there is a big difference between a local military force, however skillful, and a clandestine terrorist organization. The latter’s capabilities include spycraft, false documents, the ability to move about and conduct affairs in western societies, movements of money, methods of theft or fraud for self-financing, building bombs from ingredients unregulated and freely available in western societies, smuggling, etc.
    Although they have demonstrated skill in military maneuvers, that is not the same thing as being able to pull off a 9-11 attack, or the Hezbollah attack on the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, or an assassination in Mexico. These are different skills, and it is right to conclude that ISIS is primarily a threat to our allies, not to our homeland, at least for now.

  • James says:

    The answer to your questions to me are real simple. My educated guess would be Assad and Putin.
    Now Assad’s problem has become our problem. Oh, this is so convenient (at least from Assad’s point of view, that is).
    As I’ve stated on these message boards many times before, this guy will do anything imaginable (or allow anything imaginable to happen) to stay in power.
    This whole Arab Spring thing began with the best of intentions. Now, it has become far worse than the French Revolution.
    Had we left even a minimal force in place in Iraq this would not have developed.
    Had we supported the moderate Syrian resistance in a timely, decisively, and effective manner like we should have, this sorry state of affairs would have never developed.
    It’s not like we should have done both of the above, had we done one OR the other it would have most likely worked.
    As far as the moderates in the Syrian resistance are concerned (due to our not getting on the ball in this thing in a timely manner), they have now either been radicalized or are most likely dead now.

  • M3fd2002 says:

    Arjuna, you can believe what you want. You have to take into account the political nature of modern warfare. Post wwii brought in different metrics for western forces. Their soldiers are heavily constrained by rules of engagement. Frankly, the grunts have a greater fear of the JAG than any islamic combatant. They are not “smooth”, far from it, they are more like the keystone cops. Look it up. If someone takes the leash off, as the case was in WWiI, your thesis would be moot. Reminds of a joke: Someone was confused about the TV show Star Trek. Asking why there were no muslims on the show? The response: its because its about the future.

  • Tunde says:

    ISIS is staffed at the operational and tactical level by former Sunni Iraqi Army members; You know, the ones that were sacked after Saddam was ousted…..

  • Evan says:

    In the article you referenced, the Chechens were in fact cited as a possible scource of the IS tactics, techniques and procedures.
    The Chechens have been waging a brutal insurgency against Russia for a very long time, some of the Chechens anyway…
    They’re called the Islamic Caucausas Emirate, or ICE, and they are Al Qeada, IS aligned…
    They’ve sent trainers and also crack combat teams to Syria…
    In partial reply to donowen, you’re right, they are JV, but we aren’t, and neither is Russia, and that’s who these guys have been fighting. So there’s an argument that could be made that the IS has been able to step up it’s game a few notches, at least above militia status, and that has precipitated the events that we’ve seen taking place on the ground over the last year or so really. Cause for a while there it was 6’s in Syria, and a training program like that, including the Chechens and all that logistically would’ve taken some time.
    Some of what the pentagon planners are basing there assessments on are things like, the enemy withdraws tactically from the battlespace to more secure areas, as opposed to insurgents at the very beginning of OIF/OEF, who they said would, scatter in all directions anytime ordinance dropped anywhere near them…
    It’s a big difference, but it’s significance may be overstated I believe.
    So, they didn’t break and run like cockroaches…
    They KNOW that there isn’t a capable fighting force on the ground currently, that has the means and the will to pursue them and destroy them IN their strongholds.
    They KNOW that once they leave the immediate vicinity of Mosul Dam or Sinjar,if they make it out, they won’t be targeted or pursued necessarily…
    They KNOW all this because Barack Obama has said as much…
    So, they’re aware of some advantages they have currently, and they’ve adjusted their tactics accordingly…
    These guys are people, that learn, and adjust to their environment, they’ve been living in an environment of near total war for a long time, it’s not earth shattering that they’ve picked up some new tricks along the way…

  • Arjuna says:

    M3fd2002, I am going to have to respectfully disagree with you on your “keystone cops” comment. These guys are well-led, the hardest of the hardcore, they have lots of good planners, and we’re going to get spanked if we don’t go on offense, with smart targeting of their leaders, camps and equipment. Remember, we lost in Vietnam to a better enemy strategy with practically no rules of engagement holding us back and loads more high-tech weaponry than our enemy, mainly because we were badly led. I’m afraid that these are the Lakers and Obama is the JV. But I hope I’m wrong!

  • Arjuna says:

    Kate, beyond the excellent training and doctrine points the country you are reaching out to identify is actually a kingdom, namely that of Saudi Arabia. Baghdadi gets his juice straight from Bin Laden with whom he was in communication before Bin Laden was killed. Baghdadi believes himself to be the direct successor of Osama, as well as the Caliph. There is also a Saudi Prince called Bin Shaalan who is a longtime sponsor and supposed “Chairman” type character of ISIS. He is a shady one and needs study. Russians and Chinese see these fanatics as a threat which is why we should launch a grand alliance with them to fight Islamists, not interfere in their areas of operation.

  • @James, @Tunde, @Evan and @Arjuna, very thought provoking feedback! Perhaps it’s a combination of factors and not a single source?
    @Evan, I really liked your comments that their tactics evolved over time, and that fighting the Russians would have given the Chechens additional techniques. I also liked your points that advertising what we won’t do isn’t helping the situation. bWhat does the phrase, “it was 6s” mean? 🙂

  • M3fd2002 says:

    i agree with much of Evans’ analysis. I’d add that The chechen IS members are probably their best asset. Tough under fire and aggressive. However, the Russians eventually crushed their jihad. Its my hunch that the Turks are complicit in ISiS’s rise. Note: the US military was never been defeated in the post WWII, not in any significant kinetic operation at least! The politicians made command decisions to remove the military from their theater of operations, which is their right and should be kept that way. its concerning to hear individuals revising history, or even worse not understanding the facts on the ground as they played out.

  • Arjuna says:

    Lang Vei and A Shau were kind of the opposite of victory; but bad decisions were the drivers, never cowardice or tactical incompetence.
    We’re all on the same anti-ISIS team. I just hope the gloves come off soon. And the right objective (destroying ISIS) drives the strategy, not getting food and water to civilians.
    “There is a Love of Freedom for whose who fight and die, that the sheltered will Never know.”
    -written on an ammo box at Khe Sanh
    It’s time to fight.


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