According to the Wikipedia page regarding ISIS, the group probably has fewer than 50.000 fighters (CIA estimates 19.000+-25.000, ISIS claims 100.000, which is obviously an exaggeration, so about 50.000 seems like a reasonable top prediction, as of 2016, taking the ongoing bombings into account) and currently has control over 2.8 to 8 million people.

How can they achieve total control over such population with only 50.000 fighters? Also, a huge portion of the fighters must deal with the ongoing civil war, so the number of jihadists handling the civilians must be significantly lower than the total amount of fighters they have.

In the case of ISIS, several millions of people have fled from Syria. If all those people revolted, couldn't they just simply overthrow 50.000 fighters? Also, does the population still living under ISIS support the group, or like it there? If not, why won't they rise against the jihadists?

There have been several occasions in history where a small group controlled large populations. How is this possible without the people rebelling?

  • 1
    A lot of people do not flee from Syria because of ISIS but because of the civil war between the Assad regime and the various rebel groups.
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 11:34
  • 2
    The British controlled India with fewer people. If you have no respect for life and are prepared to use extreme violence to achieve your ends, it's possible to control large numbers of people.
    – Vérace
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 3:05

3 Answers 3


How can they achieve total control over such population with only 50.000 fighters? Also, a huge portion of the fighters must deal with the ongoing civil war so the number of jihadists handling the civilians must be significantly lower than the total amount of fighters they have.

Without going into specifics of the Islamic State, it's quite easy to see that they force what they want through violence.

Firstly, there are the beheadings of captives, which inspire fear, not just as they happen but also via social media where they post the little clips about them.

Secondly, they have a lot of fire power and aren't afraid to use it. The fire power alone isn't a problem, I'm sure there are other countries where the civilian population has access to similar or more firearms and ammunition. The problem is that these people aren't afraid to shoot civilians.

Thirdly, there's not authority to stop them. It's not like you can call the police and have them end the whole thing. Instead, there are foreign military actors that may be able to match and exceed (by a lot) the IS's military capabilities but they have a big problem: civilian casualties. Where IS can just shoot around, military operators need to play by the rules and need to make sure they only shoot the ones that are a danger. IS fighters obviously know this and they will want to surround themselves with as many civilians as possible, to form a human shield and prevent the military from just bombing major strongholds.


The areas that ISIS has controlled tend to be in a power vacuum: parts of Syria, which has been in a state of civil war for some time, and parts of Iraq, where the current government is still trying to achieve some level of credibility. ISIS has also appeared in parts of Libya, whose current government, if it can be called that, is essentially ineffective.

Note that ISIS hasn't penetrated into Lebanon, where a strong government and a strong Hezbollah control various parts of the country. Nor Jordan, which has a strong government and military.

To answer the question - how can they achieve total control with relatively small numbers? The answer is: because the areas they control don't really have a strong government presence to resist them. ISIS gravitates to wherever a power absence exists.


I think that this question needs a complex answer and I try to mention some aspects of it only.

There are different reasons for this relatively small terror group to sustain.

First of all they have support from many different countries, financially, ideologically and training wise. There are various evidences that US, UK, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, only to name a few but most powerful ones, are directly and indirectly supporting IS. So IS is not a small group of insane terrorist with limited resources but a tool in the hands of world powers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojcoKnTGf4s (Interviews with General Wesley Clark)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-l-phillips/research-paper- isis-turke_b_6128950.html


They were created to use religion for political aims.

They follow the ideology of Wahhabism which was created by the British government to succeed in the fight against the Osman Empire. The British used an already existing tendency which had developed in islamic history after the prophet ( but is not part of the original teachings) and lifted it into power. Later on the Saudi state was created which spread its violent ideology firstly over the Arabian Peninsula but with the vast amount of profit from oil sales, Saudi Arabia spread Wahhabism all over the world.

Of course this ideology found supporters and sympathisers in the Sunni Muslim population. Unfortunately not all Muslims are well informed about their religion therefore they can be fooled to believe they would act in favour of their religion when in fact they act against its teachings.

They found supporters among ordinary Muslims who were attracted by this ideology. For this reason IS was welcomed by some communities in Iraq and Syria. By the time people realised their true, vicious and inhumane behaviour it was for many too late to act against them, as they themselves became an enemy for IS and being threatened by the most horrible acts of beheadings, life burnings etc. What can you do then as a normal citizen without weapons when the terrorists have taken over your town?

In Iraq there is a popular uprising against IS since the highest religious Shia authority has issued a decree that it is the plight of the Iraqi people to defend their country and fight against IS terrorism. Since then, more than 2.5 million (this number in from 2014, current number is even higher) popular fighters (in the majority Shia) have joint in the fight against IS and have liberated together with the Iraqi army around 40% of IS controlled areas. More and more Sunnis are joining the PMF (Popular Mobilisation Forces). These young man decided to leave their families and risk their lives to fight for their country instead of fleeing to safety into neighbouring countries or even further. And they do so to free mainly Sunni populated areas which are under IS threat.



The PMF is a rebellion of the people against terrorism, but properly organised with the support of the government and affiliated to the Iraqi army.

  • This is all very interesting, but it doesn't answer the question "How can they achieve total control over such population with only 50.000 fighters?"
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 14:19
  • The answer is unclear how with such limited resources can control big populations. It's very interesting but please consider rewriting.
    – nelruk
    Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 16:21
  • 1
    Is it not enough reason to be successful in controling the population when they are supported by US (IS received CIA training in Jordan, weapon supply via air in Iraq and Syria), UK, Turkey (Oil sales, free flow of terrorists to Syria and Iraq) Petrol countries?
    – Noor
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 14:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .