H. John Poole defines “distributive operations” as small units (roughly squad-sized) working alone. While he primarily writes about the application of “distributive operations” to counterinsurgency, the use of many small, autonomous units scattered across the battlespace has come to the forefront of ISIS’ tactics in Al Anbar province.
ISIS’ commander in Al Anbar is believed to be Abu Omar al Shishani. The Chechen, born Tarkan Batirashvili, has been reported killed at least three times in Syria in the last year, but is apparently on the ground now in Western Iraq. With experience in the Georgian Army during the brief war with Russia in 2008 (he is believed to have been born in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge), Shishani was leading ISIS forces in Deir al Zour in Syria in 2013.
ISIS forces in the north and Syria have been, while still very maneuver-based, relatively conventional formations. Al Shishani’s forces have moved the main effort in Iraq to Al Anbar after airstrikes began and ISIS’ activity in the north died down as a result (there has been relatively little ISIS activity in the north since the Kurdish Peshmerga retook Mosul Dam). Al Shishani’s maneuvers have been characterized by very small, light, fast groups. The average size of an ISIS unit in the north and in Syria has been around 300 fighters. Shishani’s are broken down into groups of no more than 50.
ISIS is now believed to be in control of Al Qaim, Hit, Karmah, and Fallujah, but Shishani’s forces have been concentrating on hit-and-run attacks on Iraqi Security Forces and Sahwa militias. He has been hitting small targets, such as the Sahwa area of Tuway Albu Risha, and small villages and outposts in the hinterlands around Hit and Ramadi. According to War on the Rocks, he hit seven targets on October 6, drawing a company-sized element of the Iraqi Army out of Ramadi, where his forces encircled them for two days. These fast, death-by-a-thousand-cuts attacks have succeeded in luring a lot of Iraqi soldiers and Sahwa militiamen into ambushes. The Sahwa are estimated to have lost 1800 men in the last few weeks.
While Shishani has demonstrated the most effective—and high-profile—use of these distributive tactics, it is in keeping with what little is known about ISIS’ reaction to U.S. airstrikes. Most of the heavy armor captured by ISIS in its initial blitzkrieg in Ninewa in June appears to have been moved to Syria (though new reports are surfacing of some of it surrounding Amiriyat al Fallujah). As soon as strikes began, the organization immediately responded by forbidding convoys in or near cities, reinstating the use of masks, forbidding gatherings in mosques or high-profile buildings, and breaking their units down to “brigades” of 50 men.
ISIS was apparently already prepared for a campaign of airstrikes, and immediately took steps to disperse and go underground to avoid the bombs. Having already shown signs of using “mission-type orders” (what the U.S. military would generally refer to as “commander’s intent”), they have continued to refine their use of dispersed, autonomous units to continue their tempo of operations while avoiding effective interdiction from the air. It raises the question as to just how many of the buildings bombed in Raqqa at the opening of airstrikes in Syria were actually occupied.
By further distributing and dispersing their forces, ISIS continues to demonstrate their operational flexibility and sophistication.
(Featured Image Courtesy: VICE)