Following the rapid string of successes that the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham enjoyed in June and into July, ISIS has come to be perceived as an Islamist juggernaut, far more powerful and militarily sophisticated than any jihadist force seen yet in the 13 years that the US and its allies have been engaged with Salafist militants.

As with most popular perceptions, there is some truth to this, but it has far more to do with ISIS’ operational flexibility, strategic use of terror and maneuver warfare, and information operations (more simply called propaganda). Wrapped around the truth is a great deal of myth, emotional reaction to their propaganda, and wishful thinking.

When Mosul fell, it seemed like a sweeping victory. Only within a couple of days, it was becoming evident that the city hadn’t so much been “taken” as it had been “turned over.” Fifty-two thousand Iraqi Army troops simply faded away in the face of an estimated one thousand, five hundred ISIS fighters. No matter how fierce the smaller force might be, those numbers don’t add up, especially when the smaller force is attacking; a smaller defending force has an advantage, but a smaller attacking force can generally expect to be wiped out if the defenders make a fight of it. So, a major Sunni town in northern Iraq simply goes over without firing a shot. The shock of the loss counted for a lot, and ISIS proceeded to capitalize on it by filming the mass executions of prisoners, and driving on Tikrit, Samarrah, and Kirkuk.

The legend grew. Mosul Dam fell. The Peshmerga were getting slaughtered. ISIS was using American military hardware captured from the Iraqi Army and advancing on Erbil. More mass killings went up on the Internet. Yezidi refugees were stranded on Sinjar Mountain, slowly dying of hunger and thirst. Finally, US airstrikes began, and the ISIS offensive in the north dried up.

A quick view of ISIS combat videos on YouTube or even FOX or CNN shows that combat-wise, the ISIS fighters really aren’t any more skilled than the insurgents the US fought in Iraq several years ago. Few of them still bother to aim; one video seen on FOX of an ISIS fighter firing a DShK 12.7mm heavy machine gun showed him being completely owned by the weapon; the recoil was slinging him around and sending the barrel swinging back and forth and up and down as he fired. Video of ISIS showing off captured armored vehicles in Raqqa, Syria are everywhere; not so many showing them using them effectively in combat. From all the evidence coming to light from the ground, ISIS is still subscribing to the “Inshallah” school of individual fighting skill.

This is, however, in contrast to their overall operations. Reports of their fights with the Peshmerga before airstrikes began said that they were finding weak points, breaking through, and then rolling the Peshmerga forces up on the flanks. That’s classic maneuver warfare. On an even larger scale, they have focused on critical infrastructure and pulled back when faced with opposing strength in order to strike elsewhere. While the West has been focused on their offensives in Iraq, and Secretary of Defense Hagel has claimed that airstrikes have “blunted” their momentum, ISIS has instead turned their focus back to Syria, consolidating their control over tribal areas in Deir al-Zour, pressing the YPG in Hasaka, continuing their feud with Jabhaat al Nusra, and overthrowing the last government stronghold near Raqqa. Like masters of maneuver warfare, they strike where the enemy is weak, and when resistance stiffens, they fade away to strike somewhere else.

ISIS, the Stalking Horse

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The myth they have been able to build up through information operations and terror has aided them on the battlefield. The mass executions haven’t been performed simply to revel in the bloodshed (although it may appear that some of them do, in fact, do so), but to feed the fears of those they face and weaken their will. It appears to be working in most places. The reality underlying it can be seen in a recent video released that showed ISIS fighters captured by Iraqi forces weeping and wailing at their fate.

There is also, in analysis of reports coming from the front, the factor of the locals’ motivations. Many who served in Iraq observed that Iraqis would tell us what they thought we want to hear. If aid would be more quickly forthcoming, why not massage the truth a little, embellish the ferocity and savagery of the enemy? The Kurds aren’t immune to this temptation, either.

None of this is intended to downplay ISIS. They are still extremely dangerous. But understanding how an enemy has succeeded is the first step in beating that enemy, and letting their IO get in your head about how they are the next coming of Tamerlane only plays into their plans.

Featured Image Courtesy: The Economist