Insurgent Tactics is a new series of articles that will dive deep into the tactics American forces face in various insurgencies across the globe. The purpose of these articles is to give the American people an idea of what Joe faces on the asymmetric battlefield. Today’s article will cover an insurgent tactic known as the complex ambush.

The Complex Ambush

Ambushes are the most common insurgent Opposing Force (OPFOR) tactic and are common in any guerilla playbook. The element of surprise is immensely valuable on the battlefield and any half-wit insurgent understands that.

A complex ambush will often involve skilled and intelligent insurgents that show a high degree of planning and frequently several moving parts, as well as disciplined troops. Complex ambushes often aim to maximize casualties as quickly as possible to undermine the ability of coalition forces to receive quick reaction force (QRF) and air support.

Throughout the Global War on Terror, insurgent forces have used countless means to initiate an ambush. The two most common are explosive- and small arms-initiated ambushes. A complex ambush will often involve a mixture of small arms and explosives to both maximize casualties, instill chaos and confusion, and cover the retreat of insurgent forces.


Explosive initiated complex ambushes begin exactly as they sound. An explosive, often an IED, will be used against coalition forces. Explosive initiated ambushes can involve single or multiple explosives as well as vehicle-borne IEDs. IEDs will often automatically halt the advance of foot and vehicle-borne patrols.

Insurgents will use their home court advantage to delay or halt Americans into a vulnerable kill zone with little cover or in an area that offers insurgents an advantage. This could be an area where they have an elevated position or a fast escape route. Once the American forces are in the kill zone, the insurgents can detonate additional explosives and initiate an attack with small arms and RPGs.

They can blow their load with automatic arms fire and RPGs before skedaddling down the road and disappearing among the civilian population. Other tactics include planting fake IEDs that are often obvious and easy to spot.

The insurgents may have also planted additional IEDs around the area. This tactic is more common once local insurgents have observed and studied the American response to IEDs. These attacks may not ever involve any small arms fire and only rely on the damage of IEDs to cause mayhem.

Small Arms-Initiated

Insurgent forces use rifle and machine-gun fire for small arms initiated ambushes. Small arms initiated complex ambushes often prey on the aggression of the American fighting man. Speaking from experience, the average infantryman goes on patrol every day wanting to get into a gunfight.

Once an insurgent grants that infantryman his fight, the latter reacts violently and aggressively. The American fighting man charges forward, laying down fire and maneuvering on his enemies. Therefore, insurgents take advantage of that aggression.

Once they have initiated the fight with small arms, they want to draw their enemy in. As American forces close on the insurgents, the insurgents will utilize explosives to cause casualties. They can then escape as American forces deal with confusion and potential casualties.

Small arms fire could include RPGs and vary greatly. The small arms fire could be machine guns and rifles going full auto or deliberate and accurate sniper fire. Whatever the bad guys can use to draw in American forces.

Story Time

My own squad was caught in a small arms-initiated complex ambush. We already had a reputation for aggression amongst the local Taliban fighters. When they opened up with AKs and RPKs, we did what we always did, we pursued, maneuvered, and punished them by fire.

My team laid down suppressive fire as our other team maneuvered. Our second team hit a treeline and an IED went off. Thankfully the Taliban pulled the trigger a little too early and the team was outside the blast zone. Except for a peppering of rocks, they came out unharmed.

After the IED went off, the Taliban broke contact and retreated. They blended back in with the population and we spent the day doing tactical sight exploitation and bringing in Explosive Ordnance Specialists (EOD) to check the area.

Beyond the Complex Ambush

These are the two most common complex ambush tactics employed by third-world insurgent forces across the globe. Thus, the most common the average infantryman will experience.

A complex ambush is an advanced tactic for poorly trained forces. Therefore, it is an indicator of skilled insurgents. But it is just another threat your average grunt may face in the heat of some of the worst countries in the world.