Special thanks to Patrick Collins for writing this guest post. -Jack

In the mid 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) faced a boiling communist inspired insurgency that sought to overthrow the existing government that was led by the descendants of European settlers. The Rhodesian Bushwar would last over fifteen years, coming on the heels of the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam Conflict. Faced with bureaucratic constraints and operational shortcomings, the Rhodesians were forced to maximize the potential of their meager resources by creating highly reliable small unit forces that could conduct raids and “pseudo-operations” against rebel forces. Among these units were the Rhodesian Light Infantry Commandos (RLI), the Rhodesian SAS and the Selous Scouts. Though modern circumstances have changed, the tactics of the Selous Scouts continue to be relevant and apply to the ongoing fight against ISIS and the Global War on Terror.

This is not a comprehensive study of counterinsurgency doctrine, rather it focuses on the kinetic tactics that could be employed to eliminate enemy forces (a minor element in broader COIN strategy). The list of differences between the Rhodesian Bushwar and the Global War on Terror is extensive (see below) but the most critical similarity remains: the enemy has/had the power to reach across national borders and the “deep pockets” to procure weaponry, support and provide governance. The strategy of the Selous Scouts was to conduct “pseudo-operations” (false flag) by pretending to be guerillas themselves and luring the true guerillas into ambushes or to gather intelligence about guerilla operations/tradecraft. The Selous Scouts would also attempt to turn captured guerillas making them “tamed terrs” and incorporating them into the unit.



Global War on Terror (ISIS Specific)

Terrain Fought on Rhodesian land where soldiers had “grown up” Both conflicts span across multiple borders in inhospitable terrain. Not fought primarily on American/Western soil
Ideology Communist inspired insurgency In both instances the less ideological could be “turned” Ideological (religious) insurgency
Culture Rhodesian vs. African In pseudo-operations tactical landscape, “culture” becomes less relevant Western vs. Radical Islamism (specifically takfirist jihad)

Purpose: ISIS’ “Two Front War”

The most daunting task in the past half-century of counterinsurgency warfare has been determining friends and foe. Whether Viet Cong or al-Qaeda inspired militants, counterinsurgents have faced the insurmountable task of discerning civilian from combatant. The resulting psychological pressure of “not knowing” has caused even the most disciplined units to become worn out. While most small unit SOF forces employed guerilla tactics to “terrorize” insurgents, very few have gone to the lengths that the Selous Scouts took to deceive and surprise the enemy. This paradigm shift exposed bushwar insurgents to the psychological pressures normally experienced by counterinsurgents: the constant fear of deception, betrayal and surprise attacks. Scouts would often stage elaborate scenarios where black members of the unit would pretend to be guerillas leading captured white soldiers into a guerilla camp. At the last moment all weaponry would be returned to the pseudo-captives, allowing the Scouts to catch the entire camp by surprise. Even though the sides of the conflict seemed as stark as “black and white”, the Scouts knew how to use their craft to show guerillas that they were not safe.

In examining the current struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the model of pseudo-operations could readily be applied to wield a kinetic as well as psychological blow to ISIS and to fill gaps in intelligence collection. ISIS’ ability to function as a pseudo-government that controls territory and as a pseudo-military that blends both conventional and asymmetric tactics makes it the ideal target for exploitation by a pseudo-operations group. To many, the ability of ISIS to straddle the world of conventional and non-conventional the group’s greatest strength since it can provide “legitimate” governance as well as armored military might augmented by guerilla/terrorist tactics. This “strength” is in fact their greatest vulnerability since they are susceptible to the same weaknesses that plague governments and militants alike. Psuedo-operators would force ISIS into a two-front war, much like the Selous Scouts threatened both insurgent governments and guerillas alike.

ISIS has relied on both terrorist theatrics (beheadings, ransoms, televised threats) as well as military prowess that incorporates some conventional tactics and command structure. As a guerilla force, Scouts could target ISIS’ governmental structure and create an insurgency with bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of ISIS leaders. An attempt to crush the Scouts using conventional force such as tanks, artillery and irregular infantry would be thwarted by additional guerilla attacks by the Scouts designed to target conventional(ish) vulnerabilities. Since ISIS also maintains its image as a terrorist/insurgent group, Scouts could perform pseudo-operations to infiltrate and decimate ISIS from within. Likewise, scouts could stage false flag operations to lure ISIS elements into the open to be dispatched by air power or conventional units. All three approaches would work to turn the insurgency against the “insurgents” both kinetically and psychologically.

Tactic Method Kinetic Outcome Psychological Outcome
False Flag
  1. Turn former insurgents against the group and incorporate into scouts.
  2. Gain intelligence.
  3. Impersonate militant group to draw insurgents into defenseless area.

  4. Kill, capture and “turn” additional insurgents.

  1. Destruction of militant resources and personnel.
  2. Gain additional personnel and critical intelligence.
  1. No militant/insurgent government is safe.
  2. Drain morale from insurgents and insurgent government.
Guerilla (Blue) on Conventional (Black)
  1. Use guerilla tactics to attack ISIS conventional structure.
  2. Portray attack as action taken by rival militant groups (AQ).
  1. Degrade ISIS’ physical ability to govern
  2. Draw ISIS aggression to other militant groups hostile to US.
  3. Potential for further chaos and instability (negative outcome).
  1. Weaken public perception of ISIS’ ability to govern, turn public against ISIS similar to “2006 Anbar Awakening”
Guerilla (Blue) on Guerilla (Black)
  1. Use guerilla tactics to attack ISIS terrorist networks.
  2. Portray attack as action taken by rival militant groups
  1. Destroy large amounts of militant hardware and personnel.
  1. No militant is safe.

*note “blue” represents Scout forces while “Black” represent ISIS forces/government

Formation: Forging the new unconventional

The formation of such a group would require collaboration across all branches of the US Military as well as SOCOM and the Intelligence Community. Since the original Selous Scouts grew up in Rhodesia, knew the bush that they fought in, and were at least somewhat familiar with the culture and history of their enemies, an emphasis would need to be placed on cultural knowledge (languages, customs, history, etc.) for American volunteers to the Scouts. The volunteer would also require extensive warfighting skills with a particular focus on unconventional warfare; although this knowledge could be taught in later training. Though most SOF elements have unconventional warfare capabilities, the Scouts would operate in truly unconventional, guerilla circumstances. With minimal reliance on US military technology, resupply, firepower and equipment, the teams would function with strict oversight but little structure.

Selection and training for the group would mirror the curriculum of the Selous Scouts by first shrinking the applicant pool through rigorous PT, ruck marching, starvation and mind-games (incorporating all relevant evolutions from current US-SOF schools). Once the class was reduced to around 10-20%, the remainder of the course would be focused on learning unconventional warfare and tradecraft related to pseudo-operations. Since applicants would come from all branches and even civilian life/academia, graduates would next be sent to various schools to round out their skillsets (language school, sniper school, demolitions, ect.) Once downrange, team members would recreate the course to incorporate indigenous personnel as well as captured insurgents to be turned into “tamed terrs” (to use the Rhodesian phrase).

The Rhodesian Selous Scouts had extensive knowledge of the bush that they grew up in and the rebels they fought against but they had to rely on makeup and extensive “costuming” to play the part of a Marxist guerilla and convince hapless terrorists of the authenticity. While this masquerade of appearance and cultural practices would continue to be a critical weapon in the Scout’s arsenal, the use of social media and technology would serve as a relatively safe way to initiate and guide pseudo-operations. Scouts would undergo training to create fake accounts to spread “propaganda”, disseminate videos and boost their militant credentials. These activities would not replace fieldwork/raids but would complement their intelligence collection, potentially helping them pinpoint locations of other cyber-jihadists nearby.


After developing a cadre of indigenous personnel to incorporate into the Scouts, the teams would begin work on a specific strategy. Some would focus on conducting pseudo-missions against ISIS while others would conduct guerilla operations against ISIS to build bona-fides with other terrorist groups (hostile to the US) and in turn conduct pseudo-operations against them. In a war where there are multiple enemy sides, the Scouts would be able to strike at any terrorist group hostile to US interests. While this would potentially create chaos or a power vacuum, it would be highly effective for gathering intelligence and destroying terrorist infrastructure.

This model is not intended to bring stability and order to Mesopotamia and the Levant. Rather, it comprises the 10% of counterinsurgency doctrine that requires kinetic force against the enemy. It would serve as an effective method to identify insurgent infrastructure, terrorist plots/networks and build intelligence collection capacity. By shifting the insurgency paradigm against the pseudo-government of ISIS, Scouts would psychologically degrade the will of the organization and its fighters. Although operators would be compensated for their service, the independent structure and ethos of the Scouts would come with the understanding that their specialized training and mission would mean forgoing the military “comforts” of tremendous firepower and specialized equipment. This minimalist approach to combat support would drastically increase the “tooth-to-tail” ratio of the unit.