Strategy is the overall plan of action to achieve a measurable goal. It is the series of actions on a theater-wide scale that contribute to victory or defeat. While ISIS has released several documents and videos giving some ideas of its strategy, even more can be determined by examining their targets, their actions in multiple spectrums of warfare, politics, and information, and their history.
ISIS has stated its goals in several places, including the recent propaganda video Flames of War. At the beginning of Flames, the narrator states that ISIS is “a mission that would herald the return to the khilafah [caliphate] and revive the creed of tawheed [monotheism/Islam]. It was the establishment of the Islamic State nourished by the blood of the truthful mujahideen to unite the ummah [referring to the entire Islamic religion] on one calling, one banner, one leader.”
The goal of pretty much every violent Islamist group has been the establishment of an Islamic State. This was a stated goal of AQI before it became ISIS, and before it declared itself actually to have achieved the goal of creating such a state in 2014, when it changed its name again to simply the Islamic State, and declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to be “Caliph Ibrahim,” a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. (Although the man behind the kunyah [alias] of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been born in Samarra, not Baghdad.)
From 2003 to 2012, AQI/ISI was unable to go head-to-head with the conventional Coalition forces in Iraq. As a result, their strategy was limited by their logistics and available combat power. They attacked Coalition forces with mostly indirect fires and improvised explosive devices, while simultaneously attacking infrastructure, conducting terror operations to dissuade the populace from supporting the Coalition-backed Iraqi government and to demonstrate the inadequacy of both that government and the Coalition forces to keep them safe, and attacking the Iraqi Security Forces and government officials in order to break down the government’s resistance by way of terror and assassination.
Improvised explosive devices (a fancy term for what had been called “bombs” for decades of terrorist attacks up until 2003 Iraq) began appearing, targeting American and British vehicles, shortly after the collapse of Saddam’s Iraqi Army. Initially constructed primarily from the leftover military munitions that Saddam’s people had cached all over the country, they were effective terror weapons that had a similar effect on Coalition forces as the booby traps employed by the Vietcong in Vietnam in the 1960s and early ’70s. In fact, some of them were set up identically; a report from 1967 described a landing zone near Da Nang that the Viet Cong had sown with 155mm artillery shells to be detonated by command wire. Most of the early IEDs were more 155mm artillery shells set off on command by simple electrical detonators, triggered by an insurgent watching from nearby.
The IEDs, coupled with mortar and rocket attacks, all of which could be placed and triggered easily, followed by the emplacers and triggermen getting away quickly and unencumbered, were designed to wear down the occupying forces. Without the combat power to defeat an adversary in a stand-up fight, the militant turns to bleeding him slowly. It is a death by a thousand cuts, with each cut being a dead or maimed soldier or Marine.
The steady attrition, regardless of how high the actual body count was served a moral and political purpose beyond simply killing kufars (infidels). The insurgents believed—and history has generally shown them to be right—that the steady diet of funerals and missing limbs would turn the distant American populace against the war. While Islamist propaganda tends to paint the Western reluctance to continue in the face of such casualties as softness and cowardice, their leadership likely didn’t care, as long as it worked to drive Coalition forces out of the country.
Not all IEDs were necessarily aimed at Coalition forces. Markets, government buildings, and Shi’a mosques were all considered valid targets to the AQI bombers. In fact, AQI began such a focused campaign of violence aimed at Iraqi Shi’a that the organization was rebuked by Osama bin Laden himself, who remonstrated that the Shi’a were still brother Muslims. While it is likely that this was largely due to an apparent alliance of convenience with Iran (most of the components for explosively formed penetrators that were used in IEDs in Iraq increasingly around 2006–2007 came from Iran, and Zarqawi had actually worked out of Tehran for a time), the hatred between radical Sunni and Shi’a has not abated much since the initial split.
In fact, in early 2004, an Al Qaeda operative by the name of Hassan Ghul was captured on the Iraq-Iran border, bearing a letter from Zarqawi to Al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan, proposing the instigation of a Sunni-Shi’a civil war to forestall elections in Iraq. It is apparent that the organization has maintained that antipathy to the Shi’a; even after the immediate goal of creating enough instability to frustrate the Coalition powers, their determination to fight the Shi’a has only hardened, to the point that certain Salafist clerics in 2013 declared that the Shi’a are worse than infidels. How this fits in with the group’s overall strategy will become clear later.
Infrastructure was another major target during the occupation, with oil pipelines being hit repeatedly during late 2004. This had the dual purpose of hampering the fuel-intensive operations of the Coalition as well as contributing to the insecurity of the country and its income. The attacks spiked again in late 2005.
But it wasn’t just the oil infrastructure that was targeted. Water plants were sabotaged, and the electrical grid—already fragile, as anyone who patrolled through the Iraqi countryside at the time could attest—came under attack on multiple occasions, often coinciding with elections. Again, all these attacks increasingly disrupted everyday life, demoralized those of the populace that still cooperated with the Coalition and the Iraqi government, and further undermined the government. If the Iraqi Security Forces couldn’t secure vital infrastructure, why back them?
Finally, there were the attacks on the government and Iraqi Security Forces directly, usually through ambush, IEDs, and assassinations. Violence tended to increase near elections, with judges, politicians, and police chiefs being special targets, but constant low-level attacks on any ISF continued regardless. In late 2005, a company of Iraqi Army soldiers, having left their weapons in their armory, headed home on leave in a bus. The bus was ambushed and all the soldiers killed. Just like the rest of the terror and harassment attacks, this had a purpose beyond just killing people for wearing the IA uniform; it served as a warning to anyone who would work for the Coalition or the Iraqi government.
It would be disingenuous to attribute all of the Iraqi insurgency to AQI. At the time, there were a great many splinter organizations laying bombs and running ambushes. How much interplay there was among all the various insurgent groups is hard to say, and many of them still fought among themselves, especially between the Sunni and Shi’a groups. However, while Coalition forces remained in Iraq, the various groups still had a common cause: expel the Westerners from Iraq. This was the primary focus for AQI as well as the Shi’a Sadrist militias and the various other Islamist organizations on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Following the rise of the Sawha militias in Anbar province, AQI’s activity dwindled. Its attempt at governing in the Sunni Triangle backfired, as the tribal leaders rapidly became disillusioned with their heavy-handedness and turned against them. (The beginning of the “Awakening” actually had even more to do with disrespect shown toward the same tribal leaders by the Salafists than just with their restrictive laws. Even though the tribes might not mind strict sharia—in fact, some might welcome it, especially when faced with the increasingly obvious corruption and sectarian/tribal favoritism coming from Baghdad—the blatant disrespect shown by the murder of Sheikh Abu Jassim and the subsequent refusal to allow his burial was the breaking point.) The killing of Zarqawi by a U.S. air strike in 2006 also caused the group to restructure, and the Islamic State in Iraq was born. However, while the tactics were changing, and the pressure from the Iraqi government, Coalition forces, and the Sawha militias was driving the group farther underground, the strategy remained the same. It is possible that some of the reduction in violence was due to a perception that U.S. departure was imminent; there had been a great deal of political rhetoric in the United States for years about an “exit strategy,” and presidential candidates were already debating staying or pulling out. Although it comes from Afghanistan, the saying, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time,” applies. All the insurgent really has to do is outwait the occupier.
Whatever the perception in the United States, or in Baghdad, for that matter, just judging by ISIS propaganda, the 2012 withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Iraq was seen as a validation of the “wait them out” strategy. In fact, during the VICE News embed with ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, the ISIS media officer says, “Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq.” Despite the fact that the insurgents didn’t win most (if any) firefights, the fact that they were still there and still fighting while Coalition forces were gone meant, to them, that they’d won. Now that the infidels were gone, it was time to move to the next stage in the strategy.
At first, very little changed. It becomes apparent just how much damage was done to AQI by the Coalition forces, the Awakening, and the Iraqi Army when you consider that it took over a year for much more movement to occur after U.S. forces left. The bombings continued, as did the assassinations. Slowly, steadily, the campaign ramped back up.
At first it was the same sort of low-level terror campaign that it had always been. Suicide bombers and small groups of gunmen predominated, hitting schools and police stations. It began to intensify, however, in April 2013.
During the same week as the Boston bombing, in the lead-up to a new round of elections, ISI struck hard, killing almost three hundred people in a week. Thirteen candidates for the elections were killed; the top judge in Fallujah, Maarouf al Khubaisi, was assassinated in a market; and one of the Sawha leaders, Sheikh Majid Saad, was shot to death in his own garden. That week in 2013 was, if anything, the primary sign that the Iraqi Security Forces was not up to the challenge of dealing with ISI. The violence continued to escalate, and the Iraqi Army and Iraqi police were unable to stop it. It was a confidence booster for ISI and a validation of the strategy of eroding the effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces through terror as well as convincing the populace that the government could not protect them.
It is apparent that during this period, ISI, while continuing the terror campaign against the ISF and the population that sided with the government, had turned toward increasing its numbers and building up its strength. Beginning in July 2012, the group’s emir, then going by the kunyah Abu Du’a, announced the Destroying the Walls campaign, aimed at breaking as many jihadists out of Iraqi prisons as possible, while continuing the terror aimed at the general populace and security forces. In his audiotaped statement, Abu Du’a said, “We give you glad tidings of the commencement of a new phase from the phases of our struggle, which we begin with a plan that we have dubbed, ‘Destroying the Gates.’ We remind you of your top priority, which is to release the Muslim prisoners everywhere, and making the pursuit, chase, and killing of their butchers from amongst the judges, detectives, and guard to be on top of the list.”
The campaign, like most guerrilla warfare, didn’t focus only on jailbreaks, though they were a central part of it. The first attacks occurred only two days after Abu Du’a’s message and hit more than twenty cities, killing over one hundred fifteen people. The first major jailbreak occurred in September, in Tikrit. The Tasfirat prison was attacked and more than one hundred prisoners freed. In July 2013, simultaneous attacks were launched on Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons, freeing another five hundred from Abu Ghraib, including several high-value targets. As recently as September 2014, more prison attacks took place, including an abortive attempt to storm the Camp Justice prison in Kadhimiya in northern Baghdad.
Attempting to free by force other terrorists has long been a common practice of terrorist and guerrilla organizations. If the op works, it is a good way to build up numerical strength, by both getting experienced, hardened terrorists back and recruiting some of the criminal element that might be inclined to side with the group. The Qala-i-Jangi uprising in 2001 in Afghanistan likely sprang from a similar plan. Many of the hostage situations during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were aimed at forcing the release of prisoners.
While continuing to escalate the level of violence in Iraq, ISI was aiding in the formation of a new Al Qaeda affiliate to join the growing civil war in Syria. Islamists were already beginning to co-opt the Syrian opposition, including such organizations as Jund al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham (“al-Sham” is Arabic for “the Levant”), but so far Al Qaeda had had a minimal influence there. Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Nusra Front) would change that.
However, shortly after al-Nusra’s first successes in Syria, in April 2013, Abu Du’a, now using the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced that since ISI had been instrumental in standing up to al-Nusra, they were now merging as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Nusra’s emir vehemently denied the claim and petitioned Ayman al-Zawahiri to intervene and determine that al-Nusra was in fact an independent Al Qaeda affiliate. However, ISIS had already taken advantage of the chaos in Syria to establish itself there. The bitter feud among al-Nusra, the rest of the jihadist organizations in Syria, and ISIS has continued, although ISIS has increasingly solidified its position. Now, along with the seizure of Fallujah in January 2014, ISIS had shifted from primarily attacking the coherency of the government and civilian support for said government to actually gaining territory. The resistance phase was over. Now the conquest phase began.
Before delving into the expansion of ISIS’s territory in Syria and especially Iraq in 2014, it is worth looking at its strategies for holding ground in Syria. It learned a great deal from its mistakes in Iraq during the American occupation. Al Qaeda in Iraq became known for its brutality in dealing with the local populace, to the point of being admonished by core Al Qaeda to tone things down.
Information operations and propaganda have been integral to the jihadist movement from the beginning, and in fact are integral to any guerrilla effort. Mao (though theft of parts, probably mostly for resale rather than insurgency, though the effect is the same, had just as much to do with the damage to water systems) Zedong’s axiom that “the guerrilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea” means that the people have to have a reason to support the guerrillas, whether through fear, ideology, or ethnic or sectarian loyalty. In recent years, ISIS has shown that it can manipulate all three factors.
With the establishment of ISIS havens in Aleppo, Raqqa, and Deir al-Zour in Syria in 2013, ISIS began a “hearts and minds” campaign in the course of its governance. The primary venue appears to have been the dawa forums, where ISIS preachers met with townspeople in their havens and extolled the benefits of sharia, the bravery of the mujahideen, and the necessity of jihad. They also pandered to children, providing sweets and presents at festivals, as well as teaching them Quranic passages and inculcating them with the evils of the Alawite regime in Syria.
They also began distributing aid, stamped with their black flag, to refugees and protestors. The branding (and the aid, for that matter) could be construed as having been learned from another jihadist Syrian opposition group, Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar were some of the first Syrian rebels to publicize their aid to displaced people suffering from the civil war.
By socializing the people in their areas of control to sharia and its governance, it appeared that ISIS was determined to avoid the problems, at least in Syria, that had plagued it in Anbar. However, depending on where ISIS faced resistance, it still is not at all reluctant to apply terror as a means of control.
Another facet of the information operations campaign has always been propaganda. Much of this is easily visible in any communiqué issued by ISIS leadership. The majority-Shi’a government of Iraq under Nouri al-Maliki is regularly referred to as the Safavids, referencing the Persian Shi’a Muslim Empire that lasted from 1501 to 1722.
Emphasizing the split between Sunni and Shi’a has been a constant in the group’s propaganda since its inception, along with referencing earlier Muslim history. Although Yusuf al Qaradawi is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood rather than ISIS, his declaration in June 2013 that Shi’a are “worse infidels than Christians or Jews” aligned perfectly with ISIS rhetoric.
Demonizing their enemy (often disparagingly referred to as “Nusayris,” equating all Shi’a with a splinter group whose beliefs are a blend of Islam, gnosticism, and Christianity) hardens the resolve of fighters and supporters. It also tends to justify the intense violence visited upon enemy combatants and noncombatants alike.
ISIS has also embraced a constant in jihadist propaganda—emulating the early history of Islam by creating a connection between Muhammad and his followers and the group. The group members, whether in ISIS or any other jihadist organization, can present themselves as the true Muslims and therefore the true authority that the people must follow. Saddam Hussein did the same thing, albeit with somewhat more of a nationalist bent, equating himself with a new Saladin (who was, ironically, a Kurd). Certain references are extremely evocative to the devout Muslim; Abu Bakr, a common kunyah, was Muhammad’s immediate successor and a successful military commander. The Battle of Badr, in 624, when Muhammad and his followers routed his opponents among the Quraish, is of such importance to Muslim culture that multiple military units and jihadist organizations, both Sunni and Shi’a, have been named after it.
Dates are also significant in jihadist strategy, often chosen for their symbolism. Just as there is usually a resurgence of violence during Ramadan, as the jihadists seek to further purify themselves by killing infidels, so certain dates have notable significance. It is believed that Osama bin Laden chose September 11 as the date for the attack on the World Trade Center because on that day in 1683 the Ottoman Empire (the last caliphate) was turned away from Vienna by Polish forces.
ISIS, in keeping with its hard-line Salafist/Takfiri ideology, has deliberately emulated as much of early Islamic history as possible. The Small Wars Journal has outlined a number of these parallels that might go otherwise unnoticed in the West, where grudges aren’t held for thousands of years.
Many of these parallels are not necessarily explicitly stated by ISIS or its spokesmen but are actions that can be seen, in light of Wahhabi ideology, the Hadith, and the Tarikh al-Tabari (The History of Prophets and Kings, one of the four elements of Islamic scripture along with the Quran, the Sira, and the Hadith), as conforming with the actions of Muhammad.
The emir’s choice of the kunyah Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Small Wars Journal points out, is deliberate. Not only was Abu Bakr the immediate successor of Muhammad, especially to Sunni orthodoxy, but “al-Baghdadi” intimates that the emir is in exile from his home, just as Muhammad was in exile from Mecca. “Al-Baghdadi” also connects ISIS with the Abbasid caliphate, which was based in Baghdad from 750 to 1517.
When he returned to Mecca, Muhammad “cleansed the idols,” removing the statues of the polytheistic gods from the kaaba. Much like the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, sixth-century statues that had been erected on the Silk Road, as “idols” in March 2001, ISIS has begun cleansing its own territory of anything that smacks of “idolatry,” including Christian and Shi’a shrines. The tomb of Jonah was destroyed by ISIS in Mosul, and there are concerns about the remains of Nineveh and other pre-Islamic sites in Iraq.
Changing the name from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham to simply the Islamic State, and declaring Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “Caliph Ibrahim” or “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Quraishi” is of course the ultimate statement of being the most legitimate Islamic organization. Not only is the emir declaring himself caliph, the ruler of all Muslims (Mullah Muhammad Omar, emir of the Taliban, accepted the title “Commander of the Faithful,” which amounted to the same thing), he also is claiming direct descent from Muhammad himself.
Of course, it is unlikely that ISIS actually believes that simply declaring a caliphate would result in the entire Muslim world rallying to its banner (though a larger number than might have been hoped have done just that). The symbolism involved in the declarations does more to broadcast their intentions than it does to necessarily win recruits or converts, though their success has added to the weight of their claims.
Although the city of Raqqa in Syria was initially taken by the rest of the Syrian rebels, dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra, since early 2013, ISIS has solidified its hold on the city, eventually declaring it the current capital of the new caliphate. Raqqa has, in a way, become ISIS’s test bed for their new model of hard-line Takfiri governance, and also provides an interesting parallel to Mao Zedong’s initial guerrilla campaign in China.
After an abortive attempt at Jiangxi, Mao established a “soviet” at Yan’an, a remote rural city where Chinese Communist governance was worked out, that acted as a base for further CPC expansion through the country, just as ISIS is using Raqqa. ISIS has also utilized a combination of military action and terror, similar to Mao’s guerrilla strategy against the Chinese Nationalists. An even closer parallel is the CPC’s preference for fighting the Nationalists, avoiding the Japanese during World War II. ISIS, for all its announced antipathy to the Assad regime, has done very little direct fighting with Assad’s forces. It has instead focused on consolidating control of regions already wrested away from Damascus, as well as fighting the Iraqi Army on the other side of the border.
In early June 2014, a convoy of ISIS fighters entered Mosul and took the city. Estimates of the number of fighters ranged from four hundred to fifteen hundred. There was some fighting initially, with the Iraqi Army claiming to have killed upward of one hundred fifty ISIS fighters, but by June 9, ISIS had seized the provincial government buildings, and the Iraqi Army had fled. A new phase had well and truly begun.
Although there have been no appearances or statements to corroborate the stories, there were reports coming out of the city shortly after it fell that the Iraqi commanding general in Mosul had been one of Saddam’s generals before the war, and that more Baathists had either accompanied the ISIS column into the city or turned their coats. What is without dispute is the fact that the majority of the upper leadership of the Iraqi Army in Mosul fled and either ordered their men to flee or left them to run or surrender. In other words, a fifty-two-thousand-man Iraqi Army division melted away in the face of between four hundred and fifteen hundred ISIS fighters.
Much like its seizure of Fallujah in 2013, ISIS took advantage of the growing split between Sunni and Shi’a. Maliki’s intense Shi’a sectarianism in Baghdad had alienated the Sunni tribes in the north and west to the point that they no longer had any loyalty to the country left at all, and in fact, for some of them, ISIS couldn’t be worse than Baghdad. The majority of the forces that took Fallujah were not, in fact, front-line ISIS jihadists, but rather tribal militias, likely from the Zobai and Fuhaylat subtribes of the Abu Issa, which had previously supported AQI during the battle for the city in 2004. Similarly, it has been reported that the majority of the forces now controlling Mosul are local tribal militias.
ISIS, in similar fashion to Muhammad, has exploited the loyalties and grievances of the local tribes in order to cement its own control. They have focused on the age-old Sunni-Shi’a divide and let Maliki and his partisans exacerbate it in the face of their own violence, in order to break a major portion of the country away from Baghdad.
To further make up for numerical disparities, ISIS has had no qualms about using terror to discourage resistance. Shortly after taking Mosul, the majority of the Iraqi Army soldiers taken prisoner were led, their hands tied and bent over at the waist, to ditches, where they were shot to death. The numbers given were on the order of seventeen hundred men executed in this manner in one incident. There were more to come.
The execution of prisoners is not the only form this terror has taken. The videotaped executions of five Western hostages in August, September, and October indicated a return to the political terrorism that was practiced by Zarqawi toward several Western powers that had forces in Iraq. The threats to hostages if certain actions are not taken appear to have worked in the case of Turkey. While Turkish air strikes were reported in support of peshmerga fighters near Mosul Dam in July (an event of no little significance in and of itself, given the long-standing antipathy between Turkey and not only its own Kurdish minority but also the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan just over the border), following threats to the hostages taken in Mosul when the Turkish consulate was overrun, Turkey has withdrawn most support for combat operations against ISIS, to the point of refusing to allow U.S. aircraft to fly out of Incirlik Air Base to strike at ISIS.
The terror campaign, particularly the mass executions near Mosul, is nothing new. Mass killing of prisoners was one of the methods used by Genghis Khan to discourage resistance to his own conquests. It has been noted that there were very few sieges during the Great Khan’s advance; those mass killings were a powerful warning. While it may appear on the surface that the fighters of ISIS are just a pack of psychopaths enjoying the mass slaughter, it does in fact serve a strategic purpose.
As ISIS has shifted from guerrilla raids and terror bombings to overt military operations, it has also focused on infrastructure. This time, unlike under Zarqawi during the U.S. occupation, it is focused less on destroying the infrastructure than on capturing it. Mosul Dam was one of the most significant targets; while the pundits concentrated on the danger of the dam being breached and the possibility of ISIS using the resulting flood as a weapon of mass destruction, the dam also controls most of the water flow and electrical power for a great deal of Northern Iraq. That alone made it a potent tool of control.
Another target, which has not been secured due to stiff resistance, though it was reported to have fallen into ISIS’s hands several times in June, is the Bayji oil refinery. Bayji is the largest oil refinery in the country and accounts for nearly one-third of the domestic energy in Northern Iraq. Aside from the financial cost of the loss of a refinery that processes more than three hundred thousand barrels of oil per day, energy control is a major strategic asset, which is why the city and refinery have been so hotly contested.
The more analysis that is done of ISIS’s strategy, the more evident it becomes that there is nothing especially new; it is using tried-and-true guerrilla warfare strategies, pioneered by leftist movements building on the earlier history of guerrilla warfare. The use of Maoist strategy suggests that the leadership has studied extensively in preparation for the current campaign.
While strategy is the road map to winning the war, tactics are the steps taken to win the battles. Tactically, ISIS is still something of a mixed bag, showing considerable sophistication on an operational level, while on an individual and small-unit level, it doesn’t seem to have improved much since 2003. We’ll examine the operational level first.
Operationally, since the beginning of the conquest phase, ISIS has been using a combination of guerrilla raids and overt maneuver warfare. Even when confronting its enemies directly, it has attacked positions of weakness and avoided strengths, and when confronted with strength, it has fallen back.
The move on Mosul in June was deliberately against a weakened opponent, indeed an opponent that was probably already compromised. There is no available firsthand information on what kind of reconnaissance or espionage was employed prior to the move. However, the apparent alliance with the northern Sunni tribal groups offers an explanation. ISIS didn’t actually have to put any of its core fighters into Mosul to determine the lay of the land as far as the Iraqi Army leadership or the atmospherics of the populace. It simply had to talk to the tribal groups that included people in the city. From that, they were able to piece together a sufficient picture of the rot in the Iraqi Army in Mosul and the discontent with Baghdad to risk moving on the city with fewer than two thousand fighters.
There were a number of voices at the time of Mosul’s fall opining about the flight and/or turning of Iraqi generals in Mosul, up to and including Maliki, saying that there was a conspiracy to hand over the city to ISIS. A group called the Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiya, a Sunni militia that has in the past campaigned to end the “Safavid” occupation of Iraq, started putting up posters and producing videos suggesting that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of the most notorious of Saddam’s Baathist Party loyalists, who was never captured, had led ISIS forces into Mosul and was going to be the new Ninewa provincial governor. These claims have proved to be nothing but propaganda (al-Douri has not appeared in Mosul to anyone’s knowledge, and the video where he addressed the people of Mosul showed a frail seventy-year-old man struggling to read a prepared statement), but they are illustrative of how ISIS has used tribal alliances. The al-Naqshbandiya has not always been on good terms with ISIS, yet they are now allies. And while al-Douri may not have been directly involved, there are definitely Baathist elements involved in northern Iraq. ISIS has therefore used not only maneuver warfare in taking Mosul but also tribal and sectarian proxies as force multipliers.
ISIS has kept its field forces light. While it has captured plenty of Syrian and Iraqi armored vehicles in recent months (many of the Iraqi vehicles U.S.-supplied), there have been few if any reports of them actually being used in frontline combat, at least in Iraq. The given figures for targets hit once the U.S. air strikes began in August include very little in the way of armored fighting vehicles. While most of the images of captured U.S. and Russian armor were from parades in Raqqa, it appears that most of such vehicles have been pulled back to ISIS havens in Syria to be used to defend against the Syrian regime and the group’s rivals in the rebellion.
There is good reason for this. Keeping forces light makes the ISIS forces maneuverable and hard to spot and hit. Keeping to up-armored Humvees and pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, heavy machine guns, or automatic grenade launchers allows them to move with greater speed. Main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can rarely manage much more than forty-five miles per hour on the road (in fact, the Abrams, of which ISIS captured quite a few, has an engine governor that keeps it from traveling faster than that). Even up-armored Humvees, most of which are likely fairly worn out by now, can manage close to sixty miles per hour.
Another key to ISIS’s flexibility has been its logistics. The group has captured a great deal of matériel, and fuel is no exception. Keeping to light, fast forces reduces the fuel requirements. An Abrams tank requires five hundred gallons of jet fuel to cover 265 miles. A Toyota HiLux, by contrast, can cover about five hundred miles on one twenty-gallon tank of gasoline. Add in the considerable maintenance requirements of tracked armored vehicles, and the decision to use technicals makes even more sense.
In addition, whether planned for or not, once the air campaign began, ISIS’s light, fast operational profile enabled the group to scatter and go low profile more easily when the jets flew overhead. The veteran fighters had plenty of experience hiding from American aircraft before 2012 and Syrian aircraft in the years since. In a country with a lot of small and midsized pickups on the roads, it is considerably easier to hide a pickup-centered force than large armored vehicles.
So the ISIS fighters are light and fast on the battlefield and can exploit weaknesses quickly once identified. In maneuver warfare, the terms are “gaps” and “surfaces.” Gaps are weak points where an enemy’s line of resistance can be penetrated; surfaces are strong points. ISIS consistently avoids surfaces and goes for gaps.
ISIS initially avoided confronting the Kurdish peshmerga after taking Mosul, preferring to launch attacks on the demoralized Iraqi Army. While they certainly exploited the Sunni-Shi’a split and the unwillingness of Shi’a troops to fight for Sunni cities in the north, the terror campaign exemplified by the mass executions of prisoners in Mosul was also calculated to break the Iraqi soldiers’ will to resist. With their fellow Iraqi Army soldiers having crumbled in the face of ISIS’s advance, and then seeing what happened to those who were taken alive, the effect on morale, and therefore the will to resist, was devastating. The fact that the prisoners who were marched to their deaths did so without a single sign of defiance toward their captors cannot have done anything but further drive home the message that ISIS was invincible. That in and of itself was a powerful weapon.
When faced with stiffer resistance, however, the ISIS fighters did not show any reluctance to fall back. The Bayji oil refinery, a major strategic asset, became a target within days of the fall of Mosul. Initial reports said that the ISIS fighters had actually seized the refinery. However, when faced by an Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service counterattack, they faded. The importance of the refinery has led to continuous attacks in the weeks and months since, but as long as the Iraqis defend it with any kind of tenacity, the ISIS attackers continue to fall back.
Once the drive against the Kurds began, primarily as ISIS went for Mosul Dam, their blitzkrieg-style maneuver tactics became that much more obvious. As light and fast as the ISIS forces were, they were facing equally lightly armed peshmerga. The peshmerga, for all its reputation for ferocity, is a lightweight mountain militia, and had been underequipped for some time, due to political disputes with Baghdad (Maliki had refused to pass on at least one major arms and munitions shipment intended for the Kurdistan Regional Government and the peshmerga).
The peshmerga fighters in the north were also not well situated. The majority of their forces were concentrated near Kirkuk, which the Kurds quickly occupied once the Iraqi Army fled the city in the opening days of the ISIS offensive in June. It should be noted that the two main political parties of Iraqi Kurdistan, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), are run by the Talabani and Barzani families, respectively, and those two families and parties have a long-standing feud with each other. No sooner had the United States put up a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq in the ’90s, getting Saddam off their backs, than the PUK and KDP embarked on a five-year civil war. While the two parties have effectively united to form the Kurdistan Regional Government, the feud remains, and each party runs its own half of the peshmerga, which can damage cohesion—another weakness for ISIS to exploit.
When ISIS turned its offensive against the peshmerga, its fighters first advanced on Sinjar, reportedly attacking the city from three directions. They had prepped the battle space for weeks, attacking peshmerga forces with complex ambushes and artillery, as well as destroying the Badush bridge in order to limit peshmerga mobility. While the Kurdish authorities denied that the peshmerga had fled Sinjar without fighting on August 3, it is apparent that, given the attacks to degrade their position in the district, the Kurds did indeed break when the ISIS attack finally descended.
In the following days, ISIS drove the peshmerga from Makhmour and finally took Gwer, fifteen miles from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capital of Erbil. Reports indicated that, coupled with artillery bombardment, the fast, mobile ISIS forces were finding weak points in the Kurdish positions, driving through and then attacking the peshmerga from the flanks, if not shattering the defending unit with the initial penetration. (Reliable frontline reports have been difficult to obtain; both ISIS and the Kurds have a vested interest in pumping up their accomplishments, or saving face, depending on the situation. The Kurds have, for instance, made a great deal out of the shortages of ammunition when it comes to their forces withdrawing in the face of ISIS attacks. This is certainly an issue, especially considering the efforts by the Maliki government to keep anyone not Shi’a Arab–Persian disarmed, but it is just as likely that the shortage provides a convenient excuse for cutting and running. Without eyes on the actual situation, it is difficult to be sure, but there have been notable examples of the peshmerga overstating their own offensives.)
ISIS has also consistently employed combined arms, in spite of its light, fast operational profile. Although the inventory is unknown, and changes daily depending on captures or losses, ISIS is known to have mostly truck-based mortars and towed howitzers. It has captured several self-propelled artillery pieces, which it has shown in parades in Raqqa, but, like the tanks, they appear to be kept in safe havens in Syria rather than being employed on the front lines in Iraq.
ISIS has used these supporting arms in Iraq for both harassing fire and direct support prep fires for attacks, on the offensive as well as guerrilla raids within enemy-held territory. As recently as this writing, harassing attacks on checkpoints of a few mortar rounds have been daily occurrences. Most Kurdish positions in villages were shelled before being overrun.
In Syria, ISIS has used the heavier artillery pieces to facilitate extended sieges of Syrian government positions. The most notable in recent months was the base held by the Syrian Army’s Division 17, just outside Raqqa, which ISIS stormed in late July. The Syrian Army appears to have held up far better than the Iraqi Army has, so it makes sense to save the heavier weapons for the Syrian front.
An example of the use of artillery prep fires for a guerrilla raid is the September 18 attack on the Camp Justice prison in Baghdad. The initial attack, aimed at the prison itself, consisted of a mortar barrage, though aimed not only at the prison. More rounds landed on the Aaima floating bridge to the north, and the Sunni Endowment farther north of that. (The attack failed; the suicide bombers who were intended to breach the prison complex were captured.)
ISIS has continued to utilize suicide bombers, both of the foot-mobile and suicide VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) variety. During the attempted raid on the Camp Justice prison, the courtyard was breached by a suicide VBIED, and two individuals with suicide vests were arrested before they could get to their target. The fact that they were arrested rather than detonating suggests they were willing to be “martyred” to get to the target, but when the mission went bad, they lost the will to commit suicide. The question is, is this now ISIS policy, or did the suicide bombers chicken out? There is no way to know absent the Iraqi Security Forces’ interrogation records, which we do not have.
The use of suicide bombers and IEDs appears to be continuing previously observed trends going back to AQI—they are being utilized as both terror weapons and breaching tools. Absent their targets, the roadside bombs aimed at Coalition convoys are no longer used; VBIEDs have been directed at political targets, one of the more recent ones being the Badr Organization headquarters in Baghdad on September 18. (The Badr Organization is a Shi’a militia that has taken a lead role in resistance against ISIS.) Others have been set off in high-traffic areas of majority-Shi’a neighborhoods. In fact, the low-level terror bombing campaign in Baghdad continues.
The primary battlefield use for suicide VBIEDs appears to be breaching defenses. The fall of the Division 17 base near Raqqa was reported to have begun with a suicide VBIED to the gate. A similar tactic was employed in the “Destroying the Walls” attack on Abu Ghraib in 2013, and as many as eight suicide VBIEDs were used in the attack on the Baiji oil refinery on September 24. The concept appears to be to use the explosion to breach whatever physical defenses are on site and then to overwhelm the defenders with the force of the explosion, placing follow-on attackers at an advantage. (This is not a new tactic, nor one limited to ISIS. The attack on the Ariana Hotel in Kabul in 2011 was initiated by a suicide VBIED at the gate.) A truck can carry far more explosives than any rocket, and the suicide driver provides terminal guidance. While there have not yet been reports of up-armored suicide VBIEDs in Iraq, ISIS has been utilizing them in Syria. Again, this appears to be a sign that the heavy weapons are being reserved for use against the Syrian Army, signifying a certain contempt for the Iraqi Army and peshmerga alike.
The first up-armored VBIEDs appeared in late 2013, apparently used by Jabhat al-Nusra. A large truck, usually a tanker or commercial dump truck, is loaded with explosives, and heavy steel sheets are welded to the cab to protect the suicide bomber from small-arms fire as he advances on the target.
ISIS’s suicide bombers appear to be mostly foreign recruits, such as Moner Muhammad Abu-Salha, a twenty-two-year-old Floridian who detonated himself in an up-armored dump truck in Syria in April. The frontline fighters do not appear to be chosen as suicide bombers, suggesting that ISIS has a central core of semiprofessional mujahideen, with the newcomers being the first to be considered expendable. This is, of course, sensible, as the experienced fighters are more valuable than the newcomers coming from elsewhere who have never fought.
Reports of what the would-be suicide bombers are being promised suggest that, in fact, ISIS is recruiting disposable cannon fodder for just that purpose. Abu-Salha painted a picture of a far better life as a mujahideen, and a hedonistic paradise awaiting those who were killed in jihad, with an emphasis on the beauty of the women waiting there. It appears tailored to appeal to young, impressionable men who are dissatisfied enough with their life to be willing to throw it away. Although many of the legends of the Ismaili cult of Hashishin have been determined to be little more than anti-Ismaili propaganda, there appears to be a decided resemblance between the propaganda stories about the Ismaili assassins, who used public murder as a tool of terror and intimidation, often with the assassin sacrificing his own life to take out his target, and the modern-day suicide bombers. Whether this is a deliberate appropriation of the stories of the indoctrination of new Ismaili fedayeen is unclear, but it is an interesting parallel. If it is, the fact that Sunni Salafists are willing to copy Shi’a Ismailis also demonstrates a pragmatism that might be belied by their propaganda.
One of the elements of truly successful maneuver in warfare is decentralized command. Pioneered by the German Bundeswehr, largely under Moltke, the technical term is “mission-based tactics” or Auftragstaktik. In mission-based tactics, the overall commander gives his subordinates a general set of orders, akin to, “Here is your target, here are your assets, go get it done.” In the U.S. military, it is referred to as “commander’s intent.” Although the Germans elevated it to an art form in land warfare, its use is much older; Lord Nelson frequently gave his ship captains a desired end state and then let them fight as they saw fit in pursuit of that goal.
ISIS appears to be using mission-based tactics and orders. From what has been determined, the commanders in the field get a general picture of which city or village to target and then decide how to attack the objective. This has had the effect of giving ISIS a very small SIGINT signature; the orders are simple enough that they can be easily passed by courier or a short phone conversation on a disposable cell (ubiquitous in Iraq). Again, ISIS has apparently learned the lessons from the last decade, where an overt signals signature tends to draw guided missile or bombs onto the transmitter. By going low-tech while simultaneously allowing subordinate commanders significant leeway to pursue their objectives, ISIS can continue to pursue a sophisticated and widespread maneuver warfare campaign on at least two fronts, while evading the higher-technology solutions of its enemies in the West.
So, on an operational level, we have a light, fast, maneuver-based organization that uses decentralized command to coordinate its actions with the fewest possible signals. Whoever are calling the shots (there are a number of theories that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is little more than a figurehead, given his lack of known military experience and the sophistication of the group’s offensive), they have studied warfare and know what they doing on strategic and operational levels, making up for their weaknesses by playing up their strengths and capitalizing on terror to degrade their enemies’ will to fight.
On a small-unit level, although there are no reliable firsthand after-action reviews, there is a lot of video footage coming out of Iraq and Syria. By watching the ISIS troops in action, we can determine several things. For example, an excerpt from the Flames of War propaganda video shows the storming of a Syrian radar installation. While the ISIS fighters stay under cover while their rocket-propelled grenade gunners engage the Syrian tanks outside the installation, once the tanks are down, the fighters are seen running upright, in no particular formation, across the open field between their initial position and the wall around the installation. Several are firing as they go (it can be assumed that they are attempting to suppress the enemy, but there is no real use of sights or even stocks). Once at the wall, they are bunched up and shooting over the wall or through holes knocked in it, again often without appearing to aim. The brief attack on the Division 17 base outside Raqqa documented in the VICE News report on ISIS shows much the same thing: The ISIS fighters are shooting at the Syrian soldiers without using the sights.
This is nothing new. Most of the insurgent small-arms fire aimed at American forces in Iraq tended to go high, and buttstocks often were removed from AKs. There is a belief among some Muslim fighters that preparation or even marksmanship practice is impious, that it is a sign of a lack of faith that Allah will make them victorious. As such, there is a tendency to “spray and pray,” in a very literal sense.
If their individual tactics are so sloppy, how have they been so successful in recent months? Their operational-level sophistication has had a great deal to do with it, especially the use of terror and the courting of disaffected Sunni groups in the north. The other factor is, of course, the level of opponents they have been facing.
While ISIS has fought the Assad regime in Syria, the majority of frontline fighting has until recently been done by the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra. In Iraq, their primary adversaries have been the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish peshmerga. The Iraqi Army almost immediately dissolved in the face of ISIS’s advance in June. The peshmerga, while generally considered better fighters than their southern Arab neighbors, are a mountain militia, not an army. They have little in the way of heavy weapons, no armor to speak of, and their go-to strategy (which has kept them from being wiped out more than once) is, When it starts to look really bad, head for the hills.
As much as the Kurds have steadfastly refused to cower in the face of Islamists or anyone else, they were ill equipped to deal with ISIS and were being pushed back, no matter how hard they thumped their chests (the Kurds do a lot of that). It was air support, and munitions being finally delivered that Maliki had sat on and refused to pass on to the Kurds, that turned the tide and enabled the peshmerga to break out and push ISIS back south, eventually retaking Mosul Dam and more territory to the south.
The Iraqi Army situation is more complicated than the peshmerga situation. Instilling military professionalism in the Iraqi Army has been a near-impossible task for the last eleven years. Of course there are always exceptions, the officers or soldiers who genuinely care about their country and about being good soldiers, but the majority have been about as militarily competent as the terrorists. There are several reasons for this, some political, some cultural.
Politically, the Shi’a-dominated Maliki government had become so corrupt, and so sectarian, that the Sunnis serving in the Iraqi Army didn’t feel that they owed the Baghdad government anything anymore. ISIS might be made up of bastards, but they were at least Sunni bastards. So why should Sunni soldiers die fighting other Sunnis for a Shi’a government that had put them down for years? Similarly, the Shi’a soldiers didn’t see the point of fighting and dying for Sunni towns. In a recent interview, an Iraqi Army officer states that while the Iraqi Army under Saddam was held together by fear of Saddam, it is now fractured by competing political, sectarian, and tribal loyalties.
Culturally, this is a problem that most Arab armies have faced, and few, if any, have overcome. In the country briefings before deploying U.S. soldiers to Iraq, it was outlined how the local loyalties go family, faith, clan, tribe, and then, somewhere along the line, country. This applies to their soldiers just as much as to the everyday civilians living out in the cities and villages. Without loyalty to much of anything beyond sect and tribe, no fighting unit is going to hold together.
It’s been said that Arabs are, by and large, “amoral familialists,” that they don’t form solid bonds with anyone who is not a blood relation (again, as with all cultural and political generalizations, there are exceptions). Since most units are not made up of one single tribe, there goes unit cohesion. If things are going well, it still manages to muddle through. As soon as things start to go south, however, such as your leadership bugging out ahead of anywhere between four hundred and fifteen hundred ISIS fighters in pickup trucks , it becomes, “Screw this, I’m not dying for these assholes, I’m out of here!”
In summation, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham has managed to apply time-tested lessons of guerrilla warfare, terror, and maneuver warfare in order to capitalize on the particular political and cultural weaknesses of its enemies in the region. Although the individual fighters might not measure up from a purely military perspective, the organization’s operational and strategic acumen has managed to make up for its ground-level weaknesses to make it the most formidable threat in the Middle East today.
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