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  • Darren Lindeman

A brief introduction to the Islamic State's warring ability.

Updated: Jul 17, 2019






During the beginning of 2014, The Islamic State (at the time known as ISIL, or Daesh) conducted perhaps the single most successful military offensive in the twenty first century, capturing the cities of Mosul, Samara, Fallujah and Tikrit and seventy percent of Anbar province. The offensive was aimed against the Iraqi Security Force whom were far more numerous and on paper well-funded than the IS fighters. It was during this time the relatively unknown group known as ISIL became an internationally known terrorist organization and Sunni Salafi political and military powerhouse. The fall of Mosul in 2014 was often seen as the symbolic turning point in which IS became international recognized by the Western press and also Muslims worldwide. Although the fall of Mosul was a political and cultural victory, it was also the result of IS’s adaptability in irregular and also conventional warfare and their modularity in applying it to operational fronts.


IS likely had a grand strategy before the time of The Syrian Civil War to remove The Syrian Iraqi border and hold territorial and urban lands in which it can harvest taxation and employ the resources which urban centers can provide. This was the idea of the caliphate , physical territory of which an Islamic State can form which was governed by The Caliph who would be a decedent of Muhammad, the founder of Islam.  IS at the time before and during the earlier phases of The Syrican Civil War was largely a covert network of cells and militiamen which was a political powerhouse at the time but it was at large unable to directly hold territory or fight conventionally against the Iraqi Security Forces. It was during the Syrian Civil War which began in March 2011 that IS would face a series of fortunes that would make the group into a self legitimate proto state. These fortunes would be further explained as the most prevalent internal and external related factors that gave the opportunities and institutional characteristic the state had to survive and prosper.


The external factors begin with the events and environment that the group operated in. Iraq during the opening stages of The Syrian Civil War was a very corrupt and inefficient state, due to the mismanagement of Iraq under the Bush administration and then subsequent after the U.S troop withdrawal completed in the end of 211. This state was run by a Shia dominated government which abused its authority against Sunni dissidents. Nouri al – Maliki was the prime minister of Iraq at the time, having risen to office in 2006. Al Maliki the prime minister of Iraq was a very authoritarian and paranoid political figure whose own family members were once tortured by Saddam’s regime. This paranoia essentially led al Maliki to begin reigning down on Sunni political figures in his cabinet and high office positions which led to the Sunni protests in 2012 – 2013.


The crackdown of Sunni resentment was part of a wider pan Shia objective on the part of the al Maliki, after the withdrawal of U.S troops in Iraq. Corruption was already endemic before the U.S troop withdrawal. The continued institutional system of corruption in Iraq during al Maliki’s prime minister ship also led to the weakening of the already weak Iraqi Security forces. This was primarily due to the changes in leadership of The Iraqi Security Forces to officers whom are political loyal to al Maliki as opposed to merit driven leaders fostered during the time of the U.S occupation. An article by the New York Times quotes a former U.S General who oversaw training of Iraqi forces during the United States troops surge “There are (for the Iraqi Army) pockets of proficiency (before 2014), but in general, they have been made fragile over the past three to four years, mostly because of the government of Iraq’s policies, General Dubik said. They’re (the Iraqi Army) losing confidence in themselves and in the government’s ability to win. And the government is losing confidence in them…. This is not about ISIS strength, but The Iraqi Security Forces’ Weaknesses. Since the U.S. left in 2011, the training and readiness of the Iraqi Security Forces has plummeted precipitously.”


The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces, or the CTF which was at the time the most effective organization given its specialized training by U.S forces, was suffering from endemic political appointment and falling of recruitment standards. What was once the most effective government counter terrorism force was dwindled by political appointments and bureaucratic practices which meant its three commanding officers for its three brigades were held by appointees with no specific counter terrorism training. The lost crucial merit-based appointments led to the brigade to not only being unable to prevent the fall of Mosul in 2014, but to not even participate in preventing IS from capturing the city but rather conducting a strategic withdrawal. The weakness of the Counter Terrorism Forces was also coincidental with the weaknesses in the general Iraqi Army and the lack of aircraft inventory by the Iraqi Air Force.


The endemic weakness of the Iraqi Army was often noted even during the U.S occupation, re armament and training regimes which had cost the United States approximately 25 billion dollars in aggregate. The Iraqi Security Forces in an article written by The Washington Post in 2015 was noted to have a 250,000-man army, but only a fraction of this army had any training, with the number being around 13000. The Iraqi Army faced a largely mobile enemy and during the beginning stages of the Northern Iraqi Offensive in June 2014 and began to gradually wither to continued IS attacks. IS eventually captured at least seventy percent of Anbar province from their advances since 2013, including the cities of Mosul, Samara, Fallujah and Tikrit. The Northern Iraqi Offensive was the first major conventional engagement for the Iraqi Security Forces and for much of its personnel. The offensive also highlighted IS’s new warring capacity that has been developed in the Syrian Civil War.


Renown IS author Weiss states in his reading for his book, ISIS; Inside the Army of Terror that  IS had an effective leadership not similar to the Iraqi Security Forces. Many of IS’s senior military functionaries were ex Baathist leaders. The once head of IS’s Mosul offensive was once a senior intelligence official in Saddam’s intelligence services named Abu al - Bilawi. There was also Abu al – Sweidawi and Samir al – Khlifawa, both were once leaders of IS’s military council and also former members of the Iraqi Security Forces during the pre-invasion of Iraq. IS also attracted many foreign recruits from whom many also bought their skills and trade to The Caliphate, these include Europeans, Chechens and other nationalities. The indoctrination of foreign fighters into IS ranks and command structures had benefited the group mainly accustomed to guerilla warfare before the Syrian war to a conventionalized group.


According to the article, Military Tactics of ISIS : Components of Science and Arts, “ (IS’s) Military knowledge of the commanders, dedication and skills of the fighters, and support from considerable portion of general people at home and around the world have made ISIS a phenomenal terrorist organization in the contemporary world history. When it comes to military tactics, ISIS with its strong military forces has been able to prove itself so extremely efficient in assimilating science and art of the business that it has been the phantom to national militarizes in Iraq and Syria, and even to the international coalition forces”.

IS strategies often emphasize a strong degree in operation planning and keenness to the operational art. Operational art includes overcoming ambiguity and intricacies of a complex, ever-changing, and uncertain operational environment in order to understand the complexities of a modern operational environment. IS is known to apply successful operational arts due to their extensive use of unorthodox tactics, that factor in timing, deception, notion of surprise, mobility, tenacity, limited resources and tactical awareness.

Warfare and especially Insurgency warfare is largely based on human resources, mobile warfare and “the human terrain” as opposed to reliance on conventional equipment and strategies of larger armies.


IS’s experience in insurgency warfare spanned from its experiences in Iraq as cells operating in urban areas to the gradual transition to a conventionalized force in the Syrian Civil War. IS was able to successfully recruit and establish the Al Nusra Front, also absorbing other smaller Islamic or rebel groups into the wider IS allegiance. As stated earlier IS absorbed many foreign fighters, and many of them had experience with insurgency or infantry denominated warfare in the Caucuses. These types of warfare involve a keen sense of human resource potential and operational circumstances with reconnaissance, movement and logistics on the level of the individual fighter and on small unit groups. IS in other words is a bottom up group, a group which its individual fighters and commanders have a keen sense of their input in the overall organizational and general operational intricacies. Commanders are in every sense an individual fighter himself, and not some disconnected with the intricacies of small unit warfare. 


Reference list;

https://warontherocks.com/2014/07/inside-the-collapse-of-the-iraqi-armys-2nd-division/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/09/22/why-the-u-s-still-cant-train-the-iraqi-military/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.860cb262ccb7

https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/operational-art-how-do-you-know-if-you-are-doing-it-right

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/13/world/middleeast/american-intelligence-officials-said-iraqi-military-had-been-in-decline.html

https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2005/08/the_seven_phase.php

https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/David-Witty-Paper_Final_Web.pdf

http://iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/Vol.%2023%20Issue10/Version-4/B2310040518.pdf''


#isis #isistactics #warinsyria #guerillawarfare

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