The Islamic State having lost its entire caliphate, save for a few strips of land in southern and eastern Syria, does not mean it is on the verge of defeat. Instead, it has learned the lesson from its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq. In 2010, the latter found itself all but defeated and thus adapted its military strategy to one based on a low-level insurgency requiring minimal manpower. By adopting this strategy, the Islamic State of Iraq could bide its time until it was able to exploit the subsequent power vacuums in Iraq and Syria to seize land and establish its caliphate under its new name, the Islamic State (IS). IS is now lying low, regrouping and seeking to gradually wear its enemies down until it is strong enough to reemerge as a force on the ground as it did in 2014 when it took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
The Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate experiment has ended in abject failure. Instead of becoming a base for the final apocalyptic battle between good and evil in Dabiq, Syria, which would end with the Muslim armies marching into Constantinople as conquerors, their caliphate has disintegrated all around them. After losing Mosul in July 2017, and their last Iraqi stronghold Hawija in early October 2017, IS has now lost its Syrian capital, Raqqa, which is in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF report that a hard core of IS fighters remain holed up in an area making up no more than 10 percent of the city’s territory. Reports have also emerged of IS fighters surrendering, rather than fighting to the death.
In eastern Syria, the organization’s presence is diminishing, with the Russian-backed Syrian Forces capturing the Euphrates town of al-Maydin.
In East Asia, two of the organization’s leaders, Ipsilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, were killed in battles taking place in Marawi, Philippines, and on October 15, 2017, the Filipino president announced that the army had recaptured the city from IS control. Meanwhile, in Yemen’s al-Bayda province, dozens of IS fighters were killed by a U.S. airstrike on a military training camp. The organization has now lost nearly all its territory in Iraq and is completely surrounded in Syria with fighters either abandoning it or surrendering. So what next and will it be able to survive intact from this series of crushing defeats?
In short, IS will survive by retreating from the battlefield, lying low, while biding its time until it is able to reemerge. The dire situation it currently finds itself in closely mirrors that which its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), found itself in between 2007-2010. IS has a blueprint on what to do in this situation; it proved successful from 2010 until 2014, where it was able to rebuild its forces and seize Mosul. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that this strategy will fail this time around. This plan involved a radical alteration of the group’s military tactics to prevent it from being exposed while enabling it to carry on attacking its enemies yet minimizing the losses among its own personnel.
In June 2007, the U.S. Army commenced its Operation Phantom Thunder campaign, a series of offensives targeting the al-Qa’ida (AQ) network throughout Iraq. Combat forces made up of 10,000 soldiers supported by attack helicopters and close air support carried out raids in Baqubah, in Anbar province, Mosul, and the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The strategy was to carry out multiple and rapid attacks on AQ/ISI heartlands, keeping the organization on the back foot and preventing it from acquiring a safe haven from which it could carry out large-scale suicide attacks.
This was followed by Operation Phantom Strike, where the U.S. Forces would attack AQ and other insurgents right in their heartlands, even if this territory couldn’t be held for long. Holding onto territory was secondary to eliminating AQ cells, disrupting the organization and denying it space in which to operate. By July 2008, ISI had been all but defeated with President Bush announcing that the level of violence in Iraq had dropped to 2004 levels and stating that Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told him that the gains the U.S. forces made during the surge had a “degree of durability” to them.
The Islamic State of Iraq was hit by a devastating blow in April 2010, when its two top leaders Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi were killed when their hideout was stormed by U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces. An Al-Jazeera report at the time cited an al-Qa’ida statement attributed to the organization’s Sha’ira Minister Abu Walid al-Mashdani, which said that the United States and Iraqi armies, the intelligence services, and even spy satellites were mobilized in order to kill these two men. However, the statement assured its supporters that “the Islamic State remains,” the group had a plan in place for this eventuality, and would soon appoint new leaders to replace the ones who were slain.
By May of 2010, the new leaders were appointed. They were First Minister Abu Abdallah al-Hassani al-Qurashi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi, who was appointed and remains the movement’s caliph.
According to the same Al-Jazeera report, the Iraqi PM at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, said following the elimination of its leaders that al-Qa’ida was the weakest it had ever been. Yet four years later, he watched the group, which by then was known as ISIS, seize Iraq’s second city, Mosul and come within 25 km of Baghdad Airport. So what happened? How did an organization which was barely able to operate in Iraq manage to reorganize and subsequently seize almost a third of the country? What lessons can the Islamic State learn from this as it continues to be defeated in both Iraq and Syria?
There were many factors that contributed to this, most of which have been covered in depth. However, one factor that appears to have been mostly overlooked until now is how The Islamic State of Iraq modified its military strategy thus enabling it to lie low and avoid exposure to preserve its forces while at the same time maintaining some military presence until it was safe to reemerge in the open.
Issue 101 of the Islamic State’s weekly newspaper al-Naba, which was posted online on Thursday, October 12, 2017, contained an article illustrating how it altered its combat strategy to ensure its survival. The new strategy prioritized retreating and remaining undetected over carrying out large-scale attacks. This required a radical change in policy, as the movement was on the verge of collapse, as the article acknowledged:
In just a few years, the balance of power tilted against the Islamic State and towards the Shi’a and their American backers. So at that time, it was necessary to adapt to the new situation, as by 2007, the Islamic State had lost most of its territory in crushing battles. It withdrew what few remaining forces it had left to the last Sunni citadel Mosul.
By the start of 2008, it was no longer possible to continue to fight using the traditional tactics. For when the Leader of the Believers Abu Umar al-Baghdadi said, “We no longer have any territory which we are able to hold onto for more than 15 minutes,” it became necessary for the War Minister Abu Hamza al-Muhajir [aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri] to change the group’s combat tactics to preserve what was left of their forces. This meant it had to be radically altered, so he issued an order which was both courageous and unprecedented.
The combat and sniping detachments along with all the other detachments were disbanded and from March of 2008 onwards, everybody was trained on how to use IEDs. In just a short time, the mujahidin became convinced of this new way of fighting. Instead of our forces–which were light in numbers and equipment–directly clashing with a U.S. Army that was armed to the teeth, urban warfare began to take on a whole new form.
A detachment would manufacture explosives inside a house and another would make the detonation equipment inside another. A third detachment would be trained on how to camouflage and plant the IEDs in the streets in which the Apostate and Crusader forces’ convoys and infantry would pass through. Another detachment would undergo training on monitoring and detonating the IEDs. All these groups would operate in secret, and a mujahid would be able to stand guard, watching over the IED for many days without anyone even noticing him. This was the most important requirement for this new way of operating.
And so began the long stage of wearing down the enemy, which lasted (many) difficult years, and both sides suffered throughout this time period. However, the mujahidin were able to request from Allah that which the infidels were unable to request from him. For the world witnessed the unmatched innovation of the mujahidin in a war of patience and remaining hidden. And the mujahidin had completely mastered this type of warfare.
The article highlighted IEDs as an effective weapon against a much stronger enemy as they enable one to strike remotely without leaving oneself exposed: “The IED gives you that ability to strike the enemy without them even realizing, and the mujahid doesn’t need to change his location after detonating it. All he needs to do is be in control of his nerves and not get carried away by the enemy’s power and so reveal his location.”
This low-cost, low-tech model was easily exported to Europe as IEDs, either as booby traps or suicide bombs, and could easily be made at home using everyday materials such as acetone and hydrogen peroxide to create TATP, which detonates the more powerful ammonium nitrate. Pro-ISIS Telegram channels post instruction on how to make these bombs. These materials have been used to devastating effect in the Paris, Brussels, and Manchester suicide attacks.A malfunction is all that prevented the Parson’s Green attack ending in tragedy.
The article on IEDs was the latest in a series covering the evolution of IS’s military strategy away from conventional combat, which incurs a high attrition rate of its fighters, towards more unconventional means, which while not as deadly can be sustained for longer periods of time by smaller groups of combatants. The first three of these articles were published in Issues 97, 98, and 100 on September 14, 21, and October 5, 2017. The first two were entitled “How to Fight Under the Gaze of the Crusader Airplanes,” Parts 1 and 2, with the third given the heading “The Military Assault: Its Rules of Engagement and the Extent of its Impact on the Enemy.”
The first article’s conclusion was that IS should no longer fight as a conventional force with fixed front lines, as this made it vulnerable to airstrikes, which had severely depleted its manpower. Instead, the group’s priority was to avoid exposing its fighters’ locations, even if that meant refraining from direct engagement with the enemy, which cost it so dearly in Kobani. This shift in military strategy showed that IS was already preparing for the post-caliphate stage of its evolution and getting ready for the long game. Issue 98’s article, the second in the series, “How to Fight Under the Gaze of the Crusader Airplanes (Part 2),” focused on how to avoid detection from thermal imaging cameras used by U.S. warplanes and drones. It also issued instructions on how to camouflage one’s forces and distract the enemies by using decoys, disinformation, and ghost soldiers.
These articles shed light on IS’s shift from a state with a standing army to an insurgency movement, with it adopting tactics suitable for a long-term war of attrition against more powerful and numerous enemies. IS had accepted that it would no longer be able to hang on to what was left of its caliphate. It preempted this loss of territory and strategic depth by adopting insurgency tactics relying on quick attacks with minimal losses to its increasingly scarce manpower.
The third article in the series, published in issue 100 and called “The Military Assault: Its Rules of Engagement and the Extent of its Impact on the Enemy,” developed this military strategy further still by advising its fighters to immediately withdraw from enemy positions as soon as they had been attacked. It warned the fighters to avoid getting sucked into a lengthy battle with the enemy, as this would make them susceptible to airstrikes. Fighting the enemy’s forces head on was replaced by small-scale strikes on isolated or vulnerable targets. It added:
Military assaults are carried out by a small number of combatants, ranging from 5 to 15 men–give or take a few. Those who carry out these types of attacks are distinguished by their bravery and by their superior physical prowess. The assaults don’t just target combat axes or strong defensive fronts, but they also select the weak underbellies as easy targets.
Success in carrying out these assaults relies on two things. The first is taking the enemy by surprise. The second is to rapidly strike the enemy, and just as quickly withdraw from the location. The assaults differ from standard raids as they don’t require a great deal of preparation or cost. Therefore, small groups of mujahedin can carry out a large number of attacks in a very short space of time.
This change of strategy means that these types of attacks can be carried out by a very small number of combatants, thus making them sustainable over a long period. While the article acknowledged that the enemy can only be defeated through large-scale raids in which its territory is taken from it, this is impossible for IS right now. The organization, however, reassured its fighters that these low-level assaults are an interim measure until IS is strong enough to carry out larger attacks. It ends by ordering them to keep fighting:
Therefore, constant and continual assaults over a long period of time will cause any army to collapse. History has never witnessed any steadfastness from an army which has been subject to continual (guerrilla) attacks. Despite the fact that the ultimate collapse of the enemy requires well prepared raids, it is worth knowing that assaults prepare the way for these types of raids to be successful, with Allah’s permission.
A version of this model had already been adapted for use against targets in Western urban environments, with IS’s Rumiyyah magazine providing detailed instructions on how to successfully carry out knife, vehicular, and arson attacks, as well as hostage taking in its series of articles entitled “Just Terror Tactics.” This open-sourcing of combat information means it can be acted upon by IS supporters without any need to coordinate with the movement’s commanders.
All IS has to do now is exactly what it did from 2007 until 2014, which is to lie low and wait until the opportunity arises for it to reemerge and go on the offensive. The conditions that facilitated its reemergence on the scene in 2014, the sectarianism, bad governance, failed states, etc., have not gone away in the Arab world. As long as they remain, there will always be a power vacuum, which IS can get ready to fill.
*Dave McAvoy is research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and an expert on the Arabic-language media based in London. He lived and studied Arabic in Damascus. With a background in television production, his research focuses on Arab satellite television news coverage, which he has been following for a decade. His articles have appeared on Harry’s Place, in The National, and other media outlets.
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