Dr. Omar Ashour, the author of the book entitled How ISIS Fights Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt talks to Terrorism Analysis Platform.
Dr. Ashour is an Associate Professor of Security and Military Studies and the Founding Chair of the Critical Security Studies Programme at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. He is the author of How ISIS Fights: Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt (Edinburgh University Press, 2021) and The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (Routledge, 2009), as well as the editor of Bullets to Ballots: Collective De-Radicalisation of Armed Movements (Edinburgh University Press, 2021).
Could you explain the main argument of your book and how it will contribute to the current literature on ISIS?
I was trying to understand how a widely hated, massively outnumbered and ludicrously outgunned organisation managed to occupy over 120 cities, towns and villages from Marawi in Southern Philippines to Sabratha in Western Libya. Not only that, but also managed to fight and survive for years against overwhelming odds, including against an international coalition of over 77 countries, four major intergovernmental organisations and tens of armed non-state actors. I estimated the numbers of armed entities that fought ISIS such as Hezbollah, the SDF, other militias. The total was over 150 armed state and non-state actors.
So, how did that happen? This is what I was explaining in the book. The traditional explanation of how an insurgency could succeed and survive – whether with popular support or external support, state sponsorship or a good strategy or a rugged geography, such as the support of mountains, jungles and so on – all of that was not particularly significant. ISIS is an umbrella of insurgent groups, a uniquely violent extremist one that challenges existing status-quos by arms and attempt to topple them. So, I showed that the traditional explanations of insurgents’ success do not explain this group of cases. ISIS isn’t popular, doesn’t have full state sponsorship, it is not a proxy, its major battles were not fought in rugged geographies but mostly flatlands, sometimes flat deserts and urban/suburban/built-up terrain. And I have a qualifier on that in the book, on the urban battles. We can talk about it later. Also, I concluded in the last chapter, that they have no viable strategy. They do strategic “up-shifts” between terrorism, guerrilla warfare and conventional warfare and then “down-shifts” from conventional warfare to guerrilla warfare to urban terrorism. But they don’t have a viable grand strategy. Simply, their resources cannot meet their objectives even the secondary ones.
So, my argument was what made them unique and can explain their successes is the type of tactics they used, and the ways of warfare/operational shifts implemented. I outlined 15 categories of tactics in the book and explained them in details. Not just tactics, but tactics, techniques and “procedures” (or TTPs). But the “procedures” are not exactly how we understand them in armed institutions. They are more like modus operandi or ways of doing things. So, they are more flexible than a “procedure.” Then, there was a qualifier, their operational art of warfare but I will leave this one to read in the book. There are very clear patterns in how they conducted operations across the Middle East, from Iraq to Libya. But also, this style of operational art was exported elsewhere, outside of the Middle East and Southeast Asia; now in East, Central and West Africa.
Do you see a correlation between ISIS’s ideology and its warfare tactics?
There are correlations but I first have to say a couple of things. First, I did not focus on ideology, except when it was militarily relevant. The ideology legitimated the violence and made it an ideological duty for the members of ISIS to fight with anything they got, including their lives (suicide tactics). But the ideology did not just legitimate the weaponizing of everything from booby-trapping a pen all the way to booby-trapping a 7-tons truck. But also, it made this a “religious” duty. So, the incentivization here was very strong. This is the part where ideology was clearly supportive of the combat and the war effort of ISIS.
Second, ideology has also undermined the military effort because of a its few features and ramifications. First, the ideology is so ugly and so extreme that it does not attract recruits except from very specific margins and peripheries. Second, when you implement the ideology, it usually makes lots of enemies because it cannot even tolerate a hair-thin difference. There is a war between ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The ideological differences between them are very slim. This creates more puzzles for me because then I am trying to understand how this organisation survived so far while almost everyone, including organisations from its own ideological set, hate it that much and are bent on destroying it.
I tried to explain in the first chapter where does ISIS fits in terms of the ideological spectrum and I was arguing that it is more of a Wahhabist-Jihadist organisation, more than a purely Takfirist organisation. But, overall, I tried to stay clear of ideological debates and focus more on the military dimension. I also avoided analysing the ideological narratives for recruitment and radicalisation. There are a lot of excellent works in the literature done on narratives and countering violent extremist narratives, and the recruitment and radicalisation via narratives and ideological discourses. I was also trying to explain that this is not a counterterrorism manual, and this is not another counterinsurgency critique. This is book about explaining the combat and the military effectiveness of an insurgent umbrella-organisation that defies the traditional explanations that we have in the literature. I narrowed it down to the military dimension and went as deep as I can (town and neighbourhood level).
In your book, you mentioned that a mixture of conventional military tactics and guerrilla and terrorism strategies has paved the way for the success of ISIS's expansion. What other factors could have been effective in the combat success of ISIS?
It was a miraculous - but fortunately ephemeral - success. ISIS fought outnumbered, outgunned, with limited firepower and manpower, no support of the geography, no major local support and coming back from almost a “burned and buried” status. Remember in 2010, the ISI, the predecessor of ISIS, was almost destroyed. I think it was said that out of the 42 most senior commanders of the organisation, 36 were either killed or captured. Leon Panetta, the former head of CIA, informed the Congress that ISI had less than one thousand back then. This was in 2010. Four years later, ISIS took over the second-largest city in Iraq. So, they were rising from their ashes. In Mosul 2014, ISIS was fighting about 10-to-1, at minimum. So, for every ISIS fighter, there were at least 10 Iraqi soldiers. And if you took the maximum estimates of this battle, the maximum manpower ratio, it would exceed 50-to-1. Basically, it was a battalion-sized formation that attacked Mosul, and it was fighting against two divisions: a Federal Iraqi Police division and an Iraqi army one. And that was not a one-off; earlier and later upset happened. In Fallujah, they were still outnumbered but they were fighting within a coalition of at least six other insurgent organisations. Other military upsets – though not as miraculous – were repeated in Ramadi, in Raqqa, in parts of Derna, and in Sirte, and even in Sheikh Zuweid. These were all tactical-to-operational success. But no strategic success because they could not hold any of these towns and cities.
The way that ISIS fought in each of these towns and cities, as urban battlefronts, was extremely innovative. In the book, this is where I try to dissect its tactics, as the level of innovations was quite high. The level of operational art was also quite high. I focused mainly on meso level - so the organisation as a unit of analysis - showing what I called not-so-unique features of ISIS combat performance, such as moral force/ psychological warfare, unit cohesion, autonomisation, trans-regional combat experience, flexible hierarchies, specialization-focused and high-level investment in it. But at the same time, I showed that other armed nonstate actors had it. So, they are not really unique features. This does not explain winning when you are outnumbered 50-to-1. So, I go a bit deeper about what is more unique, mainly at the tactical level. There are about 15 categories of tactics that I go through in details and then also analyse the operational level. So, how do they operate when they enter a state? What do they do then? And how do they operate on a town- and a city-level? What do they do when the operation is a “raid” and then it turns into “raid, fortify and occupy” a town or a city? Also, how do they fight on a neighbourhood level (suburban battles and urban battles)? The details are in the book.
"ISIS is an umbrella of insurgent groups, a uniquely violent extremist one that challenges existing status-quos by arms and attempt to topple them. So, I showed that the traditional explanations of insurgents’ success do not explain this group of cases."
You mainly focused on ISIS’s war tactics and strategy in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. Is there any difference in ISIS’s tactics in these countries?
Yes, there are. Most of the 15 categories of tactics that I talk about in the book were employed in all four countries and elsewhere. We saw some of that recently in Mozambique. What we can see in terms of differences between the four countries are the quantity and quality of these categories of tactics. In Mosul, 2016-2017, you saw the top game. Followed by Raqqa, we saw a very high level in 2017. Then similar tactics and techniques but lower qualities and lesser quantities when in Sirte and Derna and also in Sheikh Zuweid.
There were differences in the documentation of operations. There were relatively lower-level combat tactics in Sheikh Zuweid compared to Mosul, for example, but a lot of documentation. Sinai Province documents its operation very well as opposed to some of the Syrian provinces. One of the comparisons I used in the book was that there were over 160 videos or photographic reports on suicide vehicle-borne IEDs issued during the battle of Mosul but less than 30 in during the battle of Raqqa. Although there was definitely a lot more than 30. Also, the organisation has a strategic command but on the tactical and the operational level it is decentralized with varying resources across countries and regions.
Terrorist organizations do not usually go after territorial control but instead, try to remain hidden. What conditions do you think were effective in ISIS’s decision to establish territorial control?
I am not sure about that conclusion. I think it is a matter of capacity and resources. If a terrorist group has enough capacity to occupy towns and cities, they may go for it depending on their strategy and what they are trying to achieve. The PKK, for example, attempted multiple times to hold on to urban neighbourhoods, mountainous strongholds and rural peripheries. Territory means more resources; the capacity to recruit more, to be legitimate and to look like a proto-state, also to loot weapons and money -- mainly resource mobilization. If you hold territory, of course, it subjects you to a lot of dangers as well like aerial bombardment and ground attacks from larger conventional forces
ISI/ISIS/IS thought of itself as a state, even when it was just a small urban terrorist group on the verge of defeat in Iraq. It called itself previously the Islamic State of Iraq. It wanted to be a state. When it managed to hold territory, it acted like a state. It fought like a state. It designed its bureaucracy as if it was a state. So, there is a clear ideological obsession with statehood. In a way, this obsession helped to destroy its conventional capacities because if you fight like a state without an air force, without air defence, and while you are extremely outnumbered with limited resources and, you will likely lose the territory. It just becomes a matter of time. The organisation will live but the state will be lost. And this is what gradually and partly happened between 2017 and 2019. Then to protect the organisation, ISIS shifted to guerrilla warfare and this is the second way of warfare they usually down-shift to. And within their modified and enhanced guerrilla warfare, there is a very clear territorial dimension. ISIS published four articles on how to temporarily control territory. It would hold a town or a village or a neighbourhood for a while, eliminate any informants, any collaborators with the regular security forces, loot whatever weapons they can get from local police stations or from any army checkpoints, gather resources including money, gold, or whatever they can get their hands on and then do a show of force to document the raids, enhance the propaganda, recruitment and ideological radicalization efforts and then withdraw to avoid losses. This repeated several times, since the demise of the territorial control in March 2019. The terrorist dimension was always there. The suicide bombings, attacks on civilians, terrorizing neighbourhoods, villages, and towns. This is just continuing and there is always a possible down-shift option when the organisation is too weak to small, secretive terrorist cells conducting cheap operations against soft or softer targets.
How a small terrorist group can turn into a proto state, could you explain this transformation in the context of ISIS?
It is about what I call in the book “fashioning force.” ISI, or the Islamic State in Iraq, entered Syria with six men in the late summer of 2011. Three of them were non-Syrians. So, it entered with smaller-than-a-squad formation, three Syrians and three foreigners. And the three Syrians haven't been living in Syria for a while, so they were almost foreigners. Two years later, ISIS and the Nusra Front, initially a front for ISI, were controlling about 50% of the Syrian territory either as direct control or as area denials. This meant that in 2 years, those six men formed two military-effective organisations that controlled much of Syrian territory. So, turning from a small terrorist organisation into a proto-state. I tried to explain in details how that was that done in Syria, in chapter three specifically. It was about firstly how force was fashioned against other enemies. The rebel territories included so many anti-ISIS forces. From the FSA to Ahrar al Sham and others. The anti-ISIS forces there were kind of gradually outmanoeuvred and ISIS was heavily engaged in resource mobilization, the build-up of forces, using tactics associated with terrorism and turning them into conventional battlefield tactics. And then they took on the regime in heavy battles like the 17th Division, 121st Regiment and others. They didn’t even have to use suicide car bombs because they had tanks by then. They still preferred to use suicide car bombs because this is what they are experienced in and how they fight. This is what they know how to use better than tanks. I think it is extremely alarming on the one hand to have an organisation that was that weak turning into a proto-state; controlling territory and population, having bureaucracies, having quasi-conventional army and so forth.
"In Iraq, Syria and Libya, IS kept on improvising, modifying and upgrading within the weapon-armour-mobility triad under adverse conditions, even when its units were on the brink of a decisive defeat."
While much has been written about the influence of the Salafi jihadist school of thought on the ideology of ISIS, the impact of the Marxist strategists is also evident and needs attention, as well. Could you evaluate ISIS’s adaptation of the doctrine of revolutionary warfare, its impact on the leadership, and its execution at the operational level of war?
So, in the book, I go through the literature on the insurgency. There is a lot of Mao’s ideas there. The idea that revolutionary warfare should start as guerrilla warfare – undermining the will of the soldier as opposed to his actual capacity to fight – then when rebels build enough capabilities, they transform guerrilla warfare to conventional warfare to control cities and towns. In a way, these are Maoist revolutionary warfare ideas of the 1930s, but implemented by ISI, ISIS and IS, though not as successful. Whether they read Mao or Guevara or Trotsky or not, I don’t know. But some of the revolutionary leftist ideas on how to fight and conduct warfare were certainly implemented by ISIS in parts of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.
Several factors are providing ISIS great strategic and tactical flexibility to adapt to new circumstances, as you mentioned. How do you assess the future of ISIS to this end? Is there any potential or risk that ISIS will constantly open new fronts?
It is not over. I can tell you that. I can tell you that former President Donald Trump was too optimistic when he said that over 100% of the caliphate is defeated and that he destroyed. I have this quote in chapter six. Immediately under it, another quote from the former acting Prime Minister of Iraq, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who said ‘Our forces are engaged in daily battles against DAESH’. That was said in April 2020.
The main implications in that book are that these tactics can be copied, exported, modified, upgraded and then reused again. If the conventional and guerrilla capacities of the organisation are destroyed, it will down-shift to terrorism. Then it will just wait for a window of opportunity to become a guerrilla force again and then use these categories of tactics to try to become a conventional force. The worrying part is that they probably learned valuable lessons from what happened, as the organisation is adaptive.
Unfortunately, the book ends on an alarming forecast. But on the other end, there are variables that can be controllable or reformed. Most of the book is about the meso level, organisational and combat unit level. On the macro level, the mismanagement of the politics, the levels of corruption and the repression in the region have created the right environment for ISIS and like-minded organisations to rise and be able to reach that military level.
Do you believe that the war tactics of ISIS affect its survival?
I think it is one of the main reasons for its survival. We saw organisations with similar ideology and with other supportive factors like rugged geography or state support and were completely destroyed. The quality and quantity of tactics used by ISIS were not used by these organisations. So, if not the most critical, it is one of the main decisive factors that led to the survival of ISIS and to its earlier expansion and current endurance against the odds.
What can be the impacts of ISIS’s warfare tactics over other non-state armed actors in the Middle East and beyond?
I am unsure it will have a major impact in terms of ideology or inspiration. But it will have a major impact in terms of its military and combat effectiveness. So, there will be a lot of copying. We saw that already. I will read you a small paragraph from the book's last chapter to tell you how all of this is exportable to many insurgent groups. Just these combinations of IED warfare, enhancing the accuracy of artillery by using iPads, using videogame controllers to teleoperate snipers’ rifles, drone warfare, subterranean warfare, suicide tactics and suicide guerrilla formations. Basically, ISI and ISIS pioneered in terms of the quantity and quality these techniques and tactics. The paragraph that I was referring to:
“In Iraq, Syria and Libya, IS kept on improvising, modifying and upgrading within the weapon-armour-mobility triad under adverse conditions, even when its units were on the brink of a decisive defeat (such as in Derna in 2016 and in the “tent-city” of al-Baghuz in 2019). IS mounted captured artillery pieces on looted tanks chassis, replaced cannons with anti-aircraft guns when it deemed necessary, up-armoured infantry fighting vehicles, mounted BMP turrets on 4x4 vehicles, upgraded T-55 and T-62 tanks with locally manufactured armour (some were even made of shell-casings), converted flatbed trucks into weapon platforms. Its combat units used commercial drones to deliver IEDs and to guide SVBIEDs, utilised SVBIEDs as precision bombs and guided rocket-barrages, converted 7-ton large SVBIEDs into cruise-like missiles/human-guided land-torpedoes and executed Marine-like infantry-breaching sequences combined with SVBIEDs. They employed commercial GPS applications on civilian smart-gadgets to enhance the accuracy of their mortar-shots, teleoperated sniper-rifles to offset the snipers from the weapons for protection, outflanked tanks with swarming anti-tank kill techniques, and pioneered in the execution of several SGF-tactics in both urban terrorism and conventional battles, among numerous other technical- and tactical-level innovations.”
All of this has nothing to do with the ideology and is exportable. This is the real challenge for the state armies.