By Joseph Hanlon
There is growing pressure in South Africa for military intervention in the insurgency in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique. But the government needs to be aware that it would be choosing sides in an extremely complicated civil war. The elite from the ruling party, Frelimo, its international backers and the proponents of military support say the war is part of a global campaign by the Islamic State group (IS) militant group that might spread to South Africa.
In fact, this is a civil war in Cabo Delgado driven by growing poverty and inequality. From Boko Haram in Nigeria to insurgents in Cabo Delgado, Isis has tagged on to local insurgencies driven by inequality and marginalisation, only adding a bit of publicity and aid. And it is pleased to see the global panic, which builds its brand.
Turkey has launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Warplanes have bombed militia positions in towns near the border, killing two civilians. To discuss this ongoing conflict, we're joined by Matshidiso Motsoeneng from the Afro-Middle East Centre.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
With the Islamic State group (IS) losing territory in Syria and Iraq, many believe that the group will use the territory it controls in Africa as a fallback and shift its focus to the continent. This has seen international, and specifically western, powers grow increasingly weary of existing African conflicts, especially in Libya and Egypt, and we are beginning to see a convergence between Russia and the USA on supporting military strongmen. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar have thus been empowered in their attempts to crackdown on dissent in the name of countering ‘terrorism’, further militarising politics in those countries and impeding efforts to negotiate political compromises. African states have subsequently been compelled to admit Morocco into the African Union and reinstate Egypt, partially as a result of western pressure and the belief that the two countries could form a bulwark against the Islamic State group’s expansion.
Although IS controls territory and possesses operational capacity in Libya and Nigeria, significantly this is more the result of the group appealing to existing cleavages and state fragmentation rather than inspiring the creation of new anti-state formations. The group has thus spent minimal efforts in establishing structures in southern and central Africa, rather promoting immigration to areas it already controls. IS has lost ground in Nigeria and Libya, two of its three strongest African ‘provinces’; however, failure to fill the vacuum left by its territorial losses and an inadequate focus on the economic reasons behind the group’s rise is paving the way for a resurgence of similar groups. With IS on the wane, a contextualised response emphasising governance in areas recaptured from the group needs to be promoted, especially since the group’s emergence has galvanised the international community.
Background: The declaration of provinces
Following the declaration of a caliphate in July 2014, IS initially had great success. It consolidated control of much of Iraq’s Anbar province, parts of Deir ez-Zor in Syria and Qamishli in Turkey, in addition to areas it originally controlled in Syria. This enabled it to traverse the Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish borders, giving it the flexibility to direct the flow of arms and generate revenue through taxes and trade in oil. However, the group has increasingly faced setbacks, especially following the surge in the intensity of the international and regional effort to displace it from Syria and Iraq. It has been forced to alter its strategies and tactics. Initially advocating immigration to its ‘state’, the group has begun declaring non-contiguous provinces, as a result of a few major changes: First, heightened awareness and tighter border controls meant that by September 2014 the ability of IS recruits to travel to Syria, especially from western countries, had severely diminished.
Second, because IS was conceived in a system that was already experiencing local conflict, the group sought to subsume this conflict and capitalise on it in order to increase its influence. The group also began prospecting for areas with resources, both human and natural, that could strengthen its operational capacity and scope. The group’s mantra evolved to encompass ‘remaining and expanding’, with an increased focus on enticing militant groups to pledge allegiance to it, allowing it to increase its appeal and reach, and a shift away from a sole focus on territorial consolidation in Syria and Iraq. The group increasingly saw its success as expansion into other hotspots and the ability to incorporate these into its territorial project. This had succeeded, and by November 2014 it had received pledges of allegiance from around twenty existing militant groups, including former al-Qa'ida franchises in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya.
In recent times, especially since early 2016, the reversals suffered in its main area of focus, Syria and Iraq, have forced the group to begin contemplating the option of retreat in order to survive and remain relevant.
However, in assessing the group’s influence in Africa over the past year, a holistic contextualisation is required. First, distinctions between groups directly controlled by IS in Syria, those in Libya and those, such as Boko Haram, who exercise more control over strategy and tactics need to be made. Second, we need to identify areas that are strategically significant to IS, such as Libya and Egypt, and those, which the group sees more as a means of gaining increased publicity. Last, we need to remain vigilant and account for the nuances between the different threats posed by groups that have declared allegiance to IS and citizens emigrating to IS-controlled areas.
In the past, IS viewed Libya as critically important, because of its oil resources and large Mediterranean coastline. This, the group believed, would allow it to increase its operational capacity, and threaten Europe, especially because Libya is located close to European states such as Malta and Italy. The group thus declared three Libyan provinces (Fezzan, Barqa and Tripolitania) in 2014, and dispatched senior leaders to the country to convince militia to pledge allegiance. Further, unlike in other provinces, IS in Libya was led by an Iraqi, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, directly appointed by the group’s Syrian leadership. IS initially had some successes, capturing the jihadist stronghold of Derna in October 2014 and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in May 2015. However, following its capture of Sirte and the group’s attempts to move westward towards Misrata, a concerted campaign commenced to combat the group comprised of local militia groupings and western powers including the USA, the UK and France. The December 2015 Government of National Accord (GNA) was forced through for this purpose, and since August 2016 the USA has launched over 300 airstrikes in the country.
This has been somewhat successful. Since June 2016, the group has largely been pushed out of Sirte, and leaders such as Abu Nabil have been killed. However, Libya is an exemplar of the paranoia around IS that currently marks the international community’s response to it. First, IS’s strength in Libya was already questionable following its inception. Although possessing between 3 000 and 6 000 combatants, IS in Libya appears outnumbered and outgunned when noting that the country is home to around 200 000 people belonging to different militias. By August 2015 it had already been pushed out of the hotbed of Derna by the relatively small, al-Qa'ida-linked Derna Mujahideen Shura Council. Significantly both the rival administrations in Tripoli (the General National Congress [GNC]) and Tobruk (the House of Representatives [HoR]) have used the paranoia over the threat of IS in Libya to gain international support and weapons.
Second, the international community has favoured international intervention at the expense of local political processes. The Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat in December 2015 and forming the GNA, was forced through, ignoring initial successes in obtaining local backing and in spite of the fact that a week prior to its conclusion the rival administrations had expressed their willingness to conclude a local unification agreement. Even though the agreement was likely disingenuous, international actors needed to hold the two parties to it instead of the flat rejection that had been evident from the UN’s response.
The result has been a lack of support for the GNA, which is likely to never receive ratification from the Tobruk-based HoR, and which in recent times has experienced opposition from the GNC. The country remains divided, and may be headed towards partition as the divisive General Khalifa Haftar strengthens his control over the eastern oilfields.
IS’s partnership with Nigeria’s Boko Haram was more a marriage of convenience than an ideological and strategic union. IS saw the group as important in terms of gaining appeal and publicity, while Boko Haram viewed the merger as a means of unlocking financial resources and benefiting from IS’s media arm. There was thus very little tactical and operational coordination between IS in Syria and its then-declared West Africa province (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah). As a result Boko Haram’s military losses, which began during the last few months of the Goodluck Jonathan administration in Nigeria, have continued. The group has largely been forced out of the territory it previously controlled in Borno and Adamawa, preferring to undertake operations in northern Cameroon. Attacks in Niger have declined to less than half a dozen from a peak of twenty-four in February 2015, and since July, these have also decreased to around eight per month in Cameroon. Boko Haram is no longer able to maintain and hold territory; the group is now mostly involved in smaller operations against weaker targets and isolated military bases.
Further, in August 2016 IS in Syria released a message recognising Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the wilayat, supposedly because of indiscriminate attacks against Muslims by its former leader, Abubakar Shekau. Shekau’s inability to enact and implement governance structures in areas the group controlled had also influenced the move. Shekau has since disputed this, threatening to further fragment the group, which had already been reeling since Ansaru’s formal condemnation of the group in February 2015. Ansaru previously coordinated activities with Boko Haram, and prior to 2015 many analysts viewed it as the more sophisticated faction within the group, which was tasked with kidnappings and attacks on foreigners.
IS in Syria’s repudiation of Shekau is also influenced by the group’s recent recognition of a Saharan province based in Mali, which in June 2016 reportedly carried out an attack on a military post in Bosso (Niger) killing thirty-two soldiers, and in recent months has carried out two smaller attacks in Burkina Faso. Shekau’s repudiation is also significant since it is one of the first instances wherein IS’s Syrian leadership has acted to alter provincial leadership structures, and because it illustrates that the group has limitations on what it will tolerate from provincial leaders. Further, Barnawi’s appointment may be a sign that IS’s Syrian leadership is beginning to view West Africa as important since it continues to suffer setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Libya. However, the appointment has changed little thus far especially in terms of operational command and coordination. Shekau’s continued influence over factions within the group also points to the beginnings of a debilitating power struggle. The group’s infighting and the coordinated response by Lake Chad Basin countries has meant that by December 2016 it had been pushed out of its Sambisa Forest stronghold; in January 2017, a UN report went as far as claiming that it now lacks the resources to compensate fighters.
Notably, the success of the multinational Joint Task Force, consisting of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, has been constrained owing to concerns over sovereignty and different command and control protocols. The effort has transitioned more into a coalition of the willing, wherein states share interests and undertake individual actions, rather than an actual coordinated effort to contain the group. Moreover, failure to establish governance structures in areas where Boko Haram has been driven out from has led to the group being able to return intermittently; incidentally this is one of the key reasons the group initially arose.
Previously recognised as Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, the group, now referred to as ‘IS Sinai Province’, declared allegiance to IS in November 2014, and currently remains one of IS’s most operationally and tactically capable fighting forces. Following the 2015 Sheikh Zuweid attacks, which saw around a hundred combatants mount a coordinated attack on Egyptian security installations, the group has continued to remain active, and in 2016 is alleged to have undertaken over 700 operations in the Sinai region alone. The most infamous of these was the blowing up of a Russian civilian aircraft in October 2015, killing over 200. The decades-long, 1 600-strong Multinational Forces and Observers mission stationed in the Sinai, which is tasked with monitoring the area following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, has also been affected and countries such as Fiji have pulled out troops. The USA has even proposed that an electronic monitoring system be used instead, to allow it to also decrease its troop contribution to the mission.
IS’s resurgence continues despite the third phase of Egypt’s Operation Martyr’s Right, which according to Egyptian security reports has killed around 2 300 militants and arrested a further 2 500 – even though most analysts estimated the group’s strength at between 1 000 and 2 000 fighters at its peak in 2015. The numbers of dead and arrested indicate the conflicting results of Egypt’s scorched earth policy, which has actually led to increased militancy, especially by other groups. Violence is also spreading to the mainland; in the past year, IS’s mainland Egypt province formed, and the younger, less ideological Popular Resistance Committees became hardened.
This is likely to continue, especially as the primary democratic alternative, the Muslim Brotherhood, remains stifled, and because the Sisi regime is facing increased economic pressure, and has thus curbed its state-led redistributive policies and widened its repression to include leftists and youth groupings.
Observations and returning combatants
It is clearly observable that in most instances IS uses already existent cleavages and groupings to further its influence and reach in areas outside of Syria and Iraq. In Nigeria and Sinai, it thus successfully rebranded existing organisations instead of establishing new ones from scratch. The presence of al-Qa'ida on parts of the continent has been significant in this regard, as IS has sought to entice militants belonging to it to declare their allegiance to it. For the most part, in Africa this has failed. Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb has largely remained intact, and thus far Shabab has withstood attempts to declare allegiance to Baghdadi, despite the fact that splinter groups within these organisations have broken off to join IS.
Further, it is observable that IS-linked groups for the most part were already involved in conflict with the state and other powers prior to the declaration of the caliphate. Boko Haram had been militarily confronting the Nigerian state since at least 2010, while Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis had turned inward following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013. Even in Libya, where the Derna Youth Shoura Council and the Battar Brigade were newly formed groupings that had previously been involved in fighting in Syria, IS’s ability to consolidate control of Sirte came as a result of aggrieved former Gaddafites joining the group, and because the Ansar Al-Sharia members present in Sirte rebranded and joined IS. This illustrates two key points: First, lack of governance and social services are a major factor accounting for the growth of IS on the continent, and ideology plays a supplementary role. Consequently, a military-only response, which does not improve governance, will lead to the group enduring, even though it may change its name and modus operandi. Second, as can be observed with the minimal coordination between IS and its West Africa and Sinai provinces, groups have had some form of agency. They have used IS headquarters to gain financial and operational support, and do not always follow its precepts entirely. Shekau, for instance, failed to install governance structures, and continued indiscriminate attacks on Nigerian Muslims while being allied to IS.
Apart from unsuccessful attempts to entice Shabab in East Africa, IS has refrained from attempting to establish wilayat further south. This results from various factors including the lack of a majority Muslim population as a base, the fact that many countries further south are more responsive to their citizens, and because most sub-Saharan countries are not directly involved in attempts to combat the group in Syria and Iraq. The group has however advocated emigration to areas it controls, and it is feared that returning combatants pose a threat to their home states. While justifiable in the cases of Tunisia and Morocco, which have seen thousands join the fight in Syria, for the most part this has been exaggerated. Most combatants have preferred to remain in IS-held territory, and most returnees cite disillusionment with the group as a reason for their return.
The current military-first approach to combatting IS, which has had some success, will only be long lasting if paired with a simultaneous focus on governance and restorative justice in recaptured areas. This will also help to stem the problem of IS recruitment, which, although partially curbed as a result of increased interstate coordination, may surge if former combatants and possible recruits feel aggrieved over perceptions around judicial unfairness and the lack of resource equitability.
Failure to create institutions to assist with this, as is the case in Libya, Egypt and to an extent Nigeria, risks engendering the conditions for the emergence of similar groups in future. African states thus need to ensure that the focus on IS extends from a military approach to one dealing with the root causes of militancy. This is especially pertinent as the group continues to lose territorial control in Libya and Nigeria, and its capacity wanes. Further, the reintegration of former IS combatants, and those belonging to other militant groups, is a necessity, especially as the majority of low-level combatants joined the group for economic reasons, and because the factors are an important weapon in disrupting IS’s claims of legitimacy.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The Iraqi army’s assault on the city of Fallujah held by the Islamic State group (IS) has ground to a halt in light of fierce house-to-house fighting with IS fighters. The city has been under IS control since January 2014, with 90 000 civilians trapped inside. Some 20 000 civilians fled during the first few weeks of the fighting, which began on 25 May, through IS lines, dodging Iraqi army fire, and even swimming the Euphrates river. In the initial push towards Fallujah, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Sha'bi) were at the forefront of the battle. These Shi'a militias have been accused of numerous human rights violations against Sunni communities, since their cooption by Baghdad in the fight against IS.
Merely fifty kilometres north of Baghdad, Fallujah is strategically important to the Iraqi capital. IS has used it as a staging ground for infiltrating the capital, and executing attacks that have sapped confidence in the government’s ability to provide security. The manner in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi retakes Fallujah and returns it to Baghdad’s authority will serve as the template for the Iraqi army’s impending assault on Mosul, which will be conducted in coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The battle of Fallujah also represents an internal political issue for Iraq’s Shi'a political class. The successes of the Badr Brigade, a Shi'a militia with strong links to Tehran, in securing Baghdad and beating back IS from Diyala province has provided Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri with significant political capital. Meanwhile the protest movement in Baghdad against corruption and poor service delivery threatens to de-legitimise Abadi’s fledgling government.
The inability of Iraqi forces to coordinate with Sunni tribal leaders – who the government had alienated through heavily sectarian security measures – granted IS the ability to consolidate its control over Fallujah in 2014. In light of the failures leading up to the fall of Fallujah, the government has recently worked to increase coordination with Sunni tribes and militias in battles to retake territory seized by IS since mid-2014. This coordination is a conscious attempt by Abadi to provide a united national front against IS, exemplified through the increasing purchase Sunni tribes and militias have over Baghdad’s approach to retaking Sunni areas. Sunni tribes have called on the government to reign in Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Fallujah assault. Abadi had attempted to hold them on the outskirts of the city. In the days leading up to the current assault, reports of abuses by these forces against Sunni civilians in the liberated areas south of Fallujah prompted Anbar’s Provincial Council to call on ‘sectarian factions [to keep] away from the battle of Fallujah’. In light of these abuses, Abadi also ordered the government to prosecute fighters accused of committing violations.
Within the Shi'a political class, Abadi is on the back foot. The Badr Brigade has become a prominent force within Iraqi politics through its successes against IS. Badr’s political front, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is poised to become kingmaker in Iraqi elections. This party receives much financial support from Tehran, and uses its control of Diyala province to exhibit its potential as a ruling partner. Meanwhile, the Sadrist camp, led by influential Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seized upon the May protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone to demand the prime minister changes his cabinet to a technocratic one, eradicates corruption, and enhances service delivery. Sadr and Abadi support the incorporation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces into the Iraqi army, a move opposed by Badr head Ameri. Other militia leaders echo this.
The battle for Fallujah will be a protracted engagement for Iraqi national forces, is becoming increasingly bloody as Iraqi forces get closer to the centre where IS militants are holed up, allegedly using civilians as human shields. Abadi knows that using the militias will grant political points to his rivals. However, these forces have proved effective at clearing and occupying rural zones around contested cities. Abadi thus devised a formula in which Popular Mobilisation Forces are held at the outskirts to prevent IS reinforcements entering the cities, but play no visible role in the liberation of the city. This is a positive development in the battle against IS. The perception of the Iraqi army as liberators in Sunni Fallujah will assist in the pursuit of national unity. Success could guarantee Abadi’s administration the popular support it drastically needs.
This paper examines the reasons for the military steadfastness of the Islamic State group (IS) in the face of local and international forces that are larger in numbers and equipped with more and better weaponry. The paper is divided into three sections. The first reviews some security and military studies that explain the reasons behind the success, or steadfastness, of militarily weaker players in the face of stronger parties. The second focuses on IS’s military capabilities and ways of using its power tactically and strategically. The final section discusses the crisis in the Arab political environment, contradictions in the strategy to combat IS, and the implications of such actions. The paper concludes that while defeating IS militarily may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region, the roots will remain valid.i
After more than seven months of the US-led air campaign against IS, and following a multiplicity of ground attacks by various parties, even opposing ones, the group remains able not only to survive but also to expand. This puzzling result emerges despite the group’s lack of numbers and materiel compared to those of its enemies, and despite its great losses since early 2015.
In June 2015, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, confirmed that coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq had destroyed more than 6 200 IS targets and killed more than 10 000 of its fighters since the strikes commenced in September 2014. In December 2015 the Pentagon updated those estimates to more than 8 600 attacks by the US Air Force alone, comprising of more than 28 000 bombs in its raids in Iraq and Syria. That’s about sixty bombs and seventeen air attacks daily for nearly a year and a half.ii The Pentagon estimated the death toll of IS fighters during the last seventeen months at 20 000 people, while it did not recognise any killing of civilians with the exception of six people killed by ‘mistake’.iii In December 2015, US President Barak Obama estimated that IS had lost forty per cent of its territory in Iraq,iv while other reports issued by military research centres specialising in intelligence analysis estimated that the group had lost fourteen per cent of its territory (12 800 square kilometres) in Iraq and Syria from January to December 2015.v
Despite losses in Ramadi, Tikrit, Baiji, the countryside of Hasaka, and some towns and villages around Raqqa, Homs and Hama, the organisation has not collapsed. This is contrary to what was suggested by the balance of forces on the ground, or any conventional military analysis that took those views into account.
It is interesting to compare IS with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. The former lost control of its capital, Kandahar, within two months of air strikes by the US-led international coalition and opposition forces loyal to the coalition. The latter lost control of its capital, Baghdad, less than a month and a half after the Anglo-American invasion began in March 2003. However, after nearly a year and a half of strikes by an international coalition consisting of more than sixty countries, IS dominates in both its capitals, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. During 2014 and 2015, the organisation expanded and remained on land stretching from parts of the Syrian Aleppo province to parts of the Iraqi Salah al-Din province, an area 650 kilometres in width.
This area includes large parts of the provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah al-Din in Iraq, as well as large parts of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo, Homs and Damascus in Syria. The organisation had also conquered the suburb of Al-Hajar al-Aswad and large parts of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus by late 2015, and it had reached within five kilometres of Umayyad Square in central Damascus. These areas (or ‘provinces’, according to the groups’ administrative-geographic division) are home to an estimated ten million people. In addition, the organisation has control or influence – through advancing and retreating – in parts of central and eastern Libya (Sirte and Bin Jawad), north-eastern Nigeria, eastern Afghanistan (especially Nangarhar), Egypt (northeastern Sinai) and other areas.
The smaller group: How to succeed militarily
Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the military capabilities of armed opposition groups against states and governments have risen steadily. Many military and security studies have documented a significant increase in the success of these groups against existing state authorities or the authorities’ inability to defeat these groups, which are much weaker than other groups in terms of resources and numbers. This is a significant change from the prevailing historical pattern. For example, a study of 286 armed rebellions between 1800 and 2005 showed that ruling authorities won only twenty-five per cent of the battles with armed revolutionary organisations between 1976 and 2005. This can be compared to success in ninety per cent of battles with armed rebels between 1826 and 1850.vi The RAND Corporation, partially funded by the US Pentagon, reached a similar conclusion in a study of eighty-nine internal armed conflicts, stating that regular armed forces triumphed in twenty-eight cases (thirty-one per cent), irregular forces won in twenty-six cases (twenty-nine per cent), and there were mixed outcomes in nineteen cases (two per cent, including cases of political negotiation or geographical division). The rest can be summarised as cases of continuous conflictsvii – i.e., regular armed forces of the ruling authority were defeated, failed to win or have been continuously fighting – in sixty-nine per cent of studied cases (mostly in the second half of the last century).
Security and military studies provide a range of explanations of the reasons for the military success, or steadfastness, of weaker entities in the face of more powerful entities – whether international alliances, individual countries or non-state actors such as armed institutions (i.e., factions of the regular army or armed revolutionary organisations). Most explanations and the theories they build upon have focused on rugged geography and complexities of topography, popular support factors of various types (populist, ethnic, sectarian, regional, religious, intellectual/ideological) and international military support for the weaker party, as well as the military tactics and strategies of the conflicting parties.
Mao Zedong, the supreme theorist of modern revolutionary war, shed some light on the local population’s loyalty to any successful armed resistance, whether against tyranny or colonialism: ‘The guerilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea.’viii The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, based primarily on experiences in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, with an intensive study of other cases, reached the same conclusion, emphasising that conflict between a regular soldier and an insurgent is a ‘loyalty contest’ to co-opt the general public which is mostly not in favour of the warring parties. Therefore, success in the fight against an insurgency requires winning the hearts and minds of a neutral public.ix There exists a near consensus among strategic military specialists in revolutionary war studies that when a local population is brutally treated by regular forces this aids irregular combatants in recruitment, collecting resources and validating their legitimacy. General Stanley McChrystal, former leader of US forces in Afghanistan, referred to this relationship as ‘insurgent math’. ‘Every innocent civilian killed by regular forces generates ten new fighters against them,’ he suggested.x
Military explanations that focus on geography and its complexities are numerous and varied. James Fearon and David Laitin confirm in a well-known study that geography is one of four critical variables in situations of successful armed rebellion.xi Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military commander and philosopher, also considered it as one of five critical factors in any type of armed conflict. Mao wrote that guerilla wars were more effective in large countries where it was easy to strike regular forces’ supply lines with small numbers and at low cost. As Neil McCauley showed, hundreds of left-wing revolutionary fighters of several nationalities could defeat a regular army of 40 000 troops during the 1950s Cuban revolution by using rugged terrain to turn the military balance in their favour. The well-known French officer and scholar of revolutionary wars, David Galula, asserted, ‘The role of geography, a significant one in an ordinary war, may be overriding in a revolutionary war. If the insurgent, with his initial weakness, cannot be assisted by geography, he may well be condemned to failure before he starts.’xii Kenneth Boulding introduced the ‘Loss of Strength Gradient (LSG)’ to geographic explanations, arguing that the further fighting centres (such as capitals, large cities and camps) are from regular forces, the more likely it is that they will lose some of their strength. Sebastian Schutte adjusted the theory in 2014, saying regular forces lose ‘accuracy’ in striking targets, and not necessarily strength, the further they are from the centres. Their attempts to kill insurgents become more random and less accurate, and the resultant local anger increases rebels’ legitimacy, and their ability to mobilise and recruit.
Other scholars have focused on the importance of different forms of external support to the militarily weaker party. The RAND study of eighty-nine armed rebellions against a variety of systems (authoritarian, democratic, colonial) found that armed movements that benefited from the care of an external state or states won militarily in sixty-seven per cent of unresolved cases. However, when external support ceased, and dependency shifted internally, the ratio of victory decreased to twenty-five per cent of unresolved cases (i.e., cases with a clear victory or defeat; these ratios do not take into account mixed cases or unresolved ongoing confrontations).
Another group of military strategy scholars showed that a weaker party’s victory may be explained through field tactics and military strategy. In terms of field tactics, a Yale University study found that modern military vehicles (especially armoured vehicles and aircraft) undermined the ability of soldiers to create positive relationships with the local population, and thus undermined their ability to gather valuable intelligence from local collaborators. A large number of scholars of military strategy – particularly from US and British universities – concluded that it is no longer the preserve of a state, capturing regime or armed actors to employ new military technologies in weapons, communications, information and intelligence gathering, transportation, infrastructure, regulatory and administrative sciences.xiii ‘Breaking the monopoly’ has allowed armed organisations independent from states and regimes to improve their combat performance. This remarkable increase in the number of defeats of regimes or state governments by armed organisations that are weaker in number and equipment differs from the historical trend. Some specialist researchers have provided a framework for the complex strategic interactions between varying strengths of military entities. The study concluded that the weaker party could often win if it adopted opposite strategies to the strategies and tactics of the stronger party. For example, a ‘guerilla’ strategy (indirect fighting strategy) is the most appropriate strategy against a direct attack by a stronger party, including strategies referred to as ‘shock and awe’ (blitzkrieg).
Military capabilities of the Islamic State group: Strategy and tactics
Many of these elements of military and strategic theories and studies help us to understand the status of IS in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. However, the group’s survival and expansion has not been fully explained until recently. Explanations citing geography, popular support factors, external support and related theories do not help much in understanding the situation. Most of the areas under IS control are not as rugged as the mountains of Cuba, Afghanistan or Chechnya, where weaker military parties have benefited from geographic complexities. The ‘support factors’ do not exceed minorities that shrink and grow according to the ferocity and brutality of regimes in conflict with IS. The Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies in Iraq conducted a micro-level opinion poll in the city of Mosulxiv and found that in June 2014 the percentage of those who believed that IS represented their views or interests did not exceed ten per cent; in December 2015, after the coalition strikes, the percentage increased to thirty-nine per cent.xv
Some IS supporters (not members) in areas such as Sirte (Libya), Deir al-Zor (Syria) and Sinai (Egypt) view IS as the lesser of two evil, where the greater is the ruling regime. In addition, the organisation is not only in a state of war with governments and regimes inside and outside the region, but also with large segments of conservative Muslim communities, as well as with many Sunni and Shi'a Islamic groups, and even with some jihadists – including al-Qa'ida. And, despite an abundance of conspiracy theories espoused by all parties for the purposes of political propaganda and to discredit opponents, it has not yet been proven that IS receives systemic support directly from any government or regime, similar to, for example, Soviet support for the Cuban rebels, or Pakistani and Saudi support for the Afghan mujahideen groups.
IS’s military strategies and tactics may better explain its ability to withstand and expand. The organisation does not have large numbers of troops and equipment compared to the sophisticated resources of its enemies. With regard to numerical strength ratios, the CIA in 2014 estimated the number of IS fighters to be between 20 000 and 31 000. Compared just to the Iraqi armed forces, this means that there is one IS fighter for every ten soldiers. This excludes the number of supportive or allied forces such as popular militia, tribal groups, Peshmerga units and international coalition forces. In the battles of Mosul (June 2014) and Ramadi (December 2015–January 2016), the ratios dropped to one fighter for every twenty soldiers and officers in Mosul, and one fighter for twenty-five soldiers and officers in the case of Ramadi. In areas outside Iraq and Syria, the numerical strength ratio sometimes drops to one fighter against 500 soldiers and officers, as in northern Sinai. These ratios only estimate numerical strength, without taking into account the quality of the weaponry, ratios of firepower, effects of air support and intelligence, and strategic/schematic regional and international advice and aid; none of these factors and ratios are in IS’s favour.
However, with a mix of general military strategy principles, discipline in the field, a decentralised command and control structure, the commitment of soldiers to leadership structures and the dedication of fighters to their work – whatever the degree of brutality, combined with unusual tactics on the ground and the use of sudden, fast, accurate and repeatable methods, the organisation has been able to overcome not only a lack of human resources and equipment, but it has won battles where victory was unexpected based on traditional military data.
Some of its combat methods are consistent with Sun Tzu’s strategies, particularly regarding the collection of intelligence about the enemy, stealth before and after striking, attacking the weaker flank, efficiently using the element of surprise, avoiding the enemy in its strongholds and the time of readiness.xvi Tactics of ‘urban terrorism’ (especially car bombs; suicide bombers; sudden, frequent and extensive use of snipers; and assassinations before and during attacks) combined with traditional revolutionary warfare methods (especially mixing military and trained volunteer units, a quick hit-and-run approach and small numbers), in addition to conventional tactics (light artillery, heavy armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as different types of guided and unguided missiles) have proven highly effective despite the small number of IS fighters.
IS’s attack pattern is designed to establish control on the ground (in a village, town or city neighbourhood); followed by its combat units attacking from three sides at the same time while using high intensity fire to push defending forces to the fourth side. When the defending forces gather there, they are attacked by one or a series of car bombs (either detonated remotely or by suicide attackers), which often leads to the defending forces’ collapse or weakening, making the attack much easier. Captain Hassan Al-Hajri, a commander of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade in Syria, pointed out that after attacking with booby traps, the ‘Inghemasiyoun’, a small commando unit of not more than twenty IS shock troops (mostly non-local), carry out further attacks.xvii This unit is given special training on tactics of close quarters combat.xviii Its main task after attacking with booby traps is breaking enemy lines, raiding hard targets and then progressing slowly. As a former officer in the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Squad 101 said, ‘After car bombing, IS sends not more than ten to fifteen fighters of different nationalities. They advance fifty metres, lie down, then advance another fifty metres, then lie down and concentrate their efforts. We have not heard of this specific method of attack in any Arab military academy, including those of the Ba'ath Party.’xix
Various kinds of booby-traps (containers, cars, motorcycles, etc.) have proven effective in breaking troop lines, initiating attacks and even as defensive tactics, but their place in the military doctrine of IS is still a mystery. Some military analysts argue that the element of shock and horror, and its effect in weakening and confusing enemies, has proven valuable for IS. Others focus on the extensive damage caused by car bombs. Thus, a quick resolution of battle is in favour of IS’s forces even if the conventional military balance is not in their favour. When FSA officers and Libyan military forces from Battalion 166 who fought IS in Sirte were asked about the reasons for the organisation’s military victories, despite its lack of human resources and equipment, the answers were similar and can be summed up as ‘booby traps are the key to victories’.
There is another important aspect with regards to the command and control framework of IS: the group’s decentralised approach to military action. IS sometimes attacks sites and towns that are not strategically important and has small numbers of people. It appears that, in these cases, mid-level leaders have taken attack decisions, without reference to senior leadership. Despite the tactical failure of some of these attacks, their frequency and success in other instances is an important indicator of the degree of centralised decision-making at the command and control level. This decentralised military modus operandi is more mature and effective than the methods of many Arab armies, which is one reason for their semi-chronic tactical weakness. In practice, IS has overcome a major obstacle facing the military effectiveness of some Arab armies. These armies, which sometimes show some tactical initiative and creativity, lack the ability to innovate and improvise without orders from the top brass. They have little ability to adapt to sudden and unexpected circumstances, and are unable to undertake independent tactical operations. The degree of centralisation may reflect the weakness of ‘strategic coherence’ between military units and ‘tactical turmoil’; it is a traditional point of weakness that may defeat and obliterate any military entity. However, in the case of IS, a centralised senior leadership with a decentralised field of operations has proven vital for enhanced military performance. The dynamic attack forces allow the organisation to make quick decisions when facing superior forces. In addition, it seems that IS leaders on the ground learn quickly, continually improving their performance.
On the other hand, most IS air defences are weak, limited and undeveloped. The group can defend only against helicopters and old military aircraft flying at low altitudes (at 20 000 feet or less). This has been very costly for the organisation. The traditional irregular warfare style (especially the use of armoured vehicles) has been undermined to a large extent due to coalition air strikes, and the lack of capacity of terrestrial defences to respond. However, the group was able to avoid further losses by dispersing and concealing heavy weapons and some armoured vehicles and tanks that had survived the bombing. During IS attacks, its fighters benefit from the confusion created by both sides using a combination of Russian, US and Chinese weapons. This makes coalition air forces unable to distinguish between friendly and IS forces. The difficulty of precise targeting also increases because of the limited number of joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) – plants for qualified personnel closely working to provide offensive air operations with information.
The quality of the fighters who join IS brigades has added to its military balance, in terms of discipline on the battlefield and focus on the goal. Its combatants may be divided into three categories: former members of regular armed forces (especially from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Georgia) who had served in various structures, including the republican guard, military, intelligence, artillery, armour and police (civil and military); unlawful combatants who fought in previous wars, have abundant combat experience in a variety of geographies (mountains, jungles, deserts, cities, villages and towns); and local fighters who had accumulated long-term experience in combating local regular troops and providing logistical support for building networks over the past decade. Some fighters, especially from the second category, fought many defensive battles to prevent the enemy from controlling villages, towns or cities in several countries. In later wars, they used commando tactics when they had lost land to their enemies. These tactics relied on light infantry units with ten to fifteen fighters clashing with the enemy at close range (fifty to 250 metres), which prevents the use of heavy artillery and shelling from the air.
The near future and the far enemy
In conclusion, attention must be focused on the environment within which IS has developed, remained and expanded. In most countries in the region – with a few exceptions – legitimacy obtained through religious advisory opinions (fatawa) or through extreme nationalism are the crucial means by which to access or remain in political power. In most Arab political environments, elections, constitutions, laws, principles of good governance, and social and economic achievements are merely secondary factors, and sometimes only cosmetic. The regional context proves that the bullet is frequently more effective than the ballot in reaching and staying in power. In this context a large proportion of political, social and cultural elites see force as a way to filter and eradicate political dissent – at least through torture, or, at most, through genocide – and mutual concessions and political compromises to prevent bloodshed are regarded as forms of ‘betrayal’. IS and other jihadi groups have merely increased the dose of violence, multiplied its targets and radicalised religious interpretation, but they did not depart from the prevailing political pattern in the region. These jihadi tendencies organisations are a natural consequence of this pattern of violence and ruthlessness.xx
IS, therefore, does not face considerable difficulty in recruiting minorities that support it because the repressive political environment helps to give credibility to its tactics. This explains the imbalance in the long-term strategy to contain and destroy it, which depends on four major pillars: two military/security pillars, a political/reform pillar and an intellectual/rhetorical pillar. This translates into air strikes to contain it in the short term; local partners who collaborate with coalition forces to weaken and destroy it on the ground in the medium or long terms; attempts to repair the political environment through settlements and/or reconciliation and/or democratisation to create a political and social environment that would prevent the group from reproducing; and the production of ideologies and discourses to counter the ideas and behaviours of the organisation and behaviours arising in the long-term. These pillars are incompatible with each other, with the most conflicting being the second and third pillars. Considering that the regimes have committed massacres against their own people and crimes against humanity, being ‘partners’ in the fight against terrorism (which are some of the second pillar’s concerns) would harm the third pillar of the strategy over the long term. Thus the military defeat of IS – a result that should not be seen as an accomplishment of tactical/field significance given the enormous differences in numbers, equipment and weaponry – may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region. However, the roots of the crisis remain valid (unless the third pillar succeeds). Consequently, those roots will generate another symptom that may be more extreme, violent and rigid.
* Dr Omar Ashour is a lecturer in security and strategic studies at the University of Exeter, and associate fellow in security studies at the Royal Institute of International Studies (Chatham House)
i The paper ignores several important dimensions that the author sees the need to discuss in greater depth. First, at the field or operational level, the importance of individual battles in the countryside of Aleppo (January 2014), the city of Raqqa (January–March 2014 ), Mosul (June 2014), Al-Ramadi (May 2015, and December 2015–January 2016), Sirte (May–August 2015), Sheikh Zuid (July 2015) and the countryside of Deir ez-Zor (January 2016). The paper also avoids analysing the Islamic State group’s security and intelligence capabilities; this has proven most important in military action, especially its ability to penetrate its opponents and map internal opposition parties or the regimes that it is fighting. This paper also avoids delving into the extreme ideological discourses employed in IS’s mobilisation and propaganda, despite the importance of this militarily as well as in special operations that continue and sustain recruitment, thus giving IS the ability to train, substitute and replace fighters; to survive and expand in the battlefield; and to continue as a ‘state’ structure.
ii Schultz, Bryan (2015). ‘The Pentagon Says It Has Killed 20,000 ISIS Fighters—and Just 6 Civilians’, Mother Jones, 23 December. <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/12/united-states-isis-bombing-civilian-deaths/>.
iii Schultz, Bryan (2015).
iv ‘US hitting IS harder than ever, says Obama’, BBC, 14 December. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35097279> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
v Strack, Columb (2015). ‘Islamic State’s Caliphate Shrinks by 14 Percent in 2015’, Jane’s Intelligence review, 21 December. <http://www.janes.com/article/56794/islamic-state-s-caliphate-shrinks-by-14-in-2015>.
vi Strack, Columb (2015).
vii Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). ‘How Insurgencies End’, RAND Publications, <http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG965.pdf/> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
viii Mao, T (1937/61). On Guerrilla Warfare. Champaign: University of Illinois.
ix Petraeus, David, Amos, James F and Nagl, John A (2007). The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
x Dreyfuss, B (2013). ‘How the War in Afghanistan Fuelled the Taliban’, The Nation, 23 September. <http://www.thenation.com/article/how-us-war-afghanistan-fueled-taliban-insurgency/>
xi Fearon, James and Laitin, David (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90.
xii Galula, D (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
xiiiThe conclusions are based on a large number of military and strategic studies, such as: Ashour, O (2009). The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. New York, London: Routledge; Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). How Insurgencies End. Arlington: Rand Publications; Fearon, JD and Laitin, DD (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90; Johnston, PB (2008). ‘The Geography of Insurgent Organization and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone’, Security Studies 17 (1): 107–37. Kalyvas, S (2006). The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kalyvas, S and Kocher, Matthew A (2006). ‘Ethnic Cleavages and Irregular War: Iraq and Vietnam’, Politics and Society 35 (2): 183–223.
xiv See the poll details at: <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
xv See <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views>.
xvi Tzu, Sun The Art of War, Pax Librorum, 2009
xvii Hendawi, Hamza. Abdul-Zahra, Qassim and Mroue, Bassem (2015). ‘Inside ISIS Battle Strategy, Use of Special Forces’, Associated Press, 8 July. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/873276499f8145eba8680d5b4e1e13f1/secret-success-shock-troops-who-fight-death>.
xix Interview with the author, September 2015.