"The deciding factor in Kobane’s perseverance…is not the air strikes by the international coalition but the strength, courage and flexibility of the heroic Kurdish resistance’s tactics on the ground and their willingness to sacrifice. That is how they defeated the ISIS myth and tangibly proved that it is not a legend but just a myth that can easily be disproved and defeated"

November 1, 2014

In Blog News

ISIS’ fighting doctrine: Sorting fact from fiction

Iraqi special forces search a house in the Jurf al-Sakhr area, north of the Shia shrine city of Karbala on October 30, 2014, after they retook the area from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists over the weekend after months of fighting to regain ground. (Photo: AFP-Haidar Hamdani)

By: Alaa al-Lami

Published Friday, October 31, 2014

A careful and specialized examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the fighting doctrine and the military performance of suicidal salafi jihadi groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is yet to be done. Such a study has not been carried out by official military authorities in countries directly affected, such as Iraq and Syria, or by scholars specialized in studying these groups. Nevertheless, it is possible to review some of the information on the issue found in different publications.

Let us begin with the simple but valuable remarks written by a rank and file Iraqi fighter in the Iraqi army nicknamed Abu Musa, whom we had referred to previously in an article published in Al-Akhbar [in Arabic] on October 21. This fighter participated in many of the armed confrontations with ISIS after the fall of Mosul on June 10, 2014. He noted with his piercing vision and insight and through his personal combat experience certain observations which he posted on social networking sites on July 15. In these observations, which were printed by several Iraqi newspapers and news websites, he summarized the principles of ISIS’ offensive and defensive operations and how they should be responded to.

Sniping, booby-trapping and suicide bombings

This fighter tells us that during attack operations, ISIS uses mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), then pushes its fighters who are carrying these bombers and heavy machine guns – DShK 1938 (Dushka) – to reign down heavy fire on the enemy while its snipers hunt resisters at the height of the attack.

We can conclude from this observation that the important contribution by ISIS lies in the intensity of firepower during a swift attack and in changing the definition and function of sniping from a marginal and clandestine security tactic outside the context of the main battle to a tactic of engagement not only within the battle but at its peak. This development has achieved important results on the ground.

Abu Musa adds that “in cases of attack from remote distances or long-range engagement, ISIS sends suicide bombers driving trucks or car bombs and other fighters some of them carrying explosive belts but not all of them are booby-trapped to instill terror in the ranks of those resisting them. Then they send detachments armed with heavy machine guns (PKC and Dushka) to the battle that is, by now, almost decided in their favor.”

We notice then that suicide attack operations are not only meant to inflict heavy losses within the ranks of the enemy, but to strike at its psychological cohesion and morale. There is a recent example of this that we can cite. Blowing up a booby-trapped fuel tank near al-Mosul Hotel the day the city fell had a tremendous impact psychologically and in terms of morale, as acknowledged by a senior military Iraqi commander.As to how ISIS organizes its defense when it is attacked, Abu Musa noted that “ISIS’ resistance is simple and easy, especially in street battles where the Iraqi army’s traditional combat method of reliance on infantry should be changed to reliance on snipers equipped with advanced, long-range scoped sniper rifles and on armored vehicles equipped with single, double or quadruple barreled machine guns.” He added: “Killing ISIS members in any clash by well-hidden snipers throws them off balance and prompts them to make mistakes that nearly push them to suicide as they reveal their whereabouts, becoming easy prey to security forces with all their weapons.”

Abu Musa concluded: “Whoever wants to defeat ISIS has to rely on snipers equipped with advanced sniping rifles and on armored vehicles that protect their personnel against ISIS snipers and are equipped with single and double barreled dushkas in addition to increasing the number of PKC-carrying security forces in every company or brigade. Finally, providing air cover is very important in battles against ISIS but it might lose its value during short-range combat because enemies’ trenches are so close.”

Increasing the number of well-trained snipers, which Abu Musa noted and called for emulating, is not the decisive factor in ISIS’ defensive strategy. There is another element that is no less important, namely, densely and intelligently booby-trapping the areas being defended with improvised explosive devises (IEDs) and mines. This way a fighter attacking ISIS’ defenses is caught between two fires, the fire of the snipers stationed in high places and the fire of the mines and IEDs that completely pave the target area. This three-pronged strategy (sniping, booby-trapping and suicide bombings) has succeeded in all the cities that ISIS militants entered and from which government forces have not been able to expel them. Falluja and Tikrit serve as the best examples of this strategy.

The more important question is why don’t government forces and the civilian forces helping them embrace this strategy and abandon the traditional method adopted back in World War I of attacking with piles of infantry units to prevent more cities from falling, especially that these plans have become public and well-known?

The writings of Abu Musa and others like him about the importance of snipers were taken into consideration. There has been talk that the Iraqi military leadership is moving towards more reliance on snipers. Information has been published – even though keeping military secrets requires not publishing such information – about campaigns to prepare and train thousands of snipers in many provinces. The authorities have benefited from individuals with “innately or naturally good aiming skills.” It was said that the number of volunteers in just the province of Dhi Qar reached 5,000 snipers. However, these measures have not paid off yet in a tangible way.

The ongoing battle of Kobane, where fighters from the People’s Protection Units close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey are defending the city against ISIS militants, provides a valuable lesson in this regard. These fighters, despite their modest weapons capabilities compared with ISIS’ heavy weaponry, relied on snipers and small and mobile fidayeen units. They have heroically persevered so far and have inflicted heavy losses on their enemy which has disappointed those who have counted on Kobane’s defeat, including US and Turkish generals claiming to “fight terrorism.” These fighters have, at minimum, delayed the sacking of their city and they might be able to prevent it altogether if they are armed well and provided with effective air cover.

Recognizing ISIS’ strengths

Since we are discussing ISIS’ combat performance and war strategy, let us consider their areas of strength as observed by Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar who is well-versed in the affairs of salafi jihadi groups. His writings explain the vast difference between the media image of ISIS and its allies created by Iraqi security, media and political officials and the reality on the ground. This discrepancy between the reality and the fabricated image is a disservice to those designing a sound military strategy aimed at defeating this enemy. He who does not know his enemy well and provides a false image of him to his people and his army will not be able to win. As the old saying goes, you have to know your enemies in order to defeat them.

Let us briefly review what we think is the most important part of Hashimi’s observations.

Hashimi notes that ISIS has a specialized military leadership council that plans, oversees and leads military operations. Other sources say that most members of this council were officers in the army under the former Iraqi regime who have a lot of experience including the group’s caliphate, Ibrahim Awwad al-Samarrai or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – who was an officer in the army – and his four senior aids. Hashimi also underscores the strength and skill of the group’s intelligence and security agency which no hostile agency has been able to penetrate or obstruct. According to specialized sources, this military council consists of eight to 13 members, all of them Iraqi. It is led by four men who were senior officers under Saddam and headed by a former colonel whose nom de guerre is Hajji Bakr and who joined the group under its slain leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

Hashimi points out that the group’s leaders know the geography of the land they are fighting for very well. They use military deception and hit and run tactics, they create weak combat axes with a lot of media fanfare to distract from the next target and they use the element of surprise and the shock doctrine when waging an attack. We saw that in the battles to control Hit, Kabisa and al-Kilo 35 area on October 13 while the main secret target all along was the centers of Ramadi and Haditha.

Even though I agree with the essence of what Hashimi says, I have reservations about the claim that “they know the geography of land they are fighting over.” Even if that were true, its significance will still be in question for two reasons. One, ISIS’ enemies are also Iraqis fighting on their land and they know its geography well. Two, the majority of second-tier leaders and middle cadres in ISIS are foreigners and not Iraqis, so it is impossible for them to know the geography of the country more than its people.

We can also agree with what Justin Bronk, a research analyst in the military sciences program at the Royal United Services Institute in London, wrote. He rightly pointed to another ISIS military advantage.“A particular speciality is outflanking defensive positions and then mopping up defenders who attempt to retreat. The tactic is as much psychological as it is kinetic, and is greatly magnified by the horrendous and public brutality ISIS has systematically exhibited wherever it has gained control.

Even well-motivated and equipped troops are likely to contemplate tactical withdrawals if outflanked and in danger of being surrounded by an unknown number of fanatical mass murderers with apparently superior weaponry and tactics. Whereas in Mosul, the defenders are poorly motivated, even small ISIS attacks are capable of provoking mass panic and routs.”

This psychological warfare that Bronk is talking about, saw its worst expression in the despicable Speicher massacre committed by ISIS militants which tainted them and whoever defends them or justifies their crimes with eternal shame. However, some analysts, eyewitnesses from the area and controversial MP Mishaan al-Jabouri accused supporters of Saddam Hussein’s regime and relatives of a number of his officials who were executed of carrying out this massacre while falsely raising ISIS flags. Names and pictures of these people killing unarmed prisoners have been published. More than 1,700 soldiers and prisoner students at the air force college were killed in this massacre.

ISIS’ bloody and immoral tactic of killing prisoners prompted some military units not to withdraw even when withdrawal was the right decision and was necessary, only to be encircled and later stormed by the enemy. This is what happened in Saqlawiyah and Sajar camps in Anbar province resulting in a catastrophe and human losses. The Iraqi leadership bears responsibility for these losses and for failing to avoid them.

ISIS’ strategy, however, failed in the battle of Ain al-Arab/Kobane against Kurdish Syrian fighters. Even though the outcome of the battle has not been decided yet, the steadfastness of those defending the city this entire time is a huge military victory for them. Bronk continues: “Kobane is an unusual operation for ISIS fighters in some respects, … Despite having surrounded Kobane and conducting aggressive and apparently well-coordinated infiltration attempts from multiple approaches, the sort of street-to-street “meat grinder” that Kobane has become does not play to ISIS’s strengths.Against an enemy with nowhere to retreat to and air support, a numerically limited force such as ISIS that normally relies as much on psychological effects as firepower to take ground faces a tough challenge. This is just as well since on the ground, it is only the bravery of lightly armed Kurdish fighters standing between ISIS and control of the town. Airstrikes are essential but could not keep ISIS out of the town alone.”

In other words, the deciding factor in Kobane’s perseverance, as Bronk argues and we agree with him wholeheartedly, is not the air strikes by the international coalition but the strength, courage and flexibility of the heroic Kurdish resistance’s tactics on the ground and their willingness to sacrifice. That is how they defeated the ISIS myth and tangibly proved that it is not a legend but just a myth that can easily be disproved and defeated.