Under assault by U.S.-led coalition, Islamic State may shift tactics

October 14, 2014

Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province

This summer, Islamic State fighters swept into the expanse of desert straddling the Iraq-Syria border. Riding in pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, supported by skilled snipers and at least one tank, the Islamists captured the town of Rabia on the Syrian side of the border.

Kurdish militia fighters from the People’s Protection Units — known by its Kurdish acronym YGP — rushed to the neighboring town of Al Yarubiyah, on the Iraqi side, in a desperate effort to contain the militants’ advance. What followed was a two-month stalemate, as both sides harassed each other with machine guns, mortars and snipers.

Then in late September, U.S.-led airstrikes hit Islamic State forces in Rabia. The Kurdish YPG troops timed their counterattack perfectly. Reeling from the combined aerial and ground assault, the militants fell back. The Kurds liberated Rabia.

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.The battle for Rabia is an important object lesson in the fast-expanding war on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As long as the militants fight like a traditional army, with infantry, heavy weapons, vehicles and fortified positions, the United States and its allies can attack them as they would any traditional army — and beat them.

But that depends on Islamic State cooperating. It’s evident the group is already changing up its methods — a prospect that should deeply worry the rest of the world.

The U.S. military is still the planet’s best in conventional terms. It has more and better planes, helicopters, ships and vehicles than any other military — and more training and experience using all this high-tech weaponry.

Combined with Kurdish and Iraqi ground troops, U.S. warships and aircraft in the Middle East represent a far superior fighting force compared to Islamic State. As long as the militants insist on fighting the U.S.-led alliance on Washington’s terms, they will lose. The allies’ victory might be slow. It might be painful. But it’s inevitable.

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of MosulWhat the United States and its allies should fear, however, is what comes next — after Islamic State gives up on traditional methods of making war. The militants could borrow a page from the proverbial field manuals of countless rebellions, insurgencies and terrorist groups throughout modern history, ditching their heavy weapons and infantry tactics. They could return to blending into the civilian population and striking when and where their enemies least expect them.

Indeed, there’s already evidence Islamic State is shifting toward those methods, hastening its evolution from a regular fighting force to an irregular one. Or rather, evolving back into an irregular force — just as the current Islamic State is an outgrowth of a hybrid terrorist and insurgent group that formed in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

An army in all but name

Islamic State coalesced in western Iraq around the same time the U.S. military was withdrawing after eight years of war and occupation. The militant group, drawing many of its fighters, leaders, tactics and philosophy from the now-defunct Al Qaeda in Iraq, began a series of bombings and killings across Iraq.

When civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, Islamic State expanded there as well, fighting alongside Syrian rebels against the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Fierce fighters, the Islamists attracted significant funding from Saudi and Qatari donors. The group attracted recruits from all over the world, most notably countries with their own active Islamic insurgencies, including Afghanistan and Chechnya.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea  launches a Tomahawk cruise missile while conducting strike missions against ISIL targets from the GulfIslamic State soon gained ground against the Syrian regime, capturing tanks, artillery and even a handful of functional jet warplanes. To this arsenal, the militants added weaponry they bought on the black market, including Chinese-made antiaircraft missiles supplied by Sudan.

In early 2014, Islamic State returned in force to western Iraq, capturing the city of Fallujah from Iraqi government troops. In June, the militants seized Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq. Demoralized and poorly led Iraqi troops fled — leaving behind millions of dollars worth of U.S.-manufactured trucks, tanks and artillery that Islamic State promptly added to its own arsenal.

By summer 2014, Islamic State was an army in all but name. It practiced traditional military tactics, firing artillery to soften up enemy defenses before sending in tanks and infantry. Air-defense troops guarded supply and command centers, firing their Chinese rockets at attacking Iraqi helicopters.

“Given the rapidness in which it is able to maneuver,” a senior White House official said of Islamic State in an Aug. 7 conference call with reporters, “given its ability to direct indirect-fire attacks followed by direct assaults with heavy weapons, it is a militarily proficient organization.”

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gena Fedoruk and 1st Lt. Marcel Trott take off from in a KC-135 Stratotanker from a base in the U.S. Central Command Area of ResponsibilityThere were persistent rumors that the Islamists managed to recruit a few trained pilots and actually formed a nascent air force, using the L-39 jets they had captured from the Syrian air arm. The prospect of an Islamic State air force deeply worried the Syrian regime. Damascus reportedly pulled some of its powerful MiG-25 fighters out of mothballs in an apparent effort to hunt down the militants’ planes over eastern Syria.

As Islamic State advanced across northwestern Iraq in early August, Washington finally intervened, launching warplanes, drones and attack helicopters from ships and land bases in the region. The Pentagon was soon leading an international coalition, including scores of ships and hundreds of aircraft. The Pentagon extended air raids and cruise missile strikes into Syria in late September.

In spite of skepticism from pundits, politicians and much of the public, the air raids have helped Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces push back against the militants. “They have been effective at what they are trying to achieve,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said on Oct. 8, referring to the airstrikes.

A formation of U.S. Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern IraqThe West’s aerial bombing was decisive in allowing Kurdish troops to end the Islamic State militants’ siege of Sinjar Mountain in north Iraq, where tens of thousands of refugees from the Yazidi religious group were slowly dying of hunger and thirst.

U.S. and allied air support also helped Kurdish and Iraqi troops recapture the strategic Mosul Dam, plus Rabia and other towns. When militants attacked toward Baghdad in early October, U.S. Army Apache helicopters swooped in, blunting their advance. An Islamic State brigade with tanks and artillery was on the verge of capturing the town of Kobani, near Syria’s border with Turkey, until warplanes struck back.

Across eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq in late summer and early fall, the situation has been the same. Islamic State deployed traditional fighting units in heavy vehicles — and the U.S.-led coalition promptly targeted these forces with drones, jet fighters and bombers, missiles and helicopters, helping local ground troops to slow, halt or even reverse the militants’ territorial gains.

Evolve or die

If the militants stick to their conventional tactics, they could find themselves suffering the same fate that the rebel group M23 did in the Democratic Republic of Congo in late 2013. After months of dithering, the United Nations deployed a strong force of mostly South African infantry, armored vehicles and helicopters and launched an all-out military assault on M23 near Goma in eastern Congo.

Rockets are fired from a Congolese army vehicle in the direction of  M23 rebels in KibumbaM23 chose to fight man-to-man, tank-to-tank — and lost. The United Nations swiftly liberated rebel-held towns, destroying enemy vehicles and killing opposition fighters as it went. By the end of 2013, M23 ceased to exist.

To be fair, other African rebel groups have proved more resilient. For several years now, the African Union has been fighting its own military campaign against the Al Shabab militant group in Somalia. And in early October, African Union and Somali troops finally recaptured Al Shabab’s last major stronghold on the Somali coast.

But in contrast to M23, which failed to evolve in the face of the U.N.’s attacks, Al Shabab has quickly abandoned traditional military tactics. “Instead of trying to hold onto large swathes of territory,” wrote Peter Dörrie, an independent expert on African security, “the militants increasingly employ guerrilla and terror tactics.”

Al Shabab’s bombings and gun attacks in Somalia, Uganda and Kenya has killed hundreds of people in recent years.

Islamic State has already signaled that it’s likely to follow Al Shabab’s evolutionary model rather than M23’s dead-end one. It is “an adaptive and learning force,” Lieutenant General William Mayville, the Pentagon’s director of operations, told reporters on Sept. 23.

Royal Air Force pilots, engineers and logistic support staff stand in front of a Tornado GR4 at RAF Akrotiri, in CyprusBy late September, the militants in Iraq and Syria had begun adapting to U.S. and allied airstrikes, spreading out and hiding among civilians to present harder targets. “Yes, they’re blending in more,” Kirby said on Sept. 30. “Yes, they’re dispersing, and yes they aren’t communicating quite as openly or as boldly as they once were.”

When British jets launched their first armed patrols over Iraq on Sept. 27, they found no militants to bomb — and returned to their base in Cyprus with all their munitions still underwing. When the Australian Air Force flew its first combat mission over Iraq on Oct. 5, it also found no militants. “They’ve made themselves a much harder target,” former Australian army chief Peter Leahy told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The logical next step for Islamic State is to return to its roots as a guerrilla and terror group — one that doesn’t try to match the United States and its allies’ arsenals of vehicles, artillery and aircraft. Iraqi and Kurdish troops could, technically speaking, liberate every town and city Islamic State currently occupies — without coming close to defeating it as an organization.

What followed would likely be a bloody, drawn-out campaign of bombings and nighttime killings by small groups of militants infiltrating communities across Syria and Iraq, and possibly even neighboring countries.

As the long U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved, rooting out terrorists and insurgents can be bloody, expensive and frustrating. Even bloodier, more expensive and more frustrating than bombing their infantry and tank formations from the air.


PHOTO (TOP): Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 31, and an F/A-18F Super Hornet, attached to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213, prepare to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) to conduct strike missions against ISIL targets, in the Gulf, September 23, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert Burck/Handout via Reuters

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Fighters of Islamic State stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. REUTERS

PHOTO (INSERT 3): The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) launches a Tomahawk cruise missile, as seen from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), in the Gulf, September 23, 2014. REUTERS/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Garst/U.S. Navy/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 4): Air Force Major Gena Fedoruk (L) and 1st Lt. Marcel Trott take off from in a KC-135 Stratotanker from a base in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility in support of a mission to conduct airstrikes in Syria, September 23, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 5): A formation of U.S. Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq, September 23, 2014.REUTERS/Shawn Nickel/U.S. Air Force/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 6): Rockets are fired from a Congolese army vehicle in the direction of M23 rebels in Kibumba, north of Goma October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

PHOTO (INSERT 7):  Royal Air Force pilots, engineers and logistic support staff stand in front of a Tornado GR4 at RAF Akrotiri, in Cyprus, October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Pool/Dan Kitwood



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That mean old Allah is pretty powerful. A small group of his fans are kicking butt and advancing on all the worlds most advanced military powers.
God is not match for Allah.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

Fighting ISIS is NOT a fight against a “terrorist group” but a well trained and motivatwed army, led by ex-Sadaam officers and including former Iraqi soldiers. Unlike terrorists who plant IED’s, ambush patrols, or use suicide bombers, ISIS is fighting, AND HOLDING landscape.
They are systematically accomplsihing the detruction of the Christion culture in Iraq that has been there for 2,000 years.They didn’t hide in caves as they tortured, butchered and beheaded the men, raped, tortured and killed women, and children too.

The only reason they still exist is that Barack Obama does not fight in election years. He never takes political risks, as we learned in #Benghazi. It is backfiring on him now.

Posted by jaazee | Report as abusive

Allah is murdering his own adherents. Kudos to him.

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

I have been presented with the simplest of tasks: teach basic arithmetic to a room of Arab children aged 11-12. The government education council of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi has asked me to take on this role. I am an American who is open minded, with no ill will towards Islam, nor any allegiance to it. This task is well defined. I know the kids have learned their arithmetic when they get their answers correct on a consistent basis. Finally, Math is not a controversial topic in that most people accept that children should know how to count, add, multiply and divide. How does this relate to fighting Isis?

Even in a task as simple and measurable as teaching arithmetic to children, I encounter on a daily basis, cultural patterns that are beyond my understanding at this time, and misunderstood or poorly described by previous so called authorities on Arab culture. I am an army of one, with a chain of command that is completely self contained in my head; the media does not follow my actions, and there are no corporations that stand to profit whether or not the children learn their arithmetic. Finally, and most importantly, I am on the ground here, attempting to live in this foreign nation with open arms to the culture so that I can deepen my understanding and complete my task. To date, success has eluded me for the most part.

Now consider the complexity of a war against ISIS. The people with the power to make decisions are not here in the middle east. They rely on a huge chain of command, where politics, economics, media, and other complex forces are in play. They are taking on a controversial task and in all likelihood cannot describe a measurable outcome for success. How on earth can it lead to anything other than chaos, wasted money, wasted life, and increased resentment towards the United States and those other nations that choose to involve themselves?

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

It’s no fair that jihadist warriors have figured out that they should start a foreign campaign in an election year. They’ve figured out our greatest weakness!

Posted by averym | Report as abusive

“Allah is murdering his own adherents. Kudos to him.”

Really? You do know the Alawites, Yezedis and Chaldeans are not muslims, right? Not to mention the largely secular YPG and their Syrian government enemy…

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

they will do what they all do….hide behind civilians…

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

But then they lose their Caliphate, which is their stated goal. To establish that, they have to have a functioning “regular” army, otherwise they can’t protect their territory. Going back to being a mob terrorist group would be a blow to ISIS.

Posted by pauldhouston | Report as abusive

Lots of detailed analysis (and well-researched and written, kudos for that) to arrive at a pretty basic conclusion: these IS maniacs can’t stand up to any sort of traditional military battle (against a western force), so they’ll be guerrilla fighters instead, as they have no choice. Nothing surprising here, and let’s not breathlessly make this seem more than it is.

There’s a reason IS has been acting for the past couple of months as a more traditional army: it’s far more effective. As pauldhouston notes in his comment, being a guerrilla force means no territory held, which mean no caliphate. Of course it’s still not ideal to have a pack of homicidal maniacs running around bombing and killing, but it’s a lot more manageable than than the caliphate alternative. Sorry, IS, but your moment in the sun is passed and now you’re just another pack of insurgent losers. Enjoy the rest of your lives, spent underground, running and hiding from our air power. We look forward to seeing you when you pop your pathetic heads up for some air.

Posted by SA_NYC | Report as abusive

It will be interesting to see whether ISIS can blend into the civilian population when next year’s harvest fails as it probably will.

Posted by HJSchoonhoven | Report as abusive

I don’t agree with the author’s assessment.

The early success of ISIS in Iraq was due to fighting Sunni’s in the Iraq army who had no motivation to fight for a Shia dominated government–so they deserted in droves.

The only advantage ISIS has is that they are fanatical enough to be fearless in battle. Fearless does not mean competent.

Thus far, the news media and Western politicians have extolled the fighting prowess of ISIS based upon their success against unmotivated or unprofessional opponents.

When ISIS encountered the Kurds in Kobane, suddenly they did not seem so invincible–despite the Kurds lack of heavy weaponry.

When ISIS fights like an army, they must concentrate their forces, and move on the ground–which means they are vulnerable to air-power and drones. In Kobane, ISIS has lost hundreds of fighters. This is true anywhere in Syria or Iraq. If ISIS concentrates their forces (which they must for conventional battles) then they will be exterminated like cockroaches.

The other option is for ISIS to wage a guerilla war. In order for this to be possible, they must blend with the Sunni population in Iraq or Syria. This implies a certain level of cooperation among Sunni civilians.

In Iraq, Al Qaeda attempted this–but they were not welcomed by the indigenous Sunnis. The only reason they were tolerated is because the local Sunnis felt they needed allies–even bad ones, in order to fight the Shias and the US.

The US made a deal with the Sunnis, who assisted the US in eradicating Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq.

My point is that if ISIS fights like an army–they are doomed. If they try to blend into the Sunni population, they will be unsuccessful long-term since they are unpopular with locals and they upset the local Sunni tribal hierarchy–so if local Sunnis are given a way to power and autonomy without ISIS, they will assist in the eradication of ISIS.

ISIS is an overblown bogey-man, and accounts of their threat and skill in battle are overblown.

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

Canyonliveoak: you said: “How on earth can it lead to anything other than chaos, wasted money, wasted life, and increased resentment towards the United?”

You didn’t make any suggestions to correct our course. Executives always appreciate learning the problem; yet, also, learning your suggested solution to the problem (plus any competing solutions you may be aware of, and, the benefits of your solution over those).

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

The fate of ISIS is in the hands of the local communities. ISIS will try to fade into the woodwork in the next couple of weeks as they get pounded into the ground. If the locals do not take ownership and interview/question who are you? – to strangers – then they are doomed to die many times over.

If they take ownership – ISIS has nowhere to hide and the hormone ridden leftovers of ISIS will be on trial and hung.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive