The Changing Character of War: IS’ Military Tactics
By Montassar Adaili
Over the last decade, the rise of military performance of non-state actors in wars and their use of terror, and other irregular military tactics led many scholars to speak about new wars. In 2014, the Islamic State emerged as dangerous terrorist group that applied asymmetric military tactics and succeeded in defeating regular forces and occupied territories. This paper seeks to explain the role of military tactics of non-state actors in changing the character of war by analyzing IS’s military tactics, what are they and how the terrorist organization applied them. This article offers better understanding of non-state actors’ tactics in changing the character of war.
Key words Character of war, military tactics, Islamic State, irregular warfare
War is usually understood as 'two countries arraying their military forces against each other'. Even if war can involve more than two parties, they are ' typically separated and aligned as two sets of allies'. Yet, this pattern has been declining since the end of the Second World War. The last three decades witnessed an escalation of the irregular wars in many parts of the world. This rise in unconventional warfare has been accompanied with changes in where war is fought, by whom and over what issues.
Some scholars have concluded that the technological revolution 'may generate a much broader revolution in military affairs' and which will affect the way armies are organized, civil-military relation, and the conduct of international conflicts. In fact, technology and urbanization have been key elements in changing the character of war. Yet, little attention has been given to the military tactics as a major factor in changing the character of war.
The military effectiveness shown by the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant made us rethink of the military tactics of the terrorist group. The paper examines the military tactics of ISIS and their influence on the character of war. To do so the research answers the following questions: Did the military tactics of ISIS change the character of war? What are these tactics? How can they impact the character of war?
Definitions and Terminology
According to Christopher Mewett, the character of war describes 'the changing way that war as phenomena manifest in the real world' . That is to say, the character of war is shaped by societies and politics which are influenced by many factors such as geography, military organization, technology, culture, laws, and many others. Irregular warfare is defined as 'a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over relevant populations. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.' Hybrid warfare 'was used to describe a blend of conventional and unconventional warfighting'. Conventional warfare is 'the direct military confrontation across defined frontlines and involves combat operations to take over territory, resources and inhabitants, with a strategic goal to destroy or subdue the opposed forces.
Omar Ashour uses the word tactics to refer to 'the art and science of utilisation and organisation of force on the battlefield during engagements with the opposing side(s) or in close proximity to it/them; with the aim of translating combat skills and resources to a position of advantage or an outright battle victory.' Terrorism in this research is employed as it 'refers to a repertoire of armed tactics by which civilians and/or non-combatants are violently targeted, discriminately or indiscriminately, for the strategic aim of intimidation or pressuring their rulers (state or nonstate) to accede to political and/or ideological demands.' Guerrilla warfare refers to unconventional warfare enable combatants to engage in indirect encounter with the opponent forces.
- The New Wars
Mary Kaldor claims that the new wars contrasted with the old wars 'in terms of their goals, the methods of warfare and how they are financed.' She uses the term new wars to describe the 'organized violence' that was developed during the last decade of the twentieth century especially in Africa and Eastern Europe, as an aspect of globalization era. Kaldor argues that the goals of such wars have become about 'identity politics in contrast to geo-political or ideological goals of earlier wars'.
Identity politics means the claim to power on identity basis such as nationalism, religion, or language. These identities are usually linked to ideas of social or political change and tend to relate to 'an idealized nostalgic representation of the past'. The second characteristic of the new wars is the mode of warfare. By the mode of warfare Mary Kaldor means the instrument through which these kinds of wars are fought. In conventional war the goal is to seize territories by military forces which is not always true for the unconventional war.
In new war, particularly, in guerrilla warfare the aim is to control the population. For that reason, armed groups’ strategy is to mobilize 'extremist politics based on fear and hatred'. Controlling the population involves various tactics including explosions, killing and terrorism. The third contrast of new wars with the earlier wars is what Mary Kaldor calls 'the new globalized war economy'. This new economy of war is heavily dependent on external resources. In these wars fighting units finance themselves through sabotage operations, plunder, and hostage-taking.
This theoretical explanation leads us to talk about the Revolution in Military Affairs approach.
- Revolution in Military Affairs
It is an operational approach that stemmed from an idea by Andrew Marshall, a veteran of RAND, who led the Pentagon`s Office of Net Assessment during the 1990s. During the Cold War Marshall was able to notice that the military technical revolution ‘might bring conventional forces up to new levels of effectiveness'. The Gulf War of 1991 that followed the Iraqi invasion to Kuwait was a turning point in the military technical revolution. The Iraqi army was made up of poorly armed and trained conscripts faced well- equipped forces. It was obvious unbalanced war between vastly superior power with essential Western military practice against 'outclassed and outgunned enemy'. After the Gulf War Colonel Andrew Krepinevich who was working on the non-issue of military balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was asked to examine the combined impact of precision weapons and the new information and communication technologies.
In 1993, Marshall suggested two forms of changes for future warfare. The first was the long-range precision strike that would become 'the dominant operational approach'. The second is the emergence of 'information warfare'. In 1994, Krepinevich used the term 'revolution in military affairs' instead military technical revolution to stress the operational, organizational, and technological changes as well. The Revolution in Military Affairs was designed in circumstances to serve the American military power. Because of the political preference of the approach, it was thought that this sort of war what Americans would like to fight because it reduces the high rate of causalities in old conventional wars and to avoid the Vietnam`s style of war. The goal of war in the revolution in the military affairs was to reduce war fighting and conduct operations over long distances.
The Revolution in Military affairs Approach led many expertise and scholars to focus on the asymmetric warfare. Andrew Mack traces the asymmetric conflicts back to the colonial era when the Third World resistance was not expected to achieve success in terms of conventional military thinking. Conflicts that occurred after the Second World War in Indochina, Indonesia, Algeria, Tunisia, Cyprus, Aden, and Morocco showed the ability of nationalist forces to overcome the military and technological superiority of conventional military forces. These nationalist rebels gained their objectives through armed confrontations. The objectives, the strategies and the tactics of asymmetric wars differ radically from the old conventional wars. The weaker could adopt a series of measures to impose pain upon the stronger and gain time rather than win battles.
The concept of asymmetric war in the United States had been around since the 1970s and was a reflection on the Vietnam experience. During the 1990s, the concept was used to refer to conflicts between dissimilar forces. In 1999 the asymmetric approach was defined as to undermine the US strengths 'at all levels of warfare- strategic, operational, land tactical- and across the spectrum of military operations'. This very American specific definition was entered in the Joint Strategy Review which highlighted the expected methods of operations and 'non-traditional tactics'.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, against the United States 'took the notion of asymmetry to the extreme'. A small radical Islamist group was able to conduct terrorist attacks against American economic, political, and military icons. The American response to 9/11 attacks or what was known as the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq caused the outbreak of insurgencies which led to more asymmetric wars.
Unlike the American the British definition stresses the values. They refer to the asymmetric warfare as 'conflict between ''a state with modern, powerful, well-equipped forces'' and a 'state or group of people with total commitment and showing scant for life and property''.
- Literature Review
Despite the fundamental role of non-state actors’ tactics in altering the character of war and influencing battles outcome, little attention has been given to tactics in literature as a factor of changing the character of war. The 9/11 attacks in the United States inaugurated a new era in the asymmetric warfare. An armed non-state actor took the asymmetric war to its extreme using simultaneously old and new tactics. The attacks have had no precedent, it was a first in the history of armed non-state actors’ operations.
The armed non-state actors reemerged as a major actor in current violent conflicts in the world and has been altering the character of war. The literature on war still provides explanations regarding the change in the character and nature of war, most of it is centered on technology and urbanization.
Global technological developments and their military applications have an impact on the changing character of war. Major technological transformations constitute a source of change in conventional and unconventional warfare. In the conventional realm of warfare, the military theorist J.F.C Fuller points to three major revolutionary waves of civil-military technological change during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The first wave was during the first industrial revolution, the invention of the stream engine revolutionized the strategic mobility and logistics of armies. A new revolutionary wave of industrial technology started in 1880 and affected the military field. It was dominated by chemicals, electric power, and the internal combustion engine. The internal combustion engine made the mechanized air flight possible and brought the radio communication. The third revolutionized wave began when electro-optic, television and laser guidance for missiles revolutionized the air-land battle.
He highlights those high-tech technologies have 'both polarized and democratized the balance between the more advanced and less advanced sides in war'. The weapons with pinpoint accuracy and means of massive damage which was state monopoly have becoming available to non-state actors as well.
However, it is not new that the non-state actors conduct their tactics using technologies. Some tactics are old as war itself but has been conducted by modern technologies since the nineteenth century. For instance, the assassination of leaders is very old tactic which can be conducted via modern technologies. Armed non-state actors use motor vehicles, high explosives, and automatic weapons. Yet, the advanced sides, particularly, the most developed states still monopolize the high technologies which used in military.
Besides the nuclear weapons that are still states’ monopoly, there is no balance between advanced sides and less advanced sides in war at the level of air warfare, electronic and cyber capabilities. High military technology is central in counterterrorist operations.
Azar Gat argues that the technological development has changed the character of war since the revolutionary wave in the industry began in the 1880s. The revolution in industry particularly the chemical industry contributed to high explosives used in warfare. The development of electrical power was applied in military tasks such as radio communication.
The technological innovations of the 1900s were used for the first time in the military applications during the First World War and dominated the warfare completely by the Second World War. The author refers also to the electronic information revolution giving the example of the change made during the Iraq-Iran war when Iraq lacked the new technology to fight Iran and in Iraq war in 1991 against the international coalition. For mass destruction weapons, he thinks they are an assortment of different technologies: they are chemical, biological, and nuclear. What is new is the threat that non-state actors can make using mass destruction weapons.
Concerning the communications revolution, it refers to more powerful electronic systems and the spread of information. This technical development had a great impact on the irregular warfare. In addition to the three traditional theaters of war (land, water, and air), the globalized communication has created virtual theaters.
In 2002 during the war of Afghanistan 'CIA operatives in Langley, Virginia, flew Predator remotely piloted aircraft, armed with Hellfire missiles, against Taliban targets.' Clearly, the pilots can operate their aircraft over distance, and they have the same effectiveness as soldiers. David Kilcullen argues that access of the armed non-state actors to the remote warfare capabilities make the virtual theaters the norm and the drone warfare the 'new normal'.
While the electronic attacks have an impact on the character of war, the cyber-attacks are changing the nature of war. I use the term electronic to refer to the unmanned systems that use robotic systems. These systems come in many shapes and sizes. In Iraq, some twenty-two different robot systems have been operating on the ground.The well-known robot systems are improvised explosive devices (IEDs), PackBot robot, MARCBOT (multifunction agile remote-controlled robot), and the UAVs (the unmanned aerial vehicles).
Bruce Berkowitz wrote: 'The next war will be fought not just on battlefields but also in the world’s computers and communication systems'. Since the emergence of the internet, cyber-attacks have been evolving rapidly which led to the manifestation of what is known as Information Warfare. This new tactic turned the information system into a battlefield where the weapons used are information systems such as internet system, GPS, robots, and unmanned vehicles. In this war soldiers are not individuals using physical force rather people using codes.
The technical developments and the application of new technologies into significant military systems have been called the Revolution in Military Affairs. This change in the military communications which includes the use of internet, led to the emergence of the war of information. As Rod Thornton put it is hard to give a true definition of the Information War. The Information War 'Can take place in the civilian and military realms' and can be considered as 'actions taken in support of objectives that influence decision-makers by affecting the information and/or information systems of others while protecting your own information and/or information systems'. So, Information War can be offensive or defensive and can be launched by States or by non-state actors.
The states can launch cyber-attacks for spying or in wars using viruses and worms. The second level of hacking targets corporations and other entities to hack emails and websites. The last level uses many traditional toolkits such as 'stack and heap overflow, cross-site scripting, SQL injection, and file format bugs. ' These kinds of viruses and worms can be sold in black market.
Despite the offensive cyberattacks against states’ infrastructures, no cyberwar has been declared by a terrorist group or by any armed non-state actors. In fact, technology did not make the policy makers avoid putting boots on the grounds. There has been strong demand on military operations against armed non-state actors: French irregular intervention in Mali in 2013, the US special forces in Syria, Australian troops in east Timor, and many other irregular operations.
Other scholars have highlighted urbanization as critical variable in changing the character of war. Stephen Graham refers to a 'new military urbanism' which is characterized by the crossover between the military and the civilian application of advanced technology. He argues that the military has become present in urban life to fight war against terrorism, drugs, and crime. He points to the contemporary warfare that takes place in 'supermarkets, tower blocks, subway tunnels, and industrial districts rather than open fields, jungles or deserts.'
David Kilcullen indicates that in the past the remote, rural area, mountains, forests, and jungles were the typical environment for irregular conflict. Yet, with the global urbanization this pattern 'is changing prompting major shift in the character of conflict'. These complex environments afford irregular combatants protection and help them to avoid detection by security forces.
Kilcullen argues that in the future cities will afford cover to nonstate armed groups because of the heavier urbanization where they will be able to access advanced technologies. They can access factories and workshops to build and modify weapons. However, this is not always true because mountains and remote areas have been strongholds for many insurgents like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb take from the Northeast mountains of Algeria strongholds and al-Qaeda in Yemen hideouts are in Shabwah mountains.
John Mackinlay shows that the territory is chosen according to the ambitions of the movement. Factions that seek looting and sell natural resources prefer to be where these items are and look for exit routes. Other factions are more politically motivated, so they wish to be near the centers of power within the state.  He also argues that insurgents who operate in rural areas they failed to gain a foothold in the city or because their objectives are better served in the countryside. The author argues that each insurgency 'is distinguished by the ground on which it fights'. Nonetheless, armed non-state actors are forced in many states to operate in a particular environment where they cannot even serve their objectives.
- Historical overview
ISIS was formerly known as al Qaeda in the Land Between the Two Rivers whose belief system is rooted in bin Laden’s strategic plan to establish the caliphate. The plan was executed by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The man had criminal record and he was arrested in 1987 for sexual assault. After his remorse he decided to travel to Afghanistan in December 1989 for jihad.
Al-Zarqawi joined the insurgency in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. He founded jamaat al- Tawhid wa al-Jihad and led many operations against the American troops. Later in October 2004 he claimed allegiance to Osama bin Laden and his organization became a branch of al Qaeda. The al-Zarqawi new organization called Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidain, popularly known as al-Qeada in Iraq.
Al-Zarqawi issued his creed and methodology which targeted, particularly the Shias. The Zarqawi’s tactic was inflicting causalities among civilians, and he was known by the sobriquet 'Sheikh of the slaughters'. Al-Zarqawi was obsessed with committing spectacular terrorist acts. Many jihadists opposed this tactic and viewed it as a threat to their jihadist path. Their concern was not, of course, because the massacres against civilians, rather they learned from the Algerian Salafists war with the State during the 1990s when the same bloody spectacular tactics led to the destruction of the Salafist path.
In 2005 the controversy of the use of savagery and suicide operations reached a pic between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and h Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi. Al-Maqdisi was a Palestinian-Jordanian intellectual who first met al-Zarqawi in Peshawar during the Soviet-Afghani war and incarcerated together in a prison in Jordan after committing acts of violence and plot to target Israel.
In 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq created the Mujaheddin Shura Council, an organization to unify all Sunni insurgents in Iraq. In the same year, al-Zarqawi planned to declare an Islamic State, but he was killed by a U.S areal strike. Few months later Mujaheddin Shura Council issued statement declaring the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq.
In 2008 ISI’ s combat effectiveness diminished because of the role played by the Sunni Insurgent groups Awakening Councils. After a period of a relative security stability in Iraq, ISI bounced in strength in 2009. ISI launched a series of bloody sabotage attacks on government infrastructure.The organization also launched terror attacks and killed hundreds of civilians. Meanwhile, ISI suffered a significant decapitation of its leaders. On April 18, 2010, 80 percent of the organization’s forty-two leaders had been killed. Top leaders, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint U.S-Iraqi raid near Takrit. The decapitation of the leadership set the stage for the emergence of Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai who is known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was not long before ISI turned toward Syria.
When the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia and president Bin Ali fled the country, from Tunisia protests spread to the Arab countries. While Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in 2011 to change the regimes. Other anti-governments protests transformed to armed rebellion. Syria was among the Arab countries that have undergone civil wars. Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi dispatched Abu Mohammed al-Jolani to Syria in 2011. Al-Jolani was the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria which was approved by al-Baghdadi to emerge.
Like al-Zarqawi al-Jolani believed that the conflict was a struggle between 'evil and good'. Because he feared the support of al-Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri to al-Jolani to make independent branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, al-Baghdadi declared the merge of al-Nusra and ISI in one organization to be called Dawlet al-Islam fi al-Iraq wa Bilad al-Sham (the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant/Syria). However, al-Jolani denied the amalgamation and a rift between ISIS and al-Qaeda ensued, this led to an armed conflict between the two organizations.
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS sought to take advantage of the new situation in Syria. Al-Qaeda attempted to win the hearts and minds of the local populations. However, ISIS continued to use terrorism as its primary tactic in Iraq and in its new Syrian front. Terrorism as a tactic in warfare is old as the recorded history. In his Annals of Imperial Rome Tacitus discussed the ‘Reign of Terror’ (AD 31-7). Terrorism was used by the totalitarian regime and during the French Revolution (27 June 1793- 27 July 1794).
Terrorism as a political instrument was also used by cotemporary regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and many other authoritarian regimes. However, terrorism as warfare is quite different from its classical use. In asymmetric warfare terrorism is used as an instrument of the weaker against the stronger. The material elements applied by modern terrorism are explosive devices, unconventional weapons such as the commercial airliners in 9/11. Besides terrorism ISI developed maneuver tactics such as the creation of inghimasin unit that is penetrators. The organization also applied suppers who were able to attack the enemy through trenches.
In July 2012, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) began two intensive insurgency campaigns. The first called 'Breaking the Walls' and targeted mainly the prisons and security installation in order to free jihadist prisoners. The second was called the 'Soldiers Harvest' began in July 2013 and targeted security forces. In these two insurgency campaigns ISIS used a range of tactics of high explosive, bombing and assassination. The campaigns were 'well-resourced and executed with a high professionalism'.
The Soldiers Harvest campaign showed flexibility of ISI fighters. The campaign indicated that ISI moved from terrorism to more complex tactics and operations. Jessica Lewis who worked as an intelligence officer in Iraq and is now research director at the Institute for the Study of War Says: 'These were intelligent campaigns in design: well resourced, prepared, executed, and adapted. These are not things I might associate with terrorist organization.'
In Syria ISIS started attacking competing groups such as al-Nusra, the Syrian Free Army, and the Islamic Front (an alliance of Salafi militias). In the first half of 2014, 6000 people died in battles between ISIS and other opposition groups in Syria. ISIS battels were fought with excessive brutality: car bombs, decapitation, and suicide attacks.
ISIS as any insurgent group adopted guerrilla warfare in its battles in Iraq and Syria. Guerrilla warfare as a form is not new and it 'gained its name from the tactics of ambush and harassment'. These tactics could help the weaker side to survive. Ambushes and raids are focal tactics in the guerrilla warfare method. They are used to achieve a range of objectives such as killing, capturing, seizing weapons, vehicles, and supplies, or coercing the population and the enemy forces.
Ambushes usually maximize the element of surprise and can employ direct fire such as using rifles, handguns, and grenades and indirect fire like launching missiles and mortars. IS had regular infantry forces composed of foreigners and local Syrian and Iraqi fighters. In Syria and Iraq IS employed Alpine-style warfare, it is like mountain climbing technique where they move fast to hit a target and move to the next. Using Alpine style, they took over a third of Iraq and a half of Syria. They move in Toyota Task Force columns on roads where tanks cannot cover them. In fighting IS’s combatants maintain tight.
This technique of unit cohesion is described by Abu Baker Naji in Management of Slavery: The most Critical Stage through which the Islamic Nation will Pass. Naji indicates that this mode is used in small operations which are not suicidal. Suicide attacks can take different shapes: suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive and suicide bombers. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq coincided with the rise in sophistication of VBIED. ISIS use suicide VBIEDs when they attack well protected bases as Marine Corps Brigadier General Thomas Weidly noted 'The Islamic State group is increasingly using improvised explosive devices as front-line weaponry against coalition forces in Iraq and Syria.' The type of vehicles they capture then use them as VBIEDs include Humvee, M-113, M35, M-1152, catpillar 789, and others.
For long time, the standard for suicidal operation for al Qaeda and their successor IS has been to equip a selected person with improvised explosive device to kill themselves and others in a battle or terrorist attacks against civilians. ISIS equips men women and children with SBIED belts and vests to use them as human weapons. 
On the battlefield they are used to lie an ambush for enemy forces, to breach heavy fortification gates and barbed wire, and to attack military positions. In Ramadi in 2015 sent large front-end and bulldozers to push T-barriers letting thirty car bombs penetrate Iraqi defense positions. IS master the use of the tunnel bomb. They trick and surprise on the battlefield by conducting massive suicide attacks in tunnels to destroy defensive lines.
IEDs are also used for defense, they line roads with IEDs. In the battle of Tikrit in 2015 IS combatants were able to slow the Iraqi forces to advance by making long lines of explosives more than a kilometer long. The enemy’s airpower has been a concern for IS because it can strike large formations. For that reason and to save their ability on the ground dispersal of ground forces and the use of deception and camouflage on the battlefields was recommended in an article in IS’s al-Naba magazine under the title: 'How to Fight under the Eyes of the Crusader Planes? '
Sabotage and subversion are basic tactics employed by armed non-state actors. IS uses subversion and sabotage to undermine the military capabilities of their enemy. In Iraq IS captured large dams in al Falluja, Mosul, Samarra and Ramadi, they used water as a weapon. In 2014, they cut access off water to Shiite communities, poison it, and flooded areas. They flooded nine villages to stop the advance of the Iraqi military. They diverted the flows in order to oblige the Iraqi forces to fight in inundating land.The organization’s militants also set oil wells on fire in an attempt to obscure the view of the coalition planes. In Salah al-Din province ISIS destroyed mosques and cultural sites.
The military units of IS built a conventional infantry force called inghimasin which includes local and foreign fighters. This force is equivalent to the special forces of regular armies. It is a well-trained unit of commandos their mission is to breach the enemy’s defensive positions. They also assault the enemy’s forces in offensive to perform reconnaissance operations and cover retreats. IS built an armored corps based on T-series of tanks. IS used tanks to breach enemy’s defensive lines and to provide firepower for units riding Toyota.They also deployed armored hunter teams armed only with RPGs to attack Syrian and Iraqi tanks.
Terrorism can be employed as strategy or as a particular type of tactic. As Gilbert Ramsy puts it 'terrorism is to be understood first and foremost in terms of certain sorts of tactics'. Terrorism tactic is a violence that 'produce fear'. The terrorist organizations use indiscriminate violence against civilians because it is their 'defining characteristic'. ’Usually, terrorist organizations practice terrorism to convey messages. IS behead people, rape, enslave women and burn people alive. This brutality is written in their doctrine. Naji wrote: 'Jihad is harshness, coercion, and terrorism'. He claims that the right way in jihad is to 'shed blood as possible as they can. ' Among IS’s terrorist operations we can mention the immolation of the Jordan pilot hostage alive in 2015.
To have a glance at IS’s tactics we can analyze statistics presented by the organization in the following infographic:
Infographic detailing total attacks number by type in 2013 (Iraq).
The included attack types in the infographic are: Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (78), Suicide vests (160), Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (537), Motorcycle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (14), Improvised Explosive Devices (4465), Armed attack (336), Assassinations (1083), Bombing (607), Bombing and burning houses (1015), Checkpoints set up (30), Sniping (1047), Cities taken over and decapitation (8), Apostates repented (+100), Prisoners freed (+100), Rafidha expelled (+100), Apostates run over (+100). The above statistics demonstrate that IS heavily relies on IEDs. This tactic helps them to avoid confrontation when the enemy outnumbered them. The tactics are simple in their use, but they are sophisticated in their impact.
The jihadists in Iraq applied and developed tactics used in Afghanistan in their war against the Soviets. IS used the classic way to counter the airplanes firepower and other technologies. They dig trenches to use them in offensive attacks. However, the geography was a matter for al-Zarqawi and his fellow jihadists in Iraq.
Zarqawi pointed to that fact saying:
''The land of jihad in Iraq is different from Afghanistan and Chechnya. The brothers in those two countries are helped either by forests or high mountains where they can hide from the enemy and prevent him from reaching them. Iraq is flat without mountains, wadis, or forests. ''
Despite this geographical and tactical challenge IS showed military effectiveness in warfare activities in cities. The organization controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. IS took over large cities like al-Raqqa, its capital in Syria, Deir-Ez-Zor, the second largest city in Iraq al-Mousal, Tikrit and al-Ramadi and controlled about 8 million people.
There is no doubt that technology impact the character of war. Although IS ’s ideology has been regarded as backward and contradicts the today’s values, the organization masters the new technologies very well.
The number of the Islamic State’s weapons is difficult to estimate. Yet, the major weapons used by the IS’s militants were taken from the Iraqi military and police headquarters, the Syrian regime’s forces, the Free Syrian Army or from other actors. In addition to Toyota trucks and technical, they use tanks, artillery, and anti-tank weaponry. IS used chemical weapons such as the mustard gas in Syria. . IS improvised less sophisticated drones into deadly suicide unmanned aerial vehicles.
While the United States and the coalition in Iraq and Syria enjoyed technological wealth, it turned out to become a handicap in certain operations. IS showed a good used of technology which make them overcame the technical superiority of their enemy in certain operational circumstances. IS has adapted its military and civilian means to fight and win some battels. They made modification on military and civilian facilities to use them as weapons.
They convert all types of trucks into armored suicide bombs including water tanks, bulldozers, and civilian vehicles. This technology helps IS members to maneuver and inflict as much damage as they can in the enemy’s forces in quick time. IS’s use of technology on battlefields may change the relationship between humans and machines. In wars humans used to direct the machines while we can note an overlap in the case of IS. There is a fusion of IS’s combatants and machine, the suicide bombers are merged with operational engagements.
Tactically, technology has not changed drastically, classical maneuvers such as movements, envelopment, and penetration. These are very old tactical maneuvers. However, the IS’s tactics could impact the character of war. IS has deployed regular infantry units that fight two types of war on the same battlefield. They master the switching of conventional and unconventional warfare in one same battle. The way IS’s forces penetrate the enemy’s defense position cover the retreat forces showed unusual speed in the performance of operations. IS troops function as both criminal gang and regular army.
ISIS’s Hybridized Warfare
Conventional Maneuver Warfare
To attack enemy forces directly in order to destroy military threats and seize terrain
VBIED, IED, SVEST, Allirely, Armor, Engineering, Small arms
To attack enemy forces indirectly in order to degrade, distrup and to demonstrate; infiltrate, isolate and mobilize populations
VBIED, IED, SVEST, IDF, small arms, targeted assasinations, Psychological operations
To intimidate security forces and inspire fear and insecurity among population
VBIED, IED, SVEST, IDF, small arms, graphic terrorism
Table 1: Tactics used by ISIS between 2014 and 2015
As we can see in table 1, IS employed a various range of tactics. On the battlefield they relied primarily on explosives such as VBIED, IED, and SVEST. Thsese tactics are used in the three kinds of warfare. The Iraqi forces in Mosul faced a difficulty to address the situation. The unballance in numbers between the two sides leads the weaker to use psychological warfare.
- IS tactics and the Character of War
Throughout history military tactics had been existed and used in various forms. Some tactics had evolved from old ones. Other military tactics were totally new. The military tactics either conventional or unconventional have been employed by both armed state-actors and armed non-state actors. To examine whether the military tactics of armed non-state actors impacted the character of war, I have looked up for the common and most used military tactics since antiquity till today and I noticed the sequence of change as they introduced to the battlefield.
Ambush and Raid:
These are the most primitive battlefield tactics that rely on concealment positions and surprise. The tactic has been used by armed non-state actors as an effective tactics for long time. Interestingly, IS conducts ambushes and raids using bombing followed by firepower or suicide attacks followed by firepower. Despite that the tactic is very old, IS combined two or more tactics together to conduct its ambushes and raids.
Sabotage is an effective weapon in war, it inflicts damage to enemy key manufacture, supplies, and significant locations. The tactic is not new, and it was used by both states and ANSAs. During the first World War Germany employed German agents working in the United States to attack munition factories that would be shipped to help the Allies. By the Second World War the sabotage tactics had evolved and had become more sophisticated. It was used by many nations and organizations.
Today sabotage has been perceived as terrorism but what has been changed is that terrorist groups use sabotage to target people and machinery. The VBIED was the IS choice of IED weapon because their targets are in urban areas. IS attacked civilians, military, and security forces using different kind of explosives like large-vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (LVBIEDs) which included trucks, oil tankers and dump trucks.This type of improvised explosive devices were very devasting.
The first bombing in modern history was on March 13, 1881, when a young man called Ignaty Grinevitsky, a member of The People’s Will left-wing terrorist group, dropped a bomb at the Tsar’s feet killing them both. The first suicide bombings in the twentieth century was executed during the Chinese revolutionaries (1911-1948), against the Japanese forces. The Japanese military also utilized the suicide tactics during the Second World War. Because of the aerial superiority of the allied forces the Japanese pilots resorted to suicide attacks. There was a special unit conducted this kind of attacks. The special unit called 'Tokkotai' or the 'divine wind' popularly knowns as Kamikaze. The pilots crashed into naval targets.
The jihadist suicide attacks were first occurred in the 1980s. Two critical events contributed to the evolving of suicide attacks as jihadist tactic. The Israeli invasion to Lebanon in 1982 and the occupation of the country led to furious resistance. The largest suicide attack took place on 23 October 1983 against American base used 2000 pounds of explosives killing 241 military personnel. Less than a minute later another suicide bomber attacked French paratroopers killing 58 people.
The perpetrator was the first cell of Hizballah which went on using suicide attacks against the Israeli army and it Lebanese allies. Hizballah was the first Islamist group to carry out suicide attacks. Soon after the suicide attack tactic had been embraced by many jihadist groups notably Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war, Hamas and The Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories in the 1990s. Hizbullah (1985-2000) and Hamas in 2007 'either secured an outright military victory or attained an otherwise favourable outcome. '
Secular armed non-state actors also deployed the suicide bombing tactics in late 1980s and during the 1990s. For instance, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had recruited suicide bombers known as the Black Tigers. Yet, since the 1990s and with the rise of al-Qaeda suicide attacks tactic has become a strong weapon of global jihadism. The following curve shows the development of the suicide between 1981-2010:
(Data from the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism)
The data proves that suicide attacks had impacted the character of war as continue in rising and soared after the attacks of 9/11. The total suicide attacks before 9/11 (1982-2001) were only 220 while after 2001 (2002-2015) the total suicide attacks recorded were 4594. The percentage of car and belt bombs was 79,4% from 1982 to 2001 and 91% during the period 2002-2015. The invasion of Iraq increased the global number of suicides bombing from three attacks per year in the 1980s to 300 attacks per year from 2004 to 2009. Both al-Qaeda in Iraq and IS raised the use of suicide attacks and introduced changes on this tactic to be more effective in war. According to Hassan suicide attacks are key military tactics for al-Qaeda and IS because they are perfect, they offer operational, economic advantages and cause optimal casualties with minimum manpower.
As the data shows the suicide bombing tactics is old and has been used by different ideological trends. However, novelty with IS how they use it, the IS’s method on battlefield is employed differently than it was used in war. IS uses the suicide bombing tactics excessively and in strategic way. They can use the tactic to open ways on the battlefield such as attacking bridges or check points to pave the way for infantry and special military units to attack the enemy.
Improvised Explosive Devices
Although IEDs are described as new technology, it was actually used in the 1500s. The new version of the IED was used in the Second World War. Yet, the usage of IEDs were used with no strategy. It was used to suppress when the militants had no better tactic. In IS’s case the tactic is essential for the organization’s military operations. As we have seen in previous chapters this tactic has been used to penetrate the defense lines of the enemy. It is employed also in defensive operations to slow the advancement of the military units of the adversary.
Maneuver tactic targets critical vulnerable units, locations, infrastructure, and combatants. IS turned friction against its enemy and created a situation that the enemy force could not cope. IS succeeded to create uncertainty on the battlefield through maneuver. The urban environment in Syria and Iraq made IS’s maneuver effective.
The military tactics that are cited in this thesis have been used in war since long time ago. However, the evolution of the tactics has introducing change on the character of war. Military tactics are like military technologies, both evolve into more sophisticated forms. The technological advancement has been playing a significant role in changing the character of war. The military technologies have not been state’s monopolization rather armed non-state actors have been able to acquire even sophisticated military technologies.
The same idea can be applied on the military tactics by the armed non-state actors. Military tactics have been adjusted to many elements, primary battlefield, fighters’ numbers, and weaponry. IS like many jihadist groups has developed its warfare methods and tactics to suit the war circumstances. Hence, tactics had an impact of the character of war. The armed non-state actors’ military tactics change the character of war when they are excused in a certain way and in new form as IS did in Syria and Iraq.
The thesis tried to answer the question whether the military tactics of IS did change the character of war? In doing so I have examined some prominent tactics used by the organization. These military tactics are ambush, raid, sabotage, maneuver, IEDs, suicide attacks and terrorism.
The data used in this thesis demonstrated that IS used the military tactics excessive terrorism. More interesting IS has employed these tactics with high professionalism. The Islamic State succeeded to take control over large territories in Syria and Iraq, particularly in Sunni areas. Its success can be attributed to Sunni support and to the chaotic situation in the two countries. However, from a tactical perspective IS’s tactics besides other elements played an important role in its victory and survival for a significant period.
Based on the previous chapters the research’s variables- the armed non-state actors’ tactics- and -the character of war- are better explained in relation to other macro-meso and micro-level factors. These factors answer the research question and explain how the character of war has been changed. These levels are strategic, tactical, and operational.
On the strategic level
Strategically IS had the limited resources challenge. However, the organization was able to achieve some strategic goals such as disseminating its ideology using new media technologies. The organization succeeded to realize a political strategic gain by establishing a political body in parts of Syria and Iraq. IS also 'mastered strategic shifts between conventional, guerrilla and terrorism warfare, in ways and at levels that most ANSAs were unable to achieve. ' These strategic shifts were backed by tactical innovations which had an impact on the character of war. IS was unable to maintain its caliphate for many reasons. Obviously, the financial resources had been an obstacle for the organization to engage in large scale war. The financial and the population discontent with IS’s excessive terrorist attacks influenced its capacity to maintain perfect tactics to win.
On the operational level
ISIS was able to build coalitions in Iraq and in the Syrian Raqqa particularly in 2013. The siege of Menagh Air Base was performed by ISIS and the free Syrian army. The aligned groups launched the attack against the air base using different types of arms. They used small arms, rockets, and tanks. In addition to the suicides bombing that perceived the attack. Nevertheless, ISIS and IS confronted with the other Syrian armed opposition factions including the Syrian Free Army. As Omar Ashour puts it 'Liquidation and consolidation operations were almost always executed against its former allies and then justified by some theological/ideological arguments, narratives and propaganda. Hence, any coalition it had built or joined was short-lived'. The analyzed battles in this thesis show how ISIS/IS fight. The organization used a combination of conventional and unconventional tactics.
These tactics were employed in urban and suburban using maneuvers, deception, and concealment. On the operational level the organization adapted according to the social factors and the fighting environment. The adaptation had been related to time, space, and purpose. ISIS/IS conducted excessive attacks in the Sunni areas where it had supporters. In these areas the organization could maintain strong propaganda and recruitment using internet and new technologies. However, as it is explained in the third chapter the organization did not execute crucial operations in Bagdad like the attacks against al-Musoul because the military leadership was aware of the strong potential resistance of the Shi’i militias and community.
On the tactical level
According to Omar Ashour IS has employed fifteen categories of tactics in its major battels in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Sinai in Egypt. As it was discussed in the third chapter tactics had an impact on the character of war because IS innovated some tactics. The organization modified and upgraded existing tactics particularly those that are tied to urban terrorism. IS used IED and SBIED as effective weapons in defense and offence. These tactical innovations are basically associated with technological change. IS get profit from the technological advance particularly the internet, the drones, and guided rockets. The organization was able also to develop traditional knowhow techniques to manufacture weapons using available resources like vehicles and urban facilities.
Similarly, Urbanization played a significant role in the development of military tactics. IS adapted and shifted its tactics according to the urban milieu specially in Iraq. Guerilla warfare and hit and run enabled the organization to inflict defeat to its enemies in many battles. Overall, the tactics are associated to the macro-level factors the technology and the urbanization. The tactics in some extend changed the character of war because of the interwoven of many factors.
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- Ashour, p 16.
- Omar Ashour, How ISIS Fights: Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021), p 23.
- Ashour, p. 17.
- Ibid, p 16.
- Mary Kaldor, New & Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 3rd ed (USA: Sandford University Press, 2012), pp 7.
- Kaldor, p 8.
- Kaldor, p 9.
- Kaldor, p 10.
- Freedman, pp. 214-220.
- Freedman, p 215.
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- Bruce D. Berkowitz, The New Face of War: How War Will Be Fought in the 21st Century (New York: The Free Press, 2003), p 1.
- Thornton, pp 53-57.
- Ibid, p56.
- Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (New York: Verso,2010), pp. 1-153.
- Kilcullen, p 104.
- Mackinlay, pp.34-36.
- Ibid, p 35.
- Ahmed Hashim, The Caliphate at War: Operational Realities and Innovations of the Islamic State, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp.74-86.
- Hashim, pp.87-90.
- Hashimi, p76.
- Michael Ryan, “ISIS: The Terrorist Group that would be a State,” (Newport: U.S Naval war college Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups, 2015), p 12.
- Hashimi, pp 90-95.
- Hashim, pp.120-122.
- Ibid, p121.
- Ibid, p127
- Ambassador Robert Hunter, "Terrorism and War” in: Julian Lindley-French & Yves Boyer (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 201.
- Hashim, p.2012.
- Ahmed Hashim, “The Islamic State’s Way of War in Iraq and Syria: From its Origins to its Post Caliphate Era”, Terrorism Research Initiative, vol 13, no 1, (February 2019), p.27.
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- Nance, p 347.
- Ibid, pp 347-348.
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- Michael Weise & Hassan Hassan, Inside the Army of Terror (New York: Regan Arts, 2015), p 64.
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List of Acronyms
ANSAs: Armed non-state actors.
FLN: Front de Libération Nationale (The National Liberation Front).
GIA Groupe Islamique Armé (Armed Islamic Group)
IED: Improvised explosive devices.
IS: Islamic State (organisation).
ISI: Islamic State in Iraq
ISIS: Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (Levant) (Daesh in the Arabic acronym).
SVEST: Suicide vest.
LVBIEDs: Large-vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices
MANPADS Man-portable air-defense systems
MARCBOT: Multifunction agile remote-controlled robot.
RMA: Revolution in military affairs.
UAVs: The unmanned aerial vehicles.
S/VBIEDs: Suicide/Vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.
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