On 23 March, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) defeated Islamic State (IS) forces in their last stronghold in Baghouz and nearby pockets on the banks of the Euphrates River, ending a six-month campaign that the SDF began in Deir Al-Zor with the backing of the US-led international Coalition.
The announcement of the collapse of the so-called IS “caliphate” raised many questions. Had IS ended with the defeat in Baghouz? If not, what will become of the terrorist organisation? What will become of the foreign fighters who joined its ranks? What parts of the world is the organisation most likely to find a new base or bases in after Syria and Iraq? Perhaps most importantly, will the IS combat strategy change in the post-caliphate period?
Some answers to these questions have come in tandem with fast-paced developments related to the group’s organisational structure and the operational tactics it has applied in all its “provinces” since the fall of Baghouz.
In April and the first half of May this year, the terrorist organisation and its affiliates carried out 482 terrorist attacks in nine geographical areas stretching from West Africa to Southeast Asia. The attacks, most of which were carried out in the name of “revenge for the Syria Province,” killed and wounded over 2,800 people, including the victims of the church bombings in Sri Lanka (the figure is based on IS claims on its Telegram site from 1 April to 16 May), making this the second-largest wave of attacks carried out by IS since its foundation in 2014.
Clearly, it is unrealistic to speak of the “end” of this terrorist organisation. A more precise definition of what happened in Baghouz in March was that it put an end to the IS dream of a caliphate and not to the organisation itself. Moreover, the terrorist organisation has unveiled a new combat and operational strategy that it plans to carry out using its fighters in Syria and Iraq or its 13 affiliates across the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe.
This new strategy, called “felling cities temporarily as a new modus operandi for fighters”, departs in many respects from the “management of savagery” strategy that IS applied from 2014 to March 2019. IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi alluded to some features of this new strategy in his videotaped appearance on 29 April, which was posted via Telegram by the IS media wing Al-Furqan.
What does the timing of this new strategy tell us? What exactly is it? And how can the international community respond to it most effectively?
The IS announcement of its new strategy, which we could term the “post-management of savagery” strategy, comes a month after the fall of the last stronghold of its self-declared caliphate, a defeat that deeply shook the group’s cohesion, especially in Syria and Iraq where competition is fierce between IS and other extremist organisations.
Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and Al-Qaeda, in particular, are the foremost rivals, and they pose the biggest and most immediate threat to IS’ cohesion because of their potential ideological allure to the group’s fighters, especially now that IS has lost one of its chief sources of appeal to jihadists and a major selling point in its recruitment drives in Europe and elsewhere in the dream of the caliphate.
At the same time, tensions are on the rise among IS franchises abroad as internal dissension rises over whether to disassociate from the mother organisation in Syria in a reversal of the process that occurred in 2014 when many extremist groups split from Al-Qaeda and declared their allegiance to Al-Baghdadi.
In response to such challenges, the IS central command has pursued three main tactics. First, it has increased the rate of terrorist attacks carried out by its affiliates, diversified targets, and moved into new areas to carry out attacks in the name of “revenge for the Syria Province”. Second, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi made his first video appearance since the defeat in Baghouz and his second-ever video appearance since 2014.
In this recent video, the longest of his three appearances (the other being a voice recording released in August 2018), the IS leader was intent on demonstrating the continued cohesion of his organisation, raising the morale of its fighters in the centre and peripheries, and mobilising them into action.
Third, the organisation has released a document expounding a new and different strategy, thereby making it possible to identify its forthcoming agenda in terms of combat tactics, operational strategies, and the nature of its targets.
The chief objective of these tactics, coming in fast succession in the aftermath of the defeat at Baghouz, is to rein in IS fighters in Syria and Iraq and in affiliate organisations abroad, secure their allegiance, and forestall any schisms or defections.
The “felling of cities temporarily as a modus operandi for fighters”, as the new strategy is called, has four main parts: “Definition”, “Aims”, “Execution”, and “Withdrawal”.
The first part, discussed here, defines new combat tactics for the IS command and provinces, which are to seize control temporarily over certain pieces of territory and then withdraw after achieving certain objectives. Particular mention is made of the IS affiliates in Libya, West Africa and Iraq.
The document points out that such “strike and flee” operations are characteristic of “periods of non-empowerment”, which it also refers to as “periods of guerrilla warfare”. The terms alone are thus a formal admission of defeat and the collapse of the “dream of the caliphate state”, as they signal the organisation’s reversion to earlier tactics that are shared by other extremist organisations such as Al-Qaeda. The earlier strategies also did not set their sights on capturing and holding territory.
The “Definition” part of the document is divided into several subsections, the first of which details the “method”. This essentially involves three concepts.
The first is to capitalise on the element of surprise when staging attacks against military and security targets. The second is to opt for soft targets, including vulnerable areas, such as villages and towns remote from the capital and poorly defended, thereby ensuring fighters’ military superiority and greater manoeuvrability. The third is speed. The document states that no operation should last more than a few hours and that fighters should withdraw as quickly as possible afterwards. They should avoid direct engagements with the security forces so as to prevent losses in their own ranks.
This latter point is significant. It offers an indication of the magnitude of IS’s shrinking ranks, the central command’s dwindling control over its members, and the organisation’s shrinking recruitment capacities. The instruction to present loss of life among the ranks is a sharp departure from the terrorist organisation’s modus operandi during the past five years, which prioritised carrying out an attack and achieving its aims regardless of how many fighters were “martyred”.
As for the place, target, timing and precise method of executing an operation, the new guidelines leave such things to the discretion of operatives or field commanders. “Such considerations vary in accordance with the nature of the region, the state of the government, and the condition of its security forces in terms of preparedness, strength, deployment and ability to respond, as well as the nature of the fighters in terms of material and human resources and expertise in planning and execution,” the document says.
Here, too, there is a departure from earlier practices. In the “management of savagery” era, operations were highly centralised, to the degree that the plans and timing for operations carried out in the “provinces” were drawn up by the IS central command. The new decentralisation and delegation of responsibility to IS subsidiaries and their commanders is another sign of the central organisation’s structural weakness and of the breakdown in its channels of communication with the peripheries.
The “appear and vanish” subsection of the document acknowledges that IS and the majority of its affiliates no longer control portions of territory, making it more difficult to stage attacks as military-like operations and requiring a new approach. The “appear and vanish” tactic, according to the new strategy, is appropriate to the current phase of reversion to guerrilla warfare, since operatives no longer have a secure area they can use as a base for attacks or as a hideout.
A corollary to this is that terrorist operatives should now adjust their dress and appearance in order to blend into civilian populations so as to keep from being identified. In other words, operatives are now effectively required to relinquish their outward religious appearance.
With this, the terrorist organisation loses an important instrument for organisational and ideological cohesion: its codes of religious dress, as defined by its extremist dogma, that kept the extremists alienated from their environment and reinforced their organisational identity.
The third subsection of the document expounds the concepts of infiltration and camouflage during the execution of an operation and moving from place to place, which are preferably performed at night. In addition to designating the areas most conducive to this tactic (rural areas and remote villages), the strategy also identifies the types of operations and targets it should be used for, such as targeted assassinations and looting from “apostates” (Muslims whose religious beliefs are at odds with IS dogma).
To carry out such operations, the operatives may need to camouflage themselves in local rural garb or in military or police uniforms if the target is a military or security figure, the document says.
The strategy’s advocacy of theft and looting, reminiscent of the practices the Gamaa Islamiya and Al-Qaeda affiliates used to finance themselves in the 1990s, speaks of the shrinking ability of IS and its affiliates to fund their activities and support their members. Now that IS has lost its main sources of income, which in Syria and Iraq were oil, purloined antiquities and ransom payments, its members have been forced to rely on their own resources in order to purchase weapons and equipment and fund their operations.
This means that the security agencies in the region and elsewhere will need to revise their strategies for cutting off terrorist supply chains, which often begin with currency exchange bureaus, jewellers, and the like. A new security plan bearing such considerations in mind will need to be devised to replace the old one, which had focused on monitoring remittances and preventing the export of oil from IS-controlled areas.
To illustrate its new tactics, the document cites the second instalment of the group’s Salil Al-Sawarim (clashing of the swords) videos. Released by Al-Furqan in August 2012, the video features a detailed account of a hit-and-run operation called the “Jarrah Al-Shami Raid” against a village in Syria in which the “raiders” stormed the village, seized control of it for a few hours, plundered stores and homes, and then withdrew before the security forces could react. The document underscores the psychological aspects of this type of operation, which relies on the shock element of the blitz attack.
As to why IS would refer to an old video produced before its breakaway from Al-Qaeda, this suggests that the current command has nothing new to offer in terms of combat tactics or strategies and has therefore been forced to fall back on Al-Qaeda material. The use of the video confirms the reversion to guerrilla warfare tactics, but at the same time it could have precisely the effect IS wants to avoid.
This reminder of the “feats” of fighters who belonged to Al-Qaeda could fuel internal tensions surrounding loyalties to IS.
The document reiterates much of the above-mentioned points about infiltration and camouflage in the subsection on raids against security targets in vulnerable areas with weak security. Here, it likens the tactics to a police raid with its elements of speed and surprise, and it cites as examples the recent terrorist attacks in southern Libya. In April and May, IS’ franchise in Libya carried out five attacks against security and government buildings and facilities in the south of the country, killing soldiers and others and absconding with stolen weapons and equipment before the security agencies could send in reinforcements.
The last subsection of the “Definition” section looks at how long a raiding party should hold a village or other target before withdrawing. It lists five criteria: the number of fighters; their combat efficacy and training; the size of the area of the operation; the distance from military or security force bases; and the existence of a secure escape route.
According to the strategy, the “emir” or commander of the group carrying out the operation has the authority to determine its timeframe. It cites the IS siege of Mosul in northern Iraq as an example of why such decisions should be left to the commanders of an operation, even though the aim of the attack at that time was to seize control of the city rather than just to strike and retreat. It explains that the collapse of the Iraqi army and security forces during the attack in 2014 led the operation commander to alter his plans and expand the assault to another portion of the city.
Apart from this, however, the Mosul example conflicts with the current strategy, which opposes attempts to gain control over or hold and administer territory at present and favours guerrilla warfare and the strike and withdrawal tactic. The example, therefore, actually weakens the argument and serves as an indication of how hastily the strategy has been formulated.
The following observations may be made from the “Definition” section of the new IS strategy of “felling cities temporarily as a modus operandi for fighters”.
First, this section testifies to the instability that has profoundly rocked this terrorist organisation both at the centre in Syria and Iraq and in its affiliates elsewhere in the world. Most telling in this regard is the fact that the strategy has abandoned the goal of “empowerment”, or seizing control of territory in order to establish a government, which was the core motivation of the strategy up to the fall of Baghouz in March 2019.
Second, the focus of the “Definition” section promotes guerrilla warfare or what it describes as a strategy for “periods of non-empowerment”,
Third, most of the section reiterates concepts the terrorist organisation has put into practice since its defeat in Mosul in 2018. Over a year ago, IS boasted of a new tactic, called the “Sahwa Hunters”, which involved masquerading as Iraqi army or police officers and setting up ambushes on highways to capture government targets.
According to the literature on this tactic, the Sahwa Hunters’ use of official uniforms and vehicles made it very difficult for Iraqi law-enforcement forces to identify and pursue these terrorist agents. In like manner, this section of the document reiterates ideas IS propounded in 2018, which is to say in the period after its defeat in Mosul, and that generally were headed fighting the “Sahwas”, the “Desert”, and the Sawlat (raids), all terms alluding to counter-insurgency operations and forces. In short, the “new strategy” described in this section of the document is not really new at all.
Fourth, it is clear that the document was put together hastily. Its arguments lack coherence, the style and choice of vocabulary are rudimentary and improvised, and there is a noticeable absence of the religious terminology, citations and allusions that generally abound in IS rhetoric. A possible explanation for this is that the strategy was drafted by a person of a military or security background before being recruited into IS, as opposed to one of the Al-Qaeda ideologues that the group had relied on during its initial rise before it broke away from Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Fifth, the strategy, what we might call a “strategy for the post-caliphate period”, has much in common with that of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) organisation founded by Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. This was laid out in a 2009 document called, “A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Situation of the Islamic State of Iraq”. However, the new IS strategy lacks an important element in its ISI predecessor, namely a discussion of the causes of its defeat.
Can this new strategy promote the structural cohesion of IS or reverse its erosion and forestall fissures and schisms? Can it answer IS’ problem regarding the future of its fighters and other questions it has been scrambling to cope with since the fall of its caliphate? Can these and other questions be answered through an analysis of the remaining parts of the strategy?
The most important of these questions is, of course, what actions governments in this region and the international community can take in order to effectively combat IS in its new edition or in its “post-management of savagery” phase.
The writer is an expert on terrorism affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Islamic State's new Strategy