Before unveiling its new strategy called “Felling cities temporarily as a modus operandi for fighters”, the central organisation of the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria put it to a trial run, in part to test the impact of the second part of the strategy, called “Aims”, on the third, called “Execution”.
During the past three months in Iraq, IS has carried out numerous attacks that it has categorised under the heading of “guerrilla warfare”, which it describes as appropriate to times of “non-empowerment” and which engages the hit-and-run or attack and retreat approach. The selected targets have varied from military to soft targets. Among the latter was a bus carrying Iranian tourists in the Salahuddin governorate in February. The bus was struck by a bomb, killing one of the passengers and wounding at least seven others.
A senior Iraqi police official, Hussein Al-Mansouri, described IS’ new approach as “the most dangerous” used by the terrorist organisation at present. He said that he was “very careful” when moving around outside his own compound.
“Security premises belonging to the Iraqi armed forces as well as the Popular Mobilisation Forces [PMF] have recently been the targets of attacks by the organisation’s operatives, especially in the Diyala and Salaheddin governorates. Most of the attacks carried out by the terrorist Daesh [IS] organisation are blitz attacks and ambushes using boobytrapped vehicles and explosive devices, as well as assassinations using silenced weapons. Most of the attacks have targeted army officers and PMF commanders, as well as tribal leaders and elders and local civil-society leaders in Iraq,” he said.
IS’ recently released strategy describes this tactic in its second part called “Aims”, and this is discussed in the remainder of this article.
This second section of what has already been described as IS’ post-caliphate strategy, the strategy that succeeded the “management of savagery” strategy that the organisation followed throughout its rise and up to its defeat, identifies six aims for its operations.
These are to spite and plunder the enemy, to stage prison breaks for IS prisoners, to provoke distraction, to encumber the security forces, to suppress hypocrites and champion the faithful, and to lay the groundwork for empowerment. As the strategy acknowledges that any confrontation with the enemy will be a protracted one, this part also ranks aims in terms of immediate, midterm and long-range needs, some of which might be met through the repetition of certain types of attack and others by distributing attacks across different geographical regions.
The repeated emphasis on the need for such a “guerrilla war” mode of operations and the detailed descriptions of their means is intended to reinforce the loyalty of IS members in both the mother organisation and its affiliates. At the same time, the strategy is intended to address non-IS members and specifically the “lone wolves” who are influenced by the terrorist organisation’s ideas through the Internet or other indirect means.
Repetition is a means to drive messages home and ensure that they are heard by members and followers across various media platforms, which is why ideas that are mentioned in the first part of the strategy are reiterated in others, including the six subsections of the “Aims” section.
SPITE AND PLUNDER
This phrase clearly implies a psychological end rather than a strategic or tactical purpose.
It is noteworthy that it is the first of the six subsections, as if the organisation’s most immediate aim was to drive its members and affiliates to exact revenge in a persistent and systematic way. The section suggests many methods or tactics to vent spite, including through abduction, murder, plunder, destroying property, etc.
The main purpose is material: plunder and ransom are means to finance the terrorists’ needs for arms and ammunition, fuel and equipment, food and medicine, and cash. A second purpose is to harass and sap the morale of others, be they government institutions or ordinary civilians.
The “spite” element has characterised most of the attacks carried out by IS and its affiliates recently.
An important point of this section is to raise morale both among imprisoned IS terrorists and among the organisation’s rank and file.
This is a new component in IS’ set of aims. No mention of it was made in the previous “management of savagery” strategy, and it should alert governments in the region to the need to tighten prison security in the facilities where terrorists are held and to strengthen security arrangements during prisoner transfers from one facility to another or from jail to courtroom.
For example, care should be taken to keep prisoners apart, to transport them at different times, and to distribute them across several high-security facilities. The importance of extra precautions here cannot be understated, as IS would reap a considerably higher morale-raising effect from a successful prison break than from a terrorist attack.
This consideration should give security officials the incentive to reformulate prison security strategies in facilities where IS operatives are held.
Like the “spite and plunder” aim, “provoking distraction” is also informed by a dimension of psychological warfare, although the tactics and purposes are different.
This subsection discusses a tactic that involves laying ambushes for security forces in areas remote from the places they customarily defend, thereby forcing them to dispatch forces to defend that area. Then, terrorist operatives stage an attack against the force that has been lured to the area.
The tactic epitomises the mode of guerrilla warfare espoused in this phase. It is a means to distract the security agencies by means of luring them to facilitate the execution of terrorist attacks. The objective is to wreak material and psychological attrition on the security forces.
Although the recently released “felling cities temporarily” strategy expounds on this tactic, IS has utilised it ever since it emerged in 2014. As a result, the security agencies in the region have learned how to handle this mode of terrorist operations. Moreover, they have created highly professional special counter-terrorist forces that have received training in unconventional modes of warfare and that possess the combat skills and capacities to confront this type of threat.
That said, the fact that IS underscored this tactic in its strategy is a signal to the security forces to further increase the numbers of special counter-terrorist forces as a precaution against a possible increase in IS’ use of this tactic in the coming phase.
This part takes the previous tactic up a few notches.
Terrorist units stage numerous attacks in different places, compelling the security agencies to deploy large numbers of forces across broad areas in urban and rural areas. The purpose is to keep large numbers of the security forces permanently mobilised in city streets or village outposts, thereby sapping the energies of the troops and compelling the security agencies to overstretch their resources, thereby weakening their ability to confront terrorist forces in the areas where they are located.
It appears that whoever formulated this portion of the strategy missed out on some of the new tactics employed by the security agencies. Or it could be that he simply regurgitated old material. The security agencies in this region and elsewhere have long since developed concepts, strategies and combat techniques that avert over-deployment and overstretch.
These modern alternatives effectively undermine the efficacy of this IS tactic.
This is the new strategy’s first use of religious terminology for one of the aims to be achieved by IS members.
The notion of “suppressing hypocrites and championing the faithful” is based on a theological exegesis by the mediaeval jurist Ibn Taimiya, who in an epistle to the Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed wrote that what the just imams had intended as the targets of jihad were “the enemies of God who are renegades against the faith, and these are of two classes: tyrants and profligates, and trespassers and aggressors.”
All of these “deviate from the laws of the faith in pursuit of the ascendancy of hatred and corruption and in the renouncement of the path of rightful guidance. Such are the Tartars and suchlike among all who deviate from the laws of Islam,” he wrote. IS has taken the substance of this mediaeval theological judgment and made it the fifth aim of its new strategy in the document’s first incidence of the use of theocratic and jurisprudential formulas to ground it religiously and justify its content.
The subsection focuses especially on civilians, with the aim of intimidating them and deterring them from cooperating with the security forces in the fight against IS. The aim is not new. IS elements have applied it extensively over the past five years, and it is one of the methods borrowed from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. It was the second aim in IS’s old strategy before breaking away from Al-Qaeda in 2014.
GROUNDWORK FOR EMPOWERMENT
The last subsection is based on IS’ ultimate goal of empowerment and strategies for the pre-empowerment phase, discussed in the first part of the strategy called “Definition” in last week’s article.
Here, the document speaks of temporary empowerment, using the tactic of making the security forces overstretch themselves and forcing them to prioritise some areas over others for more intensive security coverage. This theoretically makes the less prioritised and more marginal areas more exposed and more vulnerable to an IS operation to secure temporary control over an area. Eventually, when circumstances are more conducive that temporary control can be developed into permanent control and empowerment.
As for the means, it is to stage multiple attacks against diverse targets that are geographically remote from each other, diffusing the attention of the security forces.
Just as is the case with other components of this section, IS’ thinking here is based on an old and conventional assessment of the capacities and strategies of the security agencies in this region and elsewhere. These agencies are now equipped with greater experience acquired during engagements against IS over recent years and armed with more sophisticated strategies and combat tactics, all of which effectively put paid to the IS diversion tactics.
Three main observations might be made on the “Aims” section of IS’ “post-caliphate” strategy.
The first is that they incorporate many older elements taken from the previous “management of savagery” strategy or from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria (Abu Mosaab Al-Zarqawi’s organisation). The borrowing testifies to the IS leaders’ lack of new ideas for combat plans and tactics.
At the same time, it is further evidence of how hastily IS leaders have put the strategy together in an attempt to prevent rifts and defections following the defeat at Baghour and the collapse of their “caliphate” and to prove to IS’s affiliates in other regions that the mother organisation in Iraq and Syria is still cohesive and in control.
The second is that one aim is dedicated to targeting civilians, and this portends an impending rise in terrorist attacks against civilian targets.
The third is the frequent use of terms with psychological and emotional connotations associated with revenge, which represents an attempt to induce as many members and sympathisers as possible to undertake random terrorist attacks on their own initiative. It is simultaneously intended to solidify ranks and to raise morale, using the idea of retaliation for the defeat of the seat of the “caliphate”.
The idea has been put into effect in many recent attacks, most notably in the attacks in Sri Lanka that were claimed to have been carried out “in revenge for the Syria Province”.
The question now is how the six aims in this section affect the mechanisms for the implementation of attacks and the choice of targets and target areas. This question will be explored in the next article in the series.
*The writer is an expert on terrorism at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Islamic State’s new strategy - II