Is the multi nom d'guerre'd ISIS, ISIL, IS, Caliphate crafting a revolution in warfare?
Two years after the fall of Iraq’s second largest city to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), there is still an alarming dissensus concerning their nature, strategy, and goals. Is it a nihilistic terrorist group, an apocalyptic death cult, an insurgency, a terrorist army, a proto-state, or some hybrid of these? Does the group really adopt Islamic principles, or is it a Sunni neo-Ba’athist restoration movement with genocidal proclivities? The confusion is not limited to academics, whose writings about the Islamic State are insightful yet rarely stray from singular research areas like ideology, economics, terrorism, religion, or regional studies. Even the US Special Forces commander tasked with countering the group in late 2014 admitted in a candid moment that he and his command did not understand “this movement.”
To examine the Islamic State’s adaptation of its own revolutionary war doctrine, a review of its original prescriptions is in order. The reasonable definition of People’s War: a form of irregular war that utilizes “peasant armies that are drawn upon for an integrated and protracted politico-military phase strategy of eventual state takeover. A shadow or proto-state is created in parallel to the pre-existing one being targeted for elimination.”
Mao, the first proponent and theorist of this type of warfare, believed that victory was only possible once the population is mobilized to support the guerillas, whose goal is to attack the enemy when advantaged and to shy away from conflict when not. The part time fighters and their supporters are to be indoctrinated in the political philosophy of the movement to motivate them to fight and persevere through a protracted struggle. The campaign progresses through three phases of blended guerilla activities and increasing conventional strength: the building/preservation phase, the expansion phase, and the decisive phase. These periods are fluid and conditions vary from location to location, usually dependent on enemy strength and efforts. The keys to success are developing experienced and disciplined soldiers that bond well with a supportive population, the utilization of a strong influence campaign with propaganda units at the lowest levels, and an integrated set of political goals that are synchronized with military efforts at all levels.
Revolutionary war is more than military action, since those who choose to utilize it blend “military, political, economic, social, and psychological” efforts to achieve their goals. The military objectives are two fold; a slow defeat of the government’s army as well as the use of terror to cripple the existing social organization, which before the conflict served to “restrict or minimize violence among the people.”
Once the violence reaches a certain level, these barriers collapse. Crenshaw noted in her study of revolutionary warfare in Algeria that terrorism almost always acts as a “principal instrument” in this form of political violence. This instrument is “not aimed, as war is, at the annihilation of the enemy’s coercive forces, but seeks to wound him politically and psychologically.” Finally, the movement taxes the population under its influence in order to fund operations and derive legitimacy for the shadow state.
The initial political agenda of the Islamic State movement was ambitious, with a goal of growing from just a few foreign fighters and local hosts to domination of the Iraqi resistance to the occupation. Zarqawi’s group had valuable experience in clandestine operations but had to outpace the reorganizing Ba’athists, rival Islamists, and a fledgling Iraqi government while battling a very capable foreign military coalition. Furthermore, unlike other groups who had various degrees of interest in power sharing with the national government, Zarqawi’s group maintained the revolutionary goal of replacing it with a Salafi influenced state run according to the “prophetic method.”
To accomplish this, the Islamic State’s political efforts were five-fold: it had to frustrate and weaken the growing power of the government and its security forces, recruit from rival resistance groups, foster an exaggerated perception of Sunni alienation, provoke an overreaction from Shia militias, and convince the United States to withdraw from Iraq.
Zarqawi’s small group began its military campaign with a strong notion of neutralizing the tremendous technological capabilities of the United States as observed first hand in Afghanistan in late 2001. Ceding the day to day struggle (sniping and road side bombs) to local insurgent groups, Zarqawi’s group focused on high visibility attacks against symbolic targets using ‘precision guided’ suicide bombers and special operations that produced media attention and popularity among resistance sympathizers. The end result of these actions would discredit the state’s authority and legitimacy, and divide elements of the population against each other.
This type of military strategy is summarized in the book Management of Strategy, written by al Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji, and propagates a controversial and violent method for destroying both the government and society before starting anew. Interestingly, the Islamic State media disputes the notion that this book was influential, writing
It is important to note that contrary to Western media claims, this book never defined the methodology of the mujahidin. The top Islamic State leadership – including Shaykh Abu Musab al Zarqawi – did not recommend al Suri’s book. As for the concise but beneficial 100 page book titled Management of Savagery by an unknown author who only went by the penname Abu Bakr Naji, then when Shaykh al Zarqawi read this book he commented, “it is as if the author knows what I’m planning.” Note: Although Naji’s book describes very precisely the overall strategy of the mujahidin, Naji fell into some errors in his discussions on issues related to the takfir of parties who forcefully resist the Shariah and its laws.
The expertise of jihadists from previous conflicts mixed with one of professional soldiers and intelligence professionals created a potent special operations capability in one other area: assassinations. According to Lia, one al Suri Afghan lecture was titled: “terrorism is a religious duty, and assassination is a Prophetic tradition.” The Islamic State created assassination brigades as early as 2004, in order to target Shia militias whose anti-Sunni activities often drove members to the movement. Special brigades began to proliferate, targeting Iraqi Islamic Party (Muslim Brotherhood) members, communists, Iraqi politicians, judges, municipal employees, senior defense and police officials, poll workers, female spies, and later Sunni Awakening council leaders.
Eliminating enemies creates opportunities for access to the population, and the Islamic State was a frequent experimenter and innovator in the creation and structure of its influence campaign. While Abdullah Azzam’s use of propaganda to mobilize the Sunni ummah to come and fight in Afghanistan during the Soviet era was an inspiration, the Islamic State built on this precedent to integrate all of the lines of effort together: political, social, military, and economic. Ingram divided the strategic logic of the Islamic State’s media strategy into two distinct categories: one pragmatic and the other perceptual. Islamic State’s pragmatic appeals focused on stability, security, and economic means; its perceptual appeals highlight sectarian and ethnic divides while championing the group as the only viable protector of Sunni Muslims from a variety of threats.
An objective review of the evolution of the Islamic State makes it clear that its leaders have honed and largely perfected the synchronization and execution of Mao’s critical elements of revolutionary warfare.
Mao’s army, once the Japanese invaders were gone, waged a smart campaign against a weak and corrupt regime before achieving success. The Vietnamese communists, facing a much tougher foe, eventually won unification through the use of a largely conventional invasion.
In this case study, the Islamic State established a new sovereignty in large parts of two adjoining states within a 12-month period against a state supported by a regional power and a global hegemon.