Islamic State’s New Strategy: Part III

Ahmed Kamel Al-Beheiri

At the end of May this year, the Islamic State (IS) group announced the end of the stage of fighting it called “vengeance for the Syria Province”, set in motion following its defeat in Baghouz in March and carried out by its affiliates around the world as a way of proving that the terrorist organisation was still alive and kicking despite the collapse of its so-called “caliphate” in Syria.

At the end of Ramadan in early June, IS announced the beginning of a new phase in its operations which it called “attrition”. This marked the launch of its recently announced strategy, “the temporary felling of cities as a modus operandi for fighters” and the third part of that strategy under the heading of “execution”.

In this part, the strategy outlines the steps involved in carrying out a terrorist operation, laying them out in eight subsections entitled “intelligence”, “roadblocks”, “controlling entrances and exits”, “controlling or neutralising command and control centres”, “striking pre-identified targets”, “striking incidental targets”, “seizing military equipment” and “laying traps”.

It stresses that these subsections are “advisory” and that all branches of the organisation’s affiliates are free to apply and adapt them as deemed appropriate to the target terrain, the capacities of the security forces in the country in which they operate, and the capacities of the units carrying out the operations concerned. It simultaneously reiterates the notion that these types of actions are consistent with the guerrilla warfare or attack-and-retreat strategy that IS deems appropriate to its current “pre-empowerment” phase.

Before proceeding to the eight subsections, it should be noted that they contain nothing new in terms of the operations of IS in the Levant or elsewhere. In fact, they are the types of actions followed by many extremist groups in recent years if not long before, though there are two new elements to bear in mind.

The first is that the strategy’s first subsection on “execution” emphasises the subject of “intelligence-gathering”, underscoring that a large portion of the fight against terrorism unfolds at the intelligence level both with respect to the countries fighting terrorism and the terrorist organisations themselves.

The second is the emphasis on psychological factors, which forms a common thread that runs through the strategy as a whole and indicates that a major purpose of the terrorist attacks undertaken by the extremist groups and militias is to demoralise the security forces in the target countries and spread mistrust of their governments and agencies.

Perhaps it is for this reason that this part begins with a subsection on “intelligence”.

INTELLIGENCE: After emphasising the importance of the intelligence-gathering phase in advance of any operation, the strategy delineates the intelligence sources to be tapped by a terrorist group’s intelligence unit.

Beneath the heading “Observation Detachments”, it states that intelligence should be gathered from operatives who possess knowledge of the terrain, sympathisers and collaborators among the local population, or operatives or others who have been previously arrested by the security agencies. A second stage involves processing the intelligence gathered to ascertain its accuracy and usefulness in a given operation from launch to retreat.

As the security agencies in the Arab region and elsewhere know, IS and other terrorist groups have always used such intelligence-gathering methods. However, the emphasis that the new strategy places on them should alert all those involved in counter-terrorist efforts to the need to do everything possible to prevent terrorist groups from accessing intelligence, especially any that could be obtained from local inhabitants familiar with the terrain.

Close cooperation between the security agencies and the local population is thus of the essence in countries where IS-affiliated agents are active.

ROADBLOCKS: This part of the strategy introduces roadblocks as a means to obstruct the security forces from reaching the location of a planned terrorist attack.

Planting explosive devices along the roads that the security forces are likely to take is perhaps the most commonly used method, and it is here that we find the answer to the question of why it can take backup forces a considerable time to reach the site of an attack.

As reinforcements are commonly sent in by road, the security forces have to check the roads they intend to take first so that they do not fall prey to any explosive traps laid by terrorist operatives and thus augment the number of victims.

ENTRANCES AND EXITS: This part of the strategy concerns entrances and exits to a target area for a terrorist attack, controlling them being seen as another measure to obstruct the arrival of government reinforcements.

However, another purpose is to secure lines of retreat for the terrorist operatives after they have carried out an attack. Again, the tactic is an old one, and it has lost much of its efficacy in the face of air capacities like assault helicopters or drones capable of tracking operatives for long distances from the scene of an attack.

COMMAND AND CONTROL CENTRES: The disabling of command and control centres was one of the more sophisticated combat actions used by IS in its operations in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor in Syria in 2014-2015, giving the organisation temporary superiority in those areas.

The strategy involves a massive preliminary assault against an army’s command and control centre or a series of coordinated attacks against locations where support forces are stationed in tandem with the central attack. In both cases, it is important to sever lines of communication between the centre and possible backup.

Although the strategy was initially successful in both Iraq and Syria, it failed in other areas where IS affiliates operate because the countries in question had retooled their decision-making processes and evolved new ways to support forces that had come under attack. In addition, the security agencies have in many cases greatly strengthened the protection of their command and control centres and other facilities, making them too difficult for IS to target, especially given the organisation’s current state of disarray following the collapse of its self-declared caliphate.

A more important point here is that this type of action is at odds with the overall thrust of the new IS strategy, which emphases guerrilla warfare and hit-and-run tactics. It is more consistent with the “empowerment” strategy that IS followed in the years preceding the fall of its self-declared state. However, perhaps because the content of the new strategy is flagged as merely “advisory”, the purpose is to inspire action if the conditions are conducive and to lift morale.

PRE-IDENTIFIED TARGETS: The new strategy makes a point of differentiating between pre-identified targets and targets that might arise in the course of an operation, which is a major reason why IS delegates the responsibility for identifying targets to the commander of a terrorist operation.

This part also discusses the question of terrorist operatives camouflaging themselves in the military uniforms of the target country, raising the possibility of their even being fired upon by other terrorists because of their uniforms.

To avert such a scenario, the strategy suggests dividing the operatives into units, each accompanied by a guide (whether a fellow fighter or a local collaborator familiar with the terrain), and dividing the target area into sectors, each allocated to one of the units.

INCIDENTAL TARGETS: This section complements the fifth in that it addresses the types of targets that might occur in the course of an operation for reasons such as missing or inaccurate intelligence or information that suddenly surfaces.

Because of such exigencies, the new strategy stresses the need for a reserve or backup unit that can accompany the main attack during an operation and only come into action when a new and unforeseen target surfaces.

This tactic is a relatively new addition to the overall IS strategy, but it is one that has at least one disadvantage in that it requires a relatively large number of operatives. This would appear to be impractical in view of the organisation’s numerical weakness after Baghouz and the success that counter-terrorist efforts elsewhere have had in driving back IS affiliates and sapping their ranks.

Nevertheless, it is still a component of the IS strategy that the security forces should take seriously, especially when assessing the number of forces needed to contend with a particular terrorist assault. The actual number of terrorist operatives could be more than the number reported by the forces that intercept the initial thrust of an attack.

MILITARY EQUIPMENT: Since international counter-terrorist efforts to tighten border security, prevent illicit arms-trafficking, enhance intelligence exchange and other such measures have made it increasingly difficult for IS to obtain arms, the organisation has had to resort to other methods.

One is to stage terrorist attacks against the armed forces and arms depots of the country concerned in order to seize weapons and other equipment. It is indicative of the magnitude of the organisation’s predicament that the new strategy stresses the need for terrorist operatives to plunder as many weapons as possible during the course of any operation.

SETTING TRAPS: The final part of the “execution” chapter of the strategy reiterates the substance of the roadblock section that calls for booby-trapping the roads that the security forces are most likely to take when coming to the aid of a force under attack or pursuing the attackers afterwards.

The third part of the new IS strategy thus offers terrorist operatives little that is new. The tactics recommended have been used by terrorist organisations in the past, and they are consistent with the type of guerrilla warfare tactics that IS mostly recommends.

However, the strategy makes an important point in its eighth sub-section in its advice to operatives to establish contacts with local populations. Clearly, this should inspire potential target countries to redouble their efforts to promote trust and cooperation between local populations and national security agencies, thereby undermining one of the terrorist and extremist groups’ strongest assets: the ability to shield themselves among civilian populations.

By developing closer relations with local communities and disrupting existing relations between portions of these communities and extremists, governments will also be drying up one of the terrorist organisations’ chief sources of recruitment.

While most countries are already dealing with this point, the fact that IS mentions it twice in close succession in its new strategy should alert them to its urgency. After all, enhancing cooperation and trust between local communities and the security forces is the first and most important component in the battle to defeat the terrorist and extremist groups that are active in this region.