New document sheds light on the changing nature of ISIL's combat tactics

Could ISIL sweep back into large parts of the areas it has lost since 2014? Some American officials in Washington believe they could, writes Hassan Hassan

An image made available on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin on June 11, 2014 shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) posing with the trademark Jihadists flag after they allegedly seized an Iraqi army checkpoint in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin. Jihadists are pushing toward Baghdad on June 12, 2014 after capturing a town just hours to the north, as the US mulled air strikes in a bid to bolster Iraq's collapsing security forces. AFP PHOTO / HO / WELAYAT SALAHUDDIN
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Last week, ISIL relayed how its combat tactics have evolved since its emergence in Syria in 2013. The details were provided as part of a drive to minimise what it described as high casualties caused by American air strikes. The detailed report also provided insights into the group's tactics to circumvent the mighty American firepower.

Al Naba, ISIL's weekly newsletter, describes three phases of fighting in Syria over the years. In the first phase of guerrilla warfare, the group could strike against its enemies as a mobile fighting force with no clear locations. This method, the newsletter said, enabled ISIL to inflict damage on its enemies who could not engage it in specific front lines.

Fighting then shifted when the group controlled large parts of Syria. Having specific territories and front lines, the writers continued, began to exhaust and deplete ISIL's manpower due to its opponents' firepower capabilities. Despite casualties, the group continued to fight this way until the battle of Kobani in 2014.

With the battle of Kobani, Al Naba admitted, the group made mistakes that cost it dearly. The group had continued to fight in the same open way it did against the Syrian regime and the rebels, maintaining a flow of artillery and manpower into the battlefield, "with no regard to the precise American air force". The US-led campaign, the article added, "caused losses among the mujaheddin, primarily due to the major change in the rules of war after the entry of [American] drones into the battle, in Syria, Iraq and other wilayat [provinces]".

After heavy losses, ISIL began to consider ways to evade the US air force while it continued to face ground assaults on multiple fronts. The article mentioned that some factions affiliated to the group were better at “neutralising” the international coalition's strikes than less-trained others. Towards the end of the clashes in Kobani, ISIL began to disguise its weaponry, but its vehicles were still targeted with the increase in drones and thermal imaging over the course of the war.


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“At the time, many of the mujaheddin used to sleep on the roof, not knowing that thermal imaging captured them and their weapons,” the article said. “This caused losses during that time, and the main reason was the lack of knowledge about how [western] jets operated and what their capabilities were.”

The writers then conclude that a priority for ISIL today is to find ways to prevent its enemies from locating its fighters. The article claims that in some cases, “military experts” with the group were able to turn the international coalition’s firepower against friendly forces with whom it was co-operating on the ground.

It also mentions that the People’s Protection Units made a similar mistake to the one made by ISIL in the early stages, by throwing more and more forces into a battlefield to maintain control over a certain area. This tactic, which ISIL says enabled it to inflict damage on the YPG in the beginning, was later changed with the presence of American special forces alongside the Kurdish forces. The US-backed groups became more focused on calling in American air strikes than on traditional combat.

The writers’ main takeaway is that it would be a mistake for ISIL to engage US-backed forces as a conventional fighting force. Instead, they said, a key function of the fire exchange is to expose the ISIL militants’ whereabouts and capabilities. ISIL then advises its fighters to avoid exposing their locations regardless of the enemy provocation and to not engage in sustained clashes with its enemies as they used to.

ISIl then says a similar tactic has been used by the group by flying drones low above bases that belong to the Syrian regime. Low-flying drones would enable the group to capture images. The noise would also cause regime soldiers to expose themselves and their arms as they shoot at the low-flying drone. “In modern wars, with precision weapons, everyone tries to avoid direct engagement with his enemy to minimise losses,” the article says.

Attempts to avoid exposure have recently led the group to follow a new tactic in urban centres – specifically during the Raqqa battle. Forces defending the city would be divided into small districts in which small numbers of fighters operate. The tactic, according to the article, reduces the need for force movement from one area to another for re-supply or combat mobility, and enables small forces to have autonomous decisions dictated by their own circumstances and needs.

Another tactic mentioned in the article, and employed at least since the Raqqa battle, is to avoid gathering in large numbers at the entry points of a battlefield. The article says that the international coalition would typically bomb such exposed areas first to pave the way for ground forces to advance and position themselves in an urban environment.

The insights provided publicly in the article align with a key feature of the anti-ISIL war that requires more attention. Despite the losses suffered by ISIL over three years of fighting, the role of American air strikes in tipping the balance against it continues to be the indispensable and determining factor for the outcome of battles.

The anti-ISIL forces' combat experience over three years, combined with the depletion of ISIL, should have meant that Iraqi and Syrian forces could dislodge the group from major population centres on their own. However, not a single example of such a scenario – in which dug-in ISIL fighters were expelled from a major urban centre – has taken place so far without heavy American involvement.

Could ISIL sweep back into large parts of the areas it has lost since 2014? Some American officials in Washington believe that some of the gains are fragile and suggest that ISIL may still be able to win back significant parts of its territory if the US leaves the fight.

This specific measure of capability puts the current overall US policy against ISIL in clear perspective: it is frighteningly lacking and shortsighted.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy