A notebook found in a prison in Raqqa may reveal a blueprint for ISIS’s plans for operations in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
Destabilising Saudi Arabia, using human shields to protect the group’s fighters from air strikes and issues over a lack of religious knowledge among recruits all feature in the document discovered in a prison in the Rashidiya district of the city in December.
Passed exclusively to The National, and largely written in English and Arabic by the same person, the notebook lays out plans for ensuring the group's long-term survival and offers insights into how the group intends to wage insurgencies.
A second author writes in French in the notebook, which contains more than 60 pages of writing and doodles.
One page details a debate within the group over the formation of a private military company (PMC) – akin to the company Blackwater – within ISIS, suggesting the group “use them for operations that [ISIS] doesn’t want to acknowledge”. However, it also fears that it could “provide an incentive for people to leave [ISIS] army and join the PMC”.
Away from the propaganda the group has become notorious for producing, the unknown author sheds light on the internal challenges facing ISIS, and the advancing opposition forces in both Iraq and Syria
The notebook also demonstrates a striking level of foresight in predicting the fall of the so called caliphate. On a page entitled ‘Worst Case Scenario’, the author spells out what that would look like for the group. Its eight bullet points detail the “loss of fighter supply lines from Turkey” to the “loss of oil fields in eastern Syria”.
The author also exposes a number of shortcomings within ISIS. On one page, he bemoans the lack of training time the extremist fighters were afforded. “Due to the short duration of the camp (20-30 days) and the security precautions of camps it is difficult for trainees to become proficient in the use of multiple weapons”, whilst in another he also notes the “problems created by different languages”.
It adds “tactical training at camps is not standardizes which makes it difficult for coherent squads to be assembled with relatively similar tactical backgrounds”.
Dr Craig Whiteside, an Associate Professor at the Naval War College Monterey, California, noted the similarities between musings in the notebook and those of western militaries.
“It asks questions our own militaries ask, such as can one be an expert on conventional fighting and irregular warfare, though the writer uses the term terrorism.
“The author has studied topics we study in a war college, such as the differences between policy and strategy.
“If this is a foreign fighter, not studying their own country for military facilities but instead learning about Iraq and Syria, the goal is to encourage them to stay. Contrast this all with the earlier perception of ISIS as an apocalyptic cult. There’s no evidence of that here. It’s clear-eyed thinking about the future.”
Though the identity of the primary author is unknown, he is a fluent English speaker who uses the Americanised spelling of a number of words.
In a section dedicated to reflecting on how ISIS can deal with the barrage of airstrikes being waged against them, it is suggested the group “use civilian casualties against enemies”, as well as “using civilian population to hide movement patterns”.
The source who passed the notebook to The National said the book demonstrated the lengths ISIS was willing to go to make it appear that it winning on the battlefield. “It shows the mindset of Daesh [ISIS] in exploiting the suffering of others in its attempts to win the war narrative.
“The notebook lays bare the reality of Daesh, which is never portrayed in its publications.”
It also makes clear the importance the group places on expanding its efforts into other countries such as Saudi Arabia. “How to make Saudi like Syria? Can we get people to hate Their [sic] rulers?””
“Mecca and Medina are a priority for the [caliphate] to actually influence world Muslims. But to get there we need to destabilize Al-Saud. Direct action against Al-Saud from Iraq will likely fail militarily and attract US ground troops so the best way to do this is internally, with the support for Yemen and Iraq”.
The notebook also suggests the ISIS plan “seems to be playing on sectarian tensions, + the religious legitimacy of Al-Saud. The war in Yemen is key”.
It also considers how to pull “the USA to another major war to exhaust its economy”.
The author acknowledges the importance of winning Sunni hearts and minds. Stating “this is a result of good media/actions targeted at perceived enemies in the eyes of regular Muslims (Israel, USA, then Iran)".
There is evidence that the writer is monitoring international news as he speculates as to what the 2016 Presidential election would mean for ISIS. “The US decisions are very important, and they depend on the Presidential elections.
“However, if democrats lose, a republican administration would be more likely to bring US boots on the ground, and cooperation with Iran will likely stop.”
Analysis by The National shows there is nothing in the notes to suggest it was written after the end of 2016.
He appears to acknowledge that ISIS would be unable to sustain the fight against a large-scale military intervention by the US. “Fighting the USA might be more dangerous militarily, but it will grant IS respect in muslim [sic] eyes”.
The author shows evidence of in-depth knowledge of military strategy and theory, writing about the importance of “long term intelligence collection”. They add “we can infiltrate groups like Al-Qaeda, [Muslim Brotherhood] in their strategic depth gaining information about their sponsors, plans and members.” It lays out plans for how ISIS can incorporate HUMINT (Human Intelligence) and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) into their military operations.
But the notebook is not all high-brow military theory. It also details the main author’s gym workout, which he titles ‘BODYTAKTIX’. He writes of “Squats with AK’ and “deadlift with AK”, all accompanied by a "Nasheed soundtrack”.