Abstract: The Islamic State has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, handily defeating state armies and rebel groups. The conventional wisdom is that its large contingent of former Ba’athist army officers is the key to its military success. Although overlap exists between the Islamic State’s techniques and Ba’athist military doctrine and tactical methods, there are also many differences. A hybrid of experiences including lessons learned from the Iraqi insurgency and tactics imported by Chechen jihadis has influenced the Islamic State’s military posture and tactics. Three case studies comparing the Islamic State’s battles to Ba’athist campaigns sheds light on the organization’s military doctrine.

Some attribute the martial success of the Islamic State to the high salaries and perks it provides to its fighters, which dwarf those of other rebel outfits. Others emphasize the Islamic State’s unit cohesion and motivation, arguing that while its opponents are motivated by money, the organization fights for Allah’s supremacy. The commander of Ajnad al-Sham, a small Salafi brigade fighting in Hama, Syria, told the author, “ISIS [Islamic State] fighters fear nothing. They are completely focused on fighting and nothing else.”[1] Indeed, one Islamic State sniper strapped himself to a telephone pole for two days and was fed intravenously before being fatally hit by shrapnel.[2] Still others posit that the Syrian regime colludes with the Islamic State in order to reinforce Damascus’ narrative that it is fighting “terrorist gangs.”[3] On the domestic front, the Islamic State has made civic inroads by maintaining the Arab social contract whereby the state provides security, subsidized basic staples, and social services in exchange for political quiescence.[4]

The Islamic State’s success has certainly benefited from these factors. But beyond coercing hearts and minds and marshalling a large, highly motivated, and well-paid army, the Islamic State must win on the battlefield to hold and extend its caliphate. Military strategy and tactics have rendered it the most skilled fighting force in Iraq and Syria, significantly more effective in most military exchanges than regime and rebel forces there.

Discussions about the Islamic State’s leadership often note that many of its commanders served in the Ba’athist army of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.[5] Mingling in prisons such as Camp Bucca and fighting alongside each other against U.S. troops created bonds between these strange bedfellows.[a] The Ba’athists’ absorption into the Islamic State has facilitated a narrative that Hussein loyalists are the driving force behind the organization’s military strategy and battlefield triumphs.[6] This article provides a corrective by mapping out the limits of Ba’athist influence on the military doctrine of the Islamic State.

The Ba’athists certainly brought vital experience to their jihadist partners. Their ability to think in military terms and lead large numbers of fighters has facilitated battlefield success. And their understanding of clandestine tradecraft, such as organizational compartmentalization, operational secrecy, and counterintelligence, has also been useful. Indeed, the Islamic State’s military campaigns illustrate that in some cases it improved Ba’athist methods while in others the organization adapted these teachings directly to the current conflict. However, sometimes the group abandoned cumbersome and ineffective Ba’athist techniques.[7] One reason why the Islamic State differs from the Ba’athist military is that the organization has benefited from lessons learned during the Iraqi insurgency. In addition, Islamic State members who fought in other conflicts, such as Chechnya, imported their battle knowledge. The Islamic State is thus a hybrid organization. Its members’ disparate experiences combined to transform an insurgent force into a formidable army that can shift from acting like a guerilla militia to a conventional army, all while fighting on multiple fronts hundreds of miles away from its logistical bases.

Examining three specific battles, based on eyewitness accounts, sheds light on the military doctrines of the Islamic State. An analysis of these military exchanges, based on interviews with commanders from Free Syrian Army (FSA) units and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as well as sources in the Islamic State, highlights its use of light, decentralized detachments to fashion a creative, bold, and mobile force whose approach is different in key respects from Hussein’s army.

This does not mean, however, that analysts should reduce the Ba’athists to prisoners of pre-2003 Iraqi military doctrines. Freed from the strictures imposed by Hussein, it is likely that many learned new battle techniques and improvised existing ones. Rather, what should be stressed is that there is no linear connection between Ba’athist doctrines and Islamic State battle methods. Instead, the Islamic State’s battle techniques fall into three categories—employing Ba’athist tactics, adapting Ba’athist methods, and inventing its own new techniques. Though this article compares Ba’athist and jihadist military tactics, a detailed evaluation of how they fused together as an increasing number of Hussein’s military officials joined the Islamic State is beyond the scope of this article.[b]

The July 2014 Milibiyya Offensive
At the end of July 2014, the Islamic State attacked the village of Milibiyya, located approximately 10 kilometers southeast of Hassaka, Syria. According to a senior Islamic State source, 400-500 regime soldiers from the 17th Division and the paramilitary National Defense Forces (NDF) were garrisoning Milibiyya.[8] The Islamic State deployed 123 men—121 fighters, a suicide bomber, and a cameraman to film the operation—and targeted Milibiyya for its heavy weapons arsenal, including GRAD rockets and about 60 artillery pieces. The attack lasted from approximately 3 AM to 11 AM.

The Islamic State surrounded the village from the south, west, and north, leaving the main entrance in the east unguarded. Emirs from the Caucasus, headed by the Georgian Abu Umar al-Shishani, led the operation. The other commanders were Abu Hala al-Russi and Abu Mujahid al-Russi. Al-Shishani led light infantry forces from the south, while Abu Hala commanded heavier artillery from the west, including DShK and PK heavy machine guns and 121mm cannons. Abu Mujahid directed a sniper brigade in the north, positioned in what locals call the cotton factory. The three Islamic State units attacked simultaneously. Surrounded on three sides, regime forces fled to Milibiyya’s unguarded main entrance. There, a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) was detonated, leading to the eventual collapse of regime forces.

The Milibiyya operation highlights the Islamic State’s deviation from traditional Ba’athist military tactics. Under Hussein, force ratios varied from 2:1 for attack to 6:1 at the point of penetration.[9] At the outset of the Iran-Iraq war, Baghdad had a 6:1 overall force advantage.[10][c] But in Milibiyya, the Islamic State was at a quantitative disadvantage of 1:4, illustrating that it often conceives of battles in guerilla rather than conventional military terms. The Islamic State’s quantitative disadvantages are offset by its qualitatively superior troops and motivation, a characteristic lacking in the Ba’athist army where many frontline soldiers quickly surrendered in 1991.

But Milibiyya also illustrated how some Ba’athist military doctrines have continued to shape the Islamic State’s practices. Although in this case the SVBIED was employed at the end of the attack, the Islamic State often uses SVBIEDs at the outset to break through lines and feign assaults. The use of SVBIEDs has often been highlighted,[11] but its place in the Islamic State’s military doctrine is not well understood. Some analysts have emphasized their shock value in disorienting enemy forces and causing chaos.[12] Others have focused on the extensive damage they cause.[13] But, arguably, the key to understanding the Islamic State’s use of SVBIEDs is Ba’athist military doctrine. Following Baghdad’s dismal showing against the Israelis in 1973 and its failed campaigns against Kurdish rebellions, the army moved away from frontal assaults to focus on overwhelming firepower.[14] Central Intelligence Agency reports on Iraqi tactics noted that assaults were “preceded by artillery barrages” and that “the Iraqis learned to rely heavily upon armored units for offensive operations. By 1984, tank formations were almost always used for the primary assault.”[15]

In its early days, the Islamic State changed strategy by favoring infantry over armor. Unlike the Iraqi army, the Islamic State did not have sufficient caches of artillery and armor to sustain long assaults until it captured Mosul in June 2014. Instead, it had abundant and superior infantry. But Islamic State commanders clung to Ba’athist doctrines. They merely substituted SVBIEDs for artillery and armor, employing suicide bombers in the same fashion. For this reason SVBIEDs are used heavily at the outset of Islamic State offensives. They can be seen as a continuation of traditional Ba’ath techniques albeit adapted to the current situation.

Another indication that some Ba’athist military doctrines have become ingrained is that the Islamic State almost always deploys SVBIEDs against targets in fixed areas selected before the battle and only rarely changes these targets.[16] The Iraqi army favored frontal assaults over maneuvering and flanking operations.[17] Its heavy artillery—even mobile mechanisms such as surface to air missile launchers—was static.[18] Artillery was deployed according to predetermined firing plans and was rarely repositioned.[19] During the Gulf War, prepositioned oil drums on roads were used to guide salvos against coalition forces, but when they maneuvered away, the Iraqis still aimed at the drums.[20] The Islamic State does the same.

The August 2015 Umm-al-Shuk Offensive
On August 29, 2015, Islamic State forces amassed in Umm al-Shuk, about 10 kilometers southwest of Hassaka. Moving north, Islamic State fighters opened fire against heavily fortified defensive positions of the YPG about 2.9 kilometers away. Approximately 50-60 fighters used heavy weapons such as DshKs and mortars in a battle that lasted from 9 PM until the morning. This was a tactical diversion from the real objective, the Martyr Aras post several hundred meters to the east. In a cluster of houses in Rajim al-Tufayhi, they amassed a platoon of fewer than 10 men. These camouflaged forces tried to crawl the 915 meters to the Kurdish post, but suffered losses and retreated.[d] Though a failure, the Umm al-Shuk attack reveals that the Islamic State is willing to take risks, aiming to be a much more flexible and nimble fighting force than its Ba’athist predecessor.

The highly creative operation was likely decided at the tactical level without input from the strategic command. This indicates that the Islamic State has overcome the greatest obstacle to Arab military effectiveness—tactical deficiency.[21] Historically, Iraqi forces from platoon to brigade have “repeatedly showed little aggressive initiative, little willingness to innovate or improvise, little ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, and little ability to act independently.”[22][e]

The Islamic State, however, is not saddled with this patrimony. King’s College Professor Andreas Krieg, who embedded with Iraqi Kurdish forces, concluded that Islamic State tactical commanders are given significant latitude to improvise.[23] The organization’s decentralized structure affords them “significant autonomy to initiate operations without strategic-level authorization.”[24] Some analysts see junior units’ lack of “strategic coherence” and “tactical restlessness” as a weakness.[25] In truth, it is vital to the Islamic State’s success. Tactical leeway nourishes a mobile force that innovatively strikes against larger and better-equipped forces.

Moreover, the Islamic State exhibits a learning curve by improving its effectiveness over time. In contrast, the Ba’athists “simply did not learn from one battle to the next,”[26] largely due to the Iraqi army’s overcentralized military hierarchy. It had “a rigid top-down C2 (command and control) system” where senior commanders made all the decisions.[27] In the 2003 war, Hussein did not permit division and corps commanders authority over units.[28] Commanders up to the corps level refused to initiate activity, fearing execution if they failed.[29] Junior officers could not plan offensives, and even if they were permitted, they could never draw them up. Tactical forces were only successful in heavily scripted operations and static positions. For these reasons, Ba’athist forces were not only trained but indoctrinated to conduct purely static defensive operations. The Islamic State’s tactical creativity is likely due to the jihadist experience, where small cells operate outside the purview of the leadership’s command, rather than an epiphany by its Ba’athist members.

The June 2015 Hassaka Offensive
On May 31, 2015, the Islamic State attacked Hassaka from the south, quickly capturing the southern regime-held neighborhoods as the NDF units there collapsed. The YPG, which controlled the northern part of the city, did not intervene until June 27 when the Islamic State moved north, brushing up against the Kurdish quarters. From Jabal Aziz, west of the city, the YPG moved troops southeast to Hassaka’s southern entrance where Islamic State forces were concentrated. From the village of Fallahi, east of Hassaka, the YPG marched southwest. These deployments were designed to encircle the Islamic State and cut off its supply routes from the cities of al-Arisha and al-Hawl. After several weeks of fighting, the YPG cornered the Islamic State in the southeastern neighborhood of al-Zuhur.

Among the Islamic State’s heavy weapons employed were SVBEIDs, mortars, and tanks. The Islamic State used high ground, placing snipers and DShKs on tall buildings. As fighters retreated, they mined buildings and planted remote controlled improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They burned tires as smokescreens, impeding the coalition’s airstrikes.[30]

The al-Zuhur siege best illustrates the hybrid organization that the Islamic State has become, using insurgent tactics in defensive positions. The weapon of choice for the Islamic State’s predecessors during the U.S. occupation in Iraq was the IED, which was an effective tool that protected its own troops. But in al-Zuhur, it was used to screen the withdrawal of a conventional fighting force. The use of IEDs demonstrates the Islamic State’s smooth transition from an insurgent force to a traditional military, tailoring its advantages to specific situations. The tactics used during the withdrawal reflect the employment of methods the Ba’athists never utilized.

The Hassaka offensive further demonstrates how the Islamic State now approaches battles. The insurgent’s objective is to win the population’s support.[31] Receptive Arabs in the southern parts of Hassaka facilitated the Islamic State’s lightning-speed occupation, but the northern areas are populated with hostile Kurdish civilians who actively aided the YPG. Such demographics would normally dissuade insurgents from futile operations like the Hassaka offensive. But the Islamic State is no longer an insurgent organization that can only hold remote territory or engage in hit-and-run ambushes. Its desire to become a continuously conquering state to which Muslims can emigrate has led it to modify and even abandon various guerilla tactics.

The Hassaka offensive also illustrates the Islamic State’s use of intelligence. The Ba’athist military consistently failed at collecting, assessing, and sharing intelligence,[32] which was sometimes politicized with battlefield and casualty losses underreported.[33] At other times it was not analyzed. Rarely was it dispatched to field units. During the Gulf War, Iraqi prisoners of war revealed that intelligence was “almost zero.”[34] Intelligence officers and their commanders gleaned information about coalition troops through Western radio and television broadcasts.[35] During the invasion of Kuwait, field commanders relied on tourist maps.[36]

Intelligence and reconnaissance, however, are a key factor in the Islamic State’s success. According to Ciwan Ibrahim, head of Syrian Kurdish internal security, the Islamic State initially sends small groups into enemy territory to ascertain its power holders.[37] Next comes close-target reconnaissance of checkpoints, defensive positions, enemy routines, force size, and weaponry. An advance guard is then dispatched to provide early warning and security to ensure unhindered movements. Finally, the main force moves in. Sleeper cells are a part of this strategy, and infiltrating enemy ranks reflects the apex of counterintelligence. Their use in Hassaka expedited the NDF’s quick collapse there while facilitating the seizure of other towns.[38]

Islamic State agents captured by the YPG revealed to the author how the organization surveils enemy territory. One adolescent claimed that he was dispatched to the village of Ayn Isa to identify military targets for SVBIEDs.[39] He then reported to his handlers, who sent an SVBEID to the point he identified. The Islamic State has also created sleeper cells in YPG-controlled areas to assemble and detonate car bombs.[40]

Use of Special Forces
The Islamic State’s use of frontline special forces represents a sharp deviation from traditional Ba’ath techniques. FSA commanders such as Captain Hassan Hajari of the Suqur al-Jabal Brigade[41] note that SVBIEDs are often followed by small commando units working in groups of 20 or fewer, known as the Inghimasiyyin,[42] largely foreign contingents according to Islamic State commanders.[43][f] Prized for their speed and ability,[44][g] they are specially trained for fighting in close quarters.[45] Their mission is to break enemy defensive lines and take difficult targets such as fortified positions.[46]

In contrast, forward Ba’athist units were poorly staffed by conscripts[47] but backed up by more proficient armor and artillery units.[48] In the rear were Hussein’s elite Republican Guard units, who “served as the theater reserve and counterattack force.”[49] The difference between frontline Ba’athist and Islamic State fighters also extends to ideology. The Inghimasiyyin are highly motivated and fearless, donning explosive belts that they do not hesitate to use.[h] Dr. Nasser Hajj Mansour, a senior official in the Syrian Kurds’ Defense Ministry, emphasized that initial Islamic State infantry forces are composed of highly ideological foreign fighters and that subsequent assault units contain less ideological troops.[50] In contrast, frontline Ba’athist infantry had no ideological connection to the regime and was often no more than cannon fodder. Thus, while Ba’athist forces were progressively more effective as one moved away from the front lines, Islamic State troops are qualitatively more superior as one moves toward them.

The Caucasus Factor
Although the Islamic State blends Ba’athist and insurgent tactics, it also draws on other groups’ techniques. The organization has a large contingent of fighters from the Caucasus. Many of them fought against the Russians in Chechnya. There, rebels defended their capital of Grozny against the Russians and later employed guerilla tactics after losing it. Highly ideological and motivated,[51] they relied on mobile, light infantry units. Platoons of 10-15 men swarmed armored columns,[52] rarely ambushing with more than 75 men.[53] They hugged the Russians from 50-250 meters away, rendering heavy artillery unusable.[54][i] They were nimble,[55] with mortar crews firing several rounds before relocating to avoid Russian detection.[56] These agile troops outflanked the Russians from the rear, a tactic the Ba’athists could not perform.[57]

Like the Islamic State, the Chechens encountered unfavorable force ratios. In 1994-95, the Chechens had about 10,000 fighters against approximately 24,000 Russians.[58][j] During the second Battle for Grozny in 1996, they attacked with about 1,500 troops against 12,000 Russians.[59] During the third Battle for Grozny four years later, they were 2,000-3,000 against 95,000.[60] When Russian forces invaded Grozny in January 1995, rebels created a concentric three-ring defense with strongpoints for firing positions.[61] To defend it in 2000, they dug trenches and used an elaborate underground tunnel system.[62] The Islamic State has created similar defenses in its cities of Mosul and Raqqa, building walls and digging trenches in concentric circles.[k] Like the Islamic State during the al-Zuhur siege, the Chechens mined everything from doorways to Russian soldiers’ corpses when retreating from Grozny.[63] They set charges at oil installations and chemical plants.[64] And like the Islamic State, the Chechens possessed a vast array of heavy weaponry.[65] In fact, the Islamic State’s adaptation to the coalition air campaign may draw on the Chechens’ own experiences.[66]

But just as there are discrepancies between Ba’athist and Islamic State tactics, they exist between the organization and the Chechens. Against the Russians, the least skilled fighters were placed at the front.[67] And unlike the Islamic State’s ample manpower and weaponry, the Chechens had limited resources, which prevented conducting extensive engagements.[68]

The Islamic State has evolved as a fighting force throughout its various iterations and expansion. The conscription of Ba’athists brought the organization valuable military experience, but instead of a wholesale embrace of these teachings, a continually developing Islamic State has selected, adapted, and at times even rejected these techniques. Ba’athist influence can be seen clearly—for example, in its use of SVBIEDs as early overwhelming firepower. But from morale to tactical command, the organization is not saddled with the Ba’athists’ liabilities. The Islamic State’s expert use of forward agents and sleeper cells to gather intelligence is in direct contrast to the Ba’athists’ utter lack of pre-battle reconnaissance. Moreover, the group continues to adapt and innovate, sinuously moving between guerilla tactics, conventional military techniques, and hybrid methods. A clear demonstration of this creativity is the use of tactical battle diversions devised without the input of senior leaders. And the Islamic State adapts to specific contexts rather than applying rigid doctrines. For example, lacking the Ba’athists’ superior force ratios, the group instead often deploys special forces at the outset of battles. For this reason, the Islamic State is a formidable military force that cannot be easily categorized.

Understanding the Islamic State’s various components, its military evolution, and its battlefield strengths is vital if it is to be defeated. Dismissing it as an insurgent organization or the offspring of a conventional army blinds military strategists to its hybrid realities. Its multifaceted nature affords it a panoply of strategy and tactics that it tailors to its current foes. This flexibility and unpredictability is a key to its success that cannot be overlooked.

Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs. He recently returned from Syria where he spent time with YPG forces.

Substantive Notes
[a] Hussein’s faith campaign facilitated the demise of Ba’athist secularism. See Amatzia Baram, Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

[b] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the creator of the Islamic State’s forerunner, was distrustful of Ba’athists. His successor, Abu Umar al- Baghdadi, proved more accepting. When current Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control in 2010, the numbers of Ba’athists then increased. Already by 2007, analysts were highlighting the links between al-Qa`ida in Iraq and the Ba’athists. See Andrew Tilghman, “The Myth of AQI,” Washington Monthly, October 2007. For the later expansion of ties, see Martin Chulov, “Isis: The Inside Story,” Guardian, December 14, 2014; Shiv Malik et al., “How Isis Crippled al-Qaida,” Guardian, June 11, 2015; Liz Sly, “The Hidden Hand Behind the Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein’s,” Washington Post, April 5, 2015; and Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “There’s One Major Reason Why ISIS Has Been So Successful,” Associated Press, August 8, 2015.

[c] As the war progressed, Iraq’s quantitative advantage fell to 2:1, although in some battles, such as al-Faw, it was as high as 13.33:1. Stephen Pelletiere and Douglas Johnson, Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War, U.S. Marine Corps, v. 1, pp. 10 and 39.

[d] The author visited the site the following day, viewed Islamic State fighters through binoculars, and was briefed by YPG field commanders.

[e] In contrast, McLaurin argues that tactical commanders and conscripts are “reasonably competent fighters” and blames the senior echelons for poor military performance. R.D. McLaurin, “Military Operations in the Gulf War: The Battle of Khorramshahr,” U.S. Army Human Engineering Laboratory (Aberdeen Proving Ground, 1982), p. 25.

[f] An Islamic State commander of an Inghimasi brigade in the Salah al-Din province in Iraq claimed he had 300 men with an additional 600 in similar brigades in the governates of Mosul and al-Anbar. For the criterion used to select them, see Absi Sumaysam, “Al-Inghimasiyyun: Al-Quwwah Al-Dharibah li-al-Tanzimat Al-Jihadiyyah.” [Inghimasis: The Striking Force of Jihadi Organizations], al-Arabi al-Jadid, December 22, 2014.

[g] The Islamic State commander also noted they are the best troops.

[h] The Inghimasiyyin should not be confused with suicide bombers whose sole mission is to blow themselves up. The Inghimasiyyin only detonate their charges after fighting and only if death is imminent. For the differences between them, see Absi Sumaysam.

[i] Other analysis claims the range was 25-100 meters. Arthur Speyer, “The Two Sides of Grozny,” in Russell Glenn ed., Capital Preservation: Preparing for Urban Operations in the Twenty-First Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation), p. 88.

[j] Other analysis notes that Russia had 45,000 troops against 15,000 Chechen guerrillas. Speyer, p. 68.

[k] The Islamic State began building these trenches in Mosul in 2014, long before the Western press began reporting on it. See “Da’ish Tahfur Khanadiq Hawl Madinat Al-Mosul.” [Da’ish Digs Trenches Around Mosul City], Karbala News, December 18, 2014. For Raqqa, see Bawla Astih, “ISIS is Digging,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 25, 2015.

[1] Author’s interview in Antakya, Turkey, August 13, 2015.

[2] Scott Peterson, “Can the Iraqi Army Regroup in Time to Repel the Islamic State?” Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 2014.

[3] Karen DeYoung, “Oil Sales Helped Enrich Islamic State,” Washington Post, October 24, 2014; David Blair, “Oil Middleman between Syria and Isil is New Target for EU Sanctions,” Daily Telegraph, March 7, 2015.

[4] For the literature on social contracts in the Arab world, see the bibliography to Steven Heydemann’s article “Social Pacts and the Persistence of Authoritarianism in the Middle East,” Oliver Schlumberger ed., Debating Arab Authoritarianism (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 297-335.

[5] Ruth Sherlock, “Inside the Leadership of Islamic State: How the New ‘Caliphate’ is Run,” Daily Telegraph, July 9, 2014; Liz Sly, “The Hidden Hand Behind the Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein’s,” Washington Post, April 4, 2015; Christoph Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Der Spiegel, April 18, 2015.

[6] See the comments of Hashim Hashim, an Iraqi analyst often quoted about the Islamic State and a former Western intelligence official in Liz Sly, “The Hidden Hand Behind the Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein’s,” Washington Post, April 4, 2015, and Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “There’s One Major Reason Why ISIS Has Been So Successful,” Associated Press, August 8, 2015.

[7] The Islamic State has released detailed information about its military operations in Iraq. For the years 2012-13, see al-Amaliyyat al-Askariyya lil-Dawla al-Islamiyya lil-Sana 1434 fi al-Iraq (The Islamic State’s Military Operations for the Year 1434 in Iraq).

[8] Author’s phone conversation, September 3, 2015.

[9] This information comes from British military manuals provided to the author.

[10] Edgar O’Ballance, The Gulf War (Oxford: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1988), p. 49.

[11] Jessica Lewis, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq Resurgent: The Breaking the Walls Campaign, Part I,” Institute for the Study of War, September 2013.

[12] Michael Knights, “ISIL’s Political Military Power in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel 7:8 (2014): p. 4.

[13] Murad Batal al-Shishani, “The Islamic State’s Strategic and Tactical Plan for Iraq,” Terrorism Monitor 12:16 (2014).

[14] For the use of artillery before sending in combat troops, see R.D. McLaurin, “Military Operations in the Gulf War: The Battle of Khorramshahr,” U.S. Army Human Engineering Laboratory (Aberdeen Proving Ground, 1982), pp. 17 and 26, and Kenneth Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), p. 178.

[15] Central Intelligence Agency, “Subject: “Iraqi Offensive Tactics,” March 1995, available at http://www.gulflink.osd.mil/declassdocs/cia/19961102/110296_cia_61989_61989_02.html.

[16] Author’s interviews with FSA and YPG commanders, August and September 2015.

[17] Efraim Karsh, “The Iran-Iraq War: A Military Analysis,” Adelphi Papers 220, Spring 1987, p. 35; United States Department of Defense, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 115. Cf. HQ, VII Corps, Assistant Chief of Staff, G2, AETSCB, Memorandum, Subject: The 100-Hour Ground War: The Failed Iraqi Plan, April 20, 1991, pp. 12-3. Henceforth, The 100-Hour Ground War. This report was based on interviews with Iraqi prisoners of war. The author would like to thank Professor Stephen Bourque for providing him with the report.

[18] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 118.

[19] Anthony Cordesman and Abraham Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War: The Gulf War, v. 4 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), p. 572; Stephen Bourque, Jayhawk! The VII Corps in the Persian Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2002), pp. 245, 356, and 457; The 100-Hour Ground War, pp. 46-7.

[20] Pollack, p. 255.

[21] Karsh, p. 43.

[22] Pollack, p. 265. Cf. pp. 189, 201, 224, and 261.

[23] Hamza Hendawi, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, and Bassem Mroue, “An IS Secret to Success: Shock Troops Who Fight to the Death,” Associated Press, July 8, 2015.

[24] “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant: Report and Recommendations Submitted Pursuant to Resolution 2170 (2014),” United Nations, November 14, 2014, p. 8.

[25] Michael Knights and Alexandre Mello, “The Cult of the Offensive: The Islamic State on Defense,” CTC Sentinel 8:4 (2015): pp. 2 and 4.

[26] Pollack, p. 202.

[27] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 116.

[28] Kevin Woods, Williamson Murray, and Thomas Holaday, Saddam’s War: An Iraqi Military Perspective of the Iran-Iraq War (Washington, D.C.: Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 2009), p. 90. Woods’ reports in this article are based on discussions with senior Ba’athist officers and internal Ba’athist documents.

[29] Kevin Woods, Williamson Murray, Elizabeth Nathan, Laila Sabara, and Ana Venegas, Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War, (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, 2011), p. 36.

[30] Author’s interview in Hassaka, Syria, Galil Serhat, Eastern Hassaka Sector Commander, September 3, 2015.

[31] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 1964).

[32] Pollack, pp. 158, 200-1, 211, 258, and 265; Bourque, p. 457; Kevin Woods, Iraqi Perspectives Project Phase II, Um Al-Ma’arik (The Mother of All Battles) (Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, 2008), pp. 91, 102, and 170.

[33] Woods et al., Saddam’s War, pp. 36-7 and 81; Woods et al., Saddam’s Generals, pp. 95 and 128.

[34] The 100-Hour Ground War, p. 31.

[35] Ibid, pp. 25 and 33; Woods, Iraqi Perspectives Project Phase II, Um Al-Ma’arik, pp. 170-01.

[36] Woods, Iraqi Perspectives Project Phase II, Um Al-Ma’arik, p. 95.

[37] Author’s interview in Qamishli, Syria, September 1, 2015.

[38] For Hit, see Patrick Cockburn, “Life under Isis: An Explosion at the Gates, Sleeper Cells Attacking from Within – How Militants Overthrew the City of Hit in less than 24 Hours,” Independent, March 17, 2015. For Mosul, see Ned Parker, Isabel Coles, and Raheem Salman, “Special Report: How Mosul Fell – An Iraqi General Disputes Baghdad’s Story,” Reuters, October 14, 2014.

[39] Author’s interview in Qamishli, Syria, September 6, 2015.

[40] See, for example, “Al-Qamishli: Thirteen Killed in Car Bomb Explosion,” Kurdwatch, August 21, 2015; “Al-Hasakah: Explosions in Front of YPG Barracks,” Kurdwatch, October 15, 2014; “Al-Qamishli: One Dead in Suicide Attack on Asayis,” Kurdwatch, June 23, 2015.

[41] Author’s interview in Reyhaniyya, Turkey, September 8, 2015.

[42] Hamza Hendawi, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, and Bassem Mroue “Inside ISIS Battle Strategy, Use of Special Forces,” Associated Press, July 8, 2015.

[43] See “Al-Inghimasiyun Silah Tanzim ‘Al-Dawlah Al-Islamiyyah’ Al-Akthar Fatkan,” [Inghimasis, the Most Lethal Weapon of the “Islamic State” Organization], al-Khalij Online, August 17, 2014.

[44] Ibid.

[45] See Absi Sumaysam, “Al-Inghimasiyyun: Al-Quwwah Al-Dharibah li-al-Tanzimat Al-Jihadiyyah.” [Inghimasis: The Striking Force of Jihadi Organizations], al-Arabi al-Jadid, December 22, 2014.

[46] Ala Walid, “‘The Inghimasiyyun’ and the ‘Dhabiha’…Fear of the ‘Islamic State,’” al-Quds al-Arabi, August 12, 2014.

[47] Cordesman and Wagner, p. 571.

[48] Robert Scales, Certain Victory (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, 1993), p. 113.

[49] The 100-Hour Ground War, pp. 16, 23-24, 101, and 112-13.

[50] Author’s interview, Qamishli, Syria, September 1, 2015.

[51] Olga Oliker, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000 (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2001), p. 18.

[52] Sean Edwards, Swarming and the Future of Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2005), p. 273. For accounts of troop formations, see Oliker, p. 19 and Arthur Speyer, “The Two Sides of Grozny,” in Russell Glenn ed., Capital Preservation: Preparing for Urban Operations in the Twenty-First Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation), pp. 85-6.

[53] Speyer, p. 84.

[54] Oliker, p. 20.

[55] Ibid, p. 17.

[56] Ibid, p. 21.

[57] Timothy Thomas, “Grozny 2000: Urban Combat Lessons Learned,” Military Review, July-August 2000, p. 55.

[58] Anatoly Sergeevich Kulikov, “The First Battle of Grozny,” in Russell Glenn ed., Capital Preservation: Preparing for Urban Operations in the Twenty-First Century, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001), pp. 33 and 39. For a breakdown of the Russian troops, see pp. 28-33.

[59] Edwards, p. 275.

[60] Speyer, p. 68.

[61] Oliker, p. 18; Timothy Thomas, “The Caucus Conflict and Russian Security,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 1997, pp. 56-7; Kulikov, p. 40.

[62] Oliker, p. 66; Kulikov, p. 47.

[63] Timothy Thomas, “The Caucus Conflict and Russian Security,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, p. 82.

[64] Kulikov, p. 40.

[65] Timothy Thomas, “The Battle of Grozny: Deadly Classroom for Urban Combat,” Parameters, Summer 1999, p. 89; Kulikov, p. 39.

[66] Oliker, p. 17.

[67] Thomas, “Grozny 2000: Urban Combat Lessons Learned,” Military Review, p. 55.

[68] Speyer, p. 94.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up