FBI Director James Comey made this statement in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee this past Wednesday in talking about ISIS. And although, not the main topic of discussion, one could since from the tone of all involved that ISIS continues to be a MAJOR concern to our Government, both in their campaigns in Iraq and Syria and their relentless cyber-campaigns to recruit new soldiers and spread their propaganda of hate all over the globe.
When one steps back and looks at the textbook definition of Fourth Generation Warfare, it is obvious ISIS is currently meeting almost all the criteria:
- Are complex and long-term
- Terrorism as a (tactic)
- A non-national or transnational base – highly decentralized
- A direct attack on the enemy’s culture, including genocidal acts against civilians.
- Highly sophisticated psychological warfare, especially through media manipulation and lawfare
- All available pressures are used – political, economic, social and military
- Occurs in low intensity conflict involving actors from all networks
- Non-combatants are tactical dilemmas
- Lack of hierarchy
- Small in size, spread out network of communication and financial support
- Use of insurgency and guerilla tactics
So first, let’s examine ISIS’ battlefield tactics, as witnessed by Iraq Military Commanders and embedded journalist:
1. The use of Shock or Suicide Troops.
Much like the Japanese Bonzai charges of WW2, these troops break through defensive lines and postures, killing as many enemy as they can before blowing themselves up. The goal is to cause massive chaos, harassing or destroying enemy communications so reinforcements or other support personnel don’t have a chance. After this a secondary offensive can come in and clean up with little resistance. This tactic was used at Ramadi with great success. First came a wave of more than 12 to 13 suicide bombings that hammered the military’s positions in the city, then the fighters moved in during a sandstorm. Iraqi troops crumbled and fled as a larger IS force marched in. Not surprisingly, ISIS primarily uses foreign fighters for suicide troops, keeping the more experienced, better trained troops alive to fight another day.
2. Switching between Conventional and Guerilla Tactics
Using Guerilla Warfare and Terrorism to wear down the enemy and then a mass attack with armored humvees and other vehicles and sometimes artillery to consolidate gains. This transitional nature of fighting often confuses the enemy, who are not accustom to this type of fighting.
3. Command Structure Has Flexibility
The commanders are given a wide berth to adapt as they see fit. They are often times given a broad Operational Strategy and then allowed to find their own ways to meet he objectives. This flies in the face of most Middle Eastern Military Command Structure like Syria or Iraq, where the rigid and often corrupt hierarchy punish action taken without direct orders. This can be seen in ISIS’ ability to conduct multiple battles simultaneously, a tactic that Iraqi Military commanders cannot do.
4. ISIS’ Fighters are Disciplined
With desertion being punishable by death, ISIS fighters would much rather die in jihad than run from it and die a coward. This is not the case with the Iraqi army, as was saw in the embarrassing defeat at Ramadi, where Iraqi troops were deserting at such a high rate, missions were called off due to a lack of manpower. On the flip side, while most ISIS fighters are there out of religious conviction, Iraqi soldiers are there for a job and a paycheck, but the conditions and pay of most Iraqi soldiers is terrible, (mostly due to corruption; According to the Washington Post, last year in one investigation, it was found that the Iraqi Army had been paying salaries to 50,000 soldiers that did not exist.) Want to guess where that money came from? Yep, Uncle Sam.
5. ISIS is Technologically Inventive
What do you do when you cannot afford a $5 million dollar Drone? You build one out of a RC Airplane and a wireless web-cam of course. The drone helps to both survey the battlefield and film wide-angle shots for their high-dollar, big budget propaganda films distributed by their media arm, Al Hayat. ISIS’ ability to adapt and be inventive on the battlefield sets them apart from past terrorist groups.
6. They have Mastered Maneuver Warfare
Through the use of Technicals (Pickups with mounted weapons) ISIS maintains the initiative by avoiding prepared defensive positions. In doing this, they do not create any defensive hard points (staying fluid and mobile) and as long as they do not face a foe that can put up repeated counter-offensive actions, having a pickup truck beats having a tank any day of the week. Trucks are also easier to maintain, drink way less gas and are much more expendable than a tank. As far as Weapon platforms go, they are also extremely versatile They can be fitted with Heavy machine guns, Anti-Tank, Anti-Aircraft and artillery cannons, depending on the mission profile.
Switching to the Fifth Dimension (Cyber-Side) of Warfare, ISIS has seen great success there also, both in recruiting new members and in spreading their propaganda around the globe.
The following factors contribute:
1. Well Financed Media Arm, Al Hayat
Take one look at an ISIS Propaganda video and you can tell it has money behind it. They are all very high quality, typically in 1080HD, with very slick logos and graphics. Their films are often subtitled in English, a sure sign they were produced for western audiences. Although it is unclear who is actually behind Al Hayat, according to MEMRI, it was begun by a former German rapper called “Deso Dogg” who now goes by the islamic name Abu Talha Al Almani. ISIS waste no time in marketing several videos each month purely for propaganda, one in particular, interviews several new ISIS recruits, each recounting why they joined ISIS and their hopes to die a martyr. Of course, the most infamous are the beheading videos and so called “atrocity porn”, which ISIS starting distributing heavily during the Iraq and Syria campaigns. Surprisingly, though these videos are repugnant, they often go viral, helping to spread ISIS’s message of murder, religious intolerance and hate across the globe.
2. Masters of Social Media
According to the Brookings Institution study, ISIS Twitter Census, without a doubt, one of the most exhaustive and in-depth studies done on the subject to date, 20,000 Twitter accounts were looked at thought to be associated in some way with ISIS over a period of roughly a month. Accordingly, the report found that ISIS used various bots and apps to artificially boost its online presence. They also use popular dashboards like Hootsuite to schedule tweets to go out at certain times globally, in every time zone of the world. It is estimated that some of the bots and apps could produce as many as a million tweets per day at a rate of a thousand tweets a minute. But despite these huge numbers, the study did find that AGGRESSIVE Suspension of accounts associated with ISIS effectively negates and limits the audience. The strategy going forward then must be more aggressive suspension and control of accounts even remotely associated with the group.
3. Maintains a Steady Presence with Online News Magazine
With Social Media being more and more heavily regulated by U.S. Law Enforcement and International Pressures, ISIS has taken a page from their predecessor, Al-Qaeda and started their own Online News Magazine, Dabiq. Like Al-Qaeda’s Inspire, Dabiq features in-depth reports that discusses strategy and “successes” of recent missions. The magazine is primarily published in English and both the articles and HD videos can be downloaded for free.
I will be doing an upcoming piece on the ways the U.S. is fighting ISIS’ propaganda and recruitment campaign across the globe and more importantly, here at home, so be on the lookout. Until then,
Stay Alert, Stay Armed and Stay Dangerous!