The Battle Plans of ISIL: Can they Succeed in Mideast Conquest?

By Richard Rousseau | (The Conversation)

What is Islamic State’s political program? What is its ideology? Who are its theoreticians? The answers to these questions can be found in its propaganda.

Islamic State has transformed from an ultra-minority party into one of the major political actors in the Middle East within a few months. It is tempting to explain this rapid evolution by the existence of a combination of favourable circumstances. Chief among these is the prolonged weakness of the Syrian and Iraqi governments, an obvious enabling factor for Islamic State.

However, another major cause is less well known but equally decisive: the internal development of the organisation, which has been able to learn from the past failures of other jihadist movements and refine and sharpen its strategy.

Learning from many years of jihadist setbacks

The jihadists of IS are no small players. They follow a battle plan developed over many years by seasoned and experienced theoreticians. The British-American journalist Peter Bergen, who met the most famous of these, the Syrian Abu Musab al-Suri, in the 1990s, was highly impressed by him.

“He was tough and very smart,” the reporter recalls in an article published in the French daily Le Monde in April 2013. Bergen saw in al-Suri a real intellectual, well versed in history, who was very serious about his objectives. He was even more impressed by him than by Osama bin Laden.

Abu Musab al-Suri knows what he is talking about when it comes to armed struggle. His experience dates back to the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, Syria, and its bloody suppression in February 1982 by the troops of Hafez al-Assad, the father of President Bashar al-Assad.

Musab al-Suri, who was among these rebels, has spent the ensuing years writing a series of articles on the uprising’s strategic aspects. These articles focus on the major errors committed by the insurgents. These include a list of 17 “bitter lessons” for future jihadists.

Al-Suri says that the Muslim Brotherhood’s main mistake was not to develop its strategy sufficiently before launching the uprising. A second mistake was to share too little information about its ideology and goals. A third mistake was to rely too heavily on outside support and not sufficiently develop its own resources.

Mistake number four was to place too heavy a reliance on mass recruitment instead of identifying and winning over elite fighters. Mistake number five was to have launched a war of attrition against the Syrian regime rather than a combination of terrorist acts and guerrilla warfare.


This online video featuring a doctor is part of Islamic State’s strategy of projecting the creation of a new order.

IS project has solid foundations

The lessons drawn by Musab al-Suri have provided the basis for creating a politico-military project as solid as it is comprehensive. Today, IS follows many of al-Suri’s advices. It has refrained from depending on foreign aid and has developed its own financial resources through kidnapping and the sale of crude oil.

Its doctrine and objectives are also clearly explained to its fighters. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, momentarily came out of hiding on July 4 2014 to present his views at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. His propaganda agencies broadcast news flashes on the internet.

After publishing several issues of IS Report, a periodical of only a few pages, IS began issuing in July of last year the online magazine Dabiq. This is a substantially more ambitious publication named after a small town in northern Syria where, according to Muslim tradition, a major battle will take place before the end of time. The IS also uses social networks intensively.

IS propaganda stresses the “oppression” and “humiliation” of which Muslims are victim throughout the world, but particularly in Western countries. It promises a final and liberating revenge for these humiliations. The first issue of Dabiq declared:

“The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation and being ruled by the vilest of all people, after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect – the time has come for them to rise.

“Soon, by Allah’s permission, a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honour, being revered, with his head raised high and his dignity preserved … Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots.”

The ongoing war in Syria and Iraq is especially meaningful, as it is described as a throwback to heroic periods in the history of Islam. The setbacks suffered by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are deemed to remind Muslims of those of the Prophet Muhammad, who was forced to leave Mecca and then defeated at the Battle of Uhud. The violence perpetrated by the IS jihadists is considered legitimate and is supposed to correspond with that of Abu Bakr, the successor of the Prophet and the first Caliph.

In addition to the “bitter lessons” learnt during the uprising at Hama, the jihadist theoreticians have another major source of inspiration, according to Michael W.S. Ryan of the Middle East Institute in Washington and one of the best experts on jihadist movements. They are well read in the history of modern Far Eastern and Western insurgency strategists, from Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Vo Nguyen Giap, Emiliano Zapata and Ho Chi Minh. In his seminal work The Call to Global Islamic Resistance, Abu Musab al-Suri writes that he has carefully read American journalist Robert Taber’s book on Fidel Castro’s guerrilla warfare strategy during the Cuban Revolution.

Dabiq magazine reflects these influences. Its first issue outlines a strategy to seize power through three steps reminiscent of the methods used by Maoist China. This strategy is also echoed by another influential jihadist theoretician, Abu Bakr Naji, who has presented his views in his book The Management of Savagery.

He argues that “Allah’s fighters” must continually attack the vital economic sectors of some key political regimes to incite these to concentrate all their forces in these areas. It will be then possible for the fighters to increase their presence in the periphery of these countries, forcing the enemy to multiply law enforcement actions to regain control of the lost ground.

‘Savagery’ has a particular purpose

This is when the second stage should begin, that of “savagery”, in which the violence will reach such a level that people will turn away from the government and be ready to join any force capable of restoring peace. Large parts of Iraq and Syria are now enduring this second stage, according to these theoreticians.

The third and last stage is the restoration of law (Sharia) and order through the establishment of a caliphate. Afghanistan is supposedly an example of a place where this final stage had taken place, with the coming to power of the Taliban after a long and bloody reign of local warlords.

This strategy, which is not unique to jihadism, implies that an explosion of violence will happen during the second phase of the insurgency. Jihadist theoreticians do not consider this bloodshed an act of wanton cruelty but a necessary means to achieve victory. Abu Bakr Naji chillingly writes in The Management of Savagery that jihadist fighters should “drag the masses into the battle”, which means that they must:

“make [that] battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away, so that the two groups will realise that entering this battle will frequently lead to death. That will be a powerful motive for the individual to choose to fight in the ranks of the people of truth in order to die well, which is better than dying for falsehood and losing both this world and the next.”

Focus is now on rebuilding lost base as caliphate

Jihadist movements share many common ideas, such as the rejection of democracy, nationalism and Western culture, but they are at loggerheads on strategy. Abu Musab al-Suri had some harsh words to say about Osama bin Laden and his taste for high-profile attacks on government institutions, security forces and symbolic buildings. He severely criticised the September 11 attacks, which, he believes, incurred the wrath of the United States against the Taliban in Afghanistan. This consequently denied the “holy war” its most precious territory and wasted the time of the jihadist movement.

Fourteen years on, IS’s ambition is to rebuild this territory – though now in Syria and Iraq – in the shortest possible period by establishing a “caliphate”. This will become the central base for the spread of the international jihad.

In this perspective, the putative caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has recently changed the IS’s focus from “savagery” to the onset of a new order. One of his current priorities is to establish, in places where the military situation is sufficiently stabilised, a number of public services: law and order, of course, but also trade networks, food supplies, education and health care.

This was the background to his July 2014 speech, which he sought to spread far and wide:

“Oh Muslims, hasten to your new state. We make a special call to the scholars and callers, especially the judges, as well as people with military, administrative and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specialisations and fields.”

The Islamic State knows what it wants, and it is striving to put the new “caliphate” on a permanent footing.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor of Political Science at American University of Ras Al Khaimah

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

TheLipTV: “ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Dead?”

7 Responses

  1. What I find shocking about ISIS is its utter lack of interest in building real positive support among local populations. It simply commits the most horrifying acts it can get away with to attract droves of the most pissed-off people from all over the Earth, concentrating them in such a tiny, unpopulated space that they can bully the locals to impose what economically is no future at all: cut off from the world, trading only on black markets, opposed to all knowledge of science or history.

    But since they have no genuine outrage over the injustices that humans face for being powerless, rather than for being Moslem, I guess they can’t really stand for anything but revenge. The worst thing of all is that ISIS perfectly plays into the Islamophobic narrative by calling forth these followers from abroad, who then become the face of Islam for the corporate media in their homelands.

    These are the ideologies of the age without hope.

    • I consider them ghosts. They are like demons, goblins and evil spirits. The mass media publicizes their beheadings and their wickedness. So does the American government, and other governments who are constantly trying to justify wanting more bombs, bombers and proof of superiority.
      Batman needs the Joker and other demons to be Batman. Superman would be nothing without wicked enemies. America and our sensational media needs ISIS.

  2. You left out that IS wouldn’t exist without backing from certain Gulf Arab states and billionaires, along with the tolerance, if not backing, of the Turkish government.

  3. The idea that the means can justify the end is a heresy borrowed from extremist radicalism developed outside of the Muslim world. If they think that barbarism does not corrupt the soul they are people incapable of understanding what is self-evident. As regards the justification based on the “Musaylamah” events during the first khalifate, really, it is a very poor fit, and the manner in which subsequent issues, such as the khawarij, were dealt with would indicate that those events in no way provide a ruling. That they use this **supposed** parallel is indicative of how anxious they are to discard and abrogate the moral boundaries that Islam enforces. Surrogate extremist radicalism. Someone read some Trotsky and a very dim lightbulb appeared over his head.

  4. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently commented in the New Statesman, the Islamism that is confronting Europe, of course the Middle East, and elsewhere, is itself a product of modernity (colonialism, disenfranchisement, neoliberalism, etc.) and not one of Koranic orthodoxy (so that it is inessential to the germ of the text) and is manifesting itself very similarly, in terms of heretofore unseen degrees of violence, in Libya to Syria to Mexico to Central America to Brazil to South Africa, etc. What connects all these fracturing/fully-fractured societies is, besides the fundamental damage caused by historical Western colonialism, their tensive and consequently explosive unpreparedness before the (supposedly neutralizing) relativity of neoliberal modernity (in all its vertiginous social, sexual, etc., individualizing difference). What was more subtly accrued in a West defined by its significant Middle Class is being far more precipitously (and we are seeing disastrously) imposed on far poorer, more traditional, patriarchal, ‘honor’-type societies (which are of course not limited to Islamic countries, vide historically caste-defined countries of Latin America and India). So this explosive phenomenon of ‘Islamist terrorism’ is simply the most dramatic manifestation of the more general phenomenon of hyper-imposed neoliberal modernity on societies too poor and too traditional to withstand it without experiencing an explosive ressentiment which is later twisted and disfigured by the factories of neoliberal ideology into ‘centralities’ that are in fact tangential to the actual source and essence of the destructive phenomenon.

  5. It won’t work, but for fairly obscure reasons.

    The entire theory of how to take over is sound — however, the ISIS/Daesh guys will be unable to establish order in stage 3, and so they will be knocked out as people back anyone who actually *can* establish order. Mao had a program as well as an agenda; he had technocrats as well as fighters; and he had everyone working for that cause, to build institutions.

    Daesh lacks the technocrats, and “the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master” is not an actual agenda or program, it’s just bloviation. Hizbollah in Lebanon had a coherent social program and government. The Taliban almost did, but it was pretty poorly thought out.

    What I’m saying is that Daesh can knock out countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria, but they can’t hold them; warlords who have a more pragmatic attitude who know how to build things up in times of peace will clean their clocks eventually. (After the old regimes are gone.)

    Great opportunity for a budding warlord.

  6. Now, why do I say that he can’t pull it off? Because of the crazy stuff which his subordinates are doing. Beheading people for watching soccer? Taking child “concubines” to rape? Nobody of the “build a society” type will tolerate that sort of stuff. In order to attract the judges and doctors and engineers, he has to wipe out that particular type of thuggery first.

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