Against all odds, an Al Qaeda-splinter group best known for beheading its enemies has weathered U.S. firepower and proved nearly unbeatable on a vast and expanding battlefield across Syria and Iraq — its self-declared "caliphate."
But according to a new analysis from the Soufan Group, a New York–based security and intelligence consultancy firm, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's (ISIL) headline-grabbing brutality has obscured the other factors behind its emergence as a formidable challenger to regional powers. Under the guidance of veteran Saddam Hussein–era Iraqi commanders, ISIL has morphed from an underground terrorist cell into a dynamic and well-oiled military force that defies the conventional definition of an insurgent group.
“In Baghdad, it's still a classic terror group. In Fallujah, it's a light infantry unit. It’s whatever it needs to be,” said Patrick Skinner, the lead author of Soufan’s November report, which collated open-source information and analysis from other experts.
According to the report, ISIL's playbook is to soften its targets through a campaign of terrorist attacks, then infiltrate the population and defending forces, gradually gaining control of some areas of the target. Finally, it launches a decisive assault on the rest with its arsenal of mostly looted weaponry.
In recent weeks, those tactics have been on display in Kobane, the Syrian town where weeks of U.S.-led airstrikes and newly arrived Iraqi Kurdish reinforcements have finally put ISIL on the verge of a rare battlefield defeat. The psychological impact of ISIL's momentum — and its penchant for decapitating prisoners of war — has turned Kobane into a do-or-die mission for its various opponents across the region, all of whom are desperate to prove the extremist forces can be rolled back.
“Except for Kobane, they’ve won everywhere they have fought,” said Chris Harmer, an analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Institute for the Study of War. “To people fighting against them, it turns them into these 10-foot tall giants who can beat anyone in their path.”
But Kobane is just one battle, and waging it has exposed the steep costs involved in simply stopping ISIL from advancing on a single front. It took a herculean effort of diplomatic engineering led by the U.S., coupled with massive protests by Turkish Kurds, to convince a reluctant Ankara merely to allow those reinforcements through its gates. Even with the backing of coalition strikes, all they've managed is a stalemate.
While the geopolitical wrangling ensued over Kobane, ISIL gained ground on other fronts and now controls nearly 80 percent of Iraq’s Anbar province, where this week it sent a chilling message by summarily executing dozens of Sunni tribesmen. On Oct. 16, it rattled off twin suicide bombs in the heart of Baghdad, killing over 50 people.
Analysts say ISIL’s military leadership is demonstrating surprising tactical proficiency and an unusually sound command and control structure for such a diffuse insurgency. Top commanders, like the self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or renowned military commander Omar al-Shishani, can send orders to fighters on the front lines several hundred miles away, Soufan noted. Whereas U.S.-led firepower is hampered by political complications distinguishing action in Syria (where the U.S. opposes not only ISIL but also the Assad regime) from Iraq (where it partners with a government that also partners with Iran), which make it difficult to coordinate action with ground partners in either country, ISIL can punch and roll wherever and whenever it pleases.
The ragtag insurgency's surprising discipline bears the fingerprints of former Saddam-era Iraqi officers, who were marginalized by the Shia-led government that replaced Saddam and now fight under the black flag. Analysts believe they have offered ISIL pervasive intelligence networks on the ground in Iraq and a level of tactical foresight usually displayed only by conventional armies.
“When you combine the violent dominating rule of Saddam Hussein with the violent rhetoric of Osama bin Laden, you get the chimera of ISIS," said Skinner.
To be sure, the group has made strategic errors, most notably by creeping too close to the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil in August. That offensive was swiftly repelled, but it could’ve subjected the group to even fiercer punishment by U.S. and allied forces. But ISIL appears to have learned the necessity of tactical restraint; namely, in holding back from a potentially suicidal advance on predominantly Shia Baghdad, where Iraqi forces are strongest and the U.S. and others would commit ground troops if necessary to protect their own personnel.
And its targeting is far from random, analysts say. Kobane, for example, is strategically important as it bridges ISIL’s vast territory abutting the Turkish border. But it also hosts major grain silos — critical to the group’s goal of self-sufficiency in the "caliphate." Other priority targets include Syria and Iraq's oil refineries, so as to bolster ISIL's tiny petro-state.
Still, ISIL has vulnerabilities. For all their hindrances, U.S. airstrikes are nevertheless taking a toll. In order to seize Kobane, ISIL has been forced to come out of hiding and gather in small units more vulnerable to targeting. According to the Pentagon’s Central Command, over 600 fighters have been killed in strikes so far.
Military prowess may also be less important in explaining ISIL’s astonishing rise than the collapse of state authority in Syria and Iraq, and the inertia of the group's regional enemies who are distracted by other objectives. ISIL fighters have been able to foster support among disaffected fellow Sunnis in the vacuum of crumbling Syrian and Iraqi states, in large part by securing and starting to administer its territories. But many expect the group's harsh approach to governance will ultimately grate on the populace, turning local militias against them.
Building its fighting force, which Soufan puts at up to 30,000, has also hinged on recruiting a new generation of radicalized young men across the globe by seizing land and restoring the sought-after caliphate — something Al-Qaeda never did. But if airstrikes and emboldened allied ground forces can disrupt the group’s momentum, that might also stem the flow of recruits.
The Soufan report further suggested that killing ISIL’s small cadre of skilled military tacticians, such as al-Shishani, could seriously hamstring the group's advances. Most of their foot soldiers are amateurs – radicalized volunteers from abroad or forced conscripts from conquered towns and villages – and their loyalty is often pegged to the religious and ideological legitimacy of the group's leaders.
A pivotal showdown is playing out in Kobane, where ISIL's psychological advantage could be at stake if the Kurds are able to hold out. Even then, analysts warn a hard-bitten, ideologically driven insurgency like ISIL will not be easily discouraged.
“Once they decide they’ve had enough in Kobane, they’ll melt away,” said Skinner. “And then they’re just as dangerous.”