Small Wars Journal

Insurgents and the Flip Side of Special Operations

Insurgents and the Flip Side of Special Operations by Ian Rice and Craig A. Whiteside – Foreign Policy Research Institute

While the Islamic State’s physical caliphate is no more, it is clear that the group has successfully transitioned back to a uniform insurgency contesting for influence in areas of Syria and Iraq. Certainly, its far-flung affiliates in Asia and Africa believe in the sustainability of the brand, foregoing an opportunity to drop their allegiance to a “guerrilla caliph” and instead renewing their pledges. Efforts to gauge the possibility of an Islamic State comeback “After the Caliphate” would be wise to consult its previous rise to power before 2014, a period that is understudied and widely misunderstood—despite the fact that the Islamic State has regularly published on its insurgency doctrine and noted its pre-caliphate roots. As part of a larger investigation of how the group gained its caliphate, we recently published an article titled “Black Ops: Islamic State Innovation in Irregular Warfare” (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism) that investigates the evolution of a sophisticated style of insurgency that experimented with the use of special operations. Below, we summarize our results for the policy community and present the findings for those interested in how militant tactics and strategies are evolving.

Why would insurgents develop a special operations capability, and what exactly does that look like? In an era where state militaries rely on well-resourced special operations forces and use them at an unprecedented rate, little attention has been paid to militant development of a parallel capability. Much of this neglect is compounded by the fact that insurgent operations are often clandestine in nature, a mix of terror and guerilla tactics, and vary by village, region, and country. Sorting through this complexity to find examples of special operations is a difficult task and requires a great deal of conceptual sorting. Our research into Islamic State of Iraq/Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (a.k.a. ISIS) claims and documents from 2006-2014 revealed three anomalous operations that we felt qualified as special operations…

Read on.