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Preparing for the Future: Insurgents Get a Vote
“The U.S. military is at risk of repeating the mistakes it made after the Vietnam War, when it almost deliberately forgot the lessons it learned about counterinsurgency and political warfare.”[i]
---Max Boot – 23 August 2018
In every class, briefing, or discussion that occurs at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC), the U.S. Army’s new emphasis on large scale combat operations (LSCO) is evident. Instructors and students alike take every opportunity to reinforce that the Operational Environment has moved away from counterinsurgency (COIN) in favor of LSCO; however, the fact that many of the students will find themselves in a COIN fight is seemingly forgotten. This is not to say the students will be ill-prepared to operate in a COIN environment, but rather that their success or failure will be based largely on their own self development and experience rather than the CGSC curriculum. This begs the question: how much longer will this be the case? The experience of COIN deployments is waning due to decreased operational tempo, and with it the U.S. Army’s reliance on that knowledge will become more tenuous. Without a concerted effort to evolve our COIN doctrine alongside that of LSCO by the Army, how will the profession of arms ensure that hard-fought lessons are not lost moving forward? The unspoken answer to this question seems to be a reliance on the informal network of professional writing and leader mentorship. As such, this examination into a modern evolution of insurgent movements aims to generate thought and dialogue on current problem sets and their impacts on current and future conflicts.
The nature of insurgent movements is that they are diametrically opposed to the state government in which they reside; therefore, they find themselves in conflict with the state’s security forces in often-violent exchanges. This militant exchange is one in which the insurgent groups are typically out-gunned and out-manned. Consequently, insurgents must ensure that when they engage with security forces they do so on their terms and maximize any and all advantages. By doing so, insurgent groups are able to “level the playing field” against better-trained, funded, and equipped conventional fighting forces. Tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) developed by insurgent groups are commonly ones that are not directly associated with warfare due to the inherent resource restrictions on non-state actors. Insurgent TTPs normally incorporate otherwise innocuous everyday objects or methods and convert them to weapons of war. Examples include everything from guerrilla warfare tactics used by the American Colonial Minutemen to attack British forces in traditional rank and file formations associated with the time, to more modern examples of many different insurgent organizations weaponizing everything from soda cans to posters into improvised explosive devises (IED).
As insurgencies continue to metastasize and evolve, so do their military adversaries. As a result, insurgencies must continuously adapt new methods of direct-action attacks in order to stay ahead of the countermeasures developed. Currently, the next iteration of insurgent attack methods is playing out in conflict areas in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and are being exported to the European Continent. Salafist Jihadi organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are employing unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as a method of attack previously considered technologically beyond their capabilities.[ii] Additionally, Jihadists recently adopted a new ‘low tech’ method of terror attack: vehicular assaults on large open-air gatherings (Berlin, Stockholm, etc.).[iii] Both of these new TTPs are being used effectively in the MENA region and warrant examination. Their success will likely result in their export to other conflict areas, to include Western targets in Europe and the United States.
Over the past decade, UAS was observed as an emerging weapon of war. In a 2013-piece, Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar and robotics expert, calculated “there are currently 87 countries that have used UAS in their militaries. Of these, at least 26 have larger systems, including Predator equivalents that are already armed or of a model that has been armed in the past.”[iv] In the same piece, Singer briefly touches on the possibility of Al-Qaeda being able to develop or operate a drone for the purposes of an attack; however, less than five years later even a brief glance at current news sources will yield multiple stories regarding the effective use of drones by insurgent groups in the Middle East and North Africa. This steep evolution of UAS capabilities by non-state actors and Salafist jihadi organizations is another example in a long history of insurgencies adopting TTPs that afford them the ability to conduct protracted war against strategically superior forces. In this way, they not only can find equal footing, but can gain the tactical advantage in confrontations that occur on their terms.
As mentioned previously, not all of the TTPs employed by insurgent groups are based on a new technology; some are adaptations of historically well-known technologies, or even techniques. An extremely contemporary example is the use of large vehicles to conduct assaults on crowds of people. The use of a vehicle to run down people is not a new technique. On the contrary, it is an event that occurs (whether intentionally or not) almost daily. Similarly, the concept of employing a suicide attack against one’s adversary is certainly not new to warfare. Even the most novice observer of history can easily recall kamikaze attacks used in World War II by the Japanese and countless examples of suicide bombings used in recent and present history in the name of Jihad. Although the technique of using a vehicle to murder or maim others is not a form of new technology, the method by which ISIS has coopted it is strikingly new. ISIS has taken a seemingly random event and developed it into a distinct form of terrorist attack. Pro-ISIS telegram channels such as Intiqami[v] (German language) and Al-Bayan[vi] (Arabic language) have been used to direct ISIS foot soldiers in the vehicular attack TTP and have even been used to direct foreign fighters to execute vehicular attacks abroad on behalf of ISIS. This adoption of a typically innocuous (and economically necessary) means of transportation as a weapon of terrorism causes obvious problems for any security force seeking to defend itself and the citizens it protects. This safety predicament is exactly what ISIS and other organizations look to exploit with this TTP. When you take this everyday object (truck), weaponize it, then layer nationalism and fear on top, as in Belgium, France, etc., what recourse does a “modern” state have in response?
By applying emergent TTPs to combat conventional forces, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other insurgent groups are able to achieve both tactical and strategic goals. UAS and vehicular attacks are limited in their impact tactically because they typically do not inflict as many casualties as some other forms of attack normally associated with insurgencies such as large bombings, hijackings, and mass shootings; however, they instill significant amounts of fear in the societies in which their targets reside in and associate with. As a result of that fear, insurgent groups are able to make far larger strategic-level impacts against their adversaries than those obtained through conventional warfare techniques. This principle of attacking from a point of relative advantage is one that has been critical to insurgencies throughout history and will continue to be so moving forward.
As the U.S. Army looks forward to the next conflict, it must not lose sight of the current strategic challenges. Current adversaries are evolving their own TTPs, and as LTG Lundy states, “our adversaries watched, learned, adapted, modernized and devised strategies that put us at a position of relative disadvantage in places where we may be required to fight.”[vii] Future adversaries will likely also adopt insurgent tactics, if not entire insurgent groups, in concert with their own modernizing forces in any conflict with the U.S.. Therefore, we must regrow the large-scale combat operations knowledge base in concert with, rather than at the expense, of COIN.
[i] “MWI Podcast: Syria, Ukraine, and the Danger of Forgetting Counterinsurgency, with Max Boot,” Modern War Institute (blog), August 23, 2018, Available at .
[ii] Martin, D., “ISIS drones disrupt U.S.-backed Iraqis’ fights for Mosul” on CBSnews.com (25 February, 2017) Available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/isis-drones-disrupt-us-iraqis-fight-mosul/.
[iii] Yan, H., “Vehicles as weapons: Stockholm attack is part of emerging terror tactic” on CNN.com (7 April 2017) Available at
[iv] Singer, P., The Proliferation of Drones: Changes in size, intelligence reframe questions of use, (Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Washington D.C.) September, 2013, 1.
[v] “Pro-IS German-language telegram channel returns” in SITE Intelligence Group, 10 March 2017, Available at
[vi] "IS Reveals Launch of ‘Al-Bayan Channel’ in Video on Foreign Fighters and Their Children in ar-Raqqah” in SITE Intelligence Group, 20 March 2017, Available at
[vii] LTG Lundy, Michael. “Forward” in OPERATIONS, Field Manual 3-0 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Army, OCT 2017)