Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad
Now that Americans are dropping bombs on the forces of al Baghdadi’s Caliphate, it may be appropriate to examine his warfighting style.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not a formally trained military commander. However, he is not illiterate or a common thug such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who led al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006. Al-Baghdadi holds a doctorate in theology from a theological seminary and appears to be a keen student of American tactics as they were passed on to the Iraqi Army, as well as the military practices of his Syrian Baathist opponents. Whether he is a military prodigy or merely a very talented student and practitioner of military art is irrelevant. To date, he has shown himself to be a very effective commander.
Like the prophet Mohammed from whom he claims descent, al-Baghdadi sees himself as a soldier-Imam and recognizes no difference between fighting, governing, and religion. This allows him to flow seamlessly between mediums. If we write him off as a mere terrorist, we make the mistake of underestimating him. He is generally considered to be a crackpot by serious Islamic scholars, but he controls a tract of land that includes most of al-Anbar province, much of eastern Syria, and Iraq’s second largest city; that makes him a serious player in the region. However, we should also beware of making him out to be ten feet tall. If we are going to deal with him, we need to understand how he fights and governs as well as his strengths and weaknesses.
There is both military art and science behind al-Baghdadi’s recent successes. His approach is different from western military leadership practices, but it is not unique in history. He seems to have borrowed some elements of the warfighting styles of the Prophet Mohammed and Genghis Khan as well as the some political-strategic approaches of Lenin and Hitler. Whether these were adopted from a study of history or the serendipitous outcome of pure talent is somewhat irrelevant. To date, al-Baghdadi has achieved significant results. We can’t fully understand his thought process but we can study his methods and the principles he employs. These are discussed below.
KNOW YOURSELF AND YOUR ENEMY. Like the forces of Genghis Khan, al-Baghdadi’s army consists of a small group of professionals; they are largely comprised of veteran foreign fighters. To enhance unit cohesion, al-Baghdadi appears to keep them in national units. This also helps internal communication as the chance of confusion due to dialects is reduced by keeping countrymen together.
Al-Baghdadi has surrounded himself with loyal, battle hardened sub-commanders who he trusts enough to send on independent missions. This reliance on commanders empowered to make decisions based on the intent of the overall commander allows agility unheard of in Damascus and Baghdad where commanders are judged more on perceived loyalty to the leader than on competence. This is a great tactical advantage for the self-proclaimed Caliph.
Al-Baghdadi will employ suicide bombers when it serves his purpose, but he appears to use more expendable local volunteers or “draftees” for such missions as combat experienced jihadists do not appears to be viewed as expendable for suicide missions. Although they would likely welcome eventual martyrdom, Baghdadi uses them for more high value combat operations.
Regarding understanding enemies, al-Baghdadi has four categories of opponents that he is simultaneously dealing with. The first is the Syrian Army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies. Second are the loosely organized moderate Syrian rebel militias. A third grouping are the Jihadist Syrian rebels who claim allegiance to al Qaeda’s main arm under Baghdadi’s rival Ayman al-Zawahiri. Finally there are Shiite forces of the Iraqi army which include both the regular Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias. Al-Baghdadi appears to modify his tactics to deal with the strengths and weaknesses of various categories of foes. To date, he has bested most of his adversaries. His only significant tactical setback was the failure to take control of the Baji oil fields from Iraqi regular force commandos.
PRACTICE MANEUVER WARFARE. The army of the newly proclaimed Caliphate is well versed in the theory and practice of maneuver warfare. Maneuver Warfare is not just about movement. It is about putting of all of your force’s effects where they will do the most damage to the enemy. Al-Baghdadi has proven adept at the key tenants of maneuver warfare:
Avoiding Surfaces and Exploiting Gaps. Al-Baghdadi understands the concept of striking the enemy where he is weak and avoiding his foes’ strengths; this is true of physical military capability as well as the exploitation of enemy moral weaknesses. He exploits reconnaissance and intelligence to gauge whether an operation is doable. In Mosul, al-Baghdadi judged Iraqi army leadership to be rotten to the core and was able to take the city with a main force of about 800 men routing thousands of Iraqi government security forces after their leaders fled. However, when Iraqi government commandos provided steadfast resistance at the Baji oil fields, al-Baghdadi’s commander on the scene recognized a surface and moved on to softer targets.
Attack the Enemy’s Moral Cohesion. Through the selective use of terror, al-Baghdadi has gotten inside the opponent’s decision cycle. Iraqi government commanders in Baghdad found themselves issuing orders to subordinate leaders who have left the field. Junior soldiers woke up to see their commanders boarding mini-busses and panicked fearing the fate of fellow soldiers who had previously surrendered only to be massacred. This deliberate use of terror is selective as was the case with Genghis Khan. He massacred the populations of the first cities of any region that he attacked, and the word got around that resistance was futile. The great Khan conquered many cities, but based on his reputation, he had to lay siege to very few.
This moral and morale superiority has allowed fast moving jihadist flying columns traveling in light trucks that can mix with civilian traffic to strike their enemies where his forces are weak or non-existent. The collapse of whole provinces more closely resembled Hitler’s blitzkrieg through France and the Low Countries than the guerrilla war that Americans experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is also similar to the tactics of Genghis Khan who made advancing Mongol forces seem to be much larger than they were and to be everywhere at once. Fear induced reporting turned battalions into regiments, regiments into divisions, and divisions into “hordes”.
Use of Terror and Psychological Warfare as Supporting Arms. The previously mentioned use of executions to induce the enemy run rather than stand and fight is a form of tactical psychological operations. On the strategic level, al-Baghdadi makes adept use of information warfare to include sophisticated humor. After his forces captured much American material, Baghdadi’s propagandist personnel photo chopped Michelle Obama’s famous picture holding up a placard with the “# Bring back our girls”. The modified ISIS Twitter hash tag read “# Bring back our Humvees”. His sophisticated internet and social media based recruiting campaign has brought foreign fighters flocking to his banner to include many European Muslims and a considerable number from the United States. The fact that these volunteers hold passports from the countries in question is an ominous omen for the future.
The great Khan spread his propaganda message by rumor and fifth column plants disguised as merchants; al Baghdadi uses the social media and the web. His web site recently posted a video with graphic and horrifying images of government soldiers and Shiite militiamen being executed. This is obviously having a chilling effect on the morale of the government security forces.
Employ Useful Idiots as Fifth Columns and Auxiliaries. Here, al-Baghdadi has skilfully used tactics that he may well have learned from reading about Hitler and Lenin; like them, he has used Sunni unhappiness with the Shiite/Alawite governments in Baghdad and Damascus respectfully to create alliances of convenience that swell his ranks, provide intelligence, and potentially incite local uprisings that force government foes to be looking for potential enemies in all directions.
Recent interviews with Sunni sheikhs and former Baathist officials fighting alongside Baghdadi’s forces indicate that they think they can control al-Baghdadi in the end. This sounds frighteningly similar to comments by German conservatives about Hitler in the early 1930s and Russian liberals about Lenin in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution. Once the usefulness of these partners had diminished and the two dictators consolidated power; many of the collaborators found themselves in concentration camps, in front of firing squads, or on the wrong end of a rope.
A recent Washington Post interview with citizens of the heavily Sunni Baghdad district of Amiriyah in Baghdad indicates that many are prepared to rise up as a fifth column in support of advancing Caliphate forces if they decide to move on the Iraqi capital. This probably says more about the incompetence and stupidity of the Maliki regime than in does about al-Baghdadi’s genius, but the intelligence provided is in itself a valuable force multiplier for the jihadist leader.
Use Mission Orders to Enhance Operational Security. Telling subordinates what to do, not how to do it, is a basic tenant of maneuver warfare; but it also allows Baghdadi to command and control his forces with an absolute minimum of cell phone and radio communications that are subject to American intercepts which can be provided to Iraqi security forces. Baghdadi makes extensive use of runners and motorcycle messengers to keep his opponents in the dark.
American commanders talk a good game about Maneuver Warfare, but many take advantage of technology and secure communications to micromanage. It is not unusual for an American Colonel to be tracking squad sized units on his computer; worse still, it is not unusual to require American squad and platoon sized units to submit detailed patrol plans three days in advance so they can be plotted into computers. Baghdadi can simply say; “take this town and let me know when you have it”. It doesn’t make him a good guy, but he is a very effective military leader. Contrast this with Maliki and Karzai who will move or fire a commander who appears so competent or popular that he might become a competitor for power.
Use the Tools at Hand When Appropriate. The forces of the Caliphate, formerly known as ISIS, have made wise use of captured equipment. Al-Baghdadi has resisted the temptation to use captured American supplied armor because he obviously realizes that it will be vulnerable to Iraqi government airpower and American armed drones should the Obama administration authorize their use. Tanks armored vehicles also use fuel and require sophisticated maintenance. However, they make great propaganda fodder.
However, Baghdadi’s forces used bulldozers to tear down fences and cover advancing ISIS troops to rout regular Iraqi defenders until the commandos arrived to stabilize the situation. There are indications that he has used captured Iraqi army vehicles to mix in with Iraqi forces and sew further confusion.
The Caliphate’s recent capture of a Hussein era chemical site gives the western and regional observers more reason for concern. AQI was playing with chemical weapon precursors years ago. Although the Iraqis say anything there is dormant, they have been wrong about so many things for so long that their credibility on this subject is questionable.
MAKE WAR SUPPORT ITSELF. Baghdadi’s forces have used captured fuel, food, and money to support their army. Like Napoleon’s Grand Army, they have lived off the land and are now levying taxes on the populations that have come under their control. This frees them from the onerous challenges associated with maintaining long lines of communication and hoards of support troops and allows their forces to be much more agile.
This loot has probably made the Caliphate the richest jihadist organization in the world. This largesse frees the Caliphate from being beholden to other Jihadist groups and Sunni governments. It is this kind of independence that allows al-Baghdadi to thumb his nose at Zawahiri and al-Qaeda central.
POTENTIAL WEAKNESSES. Although Baghdadi has proven to be a formidable foe, he is not ten feet tall. His movement has exploitable weaknesses. At the present time, no single regional actor would be able to defeat him. Neither the Iraqi nor the Syrian armies have the wherewithal to engage in full scale urban combat to expel the forces of the Caliphate from urban enclaves such as Mosul, Fallujah, or Tikrit. Even if they are supported by Iranian Quds forces or Lebanese Hezbollah, the regular armies of Iraq or Syria will lack the capability to clear urban areas defended by Caliphate forces. None-the less, against a skilled western military force, these weaknesses are very exploitable.
Governing is More Difficult than Conquering. The Caliphate’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), found this to be true in Iraq, and modern Jihadists have done poorly in ruling almost any time they take control of an area. A recent poll in the Gaza strip reveals that eighty percent of residents are dissatisfied with Hamas governance to include the delivery of services. Jihadist rule in the areas of Iraq, Somalia and Mali that they briefly controlled were equally disastrous.
Their rigid imposition of Sharia law was one of the key factors that caused Sunnis in Iraq’s al Anbar province to turn against AQI in the Anbar Awakening in 2006-7. In Mosul, it initially appeared that the Caliphate had learned the lesson of not being too rigid in imposing their version of Sharia; however, in recent weeks, al-Baghdadi’s administrators have cracked down hard; this is particularly true in the case of women and Christians. Eventually this will wear heavily on the populations under Caliphate rule; if they crack down too hard on the proud Sheikhs and former Baathists that are now the Caliphate’s allies, the potential for “Awakening II” much more likely. There have been recently manifestations this in attacks on Islamic State fighters following the Caliphate’s ill-advised destruction of thr Tomb of Jonah. It is hard to see how small numbers of jihadists can long maintain control of cities such as Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit without the support of the tribal system. Napoleon and the Prophet Mohammed allowed considerable latitude among their allies as long as they did not interfere with overall governance. It remains to be seen if Baghdadi has that level of wisdom. The recent exile of Christians from Mosul contrasts sharply with Mohammed’s relative tolerance toward Jews during the first Jihad when he treated them as allies as long as they kept within the basic moral guidelines of their religious practice.
At Least, We Know Where They Are. If they expect to govern; the Caliphate’s leaders will have to have fixed offices, police positions, and operate infrastructures such as electric sub-stations, cell phone towers and water infrastructure. Unlike insurgencies and normal terror operations, it will be more difficult to hide among the population; this will make conventional targeting much easier.
POTENTIAL KEY MISTAKES. The real challenge for al Baghdadi will to avoid some key mistakes made by conquerors in the past; some had spectacular success early and disastrously failed later. Others have known when to quit.
Overreach. Napoleon and Hitler both made this mistake in attacking Russia. Julius Caesar limited his military reach, but overstepped his political bounds after winning a succession of civil wars; he was eventually assassinated by his colleagues in the Roman Senate. Stalin was smart enough not to push his luck too far. His decision not to advance into Denmark in May 1945 avoided so angering the western allies in a way that would risk military confrontation with them.
Culminating Point. This is the tactical manifestation of overreach. It is outrunning your supplies or having such long lines of communications that you have more troops guarding your rear than at the tip of the sphere. Army’s that live off the land, such as that of the Caliphate does are particularly vulnerable to scorched earth tactics. For example; if al-Baghdadi ever takes it into his head to invade Iran to finish off the Shiites once and for all, he will be in trouble if the Iranians adopt a scorched earth policy. He will then have to develop a conventional supply system which will be vulnerable to air interdiction.
Inciting the Americans. This would be the ultimate mistake for al-Baghdadi. He has made the obligatory threats to attack America required of a good Jihadist, and he knows that the American people think they are tired of war. The reality is that most of our country has never experienced war; many
Americans are just tired of hearing about it. It is one thing to attack a diplomatic outpost or US military installation overseas, but a 9-11 style attack on the American homeland would be a game changer, as probably would be the use of chemical weapons or a dirty bomb on American soil.
As previously mentioned, with the possible exception of the French or British, only the Americans have the experience and skill in urban combat and the technology to root the Caliphate’s forces from their urban strongholds and destroy Baghdadi’s ability to wage conventional combat. Al Baghdadi will have to carefully weigh the glory that might be obtained by a successful strike on the American homeland with the potential consequences. If he does this, he will risk being pushed back into operating out of safe houses and being again relegated to terror attacks after the American destroy his conventional military capability.
IS AL-BAGHDADI A ONE MAN SHOW? We Americans have had an obsession with destroying jihadist leadership cadres. In many cases, we have merely culled out older leadership only to see it replaced with more ambitious and competent leaders. That raises the question of how indispensable al-Baghdadi is to his movement. Mohammed’s death slowed jihadist momentum for years while his successors fought for power, and the Sunni-Shiite split still divides Islam today. The possibility of al-Baghdadi’s jihad imploding is one potential outcome if we are successful in eliminating him. Jihads have a bad tendency to turn inward on themselves and this one seems already to be doing so with the Zawahiri-Baghdadi split. An intramural fight for control among Baghdadi’s would-be successors would undoubtedly weaken the movement. But there is another scenario.
The Genghis Khan model is another potential outcome. Like the great Khan, Baghdadi has stressed initiative and independent action among his subordinates. If he designates a successor, the potential for internal conflict may be lessened. When Genghis died, there was a reasonably smooth succession; and the Mongol Hordes rumbled on.
The region and the rest of the world would undoubtedly be better off if al-Baghdadi suddenly dies, but there is no guarantee that his demise will be the end of his Caliphate or its army. We would be wise not to underestimate this self-declared Caliph. Those who dismiss him as a mere terrorist do so at the risk of their reputations. Baghdadi may not be a Napoleon or Genghis Khan yet, but he owns territory that he has taken. In the neighborhood he lives in, possession is nine tenths of the law.
For the moment, we have to assume that al-Baghdadi and his Caliphate will remain a fact of life for the foreseeable future; but we also need to realize that, sometime in the future, we will come to blows with the organization. When that time comes, the more we know about how they think and how they fight the better off we will be.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where he teaches Red Teaming.