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Why Chinghis Khan Matters: Reflections on the Mongol Way of Intelligence

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Why Chinghis Khan Matters: Reflections on the Mongol Way of Intelligence

John Zambri

“Thus a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destine to defeat fights in the hope of winning.”[1]

                                                                                                      -- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Intelligence drives operations.  This is an age old axiom that is no less true in modern military operations than it was during the Mongol reign of Central Asia.  The Mongols were a devastating military force whose conquests have been memorialized in countless works.  Their ability to mass forces, communicate over long distances, achieve intricate synchronization of operations, manipulate and exploit enemy weaknesses, and effectively employ psychological warfare tactics, hinged on a superior intelligence network that was unrivaled in its day.  The thirteenth century Mongol intelligence network, and their adroit exploitation of strategic, operational, and tactical level intelligence analysis was far ahead of its time and was the key to their success.  However, developing and employing intelligence networks was not unique to the Mongols.  The importance of intelligence, and determining adversary intentions, through a network of spies and informers was well documented and practiced long before Chinggis Khan and his Mongol hoard laid waste to much of Central Asia.  Why then were Mongol intelligence networks so superior to their contemporaries and what, in the post 9/11 irregular threat environment, can we learn from them?                                                            

In the late summer of 1219, by the upper waters of the Irtysh River, Chinggis Khan assembled his Mongol force and stood poised to embark upon what is considered the most audacious surprise attack in military history.[2]  By this time Chinggis Khan’s Mongol force had conquered countless cities and destroyed many empires.  None, arguably, tested the Mongol physical, logistical, strategic, and operational capabilities than his campaign against Khwarism and the Muslim armies of the Sultan.  This campaign would be particularly difficult as the Mongol army would have to travers 1300 miles that spanned mountain ranges of over twenty thousand feet, steep valleys and gorges where snow linger until summer, waterless and foodless deserts, hardships of cold, snow, and starvation, and at the end faced an army twice its size with no possibility of strategic surprise.[3]  It would take every vestige of endurance, perseverance, and strategic and tactical acumen to overcome these disadvantages.

Chinggis split his force, directing one part of his army to take the direct route from Mongolia to attack the Sultan’s boarder cities in a frontal assault while he secretly directed the other part of his army to initiate an end run, covering a distance of over two thousand miles – a march through desert, mountains, and steppe lands – to appear deep behind the enemy’s rear where his army was least expected (all without GPS!).[4]  The surprise was total and the result was complete annihilation of the Sultan’s army.  Chinggis broke with tradition and personally lead his men into the center of the newly conquered city of Bukhara – one of the most symbolically important cities belonging to the Sultan of Khwarizm.[5]

Of the thousands of cities conquered by the Mongols, history has recorded that Chinggis Khan only entered Bukhara.  The hard won victory was special.  His entry into the city symbolized the culmination of a hitherto unforeseen military movement and action that resulted in a victory that was total.  It would not be presumptuous to imagine why Chinggis, in this case, changed his “peculiar tradition.”[6]  His army performed magnificently after persevering through hardships that no other army of the time could have endured.  Splitting his forces, both traversing over a thousand miles of inhospitable terrain and climates, to strike at the appointed time and place surprising and destroying their enemy.

The inevitable question is “How?”  How was Chinggis and his Mongol army able to know the enemy so completely, the geography so intimately, and claim victory after victory with thirteenth century technology and tactics? 

The Mongols were a devastating military force whose conquests have been memorialized in countless works.  They swept across Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, conducting swift and decisive campaigns resulting in the domination of the largest contiguous empire the world has known.[7]  Their operational exploits have been studied, explored, and copied over and over in both western and eastern military actions since.  Their ability to mass forces, communicate over long distances, achieve intricate synchronization of operations, manipulate and exploit enemy weaknesses, and effectively employ psychological warfare tactics, has been well documented.  However, what has not been well documented, and in many cases merely glossed over in descriptions of Mongol warfare, was how much Mongol warfare hinged on a sophisticated and superior intelligence network they pioneered and developed.  The thirteenth century Mongol intelligence network and their adroit exploitation of strategic, operational, and tactical level intelligence analysis, was far ahead of its time and the key to their success.  

A comprehensive and detailed analysis and description of the Mongol development and practice of strategic, operational, and tactical intelligence nuances in every battle they fought is far beyond the aim and scope of this work.  However, a closer examination of selected battles and instances that highlighted Mongol strategic, operational, and tactical level intelligence collections and exploitation methods, techniques and procedures will serve to provide a greater insight and appreciation that intelligence as a tool played in the Mongol war machine.

Strategic vision was the hallmark of Mongol operational drive.  Chinggis Khan, and later succeeding Khans, had a vision of an empire united in commerce under the stability and protection of Mongol rule.[8]  Because he understood that military conquest alone was short lived and would not achieve the kind of lasting results he sought, Genghis Khan pursued his vision of empire with a grand strategy that harnessed all of the instruments of Mongol power.[9]  Under his rule, military victories were exploited by diplomatic and economic maneuvers and, often times, diplomacy and economic agreements actually preceded military operations in order to mitigate enemy intelligence and force options and tailor favorable strategic outcomes.[10]  This was especially the case during a chance encounter with Venetian merchants in 1222 as Subotai, one of Chinggis’s most capable generals, was giving chase to the Cumans.[11]

Every Mongol general was acutely aware of Mongol strategic goals.  To that end they never wasted any opportunity to collect information that, however ostensibly insignificant, may prove vital in future campaigns.  Merchants were a pivotal aspect of strategic intelligence imperatives as they travelled great distances to sell and trade goods.  They possessed particular insight and information on economic, social, cultural, geographic, and military capabilities of the countries they passed through.  In the case of the Venetian merchants, Subotai recognized their value and potential as intelligence sources for future Mongol westward incursions.[12]

Mongols always maintained a robust intelligence component that travelled with the army.  As part of their component they had cartographers, meteorologist, and engineers at their disposal.  Their intelligence staff comprised primarily of Chinese scholars who had made detailed maps of the areas they already conquered.[13]  Mongol rule always drew willingly from the skills made available to it by its conquests and from experience gained in previous battles.[14]  From information gained from captured prisoners and scouting parties, maps of the lands that lay to the front were drawn with uncanny detail.[15]  The Venetian merchant information proved so detailed that the Mongols were able to construct provisional maps of Hungary, Poland, Silesia, and Bohemia.[16]  The Mongols generally, and Subotai in this case, used a secret treaty with the Venetian merchants in order to extend and expand strategic vision.  Mongols would eliminate any merchant competition in exchanged for constant detailed intelligence reports on economic, political, cultural, social, and military status of countries they visited.[17]  This treaty would provide continuous intelligence on European matters for twenty years.[18]  In building and cultivating these relationships Chinggis, and later his successors, would trade on long standing agreements and ethnic and cultural sympathies for tactical advantage.  Such was the case during the campaign against the Chin and the assault on the Great Wall.

Chinggis Khan certainly knew the value of strategic intelligence. Through family, merchants, shepherds, tribal alliances, prisoners, envoys, and his soldiers, he developed a system and network of espionage and intelligence collections that gave him a clear and accurate picture of the strategic, operational, and tactical landscape in any part of the Mongol empire and the state of any army of lands that boarder the empire.[19]  That the Mongols were able to cross the Great Wall without any resistance is a testament to Chinggis’s strategic vision and forethought.  Long before the Mongol army advanced toward the Great Wall and threaten Pekin, Chinggis’s intelligence service had cultivated the sympathies of the Onguts, ethnic relatives of the Mongols, who were guarding a section of the wall 120 miles further to the west at Huai-lai.[20]

While Chin generals concentrated their forces around Pekin in response to Subotai’s faint attack, the Mongol main body advanced through the wall around and to the rear of the Chin army.[21]  The annihilation of the Chin army was total and complete.  The strategic intelligence assessment, that included the disposition and sympathies of the Onguts, guided the entire planning process and the sequence of operational events.[22]        

Mongol preparations for war always centered on strategic assessments of their enemy.  For an accurate picture of enemy political, cultural, and alliance dispositions, to include an enemy’s ability to maintain a coalition of forces, unified effort, and a will to fight, the Mongols relied heavily on their intelligence services.  Political intelligence was regarded as the key to strategic assessments.  Mongol Imperial Guard had permanent and extensive intelligence sections attached to its army which focused primarily on political and strategic intelligence.  They maintained copious and detailed records on all major nations and provided written records and briefings to their commanders.[23]  For example during the Chin campaign Mongol spies that had infiltrated the Onguts provided Mongol intelligence staff officers details of the terrain, position of enemy forces, defense works, and flank and rear approaches long before the campaign was embarked.[24]  Of particular interest were the rivalries that existed among enemy leadership that could potentially be exploited before and during the battle.[25]  For example, Subotai’s attack on Hungary was predicated on the assumption that internal rivalries between the Germans and the Papacy would prevent or degrade a unified effort.[26]  His intelligence analysts were not wrong.

Mongol preparation or pre-operational phase for conducting war was painstakingly meticulous. Their operations were unprecedented because of the vast distances involved, the intricate synchronization of operations, the dispersion of forces, deliberate planning and the importance of closely coordinated maneuvers at decisive points during campaigns.[27] Consequently every aspect of enemy disposition was accounted for.  Mongol intelligence staff officers gathered and processed information from all quarters and sources, analyzed it and produced highly accurate intelligence upon which operational plans were based.[28]  They ensured that every detail was systematically collected, categorized, and integrated with known information about the enemy and the land.  They gathered information on enemy defenses, roads, weather, and logistical support assets along the Mongol route of march, particularly while in the enemy country.[29]  Nothing was left to chance if it could be known.  Mongol campaigns at the operational level were formulated on the thorough study and evaluation of the resulting intelligence products.[30]

Operational intelligence was paramount to Mongol forces as they began the advancing phase of their movement to contact with their enemies.  Chinggis Khan emphasized the efficiency of combat operations by making use of any means available to achieve operational and tactical goals with the fewest casualties possible.[31]  Mongols avoided pitch battles whenever possible, engaged in strategic retreats or withdrawals and relied heavily on psychological warfare and deception.[32]  This was common practice.  The Mongols were almost always outnumbered.  With few exceptions each time the Mongols took the field they did so at a significant numerical disadvantage.[33]  As such they had to achieve objectives with the minimum amount of force.  They relied on their well established intelligence network, a highly developed system of communications, supreme mobility, and concentration of force.[34]  They could split their forces and have them operate independently hundreds of miles apart to achieve operational and tactical goals.[35] They were able to accomplish this through extensive use of highly trained scouts.

Mongol forces generally advanced on a wide front.  Ahead of the invasion force were sent small squads of scouts and spies to probe enemy defenses and locate appropriate pasturelands and water sources.  Contemporary observers recorded how the advanced parties scouted every hill and every spot before the main army arrived.[36]  They wanted to know everyone in the area, every resource, and every possible path of retreat.[37]  Prior to beginning the Khwarezm campaign, the Mongols sent numerous scouts and spies, sometimes years in advance, and sometimes disguised as merchants, to report on access routes, avenues of approach and troop dispositions, which proved key in the Shah’s defeat.[38]  

Strategic, operational, and tactical level intelligence collections and analysis practices were not new when the Mongols came on the scene.  Ancient Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese armies recognized its importance and employed it as extensively, and in some cases as adeptly, as the Mongols.  But the Mongol adaptation and use of intelligence functions arguably far surpassed previous examples of its use and practice, especially as it supported tactical level operations.  This author contends that the Mongol employment and exploitation of tactical level intelligence was so effective and devastating because it was rooted in the Mongol nomadic pastoral experience.

Prior to the rise of the Khanonate system, Nomadic life equipped the future Mongol soldier with an excellent knowledge of climate conditions, water supply, and vegetation.[39]  Nomadic livelihood of the steppe regions involved seasonal migration to summer and winter pastures, which required and fostered efficiency of mobility, adaptability, and discipline.[40]  Nomads were accustomed to hardship and difficult environmental circumstance.  To survive in the harsh deserts and mountains of the region required keen knowledge of the land and is resources.  This lifestyle also depended largely on herding and hunting, and trading and raiding for essential goods.[41]  This knowledge and experience would serve the Mongols well in battle after battle.  Their success arose from their cohesion and discipline, bread over millennia as nomads working in small groups over wide expanses of land.[42]  Superior weapons did not account for much against the Mongols who intimately knew the land, the weather, the enemy, and themselves.

The wide expanse of the steppes required a robust communications system.  Intelligence acquisition without the ability to communicate it back to the main force is useless. Nomads travelling large distances to and from their winter and summer camps dictated the use of horses and semi-permanent communication relay stations.  Nomadic herdsman used arm and hand signals that were used long after individuals had passed out of hearing range.[43]  Chinggis Khan adopted this idea, expanding and further developing a large network of permanent communication relay stations known as Yams, which were generally set at twenty five miles apart.[44]  He established the use of torches, whistling arrows, smoke, flares, and flags for immediate transmission of information during maneuvers, hunts, and military movements.[45]  The ability to communicate regularly made it possible for Mongol commanders to exercise command and control over the entire army even though it was widely dispersed.[46]  

Many authors have written about the incredible effectiveness of the Mongol way of war. Many have cited battle after battle, war after war, and primarily attributed their overwhelming success to military genius, strategic vision, operational maneuver, and tactical audacity.  However, it was intelligence, and the Mongol keen understanding and unique employment of its disciplines, that almost always shifted the balance of power from forces superior in numbers to the Mongols whose numbers in battle often were five times fewer than their enemy’s.[47] The Mongols were a devastating military force capable of massing forces, communicating over long distances, achieve intricate synchronization of operations, manipulating and exploiting enemy weaknesses, and effectively employing psychological warfare tactics to destroy their enemies. The Persian chronicler, Minhaj al-Siraj Juzjani, wrote of Chinggis Khan uncanny ability to destroy cities and conquer armies many times the size of his own, as being “adept at magic and deception and some of the devils were his friends.”[48]  It was not magic or the devil, it was a superior intelligence network that gave the Mongols the decisive edge.  

End Notes

[1] 孫子 and Samuel B Griffith, The Art of War (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 87.

2 The Irtysh River is a river in Siberia and Kazakhstan and is the chief tributary of the Ob River.  J. McIver Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Crown, 2004), 3.

3 Richard A. Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant, Oklahoma ed (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 74.

4 Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 4; Timothy May, “GENGIS KAN SECRETS OF SUCCESS,” Military History, August 2007, 44.

5 According to the Persian chronicler Minhaj al-Siraj Juzjani, Chinggis Khan never entered a city after it had been conquered, preferring to let his generals enter and his men sack and pillage.  Chinggis would generally retire to the outskirts of the provinces or cities to rest and regroups. His entry into Bukhara (located in present day Uzbekistan) was in March of 1220. Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 3.

6 Ibid.

7 Glenn H. Takemoto, Back Azimuth Check: A Look At Mongol Operational Warfare, Monograph (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: ARMY COMMAND AND GENERAL STAFF COLL FORT LEAVENWORTH KS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED MILITARY STUDIES, May 15, 1992), 2, http://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA253542.

8 “Grand Strategy as Political Warfare - Bassani_jaws_american_grand_strategy.pdf,” accessed September 7, 2013, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/ndu/bassani_jaws_american_grand_strategy.pdf.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 97.

12 Leo de Hartog, Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World (London ; New York: Taurisparke Paperbacks, 2004), 86.

13 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 97.

14 J. M. Roberts, History of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 381; John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, Inc, 1993), 205.

15 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 97.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.; Keegan, A History of Warfare, 204.

18 Richard D. McCreight, “Mongol Warrior Epic: Masters of Thirteenth Century Maneuver Warfare” (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1983), 125, http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA136620.

19 Hartog, Genghis Khan, 25.

20 Keegan, A History of Warfare, 204; Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 60; Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 139.

21 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 60; May, “GENGIS KAN SECRETS OF SUCCESS,” 45. The Mongols used encircling tactics on several occasions.  They sought to encircle their enemies, especially if their flanks and rear were exposed or, I n the case of sieges, if the defenders were weak. The Mongols would confuse their enemy by feinting at the front and then unleashing the main attack on the rear.

22 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 138; Takemoto, Back Azimuth Check: A Look At Mongol Operational Warfare, 10.

23 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 42; Takemoto, Back Azimuth Check: A Look At Mongol Operational Warfare, 17.

24 McCreight, “Mongol Warrior Epic: Masters of Thirteenth Century Maneuver Warfare,” 102.

25 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 42; Hartog, Genghis Khan, 54.

26 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 42; Hartog, Genghis Khan, 54, 92.

27 Takemoto, Back Azimuth Check: A Look At Mongol Operational Warfare, 10.

28 Ibid., 23.

29 Ibid., 12.

30 Hartog, Genghis Khan, 99.

31 Ruth W Dunnell, Chinggis Khan: World Conqueror (Boston: Longman, 2010), 51.

32 Ibid., 76.

33 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 25.

34 James Chambers, The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 43.

35 da Pian del Carpine Giovanni, The Story of the Mongols Whom We Call the Tartars = Historia Mongalorum Quos Nos Tartaros Appellamus: Friar Giovanni Di Plano Carpini’s Account of His Embassy to the Court of the Mongol Khan (Boston: Branden Pub. Co, 1996), 24.

36 Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 86.

37 Ibid.

38 Dana J. Pittard, Thirteenth Century Mongol Warfare: Classical Military Strategy of Operational Art?, Monograph (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: ARMY COMMAND AND GENERAL STAFF COLL FORT LEAVENWORTH KS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED MILITARY STUDIES, May 5, 1994), 11, http://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA284506.

39 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 30.

40 Dunnell, Chinggis Khan, 8.

41 Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 90.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid., 72.

44 Chambers, The Devil’s Horsemen, 61; Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 72.

45 Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 72.

46 Gabriel, Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 43.

47 Takemoto, Back Azimuth Check: A Look At Mongol Operational Warfare, 18.

48 Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 6.

About the Author(s)

John Zambri is a Detective III with the Los Angeles Police Department assigned to the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau.  He has been with the LAPD for 25 years and is also a Naval Reserve Intelligence officer with 20 years of service.  He was mobilized and deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.