The Islamic State has a key advantage over many of its militant predecessors – it fights using an unusual blend of military strategy teamed with insurgent techniques.
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The leadership is decentralized, with regional commanders enjoying significant autonomy allowing it to operate on several fronts. Its infrastructure is overseen mostly by middle-aged Iraqi men with substantial operational knowledge from the Saddam Hussein-era military or from more than a decade of insurgent experience. Many of the group’s senior leaders are former Iraqi army officers who met Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during his time imprisoned in Camp Bucca 10 years ago.
In contrast, its foot soldiers, who are mostly under 30, are drawn from a wide variety of countries. The nations with the largest contingents of foreign fighters in the Islamic State are Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Jordan.
This setup gives ISIS a base of professional training and experience, combined with good local intelligence and tribal ties across a wide expanse of territory.
It can also draw on a variety of commandeered equipment including drones for gathering intelligence, as well as military vehicles and weaponry. The Islamic State has also been reported to be using crude chemical weapons including rockets filled with chlorine and mustard gas, which are fairly simple to manufacture.
But despite the fear it inspires, ISIS can only rely on a modest-sized fighting force with a high attrition rate. Far from being unvanquished, it has lost numerous battles with opposition or Kurdish forces and appears perfectly willing to make tactical withdrawals when necessary.
Islamic State commanders are aware that limited military strength divided between numerous fronts prevents the group from defending every piece of territory. The focus appears to be on extracting as high a price as possible from its opponents through improvised explosive devices, snipers and booby-trapped houses before moving back to defend its power base.
Similarly, the highly orchestrated and slickly filmed atrocities that have become the ISIS trademark have the power to reach a massive audience, which allows the group to spread terror far beyond its actual abilities. Widely shared on social media, these signature execution videos are not only effective as propaganda but have proved a valuable recruiting tool. The films have shown lingering executions of “high-profile” targets such as Western hostages or mass spectaculars with dozens of people being killed in increasingly horrific ways.
The Islamic State is also adept at using social media to make grandiose claims of victory and issue dire warnings of revenge. After Twitter began cracking down on ISIS accounts last year, militants made death threats against the company’s then-CEO Dick Costolo and cofounder Jack Dorsey. And a British extremist recently published the personal details of Robert O’Neill – the U.S. Navy SEAL who claimed to be the man responsible for killing Osama bin Laden – and called for him to be assassinated.
Despite the Islamic State's repeated calls for the West to be hit hard, attacks on the West until recently were limited to urging “lone wolves,” with no evidence that any of the terrorist strikes carried out in Europe and linked to ISIS were directly authorized by its leadership.
All that changed on November 13, 2015 with the coordinated assaults on Paris, in which 129 people were killed and some 350 injured. Seven separate attacks targeted cafes, bars, the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France football stadium, where French President Francois Hollande was among thousands watching a France-Germany match.
Arrests were made in both France and Belgium in connection with the attacks and Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, warned that further ISIS attacks were likely to be carried out elsewhere in Europe.
This seems to usher in a new phase in the terror group’s strategy, with supporters outside the Middle East encouraged to embark on spectacular attacks.
Hollande called the attack, the worst atrocity on French soil since World War II, “an act of war.”
In the aftermath of the Paris massacres, ISIS also released a number of new videos promising further strikes in Western countries. These threats now appear more than empty propaganda.