Islamic State: Tactics, Strategy and Effectiveness

It had not been that many days since the beginning of American bombings against the militant group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — ISIS in its initials in English, or simply, the Islamic State — when the video that showed the decapitation of the American journalist Foley circulated throughout all networks. In spite of attempts to stop it from becoming viral, this is exactly what happened. The issues on the agenda were not the bombers’ successes against the Islamic State or the recovery of the Mosul Dam by the Kurds. Using a highly effective psychological strategy, the Islamic State redirected the discussion toward extremely difficult issues for Obama, such as the “rushed” American withdrawal from Iraq, his “passivity” around the Syrian civil war, and even his refusal to pay ransom for his kidnapped countrymen, unlike some European governments. Meanwhile, the Islamic State redirects its forces anew from Iraq to Syria, quickly capturing an important base in that country, now turning the White House’s attention towards the necessity of not only attacking the Islamic State in Iraq, but also in Syria.

This is only one example that demonstrates, firstly, the Islamic State’s ability to maintain initiative through swift, surprising and highly effective actions, and secondly, the use of terrorist tactics in the strictest sense — using violence for a psychological impact on many groups and in this manner, generating changes in opinions, attitudes and behaviors, thus pressuring their enemies. Thirdly, it also demonstrates its very skilled combination of these psychological instruments with tactics that include both attack and retreat, like the taking and maintaining control of strategically planned positions.

The Islamic State is said to be simultaneously a terrorist group, an army and a government. It learned the first from its extensive experience as part of al-Qaida in Iraq — incidentally the country with the most terrorist attacks from 2003 till now. Its methods range from attacks against public buildings, markets or buses, and other similar objectives, to the use of social networks to publicize the violence committed against enemy soldiers or civilians that do not comply with the demands of the group, thus provoking mass panic simply at the mention of its presence. Unfortunately, given the effectiveness of these tactics, it leads us to assume that they will be used frequently, more so as the group feels increasingly besieged by conventional military bombers.

But what surprises many is that the Islamic State does not behave like a typical terrorist group. This organization has been able to weave a complex alliance with former members of the Sunni Iraqi military, who have experience from Saddam Hussein’s rule and who today are not only resentful of Washington, but also of the Iraqi government, whose sectarian practices have isolated them through the years. Thus, the military hand can be seen clearly: The Islamic State has drawn its lines of operation very carefully and has effectively controlled a good part of Iraqi and Syrian territories, assuring strategic positions not only through a military lens, but also from an economic perspective.

Finally, as this organization takes control of more and more localities, it should also behave as a government, maintaining the operation of social functions, from the financial support of the self-declared caliphate to everyday tasks performed by technicians and bureaucrats.

Therefore, the name “Islamic State” makes sense and demonstrates with clarity that the goals of this organization are not only in the minds of its leaders, but also in the effectiveness of the way in which the goals are being reached. The latter is what is producing a double effect: On one side, the group can position itself before current and potential supporters as the most legitimate and effective bringer of jihad, compared to others like al-Qaida, with whom they come into direct collision. On the other, the Islamic State can project itself as the group which always maintains initiative, which can threaten enemies within and outside the state, which drives the discussion to what it wants to talk about and which forces others to react exactly as it wants them to react in the face of any of its actions. Fighting it, therefore, will involve a much greater understanding of its mode of operation than what has been shown before now.

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