The Islamic State Conceptualizes Guerrilla Warfare

Below is a translation of the editorial from issue 236 of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter al-Naba, in which the group theorizes guerrilla warfare.

In the editorial, the Islamic State offers its membership a religious-jurisprudential justification for hit-and-run guerrilla warfare when they are outmatched conventionally. Though the group’s ultimate goal remains a territorial “state” – akin to what it realized in Syria and Iraq 2014 – it also recognizes the need for extended irregular warfare below that semi-conventional threshold, in order to create conditions appropriate for territorial control. The editorial thus instructs the group’s membership not to attempt to hold and defend territory prematurely, and not to squander manpower and resources. Rather, the editorial makes clear that in the long lead-up to open, semi-conventional warfare, hit-and-run attacks are advisable and entirely legitimate.

The editorial comes as the Islamic State is midway through the third iteration of a global campaign titled “the Raid of Attrition,” and thus synergistically offers religious support for that campaign. (As with the Islamic State’s other announced campaigns, I tend to be skeptical that they amount to anything other than a branding exercise, and a label applied to affiliates’ activities that were already underway.)

As with other instances in which the organization has issued strategic or tactical guidance to its affiliates worldwide, the thinking in this editorial is not hugely novel or inventive – the Islamic State has not necessarily innovated irregular warfare. What the group does seem to have done is compile and synthesize sound foundational ideas, then rationalize them in religious terms. I don’t see any reason to think the group’s tactics derive originally from the religious textual basis in this editorial, as opposed to, say, the accumulated know-how of veterans of the pre-2003 Iraqi military and security forces, or the other diverse militants who have cycled through the Islamic State and the broader transnational jihadist movement over the last several decades. If I had to guess, I would assume the group is mainly finding religious validation for guerrilla warfare fundamentals that it assimilated from other sources.

The editorial’s guidance to avoid the pointless, self-destructive defense of territory seems logical, and consistent with the behavior of Islamic State affiliates globally, including in West Africa and, most recently, Mozambique. On the other hand, that guidance seems inconsistent with the group’s seizure of large sections of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, followed by its invitation of an international military intervention against itself and costly, losing defense of that territory, part of a series of decisions that are difficult to explain in retrospect.

Still, the editorial is a further reminder that we shouldn’t assume the Islamic State will imminently attempt a return to territorial control, and that we shouldn’t use that as our measure of the group’s capability. For more on how to gauge the Islamic State’s strength, see my recent Crisis Group commentary, “When Measuring ISIS’s ‘Resurgence’, Use the Right Standard.”

Translation follows:

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Islamic State: Substantial, continuous “returns”

Below is another translation from issue 192 of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter al-Naba, this time the latest in a series of columns on operational guidance titled “Take Care.”

This seems notable in terms of how it presents a sort of Unified Theory of operations, conceptualizing Islamic State units’ modal shift from high-volume rudimentary violence to more sophisticated attacks, to in-between hybrid approaches, depending on that unit’s capability and circumstance. The column adopts the figurative language of “returns,” in discussing how best to balance and diversify an Islamic State detachment’s portfolio of violence. The thinking here seems to apply to ground-level insurgency as much as to external operations globally.

It’s unknown to what extent this sort of thinking is communicated through the Islamic State’s ranks globally, or guides the organization’s day-to-day operations. What we can say, though, is that elements in Islamic State’s central apparatus have evidently put some thought into when and how the group steps up and down its operational ladder, and they want to communicate that thought to al-Naba‘s Islamic State readership.

Translation follows: Continue reading

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Islamic State: “In the eyes of his enemies an army of heroes…”

Below is a translation of the editorial from issue 192 of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter al-Naba. The editorial – which is presumably aimed at the Islamic State’s core supporters, including militants active in the field – takes a derisive tone on Iraqi security forces’ pursuit of Islamic State fighters, and emphasizes the futility and emptiness of their efforts. Per the editorial, Iraqi forces’ energetic operations are driven by their fear of once more ceding the country’s countryside to the insurgent group, allowing it to reorganize and penetrate Iraq’s cities. Islamic State militants must therefore cultivate that fear and recall the divine reward awaiting them, even as they now live as fugitives.

Set aside the editorial’s posturing: It’s worth noting the editorial seemingly indicates an understanding of the complementary logics of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Its authors describe, correctly, why Iraqi forces and their international partners are working to keep up pressure on Islamic State insurgents with operations like “Will of Victory,” thus preventing the group’s small units from coalescing and organizing more dangerous attacks.

The editorial is also an apparent acknowledgement that, for the Islamic State’s insurgents in Iraq, times are hard, albeit spiritually rewarding. It seems to admit that Islamic State militants are ragged and hungry, even if their enemies think they’re “an army of heroes on the verge of storming cities anew.” For the Islamic State, stoking fears of its resurgence (for example) is evidently a deliberate strategic choice, even as the group’s ambitions, for now, may not rise far beyond continued insurgent survival.

Translation follows:

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Tahrir al-Sham’s Abu al-Yaqadhan al-Masri: “The coming days are pregnant with surprises.”

Below is a 17 September Telegram post from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham shar’i Abu al-Yaqadhan al-Masri, one of a number of Tahrir al-Sham officials/media personalities who have reacted unfavorably to the announcement of a new Turkish-Russian deal for Syria’s Idlib. province.

Addressing the press after bilateral talks Monday, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin announced a memorandum of understanding meant to stabilize the Idlib “de-escalation zone.” Critically, the memorandum stipulates the creation of a de-militarized buffer zone along northwest Syria’s rebel-government line of contact, to be jointly policed by Russia and Turkey. Rebels’ heavy weaponry will be removed from the zone, which is also to be cleared of (per Putin) “Jabhat al-Nusrah” (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham).

Like other Tahrir al-Sham figures, Abu al-Yaqadhan is not amicable to disarmament; he and his comrades portray their weapons as integrally to their dignity and continued jihad. Abu al-Yaqadhan may be particularly hardcore, among Tahrir al-Sham’s public-facing figures. He previously stirred controversy by apparently licensing Tahrir al-Sham fighters to shoot uncooperative rebel rivals in the head and take a relaxed approach to civilian collateral damage. But he is by no means alone among Tahrir al-Sham personalities who have voiced hostility to the Sochi agreement. Whether their snap reactions represent Tahrir al-Sham’s collective position remains to be seen. The initial response to the Sochi deal from the group’s official media outlet has been negative.

Abu al-Yaqadhan’s Telegram post:

Sham the Revealer

For the continuation of the jihad and the rule of shari’ah, the way forward is striking necks.

Whoever asks you to surrender your weapon, he deserves most to be fought, ahead of others.

Whoever retreats from his slogans of ‘continuing the fight until the regime is toppled’ and surrenders his weapon, he is a hypocrite #frog*.

Whoever manufactures problems to eliminate the mujahid factions to advance the Sochi agreement, he is a traitor [intelligence] agent.

The coming days are pregnant with surprises, so prepare for epic battles.

Note: “Frog” (difda’) is a Syrian opposition neologism for someone who flips to join the government loyalist camp, after Kafrbatna (East Ghouta) sheikh Bassam al-Difda’, a particularly well-publicized recent example.


Source: Abu al-Yaqadhan al-Masri, Telegram

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Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Abu Ikrimah al-Urduni on Idlib protests: “Brothers, a very important issue…”

Below are translations of two voice recordings purported to be of Tahrir al-Sham emir “Abu Ikrimah al-Urduni,” via anti-Jabhat al-Nusrah/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group “JAN Violations.” The voice messages are notable for their apparently acute sensitivity to the optics of Idlib’s protests and those protests’ portrayal in foreign media, which Abu Ikrimah sees as directly linked to action against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Abu Ikrimah coaches his Tahrir al-Sham audience on flexibility and subtlety in dealing with protesters in order to avoid embarrassing anti-Tahrir al-Sham scenes.

Idlib is primed today for another Friday of protests against a Syrian military offensive on the province. But Tahrir al-Sham seemingly recognizes that those protests can be turned against it, either spontaneously or by outside hands.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham emir Abu Ikrimah al-Urduni, voice message 1: “Brothers, a very important issue: We don’t want it to be come out in the Western media that the people opposes us, and that the people brought down our banner and stomped on it. Pay attention: If the banner is raised, there will be people placed just to pull away the banner and stomp on it. And it will appear in the Western media that they stomped on the Hayah’s banner. This is a big issue, brothers. It means that the battle will be against us, in the future. They’ll say that the people is ready now to announce the battle in these protests. Because these protests are what, the people, the public. If the people and the public pull away our banner in front of the media and stomp on it, that means the battle is ready against us now.”

Abu Ikrimah al-Urduni, voice message 2: “Peace and God’s blessings be upon you, something very important to say: Coordinate with those responsible for these protests and say to them, ‘We’re with you, your brothers, and whatever you need, we’ll walk with you. And for your protection.’ Talking is free, brothers. Why not speak to them kindly. They’ll say, ‘God reward you, we don’t need anything.’ Tell them, ‘Okay, we’ll walk with you. We’re Muslims, too, and we demand the toppling of the regime.’”

Original tweet/audio:

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Sina’at al-Fikr: “The mujahideen at this stage shouldn’t defend according to the principle, ‘Until the last man, and the last bullet.'”

Below is how I think Hayat Tahrir al-Sham may now be fighting the Syrian regime’s forces, as the latter push deeper into rebel-held Idlib. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham seems not to be mounting a valiant, heels-dug-in last stand, but rather a fighting, attritive retreat paired with asymmetric insurgent tactics.

The text I’ve translated is a set of posts from a Telegram account called “Sina’at al-Fikr” (Producing Thought), which, per one description, is a channel for “programmatic guidance in order to produce right-minded consciousness.” In practice, it seems to function as a Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-aligned outlet that offers short pieces of ideological and strategic advice and instruction, like a sort of jihadist think tank publishing in bite-sized installments. (There are several Sina’at al-Fikr accounts currently on Telegram. The one that is currently active and being referred to by other accounts describes itself as a reserve account.)

These posts were originally from May 2017, but they’ve recently been published again, both by the current Sina’at al-Fikr account on 17 January 2018 and by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham media official Muhammad Nazzal (Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi) on 17 and 23 January 2018. They come in the wake of Tahrir al-Sham’s loss of the eastern Idlib countryside – including the Abu al-Dhuhour airbase – and amid complaints from other opposition constituencies about Tahrir al-Sham’s successive retreats ahead of the regime’s ongoing offensive.

If the thinking outlined below is what’s behind Tahrir al-Sham’s repeated withdrawals and its judicious use of manpower and resources in defense of insurgent-held territory, I think it’s probably the smart move for the group. As Tahrir al-Sham itself apparently recognizes, it can’t prevail in open battle with the regime and its allies, particularly against Russian airpower.

But the smart strategic move for Tahrir al-Sham – which is probably better equipped than other factions to resort to a rural insurgency – is not good for Idlib’s other, locally grounded rebel factions, or for civilians.

When Sina’at al-Fikr tells “the mujahideen” they shouldn’t aim “to prevent the enemy from reaching the areas he wants” – those “areas he wants” are cities like Saraqib and the provincial capital Idlib, where civilian Idlibis live. Realistically, there’s probably no way to defend these areas. But Tahrir al-Sham’s strategic shift means these cities and towns’ civilian residents will need to run, or otherwise fend for themselves.

Translation follows. (Note: The repeated ellipses are in the original Arabic.)

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War on the Rocks: “America in Search of an Un-Geneva for Syria”

For War on the Rocks, I’ve written a companion piece to my recent Century Foundation commentary on America’s re-investment in Syria’s Geneva talks. In this latest, I try to answer: If Geneva won’t secure U.S. interests in Syria, what will?

“America in Search of an Un-Geneva for Syria”

I argue America shouldn’t count on Geneva, or on any national-level processes – negotiations over the whole of Syria or control of Syria’s center in Damascus – that have been thoroughly colonized by Russia.

Instead, the United States should invest in subnational processes focusing on Syria’s southwest and northeast. It’s at this level where America has more useful influence relative to Russia, and where there might be a genuine intersection of U.S. and Russian interests.

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Perspectives on Terrorism: “The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham”

New paper from me, for a special al-Qaeda-focused issue of Perspectives on Terrorism:

“The Strategic Logic of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham”

For this issue, I wrote on the strategic thinking behind the 2017 establishment of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the latest iteration of former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah. To frame that logic, I relied on the work of political scientist Peter Krause and his “Movement Structure Theory.” Krause’s theory is useful in describing the dynamics of northwest Syria’s insurgency and the rationale for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s project of intra-insurgent hegemony, as the group itself articulated it. The paper hopefully sheds light on Tahrir al-Sham’s priorities and prospects, as well as avenues for building on Krause’s work.

This paper was originally prepared for a September conference in Oslo organized by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), in cooperation with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For the full issue of Perspectives on Terrorism, including other papers by a fairly heavy-duty assortment of researchers, see:

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The Century Foundation: “Syrian Humanitarian ‘Lifeline’ Goes to Vote”

Today at The Century Foundation, I have a new report on the stakes of Tuesday’s expected vote to renew UN Security Council Resolution 2165 – the international legal mandate for Syria’s cross-border humanitarian response.

“Syrian Humanitarian ‘Lifeline’ Goes to Vote”

For months, humanitarians and donors have been anxious over the renewal of UNSCR 2165. On Tuesday, December 19, the Security Council is expected to finally vote on what a top UN relief official has called a “lifeline” for Syrians in need.

Most of the Security Council backs renewal of UNSCR 2165, which they argue is purely humanitarian. But the resolution also has clear political implications, insofar as cross-border aid without the permission of Syria’s Assad regime has been a potent symbol of Syria’s broken sovereignty.

And only one vote really matters: Russia’s. Russia has said UNSCR 2165 was an emergency response to conditions that no longer exist and that the resolution should be phased out. No one really knows whether Russia will ultimately opt for renewal, or what concessions it wants in exchange.

Of the more than a dozen humanitarians and donor-country diplomats who spoke to me ahead of the vote, most thought the resolution would be renewed – this time.

But even though a renewal will save lives, it’s also only a temporary reprieve. As the Assad regime returns from the brink, an international system premised on state sovereignty is likewise reasserting itself. In that normal international order, it’s tough to imagine a place for something exceptional like UNSCR 2165 – and without that exception, there’s no good alternative means to help millions of Syrians.

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The Century Foundation: “Geneva Talks Will Not Salvage U.S. Syria Policy”

At The Century Foundation, I’ve written about America’s reinvestment in Geneva peace talks and how – as I understand it – Russia is simultaneously managing Geneva and its own set of parallel processes.

“Geneva Talks Will Not Salvage U.S. Syria Policy”

Washington is now counting on Geneva to tie together the disparate strings of U.S. policy in Syria. It’s not going to work. Geneva is structurally broken, and no amount of American enthusiasm will fix that.

Geneva won’t make U.S. Syria policy make sense, and it won’t lead to a political settlement Washington actually likes. If these talks produce anything at all, that thing will be made to Russian specifications. So America needs to ask itself – is that what it wants?

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