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:

Take Care 8: Planning for Action and the Constraints of Reality

Al-Naba, no. 192, 25 July 2019

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For the mujahideen, the subject of target selection depends on a number of issues. They include those related to [the mujahideen], such as the importance of the target to them and the possibility of executing against it; and those related to the enemy, such as the importance of the target to him, and the extend of the damage to him through targeting it.

On this basis, the mujahideen are often faced with numerous options when devising the battle plan on which they will depend to exhaust their enemy before eventually destroying him, with the permission of God Almighty.

The most important of these options:

First: Concentrating on operations that are small-scale, numerous and widespread, abandoning large-scale operations given their difficulty in execution and their costs.

Second: Concentrating on operations that are large-scale, few and focused in terms of their target, and neglecting small operations given their limited return and weak impact.

Between these two opposing options, we find middle options, the most important of which are:

Third: Concentrating on continuous small operations, while constantly searching for important targets to strike when possible.

Fourth: Concentrating on large targets, even if they are few, without leaving any opportunity to strike the enemy with small operations.

Fifth: Working without focus, in order to strike the enemy wherever possible, with small or large operations.

Work at the Outset

Generally, we can say that the mujahideen’s choice of any of these options is subject to internal conditions related to the situation of the mujahideen, in terms of organization, means and targets; and external conditions, related to the situation of their enemy, in terms of his strength and empowerment.

So when the mujahid detachment is small in size, weak in means and primitive in terms of its members’ ability to plan and execute, with the goal of continuing and developing its work until destroying the enemy entirely and realizing tamkin (empowerment) on the ground; and when its enemy is strong and empowered on the ground, then it will be in [the detachment’s] interest to begin its work by pursuing the first option.

If the goal of the detachment is limited to producing the maximum damage to the enemy, and the enemy is strong and empowered, such that the mujahideen assume they will not be able to continue executing attacks for long, then it is best for them to pursue the second option.

This is what we see typically in the operations of mujahideen detachments or their members working in Crusader countries. They take into account the difficulty of withdrawing from the site of the attack after executing, or the difficulty of continuing to execute consecutive attacks given their exposure to the enemy, and so they operating according to this option in line with the means available, most importantly the weapons required and [their] ability to deliver them to the site of the attack. Thus, we see them vary between using knives, in attacks that leave few dead and wounded in the Crusaders’ ranks, with a limited psychological and propaganda impact; and large, coordinated attacks using explosives and firearms, which leave major losses – material and human – in the Crusaders’ ranks, and have a major media echo.

If the detachment is strong – in that its members possess the expertise necessary to carry out large operations, even if it is weak in numbers and means – then it can also follow the second option, in order to achieve swift growth for itself, as large operations draw the eyes and hearts of local supporters faster. This is what the Islamic State did when it first entered Syria, as it was limited at the start to a few expert brothers with a small number of local supporters with limited expertise. Thus, work started with large attacks concentrated on the key junctures of the Nuseiri [derog., Alawite] regime, which help earn notoriety for the detachment, ‘Jabhat al-Nusrah,’ and encourage tens, then hundreds of muhajireen and ansar [foreign fighters and locals] to join it, especially after they learned it answered to the Islamic State.

Similarly, Sheikh Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and his brothers followed this option at the start of their fight against the invading Crusader forces in Iraq. These larger operations that the mujahideen executed against the United Nations and the Crusaders’ embassies and barracks helped earn them widespread notoriety, which overshadowed that of all the factions present in that arena. That encouraged the muhajireen and ansar to join Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, especially after it became clear to them that its creed was based on monotheism and its program was based on jihad on the path of God until the establishment of religion and the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate.

Work in Advanced Stages 

After the detachment grows, in quantity and quality – such that it becomes reasonably numerous, making it difficult to eliminate it totally, and likewise its material means and its members’ technical capabilities grow, in terms of expertise at planning and executing attacks – then it is harmful for the group to limit itself to one of these two options (the first and second). Limiting itself to the first means letting slip these larger attacks with a major impact on the enemy, despite its ability to execute them; and limiting itself to the second leads to freezing a major part of its members and means, as it is not possible to mobilize all of that to execute major operations, which are typically few in number, thus afflicting the detachment with inactivity.

Thus, it is better for [the detachment] to transition to one of the middle options (the third or fourth), by dividing the detachment into two sections:

The first [section] relies on quantity, including mujahideen with limited expertise, spread widely, who can carry out [attacks] in quantitatively large numbers and over a wide geographic range. That leads, in aggregate, to achieving a major return through the sum total of their attacks, not with some of them individually. They are akin to vendors at intersections, who sell small quantities of goods that realize a relatively small return for them, but – if we combine all their returns – add up to a substantial aggregate return.

The second [section] relies on quality, including mujahideen with expertise, capable of planning, managing and executing major attacks that bring a substantial, raised return to the mujahideen, and large losses for their enemies. They are akin to wholesalers, who realize a large return from each deal, one that might equal or exceed the gain of hundreds of sales conducted by their clients over the long term.

By combining the two options, it is possible to employ a major part of the detachment in a plan of action that prevents inactivity, and achieves returns that are continuous over time and large in terms of aggregate operations, distributed over the work’s spread and expanse, and that help capacitate and train the mujahideen to fight and acquire substantial working expertise. At the same time, [these operations] permit major quantitative and qualitative leaps in the course of the jihad, by achieving substantial damage and losses for the enemy in material, human, psychological and media terms; and major returns for the mujahideen, in terms of material spoils and attracting new mujahideen for recruitment and work within the detachment.

As for the fifth option, the mujahid detachment typically follows it in instances of a weak apparatus of command, control and communications, such that the detachment’s command orders its members to work according to what is possible; or in emergency cases, in which the mujahideen find themselves forced to strike the enemy with everything available in order to preoccupy him so as not to resist some important action by the mujahideen, or to scramble his offensive or defense movements against them; or just to strike his stability at a particular time. Thus, the detachment’s command orders its members to work to the utmost extent, without consideration for any constraints to divide the work, or plan over the long term.

We notice that the Islamic State’s policy towards operations in Crusader countries oscillates between the third and fifth options. Indeed, it called on Muslims there to attack what targets they could strike, with what weapons were available, to achieve the greatest possible losses in the Crusaders’ ranks. That was in light of the difficulty of controlling and directing the mujahideen’s operations there, and the danger of communicating with them about this. Thus, they were expected to execute small, continuous operations, with the possibility that some of them might be able to carry out large operations.

At the same time, though, when [the Islamic State] has sent trained detachments prepared to execute attacks, it has pushed these detachments to execute major attacks in terms of their targets, the way of executing the attacks against them, and the losses expected from striking them.

[The Islamic State] has thus achieved continuous returns from the attacks of lone mujahideen and detachments that are small in size, limited in expertise, and weak in preparation. Even though the returns of each of their attacks have been relatively limited, they have nonetheless, in aggregate, been large, approaching the substantial returns of the qualitative operations that the Islamic State’s soldiers have carried out in the past few years.

Despite all that, we know that it is beneficial for the mujahideen to liberate themselves from the constraints with which they can restrict their work sometimes, and to build their plans on the basis of their [local] reality, their means and their targets, and on the reality of their enemy and his means and targets, as well as for them to rely on God Almighty in executing what they have set their minds on, for what a blessed Patron and Helper He is.

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