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.”
“Except for one maneuvering for battle, or retreating to [another fighting] company”
The mujahid may use every permissible weapon or means of combat to realize the aim of his jihad: the defeat of his enemy, and the establishment of the law of God almighty in the land in which He grants him tamkin [literally “empowerment,” here meaning territorial control and administration.] [The mujahid] works to choose from [those means of combat] that which suits him at every stage, among the stages of his long jihad.
And even if the Islamic State has lost tamkin in most regions, the establishment of religion has not come to a halt, praise be to God, Lord of worlds. For the mujahideen still institute, everywhere, that which their Lord prescribed them, in terms of jihad against the polytheists. And that is – without a doubt – among the highest degrees of enjoining virtue and discouraging vice.
And if the combat of static fronts and marching armies to conquer the country was the appropriate mode of combat for the stage of tamkin, in terms of what it offered of the possibility to control territory and establish God’s law in it, and protect it from the polytheists seizing it and establishing on it their polytheism and unbelief in awesome God; then the style of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare is the most appropriate, without a doubt, for the mujahideen in areas which the polytheists have seized totally and that have come under their dominion.
For the basic aim of guerrilla warfare is realizing the nikayah [injury, vexation] of one’s enemies. This aim is legitimate, if it is understood to be for the sake of God almighty. And glorious God enjoined this, for He said: “Fight them; God will torment them by your hands, humiliate them, and grant you victory over them, and heal the breasts of believers” (Quran 9:14). Nikayah is accomplished by killing, injuring and capturing them, as well as capturing their wealth or destroying it.
Thus, the [guerrilla] bands of mujahideen focus their efforts on dealing the greatest possible losses to the enemy, in terms of lives and wealth; while they are diligent not to offer more than the minimum possible losses [in their own ranks], in terms of lives and wealth. To the contrary, they work to increase their stock of both. To the extent those two conditions are realized, their nikayah of the enemy continues, such that the enemy grows weaker, and [these bands] grow stronger, until the conditions become appropriate to transition from the stage of guerrilla warfare to other stages necessary to realize tamkin in the land.
These blessed [guerrilla] bands, at their inception, are not tasked with holding territory, because that is beyond their capacity. Nor are [they tasked with] holding their ground against the enemy in battles in which they think they do not have superiority. That is because the mujahideen in those areas are typically few in number and weak in means, and they do not possess territory in which to organize their affairs, and to which their supporters can mass. They face an enemy holding territory, large in number and materiel, and prepared to crush any indication of activity by the mujahideen – to eradicate them and prevent their plant from growing and standing upright on its stalk, such that it might fasten its roots in the ground and its branches might tower in the sky, leaving [the enemy] weak and defeated before it.
Given the [mujahideen’s] condition, they do not need to burden themselves beyond their capacity, and to hold territory for the sake of tamkin when they are a weak few, and their enemy is greater than them by hundreds or, sometimes, thousands of times. For their almighty Lord has permitted them to turn their backs and flee to safety, then return to attack anew at the time and place that permits them to realize the nikayah of [their enemy], and superiority over him, and then to return to hiding once more before [the enemy] can converge on them and harm them. This is the type of maneuver in battle in which the Lord of worlds permitted the believers to turn their backs in war. For the Almighty said: “O you believers, when you meet those who disbelieve marching [into battle], do not turn your backs to them For whoever turns his back to them on that day – except for one maneuvering for battle, or retreating to [another fighting] company – has incurred God’s wrath, and his abode is Hell, a miserable fate” (Quran 8:15-16). The Imam Tabari, may God have mercy on him, said: “‘Except for one maneuvering for battle,’ says, ‘Except for one going on to fight his enemy, and who requires a weakness from [his enemy] that he might strike, and then descend upon him” (Jami’ al-Bayyan). And the Imam Baghawi, may God have mercy on him, said: “Any juncture at which he sees [it incumbent on] himself to retreat, when his aim is to seek a moment of inattentiveness, so that he might attack” (Ma’alim al-Tanzil). Thus, he, the mujahid, believes he will be defeated in battle opposite his enemy, so he retreats from opposite [that enemy] to avoid losses, with the intent of descending upon [the enemy] when he sees in himself strength and in his enemy weakness.
And so, the soldiers of the Islamic State must focus their efforts on attriting their enemy as much as possible at this stage, and not preoccupy themselves with rushing to realize tamkin in the land. For it is the inevitable result of their jihad – with the permission of God almighty – which will be realized for them soon, and the reason for its realization is that which now occupies them, this fighting and nikayah of the enemies of religion.
By “attrition,” we do not mean merely weakening the enemy until we compel him to withdraw from some territory, so that we might seize it and enjoy tamkin in it. Rather, we aim to deliver [the enemy] to a state in which his bleeding brings him to the point of destruction, or to exhaust him to such a great degree that he can only muster the strength to rise up and fight us again after a long time, during which we have prepared to repel him and break his power. [We aim for] his costly war with us to sow desperation and despair of victory in his heart and mind, such that he views our victory over him in any possible confrontation as a fait accompli, something inescapable.
So raid your enemies constantly, o soldiers of the State of Islam. Do not come to them except in their moment of inattentiveness, so they do not gain from you what they covet: pushing you into a [head-on] confrontation in a circumstance that is better for them than for you. And safeguard your capital – your men, and your arms – and do not hazard it, so that your profits continue and increase over time, with the permission of God almighty. For we are at an act of worship, in which God almighty has not charged us with what is beyond our capacity, and for which He did not constrain us in terms of time. God does not charge any soul except with what is within its ability, praise be to God, Lord of worlds.