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The Islamic State’s Anbar Offensive and Abu Umar al-Shishani

October 9, 2014

The recent gains in Iraq’s Anbar province by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have, justifiably, garnered a great deal of media attention. McClatchy noted on October 3 that following the group’s gain of several cities in Anbar, its fighters had now “become a major presence in Abu Ghraib, the last Anbar town on the outskirts of the capital.” Based on these advances, International Business Times openly wondered if ISIL was close enough to attack Baghdad. However, Western media coverage lacks the analytic usefulness of Arabic-language sources for discerning the story behind ISIL’s recent victories.

ISIL’s Anbar advance illustrates some of the group’s strengths, but the group remains vulnerable in many important ways. The group’s recent success in Anbar can be attributed primarily to one exceptional field commander and ISIL official, Abu Umar al-Shishani, who executed a series of brilliant tactical maneuvers. But Shishani’s leadership could not save them from setbacks elsewhere in Iraq. And even the group’s much-publicized advance on the northern Syrian town of Kobane, though it represents a real gain of territory, represents a strategically questionable decision. ISIL is a highly competent fighting force, especially when Shishani is the one giving orders, that continues to make significant strategic errors. This article provides a granular look at ISIL’s Anbar offensive.

The Islamic State: Losing Ground Before the Anbar Offensive

Shishani’s presence in southern Salahaddin/eastern Anbar has been highlighted in Iraqi press reporting, which noted that he personally assumed command of ISIL fighters in the vicinity of Duluiyah. In that area of operation, the local Juburi tribe has been fighting alongside the Iraqi security forces in opposition to ISIL.

Shishani—born Tarkhan Batirashvili—is a young field commander, just twenty-eight years old. As his names suggests, he is of Chechen origin and was born in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley. He served in an intelligence unit in the Georgian army, and the Wall Street Journal reports in a profile of the young militant that in the 2008 conflict with Russia he “was near the front line, spying on Russian tank columns and relaying their coordinates to Georgian artillery units.” However, in 2010 Shishani was diagnosed with tuberculosis and ultimately discharged from military service. The Journal’s profile of Shishani noted that after being imprisoned for sixteen months for illegally harboring weapons (seemingly due to his support for Chechen jihadist groups), Shishani promptly left Georgia. He resurfaced in Syria in 2013, leading a group called The Army of Emigrants and Partisans.

Salahaddin-Anbar was not Shishani’s first choice for a major offensive. In early September, he was devising plans to overwhelm the main Syrian regime garrison in Dayr al-Zawr, which would have served as a sequel to ISIL’s victory at the Battle of Tabqa in August 2014 that secured a significant haul of weaponry, equipment, and armored vehicles from the Syrian military. A victory in Dayr al-Zawr would have completed ISIL’s control of that Syrian province, served as a huge propaganda victory, and also connected all of ISIL’s holdings from Raqqah to the Iraqi town of Anah. But it seems that ISIL’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, instead prioritized his current genocidal, and strategically questionable, campaign against the Kurds in Ayn al-Arab/Kobane. Following this reprioritization, Shishani ended up focusing his efforts on Anbar province.

After the Islamic State lost ground in Haditha, there were serious encroachments against ISIL positions in Anah. One challenge ISIL faced was that the Hamza Battalion—a tribal militia organized by the Albu Mahal tribe that fought al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2005 to 2007—had been revived for similar purposes. There was thus good reason for Shishani to want to shore up ISIL’s forces in Anbar. The most telling indicator of ISIL’s weakened status was its expulsion from Karmah district of Anbar by Jaysh al-Mujahideen, an Iraqi salafist group led by the al-Qaeda loyalist Abdullah Janabi.

ISF Advance on Anah

In light of ISIL’s weakened state, the group began withdrawing from western Ramadi in the face of the Iraqi security forces’ advance, with the group’s administrative emir for Anbar captured in the process. Further, U.S. special operations advisers arrived in Ramadi, a telling indicator that opposition to ISIL was going to increase rapidly. More than 300 ISIL members in fact fled from Fallujah, a good sign that the group saw even its oldest stronghold as subject to the credible threat of all-out attack. Though ISIL responded with some terrorist attacks in the Albu Faraj tribal area of Ramadi, they were unable to mount any significant resistance.

Shishani’s Counterattack

The Iraqi military attempted to take advantage of ISIL’s weakened state by moving the Rapid Intervention Force (an elite unit intended for short-term strike operations) into Saqlawiyah, a necessary staging area for a move against Fallujah. Shishani allowed ISF to advance for several days in mid-September, until his actual counterattack began on September 18.

Saqlawiyah and Fallujah

The General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (MCIR), a Baathist-oriented militant group that is part of the Sunni insurgency, took the lead in this counterattack. Essentially, Shishani waited until the Iraqi security forces had fully committed themselves against MCIR, expending the majority of their ammunition and supplies in the process. In this way, ISIL managed to catch the Rapid Intervention Force completely off-guard and encircled them, trapping an entire battalion for six days despite the efforts of the Elite Forces (another Iraqi special forces entity) to break the siege. Pathetically, the Iraqi security forces accidentally airdropped supplies to ISIL while they were trying to supply the trapped unit. Using chlorine gas and captured Iraqi military vehicles, Shishani was able to massacre 300 to 500 Iraqi troops and bring 180 back to Fallujah as prisoners. This was the biggest ISIL victory in two months and a major blow against the state of Iraq.

While the Iraqi forces responded by bombing the area, and killed on-site ISIL field commander Abu Ishaq al-Askari, the immediate threat to Fallujah that ISIL perceived was mitigated. ISIL’s power (or, at least, its tactical prowess) had been affirmed, to say nothing of the lethal consequences of opposing them.

Following this victory on September 22, Shishani spent the next two weeks making preparations and summoning reinforcements from Syria. He engaged in a brief feint into Amiriyah, targeting the 500 National Guardsmen being trained there. Then his attack on Hit began on October 2 from three directions. The attack on Hit occurred simultaneously with attacks against other targets, too: Kubaysah, Dulab, Muhammadi, Sajjar, Saqlawiyah, and Hamidiyah. Shishani also briefly encircled a second Iraqi army company north of Ramadi. The obvious intent of this offensive is to separate Hit from Ramadi and Haditha, which would end the immediate threat of the Iraqi security forces retaking Anah.

Shishani's Hit Offensive

Assessing ISIL’s Position

Despite this brilliant advance, any appraisal of what Shishani is trying to accomplish needs to take into account ISIL’s weaknesses, and just how precarious the group’s strategy has been. Though the group is likely to eventually win at Kobane, on Syria’s border with Turkey, it’s not clear this constitutes a strategic gain. The group poured a massive amount of personnel and equipment into attacking a town that is utterly marginal to the war in Syria. What is the benefit to ISIL? Is the group risking placing Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a position where he has to become more involved in countering ISIL? ISIL would certainly cross a red line with Turkey if it destroyed the tomb of Suleyman Shah, which it has threatened to do. Meanwhile, even as it advances toward Kobane, ISIL has been losing ground in Rabia, Sinjar, and Zummar.

Further, though Shishani is a brilliant field commander, he appears to be a one-man show. There is no evidence of ISIL’s military council being involved in his operational planning. He appears to be close only to his longtime Chechen lieutenants, such as Abu Jihad al-Shishani or the now-deceased Abu Bakr al-Shishani. Further, while Abu Umar al-Shishani is unquestionably a tactical genius, he seems to have done little to endear himself to ISIL’s upper ranks. As with Baghdadi, who has built around himself a cult of personality, Shishani appears to be a case where the kinetic targeting of ISIL’s senior leadership may be more effective than the targeting of senior leaders of other groups.

ISIL has had some very good days lately, all owing to one commander’s skillful—and bloody—outmaneuvering of the Iraqi military. This strong run can mitigate, but not overcome, its remaining vulnerabilities.

 

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fourteen books and monographs. FDD’s Oren Adaki contributed to the Arabic-language research for this article, while FDD’s Patrick Megahan created the maps.

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15 thoughts on “The Islamic State’s Anbar Offensive and Abu Umar al-Shishani

  1. Excellent article. I’d like to see a follow up discussing the last two paragraphs – the strategic/operational decision making and the interactions between the senior leadership’s cult of personality, attempting to answer the questions posed. Is it some “end of days” prophecy driving them forward, dislocation between the tactical genius and the strategic/operational planning, or are they a victim of their own propaganda? (IE – the world is focused on Kobani, therefore so will I…)

    Not sure if we know enough about that, but I’d love to hear your views.

  2. The strategic gain of winning Kobane is a psychological one. This city is a key city to the Kurds, who have opposed IS succesfully more than once. If Kobane falls, it will be a major blow to the Kurds’ self-esteem. Moreover, this is all happening in front of the world’s television cameras. If IS succeeds, we will all see it. By now, everyone has heard of Kobane. A victory for IS in Kobane will surely strike terror in many (Western) hearts: a victory despite our hightech airstrikes. This whole situation also shows the reluctance – if not fear – of the Turks to engage IS directly. Thus, the strategic gain of winning Kobane may be the biggest – and even decisive – so far.

  3. Excellent article. I’m glad to see an in-depth look at the war being waged by the Islamic State from a military and non political perspective. For someone following the war very closely, this was very educational. I hope as the war progresses you continue to write articles in this fashion.

  4. Thanks for all that concise information. One aspect about ISIS/ISIL on which I can’t find ANY data, though, is their internal unit organization.

    That is, do you happen to know how they deploy tactically: in platoons, companies, battalions?

    1. I haven’t seen any reports on unit breakdown,but you can see how they maneuver in several videos. It appears, from the videos I have seen, they employ basic small unit tactics; on a scale that is situation dependent. Sppt element, maneuver element, and a reserve/security element.

  5. Excellent article and the only one I have found that describes the military strategy and tactics ISIL is using to inflict such devastating rEsults against the Iraqi military. This gas attack gives credence to Assad’s claim that the insurgents are using the banned chemical weapons. Of course the Syrian regime used them as well.
    Hoping for more reporting by Mr. Gardenstein-Ross.

  6. The role Batirashvili and his Caucasus and other Russian/Eurasian fighters illustrates on more time why the decade long denial about the Caucasus Emirate mujahedin’s place in the global jihadi revolutionary movement. We paid the price on 9/11 because we ignored the CE’s predecessor organization as a jihadi-linked group. We paid by ignoring Tsarnaev’s threat. Now the CE effect in the Levant is a threat.
    Because Putin said he was fighting international terrorism, we ignored it. Just because the Russians say something does not mean it’s false. Unfortunately, Washington’s cadre of professional russophobes prevented us from getting a clear picture of the CE.

    1. You have a clear pro-Russian agenda. It’s true that the Caucasus Emirate has ties to international Jihadists.

      It is also true that the anti-China Uighurs in the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (now renamed as the Turkestan Islamic Party) have ties to international Jihadists and were cooperating with Al-qaeda since the 1990s before 9/11. In fact the Uighur leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party, Abdullah Mansour delivered a eulogy for Caucasus Emirate leader Dokka Umarov.

      http://theorangetracker.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-turkistan-islamic-party-eulogizes.html

      http://jihadology.net/2014/06/07/ṣawt-al-islam-presents-a-new-video-message-from-ḥizb-al-islami-al-turkistanis-turkistan-islamic-party-abd-allah-manṣur-eulogy-for-the-amir-abu-uthman-dokku-u/

      You claimed China gets a free pass in America for human rights and that Russia does not,

      China does not get a free pass in American media and in fact is the favorite target of much of the American media and power structure for routine bashing. American media unqestionally parrots claims by Falun Gong that they are targeted for extra repression, despite the fact that real human rights activists like Harry Wu (who spent years in a prison camp in China) accused Falun Gong of lying. Harry Wu is a long time opponent of the Communist part in China.

      http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Harry-Wu-questions-Falun-Gong's-claims-about-organ-transplants-6919.html

      If you claim China gets a ‘pass’ in America for “human rights violations”, then Russia very much gets one too. America has done effectively nothing more for Chechens than it did for any minorities in China. What does America do to Russia that it doesn’t do to China other than lip service condemnation of human rights violations?

      America surrounds Russia with military bases- new flash, its has been doing that to China since the Korean War. It has bases in Okinawa, South Korea and the Philippines

      America bashes Russia’s human rights record – news flash, it does that routinely to China, America rewarded the Dalai Lama with the medal in Congress for no reason other than provoking China.

      America maintains trade and economic ties with both China and Russia, it criticizes their human rights records but won’t do a damn thing unless they other country takes a dramatic military action (like what Russia did in Ukraine). The reason why China has greater economic ties to America than Russia does is for the simple fact that it’s China’s economy which is expanding and offering salivating deals to the capitalist and money driven American system.

      The reason Russia does not have the same level of ties as China does to America, is simply because Russia’s economy pales in comparison to China’s. if Russia has China’s level of economic growth and gave oppurtunities for American businessmen then Russia would very well get the same treatment in America as China does. China doesn’t get any special privileges in the sphere of the routine human rights bashing that America does to all countries. So American Congressmen with business ties to China advocate for more trade while at the same time routinely condemning China on human rights. They would do the same for Russia, except Russia offers zero economic opportunities to them. So they just condemn Russia for human rights (while actually doing nothing for the people whose rights are violated. I haven’t seen America offer one iota of real support to Chechen separatists. America has not recognized the Chechens, hasn’t provided them with aid or any weapons, nor then anything much in the way of helping with against Russia other than fake lip service condemnation of Russia). If Russia offers them the cash and investment oppurtunities for their lobbyist friends, they will oblidge.

      Russia’s so called “cadre of professional russophobes” have so far effectively done nothing for the Chechens.

  7. Two things;
    1, ISIS seems to have a structure that allows them to recruit and advance people with real competence and talent. This is very rare in the Middle East, where most Arab states and factions use loyalty instead of competence as the main factor in promotion. This tends to leave their militaries run by hidebound, unimaginative, and uncharismatic leaders who are not a threat to their tyrant. ISIS clearly has a superior structure as far as recruiting talent and putting it in a place where it can make a difference. Over the long term, this will have a big impact.
    2; Maybe the assault on Kobane is a mistake. It certainly doesn’t look strategically useful and if you look at it conventionally, it shouldn’t be a priority however, things may not be as they appear. We know that the Turks got back their 40 or so embassy hostages after some kind of secret negotiations with ISIS that was never disclosed. Now, nobody thinks Al Baghdadi is stupid enough to just give those hostages away without getting anything in return. We also know that Turkey has been looking the other way as ISIS uses the Turkish border as a logistics line. We further know that Tuekry has made a strategic decision to split the Kurds and support the KDP in Iraq, no doubt hoping that the KDP/PKK rivalry continues and keeps the PKK weak. How does this all fit together? What if destroying the PKK in Syria was part of the quid pro quo between Turkey and ISIS in return for looking the other way as ISIS runs amok? If the PKK is seriously weakened, their support in Turkey is demoralized and the Syrian battlefield becomes a fly trap to suck up PKK radicals, leaving Turkey more at peace. It is entirely possible that Turkey sacrificed Kobane in order to damage the PKK Kurds, and the costly attack on the Kurdish enclave in Syria is a VERY good strategic move on ISIS’ part. -Just food for thought.

    1. My bet is that its commercial chlorine obtainable at water purification plants, etc. AQI used it against us in Anbar in 2006-7 and it was usually delivered as an SVBIED with a chlorine element. Not sure how effectively ISIL has been able to weaponize it, but when AQI delivered it the blast burned off much of the chlorine.

  8. ISIL’s assault on Kobane might not be strategically important on the larger battlefield but it is now the focus of international attention. Taking Kobane under US airstrikes would assert ISIL’s dominance and competency in the region and on the world stage. Putting the issues with Turkey and various Kurdish factions aside (although these are important) a victory in Kobane would boost ISIL’s recruiting propaganda and morale. Just as the international attention to Kobane has resulted in increased US dialogue and airstrikes, this same attention would (theoretically) increase the importance of Kobane in ISIL’s eyes as well. Just my two cents.
    This was a well written article from a viewpoint not seen in mainstream coverage of ISIL. It is for these well written, relevant, and diverse articles that I continue to follow War on the Rocks.

    1. Dempsey again and again tells us that Kobane isn’t part of the strategy; at the same time the number of bombings increases, up to 40 this wednesday. And it’s around the clock now, not only in the daytime.
      Isn’t it so that USA has recognized that Kobane is a great opportunity to kill and wound a lot of isis militants. It’s also worth to remember that this is the first time many isis militants is in a real war for weeks, not just small scale fights. I think the american planners are trying to learn a lot from Kobane.
      But if Kobane is lost they don’t want to take responsibility.
      Wonder if there isn’t a couple of examples from Vietnam that reminds of Kobane.