How About Some Unconventional Warfare? Thoughts On Countering ISIL

October 20, 2014

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The past month’s media cycle has certainly articulated the strengths of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as it has expanded control and governance across eastern Syria and western Iraq. ISIL’s rise this past spring and its resilience during the ongoing air campaign targeting its members can be attributed to ISIL’s internal lines of communication, strong physical networks, veteran cadres, and steady foreign fighter recruitment.

ISIL’s many weaknesses are discussed less often. If properly exploited, these weaknesses could be opportunities for the West in their fight against the group. A strong contingent of Iraqi leaders empower ISIL, advancing the group toward its objective of establishing an Islamic Caliphate. But with the exception of these veteran leaders, violent young foreign fighters are routinely behaving in a counterproductive fashion. As opposed to the people who are inclined to join al-Qaeda, ISIL’s young fighters are driven more by psychological and social forces than ideological tenets.

Heavy airstrikes paralleled with the formation of a Sunni land force will slowly damage ISIL over the longer term, but the immediate opportunities presented by unconventional warfare should not be overlooked. The following are several efforts the U.S.-led international coalition could undertake to counter ISIL indirectly.

Try to put a wedge between ISIL’s Iraqi dominated leadership and its foreign fighter troops

As seen during al-Shabaab’s demise in Somalia, strong fractures emerged between al-Shabaab’s Somali members and its foreign fighters over strategic direction and the conduct of operations. Similar rifts between indigenous Algerian leaders and foreign fighters emerged during Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group’s (GIA) collapse in the 1990s. Egotistical leaders routinely fear the emergence of charismatic challengers. Osama Bin Laden rejected the promotion of an emerging Anwar al-Awlaki, and similarly, Ayman al-Zawahiri is unlikely to tolerate the idea of a subordinate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, merging al-Qaeda with ISIL.

Al-Qaeda’s veteran leadership, a mix of North African and Middle Eastern foreign fighters, notoriously post narcissistic finger-wagging videos to inspire their troops. ISIL’s Baghdadi and his inner circle pursue the opposite approach: appearing in public sparingly, choosing instead to lead by action and maintain their operational security. Thus far, reports note that Iraqis constitute 19 of ISIL’s top 20 leaders. But ISIL’s strength comes from the thousands of non-Iraqi foreign fighters filling its ranks, many of whom were drawn to ISIL through social media campaigns displaying jihadi violence rather than messages by ISIL’s top leaders. ISIL’s Iraqi leadership is largely unknown to the foreign fighters recruited over the Internet and may provide an opportunity for fracturing.

The international coalition might seek to incite conflict within ISIL by elevating the stature of an emerging, charismatic foreign fighter leader with a large ego as an alternative to ISIL’s Iraqi leadership – perhaps Abu Umar al-Shishani, for example – to create competition in the online world and stimulate contention in the physical ranks. A second fracture worth exploring may be the ideological divergence between the criminal elements in ISIL ranks that run illicit enterprises and “purer” mujahideen. Criminal activity routinely violates the ideological principles of Sharia law. Some foreign fighters, the young and the zealous, willingly join in the pillage. The more ideological members, like an Omar Hammami type, can quickly become disillusioned and promoted as a way to counter ISIL Iraqi racketeers.

Erode ISIL Trust Through Infiltrators

To defeat the GIA, Algeria’s security service allegedly employed double agents and entire cadres performing false flag operations to penetrate the ranks of the GIA. Algerian security agents eroded the trust between GIA members and their leadership. This combined with leadership decapitation accelerated the GIA’s demise. Employing such a tactic against ISIL may be easier than using it to counter al-Qaeda. Jabhat al-Nusra, possibly to its detriment, performs more rigorous screenings of its foreign fighter recruits in Syria in order to detect any Western counterterrorism efforts to infiltrate the group. Al-Shabaab in Somalia performed similar screenings of Western foreign fighters, a procedure Omar Hammami describes in his autobiography where immediately upon arrival, he encountered a suspicious al-Qaeda legend Harun Fazul who evaluated the American foreign fighter’s motivations and intentions for coming to Somalia.

ISIL’s goals, however, are more immediately ambitious, and it needs manpower to fill the ranks of its army. Over the past two years, it employed little to no filtering process for its new recruits. Though the West has had a more difficult time in the past with such operations due to the limited number of culturally competent agents available for deployment, perhaps some British foreign fighters currently grounded in Turkey can be incentivized to cross the border and wreak havoc within ISIL’s ranks in return for immunity from prosecution and other rewards.

Eroding trust should be pursued both inside ISIL’s ranks, as described above, and throughout the external networks that support the group. Western counterterrorism discourse routinely repeats mantras of destroying ISIL, but illicit networks, when destroyed, tend to regenerate quickly. Eliminating a network rather than dominating it usually results in counterterrorism initiatives blinding themselves to an extremist group’s operations. Counterterrorism efforts should instead seek to understand and dominate ISIL networks, similar to how the U.K. security services penetrated the Irish Republican Army and by the 1990s had converted many key leaders into British assets. Disruptions in foreign fighter networks can significantly damage trust in ISIL ranks and subsequently cause interference in recruitment activities across North Africa, the Middle East and the West.

As revealed in the Sinjar records detailing foreign fighter flows into Iraq during the 2006-2007 period, a particularly bad facilitator named Loua’aie created dissension in the ranks by disrespecting new recruits and preying on them for resources. Counterterrorism elements could seek to flood ISIL foreign fighter and smuggling networks with characters such as Loua’aie to erode trust in ISIL and relay negative sentiment for ISIL throughout its facilitation networks. Having influence over ISIL’s networks and guiding it toward failure is more likely to achieve the coalition’s objectives than a military campaign. Dominating these networks can be accomplished in two ways. If the network is well monitored, a counterterrorism strategy might pursue an Own-And-Exploit approach; keep eyes on the network to deliver new recruits to the time and place where counterterrorism or law enforcement agents can eliminate or detain foreign fighters. If the network can only be infiltrated in certain places, counterterrorism efforts might only hope to employ an Own-And-Taint approach; aim to insert agents such as ‘Loua’aie,’ mentioned above, into terrorist networks to reduce the quality and trust within ISIL, thus decreasing incentives for future foreign fighter recruits and raising the costs for ISIL operations.

For ISIL, Make Villains, Not Martyrs

Though considered ideologically devout, jihadi groups routinely violate their own principles. Military actions against terrorist groups such as airstrikes make martyrs of jihadi leaders, fulfilling their dreams. But truly eroding ISIL’s appeal will come by turning the image of charismatic ISIL leaders from martyrs to villains. Exposing the hypocrisy of ISIL leaders perceived to be magnanimous in the eyes of young recruits can be done in several ways.

  • Betraying & killing of supporters – Under stress from airstrikes, extremist groups become paranoid about spies infiltrating their ranks, resulting in the arbitrary killing of innocent group members loyal to the cause (innocent in context though not innocent of terrorism). ISIL members have accidentally killed fellow supporters in the past and recently, they allegedly beheaded a Moroccan imam from Belgium whom they accused of espionage. Western governments should be broadcasting the betrayal of the Moroccan imam in every city sympathetic to jihadi recruitment from Morocco to Indonesia.
  • Misdirection of foreign fighters for local rather than ISIL objectives – During the GIA’s collapse in Algeria and the Islamic State of Iraq’s previous decline a few years back, foreign fighter recruits were redirected and assigned for the personal gain of local commanders. Suicide bombers in Iraq during the 2005-2007 era were utilized by some field commanders to settle local scores rather than attack U.S. forces. Misuse of foreign fighters gets back to future recruits, so relaying these tales back to foreign fighter homelands is crucial.
  • Tales of misfortune from defectors – No technique may be more effective in eroding ISIL support than retelling the tales of defectors. Many foreign fighters have or are returning through Turkey, and most will speak gloriously about their battles, inflating their triumphs fighting with ISIL. But some will likely feel disenchanted with the cause in which they participated. When provided the right incentives, such as reinstatement of citizenship, defectors can be useful mechanisms for undermining the ISIL narrative in recruitment cities.

Absent a dedicated military force on the ground in Syria and Iraq, airstrikes, unreliable militias, and Iraqi military forces will fall well short of achieving the desired goal of defeating ISIL. Hopefully, many of the unconventional warfare approaches outlined above are already being employed by the U.S.-led coalition. ISIL has many weaknesses, and airpower alone cannot exploit all of them. Unconventional warfare approaches always have potential disadvantages or consequences that naturally arise when working through surrogates rather than the direct command of militaries. But the U.S.’s taste for large enduring deployments has long soured; proxies must now be utilized to defeat ISIL present current limitations on the use of ground forces. More importantly, there is a danger of the security vacuum in Syria and parts of Iraq enduring for many years to come. Unconventional methods will not only help erode ISIL in the near term, it will likely reap intelligence benefits in the long term as the U.S. will need continued situational awareness on the chaotic stew of militias each carving out a stake in the Levant. Americans must realize that unconventional warfare isn’t really an option; it’s an imperative.


Clint Watts is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University.  Prior to his current work as a security consultant, Clint served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, a FBI Special Agent on a Joint Terrorism Task Force and as the Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

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10 thoughts on “How About Some Unconventional Warfare? Thoughts On Countering ISIL

  1. Unconventional warfare consists of “activities to enable a resistance or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”

    Tactics above do not describe UW, as practiced by the United States.

    The more appropriate term would be asymmetric warfare.

  2. The “advisors” on the ground may or may not be the best Unconventional Warriors that this country has to offer. Their leadership understands this and is certainly petitioning for this approach all the way to the top.

  3. Yes, as mentioned above: unconventional warfare (UW) — Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area. (JP 1-02, 2014)

    By definition the U.S. is the only country in NATO that conducts UW. Lost allies, lost coalition, U.S.-centric operations would result.

    Yes, irregular warfare (IW) operating concept for an irregular threat.

    Joe C.

  4. Name of the article not withstanding…IO/MILDEC/MISO, or subversion of their network and ideology are all good ideas, if our government/OSD is willing to take the risk of execution…which we haven’t seen lately!!

  5. Here is an idea on how to rid ISIS from the world.

    How about a delivery to ISIS from America, along the same lines that Japan received from America at the close of World War II?

    In war there are always people that are innocently involved as casualties of war. And if ISIS were to receive the same or similar package as Japan, we as country would have to expect the same damages done to Japan citizens as well.

    A country does not fight evil by doing good. And when a country has weapons of mass destruction, and do not use such weapons against evil people for doing what they do, then what does that tell the evil peoples? In my estimation those evil peoples quickly get the drift that America will not use such weapons against us, because they are afraid to do so.

    And by not using those weapons, that leaves such evil peoples to continue to do what they do without expecting consequences.

  6. Not professing a military background,I feel UW seems a wise approach when put in the perspective of overall effort. Introducing chaos psychologically and militarily should include perhaps vailed efforts suggesting peace based upon an apparent humanitarian goal which is what ISIL may want. Beating them at their own game would expose their infrastructure and make them vulnerable to extermination

  7. we don’t need advisors on the ground. simply provide the kurds with laser target designators and stack up the targets in our command centers. these are beyond simple to use and only basic instructions are required which can be provided over the radio or by internet. drop them a secure internet connection.

    second, we need to start attacking with incendiary weapons, preferably delivered in large quantities by b52 strike a/c. these are truely game changes for the hearts and minds of the ISIL fighters.

  8. Good ideas in your WoTR article – regardless of the title used. To date officialdom, in the USA and elsewhere, appear to have thought little and deployed old weapons.

    We COULD damage ISIS, primarily its military capability – as it nears Baghdad. Kobane is a sideshow.

    ISIS is a long established, robust terrorist group that survived what the USA and allies (incl. then Iraq) could do to it. The Iraqi state as we know choose a different route to governing, reducing the role of the Sunnis and killing them. Into that situation ISIS became an alternative for many Sunnis. They CANNOT be defeated until the Iraqi state changes.

    Syria is different, there ISIS exploited the civil war – knowing that the Assad regime would not fight it too hard. Sadly other states, some of them allies, followed a different approach that they now say they regret.

  9. As layed out above UW is against an occupying power. It can be argued that ISIL /Daesh is an occupying power that has control of sections of 2 countries. The IW definition does fit better on the whole. But IW includes insurgency which is a means to over throw a government under a UW construct. The important peice for both constructs is that it is going to take a long time with a mix of nonstandard missions. Those missions we require strong local groups that can foment dissent among ISIL/Daesh, use guerrilla tactics, and hold, clear then build in the long term. SFA and FID will have to be part of the grand strategy in conjunction with the miso/psyops as recommended in this article. If we are not going to commit large amounts of combat troops that is the only way I see success against ISIL/Daesh