war on the rocks

How About Some Unconventional Warfare? Thoughts On Countering ISIL

October 20, 2014

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.