war on the rocks

The Fight Goes on in Anbar: ISIL vs the World

October 15, 2014

Over the past week, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been able to build on its previous gains in Iraq’s Anbar province. The situation in the province has rapidly deteriorated. At this point, the districts of al-Qa’im, Anah, Hit, Fallujah, and Karmah are all under the control of anti-government forces—which amounts to about 80% of the province. As was the case for last week’s report, this new contribution draws heavily on regional Arabic-language reporting to chronicle ISIL’s continuing victories in Anbar.

Beginning on October 6, ISIL mounted a direct attack into Tuway Albu Risha, farmland located on the western side of Ramadi that belongs to the Albu Risha tribe. This tribe was an important part of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement in the 2005-07 period. Our recent article on ISIL’s Anbar offensive noted the centrality of the field commander Umar al-Shishani, who has employed tactics far different from those ISIL utilizes elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. In most areas of Iraq and Syria, the group has fought like a conventional military, but this isn’t the case in Anbar. Shishani has emphasized speed and agility, and his tactics have several layers of complexity, including regularly utilizing feints and harassing attacks to try to force his opponents to chase him and thus place themselves in a vulnerable position.

Shishani’s October 6 attack on Tuway Albu Risha was actually something of a military sprint. In addition to striking Tuway Albu Risha, he hit three major targets around Hit (Jazirat Albu Nimr and the villages of al-Furat and Dulab) and three targets east of Ramadi (the village of Hamidiyah and land belonging to the Albu Itha and Albu Shihab tribes). These strikes succeeded in luring three Iraqi security forces (ISF) platoons outside of Ramadi, after which he encircled them for two days.

Anbar 1

On October 8, Shishani launched further attacks west of Ramadi—including against Khamsah Kilu (essentially a roadhouse at a five-kilometer marker) and Zangora—as well as against Zabiriyah, which is located between Hit and Baghdad. The following day, he hit Camp Warrar in western Ramadi and launched a raid into northern Ramadi. On October 10, Shishani attacked both al-Madham and the 1st Regiment Headquarters in Ramadi. On October 11, ISIL overran the villages of Salamiyah and Zushaykhah near Hit, and mounted large-scale attacks against both Tuway Albu Risha and Amiriyah. This should provide some indication of the pace of Shishani’s attacks, as well as the geographic range of his operations.

Anbar 2

Many of the locations that Shishani attacked are extremely obscure—and indeed, many of the locations he attacked made it through the entire U.S. war in Iraq without a single recorded attack against American forces. Further, with the exception of Hit (which fell to ISIL on Monday), Shishani has still made no effort to actually take and hold territory. He is instead deliberately baiting the Iraqi Security Forces and Sahwa out into the open, causing them to divide their forces, and then picking and choosing where to fight them with overwhelming force. The last week’s fighting resulted in a majority of the 1,800 total Sahwa casualties in Anbar that have been reported by CNN—a completely unsustainable rate of attrition for the Sahwa.

To prevent the United States from using close air support in defense of anti-ISIL positions in Anbar, Shishani has outfitted his troops with captured Stinger missiles. He has been steadily reinforcing his fighters in Anbar, with 400 fresh troops recently brought in from Syria.

The difference between Shishani’s approach and that of other ISIL factions is underscored by the relative size of their units. ISIL’s standard model is to have 300 to 350 fighters per front, while Shishani’s al-Aqsa Battalion appears to be fighting in groups no larger than fifty. The larger model ISIL employs elsewhere has been considerably less effective than Shishani’s in the face of airstrikes.

Indeed, ISIL has settled into a largely defensive posture throughout the majority of Iraq in an effort to avoid airstrikes and artillery. This is a harbinger that other ISIL factions will likely need to adopt Shishani’s methods or risk losing momentum. This, however, presents one of the dilemmas that ISIL has created for itself through its caliphate declaration: while an insurgent model may be more advantageous, ISIL needs to maintain a viable state-like façade to defend the legitimacy of its claims. The group is therefore not as flexible as some other militant organizations.

In addition to its strong performance in Anbar, signs of trouble continue to mount for ISIL. A resistance movement in Mosul continues to assassinate ISIL leaders. Unprecedented opposition to ISIL has also manifested in Fallujah, with the emergence of a Fallujah Salvation Council that has begun assassinating ISIL leaders, including Umar Yawir al-Miyahi, the head of ISIL’s snipers, as well as ISIL’s mufti for the area.

Thus far Shishani has been devastatingly effective in Anbar. The U.S. has a vested interest in making sure that Ramadi doesn’t fall, especially given that a large number of people who previously worked with the Americans are clustered in the area. American special operations forces could make a difference in ensuring that Ramadi’s supplies aren’t cut off by a siege. Further, U.S. special operations forces could make a difference by focusing on targeting Shishani, the man who has made so many of ISIL’s recent gains possible.

 

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. FDD’s Patrick Megahan and Bridget Moreng produced the accompanying maps.