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.
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.
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.
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.
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.