War, Interrupted, Part II: From Prisoners to Rulers

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Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Read part I of War, Interrupted here.


Orange is the New Black

The life of a jihadist usually means serving extended periods of time in the various prisons of the “apostate” regimes, interspersed with well-meaning releases or paroles. It is a rite of passage for many jihadist leaders. Abu Musab al Zarqawi spent many years in Jordanian prisons, and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the most famous alum of the American detention system, was released in 2004 after a recommendation by a combined board felt he did not pose a threat. Islamic State messaging frequently remembers “brothers” incarcerated by the Iraqi government, and often complains (missing a sense of irony of course) about their mistreatment. They have also proclaimed to both their prisoners and the Iraqi government that their highest priority is to break them out of prison. As part of the Islamic State’s military campaign to return to relevance, introduced in the first part of this series, they constructed a multi-layered plan to free their members in Iraqi prisons.

To accomplish this feat, the Islamic State created a brigade that specialized in targeting the criminal justice system as a whole, with assassination squads responsible for killing judges, prosecutors, investigators, prison staff, and witnesses. Physical infrastructure was also targeted, including crime labs, detention facilities, and courtrooms. Many of these assaults were enabled by insider information about possible targets passed on during normal visitations, exposing the vulnerability of an open legal system in a country at war with itself. The Islamic State exploited this to the utmost, bringing the justice system to a crawl. Attempts by the government to expedite prosecutions (and executions) brought more complaints by both human rights groups and the Islamic State about persecution of Sunni prisoners: an effective propaganda angle that resonated with the Sunni community, and recalls the convergence of human rights groups and jihadists on the issue of Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay.

The Islamic State’s delaying tactics were successful in keeping many of their leaders from execution, a fortuitous break for the group. There were seven full-scale prison assaults between July 2012 and July 2013, and two were successful in achieving large breakouts. The Abu Ghraib operation in July of 2013 was particularly impactful as over 500 senior Islamic State personnel, many slated for death, escaped unharmed. In an organization that only had several thousand members at the time, this had a large impact. Many returned to serve in key positions, including the emir of Anbar province, Abu Wahib, who led the efforts to secure Fallujah for the Islamic State in late 2013.

Advise and Assist

The arrival of veteran jihadist commanders from the prison break coincided with the need for experienced leaders to staff the growing numbers of assault units in Ninewa, North Babil, Diyala, and Anbar. These battle formations had been fine-tuning their combat skills on ubiquitous Iraqi Army and police checkpoints around the country, eventually growing from squad to company level operations. The checkpoint system had been encouraged by the United States during the occupation to prevent IED placement in certain “hotspots.” The system worked because of robust U.S. air support and mobile reaction forces that could reinforce isolated Iraqi units. Once the United States turned over security responsibility to Iraqi units, there was little thought given to what happened after those capabilities were gone.

Checkpoint assaults are regularly featured on Islamic State videos, demonstrating the weakness of the Iraqi government in key areas as well as providing large amounts of captured weapons and material to a growing Islamic State. The Islamic State’s units received excellent training in small unit assault on these targets, which took place for hours without any response from higher headquarters or nearby units. The videos unwittingly point out the misuse of heavy weapons systems, such as the siting of Abrams main battle tanks in poor defensive positions. These indicators of poor training and doctrine, compared to the self-taught excellence in small unit tactics of the Islamic State from 2007-2014, indisputably reflect on our advisory effort in Iraq.

War as the Reestablishment of Order

There are members of the Islamic State that have been fighting in Iraq since 2003. According to their media releases, they are not weary. While the organization has merged with others, and changed names and objectives several times, its core essence and overall goal have remained unchanged. This is important to understand because the surprise at their success – and the rapidity in which it happened in 2014 – might lead some to believe that the group could easily be rolled back, or that this blitzkrieg force has yet to take roots as an occupying army. This perspective overlooks the effectiveness of the Islamic State’s seven-year campaign to dominate what they see as their core areas. Their seizure of broad swaths of territory was not a random or lucky development, but rather a carefully planned and coordinated offensive preceded by years of preparation by unconventional warfare.

Commentators arguing that the Islamic State will wear out its welcome, or that it has collected too many enemies need to reexamine this conclusion after reviewing the Islamic State’s campaign since 2007. The Islamic State’s list of enemies has not changed a great deal, and remains expansive. With the exception of the Americans who left, and with some variations due to demographics and geography, the Islamic State targeting has been amazingly consistent over a long period of time: They kill Sunni collaborators, Kurds, Shia pilgrims, Yazidi “devil worshippers,” security forces, Shia militias, government workers, contractors, Communists, and the list goes on. The groups the United States have worked with in the past to stand up against the Islamic State have all the while been undercut and intimidated to the point that they cannot function effectively.

An accurate assessment of the strength of the Islamic State, and its deep roots in their core areas, is essential in determining the feasibility of any strategy that seeks to roll back or defeat this enemy. Any strategy that is dependent upon the creation of a “new Awakening” should also look carefully at what key local leaders the United States would partner with in each Sunni community – considering that a healthy number of former allies are dead, in exile, or have “repented” and are currently working with the Islamic State.

Strategists use simplistic narratives to make sense of the larger puzzle and construct intuitive solutions. Fixing sectarianism at the national level and peeling away Sunni tribes on the ground becomes an instant strategy, obvious to all. This article does not argue against that strategy, but urges a closer look at facts on the ground to see if it is feasible. Political solutions cannot occur in a security vacuum. Pushing out the Islamic State with Sunni tribesmen, who are in essence armed civilians, can only be a means to an end. Otto Marenin, a policing scholar, wrote that police are experts at reproducing order, but they cannot create order if it is absent. This societal order might have been present in 2006 – when the Awakening movement wrestled Sunni areas away from an Islamic State weakened by U.S. pressure – but might not exist anymore. Stability is a very bottom-up process that can be independent of larger narratives. But to be successful, its creation will require the same courageous local leaders that were found in the Awakening movement of Iraq, and in Village Stability Operations in Afghanistan.

Contrary to depictions of the Islamic State as nihilistic killers, the leadership has adapted many of the tenets of a learning organization to adapt from their defeat in 2007. Their concept of decentralized micro-warfare has eliminated many of their local challengers in the tribal auxiliaries and local police, and undermined the power of the Iraqi government to protect their Sunni allies. Isolated Iraqi Army units, losing their local eyes and ears, have been ejected from Sunni areas one by one. Most importantly, a determination to protect and free human capital – a resource that takes years to create – has served the Islamic State well. We have missed most of this story, but it is not too late to learn from it.

Our current Defense Strategic Guidance, stating that the United States will not size its forces to fight large-scale stability operations, leads some to the perception that we will not be involved in stability operations in the future. That is a misreading of the document, and an unrealistic projection of the future. The United States understands that it will fight in stability and support operations in the future, with a preference for leveraging the capabilities of countries that share similar interests to ours, to maintain a global order that is conducive to our economic and security interests. To execute this strategy, we will have to learn how to better recruit and assist allies on the ground, train and increase the capabilities of allied armies more effectively, and develop a successful detention policy that keeps bad actors off the battlefield while adhering to our national values. The situation in Iraq allows the United States the opportunity to improve on the above-stated capabilities, much like the Islamic State did after setbacks in 2007. If we are unable to do any of these tasks more effectively than we have in the past ten years, then we need to seriously reconsider our role as the guardian of an unsustainable world order.


Craig Whiteside is an associate professor for the Naval War College, Monterey. The Iraqi Awakening partners of his former unit, 1-501 Parachute Infantry, are gone. He will defend his dissertation, “The Smiling, Scented Men: The Political Worldview of the Islamic State of Iraq, 2003-2013,” at Washington State University in November 2014. You can contact the author at cawhites@nps.edu or on Twitter @CraigAWhiteside