ISIL’s Small Ball Warfare: An Effective Way to Get Back into a Ballgame.


Der Spiegel recently published a blockbuster article that chronicles the activities and personal papers of Haji Bakr, a high ranking member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who led the effort to seize territory in Syria between late 2012, and his death in 2014 at the hands of a rival Syrian faction. Analyzing first hand documents, such as captured organizational charts and battle plans, is a rare opportunity and very helpful in gaining an understanding of the organization — something that policymakers desperately need to develop an effective strategy to defeat ISIL. Unfortunately, the same investigative excellence that unearthed the documents does not reflect in the analysis, as Christoph Reuter makes highly speculative conclusions about the nature of Ba’athist influence on ISIL, Haji Bakr’s role in its success, and the impact Haji Bakr’s Syria operation had on Iraq. Lost in this headline-generating exercise is the real value of the article — its description of ISIL’s tactics in infiltrating new territory and implementing a program of discriminate violence designed to establish control over desired areas.

The Haji Bakr papers detail how ISIL used these techniques in 2013 to successfully reinsert themselves into the Syrian civil war after losing their Nusra affiliate, and eventually establish the Syrian half of the ISIL caliphate. Much like a baseball team uses “small ball” tactics to patiently and quietly produce runs using singles and stolen bases, the article describes how ISIL organized cadres to infiltrate small villages, collect intelligence on key figures, and then slowly seize control over the towns using assassination, intimidation, and extortion. Reuter does not mention how he knows that Haji Bakr’s Syria plan was original or what influenced the doctrinal development over time. In the absence of such an explanation, let me propose one based on my research of over 3000 statements, videos, captured documents, and other available evidence that detail the operations of the Islamic State movement — the current organization and its antecedents — from 2003-2013. To truly understand ISIL as it is today, the group must be understood in a historical sense. There is substantial evidence that the doctrine described in the Haji Bakr papers was developed by a succession of leaders in an evolutionary process as this movement’s fortunes waxed and waned.

Violence and Civil War

Stathis Kalyvas, a civil war scholar from Yale University, posits in The Logic of Violence in Civil War that military resources can generally be used by a combatant to establish control over areas regardless of the population’s political predisposition, which in turn generates a threshold of collaboration over time. For example, studies of the Vietnam War found that a long presence of one side or another changed the collaboration patterns of the local populace despite previous affiliation. This follows the historical principle of cuius regio, eius religio — essentially, people follow the ruler’s choice. The founder of the ISIL movement, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, used this exact saying in his response to al Qaeda criticism of his methods in Iraq from 2003-06, justifying his attacks on the Shia and even fellow Sunnis as necessary to establish control first — after which allegiance would naturally follow. As Zarqawi’s organization grew in stature, he created a special unit called the Omar Brigade in 2004 as an assassination unit that exclusively targeted Shia militias throughout Iraq. Zarqawi had a practitioner’s understanding of Kalyvas’ theory of control, as well as its corollary: Because control requires enormous resources, “effective violence requires discrimination.” While the group is infamous for its indiscriminate attacks using suicide car bombs on Iraqi Shia civilians, it maintained a different, more careful strategy for achieving control and limited collateral damage in key areas.

Zarqawi’s organization grew to be very successful by 2006 and easily dominated all other nationalist insurgence groups, and after his death the Islamic State was established with Zarqawi’s veterans as the core. Members at the time included Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (the future caliph) and the above-mentioned Haji Bakr, both of whom had elected to join the extremist organization in the early years over many competing nationalist (and Ba’athist) organizations. ISIL’s success and its brutal methods of implementing control in areas with independent minded Sunni tribes inspired a backlash later that year in Anbar province. The Awakening (or Sahwa) was a movement of elites, tribal leaders, and former Sunni resistance groups in Anbar that united in late 2006 to contest ISIL and subsequently spread to other areas of Iraq. The Awakening’s intricate knowledge of ISIL and its mostly Iraqi membership by then allowed the Awakening members to flush ISIL out of its sanctuaries and pushed it into remote rural areas of Iraq. Others were captured and spent time in Camp Bucca, where they planned and plotted while waiting to return to the fight — as I wrote about in this War on the Rocks article. ISIL’s ability to move freely among the Sunni was over, and the Awakening units, paid by Americans and the Iraqi government, established control over almost all Sunni areas in Iraq. Violence plummeted and the Iraqi state tried to return to some semblance of normalcy. Almost anywhere you went in the Sunni areas of Iraq after 2007-8 you saw Awakening checkpoints, and it was (relatively) safe.

Pushed underground by late 2007 and early 2008, the Islamic State movement under the dual leadership of Abu Omar al Baghdadi and Egyptian al Qaeda veteran Abu Hamza al Muhajir began to plot its return. While the organization’s salafist inspired hatred for the Shia (something that outlived the influence of Zarqawi) is well known, the ISIL leaders assigned a high priority to the campaign against the grassroots influencers in the Awakening movement. While in the initial battle of the Sunni civil war the Awakening used its intimate (even familial) knowledge of ISIL to defeat the group, ISIL now watched, observed, and plotted. Furthermore, ISIL capitalized on divided households and clans that provided detailed information on the movements of Awakening members, as well as Iraqi security forces that partnered with the Awakening to maintain control over the former ISIL sanctuaries. In the upcoming battle of very similar networks, accurate intelligence and small ball tactics would win the day.

Turning the Tables

To gauge the impact of the campaign on the Awakening, ISIL’s primary target during this period, I used data available in the Iraqi Body Count database to ascertain the number of Awakening deaths from 2006-2013, and cross-checked these numbers and names against IS monthly operational reports posted on jihadist friendly websites in four key towns/cities of various population in different parts of Iraq: Jurf al Sakhr (Babil), Garma (Anbar), Baqubah (Diyala), and Mosul (Ninevah). I coded for type of attack, target, leadership, names mentioned, and location within the town/city.

Whiteside 1
Awakening Deaths in Iraq and Four select cities, 2007-2013 (data from

Of the four cities, Garma experienced the Awakening earliest, followed by Jurf and later Baqubah. Mosul never saw an Awakening movement develop, as described in my previous War on the Rocks article, and therefore had a negligible number of attacks on Awakening units — although attacks in Mosul against security forces were consistently among the highest in the country. Garma and Jurf are areas with safe Sunni majorities, while Baqubah is in a mixed province (Diyala) and Mosul was mostly Sunni with a large diversity of minority populations before a mass exodus triggered by ISIL’s takeover of the city changed its ethno-sectarian makeup. Historically, Jurf and Garma were two of the most violent towns in Iraq before 2007, and Baqubah once served as ISIL’s self-described capital. Since 2007, Garma saw little ISIL activity until 2013, most likely a function of the strength of the Sahwa in Anbar in general. Baqubah had the highest level of violence per capita against Awakening targets of the three locations, and the campaign was consistent throughout all years with the exception of 2008 — which reflected the high level of violence against the nascent Awakening units as ISIL was initially cleared from Diyala province during the Surge.

Jurf ah Sakhr (Rocky Bank)

To further examine ISIL’s doctrine of establishing control over an area, I studied the ISIL campaign in Jurf ah Sakhr, a small Sunni town on the Euphrates River south of Baghdad, as a mini-case study of their methods and pace. Jurf ah Sakhr’s Sahwa movement started in mid-2007 and was led by Sabah al Janabi, who had been designated by the Janabi tribal leadership as their local security manager. ISIL claimed its first Jurf attacks in almost a year in the summer of 2008 as part of a campaign designated by emir Abu Omar al Baghdadi — the al Karamah (Dignity) plan. The overwhelming amount of claimed attacks in 2008 were on the Sahwa, and the only attack on American forces during the entire period was in September of that year. This is surprising because U.S. forces were stationed in this old hotbed almost until the very end of the American presence in the country in 2011. Obviously ISIL was deliberately avoiding U.S. targets, as Americans traveled throughout the area with complete freedom — which was not the case prior to 2007. In the summer of 2010, Abu Omar announced the Harvest of the Good campaign (Hasad al Khayr), which directed an increased level of attacks on ISIL’s enemies in the Sahwa and Iraqi government. Attacks in 2010 and 2011 were evenly mixed between the Sahwa and the steadily increasing Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which the Iraqi Government flooded into the area in an attempt to prevent seasonal attacks on the nearby Shia pilgrimage route to Karbala. The last two years of the study (2012-13) saw a preponderance of attacks on Iraqi security forces, after the Sahwa’s attrition had left a security vacuum that could not be filled by iterant forces conducting random patrols. Over this time period, ISIL conducted operations that killed 72 ISF and wounded 47, with additional unknown casualties according to their operational summaries. There were also indicators from the U.S. military that the security forces in Jurf were overwhelmingly Shia and had trouble relating to the Sunni population of Jurf without the Awakening support.

Of 133 total attacks claimed by ISIL in Jurf from 2008-2013, 53 targeted the Sahwa — with 39 confirmed kills and 20 wounded. There were many attacks where ISIL was unsure of the results, so the numbers are most likely higher. Twenty-six of these attacks were close kill variants (assassination, night house raid), while 21 were improvised explosive devices — mostly sticky bombs attached to the victim’s car and exploded at a safe distance. While Baqubah witnessed many silencer attacks in the city, the rural area of Jurf did not seem to require the use of this weapon. Twenty-four of the Sahwa attack claims mentioned the victim by name, and twenty one of the attacks targeted key leaders in the Jurf Sahwa organization, killing 16 and wounding nine. This tactic of targeting tribal elders and Sahwa leaders cleverly assumed that the lower level soldiers would be amenable to defection at some point. Other targets included three mayors of Jurf localities and an Islamic Party official (the Iraqi version of Muslim Brotherhood). Three houses belonging to leadership were demolished with explosives, in order to punish the “traitors” and “set an example for others.” The leader of the Jurf Sahwa, Sabah al Janabi, was targeted twice and wounded once seriously. By 2011 he had fled the town for Syria, leaving it leaderless and nominally protected by the ISF. By 2013 the town was considered ISIL territory, and several failed attempts to clear it were made. Jurf was finally cleared in late 2014 as part of an intensive operation using the Hash’d Shabi, a volunteer militia that emptied the town of all citizens and ISIL. As of this date, limited numbers of the population have been allowed to return in order to keep it out of ISIL control.


Using this case study, an argument can be made that ISIL’s slow infiltration doctrine — described in the Der Spiegel article as the innovation of Haji Bakr in 2012, was most likely an evolutionary process planned and directed by ISIL leadership in the 2007-08 time period in response to the defections of many of its personnel to the Awakening and the loss of important sanctuaries. The group developed extensive tradecraft skills and a deep intelligence network that infiltrated both the Sahwa and security forces in order to efficiently eliminate their targets over time. While this process could have incorporated techniques from former Ba’athists, I think it is far more likely to have been gained through experience in the early resistance as well as informed by early al Qaeda veterans from other jihads that formed the majority of the early movement.

The idea that ISIL also needed assistance from Ba’athist experts on learning operational security to protect its members is also a tenuous assumption. The group had long demonstrated excellent operational security of its leaders. Abu Musab al Zarqawi was the most wanted man on the planet for over three years, yet managed to frustrate a powerful Special Operations Task Force dedicated to finding him while he conducted extensive battlefield circulation among his operators. There is no evidence that he had former regime members in his inner circle. Abu Omar and Abu Hamza, his successors, did the same for four years — dying together in 2010 after a key lieutenant was captured and talked. Abu Omar’s personal courier was rumored to be none other than Abu Bakr al Baghdadi — which could be as important a fact in his ascension as other explanations of his rise in 2010.

Why do organizations keep detailed records that could expose very damaging secrets? Jacob Shapiro terms this the terrorist’s dilemma in his excellent book of the same name, and he had a chapter describing how ISIL had to balance their strong desires to prevent corruption in the ranks — a very real consideration when the group generates income through extortion and plunder — with the obvious need for secrecy. As a result, ISIL’s oppenents have found a treasure trove of financial records and organizational hierarchy descriptions — including the Sinjar documents (2007) and the Bilawi documents found in 2014. The obsession with anti-corruption measures demonstrates that ideological requirements stemming from the desire for purity can trump operational security concerns in an organization like ISIL.


If you ask most observers how a place like Jurf reverted to ISIL control in 2013, they will most likely point to the sectarian nature of the regime of former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. While this undoubtedly led a significant amount of Sunnis to lose support for the government, it is difficult to measure that impact on ISIL’s campaign in Iraq — particularly because this support for ISIL can be fickle and shallow. I offer an explanation on ISIL’s rise in Iraq that is based on observable data, and one that complements the descriptions of ISIL’s rise in Syria found in the Haji Bakr papers. ISIL took the cities and towns back with an efficient campaign that focused on removing key nodes of a pro-government network and replacing it with its own control apparatus. By wresting control of the key terrain and population centers it desired, it was able to enforce and elicit a basic level of collaboration from the population. Undoubtedly, at this point opportunistic tribes and members assisted the group, but that is exactly what control facilitates and encourages according to Kalyvas’ theory on irregular warfare.

ISIL has developed a very effective doctrine to wage low-level infiltration/assassination campaigns to take over significant parts of Iraq and Syria. As it is rolled back out of areas like Tikrit, the Iraqi government needs to develop a solution to this problem that extends beyond just maintaining an untrained and unsupported Sunni militia in these areas. This could include the creation and stationing of professional military forces that reflect the population makeup in order to improve intelligence collection, and a depoliticized structure so that officers of all sects can be successful career officers. If there is no desire to do this, especially after the failure of sustaining an Awakening movement, then the state should consider whether it should let these areas become completely autonomous. A state that cedes its monopoly over the justified use of force cannot be considered legitimate in those areas.


Craig Whiteside is an assistant professor at the Naval War College, Monterey, where he teaches Theater Security Decision Making. These views are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Navy.