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On June 10, 2014 Mosul, a city of 1.8 million people 400 km north-west of Baghdad, falls in the hands of the terrorists from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) following a brief siege. Facing each other are 3 000 terrorists on one side and 30 000 men from the Iraqi army on the other. The latter decide to flee rather than to fight. The Iraqi army can allegedly count on 50 brigades, but they are mainly composed of inexperienced, badly trained and majority Shiite soldiers. The world watches in disbelief as the ISIS takes over the Iraqi city. Not even the CIA, as its director has recently publicly admitted, had foreseen such as a scenario and envisaged a strong, well organized and efficient terrorist army.

A terrorist army

The first question is hence: is the ISIS merely a group of terrorists or can they be considered an army? If we look at their discipline and organization, they can definitely be considered close to being an armed force. Apart from Iraq, the signs were already there in Syria. Bashar al Assad can rely on a well armed, trained army and is supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah militias. To date he has shown a great deal of resilience in resisting the attacks from the Free Syrian Army and Jahbat al Nusra. Yet, Bashar al Assad's army has suffered some significant setbacks when facing the ISIS.

The terrorist group is capable of continuing to reap more victories on the field in Iraq and Syria despite the international coalition's air strikes. The ISIS has pushed back even the Kurdish armed groups – whether they were the Iraqi Peshmerga who were used to fight against Saddam Hussein, or the PKK militants in Turkey or those from the YPG in Syria – without facing much opposition. This is the reason why the ISIS today controls a portion of territory between Syria and Iraq that is larger than Lebanon and where 8 million people live, or used to live before they fled.

Psychology and weapons

As several analysts are doing, it is thus necessary to pose more questions: where does this military strength originate from? How does the ISIS fight to reap so many successes?

A first factor is surely psychological. Religious fanaticism fuels the idea of fighting for a just cause, the will to engage in combat, the contempt for danger and death, martyrdom as a final goal, the inborn fatalism of Islam that dictates that each of our acts is defined by God and not by our free will. All of these aspects have an impact on the field. These are people that fight knowing that they are faced with two only possible outcomes: victory or death.

Extremism then turns into cruelty during the clashes and against those defeated. This attitude generates fear in those opposing the ISIS and facing the possibility of suffering their wrath. Such ruthlessness is displayed, publicized by a sophisticated media apparatus and is central in the behavior of the militants to install fear and demoralize their opponents. We can definitely state that there is a psychological warfare taking place along the fighting on the field. The terrorist is portrayed as being “meaner”, thus weakening the determination of those confronting him. The militant that massacres his enemies is the same person that is well aware that his fight is a one-way ticket to martyrdom.

The second factor are the weapons currently available to the ISIS and that offer their army a far greater fire-power if compared to their enemies. These weapons mainly come from the stocks once belonging to the Iraqi and Syrian armies, but also from the illegal market that the ISIS can easily access thanks to its vast accumulated wealth. A provisional listing of the equipment in the hands of the ISIS comprises tanks (around 300 units, half of which are the US donated Abrams coming from Iraq) also employed during fighting at night, armored vehicles (around 3 to 4 thousand, including M1114 Humvees), artillery (1000/1500 pieces of varying caliber, including US 155mm howitzers that have a range of 22 km), missile systems, anti-tank weapons, sophisticated communication equipment. Lately the militants from the ISIS have also employed anti-aircraft portable systems, like the Strela-3 (with over 4 km of range), the Igla, the US Stinger and the Cobra. The ISIS has already downed Iraqi and Syrian helicopter and fighter jets in the past.

Furthermore, the militants have also used, in at least two different occasions, chemical weapons stolen from warehouse in Iraq (in Muthanna in June 2014) and Syria. They were used against the Syrian Kurds in Avdiko, a village east of Kobane, on July 12, 2014 and on Iraqi soldiers in Saqlawiya, in the Ambar province, in September 2014. In both cases, the ISIS employed mustard gas, a powerful blistering agent, and chloride. The ISIS's chemical weapons seem to be stocked in Raqqa, the so-called Syrian capital of the group, to be presumably put to use again in the future.

The ISIS can also now count on 3 MIG 21 airplanes taken from the Syrian regime. They have never used them in combat just yet because they know they would be easily downed by the Americans. Nevertheless, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's militants currently own fighter jets.

isis mig 21
ISIS pilot on a Mig-21

Tactics and strategies

The issue of armaments is relevant is they are properly employed, of course. This is where the professionalism of the soldiers once belonging to the dissolved army of Saddam Hussein comes into play. They are the ones helping the ISIS oust the Shiite government in Baghdad. They are responsible for teaching the militants how to use the weapons they own, prepare their strategies and draft their tactics.

From a strategic viewpoint, the objectives of the militants from the ISIS are usually major roads, oil fields, refineries, dams and power plants. They know they don't have enough troops to control large areas and hence focus on infrastructures or key points that grant them supplies, financing, freedom of movement and predominance on the ground. Using terror as a weapon, they control areas that have become increasingly depopulated.

From a tactical viewpoint, instead, the militants fighting on the field is interspersed by forms of traditional warfare, combined with bomb or suicide attacks. These often target the enemies' frontline with car-bombs that anticipate the advance of the militants.

On an operational level, the ISIS's modus operandi grants the commanders on the field a great level autonomy. Once a strategic target to conquer has been identified, it is up to the commanders on the ground to decide how to do it. We are thus facing a decentralized command and control system that is highly flexible and that leaves a lot of room to adapt to the mutating circumstances on the ground. This means that tactics, strategies and operations are just one. They advance on the ground, step by step, and any upcoming military initiative is based on this parameter. By doing so the ISIS have been capable of creating an upside-down command and control system, that uses a bottom-up approach, instead of a top-down one.

Such a system relies on the single militant's combat skills and not on the organization he belongs to. At the same time, the militant is also a disciplined fighter, regimented within an efficient hierarchical system composed of platoons and companies. A structure such as this one can easily adapt to mutating scenarios.

The militants from the ISIS usually fight in small groups, they exploit opportunities, the terrain, the surprise factor. If need be, they also resort to employing armored vehicles. Combat units and logistical support gather in proximity of the theatre of operations shortly before any attack to coordinate their activities. In urban areas the ISIS prefers urban guerrilla, fighting building after building, block after block.

Since the beginning of the US air strikes, the ISIS has moved its headquarters on the ground, reducing their size and multiplying them. They have given up setting road blocks, spread their troops on the ground and pulled their vehicles out of the barracks. They have moved into the cities, mixing with the local population. They have also drastically reduced their use of mobile phones (which they turn off to avoid being spotted) or radio communications. Their black flags are now everywhere to confuse their enemies on which targets they should bomb. Motorbikes are currently preferred to cars when key figures have to move from one place to another. During their attacks they constantly burn tires or oil to create a black cloud of smoke that prevents from air strikes.

Conventional tactics are also accompanied by terrorist ones. Apart from suicide bombers, car-bombs are used, roads are mined, explosive traps are set, religious or tribal leaders are eliminated, sleeping terrorist cells have been disseminated.


Targeting Baghdad

The future of Baghdad is now at stake. The Iraqi capital is the ISIS's final destination. If they were to conquer it, the ISIS would be able to establish its caliphate and could also exert its predominance over other radical groups. This would also be the first step towards the creation of a territorial entity defined by the Umma, the Islamic community, and not by national borders. But the jihadist militants currently don't have the strength to take over or control the Iraqi capital. This is why they have changed their strategy. Counting on the support of the Sunni diaspora that supported Saddam Hussein's regime, the ISIS has taken over the control of some major roads that lead to Baghdad with the intention of putting the city under siege. They intend to choke its supplies and to create a climate of insecurity for the population with the objective of forcing it to flee under the menace that there shall be no pity for the vanquished. Whether this plan works out will determine the future success of the ISIS.

This is part of their gamble and of their unscrupulousness. The ISIS has forced their potential enemies to deal with the contradictions generated by a foreign military intervention. They know the United States seek to destroy them, but, at the same time, that the US is not willing to help Bashar al Assad in the process. The ISIS is also aware that Turkey has an issue with supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria. Finally, the terrorist group is conscious of the fact that it will not cease to exist unless a ground assault against them is launched, airstrikes will never solve the issue. And this is probably what the ISIS and Al Baghdadi are longing for.