ANALYSIS - Reading the monster's mind: Daesh military tactics

Terror group of disparate parts developed strategy to keep West at bay in Syria, Iraq

ANALYSIS - Reading the monster's mind: Daesh military tactics


Daesh has already plagued the security environment in the Middle East for more than a decade.

Its brutality went far beyond the regional margins, and reached out to Western capitals. The terrorist network has utilized sectarian fault lines and an apocalyptic concept of violence coupled with a highly advanced military approach.

This dangerous combination inevitably led to a reign of terror during which Daesh did not refrain from even waging chemical warfare.

The terrorist organization remains a political-military chimera composed of remnants of the Iraqi Ba’ath security apparatus, foreign terrorist fighters, some indigenous tribal groups, successors of the Zarqawi terrorist network and a set of pragmatic alliances.

This versatility resulted in a very destructive and notoriously innovative military strategy.

Without a doubt, developing a thorough understanding of Daesh’s strategic thinking would help fight its future form, probably an “al-Qaedaized” global terrorist wave.

One of the most important aspects of Daesh’s military strategy has been the notorious atrocities and brutal executions that were filmed and widely distributed through the internet and social media.

Without a doubt, Daesh terrorists’ brutality remains a horrific experience not only for the Middle East but also for the entire humanity.

Yet, from a military planner’s standpoint, these “advertised massacres” were a part of the terrorist network’s political warfare and psychological operations strategy.

In doctrine, managing the adversary’s perceptions is of vital importance in building an effective deterrence. Thus, the essence of psychological operations is using information and propaganda to shape the targets’ behaviors.

The desired end-state of a psychological operation is to generate an advantageous behavioral pattern. Such a pattern would then aim to degrade the adversary’s will to fight.

Clearly, Daesh has deliberately wanted to be portrayed as an insanely savage, bloodthirsty and ruthless slayer so that anyone would avoid messing with it.

Deliberate use of violence

Furthermore, the terrorist network established its authority over local populaces through terrorizing them and making their blood run cold. Especially, the online distribution of violent beheadings served the darkly glorified and immortalized terrorism cult very effectively.

Notably, this political warfare and the strategy of psychological operations largely paid off since it has kept Western nations away from deploying boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq except through military liaison and special forces missions.

In fact, Turkey was the only NATO nation that deployed a large conventional force in the area of operations to clear territory from Daesh and to hold it with a robust military buildup.

Daesh’s political warfare and psychological operations strategy has always been closely linked with its cyber influence aspirations.

The terrorist network cunningly utilizes the Internet as a means of promoting its propaganda and recruiting new fighters. Many of Daesh’s flagship publications could be found online and its video clips enjoy a shocking technique, almost a perfectly professional one.

Furthermore, these media materials gained a broad exposure on web platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. In other words, Daesh developed a good understanding of the skyrocketing information and telecommunications revolution of the 21st century.

From a military standpoint, it is thought that Daesh shows a very lethal and decisive performance at tactical level, whereas it suffers from several setbacks when conducting defensives to hold territory.

Interestingly, even when outnumbered and disadvantaged, Daesh shunned a solely defensive approach and over-glorified offensives to the point that they became an obsession.

Some of these offensive endeavors were ill-planned, so that they led to high costs for the terrorist organization.

Furthermore, a number of experts indicate that since the terrorist network is composed of various groups, ranging from Salafi extremists and former Iraqi Ba’ath security officials to indigenous triggermen and foreign terrorists, these major differences inevitably resulted in serious ruptures between strategic and tactical levels in Daesh ranks.

As a result, the terrorist organization lost a quarter of its entire territory between early 2015 and late 2016.

Brutal defenses

Nevertheless, Daesh managed to make these territorial losses very costly to the belligerents. Daesh’s planners set up -- sometimes even irrationally -- brawling defenses.

In this respect, they opted for boosting the lethality of their defenses by employing tactical surprises composed of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIED), hardened and insidiously hidden sniper nests, booby-trapped houses and even chemical warfare.

In brief, the world not only witnessed the territorial setbacks of Daesh, but also the dazzling limits of its brutality. This dark legacy remains a notorious yet effective “capital stock” in the possible de-territorial transformation -- the “al-Qaedaization” -- process of Daesh.

Daesh made really effective use of rocket attacks in various military contexts. In particular, the 122-mm BM-21 Grad variants, known by the WWII name Katyusha, became the weapon of choice in the terrorist network’s war of attrition.

The key to the terrorist organization’s use of rockets was the mobility and maneuverability of the launchers.

Daesh used 4x4 and 6x6 platforms for launching the Grad variants, which are effective within a 20 kilometer (12 mile) range.

Right after these attacks, Daesh militants de-positioned the launch platforms swiftly to avoid counter-strikes. Turkey, and specifically its southern border city of Kilis, was perhaps the unluckiest victim of Daesh’s rockets attacks.

Thus, one of the biggest objectives and gains of Operation Euphrates Shield was to deny the terrorist network any launch positions along areas bordering Turkey as well as the rocket production line in the Syrian town of Al-Bab.

Daesh also extensively used unmanned aerial vehicles in its terrorist campaign.

It utilized various drones for a broad array of missions, ranging from reconnaissance to surgical terrorist strikes.

Of the most sensational drone missions was the use of a commercially available DJI Phantom FC40 Quadcopter in 2014 over Raqqah for conducting reconnaissance ahead of overrunning a Syrian Arab Army base or, more recently, the drones carrying 40mm munitions to disrupt U.S.-led operations in eastern Syria.

The terrorist organization also flew drones in Iraq. Notably, in October 2016 near Mosul, a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle rigged with explosives killed two Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French Special Operations personnel.

Globalized Daesh?

The crushing point about the strike was the very fact that the explosives did not blow up when the drone crashed on the Peshmerga fighters or when it was captured.

In fact, the drone was a booby trap and was detonated by a pre-set timer or charge when the two Peshmerga took it to their base, which apparently hosted a French military liaison team.

The incident marked an alarming milestone that showed the tactical planning and execution capacity of Daesh.

Finally, the terrorist organization’s use of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices is of particular importance.

Daesh modified armored trucks and armored personnel carriers into massive terror weapons that could only be stopped by air power or anti-tank guided missiles.

The SVBIEDs were one of the primary causes of death among those fallen Turkish troops during Operation Euphrates Shield.

Daesh has recently faced a major setback in its pursuance of becoming a statelet since it was challenged by immense air power and had no air defenses except for some MANPADS and anti–aircraft guns, which are only effective at low altitudes.

Yet, as mentioned earlier, with the exception of Turkey, no Western military could manage to bring a conventional ground force to fight the terrorist organization.

All in all, assessments on Daesh boil down to a critical question: Could the monster make a comeback in a more dangerous form after losing its proclaimed territories?

This would depend on many factors, such as the foreign terrorist fighters’ blowback rates, the terrorist network’s ability to form de-territorial alliances in different corners of the world and to the extent to which the leadership can regenerate.

But one thing is clear: Daesh has a complex structure, which paved the ground for its formidable military strategy in the form of hybrid warfare. This notorious strategic thinking could well bring about a reloaded global terrorism impact.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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