Know your enemy

Daesh is a hybrid terrorist organization operating on different levels. To fight it, one must know it well.
muslim militants

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

― Sun TzuThe Art of War

 In one of his articles, Frank G. Hoffman describes hybrid wars as ‘a range of different modes of warfare, including conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder’. Is it possible to apply the concept as we speak about a terrorist organization such as Daesh (ISIS)? And if it is possible, what would the implications be in terms of neutralizing this terrorist organization?

Daesh is referred to as a terrorist organization because it uses violence against civilians to achieve its political objectives. Strategies such as attrition, intimidation, outbidding are implemented by the group in the Middle East and elsewhere. Tactics such as using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) and house-borne explosive devices (HBIED) were used in the Soldier’s harvest mission. Small arms, suicide bombs and indiscriminate use of violence were used against civilians to instill fear and cause chaos throughout the world. After the ‘Surge’, Daesh survived and started using these low-profile tactics of terrorism, patiently increasing its military capabilities and powers.

Further, it is an insurgency organization since it has increased its military capabilities. Strategies such as those aiming at degrading and disrupting the enemy forces through indirect engagement were used numerous times. Through these tactics, Daesh achieved something that other terrorist organizations haven’t done – the ability to wage conventional warfare with the aim to destroy military threats and to occupy territories.

Daesh also managed to recruit and mobilize the population in Syria and Iraq by infiltrating within the communities and spreading its influence. It has managed to cause chaos through targeted assassinations, and psychological warfare, thus isolating and controlling the population in territories that were abandoned by the legitimate governments in Syria and Iraq.

Daesh supports its campaigns by waging information warfare – media campaigns, including a Magazine (Dabiq), and using the Internet to recruit, motivate, and radicalize people. Daesh relies on its media and terrorist campaigns to ‘resurrect’ the Sunni nationalism and to reveal its own religious interpretation of Islam. By perceiving Shias as the main threat, ISIS conducts campaigns of violence against Shias to generate a backlash against the Sunni population, thus making Sunnis unite and close ranks. After having achieved this result, ISIS paints itself as the vanguard of the Sunnis, uniting them and directing them against the Shia-dominated population. It does this through asymmetrical warfare, blending conventional insurgency and terrorist tactics.

It can also be described as a hybrid terrorist organization since it consists of networked structures and hierarchy-based structures. For example, the leadership of the organization that consists of professional soldiers from Syria and the Baath in Iraq is organized as a hierarchy with a strong division of labor and clear competencies.

At the same time, Daesh is organized in cells that consist of people who act on behalf of the organization. There can be planning or supporting cells which facilitate terrorist operations conducted by ‘execution cells’. Clandestine cells have lived in the target country for years, doing nothing until activated. Furthermore, some cells or even individuals are not affiliated with any network or core but are motivated and radicalized through Daesh’s numerous media campaigns.

On 20 November 2015, the Security Council adopted a Resolution 2249, which determined that Daesh ‘constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security’. The Resolution does not give any legal basis for the use of force against Daesh because it does not ‘authorize or decide(s)’ nor does it refer to Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations. It does, though, ‘call(s) upon’ member states to take all necessary measures against the group. Daesh, as a terrorist organization, is highly adaptive and resilient because of its capability to wage hybrid warfare against its enemies. Its strategy to ‘outlast its enemies by remaining in Iraq and Syria and expanding beyond those areas’ is feasible since it has the ability to combine conventional and irregular methods of fighting.

A successful strategy should include on the lowest level – counter-terrorism strategy, on the second level – counter-insurgency strategy, and on the highest level – conventional strategy that can counter and outmaneuver the conventional warfare of these terrorists. At the same time, resources must be considered in the field of information and intelligence – for a successful media campaign and effective intelligence forces. Human intelligence is indispensable and crucial part of a potential strategy against any enemy.

The international community should take into account that if the strategy against Daesh on one of the levels is successful, that will lead to an increase of activity on other levels. For instance, if we are successful on the conventional level, this will result in more acts of terrorism led by Daesh and its affiliates in the region, and the world over. Therefore, the community should be ready.

David Kilcullen – the senior counter-insurgency advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq, describes this aspect of the group as ‘ISIS Internationale’ – consisting of the leaderless resistance, remote radicalization, and guerrilla-style terrorism. Apart from the acts of terrorism it is perpetrating, it is also trying to establish effective governance. Thus, trying to win ‘the hearts and minds’ of the locals through media campaigns and by providing activities known as ‘da’wa’ – social welfare services and free education services.

This makes fighting Daesh more complicated because it turns it into a fight against the enemy on three battlefields: ‘the military one, the media one, and the battlefield of international courts and the court of public opinion—the arbiters of legitimacy

Know your enemy
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Zhuliyan Zhelezov

Zhuliyan has obtained a Master’s degree in International Security and Law from the University of Southern Denmark. He has obtained a ‘Master of Laws’ degree from the University of Sofia ‘St. Kliment Ohridski’. He has specialized in counter-terrorism and international criminal justice at the University of Salford (UK). He has also specializations in international law and international relations from the University of Sofia ‘St. Kliment Ohridski’. He works in the field of anti-money laundering and the prevention of the financing of terrorist organizations. His main interests are in the field of contemporary conflicts: terrorism, counter-terrorism, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and hybrid warfare.
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