The Islamic State’s (IS) tactical behaviour, particularly its attitude toward the holding of territory, has become a centrally important matter recently with the destruction of the “caliphate” and IS’s reversion to insurgency.
This issue has been a consistent interest of this blog. In June 2016, as IS was retreating from Sirte, its “capital” in Libya, I wrote about IS’s history of ceding urban areas when faced with overwhelming odds and regrouping in the rural belts. The speeches of Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), the first proto-caliph of the IS movement, and his explanation of the need to put politics and doctrine over geography have been a continuing source of fascination (see here, here, and here). And the final speech of Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), IS’s spokesman, in May 2016, plus the commentary in Al-Naba, IS’s weekly newsletter, around the same time fit squarely in the ideological-military lineage set out by al-Zawi.
Al-Naba has been an important source of information on IS’s thinking as its statelet has been shrunk and now eliminated. It was in Al-Naba in October that IS officially announced its return to insurgency and terrorism. Before that Al-Naba had explained how IS was waging its war in Raqqa—and how its enemies were waging their war. Since that time, it is in Al-Naba that IS has used to mock those who are writing off the group this time, just as they did last time, and to claim that the switch to insurgent-terrorist activity is working.
On 21 December, in CTC Sentinel, Hassan Hassan wrote about this transition from statehood to insurgency and highlighted a number of articles from Al-Naba where IS has documented and explained this. It seemed worthwhile to give more extensive summaries of these. In due course they will be reproduced below.
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In Al-Naba 43, 16 August 2016, there was an article on page 3—where IS often has its most important editorial—entitled, “And Sit in Ambush at Every Place”. The article noted that IS did not view the holding of territory as the measure of victory and that the group was already engaged in a wide-scale insurgency. Al-Naba lauded the insurgent methods IS had adopted, and celebrated the advances IS was making as it gained experience:
A day does not pass when people don’t hear reports of large-scale operations carried out by the soldiers of the caliphate in areas beyond their control, even when they have aligned against them under the pressure of bombing and destruction, or were previously inaccessible. …
The apostates of all kinds, and their crusader masters behind them, make many mistakes by thinking that the removal of the Islamic State from a region by aerial bombardment, or an incident of treachery and betrayal, will make them despair of returning to it, or accept the survival of the infidels [who come in to occupy the territory] in safety and reassurance. And they are thus exposing their ignorance of the doctrine carried forth by the soldiers of the Islamic State, and the approach they are taking in their jihad. It is one of the foundations of tawhid (monotheism), established [as a governing system] by the soldiers of the caliphate—bi fadl Allah (by the grace of God)—that they do not stop fighting the mushrikeen (polytheists, idolaters) until they convert them to the religion of God …
The evidence of history proves that the mujahideen of the Islamic State did not allow the apostates to enjoy security and safety for even a day, and their sabila (path) was, in the words of the Lord, “Fight them! God will torment them at your hands, and He will disgrace them and give you victory over them, and He will heal the breasts of the believing people” [At-Tawbah (Repentance) (9): 14]. This is evident from the years after the emergence of the Sahwat in Iraq, when the mujahideen inhiyaz ila al-sahra (turned/departed into the desert), leaving behind dozens of mujahideen, the soldiers of al-mafariz al-amniya (the security detachments), who harassed the apostates, killing and slaughtering them, confusing them, depleting their ranks, and exhausting their army, police, and intelligence forces until God authorized the return of al-Fursan al-Sahra (the Knights of the Desert) to storm the apostates’ fortresses, after they had become weary from the [attacks with] al-aswad al-kawatim (the black silencers) of the guns, bombs, and the martyrdom operations, and this is what will continue—God willing—until God separates [the believers] from criminal people everywhere. …
The joy of the Rafida (Shi’is, Iranians) and the apostates of the Sahwat in Iraq because of the loss of territory by the Islamic State, and the joy of the Sahwat and the Kurds in Syria, is without consideration of their predecessors; they have not learned their lessons, or listened to advice the caliphal state to repent and return to God …
The war of al-mafariz al-amniya against the apostates is still in its infancy, but not a day passes by where the mujahideen do not gain experience in methods of deceiving their enemies, thwarting their security plans, and overcoming the limits and obstacles they set in the path of the mujahideen to protect themselves from their blows. The blows also strike a long way away in Paris and Brussels. … If [supporters of IS] are unable to reach the Dar al-Islam (The Abode of Islam), it is decided that they should wage the jihad against the mushrikeen and apostates in Dar al-Kufr (The Abode of Unbelief).
The apostates of the Sahwa factions in Syria should review themselves, return to their religion, … and realiz[e] that their leaders—and the Arab and non-Arab tyrants behind them—are unable to protect them from the blows of the mujahideen. … They must know that they can only protect themselves by declaring repentance to God, to gain safety from torment in this world and the Hereafter. …
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Al-Naba 53, released on 3 November 2016, page 3, “Ghazwat al-Rutba (The Battle of Rutba): How the City was Opened in Hours”.
Rutba is a strategically important town in Anbar province in western Iraq—IS has it within Wilaya al-Anbar—sitting equidistant (about 175 miles) from the provincial capital of Ramadi in the east and the border town of Al-Bukamal to the north.
The IS movement has always had Syria as strategic depth, able to take shelter under the protection of Bashar al-Asad’s regime, and to receive assistance from Syrian intelligence in feeding suicide bombers into Iraq during the years of the American regency. In the caliphate era, Rutba was overrun by IS on 21 June 2014, and declared “completely liberated” by the Iraqi security forces on 19 May 2016.
For the Iraqi government, Rutba is a key gateway to Jordan, as Al-Naba notes, with the highway from Baghdad via the border crossing of Trebil to Amman running through Rutba. The Trebil border-crossing is “one of the three most important economic outlets” for Iraq, Al-Naba adds.
IS launched a diversionary attack on Rutba in October 2016, about a week after the U.S.-led Coalition offensive to retake Mosul, the Iraqi “capital” of IS, had begun, and it is this attack to which Al-Naba 53 devotes itself. Citing a “private military source”, Al-Naba says that under pressure from the “surprise” attack by the jihadists “the rejectionist army and the Awakening of apostasy” (al-jaysh al-rafidi wal-sahwat al-rida) collapsed.
“The battle began on Sunday morning [23 October]”, says Al-Naba, “launched after planning, with the tasks divided among mujahideen groups … The city was stormed from three axes. … The number of mujahideen on each axis ranges from twenty to thirty.” Al-Naba concedes that there were “fierce clashes” with the security forces and the Awakening militias, but it was over quickly: “After only four hours, the storming/raiding groups (majmu’at al-aqataham) broke through the defensive lines of the apostates and overran all the fortifications they had put up around the city, including the four dirt berms (suwatr turabiya). They then took control of all the barracks and killed everyone in them.”
IS describes the way its forces swarmed Rutba with small teams coming at the security forces from all angles. The jihadists “liberated fifteen people from the ‘anti-terrorism’ prison” during the attack, says Al-Naba. When the dust settled, IS had killed and wounded one-hundred security forces and Awakening militiamen, according to Al-Naba. “The most notable person to be killed was an Awakening commander from Albu-Issa tribe [from within the Dulaym], killed by a bomb from an agent inside the city.” Eight humvees, plus various other vehicles and stacks of weapons and ammunition, were captured by IS, Al-Naba says.
“The operation to control Rutba showed the brittle/fragile (al-hash) internal situation of the areas from which the Islamic State has withdrawn, and the ability of the caliphate soldiers to easily recapture them with a few small groups of mujahideen”, says Al-Naba. IS had begun softening up Rutba “months before”, Al-Naba went on, “with the mujahideen launching from the Wilayats of Al-Anbar and the Euphrates (Al-Furat) a series of military operations and rapid/lightning strikes (al-amaliyat al-askariya wal-hajamat al-khatafa) on the bases of the rejectionist army and the Awakening around the city, and on the military convoys along the Amman-Baghdad international road, with entire convoys annihilated (ubeedat) on more than one occasion, causing great attrition/depletion in the [ranks of] the apostates, killing hundreds of their number and destroying dozens of their vehicles, which disrupted the military presence of the rejectionists in the region, caused chaos/confusion in their ranks, and set the city up to be easily stormed and controlled.”
IS concludes by noting that keeping Rutba and the surrounding area off-balance prevents a secure Baghdad-Amman travel route, which in turn causes significant material losses for both governments, it prevents Iran and its loyalists in Iraq moving troops over-ground to reinforce the Asad regime in Syria, and it keeps the Trebil crossing dysfunctional, preventing Iraq’s economic normalization with Jordan that would lead to benefits for two states that IS considers enemies.
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Al-Naba 94, released on 17 August 2017, pages 8-9, “The Military Emir of Wilayat al-Raqqa: The Battle of Raqqa Will Not Be a Picnic for Apostates and Crusaders”.
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Al-Naba 100, released on 5 October 2017, page 14, “Military Sawlat (Clearance): Their Conditions and their Impacts [or Effects or Influence] on the Enemy”.
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