Conflict

How ISIS adapts and innovates on the battlefield

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Syrian army soldiers and civilians inspect the damage after explosions hit the Syrian city of Tartous. ISIS was blamed for this attack in May 2016.

Syrian army soldiers and civilians inspect the damage after explosions hit the Syrian city of Tartous. ISIS was blamed for this attack in May 2016. 

Credit:

SANA/Handout via Reuters

Innovation has always been a hallmark of the tactics used by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

In the most recent example, ISIS appears to have weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Two Kurdish fighters were killed and two French special forces commandos were wounded in Iraq in early October when a downed ISIS drone exploded. It’s not yet clear if it was booby-trapped, or whether the drone was exploded deliberately by a timer or remote control.

“ISIS has certainly proved in the past their ability to innovate at the tactical level,” says David Knoll. Knoll is a research analyst with CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia. He's just finished a yearlong study titled "Adaptive and Innovative: An Analysis of ISIL's Tactics in Iraq and Syria." (ISIL is another acronym for ISIS.)

“We’ve seen them use things like their barbarity and their social media” as psychological weapons, he says — for example, sending threats and violent videos to individual enemy soldiers and commanders just prior to an assault, or even during an attack.

One of the best examples of ISIS innovation, says Knoll, is the use of “mass truck bombs.” Knoll acknowledges that truck bombs have been around since at least the 1980s, “but ISIS has really made three small changes to these truck bombs that have made them innovative.

"First, they’ve up-armored them, protecting the driver from small arms fire as he’s trying to make his way to the target. Second, they’ve used them in these large waves,” says Knoll. In Ramadi, Iraq, in May 2015, ISIS sent 30 truck bombs to a single target. This kind of swarming is difficult to counter, even by the most determined defender.

The final innovation was to pack the trucks with massive amounts of explosives, up to 5 tons each.

The trucks also had a psychological effect, says Knoll. They can look like a wave of "Mad Max" trucks coming at you. Then the attack is filmed and made into a slick video, which is sent to enemy soldiers defending the next post. Iraqi forces demoralized in this way are more likely to desert their posts or retreat.  

Knoll analyzes the factors that make ISIS innovative in an article summarizing his research in Foreign Affairs magazine.

His key argument is that ISIS will not be defeated unless its opponents target its innovative power — its true center of gravity.

Knoll also advocates focusing attacks on high-value targets, which he defines not as leaders of the hierarchy, but instead as those with specialized technical skills or tasked with identifying local innovations and proliferating them through the movement. 

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