In the 101st edition of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter al-Naba (page 8-9), released on 12 October 2017, the organization gave some fascinating details about how they responded to the “defeat” inflicted on them in 2007-08 by the American surge and the tribal Sahwa (Awakening) forces. The article describes how IS switched wholly to insurgent-terrorist tactics, dismantling its conventional fighting units and even its sniper teams in March 2008, and training in hit-and-run bombings. The leadership at that time, the emir Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi) and his deputy, the “war minister” Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), encountered some initial scepticism, but the rank-and-file soon came on board when they saw its effectiveness. IS says that it is time to return to this form of warfare. In short, IS marked a switch in al-Naba 101 entirely from the statehood and governance phase of its revolutionary warfare, back into insurgency mode. The article is reproduced below.
This has long been telegraphed by IS. Nearly a year-and-a-half ago, with the famous last speech of Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) and in al-Naba itself just after, IS served notice that it knew the time of the caliphate as territory was limited, but that the organization was a cause and so long as the purity of its belief and methodology were maintained, it would continue to a victory that God has preordained. This was a repeat of what al-Zawi had said in 2007 and 2008, at the nadir of the IS movement’s fortunes—statements that look vindicated in retrospect. And in an al-Naba article in September, IS noted its de facto abandonment of any form of conventional warfare. In the article in September—themes of which recurred in the 12 October article—IS said the emphasis had to be on avoiding the U.S.-led Coalition’s aircraft: the Coalition’s “partner force” was an ineffective militia, IS write, which acted primarily to draw IS’s fire so that the jihadists’ positions were exposed and could then be destroyed by airstrikes.
The immediate meaning of this is that the recent “victories” against IS—in Deir Ezzor city, Mayadeen, al-Qaim, Raqqa itself, and soon in al-Bukamal—should not be taken as evidence of the organization’s collapse, but of a strategic decision made by it. In 2010, the U.S. demolished IS’s infrastructure in Baghdad and captured the city’s emir, opening a trail that led to the killing of al-Zawi and al-Badawi. In three months in early 2010, the U.S. eliminated eighty-percent of IS’s leadership, a decapitation strike it had seemed IS would never recover from. But IS did recover, because it was working with different metrics that saw the war as a long-term project, while the Americans did not recognize that the surge was a process that had to be maintained and tried to pocket it as a done deal, which meant they could leave. This short-termism has been on ample display this time around. This is especially worrying since IS is nowhere near as weak now as it was last time and operates in a social-political environment that is so much more favourable than in 2008.
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Explosive Devices: Importance and Methods of Use
Just a couple of years ago, the balance of power was tilted in favour of the Shi’is and the Americans, and against the Islamic State of Iraq. At that time, the new situation had to be adapted to. Most of the land [held by the Islamic State] was lost in the fierce fighting in 2007, and the fighters retreated to the remaining fortress of the sunna, Mosul.
At the beginning of 2008, it was impossible to continue fighting in the conventional way. It was then that Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, may God have mercy on him, said: “We have no place to stand for a quarter of an hour.” The war minister, Abu Hamza [al-Muhajir], made an unprecedented and bold decision, instituting radical changes to preserve the remaining forces.
The Bold Decision
The remaining detachments of fighters, snipers, and other units were eliminated in the third month of 2008, and everyone was trained to use IEDs. With little time, the mujahideen were convinced of the new way. Instead of colliding with the heavily-armed U.S. Army with our few troops against their troops, a new form of fighting took shape within the cities. There was a bomb-making unit in one house, and another detachment detonating devices. A third unit was trained in how to disguise and plant the IEDs in the streets to target the apostate and crusader vehicles and their patrols. And a final detachment was trained in how to monitor the locations where the IEDs were planted. It could be days before the bomb was set off. All of these units had to work in secret. Avoiding detection was the most important requirement of the new way of working.
Exhaustion / Depletion / Attrition by IED
Thus began a long phase of attritional warfare between the two sides that lasted for two difficult years [i.e. until 2010]. …
The world witnessed the incredible creativity of the mujahideen in the war of shadows and concealment against the crusaders. Throughout those difficult years, the soldiers of the caliphate mastered this type of war perfectly. This is the kind of warfare needed today against the crusader alliance, but there is now an additional need, to keep the locations of the mujahideen hidden from the warplanes. This is the method that should be used in defence.
How to Fight with IEDs
This method of warfare has two pillars: mastery of preparation and patience on rabat, and preparing for action by determining where the enemy is likely to attack, then selecting the appropriate type and size of IED based on whether the enemy is expected to use armoured vehicles or tanks, and preparing and placing the devices correctly. It is here that the role of the trained military operative is necessary, to predict the enemy’s movement, their method of advance, and choose the type and location of the IED. Then comes the role of the engineering corps to plant the device, with a careful distinction between the mechanical and the electronic. If there is an error in the mechanical [side of things], or vice versa, it will lead to poor results that might hinder the mujahideen rather than halt the enemy’s progress.
Common Types of IEDs
Controlled IEDs: The most effective IEDs are those detonated by the mujahid himself, whether by a wireless signal or wire connected to the IED to avoid interference. The wire attached to the explosive devices must also be hidden, of course, since it leads to the place of the fighter. The preparation for wireless IEDs includes the selection of the appropriate batteries for the detonator depending on the length of rabat. A small battery cannot be used if the operation could take days or even months. The mujahideen must prepare themselves for the long war, keeping a watch on roads that lead to a planted IED at all times. …
The “booby trap”: it is an uncontrolled device … that simply explodes when the enemy stands on it or otherwise triggers it, and the signal reaches the battery pole and detonates the bomb itself. The battery does not run out for two years, but this type of IED is simultaneously the most dangerous for the mujahideen when it is used incorrectly because it does not distinguish between friend and foe.
Remote-controlled IEDS: The advantage of this device is that it depends on having the enemy in view, which means the accuracy is assured, God willing, though there can be a delay in the detonation signal. It allows the free direction of the device and avoids mistaken explosions. …
The wrong choice: The worst practice is laying uncontrolled IEDs in the ground in an open area to create a minefield. This leads to the withering of experienced engineering units. And once the first device is detonated, the enemy will realize that there is a minefield and dismantle it easily with machine gun or other fire. This tactic has rarely succeeded in repelling the enemy for a long time. Moreover, if the locations of these bombs are not accurately recorded, it will backfire on the mujahideen by making movement difficult in that area.
The good choice: Laying uncontrolled IEDs is useful in two situations:
First: when the bombs are laid within range of our firepower, and thus the enemy cannot dismantle the minefield and advance because it would dramatically slow down its progress and increase its losses. The engineering teams cannot disassemble bombs under fire.
Second: to prevent the enemy from advancing along a certain, specific route. Here, two components are essential: documenting the location of the IEDs so we can remove or avoid them later, and camouflaging the devices very well to avoid them being disassembled by the enemy.
Safety Concerns When Handling IEDs
[This section gives technical details on which wires go where and dealing with the sensitivities of detonators. There is no legitimate purpose to reproducing these paragraphs—and good reason not to.]
The Planting of IEDs in Three Steps:
[This section gives technical details on how detonators connect, the length of fuses, and the length of time batteries need to last, among other things. There is no legitimate purpose to reproducing these paragraphs.]
The Largest Error
[This section gives technical details about the installation of the battery in an IED, which the author contends is the most delicate point in creating an IED.]
Who Works on the Bombing?
It is imperative that all the mujahideen understand the benefits of IEDs, and that there is no point in engagement [during times of struggle]. There is a great advantage to planting the bombs to stop the progress of the enemy and inflict losses on them. The ease of using the IEDs means they are useful for everyone, but they must learn the steps [for the use of IEDs] diligently.
A Successful Example of the Creative Use of IEDs
In the battles in Aleppo’s northern countryside, a group of mujahideen prepared a wonderful fireworks party for the Awakening apostates, working for days with rare intelligence, and blew up a whole village before withdrawing. They blew everything up in the village and disguised the IEDs so that they could not be discovered. They did not confine themselves to the usual types—in the street, those that look like rocks, or those that are buried under roads, but they put bombs in walls of houses, under stairs and thresholds, on bicycles, even inside the wardrobes and furniture. When the enemies attacked, as expected, the brothers resisted them, and then fell back to villages that were close by, allowing the apostates live with the illusion that they had been able to enter as a result of a defeat [inflicted on the Islamic State]. We laugh at them [for this belief] even today.
The disguising of the IEDs was successful and the bombs were ready for hours after the first entry of the apostates. The apostates combed and searched the village and found nothing in the houses, and filmed in the houses for celebration [in the media] and then slept. From afar, the brothers who planted the IEDs waited for the harvest hour.
At night, the apostates were asleep when the IEDs were awakened … and when the morning came, the disbelievers discovered that the bloody possibilities were endless. One of them passed through the threshold of the door [and was blown up]. Then one step comes forward, and finds a part of the roof [laden with explosives]. And in a short time, the loud party ended … They did not know how many casualties there were. …
Reasons for Success
The most important rule to know is: “The real working time is the time of laying the IEDs.” Then it is the time of the harvest. … Choose the correct place [to plant the bomb], good camouflage, and the appropriate type of explosive, then you will reap a good harvest, God willing.
Successful workers in this field are very well-known for their attachment to God, perhaps because of the lengthy periods of rabat needed.
Compensating for Fighting Teams
As has been made clear, a heavily-armed force can be eliminated if the IEDs are used properly. One mujahideen, who is proficient and has mastered their workings, can, with the help of God, repel the greatest force advancing into his defensive zone. The mujahid will not benefit, however, if he does not manage to remain hidden from the enemy. In this situation, it means that the fighter does not need to change places after executing an IED attack. Rather, he needs to control his nerves and not be tempted to reveal his position by the enemy’s tricks. He must not fire at the enemy and forget what his main weapon is. The gun is for personal defense only, to be used if the enemy reaches him. The normal situation is that he does not need it.