The Islamic State’s Lessons-Learned About Insurgency

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 5 October 2018

Al-Naba 150

The 150th edition of Al-Naba, the Islamic State’s (IS) weekly newsletter, was published on 4 October. IS focused on the progress of its guerrilla campaign in “Syraq” since the collapse of the caliphate, and gave a historical explanation of how it developed its insurgent methodology.

There are references in Al-Naba 150 to IS operations abroad, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the roundup section—as well as remarking on the damage done by Hurricane Florence and the F-35 crash in the U.S.—makes reference to the proposed alliance of “apostates” as an “Arab NATO” that has been floating around again, and especially focuses on President Donald Trump’s insulting remarks toward Saudi Arabia. For IS, Trump’s remarks about the Saudi monarchy depending on America to survive even two weeks is a perfect ratification of their narrative that the House of Saud is an illegitimate tyranny, imposed and sustained by un-Islamic foreigners.

Much of Al-Naba 150 is devoted to describing IS’s insurgent campaign at “the centre”, in Iraq and Syria. Ever since IS officially acknowledged its shift from statehood to insurgency in Al-Naba at the end of 2017—a process that had been underway for some time—it has kept up a steady stream of reports about the progress of this shift. IS details its operations against the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, identifying the SDF effectively correctly simply as “PKK”, and against the Iraqi security forces, which are referred to in anti-Shi’a sectarian terms, as rafida (rejectionists) and stooges of the Iranian theocracy.

Of particular note is the page 3 lead editorial in Al-Naba 150, which gives a brief (1,000 words or so) history of IS’s evolving methods of warfare against its enemies.

“Since its inception, the Islamic State has passed through many stages in its struggle with the burdens of infidelity (al-kufr)”, the Naba editorial declares in opening. “It began with the Zarqawi days, which was a phase of security work (al-amal al-amni) carried out in enemy territory … followed by the age of conquests”, i.e. the formation of the caliphate, after the collapse of the Americans’ “malicious project, which they called the Awakening (Sahwa)”, wherein the “apostate” insurgent groups, parties, and tribes joined together with the U.S. to combat the jihadists. This was the “biggest wave of treachery and betrayal in Iraq”: it drove “the mujahideen [into] the deserts and desolation”, but by God’s design the jihadists were permitted to reorganise and regain what had been lost.

The jihadists accepted their hardship, says Al-Naba, and continued on their path with resolve: “They did not stop to wail and cry over what they had lost”. By contrast, Al-Naba contends, the Sunnis who sided with the government against IS found themselves steadily marginalised: purged from the state apparatus, disarmed, and imprisoned; humiliated and stripped of all they owned by the Shi’is.

Meanwhile, “God opened [al-Sham (Syria)] to His slaves and enabled them to seize more territory than they had planned at that stage”, according to Al-Naba. The law of God was implemented and the caliphate was declared, gathering the Muslims under one Imam to stand defiantly in the face of the unbelievers. Armies were mobilised against IS, with the number of countries deliberately expanded to disguise the weakness of their faith. IS’s enemies managed to destroy the jihadi statelet, but their (unsuccessful) aim was to “break the souls of the Muslims and extinguish the light of hope (nur al-amal) that they saw in the establishment of the caliphate”. IS continued to set its eyes on Persia and Rome and Constantinople even as it lost ground, and such places will be opened (fatah) to the holy by God in due course.

God had blessed IS with lessons from the past, Al-Naba notes, quoting the Hadith saying: a believer is not stung from the same hole twice. One of the lessons IS absorbed was to pre-empt all signs of an Awakening in Syria (Sahwat al-Sham), strangling the project in its cradle by detecting and eliminating those who could have formed such a force. (These tactics are most obviously associated with the notorious, if much-misunderstood, Haji Bakr. Yet IS’s program is institutional and such tactics have been ascribed to numerous officials, including, for example, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi.)

“The mujahideen benefited from the lessons of the past in every area,” Al-Naba claims. “Once the influence of the State recedes from an area of ​​empowerment (manatiq al-tamkin), the security detachments (al-mafariz al-amniya) precede the apostates to those [abandoned] homes. Thus, the armies of the Caliphate were on the lookout for them and dealt with the heads of kufr before they could complete their journeys to the homes they had robbed.” This has meant that the brothers in Syria had a head-start, able to adopt the methods learned in the long years of war in Iraq, to turn “the areas of the PKK into areas of fear and terror”.

The PKK and its allies are struck down at will and there is panic among the apostates, says Al-Naba, especially in the countryside and at night. In Raqqa, people are beginning to realise they were “deceived by [the Crusaders’] temporary victory” and those who returned to their homes cannot rely on the West or the PKK for protection. In Hasaka, Al-Khayr (Deir Ezzor), Raqqa, and Aleppo, says Al-Naba, despite the Coalition roaming the skies (something IS has claimed to have adapted to before now), there is a constant worry of the mujahid who lies in wait. There is no safety from the mujahideen.

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