Islamic State: The New Breed of War Machine

How ISIS Co-opted U.S. Military Strategy to Win in Iraq

Andrew Arnett
Aug 2, 2014 · 5 min read


Lightning fast assaults across Iraq. Decisive victories against government military forces in Mosul, Erbil, Tikrit, and so on. How did a loose network of militiamen and insurgents gain the upper hand, threatening to unravel almost a decade’s worth of U.S. military and financial investment, in a matter of months? By, in part, co-opting U.S. military strategy.

The Islamic State is mimicking tactics used by the U.S. military during the invasion of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, as well as those used during the surge offensive of 2007 against Sunni insurgents in Iraq, and Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Iraq War troop surge of 2007, led by General David Petraeus, implemented key new strategies, referred to as “clear-hold-build.” “Clear” population centers of insurgents. “Hold” the positions to prevent return of insurgents. “Build” the position by maintaining law and order.

The Islamic State has reverse engineered this strategy to effectively take over large swaths of territory in a short time. Key to this strategy is the psychological component. During the surge campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, Coalition forces would publicly announce their intentions before entering a population center. This resulted in the insurgents either leaving or going into hiding before the US troops arrived, which kept US casualty counts low.

Similarly, hundreds of Iraqi troops had abandoned their stations and fled before ISIS convoys entered Mosul, leaving weapons, vehicles, and even uniforms behind. ISIS’s reputation for enhanced cruelty, which includes beheadings and crucifixions, had disillusioned the soldiers, and has allowed the Islamic State to maintain control of captured territory, with a minimum of troops.

The use of speed and fear as a psychological weapon, though taken to a new level, illustrates that the Islamic State has internalized the military strategy developed by USAF Colonel John Boyd, who advocated generating “confusion and disorder among our adversaries — since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against.”

According to Boyd, this confusion effects an opponent’s ability to act effectively, by disrupting their decision making process at the “orientation” phase of their OODA loop cycle. This cycle refers to the decision making cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act.

Boyd’s theory of conflict became a foundational outline for the maneuver warfare doctrine used by the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq.

U.S. Marine in Iraq 2007 (public domain)

Maneuver warfare is a military strategy which advocates “a state of mind bent on shattering the enemy morally and physically by paralyzing and confounding him, by avoiding his strength, by quickly and aggressively plotting his vulnerabilities, and by striking him in a way that will hurt him most.”

The dissemination of gruesome images and videos by ISIS is not indiscriminate but rather, part of this strategy.

Boyd’s profound influence on the Iraq War prompted General Charles Krulak to comment: “The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he’d commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert. His thinking, his theories, his larger than life influence were there with us in Desert Storm.”

Now, the Islamic State is using that very same blue print to win in Iraq. Their blitzkrieg assaults across northern Iraq mimics maneuver warfare strategy. Their “liquid structure” resembles the Marine Corps’ emphasis on a decentralized command structure. This gives low-level leaders more tactical freedom, while still maintaining the objectives of the central command’s overall vision which, in this case, is the establishment of a caliphate.

David Kilcullen, senior counter-insurgency advisor to General Petraeus (2007-2008)who helped design and monitor the Iraq War troop surge, anticipated this new breed of war machine. He states that “ future conflicts will feature asymmetric threats requiring land forces to be flexible, able to deploy quickly and operate within urban terrain . . . these teams will be small, semi-autonomous and highly networked, incorporating traditional elements of the combined arms team as well as non-traditional elements such as civil affairs, intelligence and psychological warfare capabilities. They will have a capacity for protracted independent operations within a joint interagency framework.”

Groups such as the Islamic State and Boco Haram are a new breed of war machine, birthed from a new kind of war zone. Richard Norton describes this post-modern battlefield as the “feral city.”

According to Norton, a feral city is “a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.”

In such a city, all social services, like basic health and security, are non existent. However, the city does not descend into random chaos. Groups of gangs, criminals, tribes, or armed insurgents exert various degrees of control. Corruption, violence, and disease are rampant, yet the majority of occupants refuse to leave, and the population could continue to increase.

Norton states that, “Feral cities would exert an almost magnetic influence on terrorist organizations. Such megalopolises will provide exceptionally safe havens for armed resistance groups, especially those having cultural affinity with at least one sizable segment of the city’s population.”

Norton gives Mogadishu as an example of a city gone “feral”, but certainly Mosul, at the present moment, can be described in this manner. The sheer size of the city, second largest in Iraq, with its buildings and subterranean structures, offers protection from drones, satellites, and military jets.

With modern communications and computing systems readily available on the open market, and their ability to fit inside a pickup truck, terrorists and militia groups can operate and coordinate their network on a level of efficiency hitherto unheard of, making this new breed of war machine incredibly dangerous and difficult to stop.

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