Islamic State: The New Breed of War Machine, Part 2

The Influence of T.E. Lawrence on Desert Fighting


It is somewhat ironic that the murderer of James Foley sports a British accent, it being that the fighting philosophy of the Islamic State itself has been appropriated, to a large extent, from British military strategy, specifically the one espoused by the great British Army officer T.E. Lawrence.

Better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”, T. E. Lawrence was an exponent of a philosophy of combat termed irregular warfare. His system of fighting was specifically geared for desert combat, from which he gained his fame during World War One.

On August 21, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the Islamic State is more than just a terrorist group and “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

For sure, the Islamic State have taken the precedents of irregular warfare to hitherto unprecedented extremes, utilizing genocide, terror, and horror as part of their war arsenal. Nonetheless, ISIS strategy is based on a known quantity.

“ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen,” Hagel said. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”

Hagel implores us to “prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it … and get ready.”

To get ready, we must study this known quantity, the tactical framework of irregular warfare developed by T. E. Lawrence. In this way, we can hopefully anticipate the movements of the Islamic State, and discern a means to gain the advantage.

T. E. Lawrence during World War One. Public Domain

T.E. Lawrence was a practicing archeologist working at excavation sites in the Middle East when he was appropriated by the British Army to undertake a military survey of the Negev Desert at the onset of World War One.

With an intimate knowledge of Syria, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, he was enlisted in 1914 and posted to the British Intelligence Staff in Cairo.

From there, he went on to fight alongside Arab irregular troops in guerrilla operations against the Ottoman Empire, using and perfecting the strategies of asymmetrical warfare which garnered him success and fame.

Lawrence discovered that conventional warfare, being the use of overwhelming force at a decisive point, a battle of annihilation in effect, was inadequate for the desert setting.

He found that irregular warfare, with its utilization of asymmetrical and indirect approaches, was much more amenable to his needs.

Though it may utilize the entire gamut of military capabilities, irregular warfare is in essence a protracted struggle, one that tested an adversary by eroding his power, influence, and will.

It was in fact, the idiosyncrasies of the desert terrain which forced Lawrence to approach war operations in an unconventional manner. He likened desert combat to naval warfare, with its inherent mobility, ubiquity, and self-contained units, coupled with a lack of fixed points, ground features, and strategic areas.

“He who commands the sea is at great liberty and may take as much or as little of the war as he will,” he say’s. “He who commands the desert is equally fortunate. Camel raiding-parties, as self-contained as ships, could cruise without danger along any part of the enemy’s land-frontier, just out of sight of his posts along the edge of cultivation, and tap or raid into his lines where it seemed fittest or easiest or most profitable, with a sure retreat always behind them into an element which the Turks could not enter.”

In their appropriated Humvees, pick-up trucks, and SUV’s, ISIS can move like a mirage across the desert. It is this ghost-like quality which Lawrence strove for in his raiding parties, and which he felt was the source of power underlying his brand of asymmetrical warfare.

“Suppose we were an influence,” he suggests, “an idea, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm- rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapor, blowing where we listed. Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind, and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so perhaps we offered nothing material to the killing. It seemed a regular soldier might be helpless without a target.”

This description may very well describe the Islamic State, who’s known whereabouts are uncertain, except for when they are on the attack. Upon retreat, they leave only the mark of death and destruction as calling card.

Lawrence broke down his strategy of warfare into three fundamental components. These consisted of the algebraic, the biological, and the psychological.

The algebraic dealt with time and space, raw materials, mathematics, terrain and climate, equipment, all things formulable. For instance, the Turks outnumbered Lawrence and his army of Arab irregulars five-to-one.

He calculated that the Turks would require 600,000 men to secure their newly expanded territory, which included twenty men to fortify a train outpost every four square miles. However, the Turks had available only 100,000 men.

Lawrence maintained a program of harrasment and assault upon the Turkish railway lines, not for the purpose of its final destruction but rather, to “impose the longest possible passive defense on the Turks by extending our own front to its maximum.”

To implement this objective, he created a highly mobile and highly equipped army of small size, used repeatedly at distributed points of the Turkish line, forcing the Turks to reinforce their occupying posts beyond any economical numbers.

With an army five times as mobile, he could be on equel terms with an army five times his number.

The second component dealt with the biological, refering to life and death, or wear and tear. Lawrence expanded the traditional concept of mere human blood letting to that of material resources.

He noted that, for the Turks, men were plentiful while materials were scarce and precious. The opposite was true for his own army.

“Our war should be a war of detachment,” said Lawrence. “We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till the moment of attack. This attack need be only nominal, directed not against his men, but against his materials: so it should not seek for his main strength or his weaknesses, but for his most accessible material.”

This strategy may explain why ISIS has targeted areas such as the Mosul dam, military camps, prisons, and police stations, while abstaining from a direct assault upon Baghdad, which could yield greater casualties upon the Iraqis.

The third component consists of the psychological, which is the science of propaganda. In irregular warfare, the realm of influence should include the minds of one’s own men, the mind of the enemy, the mind of the supporting nation and that of the hostile nation, and finally, the neutrals looking on.

In short, we are all part of the battlefield.

According to Lawrence, “the printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.”

ISIS has been very adept at utilizing the science of propaganda, spreading their reputation for cruelty far and wide. However, in their latest video showing the murder of James Foley, the Islamic State has certainly made a major miss-step.

With a greater understanding of the principals which ISIS has co-opted, we will be in a better position to neutralize them, and eventually, to witness their inevitable demise.

Go to Islamic State: The New Breed of War Machine, Part 1