This Is Scary—Islamic State’s Tactics Are Really Similar to Nazi Germany’s
The jihadi group is obsessed with attacking even when it’s losing
In January, Kurdish troops launched a major offensive that broke Islamic State’s lines in northern Iraq. In response, the jihadist group sent 14 giant tanker trucks loaded with explosives and bolted-on armor to launch a counter-attack.
Kurdish fighters have faced terrifying attacks like that before — though not on this scale. Fortunately, before any of the trucks made it to the Kurdish positions, the soldiers on the ground — and U.S. and coalition warplanes — destroyed them from a distance.
It was a mad, desperate — and yes — suicidal tactic. But it’s also a revealing example of the group’s combat tactics and strategy during the past year.
The jihadist group is now on the defensive, but it’s still deadly on the battlefield and its fighters are willing to die in brief counter-attacks. The main feature — even if the group is losing the war — is to practice a “cult of the offensive” with a heavy cost in human life.
Why and how is the interesting part, and it’s the subject of a sweeping new essay by Alexendre Mello and Michael Knights in CTC Sentinel, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s newsletter.
Mello and Knights know what they’re talking about — they’ve studied the battlefield up close.
Islamic State’s emphasis on offensive operations — despite largely being on the defense — isn’t new.
Rather, the authors compare Islamic State to Nazi Germany in 1944 and 1945. By then, the Allies had decimated the German army, but it was still tactically deadly and capable of driving back the Allies in short-term counter-offensives that inevitably ground to halt.
In December 1944, German armies launched a sudden surprise attack on unprepared American troops in Belgium. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, the German armies drove the Allies back 50 miles under the cover of winter weather.
The Allies stopped the Germans. Worse for the Nazis, they had too few soldiers to prevent larger breakthroughs by the Soviet, American and British armies the following year. The German air force had lost its advantage, rendering its troops vulnerable to bombardment by Allied aircraft.
Nor did the Germans have a strategy to win the war. They were tactically good — that is, fighting on the battlefield — but strategically inept in that they had no way of turning those tactical victories into something bigger.
“Commonwealth forces learned the ‘bite and hold’ tactic,” Mello and Knights wrote. “To seize ground cheaply in surprise attacks and then inflict heavy casualties on the German counter-attackers, a situation not unlike today’s Kurdish/Western tactics on their frontlines in northern Iraq.”
Islamic State knows it can’t defend every piece of ground. It has too few fighters, too many fronts and too many enemies. In the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani — on the Turkish border — Islamic State fought for months against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
At times, it seemed like the Kurds would lose the battle … and the city.
But with heavy support from coalition warplanes and reinforcements from the Kurdish Peshmerga, Islamic State was gradually beaten back. The jihadists pulled out into the countryside, leaving behind snipers and improvised explosive booby-traps to slow the Kurds down.
The jihadists have replicated that tactic in Iraqi towns such as Jalawla and Tikrit.
“Snipers, mobile shooter teams, and thick improvised minefields made of crude canister IEDs and explosive-filled houses are more than sufficient to slow, but not stop, an advancing force — populated areas are denied rather than actually defended,” Mello and Knights wrote.
Behind this lethal screen, Islamic State practices what the authors call a “commuter insurgency.”
This term came into vogue during the American occupation of Iraq, and means that insurgent fighters live in rural areas and “commute” into the war, like an exurban worker driving into the office every day.
Islamic State attacks under the cover of morning fog, and the group uses rural features — such as groves — to retreat.
In short, Islamic State doesn’t like to defend. The group’s leaders know they’ll lose in a stand-up fight, so they don’t bother. When jihadist units must defend, they pull back most of their fighters and leave behind a delaying force.
If the group loses ground, other units in the area — operating largely independently — launch immediate counter-attacks. If they stay in fixed positions, then American and coalition air power will pummel them.
This isn’t exactly a bad tactic. According to Mello and Knights, it’s succeeded in slowing down Iraqi army, Shia militia and Kurdish Peshmerga troops. It’s also useful as a propaganda tool, as it allows the group to convince potential recruits that it’s goal of establishing a world-wide Caliphate is still achievable.
As journalist Graeme Wood described in his article on Islamic State for The Atlantic, the jihadi group puts a lot of emphasis on taking territory as a means to religious salvation.
But Islamic State might have expanded about as far as it can go … at least in Iraq. The result is that individual militant commanders could be under more pressure to throw themselves into battle the moment territory seems lost.
Ideological reasons aside, these tactics have more practical values. Mainly, the group keeps up the pressure on Iraqi and Kurdish troops. In the Iraqi city of Kirkuk — now controlled by the Peshmerga — Islamic State has carried out its “commuter insurgency” by repeatedly staging high-profile attacks on the city.
In late April, dozens of Islamic State fighters backed by mortar fire threw themselves toward several villages near Daqouq, a town south of Kirkuk. The Peshmerga repelled the attack.
The problem is that these repeated attacks have cost Islamic State dearly in terms of human life, the authors suggest. A strategy based on rapid counter-attacks puts soldiers at risk — as the Germans during World War II learned.
In January, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones said Islamic State has lost around 6,000 fighters. Body counts are a notoriously unreliable metric for determining success in war, but Mello and Knights believe that the number could be accurate — or possibly even higher — owing to this tactic.
We do know that Islamic State needs reinforcements. On April 27, a statement from the Aleppo Center of Preaching and Mosques for the Islamic State called for Syrian volunteers to fight in the Iraqi provinces of Anbar and Saladin. Those two provinces comprise a large chunk of central Iraq.
More specifically, the statement specifically called for suicide bombers and suicide fighters — those who will go into battle and not return — within 48 hours. “The statement conveys not just a need for fighters, but a need for the best and most committed fighters,” an email newsletter from the Combating Terrorism Center noted.
“It is possible that [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi] is concerned about undermining his own leadership by giving an order that may not be obeyed by emirs and fighters in Syria,” the CTC newsletter added.
“Nevertheless, there is a pressing need for additional fighters, so the compromise approach appears to be asking for volunteers rather than ordering them.”
It’s easy to get into trouble comparing wars to each other. There are still lots of differences between Islamic State and the Nazis. Even bigger is the gap between the forces fighting their respective enemies in the past and present.
For one, from our reporting in the country, Iraq’s different and divided armies appear unwilling or unable to mount an offensive toward Mosul anytime soon. There’s a lot we don’t know — but it wouldn’t be surprising if this war dragged on for years.
Yet there’s a demonstrable limit to Islamic State’s reliance on attacking at all costs. In the final year of World War II, German armies repeatedly threw themselves into surreal and self-destructive attacks under orders from Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Their armies included children and old men — and their job was only to delay the inevitable. They largely failed, and the human toll was tragic.