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Official ISIS Sources: We Are Temporarily Changing Tactics, Opting For Guerilla Warfare Such As Raids And Targeted Assassinations

By: M. Shemesh

In light of the defeats suffered by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq over the past year, there has been a change in its military doctrine on the battlefield. In recent weeks, the organization has been using tactics characteristic of guerilla warfare and temporarily abandoning the doctrine of conquering and holding large areas. Members of the organization are stating publicly that due to the decrease in direct confrontations with the enemy in most of the arenas of battle, the fighting approach has been changed and is now based on special operations, pinpoint raids, and targeted assassinations. The 112th edition of the Al-Naba' weekly, the official ISIS magazine, published on December 29, 2017,[1] included an editorial that related to the change in doctrine, as well as an article in which a military source from within ISIS supplied practical examples from the field that demonstrate the new fighting style. It should be noted that the Al-Hayat daily[2] also related to the organization's change in military doctrine and quoted senior Iraqi officials who expressed worry that ISIS would adopt the same doctrine of targeted assassinations and focused raids that were used by the group in Iraq after 2006. The attempts to refresh the combat approach may point to a desire on the part of ISIS to continue to fight on Iraqi and Syrian territory, albeit by other means, rather than move the battle to other arenas.

Al-Naba' Editorial: "Ambush The Idolaters And Kill Them"  

The Al-Naba' editorial explains that following the changes that have taken place on the battlefield, ISIS members are compelled to alter their combat approach. It opens with a quote from the Quran commanding Muslims to lie in wait for the "idolaters" and kill them: "And besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush." [Quran 9, 5]

Next, an interpretation of the verse by Ibn Kathir [Ismail ibn Kathir was one of the leading interpreters of the Quran] is supplied. He wrote: "The reference is to following their [the idolaters'] paths and lanes and hobbling their steps so that they are forced to choose between death and converting to Islam." The article claims that this Quranic commandment is one of the main tenets of jihad, and a principle that is tailored to the present stage of the campaign – the stage when the infidels should be repelled and killed. It says that the current reality makes the adoption of this approach necessary, in light of the decrease in direct confrontations with the enemy in many arenas of the battle. According to the article, ISIS fighters must perpetrate ambush-style killing campaigns in areas where there are concentrations of "idol-worshipping" forces [the reference is to Shi'ite militias] and "apostasy forces" [the reference is to the Iraqi army]. The ISIS fighters must leverage the fact that the coalition's planes, which provided the enemy with an aerial umbrella, have left these areas, and therefore "the lions" – the organization's fighters – can now track them freely, kill them, or take them prisoner. The article further states that these types of activity are currently known as "security operations" [special covert operations] which are based first on tracking the enemy's movements and reconnaissance of its headquarters, and then embarking on a raid with the goal of injuring or killing enemy forces. The writer claims that these types of operations instill terror in the "apostates" and the crusaders, for they damage their morale and spread anxiety and fear among the soldiers. The writer stresses that this type of action is preparation for the conquering of the cities at a later stage, by the mujahideen.

Photo released by ISIS 'Adan Abyan province(Yemen), documenting an assassination of a senior member of local security services

The article states that this approach is already being implemented today, and says that the area of the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Mosul has become a "Death Triangle" that will expand to other places, and that the infidels will experience such great suffering that they will be forced to redeploy their failed campaign. The ISIS fighters are exhorted to increase their special operations and ambushes against concentrations of "idolaters" [i.e. Shi'ite militias and the Iraqi army] so as to cause them to withdraw to the cities and clear the areas with "reefs" [the wider areas beyond the city limits]. The fighters are encouraged to carry out targeted assassinations and bombings of "quality" objectives within the cities themselves.

The article mocks the Iraqi government that hurried to declare that it had achieved control of the country and wiped out ISIS, saying that it is reminiscent of the Iraqi government decision from 2006, when it ordered that all the roadblocks in the country be removed, claiming that the tribal coalition had managed to eradicate the mujahideen. In fact, it continues, the mujahideen responded by increasing their attacks all across Iraq and forced the government to re-install the roadblocks and even to double their number. And today, just like back then, the mujahideen reprisal attack arrived after the apostates and the crusaders mistakenly assumed that they had achieved total victory. Once the mujahideen of that time in Iraq, just like the mujahideen of today, successfully withstood the difficult trials and challenges that Allah set before them, recovered, returned stronger than ever, achieved victories and established the Islamic State that extended to Syria. Today, as well, the mujahideen face difficult challenges and they are overcoming them on the way to the next stage, the stage of achieving victories. The editorial concludes with a call to the ISIS fighters to increase their special operations and ambushes against the enemy both within the cities and in the "reefs" that surround them.

Al-Naba' Article About The Change In Military Doctrine: "Military Source To Al-Naba', 'The Fighters Of The Caliphate Have A Presence In Diyala'"

The same edition of Al-Naba' contains an article that directly relates to what is written in the editorial. It tells of the presence of ISIS fighters in the Diyala region and also affirms that members of the organization are employing new combat methods. The article opens with the statement that the Iraqi government, led by Haider Al-Abadi, was too hasty in announcing that the campaign against ISIS is over. According to the writer, anyone paying attention to the military activities of the organization in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Mosul, would certainly know that the opposite is the case. In Diyala, for example, ISIS fighters are again taking the initiative and managing to wear down the Shi'ite army on all fronts. An ISIS military source is quoted claiming that the organization has recently adopted, "new combat methods. They have moved from using methods that the enemy has become accustomed to, such as roadside bombs, sniper fire, and mortar fire, to heroic campaigns that the enemy is not familiar with at all, such as, for example, organized raids."

Infographic released by ISIS's Al-Naba' weekly detailing its covert operations in Diyala and Kirkuk: 7 assassinations, 44 IED's, 24 raids, 4 sniping operations, leading to 270 killed and wounded.

The military source presents a numbers of examples of the use of new military methods in Diyala Province. For example, in the Al-Uzaim area, the mujahideen raided a customs house, burned cars, and killed and wounded people. In the Al-Bazayez area, the mujahideen penetrated the Taha Al-Rashed village, attacked the forces stationed there and defeated them. They then stormed the home of a commander of the Popular Mobilization Unit and he was seriously injured. They made similar raids in additional areas such as Baldaroz, Miqdadiyya, and Al-Waqf. On several occasions the Iraqi army responded by uprooting orchards so as to flatten the land (and eliminate the cover provided by the trees), but these actions were ineffective and the mujahideen continue to conduct raids.

The source mentions that while ISIS maintains a presence in many villages in Diyala Province, for security reasons they only enter the villages after dark. He also writes: "Soldiers of the caliphate are advancing at this stage with acts of attrition and are hurting the enemy. With respect to capturing territory, hopefully this will be the next step, if Allah wills it." The military source claims that the enemy is concerned that the Mutaybijah area will become a major center for the production of car bombs which will be used for terror attacks in city centers. He said that the enemy has even nicknamed the area "Car Bomb Basin" and does not dare to come near it. He also stressed that any attempt to enter the area would necessitate the recruitment of forces from Baghdad and Salah Al-Din. He says that, recently, the national Iraqi police have brought in special forces, including militias from Baghdad and Salah Al-Din, in order to enter the area. Upon entering the area they were met with fierce opposition from the mujahideen, took heavy losses, and ran for their lives after only one day.

The military source refutes the Iraqi government's claim that it has achieved complete control over the situation and says that its soldiers exhibit great fear. To illustrate his point he recounts the story of the incident during which ISIS soldiers raised the ISIS flag in the heart of the Al-Nada area and created an ambush there. The flag flew for three days and no one dared to approach it. He mocks those "tyrants" [Iraqi officers and clerks] who lead the campaign in Diyala and states that despite their claims that they are in control of the situation not one of them would dare to live in Diyala for fear of the long reach of the mujahideen.

The conclusion of the article touts the shift to new tactics as a success: "This is the perseverance of the soldiers of the caliphate. They only leave territory after they have hurt the apostates. And if they are forced to evacuate then they return immediately to wear them down doubly. So how does some Shi'ite idolater dare to claim that they [the mujahideen] were defeated?"

Al-Hayat Article: ISIS Adopts The Targeted Assassination Strategy Of Al-Qaeda

An article that appeared in the Al-Hayat daily, also relates to the change in ISIS military doctrine. It describes how concern is growing in Iraq that ISIS will adopt a targeted assassination strategy in the areas from where it has withdrawn, while embracing the doctrine that was employed by the Al-Qaeda group that operated in Iraq after 2005. [3] According to the article, in recent weeks there has been an increase in the number of attempted assassinations against senior members of Shi'ite militias and tribal chiefs in Diyala, Al-Hawija, Hamrin, and other areas. The number of raids on Shi'ite militia positions has also increased, mainly on the Iraqi-Syrian border. A senior member of a Shi'ite militia quoted in the article describes the change in tactics as: "A renewal of the strategy that was employed by Al-Qaeda in 2006."


[1] wakalat nasher news, December 29, 2017.

[2] Al-Hayat (Dubai), December 31, 2017.  

[3] The sources in the article refer to Al-Qaeda. It should be noted that the group known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, announced in 2004 when Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi gave an oath of fealty to Osama bin Laden, evolved from the Tawhid and Jihad Group founded by Al-Zarqawi in the early 2000s. After Al-Zarqawi's death in 2006, Al-Qaeda in Iraq merged into the Islamic State of Iraq, which later evolved into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (2013) and eventually into the Islamic State when the organization declared the establishment of a caliphate (2014).