The War Nerd: Crunching numbers on Kobane

By Gary Brecher , written on October 31, 2014

From The War Desk


How many Islamic State fighters have died in Kobane? That question isn’t as easy to answer as you might expect. In fact, nothing about Islamic State’s numbers really adds up. How many fighters does IS have in the first place? Even that isn’t easy to answer. Islamic State expands and contracts in the press according to its own propaganda requirements, and the fear-level of Western correspondents.

IS has been very good at hiding its dead. Oh yeah, jihadis love to talk about how they love death, but a smart military force doesn’t show too many close-ups of its dead, and IS has put a very effective clamp on reports about how many of its men are dying in the long, bloody fight for Kobane.

And that’s why the USAF arranged with the Kurdish YPG units defending Kobane to stage a video that would force IS men out into the open, where they could be killed on-camera, in a way that would send a message to potential recruits around the world.

You’ve probably seen that video. It shows the summit of Tel Sehir, a hill west of Kobane. in the early evening of October 24, 2014.

It starts with a beautifully framed telephoto shot of Islamic State fighters standing on the crest of Tel Sheir, a hill to the west of town. There’s the dreaded black IS flag flying on the summit, and to the right, a hooded fighter who seems to be talking to several other IS men who are walking uphill toward him.

Suddenly the man on the crest starts running. A second later, the summit explodes, as two more blasts hit the far side of the hill at the same time. That first blast sends the body of the man near the crest flying in classic ass-over-teakettle manner through the air, along with enough freshly-turned dirt to start a garden shop in the Namib. One of the men standing on the front slope starts running downhill, a sure sign that he’s seen too many action movies.

You don’t outrun something like this. Sure enough, the second strikes hit, one landing precisely in his gully.

It was a glorious moment, perfectly directed, the sort of thing YPG fans like yers trooly couldn’t see enough times. I’m not pretending to be neutral in this one, having lived in Kurdistan, and then in Saudi Arabia. The Kurds are the sanest people in the Middle East at the moment, the least bigoted, the most adaptable. In any war between misogynist slave-dealing Wahhabi bigots and Kurdish militia led by a woman, I’m cheering for the Kurds all the way.

But even for a fan like me, the video seems almost too good to be true. Syria has been the real Hollywood of war videos for years now, and the real ones don’t look nearly as smooth and professional as this one.

For example, after the first shot of the hilltop before impact, the camera turns away, to a placid shot of the dusk over Kobane. Then it cuts to the hilltop again, as if the camera crew knew something was going to happen. And they’re on the spot, full telephoto, when the first blast hits.

It seems like they were expecting it because they *were* expecting it. This was a classic staged operation. Not fake—those were real IS men on the hill, and they were really blown to bits. But the operation was choreographed all the way. You can do that with a force like IS, because they’re too stupid to know when they’re being lured into a kill zone like this.

Jenan Moussa, one of the best journalists covering Syria, picked up on the story quickly:

Jenan Moussa‏@jenanmoussa ISIS advances to Tel Sheir hill West #Kobane. Clearly this didnt go unnoticed by coalition planes. Pics v @Kilicbil

What happened was that someone in the U.S. military propaganda wing decided we needed a good shot of IS fighters getting zapped by the air strikes. Until the Tel Sheir video, all we had seen was flying concrete, as US planes blew up ruined buildings inside Kobane. It was probably effective, but it wasn’t good TV. You couldn’t tell, at telephoto distance, if those buildings were even occupied.

That’s when a nice bare hilltop comes in handy. And Tel Sheir happened to be available, thanks to another deception the YPG and USAF ran on IS. The YPG staged a fake retreat from the hill on Thursday, October 23 “…due to a shortage of ammunition and weapons.”

The next day, Friday October 24, Islamic State moved a squad (at least) onto the hill. IS had every reason to expect that the YPG would retreat eventually. After all, the Iraqi Army, far bigger and better-armed, had abandoned all of Western Iraq to IS without a fight. Why wouldn’t this tiny Kurdish militia, worn out from holding off IS firepower equivalent to an entire armored division, withdraw at last?

And that, as moviegoers used to say, is where we came in. By dusk on October 24 the cameras were in place, focused on the hilltop. The light was perfect—dim enough to highlight the coming explosions but not so dark as to obscure the men who were the targets. The call went up to a B1-B

And the video went up, becoming an instant hit.

But why stage such an expensive spectacle to kill a few IS goons? Air strikes are expensive, and the munitions that blasted those men off the hill cost thousands of times more than the flag they destroyed. Even if you add the seven IS men confirmed killed by the strikes by the YPG, it’s a lot of trouble to kill seven idiot sectarian dupes.

But this is not Stalingrad, and you can’t do that sort of simple cost-accounting. To understand why that air strike was worth it, you have to factor in all the times that video was shared online, all the gloating that went on from YPG supporters, Kurds, Shi’ites, and others who have reason to hate and fear Islamic State. My friend Annibale, who keeps up with a very interesting range of sources around the world, said he was getting messages from minority areas of northern Pakistan cheering for the video. We hear mostly about the anger of Sunni Muslims, especially Sunni Arabs, but you ain’t seen rage until you hear from people from the minority sects and tribes living under Sunni rule.

One way to judge the propaganda value of that video is to count the number of IS supporters who were tweeting “Fake! Didn’t happen!” or “So what, big deal, didn’t hurt!” as soon as they saw it. Look at the tweets reacting to Jenan Moussa’s news about the strike and you see the delight by YPG supporters, and the bitter denials of IS fans.

This was being repeated all over social media, all over the world, in Urdu, Arabic, German, French, Bengali, Malayalam, and Bahasa Indonesia, as well as English. It’s too simple to say that there’s a propaganda war going on over the struggle for Kobane. Actually there are at least two propaganda wars. One of those, the one to win over traditional media, came down in favor of the Kurds a while ago—about the time Islamic State actually published an article in its magazine, Dabiq, boasting about enslaving Yazidi women and girls and handing them out as sex toys to its fighters.

After that article, it was kinda difficult for most liberal humanists to keep a soft spot for Islamic State. Oh, a few of the stupider fellas among the usual suspects tried to find some way of absolving sex-slavers of any blame in sex-slavery. Glenn Greenwald twisted himself into knots to make the brilliant guess that the US didn’t even intend to bomb IS at all, which would have come as news to the men on that hill in the video. But c’mon—Glenn Greenwald? I had a little exchange with Glenn Greenwald over Mali a while back, and came away with the firm conviction that Greenwald may well be the stupidest human being on the planet. I concede that there may, in fact, be a stupider person somewhere on earth, but my contention is that if this hypothesized miracle of Nature exists, he or she will most likely be found at the bottom of a lake, skeletal fingers on the key, eye sockets turned in exasperation toward the ignition, wondering why the car won’t start.

Aside from cretins like Greenwald, pretty much everybody in the pundit world agrees that yes, slavery is bad, beheading people for believing in the wrong imaginary friend is bad, and therefore IS is bad.

The Western Front of the propaganda war over Kobane was officially won on October 28, 2014, when the New York Times opened its editorial pages to the woman in charge of the YPG in the town.

But that was a very minor theatre of the propaganda war, involving a few elderly folk. The real PR war being fought on YouTube and Twitter and Instagram is a struggle for a much younger, fiercer, and mostly non-American audience.

The rules of that war are very different. Imagine you’re a young guy sitting at a café in, say, Tunis.

There are no jobs in Tunis. There isn’t much that connects you to anyone, except Islam, which—in theory—unites all Muslims in friendship. It doesn’t work that way in practice, of course, as Muslims from poor countries find when they take jobs in the Gulf—and Lord, do they get mad!--but it’s still the only cheerful idea in your world, as you sit there nursing a coffee all day.

Imagine being that guy, and jihad doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. You don’t even have to imagine being a Tunisian; I can give you an All-American example from the other side of the fight in Kobane. Jordan Matson, a 28-year old American, joined the YPG after getting out of the US Army and ending up doing night shifts in a meat-packing plant.

I’m not pretending that YPG and IS are morally equal. They’re not. YPG is a secular, gender-neutral local militia defending its home town against fucking monsters, and IS is the monster in question, one of the vilest groups around. But the life-story, the motives, the experiences, of Jordan Matson and the average Tunisian recruit aren’t that different. Jihad, on either side, beats graveyard shift in Wisconsin or unemployment in Tunis.

So if you’re that potential IS recruit in Tunis, you’re watching the news from Kobane, but you’re watching it your way. You don’t worry too much about the atrocity stories coming out about IS. Young men have a great tolerance, let us say, for such things. In fact, many of them have a great deal more than tolerance—something more like enthusiasm, and I speak from my own embarrassing experience of a celibate adolescence.

As for sex slavery, it can look very different, if you’re a celibate young man sitting in a Tunis café with no job, than it looks to a New York Times pundit. As William Butler Yeats said a century ago, noting the, er, unusual eagerness of young Irish Catholic males to get themselves killed fighting better-trained and –armed regulars, celibate young men raised in sex-segregated environments get very excited at the idea of war and martyrdom. My hand is the first to be raised here, my old bald head blushing. I’m not one of those old “bald heads forgetful of their sins” that Yeats described; I remember my sins all too well, even if they were mostly imagined. And the average young man in Tunis or Riyadh has been raised in an atmosphere every bit as devout and celibate as the one which forged the martyrs of Yeats’s Ireland.

If you really want to venture into this territory—and it’s very, very embarrassing territory, believe me—you should read an amazing book called Male Fantasies.

The author is an annoying German academic, and the writing is tedious as Hell, but the idea is amazing: A look at the fantasies about women that motivated the young men who joined the Freikorps, the volunteer military forces of Weimar-era Germany. The book argues, in its slow, earnest German way, that these fantasies are ordinary, but very creepy, male ideas leading direct from dumb-ass dreams about girls, to the fatal decision to march off with the Freikorps. And if you were to look for a 21st version of the Freikorps…Ladies and gents, may I present Islamic State?

So you don’t dissuade a contemporary Freikorps recruit thinking about heading to Syria that it would be un-liberal or un-humanist to do so. He loves that idea. You need a different approach, one that matches his notions of what matters.

And you better find a way to reach these guys sitting around at cafes in Tunis, because they’re the ones who fill up IS’s ranks. Tunisia, with a population of only 10.8 million people, has 3000 fighters in Syria/Iraq, more than Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or any of the other bigger Muslim countries.

And the reason they like Islamic State is simple: It’s been looking like a winner. You won’t persuade guys like this that joining Islamic State is a bad idea by showing them that IS has been doing bad things. Young men…I don’t know how to put this politely, really; young men from celibate, conservative backgrounds have a deep interest in doing bad things. What they don’t like is looking like fools, like suckers—like losers.

So you won’t persuade these guys to stay home by showing them that Islamic State is evil, but you can show them it’s foolish, overstretched, led by idiots, doomed. And that air strike on the hill does a very good job of conveying that message, in a way that doesn’t depend on speaking fluent English or sharing any of the pundits’ self-righteous opinions about justice or freedom.

The guy you see tumbling over and over through the air doesn’t look like a shahid, a martyr; he looks like an idiot. The guy who starts running down the gully, as if he’ll outrace the second salvo—he looks like a fool. You may want to be a martyr, but not that way, not as a crispy critter to be counted and shoveled into a shallow grave by gloating YPG men—or worse, YPJ women. What the hick young men who join IS fear most of all is being shamed by the women of the YPJ.

If IS looks lame, recruits will stop coming, and IS will wither very quickly. They need a steady supply of kids to keep going, because they’ve been using up men very quickly. But you need to remember what “lame” means to a 19-year old male of limited intellect. Consider the case of a typical group of IS recruits: six young guys from the Bangladeshi community in Portsmouth, in the UK, who flew off to Syria to join some idiot outfit called “The Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys.” My keyboard is blushing, just from typing out that alliterated crap bravado. But then I’m not in the IS recruit pool, and neither (most likely) are you. If we were 19-year old celibate boys, that dumb-ass name might seem very cool.

But what would not seem cool is being a sucker, and those guys are dying like suckers. Six of these Bangladeshi guys from Portsmouth made jihad; four have died in Syria, and another is in prison in the UK.

If you can persuade these guys, not just that they’re going to die—because dying can seem pretty cool when you’re 19 and stupid—but that they’re going to die stupid, like the men on the hill did, then they may stay home.

Without new recruits, IS will dry up very quickly. It’s a matter of basic numbers. How many men does IS have? How many casualties have they lost? How many replacements are they getting?

First: Islamic State is remarkably small, given the possible pool of recruits. The CIA now guesses (and it is just a guess) that there are 31,000 men fighting for IS.

When you recall that there are a billion-plus Sunni Muslims in the world, and that their population skews very young compared to those of the infidel countries, 31,000 is a tiny number. Consider Tunisia; although it’s the most enthusiastic contributor to jihad, it’s only sending a tiny percentage of its military-age men to Syria. Thanks to a very high recent birth rate, Tunisia could send something over a half-million men to Syria if it was really all in for jihad.

As I’ve said before, the most amazing thing about jihadis is how few of them there are. My own guess is that the CIA’s number is low. I make that guess the same way the CIA did: Squinting at what IS is doing and guessing how many men it must take to do it. IS is fighting against the Peshmerga in Northern Iraq, the “Iraqi Army”/Shia near Baghdad, and is at least pretending to fight Assad’s SAA in NW Syria as well. Add to that the number of men it takes to run around Raqqa telling women to veil up, the squads assigned to track down and kill former soldiers and cops, the internal security men working other guys’ fingernails to the bone trying to get them to confess to heresy…and you end up thinking that there have to be more than 31,000 men involved.

But let’s start with the CIA’s estimate of 31,000 IS fighters, and see what the fight for Kobane has cost IS. As of October 23, US air strikes had killed at least 464 IS fighters, according to a Syrian war-monitor group that’s been accurate throughout the war.

Keep in mind that until October 7, the US was apparently minimizing strikes near Kobane to keep Erdogan’s Turkish Islamists happy, an insane “Hit’em, but lightly” policy that changed radically after that first week of October.

So for the first weeks of fighting in Kobane, most of IS’s casualties would have come in close, urban combat with YPG. It’s much harder to come up with casualty numbers for that combat, but one blogger has done a great job with a spreadsheet, coming up with about 800 IS men killed in air strikes and ground combat by early October.

This was a very rough guess, but a reasonable one. The spreadsheet shows almost 400 YPG KIA during this period, and it’s reasonable that IS, as the attacking force, trying to take rubble-filled streets defended by diehard locals, would have higher losses.

And those losses have continued this week, after the period covered by these estimates. In fact, IS has intensified its attacks to seal the border before reinforcements can arrive.

So, no matter how you chop these numbers, you get an incredible total, almost certainly over 1000 KIA. Now, in contemporary warfare, the usual ratio of wounded to killed is often very high. US casualties in recent wars involved about one KIA for every seven WIA, and very few of the WIA die of their wounds (though many of them lose limbs, vision, or suffer other horrific injuries).

Obviously an IS fighter who gets shot in a street fight in Kobane is not going to get US-level care, or, in many cases, any care at all. So the number of wounded is probably lower—or rather, you can count most of the wounded as dead within hours of being hit. So let’s start with a very low estimate of IS wounded, say three WIA for every KIA. That still gives you something like 3000 men injured seriously enough to be put out of action.

So six weeks of fighting in Kobane has cost Islamic State something like 4000 men. That’s 13% of their total force (if you accept the CIA’s low-ball estimate of their numbers).

But I can’t go with that number. It’s too high. One rule of war numbers is that you never believe what you hope, so I must be wrong; it must be lower. So I’ll just arbitrarily lop a thousand off it. That still leaves IS with 3000 casualties in Kobane, almost 10% of its force—yer classic decimation. That is a huge loss for any force, but far more disastrous for one like IS that depends on volunteers—worse yet, volunteers from far away who have to go to one Hell of a lot of trouble to join up, and in fact just to reach the theater.

So IS is now in a classic bind: The only way to make up for these ungodly (har-de-har-har) losses is to keep attacking and hope you can salvage a win—because unless you win, you won’t get more recruits. That’s why IS is willing to spend so many lives on “CNN warfare.” Kobane isn’t “strategically” important, in the sense that Bonaparte or Rommel understood “strategy” as they pored over their paper maps. But in terms of 21st c. strategy, it matters because it’s a hit TV show, and everything depends on how the plot comes out. All those wavering potential recruits in Jakarta, Berlin, and Riyadh need to believe that IS is winning; if it’s not, they’ll stay home and play video games.

That’s why IS has even taken the really scary step of bringing the Chechen to Kobane. You know why you bring in the Chechen? Because balrogs don’t actually exist. Chechens are the next best thing, and the Chechen in question, Abu Omar al-Shishani (“Omar the Chechen”), was transferred this week from the Sinjar front, where he was in charge of slaughtering Yazidi refugees. Omar has been brought to Kobane as a fixer, with the job of closing down the border before reinforcements can reach the YPG. And the Turks have been making very, very sure he has lots of time to kill all the Kurds fighting for Kobane before any eventual reinforcements can arrive. Turkey has used every lame excuse it could find to delay the Iraqi Peshmerga it sullenly allowed to help in Kobane, while Turkish troops chat happily along the border with IS goons stealing local Kurds’ trucks and farm vehicles.

So far, Kobane has held out against all this, and bled Islamic State very badly. So the long question is whether IS can recover from its huge losses in this “CNN” battle. How many recruits are joining IS? According to British security, “at least” five men from the UK join IS each week.

If you assume that other countries with a history of sending a lot of recruits to IS are sending new troops at the same rate, you get something like 30 per week from Tunisia, 25 per week from Saudi, and a few from Russia, Germany, and France. That would mean a hundred new men per week—untrained amateur troops with little combat value, and not nearly enough to make up for the huge losses in Kobane.

But those recruiting numbers aren’t stable. They depend completely on image, the “CNN War.” And the one thing IS can’t afford to do, if it wants to win the war for the guys sitting around cafes in Tunis, is look weak. So Omar al-Shishani has very little time to choke out Kobane. If he can’t do it—if the Peshmerga finally make it through Erdogan’s Islamist obstacle course and cross into Syria—then the number of recruits will fall very quickly. Some will join other Syrian groups like Jabhat al Nusra; others will decide to stick around Tunis (or Portsmouth, or Sarcelles) and see if a job turns up.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]