The War Nerd: Farewell Islamic State, we hardly knew ye

By Gary Brecher , written on November 10, 2014

From The War Desk


Suddenly, Islamic State just can’t fall fast enough. All summer, the press has been saying IS will soon be accepting the keys to every city on earth, an unstoppable jihadi juggernaut.

And now, after six weeks stalled out against a local militia in Kobane and going exactly nowhere in the over-hyped drive on Baghdad, even the mainstream press, represented by America’s paper of record, the New York Times, is saying what I said months ago: IS is just a Sunni Arab militia that will never take serious turf from the other powerful groups in the region, the Kurds of the north or the Shia of the south. Or, in the more measured tones of the NYT:

ISIS thrives in poor, Sunni Arab areas…But after months of steady expansion, the Islamic State has taken most of these areas in Iraq while failing to seize areas with non-Sunni populations.

After being shown up in Kobane, IS has now been truly humiliated by US airstrikes that hit a meeting on the Syria/Iraq border and a big convoy near Mosul.

One of the strikes hit Al Qa’im, a Euphrates River town right on the Iraq/Syria border.

If you were scripting this as a cheesy revenge movie, you couldn’t have picked a better spot to kill off the leadership of Islamic State. IS always used the Euphrates River as its key line, flowing back and forth across the Iraq/Syria border along that river “like a seesaw,” as I said months ago, moving away from enemy pressure and towards politico-military vacuums.

And now, it seems like some unlucky staff officer convinced the IS leadership that this way-too-allegorical locale would be a good place to meet up and discuss strategy. IS definitely needed an urgent meeting, because after its Summer-us Mirabilis, it’s having an Autumn from Hell, humiliated by an outnumbered and outgunned local militia in Kobane, pinned down and decimated by constant USAF swoops, and even dealing with rebellion by the Abu Nimr clan, the most bedrock Sunni-Arab clan in Anbar. If a Sunni-Arab jihad group can’t please the Abu Nimr, something is very wrong. It’s definitely time for a big meeting, with personnel changes, heads rolling—literally or otherwise—and a whole new focus for the public relations department.

But the self-proclaimed Caliph of IS, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, now officially “Caliph Ibrahim,” didn’t get a chance to set a new policy line, because the planes found him. Air control grinds slowly, like the old saying goes, but it does, if continued long and resolutely enough, grind pretty damn small, small enough to require DNA analysis of whatever bloody scraps of black cloth can be found in the wreckage of the caliph’s SUV. In the days after the Normandy landing, the surviving leadership of the Wehrmacht found that it was pretty much a death sentence to be ordered to a face-to-face meeting anywhere in Northern France, what with the Typhoons zooming along those narrow roads like hungry hawks, looking for anything that ran on internal combustion on the theory that if you had a car and enough pull to get fuel for it, Hell, you were probably some kind of quasi-Nazi and a legitimate target.

The US strikes in Iraq now are much less indiscriminate than they were back then; in fact, one of the big ironies lost on the typical dumb-ass war fan is that WWII, the “Good War,” was characterized by atrocities on a scale unimaginable now—and I’m talking about our side here, the official good guys. But though the strikes are much more carefully limited now, they’re also far more precise. As one of the Kurds defending Kobane said after watching what the first US strikes did to IS positions in the town, “If the Americans wanted to put a rocket in someone’s eye, even from hundreds of meters in the air, they could.”

So when the target is accurately identified—which it seems to have been in this Al Qa’im strike—it’s possible to destroy the whole convoy without leveling the town around it.

I don’t know if Al Baghdadi was hit at all in these strikes. It will take days, maybe weeks, before us chumps in the general public know. Stories about the death of any insurgent leader are worthless. You know that line, “The coward dies a thousand deaths”? Well, the coward ain’t got nuthin’ on the insurgent leader, who tends to die two or three thousand times before his final demise.

Remember Al Zarqawi, that vastly overrated Mister Big of the Iraq Insurgency? He was reported dead over and over, before he finally got blasted and stayed that way. And Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram? When he’s reported dead, the Nigerian press—a cynical lot at the best of times—just makes another joke about how Boko must’ve cloned its grinning nutcase of a leader, because he keeps making new videos after being killed.

Does it matter, in fact, whether Al Baghdadi was killed? Again, we won’t know until we see his replacement in action. I’ve talked about the logic of assassination before.

Basically, it’s kind of like management theory applied to a hostile firm; the idea is to kill the irreplaceable talent, if any. So, if a superior replacement is standing by, you kill the potential replacement, not the current occupant.

We don’t know if Al Baghdadi was, or is, a unique talent, but he may be. Or “may have been”—it’s tough, not knowing which verb form you should be discussing someone in: the present indicative, or past extra-crispy.

But he created the first really effective Sunni-Arab militia to operate across the Iraq/Syria border, eliminated hundreds of competing Sunni militias, and scared the Iraqi Army out of the western desert. So either he, or some nameless cadre working with him, had serious organizational talent. Now—if he really was hurt or killed—we’ll see how deep that talent goes.

Whoever the brains of Islamic State may be, or “have been,” they had one clear talent: Grabbing the opportunity, taking the big risk, going big where others might have played it slow and safe. Most Sunni militias were happy to stay local; Al Baghdadi made a famous remark that was about as anti-local as you can get: “Syria does not belong to the Syrians, and Iraq does not belong to the Iraqis.”

Now that, folks, is someone who has decided to swing for the fences. In jihadi terms, that meant going for pure universalism—and the universal group in charge of this universal jihad was going to be Islamic State, with no other groups allowed to get in the way. Early in 2013, Al Baghdadi demanded that Jabhat al Nusra, the other big Syrian jihadist militia, become part of Islamic State.

This wasn’t a proposed merger so much as a hostile takeover; JaN would simply be absorbed in IS, and its leader, Al Golani, would be just another jihadi under the leadership of Al Baghdadi. But Al Golani begged to differ, and Zawahiri himself, the old Godfather of Al Qaeda, had to be called in from this Pakistani hideout to tell the boys to quit with the schoolyard shit and get on with fighting the Crusaders.

But Al Baghdadi wasn’t going to be told, not even by an O.G. like Zawahiri. He had clarity, if nothing else. When Al Qaeda sent a mediator, Abu Khaled Al Suri, to sort it out between JaN and IS, Al Baghdadi sent a suicide bomber, who killed Al Suri and everyone around him.

Al Baghdadi had clarity to spare, and anyone who tried to blur his vision got whacked pretty quickly. The goal of his vision was simple: A Caliphate, with himself as Caliph. He made it official, declaring himself Caliph, in June 2014. And as usual, his message was pure universalism, no room for local customs, or in fact for any authority other than his own. Al Baghdadi made that very clear in his acceptance speech:

"The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas…Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day."

So much for poor old Zawahiri, and all the other would-be caliphs hoping to run their little gangs into something bigger.

The announcement of a Caliphate thrilled jihadis the way a new Rolling Stones tour thrills America’s retirement communities. They’d been waiting for this for so long, the promised unification of the whole Ummah, or community of believers, under a single just God-Ordained ruler. It’s a long, convoluted history, but…OK, you read Dune, right? OK, well, Herbert got all that out of the whole Caliphate tradition. So just think Dune, only with a lot more squabbling among the Fremen.

It always gets messy when someone declares himself caliph. Universalism is a nice idea, but it actually makes an insurgent group more vulnerable in many ways. A “disorganized” rebellion can be stronger than a top-heavy, centralized one, especially in terms of propaganda and legend. If the rebellion becomes incarnated in one person, then the rebellion is two bullets in the torso away from collapse.

Two bullets, or one airstrike. But it’s not just the physical vulnerability of the Great Leader that makes these God-Emperor-of-Dune systems so easy to topple. When one man (and it’s usually a man) assumes a God-given leader role, he tends to want all the trappings of God-Emperor-ness. It just kind of goes with the territory. What do you expect, the God-Emperor to drive around in a ratty VW Bug like that weird old man who’s president of Uruguay? That’s Uruguay; it’s not even on the notional maps of the Caliphate that include the whole planet; nobody cares what he drives. A Caliph wants some dignity.

And that means one thing, in military terms: Conventional war. That’s what IS has been pursuing, with initial success, over the past few months. After being brilliantly successful doing classic urban-guerrilla operations like mass prison breakouts during its rise in 2013, Islamic State changed styles after the announcement of the Caliphate, taking territory, administering cities, setting up headquarters in the cities it took, playing the “state,” and bragging about it, with dozens of excited, dumb-as-rocks jihad groupies posting tweets every time IS hung out a new sign offering “Islamic DMV Services” in another neighborhood of Ar-Raqqa. These “offices” were kind of sad, really; there’s so much humiliation behind the notion of jihad, so many generations of defeat…it gets me down, actually. Yes, a lot of those defeats are self-inflicted; and yeah, none of those defeats justify taking it out on the Kurds or the Yazidi, who’ve suffered more than anyone; but even so, there’s a grudging kind of pity that comes over you after you’ve spent a day looking at foolish twitter feeds by people who actually think that a new Islamic State storefront in some little Syrian town is a sure sign that the reign of a universal, triumphant caliphate is nigh.

What all those trappings of a conventional state, and all that territory-grabbing as a conventional military force, really meant for Islamic State was…doom. Inevitable doom. Mao could’ve told them—if these sectarian dupes were willing to listen to an old atheist like Mao. He laid it out in his own simple, clear style, long ago:

“Lose land—land can be retaken. Lose people—land and people both lost.”

There’s one other example of a recent movement that was very successful as an irregular group, fighting via suicide bombings in the enemy’s cities, and a rural guerrilla force in the countryside…and then lost everything by shifting to conventional tactics, thanks to the huge ego of its leader, and its people’s premature appetite to look and act like a state, imitating the big boys when it needed to lay low, hunker down and be patient like Mao would have ordered.

I’m talking, of course, about LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, one of the most amazing, messed-up groups ever to rise and fall on the crazed ambitions of one would-be God-Emperor. The LTTE was a fearsome power in Sri Lanka at one time, before the ego of their generalissimo, Prabhakaran, led them to duke it out with the Sri Lankan Army, mano-a-mano. Prabhakaran wasn’t particularly devout, but it’s not the religion that matters with these generalissimo types, it’s the ego, and he had ego to spare. He wanted to be a ruler in the conventional manner, with a palace and a capital and visits from various stuffed shirts off the evening news. To create that cheesy lifestyle for himself, Prabhakaran ordered his soldiers—who were superb at irregular warfare, both in Sri Lanka’s cities and in the countryside—into static, conventional warfare, taking territory and holding it while they were blasted from the air and by artillery.

And that was how they managed to lose everything. Whenever your glorious leader tells you he’s decided you need to fight the enemy old-school style, your small arms against his CAS planes and ZSU-4 tracks, it’s time to go home to the village and see how the crops are getting along. You’ll hear all about it on the news, without having to be one of the bodies the Nordic forensic teams are brought in to identify from dental records:

“Ja, eet ees another sücker.”

The parallels between IS and the LTTE stand up in spite of the obvious religious/ethnic difference. LTTE claimed to be fighting for all the Tamils, a huge group with a world-wide diaspora. In that sense, it was unlucky enough to become the repository of hopes for millions of people who weren’t on the ground in Sri Lanka’s northeast, where LTTE’s fighters were actually dying to keep those distant supporters’ impractical dreams of a “Tamil homeland” alive. Those hopes combined with Prabhakaran’s huge ego to stake LTTE’s best troops out in the open, where they were blasted to shreds.

Something very similar has been happening to Islamic State’s troops over the last few months. Instead of preserving their core strength—a few thousand international fighters who’ve lived through dozens of ambushes—they’ve sent their men to hide from laser-guided American munitions in the rubble of Kobane, or play office in an easily-targeted HQ in Raqqah. Mao is probably laughing, if he’s still around (in which case the laugh is on him, atheism-wise).

Even without nonstop decimation via air attack, a universal caliphate is a doomed, dumb idea. Remember what Al Baghdadi said: “Syria does not belong to the Syrians, and Iraq does not belong to the Iraqis”? You know who would beg to differ? The Syrians. And the Iraqis. And it’s not even that simple, because the territories in which this war is being fought are fractal as sci-fi dream scenes, which means that “Syrians” devolves into dozens, maybe hundreds, of groups that hate each other and will fight to the death for their local turf. Kobane is a part of one turf, “Rojava” or Syrian Kurdistan; but it’s also a local turf on its own, and you can bet that the Kobane people have a few stereotypes of their Kurdish neighbors in the other evolving cantons like Afrin. You can bet that not all of Assad’s Alawites are fond of each other, either, even if they’re forced to stick together now against the Sunni who want to annihilate them. And those Sunni have never managed to make common cause for any length of time, even against a common enemy.

So the dream that powered Islamic State to its ephemeral victories last summer was the same one that will bring it down. You get that in war. That Hitler guy, for one—had a great plan up through 1940, but the same amphetamine-fueled can-do spirit that got him his free tour of Paris brought him up against Stalingrad a little while later. One reason great leaders are so rare is that they have to pivot, at exactly the right moment, from wild-eyed gambler to cunning, cautious miser. Not many can manage that, and there’s absolutely no sign that the men who run Islamic State have that kind of discipline. They’re going to keep pushing their luck, and they’re already losing.

It’s possible, of course, that if Al Baghdadi is dead—which I doubt—he’ll be replaced by a cautious, disciplined guy. In which case, this will be a disastrous assassination. But most likely, he’s alive, and hasn’t learned a thing. In fact, that’s the advantage of having a religious imperative backing your overconfidence: He can’t even allow himself to doubt or hedge his bets. His divine backer demands that he over-extend his reach. And it’s not hard to see how that will come out.

Islamic State will fall, but that won’t really end anything, because like the LTTE, the militia is one of a long series that have been set up by the ethnic group. Tamils in Sri Lanka are still around, even though the LTTE is dead-dead-deadsky, and the Sunni Arabs of Syria/Iraq aren’t going to go away, or turn all Bahai-nice, just because IS overreaches and falls.

But no matter who died or didn’t die in that airstrike, we’ve seen the high-water mark of Islamic State.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]