NPR recently talked to retired U.S. Marine Col. Gary Anderson about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Caliph Ibrahim as the leader of the self-anointed Islamic State prefers to be known.
Gary Anderson writes: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not a formally trained military commander. However, he is not illiterate or a common thug such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who led al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006. Al-Baghdadi holds a doctorate in theology from a theological seminary and appears to be a keen student of American tactics as they were passed on to the Iraqi Army, as well as the military practices of his Syrian Baathist opponents. Whether he is a military prodigy or merely a very talented student and practitioner of military art is irrelevant. To date, he has shown himself to be a very effective commander.
Like the prophet Mohammed from whom he claims descent, al-Baghdadi sees himself as a soldier-Imam and recognizes no difference between fighting, governing, and religion. This allows him to flow seamlessly between mediums. If we write him off as a mere terrorist, we make the mistake of underestimating him. He is generally considered to be a crackpot by serious Islamic scholars, but he controls a tract of land that includes most of al-Anbar province, much of eastern Syria, and Iraq’s second largest city; that makes him a serious player in the region. However, we should also beware of making him out to be ten feet tall. If we are going to deal with him, we need to understand how he fights and governs as well as his strengths and weaknesses.
There is both military art and science behind al-Baghdadi’s recent successes. His approach is different from western military leadership practices, but it is not unique in history. He seems to have borrowed some elements of the warfighting styles of the Prophet Mohammed and Genghis Khan as well as the some political-strategic approaches of Lenin and Hitler. Whether these were adopted from a study of history or the serendipitous outcome of pure talent is somewhat irrelevant. To date, al-Baghdadi has achieved significant results. We can’t fully understand his thought process but we can study his methods and the principles he employs.
Like the forces of Genghis Khan, al-Baghdadi’s army consists of a small group of professionals; they are largely comprised of veteran foreign fighters. To enhance unit cohesion, al-Baghdadi appears to keep them in national units. This also helps internal communication as the chance of confusion due to dialects is reduced by keeping countrymen together.
Al-Baghdadi has surrounded himself with loyal, battle hardened sub-commanders who he trusts enough to send on independent missions. This reliance on commanders empowered to make decisions based on the intent of the overall commander allows agility unheard of in Damascus and Baghdad where commanders are judged more on perceived loyalty to the leader than on competence. This is a great tactical advantage for the self-proclaimed Caliph.
The army of the newly proclaimed Caliphate is well versed in the theory and practice of maneuver warfare. Maneuver Warfare is not just about movement. It is about putting of all of your force’s effects where they will do the most damage to the enemy. Al-Baghdadi has proven adept at the key tenants of maneuver warfare:
Avoiding Surfaces and Exploiting Gaps. Al-Baghdadi understands the concept of striking the enemy where he is weak and avoiding his foes’ strengths; this is true of physical military capability as well as the exploitation of enemy moral weaknesses. He exploits reconnaissance and intelligence to gauge whether an operation is doable. In Mosul, al-Baghdadi judged Iraqi army leadership to be rotten to the core and was able to take the city with a main force of about 800 men routing thousands of Iraqi government security forces after their leaders fled. However, when Iraqi government commandos provided steadfast resistance at the Baji oil fields, al-Baghdadi’s commander on the scene recognized a surface and moved on to softer targets.
Attack the Enemy’s Moral Cohesion. Through the selective use of terror, al-Baghdadi has gotten inside the opponent’s decision cycle. Iraqi government commanders in Baghdad found themselves issuing orders to subordinate leaders who have left the field. Junior soldiers woke up to see their commanders boarding mini-busses and panicked fearing the fate of fellow soldiers who had previously surrendered only to be massacred. This deliberate use of terror is selective as was the case with Genghis Khan. He massacred the populations of the first cities of any region that he attacked, and the word got around that resistance was futile. The great Khan conquered many cities, but based on his reputation, he had to lay siege to very few.
Employ Useful Idiots as Fifth Columns and Auxiliaries. Here, al-Baghdadi has skilfully used tactics that he may well have learned from reading about Hitler and Lenin; like them, he has used Sunni unhappiness with the Shiite/Alawite governments in Baghdad and Damascus respectfully to create alliances of convenience that swell his ranks, provide intelligence, and potentially incite local uprisings that force government foes to be looking for potential enemies in all directions.
Recent interviews with Sunni sheikhs and former Baathist officials fighting alongside Baghdadi’s forces indicate that they think they can control al-Baghdadi in the end. This sounds frighteningly similar to comments by German conservatives about Hitler in the early 1930s and Russian liberals about Lenin in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 revolution. Once the usefulness of these partners had diminished and the two dictators consolidated power; many of the collaborators found themselves in concentration camps, in front of firing squads, or on the wrong end of a rope.
We Americans have had an obsession with destroying jihadist leadership cadres. In many cases, we have merely culled out older leadership only to see it replaced with more ambitious and competent leaders. That raises the question of how indispensable al-Baghdadi is to his movement. Mohammed’s death slowed jihadist momentum for years while his successors fought for power, and the Sunni-Shiite split still divides Islam today. The possibility of al-Baghdadi’s jihad imploding is one potential outcome if we are successful in eliminating him. Jihads have a bad tendency to turn inward on themselves and this one seems already to be doing so with the Zawahiri-Baghdadi split. An intramural fight for control among Baghdadi’s would-be successors would undoubtedly weaken the movement. But there is another scenario.
The Genghis Khan model is another potential outcome. Like the great Khan, Baghdadi has stressed initiative and independent action among his subordinates. If he designates a successor, the potential for internal conflict may be lessened. When Genghis died, there was a reasonably smooth succession; and the Mongol Hordes rumbled on. [Continue reading…]