Craig Whiteside writes: Der Spiegel recently published a blockbuster article that chronicles the activities and personal papers of Haji Bakr, a high ranking member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who led the effort to seize territory in Syria between late 2012, and his death in 2014 at the hands of a rival Syrian faction. Analyzing first hand documents, such as captured organizational charts and battle plans, is a rare opportunity and very helpful in gaining an understanding of the organization — something that policymakers desperately need to develop an effective strategy to defeat ISIL. Unfortunately, the same investigative excellence that unearthed the documents does not reflect in the analysis, as Christoph Reuter makes highly speculative conclusions about the nature of Ba’athist influence on ISIL, Haji Bakr’s role in its success, and the impact Haji Bakr’s Syria operation had on Iraq. Lost in this headline-generating exercise is the real value of the article — its description of ISIL’s tactics in infiltrating new territory and implementing a program of discriminate violence designed to establish control over desired areas.
The Haji Bakr papers detail how ISIL used these techniques in 2013 to successfully reinsert themselves into the Syrian civil war after losing their Nusra affiliate, and eventually establish the Syrian half of the ISIL caliphate. Much like a baseball team uses “small ball” tactics to patiently and quietly produce runs using singles and stolen bases, the article describes how ISIL organized cadres to infiltrate small villages, collect intelligence on key figures, and then slowly seize control over the towns using assassination, intimidation, and extortion. Reuter does not mention how he knows that Haji Bakr’s Syria plan was original or what influenced the doctrinal development over time. In the absence of such an explanation, let me propose one based on my research of over 3000 statements, videos, captured documents, and other available evidence that detail the operations of the Islamic State movement — the current organization and its antecedents — from 2003-2013. To truly understand ISIL as it is today, the group must be understood in a historical sense. There is substantial evidence that the doctrine described in the Haji Bakr papers was developed by a succession of leaders in an evolutionary process as this movement’s fortunes waxed and waned. [Continue reading…]