Military activity of ISIL
|Military of ISIL|
A fighter carrying the Islamic State's flag on Tall Dabiq, overlooking the town of Dabiq, 2013.
Democratic Republic of Congo
|Size||In Iraq and Syria|
200,000 (claim by Iraqi Kurdistan Chief of Staff)
Outside Iraq and Syria
|Headquarters||Raqqa, Syria (2013–2017)|
|Engagements||Iraq conflict (2003–present)
Syrian Civil War|
Boko Haram insurgency
Second Libyan Civil War
Yemeni Civil War (2015–present)
War in Afghanistan (2001–present)
War in North-West Pakistan
Insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir
Somali Civil War (2009–present)
For more details, see List of wars and battles involving ISIL
| Abu Suleiman al-Naser † |
(Current Head of Military Council)
|Black Standard (variant)|
The military of ISIL is the fighting force of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The total force size has been estimated from tens of thousands to over two hundred thousand. ISIL's armed forces grew quickly during its territorial expansion in 2014. The ISIL military, including groups incorporated into it in 2014, openly operates and controls territory in multiple cities in Libya and Nigeria. In October 2016, it conquered the city of Qandala in Puntland, Somalia. It conquered much of eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014, territory it lost finally only in 2019. It also has had border clashes with and made incursions into Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan. ISIL-linked groups operate in Algeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and in West Africa (Cameroon, Niger, and Chad). In January 2015, ISIL was also confirmed to have a military presence in Afghanistan and in Yemen.
The Islamic State's military is based on light infantry mobile units using vehicles such as gun-equipped pick-up trucks (technicals), motorbikes and buses for fast advances. They have also used artillery, tanks and armored vehicles, much of which they captured from the Iraqi and Syrian Armies.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, ISIL's 2013 annual report reveals a metrics-driven military command, which is "a strong indication of a unified, coherent leadership structure that commands from the top down". Middle East Forum's Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said, "They are highly skilled in urban guerrilla warfare while the new Iraqi Army simply lacks tactical competence."
ISIL's Military Council is made up of numerous former military officers from the Saddam Hussein era. Commanders have included Haji Bakr, a colonel; Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi, a captain; and Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, a lieutenant colonel, who all graduated from the same Iraqi military academy. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, al-Baghdadi's former deputy, was a Directorate of General Military Intelligence lieutenant colonel. All these men spent time detained in Camp Bucca during the American occupation of Iraq Abu Omar al-Shishani, who was a sergeant in the Georgian Army before leading an ISIL unit in Syria, also became a prominent commander.
ISIL's fighters are reportedly organised into seven branches: infantry, snipers, air defence, special forces, artillery forces, the "army of adversity", and the Caliphate Army. This force structure is largely replicated in each of its designated provinces, with the most skilled fighters and military strategists in each area serving in the special forces unit, which is not allowed to redeploy to other provinces. Parallel to this structure is the Caliphate Army, which is directed by ISIL's central command rather than its provincial leadership. Made up overwhelmingly of foreign fighters, it is deployed to assist in battles across the Islamic State. There is also an all-female Al-Khansaa Brigade tasked with enforcing religious laws. According to battle reports, ISIL often operates in small mobile fighting units.
The Islamic State also operates outside areas it largely controls using a clandestine cell system. An ISIL-linked senior militant commander in Sinai told Reuters; "They [ISIL] teach us how to carry out operations. We communicate through the internet, ... they teach us how to create secret cells, consisting of five people. Only one person has contact with other cells. They are teaching us how to attack security forces, the element of surprise. They told us to plant bombs then wait 12 hours so that the man planting the device has enough time to escape from the town he is in."
The military of ISIL is organized like a mixture of an irregular insurgent force and a conventional army, with the latter's tappings used to defend its territorial holdings. In Syria and Iraq, ISIL organized professional units for specialised tasks, with the "Tank Battalion", the "Artillery Battalion", and the "Platoons of Special Tasks" being among the most important. The first one employed ISIL's heavy armoured fighting vehicles, the second its heavy artillery, while the last one was used as rapid intervention force. The three regularly worked in tandem for breakthrough and important defense operations which was made possible by ISIL's highly competent logistics system that kept operating even under regular bombardments by anti-ISIL forces.
In contrast to these elite forces, most of ISIL's troops were local militias with few heavy wepons. Most of these were only used as territorial defense units. However, ISIL would also employ less trained or less valuable troops for offensive operations; for these units, the usage of tactics was much more unsophisticated. Most notably, ISIL stood in sharp contrast to some other jihadist organizations such as the Caucasus Emirate which generally attempted to minimize their own casualties, as the proto-state is known for its willingness to sacrifice as many of its ordinary fighters as necessary to achieve its objectives. This is especially true in regard to ISIL's callous use of new recruits. When the militant organization still held large swaths in Syria and Iraq and had ample access to native as well as foreign volunteers, it usually barely trained new recruits. Instead of focusing on preparing for combat, training camps mostly indoctrinated new fighters into following orders and being willing for sacrifice one's life for ISIL. The organization's high command then used the inexperienced recruits for swarming and human wave tactics, often resulting in extremely high casualties. One high-ranking ISIL commander best known for this approach was Abu Omar al-Shishani who successfully employed swarming tactics during the Siege of Menagh Air Base and Battle of Al-Tabqa airbase. According to his reasoning, the enemy would eventually be overwhelmed or run out of ammunition regardless of the casualties among ISIL fighters. Regional expert Joanna Paraszuk sarcastically remarked that al-Shishani's tactics were based on the belief that "everyone want[s] to be a Shahid" (martyr). Though some ISIL frontline commanders did not espouse this readiness to sacrifice troops, the organization's high-command appears to care little about its common fighters.
Following the Siege of Kobanî which resulted in large losses among its veterans and commanders (including 2,000 militants killed), ISIL was forced to promote several inexperienced commanders and to rely even more than before on new recruits. As result, the tactics of ISIL's armed wing became even more crude and uncaring about its own forces. Paraszuk noted that the jihadists' strategies and tactics sometimes broke down completely due to this. For example, some troops were essentially ordered to "just run towards the [enemy] and fight or whatever" during the 2015 Battle of Hasakah, even though they were targeted by massive aerial bombardments and their attacks had no apparent strategic value.
Technicals play an important role for ISIL in a variety of combat purposes, ranging from quick-reaction forces to tank equivalents to self-defendable car bombs that can attack heavily defended targets.
In addition to suicide bomber attacks, ISIL also employs the use of special units called Inghimasi (Arabic for "become immersed"), who utilise both conventional firearms and suicide bombs, attacking enemy positions with their firearms, detonating their suicide bombs when they run out of ammunition or believe they are trapped. Their goal is specifically to inflict as many casualties as they can upon the enemy before dying, acting as form of shock troops. Inghimasi are also deployed against civilians, such as in the November 2015 Paris attacks. Inghimasi may sometimes be deployed en masse but are usually deployed in small teams.
Troops in Iraq and Syria
In June 2014, ISIL had at least 4,000 fighters in Iraq. The CIA estimated in September 2014 that it had 20,000–31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that the force numbers around 80,000–100,000 total (up to 50,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq). Reuters quoted "jihadist ideologues" as claiming that ISIL has 40,000 fighters and 60,000 supporters, while an Iraqi Kurdish leader estimated in November 2014 that ISIL's military had 200,000 fighters. 85–600 Iraqi Kurds may have joined ISIL.
Some Syrian rebel factions have defected to ISIL, including the 1,000-strong Dawud Brigade in July 2014. In addition to jihadists and other volunteers, ISIL is known for forcing other rebel groups to fight for it, as well as conscripting individuals. In general, a large part of ISIL's Iraqi and Syrian armies consisted of local militias whose loyalty was generally somewhat dubious. These local forces were put under commanders from ISIL's core group, and only those groups who proved themselves trustworthy were provided with better weaponry.
Foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria
There are many foreign fighters in ISIL's ranks. In June 2014, The Economist reported that "ISIS may have up to 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000–5,000 in Syria, including perhaps 3,000 foreigners; nearly a thousand are reported to hail from Chechnya and perhaps 500 or so more from France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe." Chechen leader Abu Omar al-Shishani, for example, was made commander of the northern sector of ISIL in Syria in 2013. According to The New York Times, in September 2014 there were more than 2,000 Europeans and 100 Americans among ISIL's foreign fighters. As of mid-September 2014, around 1,000 Turks had joined ISIL, and as of October 2014, 2,400–3,000 Tunisians had joined the group. An ISIL deserter alleged that foreign recruits were treated with less respect than Arabic-speaking Muslims by ISIL commanders and were placed in suicide units if they lacked otherwise useful skills. According to a UN report, an estimated 15,000 fighters from nearly 70 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join militant groups, including ISIL.
As of September 29, 2015, the CIA estimated that 30,000 foreign fighters had come to join ISIL. As of October 2015, 21% came from Europe, 50% from Western Asia or North Africa, and 29% from elsewhere; according to the Global Terrorism Index and other sources, they were of the following nationalities:
List of nationalities of foreign fighters in ISIL
This is a list of nationalities of foreign fighters who joined ISIL from June 2014 to June 2018. This list does not include citizens of Syria, or Iraq. This list includes women and children who joined ISIL, some of whom may have been noncombatants. In total, 41,490 non-Iraqis and non-Syrians joined ISIL's main branch in these countries (32,089 were adult men), of whom 7,366 (5,930 were adult men) returned to their countries of departure, sometimes to face charges; most of the rest are presumed dead.
- Russia: 5,000 (380 returnees)
- Tunisia: 4,000 (900 returnees)
- Jordan: 3,950 (250 returnees)
- Saudi Arabia: 3,244 (760 returnees)
- Turkey: 3,000 (900 returnees)
- Uzbekistan: 2,500
- France: 1,910 (398 returnees)
- Morocco: 1,699 (236 returnees)
- Tajikistan: 1,502 (147 returnees)
- China: 1,000
- Germany: 960 (303 returnees)
- Lebanon: 900
- Azerbaijan: 900 (49 returnees)
- United Kingdom: 850 (425 returnees)
- Indonesia: 800 (183 returnees)
- Kyrgyzstan: 863 (63 returnees)
- Kazakhstan: 600 (113-128 returnees)
- Libya: 600
- Egypt: 600
- Turkmenistan: 500
- Belgium: 498 (123 returnees)
- Kosovo: 359 (133 returnees)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: 323 (56 returnees)
- Sweden: 311 (150 returnees)
- Netherlands: 300 (60 returnees)
- Algeria: 278 (87)
- United States: 272 (40 returnees)
- Austria: 254 (94 returnees)
- Australia: 214 (40 returnees)
- Spain: 208 (30 returnees)
- Maldives: 200
- Georgia: 200 (17 returnees)
- North Macedonia: 155 (72 returnees)
- Malaysia: 154 (8 returnees)
- Kuwait: 150 (6 returnees)
- Albania: 144 (44 returnees)
- Denmark: 145 (72 returnees)
- South Africa: 140 (11 returnees)
- Sudan: 140 (2 returnees)
- Trinidad and Tobago: 130
- Italy: 129 (11 returnees)
- Finland: 122 (43 returnees)
- Afghanistan: 120
- Yemen: 110
- Philippines: 100
- Norway: 100 (40 returnees)
- Canada: 100 (17 returnees)
- Pakistan: 100
- Kenya: 100
- India: 75 (11 returnees)
- Somalia: 70
- Switzerland: 70 (14 returnees)
- Israel: 60 (10 returnees)
- Serbia: 59 (7 returnees)
- Iran: 50
- Bangladesh: 40 (25 returnees)
- Sri Lanka: 32
- Ireland: 30
- New Zealand: 11
- Montenegro: 27 (10 returnees)
- Argentina: 23
- Qatar: 15
- United Arab Emirates: 15
- Bahrain: 100
- Portugal: 15 (2 returnees)
- Ghana: 10
- Slovenia: 10 (2 returnees)
- Slovakia: 6
- Japan: 9
- Taiwan: 8
- Poland: 40
- Brazil: 3
- Croatia: 10
- Brunei: 1–3
- Croatia: 7
- Singapore: 8
- South Korea: 1
- Chile: 1
- Latvia: 2
- Ukraine: 2
- Estonia: 1
- Romania: 1
- Moldova: 1
Allegiance to ISIL from groups outside Iraq and Syria
- Wilayat Algeria formed from the Algerian Jund al-Khilafah after it pledged allegiance to ISIL.
- Wilayat Barqa and others formed from the allegiance of Libyan militants like the Shura Council of Islamic Youth, and defectors formerly associated with Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.
- Wilayat Sinai formed from the majority of the membership of Egypt's Ansar Bait al-Maqdis
- Wilayat Yemen formed from militants in Yemen, including defectors from Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
- Wilayat Najd and others formed from unidentified militants in Saudi Arabia.
- Wilayat Khorasan formed from the allegiance of militants from groups based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including Jundallah, Tehreek-e-Khilafat, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and dissident commanders formerly associated with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
- Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya formed from Boko Haram pledging allegiance to ISIL.
- Wilayat al-Qawqaz formed from dissident militants of the Caucasus Emirate in Chechnya and Dagestan who switched their allegiance to ISIL.
- Militants of the group Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade (Palestinian Territories) pledged allegiance to ISIL.
- Militants of the group Abu Sayyaf under Isnilon Totoni Hapilon and Radullan Sahiron (Philippines, Malaysia). pledged allegiance to ISIL.
- Militants of the group Sons of the Call for Tawhid and Jihad (Jordan) pledged allegiance to ISIL.
- Militants of the group Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade (Lebanon) pledged allegiance to ISIL.
- The group Islamic State of the Maldives pledged allegiance to ISIL in July 2014.
- Members of Ansar Khalifah Philippines pledged allegiance to ISIL. And they start using ISIL props in their training.
- Some Bangladeshi terrorist cells pledged allegiance to ISIL and starts attacking civilians and bloggers.
- Some members of Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, including leader Abu Bakar Ba'asyir and Mujahidin Indonesia Timur pledged allegiance.
- Abnaa ul-Calipha was formed by some Al-Shabaab dissidents in Puntland, led by Abdul Qadir Mumin, who pledged allegiance to ISIL in 2015. Since then, Al-Shabaab has unsuccessfully attempted to kill these defectors.
- Jabha East Africa, an Islamist group operating in Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and Uganda, defected from Al-Qaeda and pledged allegiance to ISIL.
- In 2016, Abu-Walid al-Sahraoui and dissidents from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb pledged allegiance to ISIL creating the group known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. The group operates in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso
- Katibat Salman Al-Farisi (Salman the Persian Battalion) was formed by a group of Iranian ISIL fighters in Iran to fight the Iranian government.
- The City of Monotheism and Monotheists group, operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has pledged allegiance to ISIL.
- ISIL claimed their first ever attack in Kashmir Valley that left one police officer dead. Afterwards, a video surfaced of an ISIL soldier named Abu al-Baraa al-Kashmiri pledging allegiance to ISIL and forming the group Wilayat Kashmir. Abu al-Baraa is probably the leader of the group. In the video Abu al-Baraa called on Muslims in the Kashmir Valley to fight the Pakistani and the Indian governments and criticized the Islamic movement of Hizb-Lashkar-Jaish-Tehreek, declaring takfir and jihad on it. He called on members of other insurgent groups operating in Kashmir (such as Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind and its leader Zakir Musa) to pledge allegiance to ISIL, accusing the leaders of other insurgent groups of working for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.
The most common weapons used against US and other Coalition forces during the Iraq insurgency were those taken from Saddam Hussein's weapon stockpiles around the country. These included AKM variant assault rifles, PK machine guns and RPG-7s. ISIL has been able to strengthen its military capability by capturing large quantities and varieties of weaponry during the Syrian Civil War and the post-withdrawal Iraqi insurgency. These weapons seizures have improved the group's capacity to carry out successful subsequent operations and obtain more equipment. Weaponry that ISIL has reportedly captured and employed include SA-7 and Stinger surface-to-air missiles, M79 Osa, HJ-8 and AT-4 Spigot anti-tank weapons, Type 59 field guns and M198 howitzers, Humvees, T-54/55, T-72, and M1 Abrams main battle tanks, M1117 armoured cars, truck-mounted DShK guns, ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns, BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, and at least one Scud missile.
ISIL shot down an Iraqi helicopter in October 2014, and claims to have shot down "several other" helicopters in 2014. Observers fear that they have "advanced surface-to-air missile systems" such as the Chinese-made FN-6, which are thought to have been provided to Syrian rebels by Qatar and/or Saudi Arabia, and purchased or captured by ISIL.
ISIL also captured many inoperable fighter aircraft after capturing the Syrian airbase of Al-Tabqa. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in October 2014 that former Iraqi pilots were training ISIL militants to fly captured Syrian jets. Witnesses reported that MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets were flying over al-Jarrah military airport, but the US Central Command said it was not aware of flights by ISIL-operated aircraft in Syria or elsewhere. On 21 October, the Syrian Air Force claimed that it had shot down two of these aircraft over al-Jarrah air base while they were landing.
ISIL has a long history of using truck and car bombs (SVBIEDs), suicide bombers, and IEDs. It has become especially adept at the construction and use of SVBIEDs, most notably quite sophisticated models which were fitted with armour, machine guns, and/or firing ports. These are mixtures of car bombs and technicals ("suicide bomber technical") that can approach heavily defended targets, suppressing the enemy while being protected from small-arms fire. Sometimes, ISIL even used armoured personnel carriers as chassis for car bombs, or fitted SVBIEDs with unguided rockets to clear the path to the intended target.
ISIL captured nuclear materials from Mosul University in July 2014. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Iraq's UN Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim said that the materials had been kept at the university and "can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction". Nuclear experts regarded the threat as insignificant. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that the seized materials were "low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk".
Reports suggested that ISIL captured Saddam-era chemical weapons from an Iraqi military base, and the group also forcibly enlisted the aid of scientists living in its territories to produce their own chemical weapons. ISIL managed to produce its own mustard gas, and employed it on battlefields in Iraq and Syria. According to one scientist involved in the project, the main value of the mustard gas to ISIL was not its impact on actual combat, but its effect in psychological warfare. The production of chemical weapons slowed greatly from early 2016, however, as the United States and the Iraqi government targeted production facilities and killed or captured the leaders of the programme. Regardless, it is generally believed that ISIL remains in possession of hidden data and equipment to restart the production of chemical weapons in the future.
ISIL deployed mustard gas and chlorine gas against forces of the Iraqi government, the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, as well as unidentified chemical weapons against the Syrian Democratic Forces. According to the US military, ISIL used the chemical weapons effectively on a tactical level, but never managed to employ them in a way that impacted the larger strategic situation. The group produced not enough chemical weapons, being hampered not just by airstrikes and raids, but also lack of skilled personnel and equipment.
- Military equipment of ISIL
- List of armed groups in the Syrian Civil War
- List of armed groups in the Iraqi Civil War
- Human rights violations during the Syrian Civil War
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