4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours.

Summary:  Today GI Wilson explains how one of our foes, calling itself the Islamic State, uses 4GW to match their strengths against the weaknesses of our far more powerful military. Earlier generations of jihadists using 4GW methods changed the course of America (9/11 was one of the most effective military operations ever). ISIS is better. There are interesting times ahead for us all.  This is the 3rd chapter of his 4 part series. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Islamic Jihad Movement fighter
Islamic Jihad Movement fighter.

Backward “and” Forward: 4GW Orientation On War – part 3

The strengths of our 4GW foes; above all they learn faster.

Our adversaries recognize that America’s predilection for high-tech conventional warfare where the assumption is that the technologically strongest wins. Our foes nevertheless prefer low-cost-low-tech (i.e. Improvised explosive devices) 4GW tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs) — leveraging our addiction to high-tech hardware against ourselves.

Similarly, our adversaries leverage our own bureaucratic weight against ourselves (e.g. Congressional grid lock). The United States government (USG) is a burgeoning bureaucracy on steroids that thrives on political correctness, politically sanctioned incompetence, and high-technological-high-cost solutions for everything. For a horrifying description see “America’s Defense Meltdown“ (Center for Defense Information, 2008). All of which contribute to the money slathering in Washington, DC in the name of technological advantage.

Our enemy’s “technological advantage” as exemplified in the 9/11 attacks consisted of box cutters, ceramic knives, a steely determination to die for a cause, while creatively turning commercial airlines into field expedient cruise missiles to attack the U.S.. It worked, and our vast military-security-law enforcement bureaucracy was virtually helpless to stop it. Today little has changed as ISIS trees the USG where again incompetence is enshrined. The USG’s universal solution to everything remains one of money slathering inextricably linked to the politically correct notion that no one in power is ever to be held accounted or responsible.

We are literally underwriting our radicalized foes’ success by not recognizing that our own lumbering, incompetent and money slathering bureaucracies keep us from operationally and strategically adapting in order to defeat our foes. In fact our adversaries count on our fetish for obese wasteful bureaucracies, excessive regulations, high-tech-high-cost hardware, political correctness, and ballooning debt thus pave the way for our enemies’ operational successes. Clayton L. Niles (USMC) writes in his 2008 thesis “Al Qaeda and Fourth Generation Warfare as its Strategy“:

Whether one believes in the concept of generations of warfare or another explanation for a terrorist strategy is not necessarily important. What is important is that security professionals involved in combating terrorism understand the enemy, whomever it may be, and can adapt to counter the strategy that adversary uses.

4GW forces like hybrid “forces can effectively incorporate technologically advanced systems into their force structure and strategy, and use these systems in ways that are beyond the intended employment parameters.” (thesis of William. J. Nemeth, USMC: “Future War and Chechnya: A Case for Hybrid Warfare“, 2002).

Similar visage, better equipped
Similar visage, better equipped

About the Islamic State (aka IS or ISIS)

ISIS is a 4GW- hybrid harbinger of things to come. As Gareth Stansfield (Professor Middle East Studies, U Exeter) notes regarding ISIS:

Not only is the Islamic State stronger than previous organisations, it has also learned lessons from them. For example, IS has few fixed operational centres and its chain of command remains mobile. British policy options at this stage are burdened with problems and complications and also bring with them a range of unintended consequences that could draw Western powers into further engagements in the region.

ISIS’s ability to learn and adapt is seen in how its fighters use not only captured tanks and artillery but suicide truck bombs as well. ISIS’s TTP creativity was observed in Iraq when the Islamic State used an M113 armored personnel carrier for suicide vehicle. The Iraqis apparently thought the M113 was one of their own. ISIS released a video of a M113 approaching an Iraqi Army checkpoint. The M113 suicide vehicle and Iraqi Army checkpoint disappear in a huge explosion. Using a captured Iraqi M113 as a suicide bomb vehicle demonstrates ISIS’s operational prowess (see “Counter-Terrorism: The Ultimate Vehicle Bomb“, StrategyPage, 25 November 2014).

ISIS’s TTPs are continuously being updated. The ISIS’s networking capability and use of the Internet, social media, and cellular technology for intelligence gathering, information operations, and even targeting is impressive. The FBI recently warned those who serve in uniform to scrub their social media accounts of anything that might bring unwanted attention from “violent extremists.”

ISIS indeed may want to target U.S. military personnel (i.e. active duty, reserve, retired, veterans) and even family members. Even if for only the psychological effect. ISIS’s operational agility is revealed in news reports pointing out that “Islamic State militants are changing tactics in the face of U.S.-led air strikes in Iraq by ditching conspicuous convoys in favor of motorcycles.” (Daily Mail, 26 September 2014.)

The ability of extremists like ISIS to radicalize and network globally is evident. In Australia it is reported that “organized crime has melded with religious extremists to produce a unique threat for security experts: Islamic radical biker gangs. Authorities in Australia are seeing a nexus between radicals who are desperate for cash and biker gangs with connections to organized crime that can help them achieve their goals.” (Reuters, 20 November 2014)

Also of particular note is how potential jihadists are using creative TTPs to circumvent and avoid tighter security at airports. “Would-be fighters eager to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq are traveling on swank cruise ships, say Interpol officials.” (UPI, 7 November 2014)

Tomorrow see the last chapter in GI Wilson’s article about our new wars.

Future Islamic State
Future Islamic State: propaganda that works for both ISIS and DoD!

Posts in this series about 4GW, reflecting on 25 years of 4GW defeats

  1. Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW.
  2. William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future.
  3. What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?
  4. Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War — #1 of GI’s series.
  5. DoD defends itself against dangerous new ideas about 4GW. — #2 of GI’s series.
  6. 4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours. — #3 of GI’s series.
  7. Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future. — #4 of GI’s series.
  8. 4th Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare & Unconventional Warfare: Similar but not Interchangeable. By Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMS, retired).

For More Information

Posts about ISIS, the “Islamic State”:

  1. Before we start a new war with ISIS, let’s remember how we stumbled into the last two, 21 August 2014.
  2. The long-simmering conflict in the Middle East breaks out, surprising US experts, 26 August 2014.
  3. The solution to jihad: kill and contain our foes. Give war another chance!, 8 September 2014.
  4. America and the Islamic State both hope to change the world with rivers of blood, 19 September 2014.
  5. “SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before., 24 November 2014.

6 thoughts on “4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours.

  1. While these articles focusing on the operational strength and adaptability of ISIS and similar groups are certainly very interesting, I keep thinking the grand strategy of ISIS will eventually lead to their ruin.

    From a previous article ‘The Myth of Grand Strategy‘ 31 January 2006. (I numbered the list)

    “(2) What is grand strategy?

    The late American strategist Col. John Boyd (USAF) said that a grand strategy focused our nation’s actions — political, economic, and military — so as to:

    1. Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
    2. Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
    3. Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
    4. Attract uncommitted states to our cause.
    5. End conflicts on favorable terms,
    6. without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.
    — From Patterns of Conflict, slide 139.

    In his essay on grand strategy, DNI editor Chet Richards quoted Boyd as recommending a “unifying vision”:

    A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances — yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems. Such a unifying vision should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things. {“Patterns of Conflict”, Chart 143}

    … (skipping to the part on primal strategy) …

    (3) Primal Strategies

    We often see something like a grand strategy in the early years of some societies, when the people have a single-minded commitment to a goal, often just a drive to grow. A primal strategy is an expression of this people’s core beliefs. It is non-intellectual, with no need for theories and plans.”

    The grand strategy of ISIS doesn’t appear to be the striving for a noble Islamic ideal as some of the earlier Muslim predecessors have done.

    For the Muslims the best example would be the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the rightly guided Caliphs after him, and all the other Prophets (may peace be upon them) as described in the Qur’an. From a Western/European perspective the most famous example for many might be the noble conduct and rule of Saladin towards both Muslims and non-Muslims.

    The conduct of ISIS while very cunning doesn’t appear to be noble at all. And their motivation seems much more “primal” than “spiritual”. Pure survival, growth and revenge. Although not excusable, not very surprising in such a brutal environment. Much of the rhetoric and symbolism seems to be about revenge. “Because you kill and torture us and our women and children, we will kill and torture you and your women and children.” They even use the same orange jumpsuits as used by the American torturers to prove their point. Tit-for-tat.

    Essentially they are becoming the best students of those who oppressed, caged and tortured them in the first place.

    From “Lion of the Desert” — Omar Mukhtar protects two surviving Italian soldiers.

    Omar Mukhtar: We do not kill *prisoners*!
    Arab Warrior: *They* do it to *us*!
    Omar Mukhtar: “They” are not our *teachers!*

    The strategy of ISIS, which is very similar to the western warmongers but for other goals, seems to be to increase fear, violence and chaos to promote an overreaction from their opponents against innocent Muslim civilians (for example by seducing the USA to invade Muslim lands or provoke ultra secular reactions in western countries to entice Muslims in the west to emigrate to the Muslim heartland) continuous polarization towards the extremes will deplete the nuanced balanced center amongst all populations.

    The very extreme form of “you are either with us, or with the enemy” mentality seems to create some interesting effects related to the points of grand strategy.

    “1. Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.”

    Having many external enemies usually increases internal solidarity. However forcing you army to mostly fight ‘your own people’ (in this case other Muslims), will severely weaken the morale of many soldiers and risks having splinter groups fighting each other internally. If I am not mistaken, ISIS being a splinter group of “Al-Qaida” themselves.

    Furthermore the unjust way of warfare, like killing and oppressing unarmed women and children, will definitely result in friction within the ranks.

    “2. Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.”

    Extreme brutality might remove any hope in the hearts of the enemy, like the Mongols did to many of their enemies. Or it just makes the cornered enemy fight even harder. It appears that in the case of ISIS their enemies in general mainly become more resolved and cooperative.

    “3. Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.”

    Their “you are either with us, or our enemy” mentality has resulted in them declaring all other Muslims who do not support them as their enemy. Since ISIS’ strategy result in a lot of division and conflict in their area of operations, there closest “allies”, in a enemy of my enemy sort of way, would be those interested in “divide and ruling/containing” the effected areas using ISIS as a tool to defeat other troublesome militias, armed groups and armies. In the short term the best “allies” of ISIS appear(ed) to be Assad, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA. With all of them hoping that ISIS would weaken their own respective mutual enemies or rivals.

    The Syrian resistance fighters for Assad, the Kurds and Assad for Turkey, Assad and the Shia for Saudi Arabia, and most regional powers eliminating each other for Israel and the USA. ISIS themselves of course hoping to utilize this situation effectively to grow strong enough to withstand the new dynamics when the situation turns against them.

    Some information that might be interesting. Since ISIS uses “Islamic State (IS)” to refer to themselves as the legitimate Caliphate (a political entity representing all of the worlds Muslims), many Muslims will just call them ISIS and not “IS” since the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t recognize the legitimacy of the so called ISIS Caliphate. It is like calling yourself the “Ruler of the World”, while only controlling a very small part of anything, and calling those who don’t recognize your authority over the world “rebels”.

    “4. Attract uncommitted states to our cause.”

    In this case it might be better to rephrase it as “Attract uncommitted individuals, non-state actors and states to our cause.” The polarization of societies with the intent to increase the radicals on all sides and depleting the uncommitted middle. However everybody loves to join the winning team, so if they succeed in convincing people that they are the winning team more people on the fence will join them.

    “5. End conflicts on favorable terms.”

    I am wondering what this actually means in this case.

    “6. without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.”

    Even if ISIS took over much of their enemies territories and thereby eliminate external seeds for future conflicts, which seems unlikely, they would just have more internal seeds for future conflicts since they conquer by force without showing justice and fair treatment to those they conquered.

    While very cunning I don’t really see them able to just steamroll their way to victory.

    What I am trying to point out is that while ISIS appears to be very adept at 4GW, their grand strategy appears to be very flawed and seems to point at certain defeat unless they are able to reinvent themselves out of this primal strategy of pure power and revenge. But radically changing a groups central purpose can be very disruptive, since those that brought you to power will be severely disillusioned and will likely turn against you. Before this happens the ISIS leadership would have to switch to a different source of military power. This seems very tricky and unlikely.

    This is written based on the assumption that the stories about ISIS are true in general and are in proper context. Since I don’t have any first hand information, and usually most sources (from all sides) about wars are highly deceptive, I will not really be surprised if much of this proves to be incorrect.

    1. Thank you for that interesting comment. As to the future of ISIS, I lack both area knowledge and understanding of Islam — and so have no ability to forecast. Here are a few comments.

      “The grand strategy of ISIS doesn’t appear to be the striving for a noble Islamic ideal as some of the earlier Muslim predecessors have done. … The conduct of ISIS while very cunning doesn’t appear to be noble at all. ”

      Nobility is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t know about ISIS, but western history has many cases of brutal — even homicidal — regimes ruling in the name of Jesus.

      “However forcing you army to mostly fight ‘your own people’ (in this case other Muslims), will severely weaken the morale of many soldiers and risks having splinter groups fighting each other internally.”

      Unfortunately in both west and east shows that people have no trouble killing people of their own ethnicity or religion.

      As for the rest, I agree that their grand strategy seems quite mad, proliferating enemies both internal and external. The great Islamic advances came from an aggressive expansion combined with attractive internal policies that boosted both cohesion and economic growth. It will be interesting to see if their tactical skills overcome their strategic weaknesses. Germany twice tested this combination, to ill result both times.

    2. Yeah I just remembered that any strategy+perseverance does not have to be perfect or even good, just less bad than the opponent. So they might sadly actually be a factor for some time.

  2. Reblogged this on Centinel2012 and commented:
    I would guess the various military academies have stopped teaching Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; it would be clear to any one reading this work what the current US problems are with 4GW and the ISIS or any like group.

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