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  • How ISIS Fights: Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt by Omar Ashour
  • Alia Brahimi (bio)
How ISIS Fights: Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt, by Omar Ashour. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021. 256 pages. $120 cloth; $19.95 paper.

The heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson once observed that "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."1 According to Omar Ashour's new book, commanders in the Islamic State organization (ISIS) would agree.

In How ISIS Fights, Ashour argues that the ISIS leadership emphasized the operational objectives of a battle over any "up-to-bottom" tactics ordered to achieve them. As when the Prussian general staff confronted Napoleon Bonaparte in the nineteenth century, there was no expectation that a plan of operations would survive beyond first contact with the enemy, therefore only broad objectives were set and the seizing of unforeseen opportunities was encouraged (p. 208). This approach makes ISIS unique among Arab state and non-state forces, which prefer to hew to central planning. It fosters a culture of improvisation, innovation, tactical aggression, and flexibility within small autonomous ISIS units— and allows for whole leadership hierarchies to be overturned based on the exigencies of the moment (p. 44).

In this detailed survey of 10 different battlefronts, Ashour seeks to solve the puzzle of how ISIS managed to achieve a series of significant military upsets between 2013 and 2020, despite deeply unfavorable strength and power ratios. He demonstrates that the uniqueness of ISIS's military performance lies, first, in its ability to shift between three combat strategies: conventional warfare, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism. Its mastery of these strategic shifts proved decisive in its endurance and was crucial to its expansion. Secondly, ISIS deploys the tactics associated with these three ways of warfare in innovative combinations. As one Libyan commander who fought the group in Sirte recounted, "if you retreat to the left, you die with sniper fire . . . if [you go] to the right you die with the [simultaneous] explosion [of a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or SVBIED]. . . They gave you no choice in counterattacking" (p. 207). Ashour argues that this creativity in combining tactics across 15 categories was decisive in enhancing ISIS's military effectiveness.

Ashour's central thesis is substantiated accessibly— and often in fascinating ways. For example, during the battle for Mosul, ISIS responded to US conventional air superiority by flying commercially available unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) under 3,500 feet. Not only were these drones used to drop or fire IEDs, grenades, and warheads, but they were sometimes employed as decoys to distract Iraqi soldiers from the greater danger of an approaching SVBIED, or they were deliberately crash-landed so that when enemy forces dismantled them, the battery pack would [End Page 497] detonate (p. 62). In order to preserve manpower in Raqqa, sniper rifles and machine guns were modified so that they could be fired remotely using video game controllers and television screens. Mortar crews also utilized smartphones and applications such as Google Earth: after the first ranging shot, a ground observer would "drop a pin" on the application's map, enabling the mortar crew to fire on the target more accurately a second time (p. 104). In Libya, ISIS exploited the widespread availability of conventional military munitions to reinforce its terrorist capability, using surface-to-air missile warheads, air-to-surface bombs, artillery shells, and anti-tank mines as the explosive-load segment of IEDs (p. 146).

The political aptitude of the ISIS leadership also crops up. In Iraq, ISIS constantly diversified its combat units by selecting fighters for any given battle from different localities, with the aim of sharing the losses across a geographical spread and reducing public backlash (p. 44). In Raqqa, ISIS managed to "cannibalize" the Syrian opposition through a combination of infiltration, propaganda, selective incentives, and superior intelligence capabilities, such that in the space of one week in April 2013 it absorbed a game-changing mixture of factions (p. 88).

Indeed, though much of the book's analytical work takes place on the meso-level, Ashour recognizes the broader macro-level context and the significance of the dysfunctional and violent politics...