ISIL’s Adaptive, Evolving Tactics: Regional & Global Implications

The triple attacks at a chemical plant in France, a beachside resort in Tunisia and a Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait, happened as Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani as-Shami implored ISIL sympathizers to perform jihad during Ramadan. ISIL fighters also re entered the outskirts of the town of Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) and reportedly massacred over two hundred civilians before being wiped out by coalition airstrikes. The actions abroad signify a shift from elaborate, expensive and logistically sophisticated attacks towards more low scale, cheaper, lightly supported loner attacks on soft targets. The incursions into Kobani and Tall Abyad within days of each other, are indicative of ISIL’s ability to use covert actions to penetrate enemy territory rapidly and with little resistance.

Kobani & Tall Abyad

After allegedly being “cut off” from its Turkish supply routes, ISIL entered the town of Kobani from three different directions. Despite Turkish government denials, ISIL militants entered Kobani from Turkey and were wearing Free Syrian Army uniforms to disguise themselves. Similar tactics have previously been used in Iraq to target Iraqi police: in a deadly raid in March of 2012, documented in a video released in August of that same year, Islamic State of Iraq forces are seen using Iraqi police uniforms and vehicles to conduct a night raid on the Anbar city of Haditha. The operation ended up killing 27 Iraqi policemen and demonstrated how vulnerable the Iraqi security forces were and how deep enemy forces could get before the Iraqis knew what was happening.

In their attempts to push ISIL out of northern Syria, YPG forces have left the captured territory behind them undermanned and their frontline is too porous to keep ISIL from penetrating it and launching counterattacks. In addition to the use of FSA uniforms, ISIL fighters of Kurdish extraction and singing YPG slogans were used to enter Kobani from the east. It is not known if this same tactic was used to capture a district in Tall Abyad the following week, but it is not out of the question.

What is important to gather from the actions we’ve seen in Kobani and Tall Abyad, is that beyond the analytical guessing game of whether ISIL is losing or winning from one month to another, we see that the fight in Syria and Iraq is dynamic, fluid and fluctuates according the adjustments made by the respective parties. ISIL did not gain the territory it conquered simply because of brutality or the incompetence of its enemies, but on account of its ability to adjust and exploit weaknesses at opportune moments. They don’t simply give up and go home after losing a battle, they continue plotting and figuring out ways to counterattack even after strategic defeats. As long as ISIL has the manpower (which is highly underestimated) and resources to continue fighting; Ramadi, Kobani and Tall Abyad are good examples that the last chapter this book is far from being written.

France, Tunisia and Kuwait

The 9/11 attacks were conducted by more than a dozen men, from several countries with training at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, with funding that required money to be transferred across continents and planning which required years of preparation. Its planners were hoping for extremely high casualty numbers. Judging from the sorts of terrorist attacks we’ve seen recently France, the attacks in Tunisia and the Shi’ite mosque attacks in Saudi, Yemen and Kuwait; the emphasis is now placed less on body counts and more on the reactions that the attacks garner. Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani advocates these sort of attacks, for several key reasons:

  1. These sorts of operations are cheaper and rely on local resources, rather than the transfer of vast funds.
  2. Fewer individuals are required to plan and carry out such operations. They occur with little to no help from centralized authority. According to the Tunisian government, in both of their recent attacks, the attackers received training in Libya, but it is unlikely that there is a vast conspiracy to be unearthed. This makes these sorts of actions largely immune to regional and international counter terrorism efforts, which focus on networks. The responsibility therefore falls primarily to local police to prevent these attacks—which they are generally ill-equipped to do.
  3. By avoiding complicated procedures like the preparation and transport of large amounts of explosives and rely on small arms, it becomes hard for authorities to detect and intercept plans before their execution.
  4. The attacks divide key communities, creating a gulf which ISIL steps in and fills. In France, the attacks are meant to garner Islamophobic reactions from both the public and the government. ISIL relies on the real and perceived notion that Muslims are alienated and persecuted. The case is similar in Tunisia, where the government has closed mosques after last week’s attack. In the Arabian Peninsula, the goal is sectarian. Here, ISIL is attempting to step into the already existing Shi’ite/Sunni conflict being driven by the regional actors. This makes ISIL a de-facto defender of Sunnism and creates a feeling of besiegement among Shi’ites, causing them to distrust their Sunni neighbors.


The attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait are allegedly directly connected to ISIL, with the attack in France most likely perpetrated by an ISIL sympathizer—although for propaganda purposes, it matters little whether there is a direct connection, or of the attacker was simply inspired by ISIL. By simply providing an ideological framework for the actions of “lone wolves,” ISIL can claim attacks it had little hand in planning.

In Syria and Iraq, ISIL is using its “small ball” warfare, which allows the group to remain potent after suffering defeats on the battlefield, but also expose the vulnerability of the group’s opponents on their own turf. It also gives ISIL a psychological advantage by making those attempting to stop it look inept and incapable. And it appears the attacks of the past several weeks are just the beginning: according to ISIL, these three high-profile attacks were merely the opening salvo of their Ramadan offensive.

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