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ISIS, in eleven shades of black

A multilingual manual for the worldwide jihad signals ISIS's ambition. 

lead lead Still image taken from a propaganda video released January 14 2018 showing Taliban fighters in a training camp in Faryab Province, Afghanistan.Handout/Press Associatation. All rights reserved.The ISIS media office recently circulated the PDF of an e-book written at least eight years ago by one of the movement's leading paramilitary specialists. Advice for the Leaders and Soldiers of the Islamic State is a guide on how to wage an insurgency. The decision to circulate it openly now, when ISIS has lost control of almost all its geographical caliphate yet survives and even thrives elsewhere, is an intriguing development. It may well prove useful not just to its intended readership, but to others wanting to know how ISIS intends to pursue its strategic aims (see “Islamic State instructs on insurgency”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, April 2018).

First, some background. After the United States-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, the toughest element of the opposition centred on an al-Qaida offshoot known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). The group was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, until he was killed by US special forces in June 2006. His replacement, Abu Ayyub al-Masri met the same fate four years later. 

Al-Zarqawi had been the key person in building up the determined and brutal AQI. It took a sustained and very low-profile US-led campaign in 2005-06 to begin to subdue this group. This “shadow war” involved cooperation by US and British special forces, in a combined organisation known as Task Force 145. 

Task Force 145 had by 2010 killed thousands of experienced insurgents and detained as many as 10,000. But Abu Ayyub al-Masri himself proved elusive, and by the time of his death had amassed considerable expertise in insurgency and guerrilla tactics. Advice for the Leaders... was his legacy, distilling his knowledge into sixty-one articles of advice: thirty pitched at leaders and thirty-one at paramilitary fighters.

Why publish it now? Jane's says the measure may be "an attempt to distribute the document’s teachings to a wider readership, which is important given that the Islamic State can no longer operate overtly in Iraq and Syria.” Evidence for this is that the e-book is being published in eleven languages: Bosnian, English, French, German, Indonesian, Kurdish, Pashto, Russian, Turkish, Uyghur and Urdu. This alone points to some of the regions that the ISIS leadership sees as having growth potential.

The rationale of some translations, such as Pashto (widely spoken in Pakistan and Afganistan), is obvious, given current recruiting areas. But the very fact of others will cause concern. An Uyghur version hints at the possibility of further trouble for the Chinese authorities in the restive north-western region. The state's enhanced degrees of surveillance and control of the Uyghur population, using invasive techniques beyond anything George Orwell envisaged in 1984, indicate how far it is prepared to go to resist any challenge (see James A Millward, "What It's Like to Live in a Surveillance State", 3 February 2018).  

A Russian translation most likely relates to the Caucasus Emirate, a group that has posed a long-term headache for Moscow. An added salience derives from the likely return of some of the several thousand Russian fighters who joined ISIS and survived the air-war in Syria. A move through Turkey and round the eastern shores of the Black Sea to Georgia will bring them close to the border.

An Indonesian version is significant too, given Islamist affiliates in the country and security concerns in the Celebes and Sulu Seas between Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines. The latter country is vital in its own right: in 2017 an ISIS-affiliated group overran the southern city of Marawi and held it against Filipino army forces, backed by the United States, for more than four months (see "ISIS: a war unwon", 14 September 2017).

Yet the hijacking of large merchant ships in the maritime tri-border area (TBA) to the Philippines' south-west, a region of a million square kilometres, is arguably an even greater current concern to security forces. Indonesia's foreign ministry estimates that 100,000 commercial vessels with a cargo value of $40 billion transit this area each year, making tempting prey for Islamist groups as well as pirates (see Peter Chalk, “Risky Crossings”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, March 2018). Jakarta and other capitals are seeking to make this a focus for stronger international cooperation.  

Among these theatres, where will the ISIS leadership prioritise its efforts? In the short term it is likely to do all it can to promote attacks in the lands of the far enemy, primarily the United States and western Europe. Persistent attacks by its surviving cells make feasible a re-embedding of its insurgency in Syria and especially Iraq (see "ISIS: the comeback", 4 January 2018). The movement will also focus more intensively on Egypt, now that the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime is so dominant against any opposition and has consolidated itself with a loaded election.

Above all, this multilingual manual shows that ISIS sees itself as prepared to fight over the long term, in a struggle where it can now accrue the great value of generational experience. Looking back, many Arabs who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s aided the Taliban’s fight against Northern Alliance warlords in the 1990s. They and paramilitaries from Chechnya, Kashmir and Bosnia similarly passed on their experience to AQI and others in Iraq a decade later. This pattern of connected learning seems destined to continue.

This context underpins the renewed distribution of the advice of an effective, battle-hardened former leader. As ISIS moves towards becoming a decentred, transnational insurgency, spreading its knowledge as widely as possible makes grim sense. Advice for the Leaders and Soldiers of the Islamic State, new edition, is a potent reminder that ISIS sees its recent setback as but an episode in a very long war.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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