Did ISIS Just Reveal Its Plans?

The first task of the Obama administration should be to fight and eliminate Islamist terrorism.  A document just issued by ISIS is perplexing because it is unclear whether the terrorist caliphate is helping the U.S. administration in this task or teasing it by revealing the essence of its terrorist strategy.  The document, a February 2016 article in the French edition of the ISIS online propaganda magazine, Dar al-Islam, has explained its campaign to wage war against the West.

In a surprising revelation, ISIS's article rediscovers the basis of German maneuver warfare.  It says it is copying the 19th-century tactics of Auftragstaktik, a combat doctrine of the German army similar to Mission Command in the U.S. and U.K.  That doctrine was adopted as a response by Germany after its military defeats by Napoleon.

The article cites a 1908 German infantry manual asserting that there is nothing more important in tactics than educating a soldier to think for himself.  Though a little un-Germanic, it asserts that a soldier's autonomy and sense of honor push him to do his duty even when it is not in front of his superiors.

The ISIS article explains that the terrorists plan three types of attacks.  These include large-scale plots coordinated by the leaders, though these now seem a lesser priority.  More important is a warning to the West that the attacks also include isolated actions of individuals who have no direct contact with ISIS but act in its name.  This means that followers of ISIS will carry out terrorists attacks without them being traced to the central chain of command.

The concept of Auftragstaktik means a method by which leaders give subordinates a mission, a target, and a time frame by which it should be accomplished and allow those subordinates to carry out their tasks independently.  This implies allowing the subordinates complete tactical autonomy and flexibility at the operational level.  The leadership is not informed of tactical details of the "lone wolf" operators.  The perpetrator adapts tactics to the local situation in flexible fashion.

The concept also means that the subordinates understand the orders, are given general guidance, and are trained to act independently.  This means decentralized warfare, terror by autonomy, while following centralized orders.

Perhaps by coincidence, the ISIS strategy bears a striking resemblance to and echoes the U.S. War Marine Corps Manual of June 1997, with its doctrine of maneuver that places a premium on individual judgment and action.  This kind of doctrine, with implicit communication through mutual understanding, using a minimum of well understood phrases or even anticipating thoughts, is faster and more effective than using detailed, explicit instructions.  All people involved have a shared philosophy.

The result of the ISIS tactics is reminiscent of the assaults and massacres in Madrid, Paris, London, and Brussels.  A number of the individual lone wolves have become familiar.  The Belgian-Moroccan Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who had spent time in Syria, where he trained ISIS fighters and was linked to ISIS leadership, was responsible for a string of terrorist attacks and the mastermind of the November 15, 2015 massacre in Paris that killed 130 people before Abaaoud himself was killed in a police raid in Paris.

In prison, Abaaoud was in contact with Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent who was also involved in the Paris attack and was a key figure in the Brussels attack on March 22, 2016 that killed 32 people.  Abaaoud was linked to Mehdi Memmouche, a French national of Algerian origin who was responsible for the murder of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels on May 24, 2014.

ISIS is becoming ever more aggressive.  Its images and graphics call on German Muslims to carry out high-profile attacks, like that in Brussels, on significant targets – for example, the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and the Cologne airport.

The British Daily Mail revealed the most recent attempt at a lone wolf operation in Britain in March 2016.  A 25-year-old Muslim named Junead Khan, a driver who delivered pharmaceutical goods, had scouted two U.S. Air Force bases in East Anglia and planned to kill U.S. soldiers in the U.K.  The plan was to run his van into a U.S. military vehicle near a U.S. base in Suffolk and then attack the American occupants.  At his trial, his uncle testified on his behalf and told the court the Islamic truth: the BBC and Sky television were part of the Zionist conspiracy, together with the diabolic stores Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury, and Tesco, and the usual suspects, the Freemasons and the Illuminati.

Khan's identification with terrorist groups and his connection with individuals in central command of ISIS became clear.  Photos showed him posing, wearing what seems a Ralph Lauren (Jewish) shirt, holding the ISIS black flag, and possessing an al-Qaeda bomb manual.  After his deed, he was preparing to go to Syria to join ISIS.

More revealing in this story was that earlier, Khan exchanged messages with a man named Junaid Hussain, an ISIS recruiter in central command and a British-born jihadist who was killed in a U.S. drone attack.  It became apparent from reading the exchanges that ISIS fighters in Syria have addresses in the U.K. of British servicemen.

For the U.S. and its allies, the lesson to be drawn from the ISIS document is clear.  It involves two intersecting policies.  Critical vulnerabilities must be identified to undermine the enemy.  In practice, more attention must be paid to the "sleeper cells" of ISIS and those attracted to fundamentalist Sunni Islam and those dabbling in crime, by a variety of means – military, police, and above all collaboration in intelligence information.  For security, it also means assessing U.S. vulnerabilities that ISIS associates and sleeper cells may attack.

ISIS has given warning, and the U.S. administration must act accordingly.