Military activity of the Islamic State

  (Redirected from Military of ISIL)

The military of the Islamic State is the fighting force of the Islamic State (IS). The total force size at its peak was estimated from tens of thousands to over two hundred thousand. ISIL's armed forces grew quickly during its territorial expansion in 2014. The ISIL military, including groups incorporated into it in 2014, openly operates and controls territory in multiple cities in Libya and Nigeria.[31][32] In October 2016, it conquered the city of Qandala in Puntland, Somalia.[33] It conquered much of eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014, territory it lost finally only in 2019. It also has had border clashes with and made incursions into Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan. ISIL-linked groups operate in Algeria, Pakistan,[34] the Philippines,[35][36] and in West Africa (Cameroon, Niger, and Chad).[31] In January 2015, ISIL was also confirmed to have a military presence in Afghanistan[37] and in Yemen.[17]

Military of the Islamic State
İD bayrağı ile bir militan.jpg
A fighter carrying the Islamic State's flag on Tall Dabiq, overlooking the town of Dabiq, 2013.
 Democratic Republic of Congo

In the Levant
5,000–10,000[1] (UN Security Council 2019 report)
70,000[2] (Russian military estimate in 2014)
100,000[3] (IS claim in 2015)
5,000–15,000 (Defense Department estimate)[4]
2,000–5,000 (State Department estimate)[5]

Outside the Levant

HeadquartersRaqqa, Syria (20132017)
EngagementsWar in Afghanistan (2001–present)
Iraq conflict
Syrian Civil War
Boko Haram insurgency
Second Libyan Civil War
Sinai insurgency
Yemeni Civil War (2015–present)
War in North-West Pakistan
Insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir
Somali Civil War (2009–present)
Moro conflict
Gaza–Israel conflict
For more details, see List of wars and battles involving ISIL
Abu Suleiman al-Naser 
(Current Head of Military Council)[29]
Black Standard (variant)AQMI Flag asymmetric.svg

The Islamic State's military is based on light infantry mobile units using vehicles such as gun-equipped pick-up trucks (technicals), motorbikes and buses for fast advances. They have also used artillery, tanks and armored vehicles, much of which they captured from the Iraqi and Syrian Armies.

ISIL has a long history of using truck and car bombs, suicide bombers, and improvised explosive devices. They have also deployed chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria.

Command structureEdit

An ISIL command and control center in Raqqa in 2014.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, ISIL's 2013 annual report reveals a metrics-driven military command, which is "a strong indication of a unified, coherent leadership structure that commands from the top down".[38] Middle East Forum's Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said, "They are highly skilled in urban guerrilla warfare while the new Iraqi Army simply lacks tactical competence."[39]

ISIL's Military Council is made up of numerous former military officers from the Saddam Hussein era. Commanders have included Haji Bakr, a colonel; Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi, a captain; and Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, a lieutenant colonel, who all graduated from the same Iraqi military academy.[40] Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, al-Baghdadi's former deputy, was a Directorate of General Military Intelligence lieutenant colonel. All these men spent time detained in Camp Bucca during the American occupation of Iraq[40][41] Abu Omar al-Shishani, who was a sergeant in the Georgian Army before leading an ISIL unit in Syria, also became a prominent commander.[42]

ISIL's fighters are reportedly organised into seven branches: infantry, snipers, air defence, special forces, artillery forces, the "army of adversity", and the Caliphate Army. This force structure is largely replicated in each of its designated provinces, with the most skilled fighters and military strategists in each area serving in the special forces unit, which is not allowed to redeploy to other provinces. Parallel to this structure is the Caliphate Army, which is directed by ISIL's central command rather than its provincial leadership. Made up overwhelmingly of foreign fighters, it is deployed to assist in battles across the Islamic State.[43] There is also an all-female Al-Khansaa Brigade tasked with enforcing religious laws.[44] According to battle reports, ISIL often operates in small mobile fighting units.

The Islamic State also operates outside areas it largely controls using a clandestine cell system. An ISIL-linked senior militant commander in Sinai told Reuters; "They [ISIL] teach us how to carry out operations. We communicate through the internet, ... they teach us how to create secret cells, consisting of five people. Only one person has contact with other cells. They are teaching us how to attack security forces, the element of surprise. They told us to plant bombs then wait 12 hours so that the man planting the device has enough time to escape from the town he is in."[45]


IS tank in Raqqa in 2014.

The military of IS is organized as a mixture of an irregular insurgent force and a conventional army. In its Syrian and Iraqi territory, the Islamic State organized professional units for specialised tasks, with the "Tank Battalion", the "Artillery Battalion", and the "Platoons of Special Tasks" being among the most important. The first one employed heavy armoured fighting vehicles, the second heavy artillery, while the last one was used as a rapid intervention force. The three regularly worked in tandem for breakthrough and important defense operations, made possible by a well-organised logistics system that kept operating even under regular bombardments by anti-ISIL forces.[46]

In contrast to these elite forces, most of IS' troops were local militias with few heavy weapons, usually deployed as territorial defense units.[46] Less trained or less valuable troops were sometimes involved with offensive operations, although their tactics were less sophisticated. The Islamic State stood in sharp contrast to some other jihadist organizations such as the Caucasus Emirate which generally attempted to minimize their own casualties, and became notorious for its willingness to sacrifice many of its fighters. This is especially true in regard to ISIL's callous use of new recruits. Islamic State military training had a reputation for its strong focus on indoctrination, often to the detriment of more pertinent lessons.[47] The organization's high command used inexperienced recruits for swarming and human wave tactics, often resulting in extremely high casualties.[47][48] One high-ranking ISIL commander known for this approach was Abu Omar al-Shishani, who successfully employed swarming tactics during the Siege of Menagh Air Base and Battle of Al-Tabqa airbase. According to his reasoning, the enemy would eventually be overwhelmed or run out of ammunition regardless of the casualties among ISIL fighters. Regional expert Joanna Paraszuk sarcastically remarked that al-Shishani's tactics were based on the belief that "everyone want[s] to be a Shahid" (martyr),[48] although not all Islamic State commanders showed such a readiness to sacrifice troops.[47]

Following the Siege of Kobanî, which resulted in large losses among its veterans and commanders (including 2,000 militants killed), IS was forced to promote several inexperienced commanders and to rely even more than before on new recruits. As result, the tactics of the Islamic State's military became cruder. Paraszuk noted that the jihadists' strategies and tactics sometimes broke down completely due to this. For example, some troops were essentially ordered to "just run towards the [enemy] and fight or whatever" during the 2015 Battle of Hasakah, even though they were targeted by massive aerial bombardments and their attacks had no apparent strategic value.[47]

Technicals play an important role for IS in a variety of combat purposes, ranging from quick-reaction forces, to tank equivalents, to self-defendable car bombs that can attack heavily defended targets.[49]

In addition to suicide bomber attacks, IS also employs the use of special units called Inghimasi (Arabic for "become immersed"), who utilise both conventional firearms and suicide bombs, attacking enemy positions with their firearms, and then detonating their suicide bombs when they run out of ammunition or believe they are trapped. Their goal is specifically to inflict as many casualties as they can upon the enemy before dying, acting as a form of shock troops. Inghimasi are also deployed against civilians, such as in the November 2015 Paris attacks. Inghimasi may sometimes be deployed en masse but are usually deployed in small teams.[50]


Troops in Iraq and SyriaEdit

In June 2014, the Islamic State had at least 4,000 fighters in Iraq.[51] By September 2014, the CIA estimated that the group had grown to 20,000–31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria,[52] while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) put its estimate at around 80,000–100,000 total (up to 50,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq) by August 2014.[53] An Iraqi Kurdish leader even estimated in November 2014 that the Islamic State's military had 200,000 fighters.[54] The group's rapid growth was partially facilitated by IS forcing other rebel groups to fight for it, as well as conscripting individuals. In general, a large part of ISIL's Iraqi and Syrian armies consisted of local militias whose loyalty was generally somewhat dubious. These local forces were put under commanders from ISIL's core group, and only those groups who proved themselves trustworthy were provided with better weaponry.[55] In 2015, Reuters quoted "jihadist ideologues" as claiming that IS has 40,000 fighters and 60,000 supporters.[3] As a result of suffering major defeats from 2017 to 2019, the strength of IS was greatly reduced in the Middle East. By 2021, the group was estimated to field about 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, although it still possessed a far greater network of supporters and sympathizers which could potentially enable it to rapidly swell its ranks in the future.[56]

Ethnically, the Islamic State's military is dominated by Sunni Arabs. However, the group also recruited Kurds in Iraq and Syria.[57][58] However, IS became increasingly anti-Kurdish over time, and even began to use anti-Kurdish racism as recruiting tool.[59]

Foreign fighters in Iraq and SyriaEdit

There are many foreign fighters in ISIL's ranks. In June 2014, The Economist reported that "ISIS may have up to 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000–5,000 in Syria, including perhaps 3,000 foreigners; nearly a thousand are reported to hail from Chechnya and perhaps 500 or so more from France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe."[60] Chechen leader Abu Omar al-Shishani, for example, was made commander of the northern sector of ISIL in Syria in 2013.[61][62] According to The New York Times, in September 2014 there were more than 2,000 Europeans and 100 Americans among ISIL's foreign fighters.[63] As of mid-September 2014, around 1,000 Turks had joined ISIL,[64] and as of October 2014, 2,400–3,000 Tunisians had joined the group.[65] An ISIL deserter alleged that foreign recruits were treated with less respect than Arabic-speaking Muslims by ISIL commanders and were placed in suicide units if they lacked otherwise useful skills.[66] According to a UN report, an estimated 15,000 fighters from nearly 70 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join militant groups, including ISIL.[67]

Reuters has stated that according to jihadist ideologues, 10 percent of ISIL's fighters in Iraq and 30 percent of its fighters in Syria are from outside those countries.[3]

As of September 29, 2015, the CIA estimated that 30,000 foreign fighters had come to join ISIL.[68] As of October 2015, 21% came from Europe, 50% from Western Asia or North Africa, and 29% from elsewhere; according to the Global Terrorism Index and other sources, they were of the following nationalities:[69]

List of nationalities of foreign fighters in ISILEdit

This is a list of nationalities of foreign fighters who joined ISIL from June 2014 to June 2018. This list does not include citizens of Syria, or Iraq. This list includes women and children who joined ISIL, some of whom may have been noncombatants. In total, 41,490 non-Iraqis and non-Syrians joined ISIL's main branch in these countries (32,089 were adult men), of whom 7,366 (5,930 were adult men) returned to their countries of departure, sometimes to face charges; most of the rest are presumed dead.[70]

Allegiance to ISIL from groups outside Iraq and SyriaEdit

Child soldiersEdit

ISIL is reported to employ child soldiers, known as "Cubs of the Caliphate", for both combat and propaganda purposes.[93][94][95]


Conventional weaponsEdit

An ISIL tank during the Palmyra offensive (2017).

The most common weapons used against US and other Coalition forces during the Iraq insurgency were those taken from Saddam Hussein's weapon stockpiles around the country. These included AKM variant assault rifles, PK machine guns and RPG-7s.[96] IS has been able to strengthen its military capability by capturing large quantities and varieties of weaponry during the Syrian Civil War and the post-withdrawal Iraqi insurgency. These weapons seizures have improved the group's capacity to carry out successful subsequent operations and obtain more equipment.[97] Weaponry that ISIL has reportedly captured and employed include SA-7[98] and Stinger[99] surface-to-air missiles, M79 Osa, HJ-8[100] and AT-4 Spigot[98] anti-tank weapons, Type 59 field guns[100] and M198 howitzers,[101] Humvees, T-54/55, T-72, and M1 Abrams[102] main battle tanks,[100] M1117 armoured cars,[103] truck-mounted DShK guns,[98] ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns,[104] BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers,[97] and at least one Scud missile.[105]

ISIL shot down an Iraqi helicopter in October 2014, and claims to have shot down "several other" helicopters in 2014. Observers fear that they have "advanced surface-to-air missile systems" such as the Chinese-made FN-6, which are thought to have been provided to Syrian rebels by Qatar and/or Saudi Arabia, and purchased or captured by ISIL.[106]


ISIL also captured many inoperable fighter aircraft after capturing the Syrian airbase of Al-Tabqa. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in October 2014 that former Iraqi pilots were training ISIL militants to fly captured Syrian jets. Witnesses reported that MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets were flying over al-Jarrah military airport, but the US Central Command said it was not aware of flights by ISIL-operated aircraft in Syria or elsewhere.[107] On 21 October, the Syrian Air Force claimed that it had shot down two of these aircraft over al-Jarrah air base while they were landing.[108]


An ISIL car bomb in action during the Siege of Menagh Air Base.

ISIL has a long history of using truck and car bombs, suicide bombers, and improvised explosive devices.[109] It has become especially adept at the construction and use of truck and car bombs, most notably quite sophisticated models which were fitted with armour, machine guns,[49] and/or firing ports.[110] These are mixtures of car bombs and technicals ("suicide bomber technical")[111] that can approach heavily defended targets, suppressing the enemy while being protected from small-arms fire.[112] Sometimes, ISIL even used armoured personnel carriers as chassis for car bombs, or fitted them with unguided rockets to clear the path to the intended target.[111]

ISIL captured nuclear materials from Mosul University in July 2014. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Iraq's UN Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim said that the materials had been kept at the university and "can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction". Nuclear experts regarded the threat as insignificant. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that the seized materials were "low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk".[113][114]

Chemical weaponsEdit

Reports suggested that ISIL captured Saddam-era chemical weapons from an Iraqi military base,[115] and the group also forcibly enlisted the aid of scientists living in its territories to produce their own chemical weapons. ISIL managed to produce its own mustard gas, and employed it on battlefields in Iraq and Syria. According to one scientist involved in the project, the main value of the mustard gas to ISIL was not its impact on actual combat, but its effect in psychological warfare. The production of chemical weapons slowed greatly from early 2016, however, as the United States and the Iraqi government targeted production facilities and killed or captured the leaders of the programme. Regardless, it is generally believed that ISIL remains in possession of hidden data and equipment to restart the production of chemical weapons in the future.[116]

ISIL deployed mustard gas[116] and chlorine gas against forces of the Iraqi government, the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition,[117] as well as unidentified chemical weapons against the Syrian Democratic Forces.[109] According to the US military, ISIL used the chemical weapons effectively on a tactical level, but never managed to employ them in a way that impacted the larger strategic situation. The group produced not enough chemical weapons, being hampered not just by airstrikes and raids, but also lack of skilled personnel and equipment.[116]

See alsoEdit


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