Exposed – U.S. Army TRISA Threat Tactics Report: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

The following report is part of a series produced by the TRADOC G-2 Intelligence Support Activity (TRISA) Complex Operational Environment and Threat Integration Directorate (CTID).  While the reports contain no control markings, they are not released publicly.


TRISA-CTID Threat Tactics Report: ISIL

  • 30 pages


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has risen to prominence as a danger to peace and a regional threat with global impact. This perception comes, in large measure, because of its successes in Syria and then a rapid takeover of northern Iraq. Its military victories are largely due to successful recruiting, intra-insurgent conflict, large cash reserves, and ineffective opponents. There is much to learn from how ISIL is fighting. The ready availability of recruits, many of whom are foreigners attracted to ISIL successes, and large amounts of money for payroll and purchasing war materiel are critical considerations, but it is also important to consider how ISIL is fighting on the ground.

This report is intended to identify key aspects of tactics and techniques used in ISIL’s actions in Iraq and Syria. ISIL, unlike its predecessors and competitors, is a paramilitary insurgency. While the baseline techniques being used by ISIL do not differ significantly from those it has employed since its early days as an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, its capabilities have increased in scope and complexity. Techniques making use of suicide vehicle-borne IEDS (SVBIED) and vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIED) have become more sophisticated. ISIL’s use of information warfare (INFOWAR) has become more refined and pervasive with the adaptation of social media technology and increased technical competency among recruits. ISIL has targeted infrastructure such as dams, oil refineries, and power plants for use in population control and financing. ISIL has also demonstrated the ability to execute military tactics that require a level of competence and control uncommon in recent experience.

Executive Summary

• ISIL is an evolution of an insurgent group that has changed its name to reflect an increasing geographic vision.
• ISIL’s advantage to date has been an increasingly large number of fighters and deep cash reserves to fund its operations. This provides greater capacity to organize, train, and equip like a military organization.
• ISIL executes military tactics to the best of its capability. This is a greater capability than that shown by previous insurgencies in the area, but still not best practice in a number of warfighting functions and key tasks.
• High value targets for ISIL have included such infrastructure as dams and oil refineries, which also contribute to its cash flow.
• Social media use has reached a new level of refinement as ISIL has capitalized on Western recruits’ language skills and a new generation of technically savvy apprentices.

Command and Control

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the ISIL-appointed caliph, governs through a bureaucratic organization that includes close advisors and specialty, regional, and local councils. Al Baghdadi requires a theologically-based pledge of loyalty and fealty. Until recent US airstrikes, ISIL had relatively unfettered movement capabilities along a corridor spanning northern Syria and Iraq. Command and control under these circumstances did not require the kinds of considerations now necessary with the US airstrikes targeting ISIL communication nodes. The use of couriers is likely to become an important part of communicating to ISIL’s network of fighters.
ISIL’s growth has come from its ability to coopt, dominate, or absorb competitor organizations. Some of these organizations may only be fair-weather friends and leave the coalition when the time is deemed right. There is a very real chance that ISIL leadership will lose control through splintering and infighting. With a varied and diverse demographic of foreign fighters, Sunni tribes, former Baathist leaders, etc., the challenge for ISIL will be controlling both the message and the fight.

A key element of ISIL’s command and control infrastructure is social media. During the attack on Mosul, for example, ISIL sent tens of thousands of tweets in a way that avoided the Twitter spam trigger. While social media companies are constantly identifying and deleting questionable accounts, it is easy to simply open a new account. A new, tech-savvy generation of jihadists opens up new means of communicating to vast audiences for recruiting, propaganda, and bureaucratic control.


ISIL’s anti-armor arsenal now contains a number of highly effective weapons that can be used against Iraqi and Syrian security forces. Anti-armor weapons with shape charges increase the likelihood of targeted armor vehicle crew casualties, but may not completely destroy the targeted vehicle during the engagement.15 However, due to Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) challenges in maintaining larger armored vehicles like the M1, it is possible this platform has been denied future use. The most common systems in use right now are the Kornet, the M79 Osa Rocket Launcher, and the ubiquitous rocket-propelled grenade launcher. In addition, ISIL has also captured a number of Russian and US tanks which, while more difficult to maintain and larger targets, can be used to attack enemy convoys.

Not surprisingly, these weapons are of choice use for the prosecution of offensive actions like assaults and ambushes. In July 2013, ISIL fighters ambushed an ISF convoy in the Khalidiyah area in Anbar Province. The convoy consisted of at least three M1A1 Abrams tanks and nine M113 armored personnel carriers. The attack occurred on a rural dirt road, initiated with IEDs and followed with anti-tank fire. The graphic below shows the missile hitting the tank. Even more recently, on 20 April 2014, ISF lost a formation with mixed armored vehicles including T-62 tanks.