The evolution of Islamic militant groups into more adaptable and effective fighting forces over the last decade is a major military and political challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Militants operating in Iraq and Syria such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, and Hezbollah are arguably stronger than ever and have been enjoying repeated successes. In Gaza, Hamas continues to grow in strength and showcase asymmetric warfare innovations. In Egypt, militants operating in the Sinai frequently clash with government forces and make territory largely ungovernable. The Libyan and Nigerian governments are also confronting increasingly capable militant groups. These examples demonstrate how Islamic forces have shed the reductionist label of “terrorist.” These groups are no longer dispersed bands of fighters simply carrying out highly visible attacks on civilians or hit and run attacks on military targets. Rather, they are carving out territory and areas of operations for themselves with frightening success. This trend will not be reversed through targeted airstrikes or artillery barrages alone, as Hamas demonstrated in Gaza and ISIS has demonstrated in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, the U.S. and its allies must formulate a coherent strategy that combines carefully equipping local forces with humanitarian assistance.
The evolution of Islamic militant groups has involved the convergence of improved military technology, refined training, and organizational flexibility. These groups have become more sophisticated by adapting to the lessons from conflicts with state opponents such as the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Syrian Army, and American military. Operationally and strategically, forces like ISIS have shown adeptness for pivoting on multiple operational fronts in the pursuit of changing strategic objectives. At the tactical level, standard militant action previously consisted of sporadic hit-and-run attacks characterized by ineffective light arms fire or small rocket launches. Recently, ISIS militants have become more advanced, successfully deploying mortars for indirect fire support as well as maneuvering in teams ranging in size from squads to motorized convoys. Many groups have also demonstrated a high level of competence in tactical flexibility and directing fire through command and control systems, as in the case of Hezbollah in 2006. This has enabled militant groups to increase the complexity of their operational tactics and minimize their vulnerabilities to counterattacks. These militant groups have also acquired advanced weapons such as sophisticated anti-tank missiles and portable anti-aircraft systems, either from looted state stockpiles or direct state sponsorship.
Current strategic and traditional government counterterrorism efforts are largely ineffective against these actors that simultaneously combine regular and irregular capabilities. Similarly, the spectrum of warfare for which regular forces must be prepared is more complex and diverse than the fixed poles of counterinsurgency or maneuver warfare. Ultimately, a new form of military engagement requires a new type of strategic dialogue, as interactions between state actors and militant groups will continue to evolve. Facing more potent and capable adversaries makes the costs of tactical deterrence very high and complicates counterterrorism operations. A clear strategy is still required to reverse this revolution in Islamic militancy, but military planners and policymakers must be amenable to delicate regional dynamics and rapidly changing situations on the ground.
While technology has played a critical role as a force multiplier and tactical enabler for militants, it will prove to be much less effective for states combating these groups. Advanced state militaries such as the IDF and American military have relied heavily on airpower rather than ground troops in order to avoid casualties on both sides. However, militants have vastly improved in their efforts to ensure sustainability through various means including bunkers and tunnels, force dispersion, and the use of civilian facilities to avoid targeting. As such, airpower will only be effective in supporting ground operations. The basics of fire, maneuver, and combined arms warfare by local, on-the-ground operators are integral to defeating these evolved Islamic militant groups that have intimate knowledge of the terrain.
As such, the United States and regional powers must do more to ensure the strength of indigenous forces like the Iraqi Army, Peshmerga, and moderate Syrian rebels to achieve twenty-first century deterrence against highly motivated and now highly capable extremist groups. This does not imply indiscriminately arming local forces, since ISIS forces continue to seize American military gear originally given to the revamped yet inadequately trained Iraqi Army. Rather, there is a great need to enhance the combat capacities of our allies on the ground through sustained training and engagement. This should be coupled with humanitarian and support missions in the same area of operation, while integrating diplomatic efforts to ensure cooperation and situational awareness with regional partners. Despite policymakers’ best efforts, sustained and lengthy American involvement will be required to reverse the Islamic militant revolution.