According to a new Pentagon report, the Islamic State’s army rates several notches higher than any Arab elite force in the Middle East – including Iran’s Lebanese surrogate, Hizballah – by every military parameter, including its command structure, intelligence, supplies, communication and, most of all, its combat capabilities. An official with access to the report said this week: “These guys are very professional, well-trained, motivated and equipped. They operate like a state with a military. Even when they withdraw, they make a tactical withdrawal.”
This was exemplified in the ISIS withdrawal from Tikrit to the western province of Anbar in a way that swung the retreat into a fresh offensive against Ramadi, a central Iraqi city about 110 km west of Baghdad.
The group may be on the verge of overrunning this Sunni town, but Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of staff assured reporters at the Pentagon, Thursday, April 14: “The city itself is not symbolic in any way. It’s not been declared part of the ‘caliphate… I would much rather Ramadi did not fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign if it does,” he said.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources give the town a much higher strategic rating. The capital of Anbar province, this city, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates, is home to half a million inhabitants, representing the largest Sunni population of central Iraq.
Ramadi commands the Number 1 highway linking Baghdad to Jordan’s capital Amman.
Its fall would add another major setback to the US-led campaign against the Islamic State by any military standard.
Professional Iraqi soldiers – “not just terrorists”
The exceptional effectiveness of the jihadist organization’s estimated 30,000 combatants as a military force derives largely from its makeup of three main groupings.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who crowned himself supreme commander of ISIS and caliph of the Islamic State, has in truth very little to do with the three groups’ field commanders, each of which operates independently.
The largest group consists of 10 Sunni Iraqi brigades commanded by professional officers, many of whom were senior combat operations officers in the time of Saddam Hussein.
In the 15 years since he was overthrown by a US invasion, these officers fought in two exceptionally harsh wars – one against the US army; and the second, against the Iraqi al Qaeda branch led by Mussab Al-Zarqawi, for which they were trained by American CIA commando instructors during 2006-2008, in the framework of the Sunni tribal Awakening Councils program.
According to the Pentagon report, these men are “beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology and a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. They use drones to gather overhead intel on targets and effectively commandeer captured military vehicles, including American Humvees and munitions.”
Hardened Chechens and zealous Westerners
The second ISIS group consists of Chechen fighters from the Russian Caucasus. Just as the first group has long experience on both sides of US military warfare, the Chechens, organized as the ISIS international brigade, have spent years fighting the Russian army.
Their outstanding qualities lie in perceptions of command and control, leadership abilities, quality of experience and discipline under fire.
The third group may be dubbed the ISIS foreign legion. It draws on fired-up zealots joining up in ever-increasing numbers from Western countries – the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, France and also North Africa. Their number is thought to near 10,000 fighters, only 1,700 of whom originate in France.
Their tasks focus mainly on intelligence, communications, operating drones and planning overseas terrorist attacks outside the Iraqi-Syrian caliphate.