By Patrick Bahzad
Yesterday, the Iraqi government announced its coming offensive not just on Ramadi, but on the entire Anbar province. To be more precise, it was a Shia militias spokesman who made that announcement even prior to the government. One can only wonder at the ambition of such an enterprise and the disaster that would be a ground operation spearheaded by sectarian troops with a bad reputation and a number of alleged war crimes under their belt. Launching Shia militias into the heartland of Sunni Iraq, under a codename ("Labayka ya Hussein") that can only be resented by many Sunnis in Ramadi, Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar, doesn't bear the hallmarks of a sound strategy. Is it a sign of desperation within the Iraqi government, an impulse reaction against harsh American criticism or the realization that of all government troops available, the Shia militias are the only ones with the will and the "guts" to take the fight to the enemy ? Time will tell, but if this is more than a PR-stunt and if there is indeed an actual military effort at taking back large areas under ISIS control, the most likely scenario is one of massive bloodshed, destruction and chaos.
The question that also needs to be asked is how the "Islamic State" is going to react to the government’s preparations. It can probably stomach a defensive fight in Ramadi, even a tactical retreat out of the city, but it can't let the Shia groups take away the initiative and drive back the Caliphate's armies into Iraq's Western desert. Basically, all bets are on as to what might happen next. First reports are already trickling in about a number of suicide attacks by ISIS "Martyrs" against the pro-government forces preparing for battle in the North and East of Ramadi. The writing is on the wall: ISIS won't probably give up Ramadi the way it did Tikrit and the Shia militias have to brace themselves for a tough fight in the days to come.
Be that as it may, the purpose of this piece is not to analyze tactical scenarios for possible developments on the ground, but rather to study a few cases of ISIS operations that are not strictly military, and focus instead on another of the organization’s tactics, as a follow-up to last week's piece about the Caliphate's ground troops. The aim is to give the reader an insight into one of ISIS most potent weapons, one that has a direct bearing on the outcome of a battle, but one that remains mostly in the shadows, only to be seen by its results and effects.
In fact, ISIS' strategy for winning over cities like Ramadi earlier this month, or Mosul last year, is based a lot on what happens in the weeks and months before the actual military attack. This "intelligence war" that ISIS has mastered much more than combined arms in the conventional sense is interesting as so far as it could give a few pointers regarding how the organization might try to react to the government’s offensive that is supposed to start soon.
The use of "sleeper cells" in Ramadi
Infiltration of potential target areas by ISIS members has proven a very powerful tool in the organization’s arsenal. In the conquest of Ramadi in particular, "sleeper cells" have been blamed by Iraqi officials for the chaos and confusion they created among government troops, through disseminating false information and spreading fear. While not entirely false, the role of so called "sleeper cells"doesn’t explain the rout of Iraqi troops by a force much smaller in numbers.
ISIS can't mobilize and built-up large ground forces prior to an offensive: any suspicious gathering of vehicles or troops outside of a major city would immediately be detected and endanger the whole operation, as the attacking force would likely be targeted by coalition airstrikes. The Caliphate doesn't have the manpower to sustain a campaign of that nature, even though the casualty rate suffered from air attacks doesn't seem to have harmed IS' overall capabilities so far.
What many describe as "sleeper cells" is actually a modular system, combining various types of agents who are being infiltrated into an area of interest. Whether these operatives start collecting information and intelligence in advance, or whether they are activated in the last days or hours before an attack, depends on the situation. They may remain "dormant" for longer periods, like in Baghdad for example, which could hold as many as 2 000 ISIS operatives already.