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Guerrilla Warfare: Islamic Fighters

We will be using the term IGF, shorthand for ‘Islamic Guerrilla Fighter’, to refer to Taliban, Mujahideen, al-Qaeda, and all the different flavors of ISIS fighters. If you are a part of one of these groups and are offended that we lumped you all together, please submit your complaint HERE.

Before we begin our breakdown of IGF TTPs, we must clarify: the IGF fought during the Afghan-Soviet War and the GWOT were not ‘successful’ because of their TTPs, they were a difficult enemy due to a multitude of environmental factors (terrain, climate, & infrastructure) and social factors (culture, language, & attitude) that worked against Soviet and Coalition forces. Having said that, IGFs have had 40+ years to ‘perfect’ the art of guerrilla warfare and it would be very remiss to not analyze their tactics.

Let's get into it.

Guerrilla Check Points

We will start this list off with a contradiction. Strictly speaking, Vehicle Check Points (VCP) are a conventional tactic, however, different IGF groups employed them to great effect for a reason we don't typically consider. VCPs provide a significant amount of HUMINT. Post civil collapse, roads will become our new information highways. While HF radios will connect you to other cities or towns, vital HUMINT can be gathered from those that have travelled the main supply routes in your area. A traveling car or pedestrian will have seen more than any localized team and will be able to report on locations and personnel that are traveling before and after them. This HUMINT capacity is what IGFs leveraged so well, in combination with the other benefits of population control, force projection, and money gained from ‘taxes’ (extortion).

IGF fighters would often establish ‘Hasty VCPs’. They would drive into a crossroads or main supply route, position their vehicle/s in a way that would disrupt traffic and begin searching and questioning individuals they deemed ‘suspicious'. Simple, but not as effective.

‘Guerrilla VCPs’ put more emphasis on prior planning, man-power, and egress routes. It is at this stage that IGFs would employ some sort of canaling barrier (usually debris or strategically positioned vehicles). ‘Guerrilla VCPs’ would also employ an early warning or scout element to advise if an enemy force was approaching, this would allow the VCP more time to pack down and withdraw from the area.

(IMAGE: Rough locations of necessary VCP elements)

For the sake of clarity, a ‘Guerrilla VCP’ resembles a stripped back Coalition checkpoint with a major focus on egress routes and drills that allow the guerrilla fighter to quickly abandon the checkpoint upon confrontation with a larger force. The use of a forward scout, while sometimes employed by western militaries, was necessary for the survivability of the Islamic Guerrillas.

If you have no prior experience with VCPs, this video demonstrates the Coalition military standard, we recommend you give it a watch.

The Islamic Guerrilla Ambush

The opening shots of an ambush are what determine its success. Some IGF ambushes that we would consider ‘non-sophisticated’, consisting of only small arms with no IED, recoilless rifle, or mortar support, would succeed, because of early disabling of lead vehicles or command and communication elements. What allowed the effectiveness of these opening bombardments is likely the well orchestrated coordination of the ‘non-lethal’ factors.

A conventional commander, when tasked to plan an ambush or assault, begins with his ‘assets’ and works forward. He will catalogue his weapons and support, then move to his historical intelligence to plan the location of the contact, and finally write his fireplan up to ensure a strong opening bombardment. To an IGF commander, this conventional approach ignored the guerrilla fighters' biggest advantage – the luxury of probing and patience.

An IGF commander, when tasked to plan an ambush or assault, looks for the ‘non-lethal’ factors first. He starts with the known routes and locations of coalition forces to find an ideal set of firing positions for his fighters. Next, the commander will consider the weather, wind, position of the sun, and other environmental factors to determine the perfect time for the attack. For instance, if the commander wants to set an ambush on the top of a hillside into a valley, he will walk the valley to determine the time that the sun sinks over the hill. This information may give him a 30 minute window where the sun blinds an enemy in the valley from observing the ambush on the hill. Now, the commander's task is to ensure that the enemies timeline aligns with his by coordination, obstructing, or probing.

Probing, the guerrilla reconnaissance tactic of contacting an enemy with a brief volley of direct fire before withdrawing. Probing is conducted to gauge the defensive response, tactics, and positions of weaponry.

While probing is primarily conducted on stationary defensive positions, it can also be employed against patrols and convoys. Pre-ambush probes were not uncommon in the Middle East and were often used to test and delay patrols before a decisive engagement. If probing or obstructing a patrol was not feasible IGF commanders would negotiate with locals or elders to delay coalition forces until the perfect contact time, this coordination tactic was employed regularly. In the Battle of Wanat, elders willingly delayed the 173rd Airborne's officers so Taliban fighters could hastily establish their ambush, this ambush further disrupted troops in preparation for the main assault onto Patrol Base Kahler.

While the difference between the guerrilla and conventional approach to ambushes and assaults is minimal, the small difference of patience and ‘environment-first’ planning has resulted in many highly effective attacks on superior coalition forces.

Halt and Kill

In this section we use the term HALT. FIX is a more accurate term as our intent is to stop all tactical manoeuvres including advancement and withdrawal, however, every SME we spoke to used the term HALT, so for the sake of clarity, we have used HALT when discussing the IGFs.

Halt and Kill was a term that was born out of mechanized warfare, it originally referred to disabling a vehicle and then killing the operators when they attempted to flee the wreckage. While there were plenty of ambushes on downed vehicles in Afghanistan, what we are referring to is the ‘halt - minefield’ orders of Coalition doctrine. Typically, when a squad is contacted by an enemy, their training dictates they shake out and assault towards the contact; however, if a squad finds themselves in a minefield, or hit by an IED, their training dictates that they exit the area in the safest and most direct way. It is this contradiction that IGFs took advantage of during GWOT.

Coalition forces knew that if they hit one IED that there were likely more in the area and conducting their traditional movements would risk more casualties. Knowing this, IGFs would lay and wait until the Coalition Force had triggered an IED or entered an IED field before making contact. When the guerrillas began to lose the initiative and the Coalition Forces started their manoeuvres again, the guerrillas would simply withdraw from the area.

This style of Halt and Kill was only effective against forces that were beholden to their doctrine. When Coalition Forces ignored their doctrine (particularly ANA Commandos) and charged towards the IGFs regardless of the IED risk, the effectiveness of this tactic was significantly reduced; instead, being closer to a hasty ambush on a superior target.

So, the question becomes: How do you FIX an untrained enemy?

The answer is fundamental. Fear. While IEDs were very effective at scaring their targets, drones may be just as effective. In Ukraine we have seen drones, at minimum, disrupt military movement by either inflicting casualties through dropped munitions or by causing halts while commanders ‘rethink’ if their patrol/assault/ambush is compromised.

It is reasonable to think that in a domestic conflict, low flying drones with real or dummy payloads may be enough to scare any poorly trained combatant into remaining in cover. In a well trained team, this disruption of movement can allow a manoeuvre element enough time to establish a hasty ambush onto the fixed target.

Now, to the most important thing to learn from the IGFs.

Pattern of Life

Pattern of life, the habits of a person or population. A pattern of life analysis typically documents a population's cultural habits - Religious, social, farming and eating patterns.

There was no aspect of the IGF, particularly the Taliban, that was exploited more than their pattern of life. Due to the nature of religious extremism, it was easy for coalition forces to observe simple practices; the Taliban's open practice of praying which occurred regularly throughout the day was used to calculate the fighting population of a village, and in Taliban strongholds it was common that religious leaders were also Taliban commanders. Coalition forces were also provided early warning by the Taliban practices, a larger than normal slaughter of animals or collection of elders and religious leaders, were tell-tale signs of an upcoming IGF attack.

For any guerrilla group to be successful long term, it is vital that they study their own pattern of life. They must disguise their fighting population by forgoing public gatherings, ensure that when there is a change to their habits it is done behind closed doors, and by obscuring the identities of cultural leaders.

It's important to note that while coalition forces aimed to exploit flaws in IGF tactics. The conflict in Afghanistan was complex, and both sides continuously adjusted their strategies based on the evolving circumstances on the ground. Above all else, a guerrilla fighter must be unpredictable and willing to refrain from decisive engagement unless the odds are truly in their favor.

This is a look at key takeaways from Islamic guerrillas. This is not an encouragement to replicate their extremism.


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