the islamic state’s leadership style

The Small Wars Journal has an article on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. Written by Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, it should be of interest to any scholar interested in leadership. The basic question is how the Islamic State suddenly defeated two states on their home turf. Anderson lays out the basics:

  1. Unlike most Arab armies, there is a great deal of trust among the leaders and soldiers. Fighters are sorted into units based on language and nationality. al-Baghdadi does not micro-manage and instead trusts commanders to achieve well specified goals.
  2. Social media: He uses the Genghis Khan technique – kill a few folks and show the bodies to the public via Twitter. Surrender ensues.
  3. Self-financing: Focuses on goals that well help finance the next round. Banks, oils fields, utilities. It’s the “live off the land model” updated. The Islamic state is also good at selecting which captured resources will be useful. Tanks are bad (slow, susceptible to air power). Bulldozers are good (they tear down weak Iraqi fortifications).
  4. A return to maneuver warfare: Since Arabic armies don’t have cohesion or trust, they can’t move well. They sit and shoot. In contrast, IS forces move well, aim at weak points, and retreat when they encounter a “surface” (military term for a well supported force).

Except for terror, IS is simply employing the tactics that Western forces are good at but Arab forces can’t use.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 27, 2014 at 12:00 am

7 Responses

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  1. Lost me at “Arabic.” Arabic refers to language. The word you’re looking for is “Arab.”



    August 27, 2014 at 12:36 am

  2. Been corrected.



    August 27, 2014 at 2:08 am

  3. “Defeated two states on their home turf” is a bit of generous characterization. The Syrian state was already weakened by a couple years of civil war and the post 2003 Iraqi “state” has always had tenuous control/penetration of the western and northern provinces.

    So it looks to be more Skocpolian than a voluntarist model. Sure leadership helps, but if it wasn’t ISIL that took advantage of the opportunities, someone would have.



    August 27, 2014 at 2:59 am

  4. @cwalken: A win is a win, especially since many other groups have tried and failed in this sense. Also, I am not sure what you mean by a “voluntarist” model in this context, but a theory of leadership doesn’t have to be inconsistent with structural accounts as well. Syria and Iraq are battered states, but you need individual leadership to exploit it.

    PS. Skocpol may not be the best model here since it is unclear that either state suffered crippling international censure similar to Russia 1905. Especially Syria, which still has lots of allies.



    August 27, 2014 at 5:17 pm

  5. Certainly they’re not incommensurate. A leadership model can assume an opportunity, and a structural model can assume a movement.

    But my point is more that “defeating two states” makes ISIL sound more capable that it actually has proven. More accurate would be “defeating two weak states exhausted by political instability and civil war”.



    August 27, 2014 at 7:32 pm

  6. Fair point, but don’t make it sound too easy – it’s not like I could waltz into Baghdad right now and hoist the orgtheory flag!!



    August 27, 2014 at 7:37 pm

  7. “Except for terror.”

    That’s a pretty big exception.


    Chris M

    August 27, 2014 at 8:03 pm

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