The End of the Beginning of Daesh

April 18, 2017
The End of the Beginning of Daesh
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

Over 140 defenseless civilians in Mosul, Iraq, were killed in a single airstrike on the 17th of March, likely conducted by United States aircraft.  Several important questions can be asked in the wake of this: First, did Daesh (ISIS/ISIL, Islamic State) intentionally gather these Iraqis to use them as “human shields”?  Second, did the United States (in coalition with Iraqi forces) apply all required care to avoid civilian loss of life?  Finally, are these two simultaneous questions symptomatic of a battlefield condition almost impossible to reconcile?  This ambiguity begs one more question: who is ultimately responsible for these casualties, those who dropped the bomb or those who put the civilians in harm’s way?

It would be shameful if this incident passed without something being learned from it.  There are (at least) two lessons that can be drawn from the tragedy in Mosul: 1.) Though insurgents can use terror to achieve their goals, counter-insurgency is different from counter-terrorism. 2.) Because terrorists, by definition, do not follow the law of armed conflict, it puts those who do at a tactical disadvantage, but adhering to the law of armed conflict is not optional for United States and coalition forces and, as outlined below, neither is it an insurmountable tactical disadvantage.

The greater blame for civilian deaths lies with those who intentionally put civilians in harm’s way, though this does not absolve counter-insurgents from applying extra care.  Counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts are necessarily bounded by international standards such as humanitarian law and human rights.  The peril of ignoring these standards is not only to risk civilian lives, but to also risk reinforcing extremist narratives about a Western war on Islam and all Muslims everywhere.

Insurgencies and Terrorism

Though Daesh is rightly considered a terrorist organization, it can also be considered an insurgency.  It is a long and winding road that led to the present incarnation of Daesh.  At its height, it seemed to be an unstoppable force with ready access to cash, eager volunteers, and military equipment surrendered by a retreating Iraqi army—even state-of-the-art systems supplied to the Iraqi government by the United States.  Presently, that image of Daesh is rapidly crumbling, denied everything it once had.  They move from defeat to defeat, as the territory they once seized is being liberated.  The flow of volunteers has slowed to a mere trickle and they are running out of money and resources.

Under these conditions, Daesh has returned to its mainstay strategy of terrorizing defenseless civilians, but it remains a lethal insurgent force.  In places like Mosul—where its self-styled “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State—Daesh has shown that its remaining soldiers will not sell their lives cheaply.  Its aims appear to be two tracked: to maintain a semblance of a territorial state for as long as possible and to spread violence and discord abroad as part of its mono-chromatic, apocalyptic world-view.  For example, in the span of two weeks in July 2016—six months after being driven from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar in Iraq—Daesh detonated explosives at a Baghdad shopping center that killed over 200, and also inspired a French-Tunisian to kill over eighty by driving a twenty-ton truck through a crowd celebrating French Independence Day in Nice, southern France.  So, like Janus, Daesh is looking back to its fleeting successes as an insurgent army, and ahead to the inevitable destruction of its military capacity.

Confronting that dual threat requires a mix of strategies.  Counter-terror efforts designed to protect people as they go about their lives, whether in Baghdad or Brussels, are different from counter-insurgent efforts aimed at destroying the ability of Daesh to continue its fight.  Bombing Daesh fighting positions in Mosul cannot make people in Berlin more secure, and greater vigilance in Paris does nothing to protect defenseless Iraqis.  These parallel efforts need to be kept conceptually distinct.  That is not to say that action in one arena cannot have incidental effects in the other.  Indeed, one should expect that Daesh would attempt to leverage the unintentional carnage in Mosul, wrought by U.S. weaponry, into violence against civilians in Western cities.  The likelihood that Daesh will resort to murdering more civilians increases with each defeat it suffers; this will likely include traditional terror bombings and the use of civilians as human shields.  Even after the last Daesh outpost is abandoned, and all of its leaders dead, Daesh will continue to inspire terrorism in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

Intelligence leads any counter-terror effort.  But it is exceedingly difficult to detect and disrupt an individual (or even very small groups) planning violence using easily acquired materials.  This pushes efforts back to the “radicalization” phase.  Practically speaking, countering radicalizing influences means identifying vulnerable elements in a society, educating people in that society about the dangers of radicalization, convincing them that other means of expressing discontent are not just available, but will be effective, and shutting out dangerous messages.  Individuals can learn to recognize the potential for danger wherever they are and mentally prepare to respond if things go badly.  Opinion leaders and decision-makers can also learn to react to terrorist violence better, recognizing the limited effect of individual acts of terror and reminding the public of the fact that terror attacks remain very rare in most of the world.

Mosul, Raqqa…Paris, Brussels

Terrorism is intentional, indiscriminant violence, usually aimed at defenseless civilians, to advance a political, social, or religious objective.  As Daesh can be understood as both an insurgency and a terror group, it is not surprising that it does not constrain itself to the norms of International Humanitarian Law.  Also called the Law of Armed Conflict, International Humanitarian Law is a specialized body of law that governs the actions of belligerents in the extraordinary circumstances of war.  The modern codification of long-held traditions of war-fighting began in the United States during the Civil War.  Written by a committee of lawyers and military officers at the request of President Abraham Lincoln, this foundational set of rules are known as the “Lieber Instructions” or “Lieber Code.”

As with the Lieber Code, contemporary laws of war are especially focused on protecting non-combatants from harm and limiting the destructive effects of warfare.  The principles of distinction and proportionality in combination require belligerents to restrict their activity toward military objectives, taking care to avoid incidental damage to civilian objects and to minimize the chance that non-combatants are harmed.  Article 57 of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Convention states that anyone planning a military operation must:

(ii) take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects”

This does not mean that in time of war, no damage may ever be done to a non-military object and no civilian may ever be killed.  As the U.S. Department of Defense Manual on the Law of War (paragraph cautions,

“In war, incidental damage to the civilian population and civilian objects is unfortunate and tragic, but inevitable.  Thus, applying the proportionality rule in conducting attacks does not require that no incidental damage result from attacks. Rather, this rule obliges persons to refrain from attacking where the expected harm incidental to such attacks would be excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated to be gained.”

Commanders must be sure that the risk of harming civilians and civilian objects is not greater than the military advantage gained.

Evidence that these traditions continue in United States military operations against Daesh can be found in contemporary statements made by U.S. officers.  “Our goal is and has always been zero civilian casualties,” said U.S. Army Colonel Joseph Scrocca, “but there is a legal and moral imperative to protect our own forces and accomplish the mission against an evil enemy that is equally as important as protecting civilians.”  Thus, military planners have an obligation to fight to win as quickly as possible, to protect the lives of their own soldiers, and to avoid excessive devastation and suffering among civilians tragically caught up in combat.

Regarding civilians, Daesh does not feel obliged to do the same.  As a terrorist organization, Daesh willfully kills non-combatants to advance their political and social goals.  It is widely known that Daesh uses the civilian populations under its control as human shields, intentionally drawing them into a conflict to take advantage of U.S. and coalition forces rules of engagement.  The intent is to capitalize on the public outcry when the U.S. or coalition forces kill civilians, hoping that military planners will be forced into excessive caution.  While accepting U.S. Government accountability for civilian loss of life in Mosul, the U.S. military officer with overall responsibility for all U.S. operations in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, drew attention to Daesh’s approach to the principle of protecting non-combatants,

“While we consider and establish accountability over our actions in this incident, I think it is also important to clearly recognize that the enemy does use human shields, has little regard for human life and does attempt to use civilian casualty allegations as a tool to hinder our operations.”

General Votel’s broad characterization that Daesh has “little regard for human life” lacks nuance.   Daesh ideologues likely believe there is great value in human sacrifice to effect divine justice on Earth, but this is substantially different from the point the general was making.  The essence of the argument is this: whether in a Paris nightclub, or in the ruins of Mosul’s old quarter, Daesh celebrates the deaths of innocent civilians as a means to their survival.  The mere fact that one side relishes civilian casualties, while the other does everything it can to avoid the same, means that it will be a long, costly fight.

United States forces, coalition partners, and international organizations can help ensure that civilian populations are protected as best as is possible in urban fighting; this includes proper warning for imminent military operations (as required by International Humanitarian Law), coordinated and consistent instructions for evacuation or sheltering in place, assistance to refugees, and deploying appropriate weapons systems for the environment.  There is evidence that this is happening most of the time; improvement is apparently necessary, especially as it pertains to coordinating instructions given to civilians regarding evacuation or sheltering, and the assistance provided to them.  Furthermore, international organizations can monitor and report on reprisals against the population of areas liberated by government forces or militias.  U.S. military officials should pay attention to these reports and act on them, if necessary.

“The end of the beginning.”

It has been argued here and elsewhere that the 2003 coalition invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein and the disastrous Coalition Provisional Authority orders to disband the Iraqi army and uproot all members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party was the fertile ground in which Daesh and its predecessors grew.  Syria’s decent into bloody civil war and political negligence by Iraq’s new government allowed the rebirth and rapid successes initially enjoyed by Daesh.  Therefore, when judging the rise of Daesh and the violence it has caused in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, blame can be shared widely, though unequally.  Since they actively seek the death and suffering of anyone not loyal to their authority, the greatest portion of responsibility for civilian deaths rests with Daesh and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its self-proclaimed “caliph.”

Daesh represents a complex threat.  Presently it is both a territory-holding insurgent force that can effectively fight a professional army using conventional (though asymmetric) tactics and a terror group intent on perpetuating its worldview after its demise as an active insurgency and territorial entity.  As a terror group, Daesh does not feel bound by the norms of International Humanitarian Law.  The forces arrayed against it are bound by those norms; this can present a very real, but not insurmountable tactical disadvantage.  In spite of the tactical challenges and the projected duration of the next phase of conflict, this complex threat can be countered with continued respect for long-held traditions of humanitarian law and human rights.

On the occasion of the British Army defeating Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s panzers at El Alamein during the Second World War, Winston Churchill noted that, “this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  On that inevitable day, where one can nowhere point and say, “here is Daesh’s so-called ‘Islamic State,’” it will yet remain a potent inspiration for terrorist violence.  Thus, routing it from its stronghold in Mosul is not, “the beginning of the end,” for Daesh, but instead, “the end of the beginning.”

What remains is to destroy its physical presence entirely and then effectively contain and counter its violent worldview, and of those similarly inclined; the way the present fight is fought will echo in future operations against others.  Working to protect civilians now, and making that effort widely known, can help in the future.  Rebuilding Iraq and Syria will be a long and expensive project likely to fail without significant international investment.  Finally, addressing the political deficiencies that may have contributed to the rise of Daesh is very unlikely given the level distrust and animosity on all sides, even if a cessation to present violence is negotiated.  Significant work remains.