By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Because our University has so many students and faculty who are either veterans or active servicemembers, it is no surprise that questions involving conflict are always a part of our intellectual discourse. Local or global conflicts touch many aspects of our academic disciplines, such as strategic studies, military history or international law.
Let’s take, for example, the War on Terror. Ever since 9/11, many legal questions came about as a result of the different legal guidelines for normative warfare. Normative warfare is typically based on a battlefield populated by two conventional armies with uniforms and weapons.
The War on Terror, which involves an enemy that is not the military of a sovereign country, does not use conventional warfare and targets civilians, challenged the legal system. On one hand, criminal law is wholly inappropriate for dealing with such an enemy and so is the traditional law of armed conflict as developed after World War II.
The ongoing battle with the Islamic State, involving many international actors, is seen by many people as an extension of the War on Terror and a low-intensity conflict. But a recent book challenges conventional thinking of the difference between low-intensity conflict (LIC) and high-intensity conflict (HIC).
New Book Suggests That All Conflicts Fall within a Spectrum
Ido Levy, a fellow at the Washington Institute, recently published a book, “Soldiers of End-Times: Assessing the Military Effectiveness of the Islamic State.” In this book, Levy discusses the military offensive of the Islamic State, beginning with its early successes until the demise of the caliphate under the pressure of American-backed Kurdish and Syrian forces. Levy also provides commentary on how Islamic State forces shifted between low-intensity conflict to high-intensity conflict.
To enlisted soldiers, both LIC and HIC might seem to be distinctly different from one another. But as a close reading of Ido Levy’s work shows, conflict is actually a spectrum where low-intensity conflict is at one end and high-intensity conflict is at the other.
Levy’s book focuses on the period between 2014 until early 2019. This period had several campaigns involving the Islamic State, and Levy uses open sources to describe the Islamic State’s military campaigns and its tactics. He also analyses the organizational development of the Islamic State and how it developed conventional warfare capability.
The Key Ideas of Levy’s Book on the Islamic State
Levy’s book promotes several key ideas. First, Levy notes that high morale among followers was a decisive factor in the conventional warfare style of the Islamic State. The use of suicide bombing is a prime example of those followers’ fanatical devotion to the Islamic State. The bombings led to a war of attrition against IS adversaries and was intended to demoralize enemies.
Second, Levy found that the initial successes of the Islamic State were tied to its agility and willingness to take the initiative in conflicts. Those factors allowed the Islamic State to employ its forces in any locations it chose. When the Islamic State was on the defensive, however, it had limited successes and major defeats.
Third, Levy also puts forward the position that foreign fighters were a major force multiplier in the Islamic State’s fighting capabilities. In particular, the use of Chechen fighters significantly aided the Islamic State in becoming a more powerful force.
Levy Also Explains the US Success in Defeating the Islamic State and Urges US Combat Partners to Be More Innovative
As far as the success of the U.S. operations against the Islamic State is concerned, Levy’s book views that success as the result of a collaboration with Iraqi security forces and Syrian-Kurdish forces. When the U.S. supplied air support alongside training and logistical support to its allies, the air support was a key factor in the success of the coalition against the Islamic State.
However, Levy believes that for future campaigns, the U.S. should try to foster innovation among its partners and more thinking outside the box. If this model of warfare coalitions is to continue, says Levy, the U.S. must be committed to long-term relationships.
Scholars and Policy Makers Should Remain Aware That Terrorist Groups Seek the Fighting Capabilities for High-Intensity Conflict
Overall, Levy’s book is an introductory book. Its sources are not archival, but open-source materials found almost exclusively on the web. This practice is not unique since so much of the research on jihadism uses the rich material found on jihadist websites.
However, his book merely scratches the surface of this topic; there is much more to discuss about the Islamic State and its role in the evolving War on Terror. Levy used the term “conventionalization” to describe a process where an armed actor adapts its forces and methods to those required by conventional warfare.
The fascinating book by military historian Yagil Henkin about the war in Chechnya notes that terrorist forces who use LIC tactics have a desire to evolve into a full-fledged military force that can engage in high-intensity conflict. Other terrorist groups have the same goal, and both policy makers and scholars should remain aware of this goal.
As I wrote in a 2011 article about the laws of armed conflict, we need to understand that low-intensity conflict and high-intensity conflict are not distinct entities, but can be viewed as parts of a spectrum. Consequently, we need solutions to handle any battle that occurs within the conflict spectrum.
It is easy to see that the continued study of conflict is essential to our well-being. Academic discourse can also provide important insights to assist the policy makers in our armed forces.