The Evolution of Islamic Militancy: Military Developments and the Implications for State Actors

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Since the late 1990s, a comprehensive discussion relating to changes in the nature of warfare and the military development of conventional state actors has been progressing in U.S. policy circles. Yet a similar discussion regarding the nature of non-state militant groups did not emerge until after Hezbollah’s battlefield successes during its 2006 war with Israel. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah aptly described a new model for militant groups in the 21st century after his group’s war with Israel: “[Hezbollah] do[es] not wage a guerilla war… [Hezbollah] was not a regular army but was not a guerilla in the traditional sense either. It was something in between.” However, with the  withdrawal from Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan, and the rebalancing to Asia-Pacific, U.S. policymakers and defense planners have been eager to shift focus and resources to more conventional national security threats. This shift closely resembled American actions after the Vietnam War, characterized by an abandonment of irregular warfare concepts in favor of traditional high-tech state-on-state warfare planning.

Yet almost a decade after Nasrallah’s comments and subsequent policy discussions, clashes across the Middle East have thrust unconventional opponents back into the purview of government officials. This is indicative of a larger regional trend in which the evolution of Islamic militancy has increasingly informed the outcome of various engagements and translated to battlefield successes. Within the context of regional upheaval, an array of militant groups from Hezbollah to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are all arguably enjoying the best success they have ever had against their adversaries.

By definition, militancy demands learning and organizational flexibility as a minimum to ensure survival. Yet recent developments reveal how groups have leveraged their adaptability in organization and tactics, combined with technological acquisitions, to influence battle spaces and regional dynamics like never before. A turning point was reached during the past year or so, during which groups calibrated combat lessons of the past decade with the global proliferation of military technology to produce a winning combat equation. The implications for state actors seeking to roll back these groups are severe, and will require a new approach to conflicts characterized by the proliferation of threat actors that innovatively combine regular and irregular capabilities simultaneously and with greater lethality, and rapidly transition between them to create strategic effects.

The Evolving Threat

After years, and in some cases decades, of friction with Israel, the Syrian army, and the U.S. military, Islamic militant groups have advanced their understanding of effective warfare and developed new methods that are proving increasingly successful. For example, Hamas has improved on battlefield experience based on its numerous interactions with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) dating back to the intifadas at the beginning of the 21st century, while Hezbollah has been honing its fighting skills since the 1980s against numerous adversaries. ISIS forces were forged in the crucible of Iraq following the American invasion in 2003 and surge in 2007. They are now displaying their military prowess against the Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians, and rival militant groups.

Militant military concepts have been developed with the understanding that while militant forces are technologically inferior to their state adversaries, power disparities could be narrowed through the utilization of indigenous factors such as an understanding of the territories and populations. Groups have also sought to exploit asymmetries in the importance of the interests each side has, the objectives of the war, the level of determination and resolution, willingness to take risks, and sensitivity to casualties. Yet the greatest enabler for the success of militant groups is the integration of new technology with evolving military concepts of operations.

As a result, these organizations are no longer dispersed bands of fighters but rather trained light infantry forces that have combined newly-acquired tactical skills and technology for an unprecedented degree of battlefield success. For example, groups like ISIS have displayed an increased capability across a range of functions, including offensive operations, battlefield maneuvering, and media communications.

In the Levant and Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas have fielded increasingly capable forces that have fought the technologically superior IDF to a series of stalemates. In these contents, they have displayed an increasing willingness to take the fight to the IDF rather than resort to a strategy of defense by denial. In addition, Hezbollah and Hamas rocket arsenals have grown in range, payload, and accuracy over time much like their advanced anti-armor munitions. These groups have also achieved new forms of survivability in the form of an absorptive capacity through bunkers and tunnels, force dispersion, and the use of civilian facilities to avoid targeting. For example, Hamas demonstrated the effectiveness of its elaborate bunker system in avoiding Israeli airstrikes against vital command nodes and combat commanders. Israel achieved tactical victories by destroying cross-border tunnels, but its forces did not penetrate the defensive labyrinth Hamas had built in Gaza, failing to strike a strategic blow to Hamas leadership.

In Iraq, militants previously engaged in sporadic hit-and-run attacks characterized by ineffective small arms fire. It was widely know to coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom that insurgents possessed poor accuracy and were not eager to maneuver offensively. Over the past several months, groups like ISIS became the most effective militant force in the region, and most powerful than most of the neighboring state armies.

While resolve and ideology remain vital pillars to militant success, ISIS has proven its ability to overrun Iraqi and Syrian military positions at will. This is indicative of the sophistication of their weapons and tactics. Open source videos released by the group are frightening examples of the strength and organization of its forces. In these videos, ISIS demonstrates its ability to successfully deploy mortars and larger caliber ammunition for fire support as well as maneuver in teams ranging in size from squads to motorized convoys. Anti-armor teams, armed with sophisticated armor-penetrating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and anti-tank rockets, move in rapid speed to keep Iraqi and Syrian armor off-balance. Mastering the art of field communications, these anti-tank teams achieve their objectives, allowing highly trained and mobile infantry to outmaneuver and outgun opposing government forces. They have even deployed captured Humvees and artillery pieces to bolster their attacks. The fusion of these new tactics and equipment has culminated in startling success ranging the gamut of military operations, from complex ambushes to the assaults of cities like Mosul and Fallujah.

Augmented by new technologies, these regional developments indicate that militants are growing in their lethality and capacity to sustain attacks on state actors, as opposed to indiscriminate attacks. As a result, counterterrorism or tactical deterrence operations that have typically resembled information wars through kinetic action are becoming more technologically advanced. The outcome is a new “on the ground” interaction between militants and soldiers.

Implications for State Actors

The versatility and multitude of contemporary non-state threat actors that demonstrate increased sophistication in their employment of technology and combinations of types of warfare present new challenges that can offset or neutralize aspects of conventional U.S. military superiority. This includes advantages in firepower and technology. However, in the contemporary operating environment, the evolution of non-linear threats counters dimensions of superiority such as training, maneuver, and doctrine.

The blending of irregular, conventional, and high-tech warfare into a single battle-space presents a qualitative challenge that puts the onus on state actors to pursue a high degree of ground-level flexibility as well as a high adaptive capacity at the strategic level. This is because the spectrum of warfare for which regular forces must be prepared is more complex and diverse than the fixed poles of counterinsurgency or maneuver warfare. As militant groups continue to grow in capacity and capability, increasingly volatile and complex areas of operation will force states to not only find a “sweet spot” between these poles, but also be able to move between them based on strategic factors such as international pressures and humanitarian concerns. This “sweet spot” also applies to the tactical and operational use of force. To achieve combat objectives, modern forces must tailor appropriate yet effective measures of force against advanced low-signature systems such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft guided missiles, and low-signature forces, such as commando units. In other words, this means calibrating technological means to achieve ends against forces that resemble insurgents in appearance but an army in military effectiveness. Thus the force required to defeat them will not possess an invasion structure, but will require more teeth than a counterterrorism or counterinsurgency force.

Identifying an appropriate level of action, whether it is strategic, operational, or tactical, is instrumental to properly link a wide variety of means to narrowly defined ends. This is especially problematic since state actors often view technology as a panacea for various security issues. Technological developments can often overshadow inappropriate tactics when not integrated with a state’s strategic objectives, and even impede successful feedback between tactics and strategy. For example, despite the Iron Dome’s tactical success, it did not bring Israel closer to destroying Hamas, but rather reinforced a siege mentality and exposed the political weakness of Israel’s strategy. A parallel can be seen with the onset of the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq in 2005, when troops were hesitant to leave their MRAPs and up-armored Humvees. This became an impediment to conducting a population-centric strategy. Ultimately, it is the confluence of technology with innovations in tactical and doctrinal concepts that can provide state actors with capabilities to overcome the threats posed by militant groups.

Technological superiority is vital for state actors in combating non-state militants, but it is not a crutch with which to avoid innovative thinking. In order to avoid decision-making traps or path dependencies, technologies must be supported by advancements at the strategic level in order to ensure a proper feedback loop between ground-level and strategic outcomes. The implication for state actors seeking to defeat these groups is to maintain their technological edge through both a superiority of capabilities as well as a degree of strategic flexibility. A failure to better align tactics and strategy will only empower the continued growth of these groups across the region. This requires leveraging the counterinsurgency lessons of the past decade to secure and empower the populace, while utilizing special operations forces for offensive operations that have the potential for operational and strategic effects.


The challenge for present and future American military leaders is the unpredictability of militant groups and their continuing evolution as fighting forces. Since unconventional warfare is not static but rather a dynamic competition in learning, national security establishments must increasingly become learning institutions, defined as an organization that uses new knowledge or understanding gained from experience or study to adjust institutional norms, doctrine, and procedures in ways designed to minimize previous gaps in performance and maximize future successes.

It is vital that the United States retains the initiative and is proactive regarding militant developments, rather than adopting a reactive posture after an inflection point like in the case of ISIS’s breakout in Iraq. Militant groups have their own threat assessments and forecasts, and adapt to changing political and military conditions. Yet they do not develop in a vacuum. The ISIS threat has been maturing for years, and groups like Hezbollah are constantly refining their tactics and seeking to exploit new methods for warfare. To keep a pulse on these developments, states must understand the bottom-up, self-organizing sources of enemy forces, in addition to the top-down, formal mechanisms through which militants view their operating environments. Ultimately, tactical and strategic feedback is essential; it assumes even great importance in non-linear environments in order to maximize positive feedback and counteract negative feedback. In this vein, state-planning constructs must incorporate an appreciation for the opponent’s dynamic strategy as it integrates ends, ways, and means across levels of war.

About the Author

Jack Miller graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with high honors in May 2014, where he received his undergraduate degree in political science. He recently served as the Joseph S Nye, Jr. Technology and National Security Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington D.C. He has also spent time at the Center for Strategic and International Studies working for their Transnational Threats Project. Mr. Miller is currently studying in Israel as he pursues a career in the Israeli defense community.


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