Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University. He recently published an article “The Islamic State’s Anbar Offensive And Abu Umar Al-Shisahni” in War on the Rocks that documented the Islamic State’s (IS) on going Anbar offensive and the role of one of its commanders, Abu Omar al-Shishani. To shed more light on this insurgent leader and the Islamic State’s strategy and tactics in Iraq and Syria is an interview with Gartenstein-Ross. He can be followed on Twitter at
1. You just wrote this great piece about the Islamic State’s (IS) Anbar offensive and focused on one its commanders, Abu Omar al-Shishani. Can you explain a little bit about his background?
Omar al-Shishani is of Chechen origin. He was actually born in Georgia, in the Pankisi Valley. He served in the Georgian army, and took part in the 2008 conflict with Russia. He was in an intelligence unit serving near the frontline, where he spied on Russian tank columns and relayed their coordinates to Georgian artillery units.
Shishani had to leave the military after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He got into some legal trouble, as he was imprisoned for fifteen months for illegally harboring weapons, seemingly in support of militant groups in Chechnya. Then, as soon as Shishani was released, he left Georgia, only to resurface in 2013 in Syria where he was leading a militant group called the Army of Emigrants and Partisans.
2. One of the interesting things you talked about in your article was that IS is launching this big offensive in Anbar, and they’re trying to take Kobane in Syria, while not seemingly focusing upon Baghdad right now. It seems like they have all these conflicting priorities that sometimes serve their purposes and sometimes don’t. Could you explain that a little bit?
The use of gun trucks like these in quick strikes is a hallmark of the tactics used by Shishani in Anbar (Shafaq News)
I think Baghdad is important to them. Islamic State leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi would love to roll in and take Baghdad, but it’s a question of capabilities. Baghdad is a very difficult target to take.
As to their tactics, they differ from one area to another, primarily based upon who their commanders are. But Shishani is somewhat unique among IS’s commanders. Shishani is fighting like an insurgent. He’s using a complex style in Anbar, relying on a very small force, compared to the units trying to take Kobane. Shishani’s forces emphasize speed and agility. They’ll hit multiple targets on the same day, and engage in harassing attacks to try to draw out the enemy, the Iraqi Security Forces or the Sahwa. Then he loves trapping the people he’s able to draw out that are in pursuit of him.
In contrast, in Kobane IS is fighting a very conventional war, nothing even resembling insurgent tactics. They have committed more and more men in an effort to take the city. It’s been incredibly costly to the Islamic State.
In general, I think IS has made a lot of mistakes, but if you look at Shishani, he’s made very few errors. I think he’s a pretty remarkable commander.
3. Why do you think the Islamic State is spending so much time and effort on Kobane when it doesn’t seem to be a strategic city? It has a large Kurdish population. It’s right on the Turkish border. It’s putting a lot of pressure on Ankara, which has turned a blind eye to IS because it’s more concerned about the Assad government. It seems like Kobane is doing more harm than good to IS. Why do you think they’re going after this city?
I think it’s a mistake for IS to do so, but they have gained some concrete things from their advance on Kobane. For one thing, the advance on Kobane has been a PR victory for them—although that’s changing: as time passes and IS remains unable to capture Kobane, its assault is being transformed from a symbol of strength to one of weakness. A lot of IS’s business model is based on constantly winning. They’re dependent upon both drawing in fighters from overseas and also preventing defections from their ranks. A good portion of their current manpower came from people who defected to them in Syria because of IS’s apparent strength. But if IS starts losing on the battlefield, the group could end up losing a lot of manpower--something I think will ultimately happen.
On the other hand, in terms of a geographic location, Kobane is pretty out of the way. IS has taken a lot of damage in their attempt to capture it. As they’ve gone in to try to take Kobane, Turkey has put its military on the border, which makes it extraordinary difficult for IS to build off of any victory it might achieve. So I think that Kobane doesn’t gain them much, even if they do capture it. It’s not a strategic advance. In contrast, they have gained quite a bit from Shishani’s advance in Anbar.
4. Do you have any predictions about how IS is going to progress in the next couple months. What kinds of targets they might go after, etc.?
It’s hard to say. Clearly they’ve been making some moves toward Baghdad. Before that happens, they’re going to try to take Ramadi. The key question is whether they’re going to be put under serious military pressure. If coalition forces undertake an offensive against Mosul, for example, that could put IS on their back foot: It could cause them to play defense rather than claim new territory.
Gartenstein-Ross, Daveed, “The Islamic State’s Anbar Offensive and Abu Umar al-Shishani,” War on the Rocks, 10/9/14