How ISIS Endures By Innovating

The Group's True Center of Gravity

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Since U.S.-led airstrikes began in August 2014, the Islamic State (or ISIS) has lost a substantial portion of its territory and half of its oil revenues. Its ability to recruit foreign fighters has also been diminished. However, buoyed by the apparently imminent demise of its foe, the U.S.-led coalition has neglected to take out ISIS’ true center of gravity: its ability to innovate. ISIS is on the retreat in Iraq and Syria. But if the group’s skill for developing inventive tactics is not destroyed, it will continue to replicate itself elsewhere, inspiring and directing terror attacks globally.


Not all of the tactics that ISIS used in Iraq and Syria are innovative—far from it. When conditions warrant, fighters use time-tested methods such as ambushes, sniper fire, and human shields. If old approaches are effective, there is no need to devote scarce resources to developing new ones. However, in a number of cases, ISIS has had to think outside the box. That is what helped the group capture so much territory in 2014–15.

In military terms, innovation involves a change that significantly affects the battlefield. Military innovations are not all the same—they fall on a spectrum that ranges from incremental to the truly disruptive. ISIS innovates at the incremental end of the spectrum, which while not as disruptive as, say, the invention of the atom bomb, still has serious impact. Taken together, ISIS’ novel techniques have been central to the group’s success.

In May 2015, ISIS deployed waves of massive VBIEDs or vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices—typically car bombs—to capture Ramadi. Although IEDs and car bombs have been used extensively in recent decades, ISIS added its own twist in the use of heavy vehicles, such as Humvees and dump trucks, plated with armor, filled with enormous explosive loads, and used in rapid succession. ISIS sent more than 25 of these VBIEDs in Ramadi, one-third of which were packed with at least as much power as

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