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 the bomb that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

The benefits of such innovation are clear: first, the armor and size of the vehicle protect the driver against small arms fire. Second, the massive explosive charge destroys physical barriers and enemy units and penetrates well-defended facilities. Third, sending the vehicles in waves overwhelms enemy defenses. Finally, the intimidating appearance of a fleet of Mad Max-style vehicles magnifies its impact, creating psychological terror in the minds of ISIS’ enemies—both at the point of attack and also later when ISIS broadcasts its capabilities via social media. This maneuver gave ISIS a battlefield advantage in Ramadi and played a significant role in the city’s capture.

ISIS’ barbarity is also an innovation and a key to its success. Like VBIEDs, savagery in warfare is not new—Genghis Khan is said to have massacred entire cities and built pyramids out of his victims’ severed heads—but ISIS continually develops new forms of violence. The constant parade of new atrocities helps keep the media focused on ISIS. The group’s members have shot rocket-propelled grenade at victims whom they’ve locked in cars. They’ve taken men accused of homosexuality and thrown them off of tall buildings, forcing crowds to watch, and then stoning to death anyone who somehow survived the fall. After overrunning Camp Speicher near Tikrit, Iraq in June 2014, ISIS fighters marched captured Shiite soldiers into ditches before shooting them.

All of the violence plays out in a very public manner. ISIS uses social media and the Internet to show off its horrific acts and carefully manage the messages that accompany them. By not having to rely on traditional media to frame its ideas or disseminate them, ISIS controls its own narrative and can ensure that its barbarity has the desired effect on a broad audience. For example, ISIS used social media to portray itself as the hardest hitting jihadi group in the world—with almost superhuman powers—motivating thousands of foreign fighters to join its ranks. It also used social media for intimidation by sending targeted messages to its victims. Just hours into ISIS’ invasion of Mosul in June 2014, the group posted videos of Iraqi soldiers that had been hung, crucified, or burned to death, spurring many others to shed their uniforms and flee the city.

ISIS couples its brutality with meticulous battlefield preparations. The popular belief is that, in June 2014 and May 2015, ISIS captured Mosul and Ramadi in rapid fashion, with Iraqi security forces fleeing in advance of the onslaught. This narrative overlooks the months that ISIS took to shape the battlefield beforehand. As many as nine months before taking Mosul, ISIS fighters went on an assassination campaign in the surrounding province, targeting government officials with small arms attacks and IEDs to intimidate and weaken government forces without alienating the Sunni population that ISIS hoped to rule. In the same period, ISIS used much larger IEDs, such as VBIEDs, in less-discriminatory attacks in Baghdad.

Closer to the invasion of Mosul, ISIS released a video titled “The Clanging of the Swords 4.” It showed ISIS fighters dressed as Iraqi soldiers who raided the homes of the Iraqi army and government leaders. The leaders, duped into thinking that the Iraqi soldiers had made a mistake, tried to explain themselves, exposing their identities and positions in the process, at which point ISIS fighters assassinated them in a gruesome fashion. The video went viral. Similarly, in Ramadi, ISIS spent weeks secreting civilian-dressed fighters and equipment into the city before the offensive. VBIEDs were constructed just outside the city and hidden in local buildings so that they were on-hand when needed. 


ISIS has both the resources—in terms of money, military materiel, access to space, and time—and the group attributes, such as an adaptive organizational structure and skilled, diverse human capital, that enable it to adopt innovative tactics. Other terrorist groups have some of these strengths, but not all of them at once, a deficiency that has hampered innovation. For example, Boko Haram has, at various times, had resources such as territory, space, time, and military materiel, but it has neither the ability to recruit skilled foreign fighters nor or the organizational structure needed to develop or identify innovative tactics.

Financially, ISIS has a diverse set of income streams, such as from oil revenues; taxes on non-Muslims, bank transfers, and humanitarian goods; ransoms; bank raids in conquered territories; and donations from wealthy private financiers. Some of this money is clearly being applied to its operations and supporting infrastructure—such as workshops, production facilities, training camps—all of which are critical for designing new tactics. ISIS’ vast reserves enable it to produce IEDs on a near-industrial scale and to frequently experiment with new military tactics, which ISIS can scale up or abandon as necessary.

As for military materiel, ISIS has acquired a vast store by stealing from Iraq, which is awash in arms as a result of 13 years of conflict. This started with the fall of Saddam Hussein, after which only 250,000 tons of an estimated 650,000 to one million tons of ammunition and explosives were secured, leaving most of it vulnerable to theft. More recently, ISIS fighters captured Iraqi government weapons as they rapidly overran territory. ISIS also regulated the ammunition market to keep its forces stocked, plugging into networks that supplied Iraqi insurgents for years.

This diverse and abundant supply enables ISIS to experiment, either by modifying weapons or putting them to new, unanticipated uses. For example, the group has experimented with drones, using them for reconnaissance, propaganda, and even targeted attacks. On top of all of this, ISIS can fabricate and assemble its weapons in its own facilities, which allows it to alter military hardware, create its own devices, and then produce them in larger numbers while still maintaining a degree of quality control. Most armed groups have limited military equipment, leaving them to reserve it for operations only and not for experimentation or training.

An Islamic State (ISIS) fighter holds an ISIS flag on a street in the city of Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014.

ISIS also has space: the territory that ISIS controls allows it to operate fairly freely even in the face of U.S.-led coalition air strikes. ISIS neutralizes the effects of air strikes and surveillance by operating under the cover of buildings, underground, or in the midst of civilians. Compared to al Qaeda’s position in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISIS is less constrained, making its operations—including the development, experimentation, and training of innovative tactics—easier. Just as with the abundance of money and weapons, ISIS’ expansive territory gives its fighters the space and facilities to test out and perfect new tactics before deploying them against the enemy. Near its peak, analysts identified over 100 ISIS training camps in Iraq and Syria. 

As a smaller organization, at least compared to a large state army, ISIS is more nimble, able to avoid the bureaucratic pitfalls typical of larger organizations, which tend to be more risk-averse. This allows the group to adopt innovative tactics faster than many state adversaries can adopt counter-tactics. ISIS thus has a time advantage. For example, during the 2003 Iraq War, whenever Iraqi insurgents introduced new types of IEDs, it took U.S. forces many months—and, in some cases, years—to develop and field effective countermeasures, such as jamming devices in response to radio-controlled IEDs. Even then, the insurgents proved able to adapt quickly in response, often in a matter of weeks.

Despite its growth into an organization that has many state-like characteristics, ISIS has remained nimble by staying less hierarchical relative to large state militaries. Local ISIS commanders are not tied to fixed procedures and instead are given the autonomy to complete their mission through a method of their choosing. The result is military innovation at the local level. Just as importantly, ISIS has a mechanism for recognizing local innovation and scaling it up. Naturally, ISIS keeps its structure and processes opaque, but we do know that its organizational model devolves day-to-day decision-making power to local emirs. This is done both for operational security and to allow those who are most knowledgeable about a given area to make decisions. This means that local ISIS units can adopt the military tactics that work for them. The best and most generalizable of these tactics are then pushed through the larger organization.

ISIS’ capable human capital allows it to make use of its material resources and organizational attributes. The group has an extremely diverse and skilled workforce, with fighters representing over 70 countries and a variety of age groups—ranging from under 15 to 70 years old—giving the group a multi-generational perspective. ISIS fighters generally have a higher level of education than the populations of the countries from which they come. Further, at the group’s peak, it ruled over an estimated nine million people, ensuring that ISIS has access to people with relevant technical skills.


Undermining ISIS will depend on attacking its center of gravity, its ability to innovate. Of the six factors that are central to this, four are vulnerable to countermeasures. As U.S. forces have already shown, ISIS’ financial resources and military materiel can be destroyed. Airstrikes have exacted a toll on ISIS’ finances by targeting oil infrastructure, such as tanker trucks and refineries. Continuing sanctions on ISIS keeps its oil off legitimate markets, and the oil that it does sell on the black market must be steeply discounted. Meanwhile, weak global oil markets have dropped prices from an already low $60 per barrel in 2015 to $45 per barrel in mid-2016. U.S. forces have also targeted ISIS’ financial resources, in some cases bombing banks and destroying physical cash reserves. As ISIS’ territory shrinks, the group also extracts fewer taxes and fines.

Military materiel, however, is harder to target. Certain classes of arms, such as chemical weapons, can be and have been targeted from the air. But programs to stop the flow of small arms, particularly in countries and regions with established smuggling networks and that are already awash with weapons, are less likely to be effective. The prospects of restricting explosive materiel are similarly poor: during the Iraq War, when the United States had deployed over 100,000 troops, the insurgents still managed to plant thousands of IEDs—the majority of which utilized repurposed munitions, such as artillery shells, or homemade explosives. A more realistic program would be to prioritize efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction—including precursors and materials—as well as surface-to-air missiles and crew-served weapons out of ISIS’ hands.

Reducing ISIS’ territorial hold is more straightforward, but one issue here is that ISIS has not limited itself to only Iraq and Syria where U.S.-led forces are currently focused. The group has recognized that its time is potentially short in those countries and has moved its resources to other areas, such as Libya, Afghanistan, and Egypt. ISIS also has a robust online presence, which serves as another operational domain.

Countering ISIS’ nimbleness will require substantial investment from coalition forces. General Stanley McChrystal learned this lesson early in the Iraq War. Initially, his Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces would take weeks to act on intelligence picked up during raids on high-value insurgent targets. By the time they acted on the intelligence, the insurgent network had already changed, and the information was of little use. By 2005, JSOC forces were going through the raid-collection-raid cycle three times per night. In the last few months, the U.S. Department of Defense has begun to tackle this problem with respect to ISIS by sending special operations forces to Syria and Iraq to capture or kill key leaders and gather intelligence.

ISIS’ human factor is also highly difficult to degrade. U.S. coalition forces must continue to focus on reducing the flow of foreign fighters to the area, a strategy that it is currently seeing some success. The flow of foreign fighters has been slowed by making it more difficult for fighters to leave their home countries and by shutting down border crossings into ISIS-held territory. Still, some of the success in slowing foreign fighter flows is misleading: the drop in numbers to Iraq and Syria is partly due to foreign fighters going elsewhere, such as North Africans joining the Islamic State in Libya.

Another option is to target individual ISIS fighters, particularly ones of high value—not necessarily high-value in the leadership sense but in their support of ISIS’ ability to innovate. These individuals fall into two groups. First are those that develop innovation—people with technical or tactical skills, such as in information technology, or designing and fabricating bombs and chemical weapons. Second are those that recognize innovation at the local level and then scale it up through the rest of the organization. These people are essential to ISIS’ innovation cycle and are difficult for the group to replace. They are also notoriously difficult to identify from the outside. 


The successes of U.S.-led coalition forces are promising, but reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria from ISIS will not end its threat. Until the group’s center of gravity—its ability to innovate—is destroyed, it will simply adapt to its circumstances and develop new tactics. It can set up branches in other countries or switch to a terror-intensive model, launching attacks locally and in the West.

Although the United States and its partners have made good progress toward degrading four of the six factors of innovation—financial resources, military materiel, access to space, and time—two of the more stubborn qualities, organizational structure and human capital, require more attention. Degrading these factors will require the United States to launch an intelligence “surge” in order to fully decipher the organization’s structure and means of experimentation, design, and dissemination of innovative tactics. That information is crucial for understanding what elements of the organization are most critical to its ability to innovate. Those elements could then be targeted and destroyed—however the most challenging and critical step is identifying those elements in the first place.

ISIS is hedging against a loss in Iraq and Syria and has already set up a number of other branches, as well as a robust terror network. These branches will import the best tactics from Iraq and Syria, adapt them to local conditions, and innovate when their current strategy no longer works. Identifying the factors that have enabled ISIS to adopt innovative tactics in Iraq and Syria and developing a strategy to destroy them is essential. This is the most effective way to prevent ISIS from establishing viable branches from which it can sow terror throughout the globe.

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  • DAVID L. KNOLL is a Research Analyst at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. The data for this article comes from a year-long study conducted at CNA titled, Adaptive and Innovative: An Analysis of ISIL's Tactics in Iraq and Syria.
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