ISIS Annual Reports Reveal a Metrics-Driven Military Command
May 22, 2014 - Alex Bilger
This piece is the second in a brief series of publications that examine activity by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in Syria and Iraq. ISIS is active on both sides of the border, executing complex attacks in Deir ez-Zour and organizing local governance efforts, while carrying out a well-organized campaign in Iraq. Upcoming releases from ISW will examine these issues in greater detail.
On March 31, 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) published a new edition of “al-Naba” [The Report], its “annual report” covering the period of November 2012 to November 2013. The Arabic language report, over 400 pages long, was first published by the I’tisaam Media Foundation, ISIS’s main media arm, and then re-posted online by secondary sources. This report is the second known ISIS report publicizing the results of their military campaign in Iraq. In August 2013, ISIS published a similar report covering the period of November 2011 – November 2012. This report was posted to the al-Shumukh jihadist forum, one of al-Qaeda’s primary information outlets. Although the covers of the report refer to them as the “fifth” and “fourth” years, respectively, no previous editions appear to be available online. Possibly these years refer to an organizational milestone, rather than a first edition, given that the quantity of military operations between 2009 – 2011 was not as significant. The repeated publication of consecutive annual reports indicates that the ISIS military command in Iraq has exercised command and control over a national theater since at least early 2012. ISIS in Iraq is willing and able to organize centralized reporting procedures and to publish the results of its performance to achieve organizational effects. Such organizational effects might include attracting the attention of potential donors to ISIS’s cause and also showing off an increasingly structured organization capable of more than just attacking haphazardly.
There are many reasons why a military organization would collect and publish attack metrics. First, metrics effectively demonstrate the use of centrally distributed resources, such as suicide bombers. Second, metrics provide a higher command with a means to compare subordinate commands and to control main efforts. Third, attack metrics provide a means to communicate organizational efficacy to outside parties, such as donors, al-Qaeda groups, and adversaries. While the contents of the annual report are more significant as a message than as a measurement of actual attacks, it is important to understand what ISIS is reporting about its own performance in order to understand its own narrative about the war in Iraq.
This essay will examine the statistics provided by ISIS in its two consecutive annual reports. Where possible, this report will compare the attack statistics reported by ISIS to other sources of information, such as local news and previous ISW assessments. This verification will not be possible in every instance; therefore, this report will not attempt a full quantitative or content analysis. Rather, this report is a preliminary summary in order to point out that ISIS is claiming credit for significant battlefield effects, including some that are not readily observable in open source reporting. In particular, ISIS describes its campaign for Ninewa as a main effort, which is only incidentally apparent from local news because ISIS has silenced journalists in that area through intimidation since January 2014.
It is important to remember that the number of attacks reported by ISIS may be exaggerated or irregularly reported; for example, it is unclear from their reported numbers how ISIS categorizes complex attacks that include more than one attack type (a raid of a building preceded by a suicide vest attack, for example). A more intensive analysis of the Arabic report content may identify monthly trends and other significant insights into how ISIS interprets data. ISIS reporting about its campaign in Ninewa makes these documents an important resource. Further analysis may also explain how ISIS in Iraq conceptualizes phased operations; how operations are resourced; and how subordinate commands operate.