- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 21, 2016

Even in losing, the Islamic State group has shown it conducts a “lessons learned” exercise so it won’t repeat battlefield mistakes.

Whether it can forestall what the Obama administration predicts is an inevitable defeat in Syria and Iraq is doubtful. But the fighters’ attention to U.S. rules of engagement has paid dividends at times.

Learning lessons in war is a major intellectual exercise by the U.S. military and other advanced armed forces. The Army operates the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Although the Islamic State does not operate at that level of sophistication, its leaders do make changes on the run.

Islamic State commanders believe crowding vehicles with people makes it difficult for U.S. spy assets to determine whether civilians are aboard. It knows from public debate in Washington that the Obama administration wants an absolute minimum of civilian deaths.

The most recent “lessons learned” is the mass exit last week from the Syrian town of Manbij, north of Aleppo near the Turkish border. U.S.-backed Syrian Arab forces liberated the city by chasing out a large number of Islamic State fighters.

The U.S. chose not to launch airstrikes against the convoys, letting the fighters live to terrorize on another front.

Manbij escapees filled their ranks with enough civilians so U.S. intelligence, be it drones or satellites or human sources, could see the human shields and decide to hold fire.

“We have repeatedly mentioned the care that our partnered forces were taking to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage, so the partnered forces on the ground did not engage the convoy,” said Col. Christopher Garver, an Army spokesman.

How did they learn this lesson? Rewind to late June. The Islamic State lost more territory in western Iraq when victorious local forces cracked through the beleaguered city of Fallujah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad.

The terrorists organized a mass retreat via scores of vehicles. But it was sans civilians.

The U.S. was watching the entire time and unleashed killing machines of Iraqi helicopter gunships and coalition aircraft. A second escaping convoy was decimated near Ramadi, another town liberated by the Iraqis. There were no reports of civilians killed in the air assaults, which the Iraqi military videotaped from a helicopter and proudly posted on YouTube, complete with dire background music.

“They learned from Fallujah,” said a Pentagon official, referring to the Manbij escape. “We don’t attack if civilians are in the way.”

Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and counterterrorism analyst, chronicles the war each day in an email memo to his national security audiences.

“ISIS is a resilient organization that studies its enemy and adjusts its approach accordingly,” he said in a memo prepared last week for The Washington Times. “We may eventually retake much of the territory ISIS now controls in Syria and Iraq but that’s too late. It has already claimed a foothold in 23 countries which establishes itself as an expansive caliphate that will take decades to defeat if at all.”

Some of the tactics the Islamic State changed, according to Mr. Maginnis:

Spreading leaders to different locations in Iraq and Syria and keeping them on the move. Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is thought to be in and around Raqqa, Syria, his self-ordained capital. The U.S. has been actively hitting him for two years and come up empty.

Discarding cellphones traceable by the National Security Agency in favor of a plentiful assortment of encrypted communications apps developed by tech giants in Europe and the U.S. A favorite app for terrorists is Telegram, developed by a Russian exile living in Germany.

Watching the flow of migrants into Europe and sending fighters disguised among them.

Sending suicide bombers into the heart of Baghdad to draw Iraq forces to the city and slow their march toward Mosul, the last remaining urban sprawl controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq.

“They’re much more careful with electronic communications,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who commanded troops in Iraq and is a scholar at the nonprofit Institute for the Study of War. “They move at times and in ways to attempt to either distract, confuse, or avoid our observation. They take advantage of our care to avoid civilian casualties. They take advantage of our care to avoid attacking humanitarian targets.”

The use of Manbij human shields is also a lessons learned for coalition forces when they invade other towns.

“I think this tactic may be more widely used in other operations,” Mr. Dubik said.

As for al-Baghdadi learning how to avoid death, Mr. Dubik said, “My bet is that he’s doing a lot of what Zarqawi did. Sleeping in different places each night, move deliberately but seemingly randomly, stay off the grid, communicate only through trusted agents, disguises, deceptions, and the like.”

“Zarqawi” is Abu Musab Zarqawi, the brutal leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by a U.S. airstrike after an unwitting cleric led special operations forces to his hideout in 2006.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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