ISIL and the tactics of death

Death is a recruitment tool which poses a dilemma for ISIL’s enemies – they cannot kill their way to victory.

ISIL fighters in Aleppo province
ISIL fighters in Aleppo province [Al Jazeera]

This week marks the year anniversary of the start of an ISIL offensive that would quickly dominate the politics of the region and the international headlines. The rapid overrunning of a third of Iraq and much of Syria was followed by the symbolic destruction of colonially drawn borders and the declaration of a “caliphate”.

Too often, however, the brutality of ISIL’s tactics has obscured an analysis of the group’s strengths and weaknesses. World leaders regularly refer to the group as “cruel”, “barbaric” or a “death cult”. Yet, what is clear is that ISIL have taken the narrative of al-Qaeda and discussions on “terror” and “terrorism” to a new more deadly and effective paradigm.

Inside Story: ISIL’s tactics in Iraq

Whereas previously there were states that sponsored “terror” or states that had “terrorist” groups operating within their borders, today such is the current weakness of the modern Middle Eastern state system that ISIL have managed to carve out their own state within it. 

Obvious contrast

In an important work, the academic Lisa Stampnitzky wrote that “terrorism” has “become the dominant framework for understanding illegitimate political violence”. Yet legitimacy and consent are critically important concepts for ISIL and their systems of power, something not often seen by observers reluctant to look past the mayhem and destruction of the group’s tactics.

Osama bin Laden once claimed that al-Qaeda would beat the US as “[al-Qaeda] loves death. The US loves life. That is the difference between us two”. ISIL, both a mutation and evolution from bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, has come to embrace both the tactics and the strategy of death that poses serious questions for its opponents.

ISIL venerates death and poses the question to a global audience that if you’re looking for a purpose in life what can be better than a meaningful death as part of the fight for the caliphate?


Indeed, there is an obvious contrast between ISIL’s brutal ground fighting and use of suicide attackers and the risk adverse US air force over Syria or “trainers” avoiding the front lines in Iraq. Some 10,000 ISIL fighters are reported to have died in US air strikes in the past nine months while not a single US pilot has been lost. Yet the limits of air power have been highlighted by the recent fall of Ramadi and Palmyra.

Much of the focus on ISIL has been on what they’ve been willing to kill for – often in a brutal and horrific manner. Yet ISIL has demonstrated the effective use of the tactics of death both as a means of seizing territory – via the use of coordinated multiple suicide attacks – and as a strategy that prompts larger and better opponents to lay down their arms and flee.

Death is also a recruitment tool which again poses the dilemma for ISIL’s enemies that they cannot kill their way to victory. ISIL venerates death and poses the question to a global audience that if you’re looking for a purpose in life what can be better than a meaningful death as part of the fight for the caliphate?

Recruitment tool

As a former al-Qaeda member told the Guardian, the ISIL offer says that “the shortest path to heaven is jihad and martyrdom. New recruits to ISIL went to nightclubs, took drugs, were members of gangs and had sexual relations out of wedlock. They want absolution, forgiveness. The thirst for redemption is there. And ISIL is catering to that need”.

Although this may seem like an illegitimate call to most people, its success takes the form of 25,000 recruits from over 100 countries that have rallied to ISIL’s black flag to date.

The development of the Iraqi army will be fundamentally flawed unless the national vision that they fight for is one they consider worth dying for. It is no coincidence that the most successful opponent of ISIL to date has been the Kurdish Peshmerga – which translated means “those who face death” – a fighting force whose authorities have a legitimacy of which Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi could only dream.

Indeed, following Ramadi’s fall it was notable that Abbadi turned to both Shia militias and a general attempt at popular mobilisation rather than the well-equipped but brittle Iraqi military.

The famous British World War I poet Wilfred Owen wrote with bitter irony that “it is sweet and right to die for your country”. The impressive 63-strong coalition lined up against ISIL is prepared to do the killing but not the dying; this begs the question as to who is displaying greater legitimacy to their respective constituencies. 

Worse may be yet to come as the Institute for the Study of War warned that “for the past three years, ISIL has conducted major offensive operations during the Ramadan holy month, accomplishing its major annual campaign objectives”. The region braces itself for ISIL’s next move. 

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.