The Military Structure of the " Islamic State " in "Wilayat al-Khair " (Deir ez-Zour province)

Special Report

This report contains  a study on the framework, size, combat effectiveness ,and weaponry of  ISIS .

    For a long time, the vagueness surrounding ISIS structure has been one of the deliberate ways to spread the maximum amount of awe in the spirits of its opponents, and to achieve more attraction and publicity, in addition to the stated and known security justifications. In this report, Ayn al-Madina is trying to reveal some aspects of the military structure of the "Islamic State" entity in the so-called " Wilayat al-Khair  ".

By July2014,the organization had gained complete control over Deir ez-Zour province following bloody confrontations with al-Nusra Front and other local combat groups associated with the Free Syrian Army. After that , in parallel with declaring the establishment of the "Caliphate State", ISIS worked to re-form the province , its people and its fighters in a new structure on the basis of their transformation to a part of a "State " that incorporated parts of ar-Raqqa province into Deir ez-Zour province under the name of "Wilayat al-Khair", and cut parts of Deir ez-Zour and incorporated them into Iraqi territory under the name of "Wilayat al-Furat".    "wilaya"(province)

(ISIS) then gave the Free Army regiments and brigades that remained neutral during the previous conflict two choices, either to take up their posts at the fronts of battle as supportive regiments under the organization command, or to surrender their weapons .The following months, the organization kept a tight rein on these regiments, driving them to a state of dissolution that ended by allowing these regiments to choose between joining the organization once and for all or surrendering their weapons, whereupon some fighters decided to go about their business ,whereas many others couldn't help joining the organization to make a living . the reason why ISIS was in no hurry to dissolve these regiments may be the desire to make use of the experience of the "Free Army" fighters of understanding the field data of each sector of the wide front, which is complicated in some of its parts. Another reason may be waiting for the military apparatus in "Wilayat al-Khair" (the greatest part of Deir ez-Zour province) to be completely established ,so that there would be no shortage of military manpower, which would allow ISIS to dispense with the services of these regiments.

Framework and Line of Command

The military forces in "Wilayat al-Khair" consist of four fighting divisions, and each of these divisions consists of two regiments. Each regiment consists of four companies, and each company consists of three platoons. The "wali "(governor) is considered to be the supreme commander of the forces operating in the " Wilaya"(province), while the military emir is considered to be the field commander of these forces. The amount of power, influence and effect that both the wali and the military emir have depends on the strength of the relationship with the central authorities, and the degree of respect paid to them by these authorities (see the special report on ISIS Administrative Structure published in " Ayn al-Madina",  issue 46) . Each division includes a battalion specialized in ammunition and armament, a reserve supportive battalion that backs the combat units, and an administrative office that keeps the registers and data that relate to the members registered on the lists of the division. Each regiment includes an armored battalion that consists of tanks, Shilkas and BmPs, along with a mortar battalion, and an air defence battalion, a transportation battalion, a group specialized in booby- trapping, and an ambulance group that operates starting from the rear lines .

Tree Diagram of Military Structure


Weaponry, Ammunition, and Logistic Services

Most types of the weaponry and ammunition used by the organization in battle in "Wilayat al-Khair" were made in Russia. The organization obtained them in various ways, the most important of which was confiscating the weaponry of the Free Syrian Army regiments and the other armed groups during and after its violent confrontations with them in an effort to control Deir ez-Zour province. This was in addition to what it allocated to its forces from the gains that it had obtained after its great victories in ar-Raqqa and al-Hasaka in the summer of 2014. Except for heavy vehicles and some sniper rifles and individual weapons, the weapons that ISIS gained after the defeats it had inflicted on the units of the Iraqi army in Mosul and other Iraqi areas haven't been made visible. The organization doesn't have difficulties  procuring the ammunition of individual weapons and machine ones (PKs). It is also able to easily procure the ammunition of anti-aircraft guns in a variety of caliber, while ,for several months, the organization has been facing shortages of tank shells and guided anti- armor missiles, especially Konkurs missiles, which the organization uses widely, simply because it has tens of bases that these missiles are fired from. There has arisen another problem that lies in procuring spare parts needed for maintenance works. This problem has had a major role in the decline of the effectiveness of this type of weapon. Apart from using digital communication radios and distributing them in a well-proportioned way in the organization-held areas, the organization has never showed a particular interest in the signal field and communication systems. According to the diary of the near-constant confrontations and battles against the regime's forces, it doesn't seem that the regime has achieved great successes in listening operations . As for supplies and feeding services, the organization provides additional sums to his members as food allowances, and leave it to them to appoint someone in each platoon or company to undertake this responsibility according to their desires. There are no central sewing workshops that distribute uniform to   the fighters, so each fighter can choose whatever clothing he wants- within ISIS dress code. ISIS has also implemented a pay scale for its fighters. Each fighter – of "al-Muhajireen  " (immigrants) and "al - Ansar "( Syrian fighters)receives an average of 100 dollars if he is a single. Those who are willing to get married are given an allocation of money that can reach 1000 dollars so that they can rent and furnish a place of residence. Fifty dollars is added to   the salary for the wife and another fifty dollars for each new born child. The fighter can receive rewards for his performance that are specified by his commander during battles. As for health care, ISIS fighters and their families get preferential treatment as they are examined free and get free medicine, and they get near- periodic relief portions of food and continued supplies of heating fuel and domestic gas at minimum prices.

Numbers and Ability to Make up for Shortages      

We can estimate the number of full-time fighters within the military formations of the organization by calculating the number of the ordinary and special platoons and units that each one of the four divisions in "Wilayat al-Khair"  consists of. According to the framework shown above, there are 96ordinary platoons. The number of each platoon's members is no more than20 fighters. There are also the members of the armored battalions(tanks, BMPs,Shilkas),the battalions of artillery of various kinds , the battalions of anti-aircraft guns, the transportation battalions, the reserve battalions and the booby-trapping groups . We can say, according to this data, that the organization has an army that comes to 3000-3500 fighters, and the number is growing, which is attributed to the new recruits who attend and complete the military courses that recur almost periodically. The  military nature of the organization allows it to gather much more than this number should the need arise, since everyone belonging to ISIS is considered to be a reserve fighter who may be asked, at any time, to leave his position in the other apparatuses of the" Islamic State" and join its military apparatus- all those who belong to the organization receive military training soon after they have joined it. The media and" Dawa "(attracting someone to an idea) machine of the organization always succeeds in attracting new members and "Mubayeen " (those who have sworn allegiance to the organization), particularly among teenagers. The new members receive doctrinal preparation for a month, followed by another month of hard training in camps, whereupon they become fighters who aren't sufficiently qualified, but they are full of enthusiasm, and most of them are ready to die at any time. In the battles that "Wilayat al-Khair" forces fought against al-Assad's forces on the fronts of the military airport, the fronts of Deir ez-Zour city, the western front of the city and the fronts of the Panorama and brigade 137, ISIS suffered heavy losses in the ranks of its fighters, especially in its first attack in December,2014. The losses of that attack and the battles that followed it were estimated at more than 500 killed and double this number wounded. These losses didn't affect the manpower of the combat units because the organization was able to overcome the weaknesses resulting from losing this enormous number of fighters. The organization can also make up for any similar human losses. Still,  the organization greatest problem- in "Wilayat al-Khair" at least- is its losing experienced military commanders, and its inability to qualify new commanders who have the same experience. In addition to the aforementioned numbers of fighters, the military emir can turn to the neighboring "Wilays "(provinces) for aid, which took place when "Wilayat Halap" (Aleppo province ) supplied 125 fighters to "Wilayat al-Khair" during that attack.

 By making use of their old contacts in the circle of the military emir , most of this group's members were able to get full-time marginal jobs a long way from the line of fire .

Apart from both the battles for taking control of Deir ez-Zour province in the summer of 2014 and ISIS first attempt to retake the parts that Assad's forces had advanced towards on the river island called " Hwayjit Sakhr" north of the city in the fall of 2014 ,  there has been no presence of the central elite forces of ISIS , " the Caliphate Army".

Competence  and Level of Performance                                

Except for controlling large parts of al-Jafra village, which is close beside the northern part of the military airport, and achieving some progress in the city and on the other fronts of the airport, ISIS hasn't made obvious military achievements; its major attack on the airport failed although it had assembled a lot of military equipment and fighters before that attack. Some battles, during and after that attack, revealed an unfamiliar confusion within the ranks of ISIS ; some field commanders exchanged accusations of responsibility for making mistakes , particularly some rash fooleries that had led to the death of some fighters; moreover, the organization failed to make use of the partial progress at, or the temporary control over some important points and sectors at the fronts of the military airport. The war waged by ISIS in Deir ez-Zour, and the military objectives it plans to achieve there require war sciences, leadership skills, and tactics that are higher than those possessed by ISIS young commanders or their elders. Such qualifications are possessed only by professional officers of high and middle ranks who are specialized in infantry, armor, artillery and armament. Unlike the widespread rumors that ISIS makes use of the experience of Iraqi officers who belonged to Saddam Hussein's army, no one has observed the presence of any of them before and during the battles related to the first big attack or during the current attack that started a week ago. This last attack seems to be less impulsive and more effective than the previous one in regard to making gains and keeping them, and evading heavy firepower, in which Assad's forces have superiority over ISIS's , so that there has been a low rate of human losses in the current attack compared to the previous one. Within the weeks to come, it is very likely that ISIS will inflict a partial defeat on Assad's forces in Deir ez-Zour, but it will not be decisive unless ISIS introduces new elements and means in regard to command and armament or manages to increase the frequency of the attrition of the regime's forces for successive months and to take advantage of the general decline of morale among its soldiers. Neglecting the possible results of the current attack, we can say that the military performance of the organization has been unsatisfactory and it has disappointed the hopes of many people who support it or who desire to get rid of the barbarism of Assad's forces in one way or another. This failure or unsatisfactory performance can be accounted for by the following factors:

1-a lack of experience and competence that the commanders suffer from, especially the military emir in "Wilayat al-Khair", Abul- Atheer al-Absi, who is characterized by conceit, recklessness and rashness , and is considered by most of the veteran fighters to be personally responsible for the failure of the attack on the military airport.  See al-Absi's brief life story at the end of this report.

2-ISIS list of priorities, which regards "Wilayat al-Khair" battles as less important than those in the other "Wilayas" (provinces), and this has deprived the organization from the possible intervention of the elite forces represented by the( Caliphate Army) .

3-the attacks of the Western Coalition military aircraft under the leadership of the U.S. ,which bomb the headquarters of the organization and the points of its concentration in its rear lines almost every day and hinder its movement, depriving it to a great degree of moving enormous columns and getting reinforcements of heavy equipment required by its military operations on the front lines.

The coalition aircraft excluded a specific geographic zone surrounding the fronts of fighting between ISIS and the regime . the diametrical distance of this zone ranged between(25-35)km west and east starting from the city center.

4- using airpower intensely and effectively by Assad's forces , especially the modern types of aircraft- compared to Assad's other aircraft- and as a result, Sukhoi-25s have had a major role in destroying military equipment, and killing fighters in the ranks of the attacking forces.

5-the suffering of ISIS forces in Deir ez-Zour province from lack of effective anti-tanks weapons and lack of weapons that are effective in destroying fortifications , which appeared obvious when ISIS fighters were unable to limit the effectiveness of the regime's tanks-T72 in the first days of the major first attack on the airport .

6- the absence of obvious promotion and punishment program , as that depends on the opinion and mood of the military emir, who has wide powers, and this has allowed a lot of the guilty military commanders to escape punishment and, contrary to expectations, some of them were sometimes promoted to higher positions.

Abu Qutada al-Masri ,22,who was a platoon commander, was promoted to a regiment commander instead of being punished after an act of cowardice that caused several members to be killed near the building named" Zenobia" on the perimeter of the military  airport. 

7- poor coordination between the four military divisions, and this appeared obvious when the attack started first in Deir ez-Zour city one day before starting the operations at the fronts of the military airport, which allowed the regime to get over the shock and get ready to the fullest.

8- despite the ability of the organization to create merged units, there appeared some tensions and competitive sensibilities based on geographic considerations among the members of the organization, particularly in the high ranks, and between "Muhajireen" (immigrants) and "Ansar" (local fighters) , and among "Ansar" themselves; some arguments erupted, some of which developed to threats of using weapons.

Some " Muhajireens" ( immigrants), particularly those who come from Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) ,and "Aleppo" group, who ingratiate themselves with Abu al- Atheer al-Absi, show superior behavior towards al-Ansar(Syrian members) in a way that can't be acceptable by ISIS veterans who come from Deir ez-Zour.

Points of Strength and Distinction     

Despite the numerical swelling of the organization in Deir ez-Zour, and despite the fact that large numbers of fighters have joined it out of expediency, not principle , great courage continues to be the general characteristic of ISIS fighters, which can be accounted for by the combat doctrine  that the processes of morale mobilization spread during and after the sharia course and the military course ; this mobilization succeeds in driving the fighters- especially those who are young- to death for the caliphate and in the hope of going to Paradise . Most fighters believe that such a death isn't frightening or painful , whereas Assad's forces adopt another belief system that is typified – in the case of most soldiers - by doing one's best to escape and only defending oneself  in hard moments, thus abandoning the lies about dying for home and its leader, which they have always heard and kept saying. Another point that characterizes the Islamic State organization is typified by its ability to prepare suicide bombers- they have always been more than the number that is needed-  ready to storm the fortifications of the enemy and explode their booby- trapped vehicles , undermining its ranks. The success or failure of such operations in making Assad's soldiers feel shock and terror to the fullest has often had a role in deciding the outcome of the subsequent battle. We can add to the two previous points the blind obedience that the fighters of the organization owe to their seniors, and their strict adherence to the orders, drawing their inspiration from the values of constancy, fortitude and sacrifice, no matter how bad the situation during battles is. These principles have played, without doubt, a prominent role in frustrating a lot of the counter- attacks that Assad's forces have waged. The following table shows approximate statistics – prepared exclusively to Ayn al-Madina- on the effective weapons that ISIS forces in " Wilayat al-Khair " have .

Notes Quantity Item

ISIS has another 15 tanks that don't work.

They are likely to be used as booby-trapped vehicles.

30 Tanks of various types (T-55s, T,62s,T-72s)
ISIS has another 10 ones that are likely to be used as booby – trapped vehicles. 25 BMPs
The systems designed for repulsing aircraft don't work. Shilkas are used as machine guns during clashes . 20 Shilkas
  8 pieces Field artillery 130 mm
  10 pieces Field artillery120 mm
  20 pieces Pieces of artillery 57 mm
  unknown Mortars of various types (60,80,120)mm
It is used in clashes besides its main function as an anti-aircraft weapon. It is often mounted on pick-up trucks with four- wheel drive. 50 Anti-aircraft machine gun23mm
It is used in clashes besides its main function as an anti-aircraft weapon. It is often mounted on pick-up trucks with four- wheel drive. 80 Anti-aircraft machine gun 14,5 mm
It is used in clashes besides its main function as an anti-aircraft weapon. 50 Anti-aircraf tmachine gun"Dushka"12,7 mm
  unknown Guided anti-tank missiles" Konkurs"
They are widely used in clashes. unknown RPG-7 +RPG-29 shells

Influential  and  Prominent  Military  Figures Until Recently  

As it has already been mentioned in this report, there are no competent military figures among the organization officials in "Wilayat al-Khair" . Most of its commanders are young and bloody-tempered, and come from a civilian background. Thus, it is difficult to attribute ISIS military successes- at least here – to what is rumored that there are experts and meticulous plans. Superiority in numbers, dispersing the opponents, isolating them and dealing with them individually,  sowing secret "mubayeens"   (members who have sworn allegiance to the organization ) , and the solidity of most fighters and their readiness to die-all these facts are what accounts for the organization successes.

Abu al-Atheer al-Absi : Amro al-Absi. He was born in 1979 to a family from Idlib countryside. His family emigrated to Saudi Arabia during the bloody events of the 1980s. He was an engineering student. He was a detainee in the notorious military prison of Seednaya(2007-2011). He was set free, and soon later he participated in the military action. He was a member in the so- called "Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen" (a council for exchanging opinions and points of view among the jihadis ) , which had been established  by his brother Firas . Murdering this brother at the hands of a regiment that belonged to the Free Army impacted him so greatly that it drove him to take a militant attitude towards those whom ISIS name al-Sahawat  (vigilantes), particularly when he was Aleppo emir. He is known for his being so brutal and rough that he is believed to have some psychological disorders. His reckless commands caused the death of tens of the organization members.

Abu Dujhana al-Zur : Ahmad Muhammad Ubaid al-Dahham, born in 1990 . Before the uprising, he had been running a sanitary ware store owned by his father besides working in a station for filtering drinking water . He was among the first to join al-Nusra Front in the winter of 2012. After that, he joined ISIS as soon as it was established in the spring of 2013. He had a prominent role in ISIS control over Deir ez-Zour province. He has tremendous bravery, a nervous mood and extreme cruelty.

Abu Nusaiba al-Leebi: His real name is unknown. He is 25. He was formerly a commander In the dissolved Libyan al-Battar regiment. He is brave, calm and modest. He operated on the front of the military airport.

Abu Anas al-Shami : His real name is unknown. He is 25. He comes from Aleppo countryside. He is one of those who are close to the military emir, Abu al-Atheer, who appointed him commander of a division. This appointment is considered a famous example-in the ranks of ISIS - of the failure of the military emir's choices ,as Abu Anas doesn't have any fighting experience or knowledge, added to this his personal qualities, which some informed opinions attribute to his being the son of a former high- ranking officer in the regime's army, seeing that he is characterized by the familiar qualities of the sons of officers; he is conceited and looks down on those who are junior to him.

Abu al-Harith bin Ladin: Ahmad al-Sukhni,35 . He comes from Maadan town in ar-Raqqa province. He was among the first who joined the organization. He had held the position of Maadan emir before he took over the leadership of ISIS military body in Deir ez-Zour western countryside. After that, he transferred to other areas.He died a few days ago as a result of injuries in action.

Abul Abbas al- Khurayta: He is in his early 30s. He comes from al-Khurayta town in Deir ez-Zour countryside. He worked in various areas before he took over the command of one of the four divisions. He is known to be cowardly, and he adheres to the desires of the military emir to the letter.

This report appeared in issue 48-49 ,May 2015

Translated by Fayez Masri