Military activity of ISIL


Libya Libya


In Iraq and Syria
200,000[18] (Kurdish claims in 2014)
70,000 (Russian military estimate in 2014)[19]
100,000[20] (Jihadist claim in 2015)
20,000–31,000[21] (CIA estimate in 2014)
20,000–25,000[22][23] (CIA estimate in early 2016)
15,000–20,000 (Estimate given by U.S. officials in August 2016)[24][25]

Outside Iraq and Syria

Headquarters Ar-Raqqah

Iraq War

International campaign against ISIL

Iraqi insurgency

Syrian Civil War

Second Libyan Civil War

Sinai insurgency

List of wars and battles involving ISIL Yemeni Civil War (2015)


Abu Suleiman al-Naser 
(Current Head of Military Council)[48]

Black Standard (variant)

The military of ISIL is the fighting force of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The total force size has been estimated from tens of thousands to over two hundred thousand. ISIL's armed forces grew quickly during 2014. The ISIL military, including groups incorporated into it in 2014, openly operates and controls territory in Iraq, Syria, multiple cities in Libya, and Nigeria.[10][11] In October 2016, it conquered the city of Qandala in Puntland, Somalia.[12] It also has made border clashes and incursions into Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan. ISIL-linked groups operate in Algeria, Pakistan,[8] the Philippines,[13][14] and in West Africa (Cameroon, Niger, and Chad).[10] In January 2015, ISIL was also confirmed to have a military presence in Afghanistan[7] and in Yemen.[6] Additionally, in early February 2015, it was reported that ISIL was smuggling fighters into the European Union, by disguising them as civilian refugees.[16] An ISIL representative said that ISIL had successfully smuggled 4,000 fighters, and that the smuggled fighters were planning attacks in Europe to retaliate for the airstrikes carried out against ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. However, experts believe that the ISIL's claim of 4,000 was exaggerated by the group as part of an effort to boost their stature and spread fear, although they acknowledged that some of the Western countries are aware of the smuggling.[17] A significant number of ISIL fighters are from outside Iraq and Syria.

Their military is based on mobile foot militant units using light vehicles such as gun equipped pick-up trucks (technicals), motorbikes and buses for fast advances. They also use artillery, tanks and armored vehicles captured from the Iraqi and Syrian Armies. It is alleged that the ISIL military had gained control of 3 aircraft from the Syrian Army and are flying them over Syria, although two of these were reportedly shot down by Syria.

ISIL has a long history of using truck and car bombs, suicide bombers, and IEDs. They have also deployed chemical weapons in Iraq and Syrian Kurdistan. Other terror tactics include genocide, mass executions (including beheadings), psychological operations through sophisticated propaganda, widespread torture of prisoners, and organized sexual violence and slavery.

Command structure

According to the Institute for the Study of War, ISIL's 2013 annual report reveals a metrics-driven military command, which is "a strong indication of a unified, coherent leadership structure that commands from the top down".[50] Middle East Forum's Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said, "They are highly skilled in urban guerrilla warfare while the new Iraqi Army simply lacks tactical competence."[51]

ISIL's Military Council is made up of numerous former military officers from the Saddam Hussein era. Commanders have included Haji Bakr, a colonel; Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi, a captain; and Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, a lieutenant colonel, who all graduated from the same Iraqi military academy.[52] Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, al-Baghdadi's former deputy, was a Military Intelligence lieutenant colonel. All these men spent time detained in Camp Bucca during the American occupation of Iraq[52][53] Abu Omar al-Shishani, who served in the Georgian Army before leading an ISIL unit in Syria, also became a prominent commander.[54]

ISIL’s fighters are reportedly organised into seven branches: infantry, snipers, air defence, special forces, artillery forces, the “army of adversity”, and the Caliphate Army. This force structure is largely replicated in each of its designated provinces, with the most skilled fighters and military strategists in each area serving in the special forces unit, which is not allowed to redeploy to other provinces. Parallel to this structure is the Caliphate Army, which is directed by ISIL’s central command rather than its provincial leadership. Made up overwhelmingly of foreign fighters, it is deployed to assist in battles across ISIL controlled territory.[55] There is also an all-female Al-Khansaa Brigade tasked with policing religious laws.[56] According to battle reports ISIL often operates in small mobile fighting units.

The group also operates outside areas it largely controls using a cell structure. An ISIL-linked senior militant commander in Sinai told Reuters, “They [ISIL] teach us how to carry out operations. We communicate through the internet, ... they teach us how to create secret cells, consisting of five people. Only one person has contact with other cells. They are teaching us how to attack security forces, the element of surprise. They told us to plant bombs then wait 12 hours so that the man planting the device has enough time to escape from the town he is in.”[57]


Troops in Iraq and Syria

In June 2014, ISIL had at least 4,000 fighters in Iraq,[58] and the CIA estimated in September 2014 that it had 20,000–31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria.[59] The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that the force numbers around 80,000–100,000 total (up to 50,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq).[60][61] Reuters quoted "jihadist ideologues" as claiming that ISIL has 40,000 fighters and 60,000 supporters,[20] while a Kurdish leader estimated in November 2014 that ISIL's military had 200,000 fighters.[18]

Some Syrian rebel factions have defected to ISIL, including the 1,000 soldier strong Dawud Brigade in July 2014.[62] In addition to volunteers and jihadists, ISIL is known for forcing other rebel groups, and conscripting individuals, to submit to and fight for ISIL. Many reports say troops and equipment move between various parts of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon as tactical needs arise.

Foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria

There are many foreign fighters in ISIL's ranks. In June 2014, The Economist reported that "ISIS may have up to 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000–5,000 in Syria, including perhaps 3,000 foreigners; nearly a thousand are reported to hail from Chechnya and perhaps 500 or so more from France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe."[63] Chechen leader Abu Omar al-Shishani, for example, was made commander of the northern sector of ISIL in Syria in 2013.[64][65] According to The New York Times, in September 2014 there were more than 2,000 Europeans and 100 Americans among ISIL's foreign fighters.[66] As of mid-September 2014, around 1,000 Turks had joined ISIL,[67] and as of October 2014, 2,400–3,000 Tunisians had joined the group.[68] An ISIL deserter alleged that foreign recruits were treated with less respect than Arabic-speaking Muslims by ISIL commanders and were placed in suicide units if they lacked otherwise useful skills.[69] According to a UN report, an estimated 15,000 fighters from nearly 70 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join militant groups, including ISIL.[70]

Despite thousands of foreign volunteers, Reuters has stated that according to jihadist ideologues 90 percent of ISIL's fighters in Iraq are Iraqi and 70 percent of its fighters in Syria are Syrian.[20]

Number of nationals fighting for ISIL

Note List does not include nationals of Iraq and Syria (except for nationals of Iraqi Kurdistan).

As of September 29, 2015, the CIA estimated that 30,000 foreign fighters had joined ISIS.[71] As of October 2015, 21% came from Europe, 50% from the Middle East or North Africa, and 29% from elsewhere; according to the Global Terrorism Index and other sources, they were of the following nationalities:[72]

Allegiance to ISIL from groups outside Iraq and Syria


Conventional weapons

The most common weapons used against US and other Coalition forces during the Iraq insurgency were those taken from Saddam Hussein's weapon stockpiles around the country. These included AKM variant assault rifles, PK machine guns and RPG-7s.[128] ISIL has been able to strengthen its military capability by capturing large quantities and varieties of weaponry during the Syrian Civil War and Post-US Iraqi insurgency. These weapons seizures have improved the group's capacity to carry out successful subsequent operations and obtain more equipment.[129] Weaponry that ISIL has reportedly captured and employed include SA-7[130] and Stinger[131] surface-to-air missiles, M79 Osa, HJ-8[132] and AT-4 Spigot[130] anti-tank weapons, Type 59 field guns[132] and M198 howitzers,[133] Humvees, T-54/55, T-72, and M1 Abrams[134] main battle tanks,[132] M1117 armoured cars,[135] truck-mounted DShK guns,[130] ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns,[136][137] BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers,[129] and at least one Scud missile.[138]

ISIL shot down an Iraqi helicopter in October 2014, and claims to have shot down "several other" helicopters in 2014. Observers fear that they have "advanced surface-to-air missile systems" such as the Chinese-made FN-6, which are thought to have been provided to Syrian rebels by Qatar and/or Saudi Arabia, and purchased or captured by ISIL.[139]


ISIL also captured fighter aircraft in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported in October 2014 that former Iraqi pilots were training ISIL militants to fly captured Syrian jets. Witnesses reported that MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets were flying over al-Jarrah military airport, but the US Central Command said it was not aware of flights by ISIL-operated aircraft in Syria or elsewhere.[140] On 21 October, the Syrian Air Force claimed that it had shot down two of these aircraft over al-Jarrah air base while they were landing.[141]


ISIL captured nuclear materials from Mosul University in July 2014. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Iraq's UN Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim said that the materials had been kept at the university and "can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction". Nuclear experts regarded the threat as insignificant. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that the seized materials were "low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk".[142][143]

Reports suggest that ISIL captured Saddam era chemical weapons from an Iraqi military base[144] and has deployed chlorine gas based chemical weapons against Iraqi Government forces, Syrian Government and Syrian Opposition Forces,[145] and unidentified chemical weapons against Kurds in Kobanî, Syria.

ISIL has a long history of using truck and car bombs, suicide bombers, and IEDs.

See also


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