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The Man Behind The Islamic State


In Iraq today, Kurdish and Iraqi forces say they've retaken control of the Mosul Dam aided by U.S. airstrikes. President Obama confirmed that this afternoon. The dam was captured earlier this month by jihadist fighters of the self-declared Islamic State or IS. In recent months, IS has attacked and taken over wide swaths of Iraq. The man leading the group is a soldier-Imam Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson has written about him in the Small Wars Journal. I asked him to describe the commander's war-fighting style.

GARY ANDERSON: Whether he's learned it formally or not, he's a classic maneuver warrior. He uses his reconnaissance - people that probably don't have much in the way of recognition in the community but have eyes and can give him reports. And he can see where the surfaces and gaps are in the enemy's defenses. And he can go for the gaps. And the other thing that he does is he gives mission-oriented orders. In other words, he tells his people what to do not how to do it. And he trusts his commanders to get the job done or let him know if they can't do it so he can go and attack someplace else.

CORNISH: Expand more on that idea. You called this maneuver warfare?

ANDERSON: Maneuver warfare is a relatively new term but it's been practiced for a long time. It's something that the Marine Corps and the Army embraced as their operational doctrine in the late-'80s. But it's a lot easier for a guy like Baghdadi to implement it, simply because he doesn't have the communications and the things that allow commanders to over-centralize their control. He uses motorcycle messengers and other means - doesn't use cell phones or radios and so forth. So it's a lot harder for the Americans and anybody else to listen in and intercept his orders. That makes him a real hard target.

CORNISH: Al-Baghdadi's also been leading ISIS in fighting several different enemies at once, right? I mean, he's fighting the Syrian government. They're fighting Syrian moderate opposition rebel groups, the Iraqi government, now Kurdish fighters. How has he made the most of the size of his fighting force?

ANDERSON: Well, I think what he's able to do is concentrate on an enemy that's closest to him or most dangerous or gives him the most opportunity. He basically lives off the land like Napoleon and Genghis Khan did. So he doesn't have those long lines of logistics trains and all that sort of thing that burden Western armies.

CORNISH: And when you say lives off the land, you mean the spoils of war, right? Essentially, taking money from cities like Mosul and taking whatever he needs from the communities that he takes over?

ANDERSON: Absolutely. He's able to, quote, "tax the populations that he's taken over," so consequently, doesn't need a lot in the way of fuel and ammunition being dragged for miles and miles. He's basically been capturing the stuff that he needs from the Iraqi forces as they move away from him.

CORNISH: Now what, if any, effect can airstrikes by Iraq, by the U.S. have on changing the dynamic?

ANDERSON: In a place like the Mosul Dam, he's at a disadvantage because there's not a lot of population to hide among so it's fairly easy to spot his defensive positions. He may have overstretched a little bit in trying to take and hold that thing, but I don't think he expected the Americans - the Americans actually started using air power about the time he took the dam. I think he might've rethought that if he'd known that we were going to be using air power the way we did. But to be very honest with you, air power is not going to destroy Baghdadi. It could slow him down. At some point in time, somebody is going to have to go in with boots on the ground and root out the foreign fighters who probably the population doesn't like.

CORNISH: And by somebody are you suggesting that that is the U.S.?

ANDERSON: Well, I know it's not a popular thing. American people think that they're tired of war, but there's going to be a lot less tired when some of his American passport holders come back and start shooting up shopping malls and things like that. I think the watchword that I would use is visit the caliphate before the caliphate visits you.

CORNISH: Gary Anderson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: That's retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson talking about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.