The video opens with high-definition footage shot from a drone flying over an oil refinery in central Iraq, but this video isn’t from a multi-million-dollar American drone. It’s from a drone operated by the Islamic State that likely cost a few thousand dollars. And the refinery – Iraq’s largest – is held by government forces, who have been besieged by the militants for the better part of a year.
The video, called “Defiant Attack on the Apostates at the Refinery,” began appearing on jihadist-linked websites and Twitter accounts last week. It heralded an Islamic State assault on the oil refinery at Baiji, where Iraqi government soldiers have held out since last summer against surrounding Islamic State troops. In the end, the government kept hold of the refinery, the country’s largest, with the help of 47 airstrikes by the United States and a massive influx of Iraqi reinforcements.
But beyond the outcome of the refinery battle, military analysts who’ve viewed the video find it alarming because it shows that the Islamic State retains a surprisingly high level of military skill despite months of daily airstrikes by U.S. aircraft and their coalition allies.
“The overall takeaway from this and several other videos like it, and this opinion is borne out by the facts on the ground, is that Daash remains better trained, more motivated, better led and supported by a logistical infrastructure that the Iraqi government is literally incapable of delivering to their own troops,” said one former British special forces soldier who consults with the Iraqi Kurdish government on military affairs. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his role in Iraq. Daash is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The nearly 15-minute-long video follows the now-familiar pattern of Islamic State propaganda efforts, with high production values and Quranic chanting as the background to martial scenes including the firing of rockets and artillery, the image of a young boy operating a Howitzer, and a suicide bomber preparing for an operation in a captured heavily armored Humvee.
But between those standard elements, the video revealed details of the group’s military abilities that experts found worrying.
In several scenes that were filmed under fire, for example, Islamic State fighters moving into the Baiji refinery complex appeared to be employing textbook infantry tactics. They also were carrying not only sufficient ammunition for a military operation but also backpacks stuffed with additional supplies, including water – a sign that the Islamic State has a well oiled logistical network for supporting front-line fighters.
One former American Green Beret officer said watching the video left him impressed. The Islamic State militants moved in concert and maintained appropriate spacing, a key tactic to reduce the risk of death from airstrikes, which take high tolls on bunched-up troops.
The Islamic State fighters also showed remarkable discipline in their use of firepower, according to the former Green Beret, who has extensive experience in the Middle East. Most fighters can be seen firing short directed bursts with their weapons, he said. Only when a unit appeared to be providing covering fire for another unit’s movement did the militants engage in longer bursts. He called it impressive by most infantry standards and a sign that Islamic State forces have moved well beyond guerrilla tactics to a more conventional military posture.
They’re “displaying quiet tactical confidence: correct movement, intervals, fire discipline,” the former Green Beret said. “Message: We know what we’re doing and we’re good at it.” He also asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of his work as an adviser to regional militaries.
The military experts said the video provided a disconcerting comparison with Iraqi government troops. They noted, for example, that the scenes of packs filled with ammunition and food contrast with constant complaints from Iraqi troops that the government regularly fails to deliver ammunition to combat forces and often leaves them in the field to fend for themselves for food and water, a circumstance that can lead to the looting of civilian homes and shops.
“Even the better-trained Iraqis still empty at least a clip or two without establishing a specific target the minute they enter contact with the enemy,” the former British special forces soldier said, referring to fire discipline. “Besides sowing confusion without actually hitting anything, all they’ve done is waste precious ammo that they cannot count on their leadership in the rear to replenish with the same efficiency and speed you see Daash supporting their men with.”
He suggested that the difference between Islamic State and Iraqi government capabilities made U.S. air support all the more important.
“Without the coalition, the difference in training and discipline between Daash and the Iraqis is so extreme, this would turn into more of a nightmare,” he said. “Without those air assets up there, it’s possible we would have seen everything west and north of Baghdad under Daash control and Baghdad itself under direct siege.”
The video also revealed that the Islamic State appears to have adapted to American airstrikes. Most of the images of artillery, rocket launchers and even heavy anti-aircraft guns mounted on the beds of trucks include a level of camouflage designed to mask the weapons’ positions’ from the air.
A Hezbollah military commander in Lebanon who reviewed the tape at McClatchy’s request said he found one tactic particularly ingenious: a civilian dump truck that had been modified to launch 122 mm Russian-designed Katyusha rockets and that could be covered almost immediately with a tarp for transport to blend in with civilian traffic.
“Hezbollah invented that,” said the commander, who’s fought the Islamic State in Syria but wouldn’t confirm whether he’d worked in Iraq advising pro-government Shiite Muslim militias. “We have spent 30 years learning to hide our weapons from the Israeli air force, and now our enemies have learned to hide their weapons from the Americans.”
The commander, however, was less effusive about the multiple scenes that showed Islamic State fighters gloating over the bodies of Iraqi army soldiers and militiamen.
“They are fanatics and want to die. They’re not as professional as Hezbollah in combat,” said the commander, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to talk to a reporter. “But neither are the Iraqis, who are too corrupt and brutal to be professional fighters.”