On the CIA estimate of number of fighters in the Islamic State

US officials are shocked at the “Islamic State’s rapid growth.” Now, the CIA estimates that the Islamic State has somewhere between 20,000 to 31,500 fighters within its ranks. That number may include “some 15,000 foreign fighters in Syria alone, including 2,000 Westerners,” Al Jazeera reported, which noted the estimate is “far more than first thought.”

Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria number around 20,000 to 31,500 — a figure far higher than previously estimated, the Central Intelligence Agency has said.

The new calculation includes some 15,000 foreign fighters in Syria alone, including 2,000 Westerners, a U.S. intelligence official told the AFP news agency on Thursday.

“The number is much higher than a previous estimate of 10,000,” Al Jazeera continues.

Readers of The Long War Journal should not be surprised by the latest CIA estimate. In fact, on June 11, just one day after a large ISIS operation began in Iraq, The Long War Journal reported the following [see LWJ report, ISIS takes control of Bayji, Tikrit in lightning southward advance]:

The scope of the operation, including the territory covered, indicates that tens of thousands of ISIS fighters participated in the recent fighting.

On Aug. 21, in an interview with Roll Call, I noted that the Islamic State could have upwards of 50,000 fighters in its ranks:

According to Roggio, the group is estimated to have anywhere around 50,000 members, thousands of foreign fighters and is more of an army rather than a smaller extremist group.

As time moved on, and the Islamic State held and even expanded its gains in both Iraq and Syria, it was painfully obvious that the group sustains an army that numbers in the tens of thousands of fighters. You just couldn’t come to any other conclusion.

Keep in mind that the Islamic State is actively fighting against two governments, as well as Hezbollah, the Peshmerga, the PKK/YPG, Iraqi militias, the Awakening, Syrian tribes, the Free Syrian Army, the Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic Front, and other groups, and now the US military, in an area the size of a large American state, with millions of people living there. There is no way the Islamic State could simultaneously fight on multiple fronts against numerous enemies with just several thousand fighters.

Despite the size of the Islamic State, the Obama administration has opted to wage a counterterrorism operation against what has clearly become an established military force.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • David says:

    But how committed are these fighters to the Islamic State, Bill? If they can so easily abandon Ahrar-al-Sham, and Al Nusra simply because IS seems to be winning for the moment, doesn’t that just make them the flavor of the month? What happens to these fair weather friends when IS suffers some reverses, or another group seems to be stronger? Won’t they leave IS just as they left their prior groups?
    Also, don’t a lot of their fighters really belong to allied tribes, which can be pulled back by their tribal leaders whenever IS seems to be weakening?
    Interested in your thoughts, Bill

  • donowen says:

    Bill, do you ever get tied of “I told you so”?

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Yes sir. The recent CIA’s numbers are probably on the conservative size of their estimates. Mr. Roggio’s estimates of approximately 50,000 are probably closer to reality. I would even go further, given the ISIS’s recent gains. Apparently, they now have direct control of over 4 million people, and probably that many strong supporters throughout the Sunni Arab populace as a whole. Given those estimates, it’s not a reach to believe that they can field over 100,000 cadres, and maintain that level of manpower indefinitely. They definitely have the arms to do so after the Iraq Mosul debacle in addition to recent gains in northern/eastern Syria. I hope that our actions match the rhetoric coming from Washington. Drones alone will have negligible impact on these guys, regardless of how good it sounds in the headlines. I’ll state it here again, we have to take a close look at the Erdogan regime in Turkey. They may be a significant supporter of ISIS.

  • Joseph says:

    LWJ has been absolutely on point of the reporting of these events. It ought to be required reading for some national security teams.

  • jhenry says:

    Does this number for IS include other groups such as Nashqabandi, 1920 Revolutionary Brigade, “AQ in Kurdistan”, and all the other of our old “friends”?

  • Kate says:

    Sadly, ISIS is brain washing the children it abducts and forcing them to become child soldiers as well. While the reality is that these are innocent children that need to be rescued and deprogrammed, in ISIS’s eyes, they are also an input of labor for its military. ISIS has already forced several of them to become suicide bombers. Are these poor children being factored into estimates of ISIS’s capacity? I really hope they can be rescued and returned to their families, but sadly, they are victims as well as potential threats at the moment.

  • Mark Sterrett says:

    Another thing to consider is how they are distributed; communications, center of activities for launching, etc.

  • M3fd2002 says:

    It keeps getting better. Training 5000 a year? What are they , astronauts? The rebels are taking around 50 KIA/day. Do the math. Seriously, the amount of niavity with regards to war coming fron this administration is shocking.

  • Jim Campbell says:

    Kinda brings back the phrase, “Military Intelligence, doesn’t it?
    It also means if Obama or administrations to follow are serious about wiping out these inbred killers and those who join them, more Spec/Ops will be needed on the ground to get the badly needed intelligence, on numbers which currently is in a state of chaos.

  • Jackbo Godfrey says:

    It is amazing how seemingly non-chalant the US leadership is right now. I really hope behind the scenes, CIA and Pentagon have their act together better than is being reported in the press.
    Obama and US Political Leadership (yes even more than a few hardcore Neocons back under Bush) would not address or admit the real problem or “cancer”: it is Radical Islam.
    Now we go from an ideology to a terrorist group to a de facto Radical Islam army with popular support and all the rest. Castro and Mao were once in the same situation and now ISIL is even better: super organized/ disciplined, awash in cash, and armed to the teeth.
    We need at least serious Spec Forces in there training locals if there is no official US “boots on the ground,” serious commitment in boots on the ground from Jordan and Saudi at least and massive ramp up of air bases to deliver the goods.
    I cannot imagine this not becoming a Vietnam-eque counter insurgency for some time. US leadership to commit just does not seem there for what it will take to win it, never mind home popular support.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    jhenry, no it does not. It is specifically talking about the Islamic State as it’s own individual entity.
    This article puts my mind at ease in regards to the Islamic State and their entire system. I’ve always wondered how the Islamic State could fight on so many fronts – and I mean a LOT of fronts against a lot of foes – and still gain ground, hold territory and keep their system intact. Them having tens of thousands of fighters and functioning as it’s own army would answer the question once and for all, and explain many things regarding their various successes.

  • Josh W says:

    I understand this is only accounting for fighters, but what of the wide range of facilitators actively supporting ISIL? Never mind the millions under ISIL control with who knows what percentage passively supporting the insurgency.

  • Tom says:

    I’ve seen Al-Jazeera estimate of 80+ thousand fighters not counting supporting administrators and police groups.
    Granted many of the police are likely the local Syrian Police who IS co-opted to stay on the job monitored by Hisba.
    Looking over Islamic State Army (ISA) videos, they have a nucleus for a solid mechanized corps though so far, they seem to be deploying AFVs in independent task forces no bigger than company level to support their motorized companies.
    Tabqa they massed 80 Tanks and 150 other AFVs of all types for the assault, drawing all the airstrikes while a single squad by their reports managed to make a breach and open the way for technicals to enter in.
    Other observations:
    ISA Tanks rarely are seen with ERA. They tend to use them as mobile artillery and when in the open, turn the back towards the enemy so if hit, the round goes into the engine block and not the fighting compartment. Tanks with ERA are used aggressively to get close and personal and spearhead the assault.
    Also the ERA equipped Tanks are the T-72s.
    IFVs and APCs are used aggressively to spearhead assaults and deploy Infantry into the enemy midst. Also the Mechanized Infantry of ISA are clearly wearing ballistic protection, I see a mixture of different styles present so ISA is likely using its mechanized infantry as shock troops.
    Humvees and other armored cars are being pegged right into the Motorized Companies as support units to draw the fire.
    But ISA’s main strength is its Motorized Companies of Pickups, SUVs, and heavy trucks.
    I’m seeing a base unit of 80-100 men companies with 300 to 400 strong battalions with upwards to 60 vehicles being the main force.
    Weapons mixture seems to be all over the place, so an accurate TO&E is impossible.
    However, Soviet Era equipment is the most prominent with AKs, RPKs, RPG-7s, SVDs, and the like. Lots of men sport western arms as well and those carrying them also have the accessories typically used by US troops on them as well. Little ballistic protection is worn though.
    Tactics likewise are all over the place, some units are good, others… Less said the better. However, promotion on ISA is merit based. Succeed and survive, you get promoted, screw up and assuming you survive, you get demoted or stay in place depending on badly you screwed up.
    Operational control consists of Baghdadi saying: Take X and let me know when its accomplished or you need additional support. Then the commander has full freedom of action to carry out the order with little if any interference from a GHQ.
    In practice, this means ISA is capable of ceding ground, regrouping, and counter-attacking inside of its opponents decision making loops, and often winning because a small group using its freedom of action managed to hit the right spot and create an opening.
    This is before we start adding in comparisons to the Mongol Army and Rashidun Army of the past.

  • Jackbo Godfrey says:

    A little history lesson if you excuse me goes well with this article.
    Back in the day, like 620 AD thereabouts and a century thereafter. The Original Jihadi (O J if you know WHO I mean). These Original Jihadis had total mastery of desert warfare. Appear at a time and a place of their choosing and disappear or attack as appropriate. Not too different than guerrillas popping out of the jungle or down from the mountains.
    Seems about the same right now (just replace camels and horses with Toyota Landcruisers). Now tactically speaking, air war superiority with the desert grid mapped like NYC would certainly eliminate totally the Islamic Scum States abilities for out of the blue surprise desert attacks. The Highway of Death of Saddam’s boys back in 91 is a good example.
    Now nobody here needs to be reminded that this air cover aint gonna amount to much when it gets time to urban guerrilla combat (unless collateral damage aint factored in which aint to wise for counter insurgency ops of course). . . which is inevitable but that is another post and someone 100 times more experienced/knowledgeable than this pencil pushing armchair analyst.

  • blert says:

    The general public can do better analysis than the CIA:
    1) Al Baghdadi is grabbing just about every able bodied military aged male as an instant recruit.
    2) The entire area has virtually no economic activity as would be defined in the West:
    No mining, manufacturing…
    Trivial farming, trade…
    3) So virtually the entire male population is available for the ‘war economy.’ Unlike the West, that war economy does not include weapons production… just warriors.
    4) Grandly assuming a population of 4,000,000 inside ISIS turf… and 3% participation… 120,000 souls are available.
    There is absolutely no question that al Baghdadi is raising a mass army. Accounts pour in from every voice.
    During heavy conflicts, it’s not uncommon to see 8% or more of the population put under arms. So 3% is hardly an upper bound to al Baghdadi’s recruitment drive.
    Sunni accounts from Iraq indicate that their sons are being drafted into IS ranks — against their will.
    Al Baghdadi probably has 7,000 to 9,000 cadres. A cadre would rank E-5 or better in any Western army. All officers would also rate as cadres.
    Based upon video from the conflict, the Muslims have brief ‘boot camps’ and then go straight into the fight.
    One is reminded of Soviet troops in WWII, whose bootcamp never lasted more than four weeks. They polished their combat skills at the front. This largely explains German accounts of being mobbed by Soviet troops of little skill.
    Most of the world builds their armies just this way. So it’s most unwise to take videos of their bootcamp too seriously in terms of import. After a few battles, the survivors stop doing stupid stuff — and with such a massive recruitment — there figures to be a lot of survivors.
    Al Baghdadi would LOVE to mob any Western army with his mass of young believers. This would echo the bizarre bloodlettings initiated by the ayatolla Kohmeni thirty-years ago. He destroyed a generation of Iranian youth by wandering them through Saddam’s minefields clutching plastic keys to paradise.
    This style of recruitment and training is entirely consistent with a crusading religiously-based army. This time around, it’s the Muslims that are on a crusade — not the infidels. Indeed, at every point on the compass, all infidel powers are trying to deflect and abate Muslim attacks.
    For Islamists are now on a crusade against the whole world — all at the same time. By Western political and military logic, the entire enterprise is ravingly insane. The Muslims can’t feed themselves, they don’t manufacture much of anything, they don’t have serious armaments manufacture (Pakistani atomics, excepted), they simply have to import everything… from their avowed enemies. (!)
    And in all of this, they don’t see themselves as pawns of any great powers.
    Al Baghdadi figures to be a transformative figure — for devout Sunnis. But his ethos can’t travel well. Consequently, the best strategy for any great power is mere containment. IS has no meaningful ability to project power outside of Arabia.
    While a few pot shots taking out heavy weapons can do no wrong; it’s best if IS is left to simply stir in its sandbox. REMEMBER THIS: IS can’t repair or maintain ANY of the stuff it has obtained. It’s all destined to erode into dust — just like those Mig-21 jets posted here at the LWJ. Much can be achieved by doing nothing.
    Without conflict, al Baghdadi will lose his way. He needs a big fight — the same way that Napoleon did. So deny him one.

  • Tom says:

    Air power is a minor irritant at best to the Islamic State. Most of its causalities are caused by artillery fire just like most other conflicts.
    Air delivered ordinance is great at hitting deep stationary targets like factories (of all types), bridges, and depots, but against moving targets in the open, less good. An airplane carries a few bombs, and maybe 20 seconds of cannon fire (A-10 being the exception to the rule), after virtual attrition is figured in (such as fuel pods, jammers, chaff, AA Missiles, etc). Thus few people and military equipment is destroyed by airstrikes, and post conflict reviews always show that Airforces wildly overclaimed their kills and most enemy deaths are from artillery fire, most tank kills by tanks, and most kills by planes due to carpet bombing by dropping dumb bombs.
    Artillery on the other hand is deep, sustained, and can, “walk the battlefield,” ensuring continuous fire suppression of an enemy position or advance, which a plane can’t do. Its why artillery remains the backbone of any army.
    But in the end its good infantry forces that have to take the ground and hold it, which is where the ISF, Peshmerga, Anbar Tribes, and many militias are coming up short without al-Quds backing and Qassem Suleimani’s troubleshooting and outright doing the command and control himself, plus threatening groups to toe the line.
    Regardless of what the US does, our choices are IS or Iran, there are no other choices, once Russia counter sanctions EU with gas cutoff the EU is out and in Russia’s sphere of influence as we can’t replace Russia’s gas, Iran can, but will only do so if we ditch Israel and KSA and treat them as an equal.
    This is the new global reality. America stands more to gain by aligning with Iran as a bulwark against Russian influence in the Middle East and a guarantor of Gulf Oil Flow and would bring Turkey back into line. It would also ironically break the power base of the Mullahs and lead to a more pluralistic Middle East here Jews,Christians, and Muslims, plus a scattering of other faiths live side by side in relative peace.
    IS, less said the better, that would not be a pluralistic society.

  • Kate says:

    Do you have any sources about Sunni males being drafted into ISIS ranks? I would be interested in reading them…

  • Joe says:

    This probably fails to recognize that much of this is not being done by ISIS itself. We do not know how much of their manpower is provided by tribal levies. Many of these are actually not willingly participating in this process.
    The tribes, rather than IS, are probably still largely in control of their own areas, much as they always have been and they are simply not actively resisting IS because the calculus is such that it is a losing proposition. If you change the status quo in any specific area and provide the tribes with a compelling logic, then many of them would happily turn on IS.

  • Stu says:

    Many interesting comments on this story.
    Particularly from blert, discussing the logistics issues. IS will need fuel, batteries, spare parts, etc. Box them in and attack all their ports of entry. And don’t allow humanitarian aid in either. Force IS to live in the same community as the hapless civilians they have taken as slaves. Create a siege and hold it. All of this very challenging because of huge open geograpy of IS territory, but perhaps possible with drones and artillary.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Let’s put things into perspective. Israel’s last operation against Gaza (140 sq. mi.), which was completely surrounded, didn’t eradicate Hamas using massive airpower/artillery firepower. Yes, Israel could have reoccupied Gaza in short order. However, they didn’t want to commit infantry because of probable high casualties inherent in MOUT operations. That was a political decision. The IS dilemma is political as well as military. The West will never commit the ground troops required to defeat IS, and they know it. That is a political decision. Given that, and where the West stands now in the Middle East, I’d agree with blert as to strategy: Containment at this point, without the public rhetoric being spewed by our civilian leaders that may force action that isn’t really necessary. Remember the Khmer Rouge? Not many people do.

  • blert says:

    You are factually in error: the IDF DID send in the infantry. Higher casualties were incurred, no doubt.
    The Gaza operation was centered on tunnel warfare. That’s a step beyond MOUT.
    (Military Operations in Urban Terrain = city fighting)
    The IDF and its ambit is totally away from the situation that confronts the West. The only thing in common is Muslim fanaticism.
    The President is obsessed with the November elections. Consequently most of his utterances are purely political posturing. What else can one expect in the few weeks in front of a significant election?
    Since ISIS has essentially no power projection capabilities, the obvious military solution is containment. ISIS has no ability to manufacture weapons much beyond those you could cook up in your private kitchen — if you were a housewife.
    ISIS has some crafty warriors, no doubt. What it can’t do is sell its ideology to anyone other than Sunni Arabs. In other words: it doesn’t travel well.
    Why bomb a nation that has to import essentially all of its food? The food question is so profound that paying for food imports should take all of the cash flow that ISIS can lay its hands on.
    Al Baghdadi is stranded in a desert — kind of like Rommel — waiting for the next supplies to come in.
    A strategic bombing campaign is unnecessary — total folly, really. The solution is obvious: plink away at all of al Baghdadi’s heavy weapons — limbered or deployed.
    Ignore his troop concentrations: most of those fellows are coerced into the ranks. They’re NOT volunteers.
    If the occasional top ranking jihadi pops into view, put a missile into his car. But, on the whole, use an economy of force.
    Once al Baghdadi’s legions are reduced to rag-tag light infantry his caliph status will look hollow.
    In the meantime, having al Baghdadi savage al Nusrah is no bad thing. That conflict suits the purpose of peace.
    As bad as Assad is, it’s NOT in the interests of the West to see him dead. Having his faction cowed, cornered in his Alawite bastion in the northwest of Syria is in the best interests of all concerned.
    He would no longer be in a position to broker Beirut. His bastion would be suitable for all of the minorities within Syria — who are largely concentrated in the northwest as it stands. The vast desert has always been the Sunni’s turf.
    Something like this stand off would meet essentially all of Washington’s strategic needs.
    Washington should favor Jordan absorbing (greater) Damascus. The Syrian-Jordanian border is purely an European construct. (Sykes-Picot)
    Thinking really big: Jordan should absorb all of Sunni Syria — and Sunni Iraq. FINALLY the borders of Arabia would conform to religious preferences.
    I can’t imagine the American State Department working towards anything so obvious.


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