ISIS, the Mongols, and “The Return of Ancient Challenges”

Joe Posner’s “Isis Control in Iraq and Syria”

Source: Max Fischer and Zack Beauchamp, “14 Maps that Explain ISIS,” (25 September 2014)

A few months ago Small Wars Journal published an essay by Gary Anderson titled “Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad.[1]  Al-Baghdadi, of course, is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), though in recent months he has dropped this nome-de-plure in favor of the more ambitious title “Caliph Ibrahim.” Anderson’s essay attempts to sketch the strategic principles that guided this man’s successful campaigns in the Near East. The essay’s introduction gives you a fair idea of its flavor:

There is both military art and science behind al-Baghdadi’s recent successes. His approach is different from western military leadership practices, but it is not unique in history. He seems to have borrowed some elements of the warfighting styles of the Prophet Mohammed and Genghis Khan as well as the some political-strategic approaches of Lenin and Hitler. Whether these were adopted from a study of history or the serendipitous outcome of pure talent is somewhat irrelevant. To date, al-Baghdadi has achieved significant results. We can’t fully understand his thought process but we can study his methods and the principles he employs. These are discussed below….

I am usually quite wary of historical metaphors of the sort Mr. Anderson uses here. Their use is certainly is not a new; parallel biographies have been used as a powerful analytical tool since the days of Plutarch and Sima Qian. Comparisons like this can be valuable if they are fully explored and carefully constructed. The danger of historical metaphors, however, is that they threaten to reduce complex events that require thorough study and reflection to understand into a set of superficial symbols that demand no thought at all. You can see this in the way words like ‘Munich,’ ‘blitzkrieg,’ and ‘Pearl Harbor‘ are used today as a sort of historical short-hand for universal concepts (appeasement, maneuver warfare, surprise attack, and so forth) and the range of emotions or images we moderns attach to them.  By their nature, symbolic metaphors of this sort make communication easier and critical thought more difficult. As I argued in an earlier post:

Every metaphor is an attempt to apply the logic of one situation to the problems of another. The utility of metaphorical devices is easy to grasp: metaphors allow man to transform complex abstractions into ideas and images more concrete and familiar than the original. As a labor saving device, metaphors have no peers. If the logic of one situation can be applied to the other, no one need waste time learning the intricacies of both. [2]

The ultimate problem with many of the historical metaphors in circulation today, therefore, is not simply their lack of nuance, but the way in which they discourage meaningful critical thought. The statement “Conflict X would be another Vietnamshould launch a wide ranging discussion about the parallels between the international context, domestic perceptions, campaign aims, and military tactics of Conflict X and the Vietnam War. This does not happen. In American political discourse the word Vietnam is not an invitation to reflect but a signal that discussion has ended and polemic has begun. 

Mr. Anderson avoids most of these problems by focusing on a set of historical figures that are not referenced enough in American foreign policy discussions to become established short-hand for anything. His juxtaposition of al-Baghdadi and Chinggis Khan is the most fascinating of these comparisons. On the one hand the comparison is complete nonsense: Chinggis Khan single-handily created the most accomplished military machine in human history; al-Baghdadi is the head of a “a mid-size Sunni militia with a knack for child-rape and no skills against anyone who doesn’t fall for their death-metal hype.” [3] Anderson does not deny this difference in the scale and scope of the campaigns led by these two men, but he believes that there are clear parallels in the strategic rationale behind both the  ISIS and Mongol offensives. To quote:

This deliberate use of terror [by ISIS] is selective as was the case with Genghis Khan. He massacred the populations of the first cities of any region that he attacked, and the word got around that resistance was futile. The great Khan conquered many cities, but based on his reputation, he had to lay siege to very few.

This moral and morale superiority has allowed fast moving jihadist flying columns traveling in light trucks that can mix with civilian traffic to strike their enemies where his forces are weak or non-existent. The collapse of whole provinces more closely resembled Hitler’s blitzkrieg through France and the Low Countries than the guerrilla war that Americans experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is also similar to the tactics of Genghis Khan who made advancing Mongol forces seem to be much larger  than they were and to be everywhere at once. Fear induced reporting turned battalions into regiments, regiments into divisions, and divisions into “hordes.”[4]

There is a very Boydian feel to Anderson’s analysis here. To use the jargon Boyd is known for, Anderson is suggesting that both ISIS and the Mongols were successful because they were able to “operate inside the OODA Loop” of their opponents. [5]

This observation is correct but I am not sure it is particularly insightful. When John Boyd credited  Mongol victories to “subversive propaganda, clever stratagems, fast breaking maneuvers, and calculated terror [that] not only created vulnerabilities and weaknesses but also played upon moral factors that drain-away resolve, produce panic, and bring about collapse” in his famous presentation Patterns of Conflict, he was not describing what made the Mongol war machine unique, but was outlining  principles that any can be used by any commander wise enough to use them on the field of battle [6]. His commentary on the Mongols came midway through a review of strategic theory and practice that drew on everything from the troop formations used by Epaminodas 2,000 years ago to the battle plans of Yigael Yadin in Israel’s wars with its Arab neighbors. In this review he explicitly places the Mongol campaigns in the same “category of warfare” as that practiced by Sunzi, Napolean Bonaparte Stonewall Jackson, Ereich von Manstein, Ramon Magsaysay, and Vo Nguyen Giap [7] Boyd’s description of the Mongol campaigns–whose language Anderson echoes quite closely (though perhaps not consciously)–is an attempt to distill the critical elements of all successful asymmetrical maneuver campaigns throughout human history. [8] Acknowledging that ISIS pulled off a string of successful operations that fit into this category is recognizing that these elements were present–otherwise the operations would not have been successful. ISIS forces seemed “to be much larger than they were and to be everywhere at once” because that is what victorious maneuver armies doI am unconvinced that explicit comparisons to the Mongol experience add any marginal value to this observation.

The most interesting parallel between ISIS and the forces of Chhingis Khan is actually not one Anderson makes explicitly. He sets up this comparison in his discussion of the ISIS command structure:

Use Mission Orders to Enhance Operational Security. Telling subordinates what to do, not how to do it, is a basic tenant of maneuver warfare; but it also allows Baghdadi to command and control his forces with an absolute minimum of cell phone and radio communications that are subject to American intercepts which can be provided to Iraqi security forces. Baghdadi makes extensive use of runners and motorcycle messengers to keep his opponents in the dark.

American commanders talk a good game about Maneuver Warfare, but many take advantage of technology and secure communications to micromanage. It is not unusual for an American Colonel to be tracking squad sized units on his computer; worse still, it is not unusual to require American squad and platoon sized units to submit detailed patrol plans three days in advance so they can be plotted into computers. Baghdadi can simply say; “take this town and let me know when you have it”. It doesn’t make him a good guy, but he is a very effective military leader. Contrast this with Maliki and Karzai who will move or fire a commander who appears so competent or popular that he might become a competitor for power (emphasis added) [9].

And here is where things get interesting. I don’t think it is possible to isolate one, single variable that can account for the epochal success of the Mongol military machine. But if I was forced to try and boil down the secret of the Mongol Empire to a sentence or two it would sound a lot like the one Anderson has written here. In contrast to both the kingdoms the Mongols destroyed and every other nomadic confederation that preceded or followed his empire, Chinggis Khan possessed the complete loyalty of his troops and his generals. The men under his command were absolutely, and to their enemies, terrifyingly, united. Chinggis Khan could wage simultaneous wars on opposite sides of the known world, erode the internal cohesion of every kingdom his envoys visited, and paralyze enemy defenses with a flood of independently commanded units only because of the fearsome unity and loyalty of his forces.


At the height of its power the Khwarezm Dynasty controlled everything between the Aral Sea and the Persian Gulf. The Khwarezm era was the golden age of Central Asia—when historians talk about the contributions of Islamic civilization to science, mathematics, poetry, philosophy, and art, they are almost always talking about men who were from this region or lived there before the Mongols took over.  It was the sorry task of the the Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvayni to record the story of this civilization’s total destruction at Mongol hands and explain to posterity how a pagan warlord had over-whelmed the abode of Islam. His chronicle reads:

What army in the whole world can equal the Mongol army? In times of action, when attacking and assaulting, they are like trained wild beasts out after game, and in the days of peace and security they are like sheep, yielding milk and wool and many other useful things. In misfortune and adversity they are free from dissension and opposition… their obedience and submissiveness is such that if there be a commander of a hundred thousand between whom and the Khan there is some fault, the Khan dispatches a single horseman to punish him after the manner prescribed: if his head has been demanded, he cuts it off, and if gold be required, he takes it from him.

How different it is with other kings who must speak cautiously to their own slave, bought with their own money, as soon as he has ten horses in his stable, to say nothing of when they place an army under his command and he attains wealth and power; then they cannot displace him, and more often than not he actually rises in rebellion and insurrection! Whenever these kings prepare to attack an enemy or are themselves attacked by an enemy, months and years are required to equip an army and it takes a brimful treasury to meet the expenses of salaries and allotments of land. When they draw their pay and allowances the soldiers numbers increase by hundreds and thousands, but one the day of combat their ranks are everywhere vague and uncertain, and none presents himself on the battlefield [9].

I do not think Juvayni fully realized how powerful his explanation for the Mongol Empire’s expansion was. It is probable that he developed it while reflecting on the ill fate of the house of Khwarezm, where his grand-father served as a court minister. The Mongols erupted onto the scene during the reign of Muhammad II of Khwarezm (r. 1200-1220), the last real Shah of Khwarezmia. The Shah’s court was divided from the moment the Mongol invasion began, and a particularly sore divide arose between Muhammad and his son Jalal ad-Din about how to organize the empire’s defenses. Many in the court argued that the Shah should mobilize the entire armed forces of the empire–who would have outnumbered the Mongol forces at least 3:1–and confront the Mongols in a decisive battle. The Shah shied away from such an approach, aware that he did not have the tactical genius needed to command such a force and afraid of giving so much power to any subordinate of his who did. Instead the army was divided amongst Khwarezmia’s many cities; with its size thus diluted it was easy for the Mongols to sweep in and destroy each detachment one by one. Even after this process was well under way and the outlines of the Mongol strategy were clear to the Shah his court was too divided to commit themselves to a clear counter strategy. These divisions extended out into the hinterlands of the empire. The court watched with horror as first nomadic tribes, then cities, then entire regions of the Khwarazmia were isolated from the court and then declared for the Mongols. In less than two years the entire empire had disintegrated. [10]

Slide 26 of John Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict presentation.

While none of the Mongol’s other foes imploded so spectacularly, sowing dissension and division within the ranks of their enemies was an essential element of all Mongol campaigns. Whether they were fighting Hungarian monarchs on Pannonian plains or Song Dynasty navies on the Yangtze, the Mongols were masters at turning their enemies against each other. The same could not be said about the Mongol’s rivals. No one ever managed to turn a Mongol. For the first three generation of the empire there were no secession crises, no infighting, and few traitors. Powerful commanders deferred to their leaders, even when, as Juvainyi hints, doing so meant to demotion or punishment. [11] This is really quite extraordinary when you consider the kind of positions these commanders were placed in. Consider the case of Muqali, one of the greatest but least known of the Mongol generals. While Chinggis was off fighting the Khawarezm Empire and other enemies in the West, Muqali was placed in charge of the war effort in Northern China. For six years he controlled all of Mongolia, Manchuria, and the North China plain and for six years he fought the Jin Empire without losing a single battle. He was a powerful and popular commander. But neither he nor his sons ever challenged the great Khan’s authority. There is no evidence that Chhingis ever feared that they would. [12]

This stands in stark contrast to other empires of inner Eurasia. Earlier this year I wrote up a popular series of posts on the wars fought by the Chinese Han Dynasty against the first of these empires, the Xiongnu tribal confederacy. One of the striking things about that conflict is how common mass defections from one side to the other were.  Over the entire course of Han-Xiongnu relations the Han actively recruited and provided for Xiongnu turn coats. These turncoats eventually became some of the Han’s best generals and soldiers. They also occurred on massive scales–more than 70,000 men and women at a time if Han records are to be believed. Likewise, it was Xiongnu disunity that allowed the Han to emerge victorious–only after the Xiongnu had descended into a civil war were the Han able to coerce the largest faction into a formal surrender. [13]

These type of divisions simply did not exist among the Mongols. The leadership class was deeply committed to the Mongol cause. Perhaps just as significantly, so were the front line troops. Though they came from different tribes, spoke different languages, and in many cases worshiped different gods, the Mongol campaign forces displayed a level of unity and discipline none of their contemporaries could match. The loyalty these troops displayed was significant for an empire created entirely out of whole cloth just a few decades earlier. The unity and obedience they displayed in their maneuvers was hardly less astounding. Contemporary observers marveled at the ease with which Mongol commanders were able to order their men and discipline those who broke these orders. [14]

This gave the Mongol forces a flexibility most of their opponents lacked.  Because units adhered to similar standards, responded immediately to orders from above, and were led by men whose loyalty was never under question, Mongol khans were free to create a decentralized command structure that allowed individual tumen latitude for independent action. Like al-Baghdadi, Chinggis could unleash a flood of units that appeared  “to be everywhere at once” because he knew he could leave them free to act on their own initiative and yet be absolutely sure they would be fighting for the same objectives.


The story of how Chinggis Khan created an empire whose many branches were unified in effort and whose many subjects were absolutely loyal to him is one of the most fascinating in world history. Unfortunately, it is only tangentially related to the topic at hand. A full investigation of that question must be reserved for a later post. For the purposes of this discussion what matters is that the conquests of the Mongol empire, the type of warfare it waged, and the methods it used to incorporate new peoples into its domains would not have been possible except for the unshakable unity of its commanders and warriors.

In this the Mongols are very much like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the warriors under his command. 

At this point I suppose readers could accuse me of falling into the same error I found in the earlier ISIS-Mongol comparisons. Haven’t all successful conquests been executed by forces united and loyal to their leaders? The short answer is yes–the vast majority of successful military campaigns have been won by unified armies commanded by leaders committed to the cause. However, the relative importance of loyalty and unity to achieving victory has not been constant across  human history.  In the pre-modern world internal cohesion and loyalty were often the deciding factor in many, if not the vast majority, of military campaigns. This has not been the case in the modern age.  The rise of mass politics and nationalism, as well as the creation of formal, bureaucratized offices and institutions for waging war and governing territory allowed old worries over loyalty and identity to recede in importance.

When Kaiser Wilhelm‘s empire went to war in 1914 he did not  worry about whether or not Erich von Falkenhayn, Paul von Hindenburg, Erich Ludendorff, or Helmuth von Molke  would defect to the French or the Russians and bring along all the men under his commands along with him. Even in conflicts like the American Civil War, where contested loyalty was the matter of dispute,  political leaders expressed a surprisingly small amount of concern over the integrity and loyalty of either side’s armed forces. The possibility of ships, fleets, battalions, field armies, or even individual commanders switching sides, or of a general disintegration of unified military command where each would leave to defend his home was not considered a real possibility. If disunity is what you sought, the best one could hope for in a modern war was to raise the costs the enemy must pay to continue waging it to the point where domestic opposition to the war forced them to cede for peace.

In places like Syria and Iraq this is no longer the case.  Commanders or entire units abandoning the field to protect their home tribe or city, or even mass defections to the other side are well within the range of possible outcomes of any operation. Unsurprisingly, the kaleidoscope of shifting alliances and identities at play in the modern Near East have a very medieval feel to them.

 It has become something of cliche to note that we are in a “post-Westaphilian” world where national identities and state control are weakening and that the shape of conflict in the future will not be anything like what we are accustomed to. However, the parallels discussed in this post suggest that we are not departing into uncharted territory so much as we are returning to lands but recently abandoned. The warriors who fought over the Near East in the 13th century share the same strategic concerns as the warriors fighting over it today–in both eras those who can use violence to bind together disparate tribes and peoples into one cohesive, unified, and loyal whole are those who have the advantage. This is one more piece of evidence for what Jakub Grygiel called “The return of ancient challenges” in an excellent essay he wrote for Infinity Journal earlier this fall. The introduction to that essay where serves as a fitting conclusion to this one:

We analyze international relations through the lens of modern history, and as a result we remain puzzled in front of current strategic realities that have no apparent historical equivalents. Instead of well-demarcated states jousting for influence and power by waging wars and engaging in diplomacy, we see fierce groups rising in ungoverned areas, revelling in violence and eschewing negotiated settlements. Modern history does not offer many analogies for such security conditions. We have to move farther back in time and study ancient history to find more appropriate parallels. The security landscape we face is, in fact, acquiring tints of ancient times, characterized by proliferation of lethality, the pursuit of violence as a social glue, and the existence of unstable frontiers. The length, the place, and the purpose of violence were different in ancient times, and we ought to start looking at current and future strategic challenges through the lens of ancient, rather than exclusively modern, history. (emphasis added) [15].


[1] Gary Anderson, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad,” Small Wars Journal (12 August 2012).

[2] T. Greer, “Pick Your Metaphors With Care,” The Scholar’s Stage (31 July 2010).

[3] Gary Brecher, “WarNerd: Let’s put Islamic State’s menacing advance into perspective by… looking at a map,Pando Daily (2 September 2014).

[6] John Boyd, Patterns of Conflict, ed. Chuck Spinney and Chet Richards (or. ed. 1986; rev. ed. 2007). slide 26.

[7] ibid., slide 111.

[8] Anderson, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad,”

[9] Atā Malik Juvaynī, Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror, trans. John A. Boyle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 30, 31-32.

Despite the fact that almost all of the contemporary sources make similar observations, I have yet to see a discussion of this point anywhere in the historical literature. To my knowledge I am the first person to argue that the absolute loyalty of the Mongol leadership was the critical element in their campaign success for the better part of a millennium. However, as I do not read French, German, Russian, or academic Chinese, this judgment may be mistaken. 

[10] This account is primarily based around Juvaynī, The History of the World Conqueror, 12-110. See also Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, trans. Thomas Haining (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 119-134. ; J.J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), 51-62.

[11] As happened to Toquchar in the Khwarazmian campaign. Secret History of the Mongols §257, Igor de, Rachewiltz, trans, The Secret History of the Mongols, Vol I (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 190-191.

[12] The best account of Muqali’s campaigns in English is probably Thomas Allsen, “The rise of the Mongolian empire and Mongolian rule in north China.” in Cambridge History of China: Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, 710–1368 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1994)” 357-362. 

[15] This street went both ways. The first conflicts between the Han and Xiongnu began because Han rebels fled to the Xiongnu for sanctuary. See T. Greer, “What Edward Luttwak Does Not Know About Ancient China (Or a Short History of Han-Xiongnu Relations), pt. I” and What Edward Luttwak Does Not Know About Ancient China (Or a Short History of Han-Xiongnu Relations), pt. IIThe Scholar’s Stage (4  & 6 September, 2014) and the sources referenced there for more on that fairly fascinating conflict.

[14] Denis Sinor, “The Inner Asian Warriors,Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 101, No. 2. (1981), 138-139; Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War (London: Pen and Sword Publications, 2007) 29, 42-50. 

Interestingly, Sinor sees this as a trait common to all Eurasian nomads, but all the sources he uses to prove this point only describe the Mongols! Even professional historians are known to fall victim to the Mongol fallacy.

[15] Jakub Grygiel,  “The Return of Ancient Challenges,” Infinity Journal, Vol 4, Issue 2 (Fall 2014), 38.

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"The story of how Chinggis Khan created an empire whose many branches were unified in effort and whose many subjects were absolutely loyal to him is one of the most fascinating in world history."

Any good books you can recommend on this topic?


In my mind Chinggis Khan was one of the greatest social engineers in world history. Sadly, very few people quite think about this process like I do. Send me an e-mail and I can send you an essay I written describing what happened at length (but have not published here).

But there are a few books/essays that get close. A few that were particularly inspiring for the evolution of my views include:

Barfield, Thomas. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC-1757 AD. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1989.

——— "Something New Under the Sun: The Mongol Empire’s Innovations in Steppe Political Organization and Military Strategy." Paper presented at the 8th International Congress of Mongolists, Ulaan Bataar. August 5-12 2002.

Togan, Isenbike. Flexibility and Limitation in Steppe Formations: The Kerait Khanate and Chinggis Khan. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

The main primary source for all of this (The Secret History of the Mongols) is actually quite readable and is available in several translations. See Bryn Hammond's notes on which translation best fits your needs.

(For what it is worth, her novels on Chinggis' early life are possibly a better introduction to the period, its characters, and the timeline than anything else in print).

Ratchnevsky's Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy is very useful for keeping the chronology straight; May's The Mongol Art of War can help you understand how Chinggis' innovations were translated into success at the tactical level. (But I really don't recommend reading May's book until after you've read at least one other book on the Mongols).

I might write about this more when I return to Hawaii (and my personal library of books on this topic).

Excellent good sense throughout this article. The quote you launch from strikes me as quite daft (of course it's Muhammad + Genghis + Lenin + Hitler, who else?). I very much like "historical metaphors… of this sort make communication easier and critical thought more difficult."

Thanks for 'Ancient Challenges' which I'm off to tackle next. Keep blogging on Mongols.

Those enormous armies of Genghis were often far larger than his adversaries. He had discipline but also mass. Was on the offensive and able to concentrate his forces to enhance the level of mass he already possessed.

Genghis and his subordinates too were illiterates or functional illiterates and what does that say about the most senior military commanders in the historical context.


Often, but not always. I've mentioned the Khwarezm case here; the Jin and Song armies were just as large. The Mongols often reduced this advantage by splitting up their forces as well. (And for what it is worth, the Koreans, who held longer against sustained Mongol attack than almost anyone else, were vastly outnumbered).

well done. very interesting. plus, fyi, fwiw, there’s an analysis that treats the mongol fighters as ancient precursors of the rise of a new mode of information-age conflict, in our monograph on “swarming and the future of conflict” (rand, 2000, download free). in particular,

“While the Mongols failed in their invasion of Japan, they were nevertheless the absolute masters of swarming in land warfare. They combined the mobility of the horse with the rapid, long-range fire of their horn bows to create an imposing ability to swarm either fire or forces. To this capability they added a very decentralized organizational structure that gave great leeway to local commanders. They also feigned retreats, often luring their opponents into loosening their battle formations while “in pursuit”—only to turn and swarm upon them at a propitious moment. Finally, their Arrow Riders assured the swift flows of important information, allowing an overall commander to have a very clear idea of just what his widely distributed swarming forces were up to (see in particular Curtin, 1908; and Chambers, 1985). Many centuries would pass before other militaries would begin to acquire the kinds of capabilities that the Mongols demonstrated in their heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries.” (p. 29)

as i recall co-author john arquilla also wrote an extended discussion in one of his subsequent books, and fellow researcher sean edwards included an analysis in his doctoral dissertation. but i don’t have those latter references handy.