Islamic State Strength Estimates

We have no way of confirming the accuracy of these estimates (unlike our work during the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies), but a somewhat negative article on the Iraqi Army published in the New York Times in June does provide strength estimates for the Islamic State. The article is: New York Times Article

A few details:

  1. “The Islamic State has roughly 19,000 to 25,000 fighters, about half in Iraq and half in Syria…”
  2. “Most of the 10,000 to 12,000 in Iraq are concentrated around Mosul, in the Tal Afar area, and elsewhere in Nineveh Province.”
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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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8 Comments

    • I would want to measure them against other cases of irregular warfare where we do know the strengths of the forces, similar to what I did with insurgencies. In that case we looked at past level of actions (incidents per year and number of counterinsurgents killed) and the post-war estimates of the number of insurgents. This gave a range of figures for the number of insurgents per incident and number of insurgents per counterinsurgent killed. In effect, this created a historical double check that we were then able to compare first the Iraqi insurgency with. Quite simply, the level of violence in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 were higher than the historical norms for the number of insurgents the DOD was estimating. So, either these were some of the more capable and active insurgents encountered, or the strength estimates were too low by several multiples. In effect, it is trying to estimate their strength by their actions. In the case of estimating the Islamic State strength, this would require some research to put together relevant cases. Can’t be done “back of the envelope.” You may want to take a look in my book at the chapter on the subject.

  1. Similar cases would include those that had actually held and administered territory. For example, the Viet Mihn in the Indo-China War and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. They had acquired state structures and developed more conventional forces, in addition to maintaining an insurgency.

    • Although some think ISIS can be defeated and that this will bring a ‘new dawn’ for the Middle East, it is also likely that another organisation will take ISIS place and the turmoil will continue. I have been watching the quantitative historical approach used by Peter Turchin on the future direction of the EC and the likelihood of it splitting up completely and what may be needed to create a stable EC in the future. Do you think it possible to apply a quantitative history approach to predicting what is a likely workable political future for the Middle East?

        • Well, they are pretty relevant right now and hold the second largest city in Iraq. If they are defeated in the field and Mosul and Raqqa are re-claimed, they are still not going to go away quickly. Will they, or the next version of them, still be a factor in the middle east in 20 years? That I have not looked at.

          • They certainly will, once their “backbone support” is cut. If not, new militias will arise and be used as a camouflaged strike force under the banner of “international terrorism”. Wiping off the dripping blood instead of going for the wound is ineffective and has nothing to do with the existing problems and major players in this region. The goal is to destroy the young emerging democracies in these states and increase influece around the Iraqi oil fields or maintaining the status quo.
            Take Libya for example, the timing is highly suspect. It usually takes american analysts 10-20 years to come to these conclusions.

            Nevertheless, this is not the western powers primariy concern, as they do not really care about these regions fate. Defeating ISIS/ISIL et aliae is only important because the western powers fear further terrorist attacks on their soil.

            Without any major nations involved (which my guess are Russia, Syria, Iran and perhaps Pakistan/North Korea, since ISIS is using some of their weapons, probably handed over by the FSBs request), we would have already experienced the disintegration of any extremist forces. The subsequent power vacuum would be the next step (precondition: The FSA’s victory). Hesitation could lead to the loss of American influence in these regions.

  2. Well…..removing ISIL from Mosul and Raqqa does not remove ISIL. They will go back to being a guerilla movement and they will continue fighting for a while (and it could be a long while). They may also disperse their efforts. The bigger picture of the future of Al Qaida and ISIL and the next radical Muslim group is not one I have examined. The historical parallel would be the anarchist movement and the early communist movement. I have never looked at a “likely workable political future for the Middle East” and not sure how I would approach such an issue. Maybe it is time to start a thread on cliodynamics.

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