The Failure of Mao's Guerrilla Tactics on Jihadist


Gang Yin




Mao Zedong's military strategy, especially his guerrilla warfare strategy, was influential in military history. Mao firmly believed that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, and that political success comes from military success. His political and military thought led Chinese Communist Party to defeat the Japanese army and Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang power, established the world's second largest communist regime in 1949. During the Cold War, Mao's military thought had been widely spread in many regions. Today, it has become the guiding principle of contemporary extremists and fundamentalists in their terrorist operations. The theory and practice of jihad guerrilla warfare are mostly rooted in Mao’s idea in the Middle East and North Africa. Jihadists have sought to establish their Caliphate by using such strategies and tactics to overthrow local secular government and fight with the Western Democracies. In the past decades, although jihadists could win partially and temporarily, it’s impossible for them to truly replicate the core meaning of Mao's thought on guerrilla warfare and the historical, social and international background of China in the middle of 20th century.


The contemporary Jihad movement cannot win wide sympathy and support among ordinary Muslims, it only appeals to the Islamic extremists.

According to Mao Zedong’s viewpoint, eighty percent of warfare is political work, and only twenty percent is military work. Political work mainly means how to win the support of the people in the war.  In his article On Protracted War, Mao pointed out that “the richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of the people.[1]” Human element is the key factor for the ultimate victory of a war.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Communist-controlled guerrilla bases were mostly in China's poorest rural areas. On one hand, the Communist Party brainwashed the peasants with communist utopia ideas and promised them all sorts of bright futures, on the other hand, the Party inhumanly suppressed the landlords and rich people in  a violent way, forcibly distributed their land and property to the poor. The so-called "poor laboring people" gained economic benefits and thus actively supported CCP's revolutionary regime and its guerrilla warfare.

After years of war, concentration of wealth and lack of industrial capacity have contributed to the increase of overall impoverishment in some Arabian countries. Poverty is an important reason for the growth of extremism and jihadism, economically backward and imbalanced Islamic states, such as Afghanistan and Yemen, are fertile ground for jihadists. Some strategists argued for the importance of the civilians’ support in Jihad.  Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi cited Mao’s model again and again in his books and articles, he emphasized that the primary goal of revolutionary war is to win the support of the people, and jihadists must treat the people with respect; therefore, relying too much on terrorism is a mistake. [2] However, in the fight against the “Crusaders”, jihadist continued to launch terrorist attacks and military actions, result in the mass casualties of innocent civilians, the victims of ordinary Muslims were much more than those of non-Muslims. Jihadist also deliberately created terror atmosphere by publishing lots of brutal videos in which show the execution of captives and the Western hostages. For example, in its occupied territory , the Islamic State used mass executions, public beheadings, rape, and symbolic crucifixion displays to terrorize the population into submission and “purify” the community.[3] These atrocities of jihadists not only provoked worldwide condemnation,  but also created fear and resistance among ordinary Muslims that made it impossible for them to support and serve the jihadists.

It is important for any political or religious power to gain support by helping the civilians to raise their living standards and meet their economic needs. However, the jihadists' propaganda and practice focused on the Islamic doctrine, utopian Caliphate, and the hatred to infidels and apostates, barely mentioned how to solve poverty and bring economic benefits to poor civilians. Taliban only had 800 fighters when it was founded in 1994, but it gained the support of Afghan civilians soon and ballooned into a force of nearly 30,000 in a short time under the banner of eliminating warlords and rebuilding the country.  After it seized the power in 1996, Taliban made the proposition of recovering business but had never implemented.  On the contrary, extreme economic policies were carried out in the country. The Government imposed a 30-50% tax on any company, and those who failed to pay such tax were punished severely. It also monopolized international trade by charging 6% on each item imported into Afghanistan. Taliban planted large areas of opium to cover its expenses and collected a 20% tax on harvested opium. [4] By 2001, the per capita income of the 25 million population was under 200 US dollars. Poor economic conditions deprived the Taliban government of the support of the Afghans,  it collapsed quickly under the military action of  US-led coalition in 2011.

Al-Qaeda, in contrast, favored a gentler approach. Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, chastised some jihadists for their brutality, believed such brutality would turn the population against them and alienate the broader Muslim community, and he had raised this issue in the current conflict as well. Al-Qaeda recommended proselytizing in the parts of Syria where its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra holds sway, trying to convince local Muslims to adopt Al- Qaeda’s views rather than forcing them to do so.[5] Although al-Qaeda recognized the importance of flexible policies, it had no effective measures to change the bad economic situation in its occupied territories. People would not truly support totalitarian regimes with extreme political and incompetent economic politics.

Without the support of the people, guerrilla warfare cannot be continued. In their policies, the jihadist regimes prioritized extreme religious worship and military operations over gaining the support of the civilians. The ignorance of human element means jihadists didn’t understand the true meaning of Mao's military thought, even if they learned and practiced most of Mao’s guerilla tactics.


Guerrilla warfare should coordinate and transform itself with other forms of warfare

Mao Zedong said, guerrilla war should co-ordinate with regular warfare, and develop into mobile warfare and positional warfare. He expressed three kinds of co-ordination between guerrilla and regular warfare -- in strategy, in campaigns or/and in battles.[6]

In Mao’s idea, mobile warfare means that large-scale military force can shift flexibly and attack enemy actively in a vast region. It belongs to regular warfare and is more decisive for the battle situation than small-scale guerilla warfare.  The difference between guerrilla and mobile warfare can be explained by using boxing trope.  Guerrilla warfare is just like the boxing between a man and a mosquito, man cannot beat the mosquito, mosquito cannot beat the man as well but can bite him occasionally. Mobile warfare is just like the boxing between a man and a monkey, man cannot beat the monkey, but the monkey can jump behind the man and knock him down.  Mao summarized the strategy of guerilla warfare as "the enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue." He also summarized the strategy of mobile warfare as “avoid enemy’s main force, lure the enemies in deep, concentrate superior force to destroy them one by one.”

In 1938, Mao told Mr. Wang Kung-ta, a correspondent of the Associated Press, “some people say that we only advocate guerrilla warfare. This is nonsense. We have always advocated the coordination of mobile, position and guerrilla warfare.” [7] Mao also said, “With regard to the overall situation, mobile warfare is primary and guerrilla warfare is supplementary; with regard to the part of the situation, guerrilla warfare is primary and mobile warfare is supplementary.” [8]  

Long March is an example of the coordination of guerrilla and mobile warfare.  After the Fifth Encirclement Campaign against Jiangxi Soviet in October 1934, the Kuomintang successfully defeated the CCP’s Soviet Republic in southern China, and forced the communist troops on the run (described by CCP as “strategic retreat), known as the Long March.  Facing the pursuit and interception of the Kuomintang, the Red Army adopted the strategy of combining guerrilla warfare with mobile warfare. Main forces of Red Army employed a flexible multi-tactical mobile warfare by taking advantage of the complex terrains in different areas on their fifty-six hundred miles escape route and the factional contradictions within the KMT armies. Battle of Chishui River in early 1935, the first major victory of Red Army since the start of the Long March, was the classic of mobile warfare. Around thirty thousand Red Army soldiers crossed the Chishui River four times repeatedly, completely confused the Kuomintang’s four-hundred thousand troops and disrupted their pursuit. More than thirty thousand KMT soldiers were killed in two months, the Battle was called by Mao Zedong as his “masterpiece”. Meanwhile, the small-unit communist guerrillas that still hiding in mountainous Southern China and the CCP-backed local armed forces kept on carrying out guerrilla warfare strategy, coordinated with the main Red Army by harassing the KMT occupied areas and breaking their army’s logistical support.  The combined use of guerrilla and mobile warfare effectively helped the Red Army to jump out the encirclement comprised of million KMT troops and defeat them in the Long March. Chiang Kai-shek’s strategic intention of annihilating the Red Army in its “strategic retreat” was shattered.

During the Chinese Civil War from 1945 to 1949, the Communist Party wiped out 1.5 million KMT troops by mainly using mobile and positional warfare, include the famous “Three Big Campaigns”, guerrilla warfare only played an auxiliary role at that time.

Jihadists should be more adept at using these three forms of warfare in practice because of the existing of their formidable opponents, either US-led coalitions, the Russia–Syria–Iran coalition, or Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). Some jihad strategists also emphasized the importance of conventional warfare. Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin researched Chinese and Vietnamese guerrilla strategy, recognized the importance of the development of a conventional army.[9]  However, actual situation prevented jihadists to so.

Taliban embarked on "rural guerrilla warfare" and "mountain guerrilla warfare" after it lost the control of Afghan power. However, it is difficult for them to form a sustained and large-scale military strike capability when facing the encirclement of the US-led coalition and the Afghan government forces, and they can only fight through small sporadic battles and sneak attacks. Taliban’s so-called “Spring or Summer Offensives” had greater propagandistic effect than the actual one, they were not overwhelming campaigns which could bring decisive impacts and reverse the overall war situation in Afghanistan, but only the simple plus edition of guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks. According to al-Muqrin’s strategy, there are three phases in guerrilla war: Attrition (Strategic Defense), Relative Strategic Equilibrium and Military Decision (final attack)[10]. Rather than transferring to regular warfare, Taliban’s military actions are still in the “strategic defense phase” after eighteen years fight with its opponents.  Long-term conflicts in Afghanistan is bad for the Coalitions while worse for Taliban. Taliban has been constrained by the Coalitions, which makes it more and more passive. 

Significant victory can be achieved by transforming guerrilla warfare to mobile and positional warfare, while completely failure can be avoided by turning positional warfare into mobile or guerrilla warfare. The Islamic State rose rapidly and kept on expanding because of the political chaos in Iraq and Syria.  It was estimated to have an annual budget of more than one billion US Dollars and a force of more than thirty thousand fighters in 2015. [11] But as the regional situation had become more complicated and the international community had gradually noticed its threat, IS had neither many advanced weapons nor any air superiority to contend with the Allies, its territory had shrunk dramatically since the large-scale American airstrike in late 2014. Instead of changing its main forces from positional warfare to mobile or guerrilla warfare by breaking them into small units, ISIS continued to hold major cities and confronted the Allies directly in unfavorable situation, which led to its rapid collapse with heavy casualties. In the Battle of Sirte in 2016, twenty-five hundred IS militants were killed by the forces of the Libya Government of National Accord (GNA) [12]. In the liberation of Mosul (2016–2017), one hundred thousand coalition forces had completely encircled the city and cut off IS supply lines, IS fighters were completely isolated and more than sixteen thousands of them were killed[13]. From 2016 to 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) lunched military operation to fight against the IS in Raqqa Governorate, with the goal of isolating and eventually capturing the Islamic State's capital city, Raqqa. IS lost nearly six thousand militants and surrendered in large numbers.[14] SDF also announced elimination of ISIL in Syria after they recaptured the village of Baghouz on March 23, 2019[15], even though such optimism looks premature.

Admittedly, a guerrilla warfare could win eventually without turning into a regular war only if the war could be finish quickly and the opponents are weak. Such as Castro's victory in Cuba, it only took the Communists less than three years from their Granma Landing in November 1956 to the takeover of Havana in January 1959. However, Cuba’s “miracle” is a fantasy for the jihadists under current international situation. Jihadists will be eventually defeated if they cannot convert guerrilla warfare into regular warfare.


Guerrilla warfare requires stable bases and wide areas for the shift of partisans

The continuation and success of guerrilla warfare inevitably requires base areas, both permanent and seasonal. Jihad strategists have also raised the significance of establishing bases.  But what are the conditions for a stable, effective and successful base? Mao Zedong emphasized that a base area for guerrilla war could be truly established only with the gradual fulfillment of the three basic conditions, i.e., only after the armed forces are built up, the enemy has suffered defeats and the people are aroused.[16]

Besides armed army, the jihadists did not meet Mao's two other conditions for establishing a stable base: they have been in passive situation for a long time and seldom beat their opponents actively; they oppress the majority of ordinary Muslims rather than arouse them because of their widely condemned policies.

Mao Zedong divided the base areas into three types:  those in the mountains, those on the plains and those in the river-lake-estuary regions.”[17] One reason for the success of Mao’s guerrilla warfare is that the Communist guerrillas have all of these types bases, which can provide material and military support for each other. In addition, China, with its vast area and complex terrain, can provide a good transfer and cover space for guerrilla warfare and mobile warfare. The Long March is an example. The big Yangtze and Yellow River regions brought the most convenient conditions for both offensive and withdrawal of the Red Army. Meanwhile, such conditions made difficult for the KMT to monitor and track the Red Army and defeat it in a short time.  

Mountains and jungles are the best location for guerrilla base. The terrain and climate conditions in the Middle East and north Africa limit the range of jihadist guerrilla warfare.  The dry and hot desert covers more than sixty percent of the area and gives little shelter or material support for the guerrillas. Only the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the best and most active places for guerrilla warfare. However, after years of counterterrorism actions by Allies and local governments, the guerrilla areas have been increasingly divided and squeezed. Partisans who are separated and isolated cannot cooperate effectively with each other, which resulting in the lack of flexibility and initiative in their guerrilla warfare.


Guerrilla warfare requires the support of external forces, both domestic and international

A Chinese proverb says that “people cannot clap with one hand”, which means it's impossible to achieve any goal without support. CCP’s guerrilla warfare had obtained the cooperation and support from different external forces at different stages since it was established, both domestic and international.

During the Second World War, in order to cut off the contact among the Communist-led anti-Japanese armies and narrow the scope of their guerrilla warfare, Japanese carried out the “Three Alls Policy” (kill all, burn all, loot all). In addition, General Yasuji Okamura, commander-in-chief of the China Expeditionary Arm, set up” No man’s land” in certain areas -- civilians were expelled or killed, buildings were burned, food and livestock were looted or burned.  All those brought a disastrous effect on the Communist guerrilla warfare. However, Chiang Kai-shek's military actions against Japanese saved those Communists -- the KMT army fought heroically and contained considerable Japanese armies at frontline battlefield in eight years, forced them to weaken its siege to the CCP’s revolution area. Mao had to admit that the division of labor between the KMT and the CCP, in which the frontal regular warfare and the guerrilla warfare behind the enemy lines, is both necessary and proper, and is a matter of mutual need and mutual assistance.[18]

In the Civil War with the KMT, the CCP gained great support from the Soviet Union in military guidance and weapons. In the Vietnam War, both the Soviet Union and China are the power supporter of the Vietcong.

Same happened in the war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States gave a hand to the anti-Soviet guerrilla groups, aided them with gradually more potent weapons and eventually anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, which then would cause so much damage to the far larger Soviet army that the Soviet Union abandoned its occupation and retreated back to the Soviet Union.[19]

But today’s jihadists cannot win such support from the other countries. They are not endorsed by any influential powers but targeted by major countries as terrorist groups. Besides receiving aid from clandestine extremist individuals and groups, the jihadists get money and weapons from smuggling oil and planting opium. However, all those have become increasingly difficult under the attack of the international community, the development of their guerrilla warfare system has been greatly limited.

The international community has scored significant victories against the terrorism, but the jihadists are not completely defeated. They are changing strategies by further implementing decentralized policy, developing individual units and sleep cells, continuing to expand influence in broader areas and build their global network.

After a series of failures in North Africa and the Middle East, the jihadists are seeking new strongholds for guerrilla warfare. Latest situation shows that countries with weak counter-terrorism capabilities are their favorites. The Islamic State has spread to impoverished and violent central Africa, established relations with local rebels. On April 16, 2019, IS claimed its first attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where was called the Central Africa Province of the Caliphate by IS propagandists. Eight soldiers were killed in the attack according to Congolese officials.[20] The massive tropical jungle of Congo makes the country has a similar natural environment with Vietnam, where the Vietcong successfully carried out guerrilla warfare. The country’s poverty and instability will also provide a breeding ground for guerrilla warfare of jihadists in the future. Another example is Sri Lanka, gruesome bombings killed at least 250 people in the country’s churches and hotels on April 21, 2019.[21] Sri Lanka is a multi-religious country dominated by Buddhism, Buddhists comprise seventy percent of the population, neither Muslims nor Christians make up more than ten percent, [22] its counter-terrorism capabilities have been weak since the end of the country’s civil war. An intelligence memo warning of a possible attack had circulated ten days earlier of the explosions, but it was ignored. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, lies halfway between the Middle East and Indonesia, where could be treated as a Asian base for jihadist activity (Indonesian police revealed that ISIL launched the 2018 Surabaya bombings as revenge for the imprisonment of the leader of JAD and JAT in Indonesia[23]),  Sri Lanka also has mountains and tropical rainforests, the Tamil Tigers, who were adept at guerrilla warfare, had fought against the government for a long time by taking advantage of such geographical conditions.  Therefore, the possibility that the jihadists will develop Sri Lanka as their new guerrilla bases in the future cannot be ruled out.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October doesn’t mean the perish of the terrorism. Numerous jihadist gangs with their flames of revenge after setback are posing new challenges to the international community, they will continue to keeping guerrilla warfare and urban terror attacks as a long-term military strategy due to the current situation and the disparity in military power comparing with the counterterrorism coalitions. However, jihadists' insurmountable shortcomings and disadvantages determine that their guerrilla strategies and tactics replicated from Mao Zedong will not bring them to the ultimate victory, although may keep them alive for a while.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   June, 2019, edited in December, 2019




(Mr. Gang Yin is the researcher of Wei Jingsheng Foundation and  graduate student of the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC)





[1]  Mao Zedong, On Protracted War, May 1938

[2]  Michael W.S. Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp.88

[3]  Daniel Byman, Terrorism in Africa: The Imminent Threat to the United States (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 2015), pp.6

[4]  Stefanie Nijssen, The Afghan Economy: A Brief History (Norfolk: Civil-Military Fusion Centre, 2010), pp.5

[5]  Daniel Byman, Terrorism in Africa: The Imminent Threat to the United States (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 2015), pp.6

[6]  Mao Zedong, Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, May 1938

[7]  Mao Zedong, Talk with the reporter of Associated Press, February 1938

[8]  Mao Zedong, On Protracted War”, May 1938

[9]  Michael W.S. Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp.135

[10]  Ibid., pp.136

[11]  Fawaz A. Gerges, A History of ISIS (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016), pp. 21–22.

[12] Abdulkader Assad, “Al-Ghasri: 2500 IS radicals were killed in Sirte battle”, Libya Observer, December 18, 2016

[13] “Around 16,000 militants killed during Mosul liberation”, Kaziform International News Agency, July 19, 2017

[14] Alex Lockie, “Top US official calls ISIS a 'pathetic and a lost cause' after mass surrender of militants at Raqqa”, Business Insider, October 18, 2017

[15] Farah Najjar, “ISIL defeated in final Syria victory: SDF”, Al Jazeera News, March 23, 2019

[16] Mao Zedong, Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, May 1938

[17] Mao Zedong, Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War Against Japan, May 1938

[18] Mao Zedong, Problems of War and Strategy, November 6, 1938

[19] Wikipedia, “History of guerrilla warfare”, last edited on 1 May 2019,

[20] Steve Wembi and Joseph Goldstein, “ISIS Claims First Attack in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, New York Times, April 19, 2019

[21] Sugam Pokharel, Euan McKirdy and Tara John, “Bombs tear through Sri Lankan churches and hotels, killing 250 people”, CNN News, Updated on April 25, 2019,

[22] Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project (Sri Lanka: Pew Research Center, 2010)

[23] Kontributor Surabaya and Achmad Faizal, “Kapolri Sebut Bom Surabaya Aksi Balasan karena Pimpinan JAD Ditangkap”,, May 14,  2018,