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Elite Army unit at Fort Meade searching for ways to fight ISIS

Forward Operating Base Zangabad, Afghanistan -- Sgt. Maj. Raymond Hendrick, left, an Asymmetric Warfare Group adviser, explains specifics of the blast radius of the man-portable line charge system during a training exercise just outside of Forward Operating Base Zangabad, Afghanistan, Oct. 20, 2013. (U.S Army photo by Cpl. Alex Flynn)
Forward Operating Base Zangabad, Afghanistan -- Sgt. Maj. Raymond Hendrick, left, an Asymmetric Warfare Group adviser, explains specifics of the blast radius of the man-portable line charge system during a training exercise just outside of Forward Operating Base Zangabad, Afghanistan, Oct. 20, 2013. (U.S Army photo by Cpl. Alex Flynn)

An elite Army unit based at Fort Meade is sending battle-hardened soldiers to Iraq to get a close look at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so they can develop ways to fight America's newest adversary.

Lt. Col. Justin Sapp, a commander in the Asymmetric Warfare Group, describes ISIS militaries as a new kind of challenge: a force of fighters informed by a decade of war in Iraq and beyond, with legions of recruits, high-end weaponry and stable funding sources, that has proved adept at changing its strategy and tactics as it draws more attention from the United States and its allies.

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"They have the benefit of years of experience and at the same time they have a lot of recruits — angry young people," Sapp said. "I don't look at them as an army, but they're certainly a serious and adaptable threat."

With roots stretching back to before the attacks of September 11, 2001, ISIS took advantage of the civil war in Syria to capture territory in that country, and soon spread into neighboring Iraq. The United States joined the fight in 2014, using airstrikes to support Iraqi forces on the ground.

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President Barack Obama has described the fight as a "long-term campaign."

"ISIL is opportunistic and it is nimble," Obama said this month at the Pentagon, using an alternate acronym for the group. "In many places in Syria and Iraq, including urban areas, it's dug in among innocent civilian populations. It will take time to root them out."

The Asymmetric Warfare Group is one part of that fight. The unit was launched in the early years of the war in Iraq, when it was charged with developing ways to defend against IEDs — the roadside bombs that were devastating U.S. troops.

Members would fly into Iraq, gather information from bomb scenes and survivors, and come up with ways to defeat the deadly devices.

Over the years, its mission grew: The 350-member unit keeps an eye out for new threats around the globe and trains soldiers to fight them.

The group has studied ways to fight in tunnels beneath a city, react to chemical attacks and shoot down enemy drones. Members helped develop a weapon that shoots an exploding rope.

Light enough for a soldier to carry, it is designed to set off any bombs in its path. Soldiers have said it makes it easier to move around treacherous areas of Afghanistan.

When new gear might not help, the team aims to distill the lessons it gathers into simple cards that soldiers can carry with them on the battlefield. Not all of them are about more effective ways to kill or avoid being killed; one brochure developed for troops in Afghanistan in 2009 offered advice on how to build relationships with key local leaders in the area where they're working.

Now the elite operators — many of them, veterans of the special forces, with combat experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — are back in Iraq.

"We started in Iraq and we were there to the bitter end," Sapp said. Now "we're there again."

The group has about 20 advisers deployed in the country to learn how ISIS fights from the Iraqi soldiers who are being trained and guided by U.S. troops. The advisers work in teams as small as two, embedding with U.S. units to get as close to the battlefield as possible.

At a change-of-command ceremony Friday for the group, Lt. Gen. Kevin W. Mangum, the chief of staff of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, described its members in terms more commonly associated with tech startup whiz kids than seasoned soldiers.

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"I believe the secret sauce that makes AWG special is the disruptive, entrepreneurial spirit they bring to all they do," he said.

About 100 of the unit's soldiers and contractors stood in ranks as the general spoke. The patches on their uniforms testified to their elite backgrounds: Special Forces, Rangers, Airborne.

"Some of those guys are really indispensable," Sapp said. "They have so much knowledge and experience and they're really looked up to by the soldiers we work with."

Sapp himself was a longtime member of the 5th Special Forces Group, and among the first American soldiers to enter Afghanistan during the 2001 invasion. He later deployed to Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

American troops are not fighting on the ground against ISIS, but Sapp said some of its conclusions can be translated and shared with the Iraqi forces being sent into combat.

He won't talk about any weaknesses ISIS might have discovered in U.S. tactics or those of the Iraqi Army, or what vulnerabilities the group has found in ISIS. But he said there are elements that make ISIS different from the Taliban in Afghanistan or the insurgents in Iraq that mean it has to be handled in a unique way.

"If you don't, you risk underestimating the enemy, which is never a good thing," Sapp said.

Outside analysts say ISIS has developed methods to blunt the impact of the U.S.-led air campaign, to limit the effectiveness of the drones that the United States has used to kill al-Qaida leaders, and to mount assaults that outmatch much larger Iraqi forces.

David E. Johnson, a researcher at the RAND Corp., said the group combines the tactics of both regular military units and terrorists.

"They operate in formations, but they also use suicide bombers," he said. "They're competent, they're well armed and they're highly committed."

One especially terrifying tactic involves using suicide car bombers as if they were heavy artillery.

The group often opens an assault on a city with a wave of car bombs — some as powerful as the explosive used in the 1995 Oklahoma City booming.

"There is little defense against a multi-ton car bomb," analysts with the New York-based Soufan Group wrote recently. "There is none against multiple such car bombs."

Once ISIS has taken control of a city, it digs in, fortifying its position and surrounding itself with civilians, making aerial attacks more difficult.

"They're not fading as insurgents do," Johnson said. "They're sitting in the middle of Ramadi and Mosul saying, 'Come get us.'"

Johnson said it makes sense for the Army, confronted by enemies that evolve constantly, to have an Asymmetric Warfare Group. He said its soldiers have earned a reputation for being "extremely creative and innovative."

"The culture of the organization encourages people to think differently about problems," he said.

Sapp, the son of a diplomat, spent some of his youth in the Middle East; he calls himself an "armchair Henry Kissinger."

He placed the rise of ISIS in the broader context of political instability across the region.

Sapp said there's only so much his small team can do. But he said training his unit has developed is valuable.

One general told Sapp that the advisers saved lives.

"That's what it's all about for us," he said

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