IS, despite losses, still incites global attacks
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Three years ago, a black-clad cleric named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended a mosque pulpit in the Iraqi city of Mosul and addressed the world as leader of a new terrorist state.
The announcement of the so-called caliphate was a high point for the extremist fighters of the Islamic State (IS) group.
Their exhibitionist violence and apocalyptic ideology helped them seize vast stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq, attract legions of foreign fighters and create an administration with bureaucrats, courts and oil wells.
Now, their terrorist state is crumbling.
In Syria, US-backed militias have surrounded Raqqa, the IS group’s capital, and breached its historic walls.
Across the border, Iraqi forces have seized the remains of the Mosul mosque where al-Baghdadi appeared and besieged the remaining jihadis in a shrinking number of city blocks.
According to US and Middle Eastern officials, however, the loss of its two largest cities will not spell a final defeat for the IS group—also known as Isis, Isil and Daesh.
The IS group has already shifted back to its roots as an insurgent force, but one that now has an international reach and an ideology that continues to motivate attackers around the world.
Ability to grow still there
“These are obviously major blows to IS because its state-building project is over, there is no more caliphate, and that will diminish support and recruits,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington and a coauthor of a book on the group.
“But IS today is an international organization. Its leadership and its ability to grow back are still there,” Hassan added.
IS has overshadowed its jihadist precursors like al-Qaida not by just holding territory, but by running cities and their hinterlands for an extended period, winning credibility in the militant world and building a complex organization.
So even while the physical hold of IS slips, its surviving cadres—middle managers, weapons technicians, propagandists and other operatives—will invest that experience in the group’s future operations.
Not yet homeless
And even though its hold on crucial urban centers is being shaken, IS is in no way homeless yet.
In Iraq, IS still controls Tal Afar, Hawija, other towns and much of Anbar province. In Syria, most of its top operatives have fled Raqqa in the past six months for other towns still under IS control in the Euphrates valley.
Many IS leaders have relocated to Mayadeen, a town 177 kilometers southeast of Raqqa near oil facilities and with supply lines through the surrounding desert.
They have taken with them the group’s most important recruiting, financing, propaganda and external operations functions. Other leaders have been spirited out of Raqqa by a trusted network of aides to a string of towns from Deir al-Zour to Abu Kamal.
US Special Operations forces have targeted this area heavily with armed Reaper drones and attack planes, disrupting and damaging the IS leadership and ability to carry out plots. But the battle for Raqqa still could last many months.
It is all a new chapter in the history of a group whose roots go back to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Fighting under various names and leaders, the Sunni militants who would evolve into the IS group killed many Iraqis and US troops before Sunni tribal fighters paid by the United States decimated them, driving the survivors underground by the time the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011.
But new conflicts provided new opportunities. After the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, IS dispatched operatives there to build the force that later seized the country’s east, including Raqqa, which became its administrative capital.
Then IS turned its sights back to Iraq, seizing Mosul in 2014, where al-Baghdadi made clear what distinguished his followers from al-Qaida: They were not just insurgents, but also the founders of a state infused with extremist ideology.
Inspiring, directing attacks
Senior US intelligence and counterterrorism officials say that more than 60,000 IS fighters have been killed since June 2014, including much of the IS leadership, and that the group has lost about two-thirds of its peak territory.
But those officials, including Lt. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, one of the Army’s top Special Operations officers, also acknowledged that IS had retained much of its ability to inspire, enable and direct terrorist attacks.
“When I consider how much damage we’ve inflicted and they’re still operational, they’re still capable of pulling off things like some of these attacks we’ve seen internationally,” Nagata said recently in an interview, “we have to conclude that we do not yet fully appreciate the scale or strength of this phenomenon.”
IS has carried out nearly 1,500 attacks in 16 cities across Iraq and Syria after they were freed from the militants’ control, showing that the group has reverted to its insurgent roots and foreshadowing long-term security threats.
Internationally, IS has partly compensated for its losses at home by encouraging affiliates abroad—in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria and the Philippines—and by activating operatives elsewhere.
Conditions ripe for resurgence
The United States and its allies have focused on breaking the IS group’s control of territory, but its departure could accelerate other conflicts.
Many fear that with poor governance and sectarianism still the rule in Syria and Iraq, some reconstituted form of the IS group’s extreme Sunni Islamism could yet find support.
“All of these conditions in the end form the basic environment for the IS group,” said Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian expert in extremist groups. “They formed the environment for it to start and spread, and now they are increasing, not decreasing.”
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