Gauging the Jihadist Movement in 2016 (II): The Islamic State Camp

Security Weekly, 07.01.2016
Scott Stewart

Last week's Security Weekly began our 2016 "Gauging the Jihadist Movement" series with a discussion of the status of the al Qaeda portion of the movement. As in prior years, we are considering jihadist goals along with theories of insurgency and terrorism to measure the status of the various components of the global movement. The jihadist movement's objectives can be found here, and a discussion of terrorist and insurgent theory here.

This week we will turn our attention to Islamic State's wing of the jihadist movement. First, however, it is important to establish a definition of what it is we are assessing. Many people have called the Islamic State "the world's most powerful terrorist group" or "the richest terrorist group in history." I believe that both of these definitions are incorrect. The Islamic State is far more than just a terrorist group. It is much more accurately defined as a militant organization that does employ terrorism, but also conducts guerrilla warfare, hybrid warfare and conventional warfare. Moreover, it has established a proto-state over a wide swath of Iraq and Syria. Anyone who defines such an organization as merely a "terrorist group" is going to have a hard time accurately assessing it.

The Time is Now

As we noted last year, despite the Islamic State's pointed criticism of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organization has roughly followed the plan al-Zawahiri laid out in a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zawahiri wrote: "It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world." He also noted that the first step in such a plan was to expel U.S. forces from Iraq. The second stage was to establish an emirate and expand it into a larger caliphate. The third stage was then to attack the countries surrounding Iraq (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan) in order to bring them into the caliphate. The fourth step was to use the power of the combined caliphate to attack Israel.

Although al-Zarqawi died in a U.S. airstrike, al Qaeda in Iraq renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006, thereby declaring the establishment of a jihadist polity in Iraq. The U.S. surge of forces into Iraq and the corresponding Anbar Awakening in the Sunni areas of the country that began in 2007 severely weakened the organization by 2010, but the Islamic State in Iraq never lost sight of its goals. It rebuilt after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and took advantage of the civil war in Syria. Following a successful military campaign to seize large portions of the Sunni areas in Iraq on June 29, 2014, the Islamic State organization announced not just the re-establishment of its emirate in Iraq, but the launching of a caliphate.

Although the Islamic State is following the general guidelines of Ayman al-Zawahiri's plan, there are significant differences between al Qaeda's timeline and that of Islamic State for the execution of that plan. Al Qaeda argues that the caliphate can be established only after the United States and its European allies have been defeated to the extent that they can no longer interfere in Muslim lands — either because of a lack of ability or a lack of desire. The al Qaeda leadership, by contrast, envisions a long war approach that emphasizes the need to attack the United States, "the far enemy," before focusing on overthrowing local governments. The Islamic State, however, has adopted a more urgent approach, believing that the time for taking, holding and governing territory is now. This strategy banks on being able to use any conquered territory and resources for the purposes of continued expansion. The direct approach explains the Islamic State's decision to quickly proclaim a caliphate after it had captured a large portion of Iraq and Syria. The group's message to the Muslim world is that the caliphate is a historical fact, nothing will stop its expansion, and all Muslims should migrate to the Islamic State to help bolster its growth.

This message proved quite appealing to jihadists who had become disenchanted with al Qaeda's more cautious long war approach. Excited by the prospect of the caliphate's creation and assurances that the Islamic State's interpretation of apocalyptic prophesies confirmed that the end of the world was near — and that the final battle was being brought about by the creation of the Islamic State — the Islamic State was able to energize the jihadist movement and draw thousands of foreign fighters to its ranks. However, with the organization proclaiming the caliphate and adopting the mantle of apocalypticism, both time and space are working against the Islamic State.

Bound by Geography and Time

One of the advantages that an insurgent organization has when it is battling a stronger foe is that the insurgents are by definition mobile. They attack at a time and place of their choosing, optimally in areas where the enemy is weak and where tactical surprise and numerical superiority can work in the insurgents' favor. When a superior force confronts them, they can decline battle, flee and then regroup and wait for more favorable circumstances before staging their next attack. Mobility gives insurgents a big advantage over government forces, which must hold and secure population centers, natural resources and lines of communication from hit-and-run insurgent attacks. The government must also oversee the population and provide services. Securing such a wide array of targets from attack and providing services requires a lot of resources — and these resources are tied down to protect specific places, so that they cannot be used to conduct offensive operations against the insurgents elsewhere.

In its transition from an insurgency to a government, the Islamic State has lost many of the advantages it enjoyed as an insurgent group. The organization has had to shoulder many of the responsibilities that come with being a government, such as devoting tremendous resources to securing cities, governing and providing services. Many people have commented about the Islamic State's internal security efforts and aggressive work to track down and execute spies; every fighter devoted to internal security is one less that can be involved in military operations elsewhere.

Furthermore, by becoming bound to specific geography, the Islamic State has opened itself up to months of punishing airstrikes. The past 60 years has shown that the U.S. military struggles against an amorphous enemy but is very good at attacking fixed, quantifiable targets. Recognizing the U.S.-led coalition's aversion to civilian casualties, the Islamic State has attempted to insulate itself from airstrikes by using human shields. However, when leaders leave insulated locations, or attempt to mass forces for offensive operations, they open themselves up to being hit.

The deployment of more coalition joint terminal attack controllers in the theater has made close air support far more effective in both defending against the Islamic State and launching offensive operations against the group. The recent operations in Ramadi are a very good example of this. Moreover, the Russians have entered the fray in Syria, and they have far less concern for civilian casualties than U.S. forces. This means the Islamic State can no longer count on things like schools, hospitals and mosques to provide them with safety from airstrikes.

Since the U.S.-led coalition's bombing efforts began in August 2014, they have significantly degraded the Islamic State's military capabilities by destroying large quantities of military equipment and troops. In addition, the group has found it difficult to spread beyond the Sunni Arab majority areas into Shiite and Kurdish areas. This, combined with strikes, has stymied the group's expansion. In areas of northeastern Syria, coalition air power has played a decisive role in helping local ground forces such as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces push the Islamic State back from key border crossings. Although smuggling in and out of Islamic State territory still occurs, the volume of goods and people crossing the border is undoubtedly far less than it was a year ago.

In addition to pinching the Islamic State's supply lines, by halting the group's advance and destroying its military units the coalition has also helped curtail the Islamic State's biggest supply of resources: the homes, farms, business, goods and people that do not belong to the group, and the taxes levied on conquered citizens. This type of logistical model becomes unsustainable once conquerors squeeze the population they control dry and can no longer acquire new territory to plunder and pillage.

Time is working against the Islamic State in that the longer the group remains on the defensive and are unable to continue the promised global conquest, the more the allure of its apocalyptic ideology will fade.

In 2016, the Islamic State will be challenged in several crucial battlespaces. The first of these is Mosul in Iraq, the largest city under the Islamic State's control and the place where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate. Gauging from Iraqi offensives in Ramadi, Baiji and Tikrit, the operation to cut off and then recapture Mosul is going to be slow, deliberate and greatly aided by coalition airstrikes — but it will begin this year.

Beyond Mosul, it will also be important to keep an eye on the much smaller town of Dabiq, Syria, as well as the Islamic State's capital city of Raqqa. In the Islamic State's interpretation of Islamic apocalyptic prophecy, Dabiq will be the place where the armies of the world will gather to fight the true believers in the final battle, in which the true believers will be delivered by the return of the prophet Isa (Jesus). These prophecies are why the Islamic State leaders have shown no reluctance to attack, threaten or challenge world powers. They truly believe that the armies of the world will all descend upon them and that they will emerge from the conflict victorious through divine intervention.

The Islamic State's position in northern Aleppo province, where Dabiq is located, is becoming increasingly tenuous, and the group is being pressured from three directions. First is a coalition of Syrian rebels in the northwestern part of the region — the rebel front line is now less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Dabiq. Second, Syrian government forces are pressing in from the southwest around al-Bab. Third, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are east of Dabiq, near Manbij. The Syrian Democratic Forces are also now south of Ain Issa and only about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Islamic State's capital of Raqqa.

Unfortunately for the Islamic State, it appears that Dabiq is about to be attacked by a coalition of other Muslims and not the combined armies of the world. Still, it will be very important to watch how the Islamic State leaders respond to the threat against Dabiq. Although the small town of some 3,000 people has very little military significance, the ideological significance of the town is substantial; the Islamic State has even named its English-language magazine after the town, and a quote from al-Zarqawi regarding the Dabiq prophecies is regularly featured in a wide variety of Islamic State propaganda. Because of this, the Islamic State will likely commit a lot of forces to retaining control of the town. Such concentrations of forces will be exposed to airstrikes.

As I noted in October, should the Syrian Democratic Forces be able to capture Raqqa from the Islamic State, the victory would be highly symbolic. The city was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate from A.D. 769 to A.D. 809, before the capital was moved to Baghdad. Taking Raqqa would also have clear strategic value for the anti-Islamic State effort. The area around the city is an important hub for transporting people and supplies: Raqqa sits on the Euphrates River and controls critical highways. For the Islamic State, rivers are essential; waterways and their flanking roads are the geographic core of the Islamic State's web of control.

Outside of Syria and Iraq

When considering the Islamic State's presence outside of Iraq and Syria, it is important to recognize that most of the Islamic State's "provinces" (called "wilaya" in Arabic) or affiliate groups outside of Syria and Iraq are not new and are simply rebranded versions of existing jihadist groups or splinters of existing groups that have pledged allegiance to Islamic State. For example, the Wilayat al Gharbi al Sudan — meaning West Africa province — is merely a rebranded Boko Haram. And Wilayat Sinai was previously the Sinai portion of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. By contrast, the mainland portion of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis remains in the al Qaeda orbit.

Other than perhaps the Wilayat Barqa in eastern Libya and Wilayat Khorasan in Afghanistan, Islamic State affiliate groups are leaving 2015 weaker than they entered it. For example, more than 100 members of the Yemen Wilayat, including the group's military commander and several other senior members, defected in December 2015. Elsewhere, the Egyptian military inflicted a serious toll on Wilayat Sinai. But that does not mean the regional groups no longer pose a threat.

Even as territory is lost, Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi has lashed out with suicide bombings in Chad, Cameroon and Niger, countries that are supporting Nigeria's fight against the jihadist group. Despite this rapid escalation of suicide bombings (the group conducted well over 100 in 2015), and their spread to neighboring countries, there is no doubt that the group is considerably weaker now than it was in 2013. Then, it conducted no suicide bombings, and even in 2014 the group conducted only 26 such attacks. In other words, the number of terrorist attacks a militant organization launches is not necessarily an accurate gauge of its overall strength.

On Dec. 26, the Islamic State's Al Hayat Media Center released an audio message from al-Baghdadi titled, "Wait as we Indeed are Waiting." The theme of the message was that Islamic State fighters need to demonstrate patience and perseverance under severe affliction and trials, which he called inevitable. Al-Baghdadi also appealed for Muslims to rise up and do their duty to preserve the Islamic State by traveling to join it. This included liberating jihadists from prisons and conducting attacks in countries fighting the Islamic State in the region, as well as transnationally. This message presented a dramatically different message from al-Baghdadi's triumphal 2014 declaration of the caliphate. The themes of affliction, trials and suffering are certain to be repeated frequently by the Islamic State core and its affiliates throughout 2016 as they continue to be pressed hard on all sides.

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