Since the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks the American-led international coalition has increased the intensity of its attacks against the Islamic State (IS). In addition, the Russian Air Force was flying about 60 strike sorties every day against opposition forces in Syria until the Russian partial withdrawal in March 2016. The Iraqi Army, the Syrian Army and the Kurdish Peshmergas are conducting ground offensives against the jihadists. The IS is being driven back at almost every frontline in Iraq and Syria.
But is it really about to lose the war? How much is IS really affected by this campaign?
The rise of IS
The forerunner of IS was founded in October 2004, when the infamous leader of Jamaat al-Tawhidwal-Jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Osama bin Laden and changed the name of the group to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). However, he operated with a high degree of autonomy, not always in line with the intentions of AQ´s central leadership. When al-Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 by an American airstrike, he was replaced by the Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri (alias Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), a veteran of that-time AQ deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri´s old Egyptian group El-Jihad. The AQI-related organization Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was established in October 2006 under the leadership of Hamid Dawud Muhammad Khalil al-Zawi (alias Abu Omar al-Baghdadi), an Iraqi national. It seemed to be that in contrary to AQI this group was widely immune to foreign influence.
Since 2010 both groups capitalized on the beginning withdrawal of the US forces and the weakness of Iraq’s Shia dominated government. After Abu Hamza and Abu Omar were killed in April 2010, the Iraqi Ibrahim al-Badri (alias Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Hussein al-Qurashi) took over in May 2010 as an emir of both, AQI and ISI.
In 2012 AQI and ISI provided support to establish Syria’s Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra opposition group. In April 2013 AQI and ISI were rebranded “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) and launched operations in Syria, mainly in the north and east of the country, against the explicit will of AQ´s new leader al-Zawahiri.
In January 2014 ISIL took complete control of Al-Raqqah, the sixth-largest city in Syria. When ISIL tried to fully integrate al-Nusra, this was rejected by al-Nusra´s emir al-Fateh Abu Mohammad al-Golani who pledged in turn allegiance directly to al-Zawahiri. Subsequently, the differences about the role of al-Nusra between al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri escalated. After the outbreak of open fighting between ISIL and al-Nusra in February 2014, ISIL´s AQ affiliate status was revoked by al-Zawahiri. ISIL also broke ties from its side and became a terror group in its own right.
The year 2014 saw a major rise of ISIL´s power. After the temporary occupation of the important and symbolic cities Ramadi and Falluja in the Al-Anbar province in the first half of 2014, ISIL seized control of Mosul in June 2014. Mosul is Iraq´s second largest city with a population of 2.9 million. In the same month Kirkuk, a major city with a Kurdish majority population, was briefly occupied. At the end of June, the establishment of a “caliphate” running from the Syrian government of Aleppo in the west to the Iraqi province of Diyala in the east was proclaimed. The official name of the group changed to “Islamic State” (IS).
While in September 2014 a U.S. led coalition started with airstrikes on the jihadists, fall of 2014 saw also the expansion of IS to several other regions abroad, including North Africa.
Analysis of IS
By nature, nowadays IS is a transnational traditionalist militant Sunni Islamist insurgency. While the forerunners goal was initially to expel foreign forces from Iraq and to replace the Shia dominated government with a Sunni Islamic state governed in accordance with the Sharia, this has changed with the expansion to Syria in 2013.
The current goal of IS is probably the consolidation and expansion of a regional Sunni Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, governed in accordance with the Sharia while suppressing Shia Islam in the region, as well as the establishment of other regional Islamic states (e.g. in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt). The ultimate goal is probably the creation of a Pan-Islamic Global Caliphate.A caliphate constituted of a caliph, a territory under control and the Islamic law.
To achieve these goals IS intends to topple “apostate” governments and regimes all over its area of operations, while continuing to serve as inspirational model for others to facilitate further expansion into other regions to expel all non-Muslims from all “Muslim Lands”.
IS pursues a mainly military-focused strategy. There is a primacy of military action to defeat rival organizations and local governments in order to establish an administration and a political organization of its own kind. However, there is also a second, to a lesser extent important, civilian pillar of the strategy. A law & order and welfare campaign ensures that crime and corruption are coped with an iron fist, while the conduct of welfare programs for the needy, in particular for the families of the “martyrs” shall demonstrate that the wellbeing of its followers is one of the major goals of IS.
The key capabilities of IS to succeed in this strategy are to:
– provide a conventional fighting force
– control a sufficient amount of financial resources
– conduct an efficient public relations campaign
– provide inspiration to individuals and other groups
– provide material support to affiliates to carry out attacks on common targets
– provide coordination, if not command and control for attacks
While the strategy of IS isalways tailored with its means and ways to the local circumstances, the ends are always the same. The interim objective is all along to destabilize the targeted country by undermining the authority of the government, weakening the economy and maintaining a sense of uncertainty to prevent any (re-)establishment of effective governance.
Organization of IS and Areas of Operation
The supreme leader of IS is “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A caliph is a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, and hence the leader of the entire Muslim community. This title of the IS leader underlines his claim to world-wide leadership over all Muslims. Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Hassani al-Qurashi, also from Iraq,is named as al-Baghdadi´s deputy. The organization of IS includes a cabinet with about a dozen ministers as “executive body”.
The “legislature” is an expanded shura council.
This central leadership of IS provides – at least in theory – strategic guidance to all the sub-organizations and affiliates.
While under pressure in 2010, AQI adopted temporarily a looser command and control system. Local leaders have started following a decentralized system. Anyway, a common focus is guaranteed by the strategic objectives and the ultimate goal.
IS is organized in “wilayaat” (provinces), led by an “emir”. Under a caliphate the term “wilayat” refers to near-sovereign states. The concept of an overall caliph and regional emirs, to whom local commanders pledge their obedience through oaths, is a central element of the organizational structure of IS. It is also key of the theological component of the organization.
The centerpiece of ISis the controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. It includes northern and central Iraq as well as northern and eastern Syria.The area of operations encompasses both entire countries, including their respective capitals.
The U.S. estimates that there are currently approximately 19,000 to 25,000 IS fighters in Iraq and Syria compared to 20,000 to 31,000 in 2014.
The second most important battlefield for IS isLibya, where the first of three wilayaat has been established in October 2014. At the beginning all the operations were under the command of experienced IS leaders from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, but now more and more Libyans are climbing up the ranks. IS in Libya is in (permanent?) communication with the parent organization. As with early March 2016 there were about 6,500 IS jihadists in Libya.
In Egypt, Nigeria, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Russia and other countries existing home-grown radical Islamist groups have pledged obedience to the caliph of IS. Those affiliates are motivated by a shared sense of grievances towards local regimes and – frequently – also the West. They use the name “Islamic State” as a “modern trademark” to spread fear – and hope to receive some financial support from the parent organization. Examples are Egypt´s Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Wilayat Sinai) and Nigeria´s Boko Haram (Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyya). Many of these groups are heavily influenced by domestic jihadists, who fought for some time in Iraq or Syria.
As of January 2016 at least 16 other terrorist groups have pledged allegiance to IS but were not yet formally accepted by the group. The most prominent are Abu Sayyaf (Philippines), Jemaah Islamiyah (Indonesia), and MUJAO (Sahel Region). Other groups are from India, Philippines, Uzbekistan, Syria, Indonesia, Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.
Occasional attacks are also conducted in other Middle Eastern countries like Jordan and Turkey. Small cells operate in western Europe (e.g. France and Belgium), while “lone wolf” attacks “inspired by IS” are being conducted in other European and American countries.
Means – Forms of warfare
IS uses a broad range of techniques, tailored to the local requirements.
In Iraq and Syria major (“conventional”) ground campaigns are the main form of warfare. IShas the ability to mount coordinated ground campaigns and terrorist attacks across a country. Wherever possible, they exploit protests against the government.
Terrorist campaigns include indiscriminate, mass-casualty bomb attacks, also to provoke Shia retaliatory violence, with large stand-off vehicle bombs, smaller “backpack” bombs and targeted assassinations.
Tactics include ambushes, assaults (e.g. on prisons), area attacks with suicide bombers, assassinations, raids to seize targets, conventional force-on-force attacks, kidnapping, and sieges with hostage taking.
Atrocities like beheadings, crucifixions, floggings and amputations are used to spread fear among the enemies’ ranks and to strictly enforce the sharia law.
Agitation in Islamic Schools and on universities in IS held territory, in the wider operation area and in other countries is used as a means to recruit new fighters.
A very important means is propaganda warfare. IS leaders are fully aware of the importance of successful propaganda and information operations. The use of media is vital to IS in order to influence the popular perception of the organization, which has in turn important effects on recruitment and fundraising in IS-controlled territory and outside, in particular in the Sunni Arab world. Attack videos shall prove the proficiency of the jihadists and the vulnerability of its targets. Execution videos shall spread fear and undermine the will to resist to the advance of IS.
Key Islamic State media branches include the video production and distribution network Al-Furqan Media, the Global Islamic Media Front, a jihadist media organization supporting various terrorist groups in different countries, and various other outlets such as jihadist blogs and internet forums. The latter are used as highly effective platforms for the distribution of Al-Furqan videos and statements from the IS leadership.
Targets of IS violence include not only the military, security forces, governments and administration, but also the civilian population and commercial interests.
Violence against civilians is often sectarian in nature, targeting Shia Muslims (Iraq, Syria, Yemen), Christians (Syria, Libya, Egypt), and smaller religious minorities (e.g. Yazidi in Syria). In Iraq, IS has tried in particular since 2010 to exploit the increasing popular Sunni Arab discontent with the Shia dominated government. Typical targets include religious leaders, religious symbols, and mosques. Other civilian targets comprise people whose behavior is considered criminal or amoral, journalists, news organizations, NGOs and other civil society groups
Commercial interests attacked include the economic infrastructure (hydrocarbon infrastructure, power grid, financial sector, airports, and high-profile targets like the Suez Canal) and the tourism sector.
The seizure of hydrocarbon facilities has been a key priority for IS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The aim is not only to secure key infrastructure for the own use as a critical source of fundraising (at least in Syria and Iraq), but also to deny revenues to the respective national governments.
The IS considers attacks against Western civilians and military personnel in their home countries as “retaliatory attacks” for their involvement in the perceived oppression of Muslims.
The Middle East, washed with all kinds of weapons, provides numerous sources of weapons and ammunition. IS has access to small arms, explosives, anti-aircraft artillery, mortars, rocket launchers, artillery, anti-tank guided missiles, man-portable air defense systems and even tanks. Most probably the organization has also access to a limited amount of chemical weapons (mustard gas?).
However, IS has only a very limited access to sophisticated weapons and equipment. This is limited to what they have captured on the battlefields and to what is available commercially.
The mountainous areas in the north of Iraq and Syria and the vast desert regions provide a favorable terrain for an insurgency. Border control between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey is difficult. A longer stretch of the frontier between Iraq and Syria is under control of IS. This allows the terrorists to move forces between the two major battlefields and to receive logistic support and additional foreign fighters from abroad. It facilitates the movement of emissaries to branches of IS and affiliates in other countries as well as the infiltration of terrorists to Europe.
Most probably AQI leader al-Zarqawi’s oath to bin Laden was also driven by the desire to gain AQ funding. Access to these funds provided Abu Hamza al Muhajir with a powerful tool to control his organization and other affiliated insurgents. Over time IS became decreasingly dependent on AQ funding.
Sunni Arabs across the region, in particular in the oil-rich Gulf states have been an important source of funding for IS, especially for its forerunners during the first years of the insurgency. In order to keep these donors well-disposed, it is necessary for IS to – at least appear – to be active, successful and gaining ground. This stresses the importance of propaganda for fundraising.
In the meantime, with the territorial expansion of IS and the subsequent development of new sources of income, the significance of funding by donors has decreased, but nevertheless it still remains important. Today the vast majority of IS´s funding is generated within the controlled territory in Iraq and Syria through exploiting the local population, enterprises and material resources. Therefore, IS is not dependent on smuggling cash over international borders or on wire transfers to banks in occupied cities.
Probably the most important source of income for IS are tributes and taxes collected from local communities, farmers, government employees, shop owners, and small businesses as well as from larger companies. This includes also control of the local fuel markets. IS considers cash at state-owned banks as its property. Cash in private banks is taxed upon customer withdrawals.
The amount of income through selling crude oil and fuel to neighboring countries and international dealers is unclear, but it is probably at least today of secondary importance. This is mainly due to IS´s own requirements for refined petroleum products and the need to satisfy the demand of the citizens in the controlled territory, but it is also a consequence of airstrikes diminishing the production, refinery and transportation capabilities.
Another important source of income is crime, ranging from smuggling to selling ancient artefacts, kidnapping for ransom, bank robberies in the occupied cities and protection payment from large companies.
A major reason for the attractiveness of IS to individuals from the region is the comparatively high salary. In 2015 IS jihadists could expect to receive a basic salary of around 450 $ per month, with an additional 120 $ for every wife and 50 $ for every child. Furthermore, fighters and their families enjoy free housing, medical care, utility services, and regular grocery allowances, as well as paying no tax. Foreign fighters receive a one-off bonus for having emigrated to join the group. To compare, other Syrian opposition groups pay their fighters about 200 $.
Any successful insurgency needs the support of at least a part of the local population. The demography of Iraq is split in several religious and ethnic groups (total population: 37 mio; 60-65% Shia, 32-37% Sunni, 0.8% Christians; 75-80%% Arabs, 15-20 % Kurds, 5% other). In Syria the 23.2 million population is ethnically more homogenous (90% Arab and 10% Kurds, Armenians, and other) but the religious affiliation is more diverse (74% Sunni, 13% Alawit, Ismail, and Shia, 10% Christian, 3% Druze).
In combination with the disenfranchisement of religious and ethnic minorities by the governments these demographics providea fertile ground for an insurgency.
Most fighters of IS and its forerunner organizations in Iraq have always been Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Although the first leaders were foreigners, Iraqis eventually took control of the group. Key recruitment areas include Baghdad,some areas south of Baghdad, Al-Anbar province, parts of Diyala province and segments of the Sunni Arab population from Mosul and Kirkuk. Most of these locations were also hotspots of the resistance against the American-led international forces in Iraq.
Tribal affiliation has never been a determinant of IS membership.However, the geographic concentration of recruitment in certain Sunni Arab areas of Iraq in the past gave IS certain tribal biases. The Ubayd, Bani Said, Janabi, and Khazraj proved strong recruiting pools for IS over the years, while other early key supporting tribes became part of the American facilitated Sunni Awakening movement from 2005-2006 onwards.
In Syria most of the IS members are local Sunni Arabs from northern and eastern Syria, mainly from tribes and clans, which had been marginalized by Syria’s ruling regime. About two dozen tribes around Al-Raqqah (e.g. the al-Bakir) and Aleppo pledged allegiance to IS as a whole. On the other side, a few tribes, like the Al-Shaitat in the Euphrates valley, tried to retain control of their oil-rich tribal lands against the advancing IS, but were defeated and became subject to cruel reprisals. About 700 members of the Al-Shaitat were shot, hanged, beheaded or crucified.
The role of foreigners fighting with IS is an important one. They do not only boost the ranks of the frontline units and provide a significant number of suicide-bombers, but facilitate also the spread of IS ideology to other countries. Frequently the backbone of new IS wilayaat and affiliates in other countries are experienced fighters returning from Syria or Iraq.
Most important countries of origin are currently Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia (mostly Chechens), Turkey, andJordan. Each of these has a representative in the shura council. Although the Islamic State is a far more Pan-Arab undertaking than it is a Pan-Islamic effort, there are,apart from the Turks and Chechens, alsoseveral other non-Arabs fighting in Iraq and Syria, e.g. Indonesians, Albanians, Bosnians, and a few Black Africans. However, most of the Western European IS jihadists have their roots in the Arab world.
The Republic of Iraq is ruled by a Shia dominated government. The constitution, which was rejected by the vast majority of the Iraq Sunni Arabs, foresees a democratic, federal, representative parliamentary republic. The federal government has exclusive power on water policies and the management of the hydrocarbon resources (in cooperation with the governments of the producing provinces). However, Sunni Arabs feel – rightly – overruled by Iraq´s Shias.
The Alawi Assad familyand the Baath party are ruling Syria since 1971 with an iron fist. Its power basis are the security forces and the small Alawi religious minority. Many Sunni and some Shia consider the Alawites apostates, although a ruling of the prominent Iranian-Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr declared in 1973 Alawites to be Shiite Muslims. This ruling was of utmost importance for then president Hafez al-Assad, as the Syrian constitution requires the president to be a Muslim.
The IS maintains in any country a strict opposition to any kind of involvement in the respective current political system, but has developed its own alternative state structure. As mentioned above, in the leadership there is some representation of key groups, but this is not democratic, proportional, or pluralistic in any sense.
In Iraq IS is promoting itself as protector of the Sunni Arabs from the Shia dominated security forces. Consequently, the jihadists exploit Sunni Arab grievances and disillusionment with the governments of Nouri al-Maliki and his successor Haider al-Abadi. The group is widely accepted, if not supported by many Sunni Arabs in central and western Iraq. This support is not only exploited for recruiting and logistics, but also for concrete tactic achievements. The Sunni Arab cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Al-Anbar province were seized following local Sunni Arab protests against the discrimination by the government.
The Sunni Awakening movement conducted an efficient counter-insurgency campaign against various groups, including AQI and ISI. Both were forced out from several of their strongholds. At its peak the movement numbered about 54,000 fighters. But after the American withdrawal Shia prime minister al-Maliki was unwilling to integrate them as a whole into the security forces, probably in order not to create an own “Sunni Army”. Only part of them was accepted as individuals to Iraq’s security forces. Subsequently, the importance of the Sunni Awakening movement gradually faded away. Many leading members fell victim to an IS assassination campaign.
In Syria there is also some tacit support from the population, in particular from some tribes disenfranchised by the regime, but not at the level of the backing in Iraq.
There are several reasons why IS is able to get local support. An important factor is the wide dissatisfaction of the Sunni Arab population with the government and its treatment of the Sunnis. Many Iraqis and Syrians reject “Western interference” as there is somehow the perception of an exploitation of the country by foreigners.
Major means for IS to get popular support are its success on the battlefield, spectacular terrorist attacks in the west, comparatively high salaries for fighters, and welfare programs for the needy, in particular for the families of the “martyrs”. Furthermore, the offered protection from Shia militias is in the mixed areas of Iraq of high importance. All these elements are “sold” with a very efficient propaganda machine, mainly via internet and mobile phones, to the target audience.
On the other side, in certain regions the population is increasingly dissatisfied with the indiscriminate nature of IS violence as also many Sunnis fall victim. Uncompromising imposition of sharia, assassination of defiant tribal elders and clerics, executions and corporal punishment of citizens, bans against involvement in elections and referenda are an important part of the policy of IS, but contributes also to the alienation of certain groups.
Unity of IS and relationship to other jihadist groups
ISoccasionally has problems with insubordination of foreign fighters. Draconian punishment is frequently the consequence. There are also indications for an internal debate about the indiscriminate use of violence and the selection of targets.
In early 2014 IS coordinated in western and northern Iraq with several smaller Sunni Arab insurgent groups, but it is unclear if this ended in a sustained cooperation.
When IS emancipated itself with AQ conflicts with AQ affiliates in Syria like al-Nusra Front emerged. This resulted in fierce fighting and an ongoing rivalry between the two jihadist groups.
In Libya there have been conflicts between IS and long-established Libyan jihadist groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Although most of these groups share the same objective with IS, there is a rivalry about the local leadership. A key issue is that the Libyans don’t want to subdue under a foreign leadership. Similar difficulties exist in several other North African countries.
Despite several allegations of state support for IS there is no evidence that the group has received funding or direct support from any foreign government. If any, there is only very limited state support, but with the own resources on hand there is not much need for it.
After the breakup of the ties with AQ there is no known support to the IS network from other major terrorist organizations.
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The major reasons for the rise of IScan be found in the difficult situation of the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq.
Among the main strengths of IS is its ability to recover from serious setbacks like the loss of senior leadership in 2006 and 2010 as well as from the loss of a significant part of its territory from 2006-10. Its aura of success, facilitated by its propaganda machine, motivates many local and international young men and women to join its ranks.
The main weaknesses of IS are its lack of a conventional fighting capability able to survive on modern battlefields and its heavy dependency on a regular financial income. A high amount of money is required to meet the organizational and governance requirements of its state-like enterprise and to maintain a considerable military force.
The Center of Gravity of IS is the broad support of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs. As long as the organization is able to maintain this support it will always be able to recover even from most serious setbacks.
The IS military focused strategy needs at first to be countered with military means to stop the expansion and to drive the jihadists back. The current campaign by Iraq and the Kurds, supported by the American-led coalition on one side and the Syrian government backed-up by the Russians on the other side has already achieved significant progress on the ground.
But the military is only one element of the required comprehensive approach. Unfortunately, the international efforts to deprive IS of its financial resources have been only in part successful. The economic environment of IS makes it by and large invulnerable to the currently applied methods.
Altogether, this strategydoes not directly endanger the Center of Gravity of IS, the support of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs.
It can be expected that even if a sustained military campaign manages to drive back IS in Iraq and Syria to its last strongholds, the terrorists will not be defeated. Probably they will lose a battle, but not (yet?) the war. The forerunners of IS have been able to survive even most severe setbacks like in 2007/08, when the American-led “surge” and the Sunni Awakening movement inflicted heavy casualties on the insurgents.
Only a strategy able to attack the Center of Gravity of IS could achieve a lasting success. Such a strategy must build on the current military achievements and address the justified grievances of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs population. It must focus on improving their situation and on reconciliation to deprive IS of convenient recruiting possibilities.
But as long as sectarian violence from Shia militias against Sunni Arabs takes place as retaliation for IS terrorism – like in January 2016 in Diyala province – not even a peaceful co-existence is realistic.
The fight against IS is on the right track, but to defeat IS it is necessary to separate them from their supporting base in Iraq. To this end proper political means are decisive. The key to success is in the hands of the Iraqi government.