As caliphate shrinks, ISIS expected to head for the hills again

Sunday 08/01/2017
A member of the Iraqi forces shows a car plate stamped with the logo of the Islamic State (ISIS) group as troops advance in Mosul’s eastern Al-Intisar neighbourhood, on December 31st, 2016. (AFP)

Beirut - The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the Syrian war through a network of activists, re­ported that the Islamic State (ISIS) has summoned its senior figures to a meeting in Iraq to choose a potential successor to the elusive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
It is not clear why ISIS would be seeking to do this after suffering major battlefield reverses and fac­ing the loss of its major strongholds and the collapse of the caliphate it declared in Syria and Iraq in mid- 2014.
However, if the call for an emer­gency meeting is correct, it would suggest that the jihadist group could hold Baghdadi, an Iraqi cleric, responsible for its current crisis and wants to find a new leader.
It is questionable whether a lead­ership change would be enough to change ISIS’s fortunes.
The Americans and their ragtag army of Syrian and Kurdish allies are preparing an offensive to retake the city of Raqqa in northern Syria, the de facto capital of the caliphate with a population of about 500,000 and ISIS’s last urban stronghold in Syria.
In northern Iraq, Mosul, the larg­est city ISIS conquered, is under threat by US-backed forces and ex­pected to fall. On December 7th, ISIS lost its last foothold in the Liby­an coastal city of Sirte, the only city outside of Syria and Iraq it has held and that was intended to be the hub of the group’s North African opera­tions.
US officials say 60% of the cali­phate had been lost by mid-Decem­ber. A measure of ISIS’s desperation is its claim to have mounted 1,024 suicide attacks between January and November, the overwhelming majority in Syria and Iraq but with some in Libya.
It is not possible to verify statis­tics provided by Amaq, ISIS’s news agency, but the unprecedented in­tensity of martyrdom operations jibes with front-line reports and un­derlines how ISIS is falling back on suicide attacks in a last-ditch effort to slow its enemies.
Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, Baghdadi’s Syrian No.2 who was ISIS’s top propagandist and strate­gist as well as chief of its formidable external operations apparatus, fore­saw that the jihadists would have to return to insurgency warfare and terrorism if they were to survive the growing onslaught.
A few weeks before he was killed in a US air strike in northern Syria on August 30th, Adnani pointed to­wards a sharp shift in strategy in an audio message:
“Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land or some authori­ty or that victory is measured there­by has strayed from the truth,” he declared. “It is the same, whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare, open de­sert, displaced and pursued.”
Some analysts say that once Mo­sul falls, ISIS’s forces in Iraq will retreat into nearby Diyala province, a haven for jihadists since 2003, to regroup and rearm in the rugged, sometimes mountainous terrain that in its southern extremity loops around eastern Baghdad, which would be the likely target for a wave of suicide bombings.
US analysts Michael Knights and Alex Mello, who have both worked in Iraq, call Diyala, where 60% of the population is Sunni, “Iraq’s sectarian tinder box” and observe that by “escalating terrorist attacks against Shia targets there, the group could create a spiral of sectarian vi­olence that it could exploit to make a comeback.
“The strategy almost worked a decade ago,” they said in a report by the Counter-Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy in October.
“After the US surge cleared Islam­ic State of Iraq (ISIS’s predecessor) fighters from Anbar province, the group made significant gains in Di­yala by carrying out a terrorist cam­paign against Shia targets designed to plunge the country deeper into civil war.”
They warned that if ISIS contin­ues to take the initiative in Diyala, the province “is likely to become the Islamic State’s main safe haven location in Iraq, back-to-back with other key operational locations like Tarmiyah, the Jalam Desert, the Hamrin Mountains, the Iranian bor­der and the eastern approaches to Baghdad.”
In Syria, where ISIS is still a fight­ing force to be reckoned with, as demonstrated when it unleashed a surprise offensive that recaptured the storied city of Palmyra from the Syrian Army on December 10th- 11th, the thinking is the jihadists will retreat into the country’s vast eastern desert around oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province where it is strongly entrenched.
John Arterbury, a Washington-based counterterrorism expert, ob­served in an analysis published by the New Statesman of London, that activists said ISIS plans to gather its senior leadership in Deir ez-Zor, which will “afford the Islamic State the springboard for guerrilla or con­ventional attacks…
“The Syrian regime lacks the manpower and the operational ca­pability to retake Deir ez-Zor, even with the backing of Russian air pow­er,” he wrote.
“Likewise, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has poured cold wa­ter on the notion that Iraq’s popular militias enter the Syrian theatre. Should they defy him and try, an advance by the mostly Shia militias could upend eastern Syria’s ornate social fabric and add fuel to the sec­tarian fire…
“The fight against the Islamic State will continue long after Raqqa and Mosul’s liberation,” Arterbury noted.
“The US should not yield in its determination to pursue the ter­ror group to the farthest stretches of Syria. If it fails to do so, the Is­lamic State may just re-emerge once again, revitalised and born anew as it has before.
“Ignoring Deir ez-Zor means ig­noring a key piece of the Syrian tapestry. It is only by recapturing Islamic State-held territory in its to­tality, including these desert flanks and fringes, that the US and its al­lies can hope to put the final nails in (ISIS’s) coffin.”
There is another reason why it would be imprudent to consider that ISIS can be completely crushed. It is expected to regenerate, just as its jihadist predecessors did, such as al-Qaeda after its dispersal by the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.
ISIS can also be expected to un­leash a new wave of terrorist attacks in the West and other parts of the world where its so-called provinces have spread. ISIS has established extensive terror networks in West­ern Europe — France and Belgium in particular and reportedly in Spain and Italy.
It also has a presence in such dis­tant regions as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Nigeria and Latin America.
“The pace of jihadist attacks in Europe is unprecedented,” ob­served security analysts Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Colin Clarke in a November paper for the Foun­dation for Defense of Democracies in Washington on how ISIS’s strat­egy is likely to evolve.
ISIS “has operated on across a larger contiguous geographic area than anything we have seen previ­ously from jihadists”, but now like­ly seeks to decentralise its terrorist operations as the control exerted by external operations apparatus, known as Amniyat al-Kharji, dimin­ishes.
“Regardless of its success in building an insurgency,” they noted, ISIS “has achieved a level of mass mobilisation internationally that al-Qaeda never did. This makes the strategic use of truly disconnected cells more feasible than it has ever been for jihadists.”
Gartenstein-Ross and Parker con­cluded: “One defining feature of the group’s military strategy has been that it doesn’t want to have the time and place of violence dictated to it… It is possible that, consistent with this doctrine, losing in Iraq and Syria will prompt (ISIS) to channel more resources into attacking Leba­non, Jordan, the Gulf or Europe.”