ISIS adjusts strategy after defeats in Iraq, Syria
BAGHDAD - Four years after announcing its cross-border caliphate in Iraq and Syria, a stinging string of defeats has pushed the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group to reorganise and change strategy to survive.
Having lost all urban centres under its control in Iraq and pinned down to its last desert holdouts in Syria, ISIS changed its administrative structure and shifted its focus from operating the state-like apparatus it once ran.
ISIS will have to find “a new way of doing things, especially to recruit after heavy losses,” an Iraqi security official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Agence France-Presse.
At its peak, the self-proclaimed caliphate included 35 provinces mostly in territory spanning either side of the border between Syria and Iraq. Following major military defeats, including the jihadists’ loss of their de facto capitals of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, ISIS propaganda outlets only mention six provinces.
Former ISIS provinces such as Mosul, Raqqa and Kirkuk — an oil-rich province in Iraq — no longer exist. Instead, the term “wilaya,” once considered to mean “provinces,” is used to refer to large areas such as Iraq and Syria, along with Somalia, East Asia, Tajikistan and the Egyptian Sinai.
The administrative reshuffle marks a clear switch from 2014 when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi boasted of having erased the “imperialist” design that divided the Middle East.
The proclamation was made with great fanfare as jihadists drove bulldozers across the Syrian-Iraqi border, symbolically destroying one of the frontiers drawn up by colonial powers as they carved out the modern Middle East from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war.
After years battling ISIS, Iraqi troops are redeployed along most of the border with Syria, across which jihadists and weapons have long flowed unimpeded.
On the Syrian side, offensives by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and a US-backed coalition have pushed ISIS jihadists out of most of the territory they once controlled.
“The change proves Daesh’s weakness and the loss of much of its leadership,” the security official said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
ISIS’s restructure “shows its central command lacks confidence in its provincial commanders in Iraq and that it is reducing their powers to one (central) leadership,” the official said.
Iraqi authorities regularly announce the arrest or death of ISIS leaders and relatives of Baghdadi, such as his son, who was killed in Syria in July by Russian missiles.
Baghdadi was reported several times to have been killed and the United States has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.
In a purported new audio message released August 22 to mark Eid al-Adha, Baghdadi called on his followers to “not give up the jihad against their enemy.”
“Baghdadi’s speech was one of consolation and condolence,” said Hisham al-Hashemi, an expert on radical Islamist groups. It was an “acknowledgement of defeat… but (Baghdadi) urged those remaining to persevere,” he said.
The security official said that, after losing ground in Iraq and Syria, “ISIS leadership is focused on a global vision” modelled on al-Qaeda.
Its cross-border state destroyed, ISIS is instead likely to focus on spreading terror around the world through dramatic attacks. In a first, Baghdadi used his 55-minute recording to call for attacks in the West, saying an operation there would be “worth a thousand” at home.
Much of the address was reminiscent of approaches long used by al-Qaeda, Hashemi said.
In it, the ISIS leader scorns the United States, blasts Shia Iran, and calls on Sunni Muslims in Iraq to denounce the Shia-dominated paramilitary units of al-Hashed al-Shaabi.
Tore Hamming, a jihadist specialist at the European University Institute, said Baghdadi’s speech falls into the same category as his last three — “crisis management.”