ISIS retreats but plots post-caliphate terror war
Beirut- The days of the caliphate, the proto-state proclaimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) across Syria and Iraq in mid-2014, are numbered. A perplexing cluster of US, Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian military forces along with Kurds, jihadists and Tehran-backed Lebanese, Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghani Shia militias have been driving ISIS from its last major urban bastions in Mosul and Raqqa.
Despite these hard-won battlefield victories in Iraq and Syria, the claims of Western politicians and commentators that ISIS is being crushed are dangerously premature.
If the resilience of earlier versions of jihadist movements is anything to go by, ISIS and its ruthless ideology will survive and emerge in another form, just as others did in Iraq in 2007-09 in the face of US Army General David Petraeus and his “surge” strategy by exploiting the sectarian carnage spawned by the war in Syria, which erupted in 2011.
Three years later, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the first modern Islamic caliphate.
Remember, too, that Baghdadi, who has reportedly been killed, and his leadership cadre, which includes some of Saddam Hussein’s long-time intelligence officers considered to be ISIS’s military brains, spent years underground and have shown themselves to be patient and meticulous strategic planners.
ISIS is already returning to its insurgency and terror roots, with Western Europe and the United States facing intensified attacks. This strategy took shape months ago and is likely to swell as foreign fighters return to their homelands determined to wreak revenge for ISIS’s defeat.
The group’s focus for its terror war against the West includes injecting poison into food in supermarkets and grocery stores, according to SITE intelligence, a US-based monitoring group.
In July, Australian authorities reported thwarting a plot to destroy an airliner flying to the United Arab Emirates using poison gas — a new threat to aviation security.
European security officials say ISIS is building up its forces in chaos-torn Libya to infiltrate operatives with the flood of Middle Eastern war refugees pouring into southern Europe from North Africa.
“The Islamic State will continue to function as a guerrilla army, despite suffering significant losses,” warned security analyst Thomas Joscelyn of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“There is no question that the Islamic State’s finances, senior personnel and other assets have been hit hard but it’s premature to say its losses amount to a deathblow,” he said in testimony before the US Congress on July 13.
Jennifer Cafarella of the Washington-based Institute for Study of War said ISIS plans to fight on for years. “This is a highly sophisticated military organisation that’s waging a generational war,” she observed.
Analysts say the failure of the United States and its allies to respond to the ISIS threat beyond the military strategy of pounding it day and night while ignoring the need for long-term plans to ensure stability in war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the complex conflicts across the region, will doom the Middle East to years — possibly decades — of savage bloodletting.
“The question that needs to be answered now is who is learning quickest from past mistakes,” observed Jean-Marie Guéhenno, president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. So far, the terrorists seem to have the edge.
“The Islamic State brilliantly exploited the US occupation (of Iraq) and the aftermath, gaining support from Sunnis alienated by [Shia] domination,” Guéhenno wrote in an August 9 analysis.
“The Western-led coalition, for its part, wages this war on terror as if it were a traditional war in which military dominance opens the path to political victory...
“Such a blind war on terror, with no longer-term vision, lays the ground for endless war. In the Middle East, crushing terrorists without a plan for the day after will generate the same vacuum and chaos that produced them in the first place.
“And in Western countries, the elevation of terrorism into a strategic struggle continuously refills the pool of foreign fighters for whom terrorist acts are the ultimate selfie,” Guéhenno cautioned.
Despite ISIS’s serious reverses and the constant loss of territory and manpower, especially its leadership, over the last 18 months, its core group carried out more than 1,400 attacks in 2016 and killed more than 7,000 people, a 20% increase over the previous year, an August report by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database stated.
That’s not counting more than 950 attacks in 2016 attributed to affiliated organisations that killed another 3,000 people, the report noted.
During 2016, four major jihadist groups in Yemen, Libya, Bangladesh, Afghanistan-Pakistan and the Philippines pledged allegiance to ISIS, underscoring the extent that the core group has expanded its global influence.
The ISIS wars are increasingly moving into cyberspace, in large part to counter its use of encrypted apps such as Telegram to run its network of operatives across Europe and elsewhere and its virulent recruitment effort using slick propaganda videos.
Policy Exchange, a British think-tank that monitors jihadist content online, said in a September 19 report that al-Qaeda also continues to broadcast propaganda, which is most likely linked to the group’s resurgence in recent months, particularly in Syria.
One conclusion of the report, “The New Netwar,” is that from February 19 through May 3, jihadist content was viewed more in the United States than every other country except Turkey, which had 16,810 clicks. The United States had 10,388 followed by Saudi Arabia with 10,239, Iraq with 8,138 and Britain with 6,107.
“There is a danger that the blood and treasure we are investing in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria will produce little more than a pyrrhic victory unless we are able to defeat the visual threat,” the 130-page report stressed.
Petraeus, the former US military commander in Iraq and CIA director, said in a foreword that the report shows that ISIS is “exploiting the vast, largely ungoverned spaces of cyberspace, demonstrating increasing technical expertise, sophistication in media production, and an agility in the face of various efforts to limit its access.
“It is clear that our counter-extremism efforts and other initiatives to combat extremism online have, until now, been inadequate. There is no doubting the urgency of this matter,” he said.
The concerns about the inadequacy of Western efforts to counter ISIS’s expected terror campaign are widening as ISIS transitions into a global threat. Its first attack against Iran that killed 18 people in early June was seen as an opening salvo in the emerging post-caliphate phase.
“Formulating an effective containment policy against ISIS will be a herculean enterprise given the complexities of the disintegrating, sectarian-riven Middle East,” warned Marc Ginsberg, a former US ambassador to Morocco and senior adviser to US and European counter-extremism initiatives, in the Huffington Post.
“A sustained military engagement fronted by Sunni Arab ground forces will have to be matched by comparable diplomatic strategy — all buttressed by a global fortified, well-financed reconstruction plan to prevent the ISIS cancer from regaining lost wilayats (provinces) — and that task must begin immediately in Iraq,” he said.
However, there is little evidence that the Americans, leaders of the 72-state anti-ISIS coalition, were contemplating the day-after syndrome.
With the battle for Raqqa, which began June 6, in its final stages, US Defence Secretary James Mattis, a former US Marine Corps general, said the United States has abandoned its strategy of attrition and is employing “annihilation tactics.”
“Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa,” he said. “We’re not going to allow them to do so. We’re going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate.”