Behind the lines: Islamic State shifts strategy

ISIS’s pretensions to statehood are receding as it loses ground, but the organization is anything but defeated as a recent string of deadly terrorist attacks shows.

A WOMAN walks past the remains of a building after an attack in Baghdad killed 200 people on Sunday. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A WOMAN walks past the remains of a building after an attack in Baghdad killed 200 people on Sunday.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The latest wave of bombings by Islamic State confirm a pattern long observed. As it continues to lose ground in its heartland and its “provinces,” so the organization turns back to an intensified focus on international terrorism. This is in line with previous experience of international Salafi-jihadi organizations.
Two points need to be noted. First, considerable past experience shows that the destruction of the physical holdings of Salafi-jihadi groups does not mean their eclipse. Second, and more important, Salafi- jihadi networks are today part of a broader process – the revival and flourishing of political Islam. To try to understand them otherwise is to misunderstand them. The patterns of survival of earlier networks confirm this.
That the Islamic State “caliphate” is facing eclipse is no longer under serious dispute.
It has lost around 47 percent of its territory in Iraq, according to a June 27 statement by Brett McGurk, the US administration’s point man in the fight against Islamic State. The latest loss is the city of Falluja.
In Syria, Islamic State is also contracting, though at a slower rate. Twenty percent of its territory is gone. The US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces is surrounding the town of Manbij close to the Syrian-Turkish border. Its progress has now slowed in the face of two determined Islamic State counterattacks this week, but the siege on the town has not been broken.
In Libya, meanwhile, forces loyal to the UN-appointed Government of National Accord have severely reduced the Islamic State enclave around the city of Sirte. Government forces are now inside Sirte itself, with Islamic State fighters remaining in just three parts of the city.
Western air power and special forces are playing a major, if mainly unannounced, role in the advances against Islamic State in all three countries.
But in the same period, as pretensions to statehood recede, Islamic State is proving its tenacity in a series of terrorist attacks of unprecedented range and ferocity, away from the beleaguered front lines of its territorial holdings.
Most notably, the massive terrorist strike on a Shi’a area of Baghdad, in which 220 people died, represents a clear message that Islamic State is far from neutralized. The slaughter of 22 people in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul are similar announcements of the movement’s continued vigor.
Add to the roster of Islamic State Ramadan activities the series of attacks in Saudi Arabia – on a US government facility in Jeddah, a Shi’a mosque and a holy site in Medina – and the recent suicide bombings in Aden in which 40 people were killed and for which Islamic State took responsibility.
Finally, the attacks at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and in the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv appear to have been perpetrated by individuals supportive of Islamic State, though not directly controlled and activated by the movement.
Of course, the wave of attacks in Ramadan reflect a longer trend. Islamic State has effectively been in retreat since its moment of highest expansion in late 2014. What has happened in recent weeks is that the pace of retreat has increased.
We have been here before. The global network of al-Qaida remains in existence and is flourishing. It never proclaimed itself as a caliphate or even as a state. But it did have significant territorial holdings in the pre-2001 period. The expulsion of the group from Sudan and the US invasion of Afghanistan ended these. They did not end al-Qaida.
The network survived, adapted and continued.
Today, it remains as important a player as Islamic State in the politics of the Arab world. Its Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, is arguably the most effective and sophisticated Salafi-jihadi formation in existence today. Its Yemeni franchise, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, outperforms Islamic State in that area and prevents its gaining a foothold.
So any assumption that the physical destruction of Islamic State as a state-type entity will mean the eclipse of the organization should be dismissed. Salafi-jihadi networks have a tendency to overreach themselves and pick fights with enemies too large for them (see September 11, 2001).
But the evidence suggests that the reaction this produces leads not to the destruction of the network but to its adaptation to new circumstances and its continuation.
This brings us to the second point.
It is “politically correct” but factually unsustainable to view the networks of Salafi- jihadi Islamism as belonging to a category separate and sealed off from other elements and trends in political Islam. Islamic State grabs the headlines for obvious reasons, but if we broaden the scope of vision a moment, we will discern Salafi-jihadi movements ideologically identical to Islamic State but tactically different from them, movements that enjoy close relations of cooperation with powerful regional states.
Just west of Islamic State’s domain in Raqqa province in Syria, the most powerful political-military grouping is Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). This alliance brings together Jabhat al-Nusra and another al-Qaida offshoot, Ahrar al-Sham. The latter is arguably the most powerful rebel formation in Syria today.
These groupings do not differ in any substantial way from Islamic State in their end goal. And in the case of Nusra, the commitment to and support for international terrorism is identical. Yet Jaish al-Fatah is the recipient of massive aid from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. As a result, far away from the fantasy world of the Geneva talks, Jaish al-Fatah controls a large swath of northwest Syria. It is a serious player. The unseen agencies that work for President Erdogan and King Salman (and Sheikh Tamim of Qatar, though the Qataris matter less these days) handle their countries’ relations with it.
In this area, in turn, Jaish al-Fatah is doing battle with a conglomeration of Shi’a Islamist militias ostensibly representing the Assad regime. The “regime forces” today are themselves better understood as representing a rival, Shi’a Islamist international network, centered on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So the turning back of Islamic State, and its consequent morphing into an international terrorist group, should not be confused with a major strategic achievement.
Islamic State will remain to murder people and crowd the headlines.
More seriously, the energies of political Islam, which have gripped and shaken the life of the Middle East to its very foundations, remain far from spent. In their many manifestations, they are closer to the centers of “legitimate” power today than at any time in the past.