News / Middle East

    Islamic State Losing Ground, But Not the War

    An Iraqi counterterror officer talks to people in a convoy of families fleeing Islamic State-held Hit, Iraq, at a checkpoint on the western edge of Ramadi, Iraq, March 20, 2016.
    An Iraqi counterterror officer talks to people in a convoy of families fleeing Islamic State-held Hit, Iraq, at a checkpoint on the western edge of Ramadi, Iraq, March 20, 2016.

    While Brussels was reeling from the bloodshed after Islamic State (IS) bombed civilians in the airport and a metro station, Iraqi forces were piling up body bags from multiple suicide bombings across central, western and northern Iraq.

    Finding it harder to hold territory in both Iraq and Syria, IS extremists are switching tactics, using small-scale, mass-casualty attacks, internationally and regionally.

    Verified numbers are hard to come by, but local reports estimate that some 400 civilian and security forces died in the week of March 8-14 alone from these kinds of attacks.

    Polad Jangi, the Kurdish Peshmerga counterterrorism commander in Suleymania, told VOA that pushing IS out of the cities is unlikely to lead to its demise.

    He said IS, which emerged out of al-Qaida in Iraq with a ground force of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein-era military officers, would instead revert to its previous tactics – more those of an insurgency than a state.

    “They’re going to have sleeper cells; they’re going to do bombings; they’re going to do kidnappings; they’re going to do assassinations. It’s going to be continuous. It’s not going to stop,” he said.

    Losing on the battlefield, but adapting

    Like Jangi, U.S. military and counterterrorism officials believe momentum on the ground in Iraq and Syria has clearly shifted. They say increased strains on IS’ funding and foreign fighter flows have begun to show up on the battlefield, where the terror group is operating less and less like a conventional military force.

    “Asymmetric attacks, harassing attacks, have definitely picked up,” said one U.S. official familiar with the assessments. “There’s no sign of a resurgence.”

    Other officials have pointed to U.S. and coalition airstrikes against IS oil facilities and cash depots, which they say has forced the group to cut salaries, hurting morale while eating away at what one U.S. counterterrorism official described as IS’ “veneer of invincibility.”

    “There’s no doubt that the losses are rippling across ISIL’s self-declared caliphate,” the official said, using an acronym for the group.

    But the official also cautioned, “These blows alone will not serve as a knock-out punch.”

    At the same time, there are growing concerns that the increased pressure has forced changes that may make IS more resilient and more difficult to defeat.

    “I actually think their adaptation has improved in recent months,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    “They certainly seem to be improving some of their on-the-ground fighting to be more consistent with their strengths, less of the battlefield advances that are more appropriate for a state military and more light, unconventional-style warfare,” he said. “The question is will their adaptations outpace the massive stress that is being placed upon the organization."

    IS split

    Gartenstein-Ross, and others, say many of the adaptations have mirrored reports of a shift in power, with foreign fighters from Chechnya gaining growing influence.

    Jangi believes that the foreign fighters will move on, as the IS re-launch in Libya demonstrates. But, he says, the Iraqi nationals that form the foundation of the militant network will not leave. Even while in Iraq, he said, the two groups have not coalesced.

    “They are always like two different powers, but working closely together,” he said. “They don’t speak to the Iraqis. They don’t do anything except [when] the commanders communicate with them, and when they do attacks, they coordinate.”

    Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute, said the schism is ideological, with IS splitting into two main components: those fighting to control Iraq and Syria, and those who see their struggle as an apocalyptic global one.

    “The pragmatic tactical command and control apparatus is losing territory to committed ground forces with [U.S.] air support, and losing influence to the apocalyptic Dabiq wing,” Pregent told VOA.

    It is not clear where IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghadi, who has surrounded himself with an Iraqi inner circle, stands.

    Taking the fight global

    But many think for now, at least, the more internationally-focused wing has the upper hand, calling the shots with a view of a battlefield that extends far beyond the core of the self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

    “The group is hedging its bets on a global scale,’ said Michael Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst with the Levantine Group.

    “While the anti-ISIS coalition is battling the group in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has been able to largely expand to North Africa and south of it, using its Libyan "colonies" both as an entry point for its militants and as a magnet for local militants already operating inside the African continent,” he said.

    Photo released by Belgian federal police on demand of Federal prosecutor shows screengrab of airport CCTV camera showing suspects of this morning's attacks at Brussels Airport, in Zaventem, March 22, 2016.
    Photo released by Belgian federal police on demand of Federal prosecutor shows screengrab of airport CCTV camera showing suspects of this morning's attacks at Brussels Airport, in Zaventem, March 22, 2016.

    But it is not just Africa.

    Officials and analysts say the attacks in Brussels indicate IS leaders view Europe as part of the same global battlefield.

    They warn new attacks on Western targets, in Europe and elsewhere, are a certainty no matter what happens in Syria and Iraq.

    “Syria has become a training ground for jihadist fighters and there are many who went there to train in Syria in order to come home and fight,” says American Enterprise Institute Research Fellow Katherine Zimmerman. “So, there is a second phase of this problem that many people aren’t even considering.”

    Jeff Seldin

    Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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    Comment Sorting
    by: Rich from: Toronto
    March 25, 2016 12:00 PM
    What an odd analysis. 'More those of an insurgency than a state". Unless you acknowledge that ISIS is in fact a state, that makes absolutely no sense. As a sub-state actor, ISIS is an insurgent force today, and in the future once they lose the land they occupy, which is almost a certainty, they will become simply a terrorist organisation.

    They are very much losing the war.

    by: Godwin from: Nigeria
    March 24, 2016 1:35 PM
    ISIS is losing on all fronts despite its ability to plan/execute attacks on soft targets. All of that can become history if all the interest groups in the fight against terrorism would be united on purpose. But if Turkey/Qatar are encouraging the insurgents in the name of trying to suppress the self-determination of the Kurds, and Turkey is a member of the EU, then EU, NATO or the entire West cannot claim to fight terrorism or want to eliminate insurgency if Turkey receives no strong caution or sanction for encouraging the bloodletting.

    If USA continues to arm “moderate” rebels who either turn all of their training and weapons over to terrorists or themselves become the trouble to be defeated, the West cannot lay a claim to fighting terrorism.

    If terrorism must be defeated – losing ground and the war – it must first be defeated in their strongholds, just like the Saudi-led coalition or the long-range mud-slinging that goes for anything but a war strategy. It must lose support of all nations, especially allies of the West. Good policing/security can forestall attacks on soft targets. Suicide mission doesn’t mean ISIS remains strong, for they’ve been reduced to mere armed robbery gang

    by: Anonymous
    March 24, 2016 11:06 AM
    US created a monster called Osama to defeat Soviet Union. later, It suffered from the same. Now, US created ruthless jihadist groups in Syria to fight Assad. Now, it is suffering from the same jihadist groups. Why repeat the same mistake again and again? in the past, US used ruthless jihadists to defeat Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Now, US is trying to do the same in Syria to overthrow Assad.

    Any group that takes up arms to achieve its political objective must be labelled as a terrorist group. But, US is calling such ruthless jihadist groups as "moderate forces" in Syria. such deadly armed groups must not be labelled as moderate, insurgents or freedom fighters. They must not be branded as moderate or extremist.

    Because, All of them are terrorists in nature. jihadists are no good for US even if they claim to be pro-American. Foolish American foreign policy that arms and supports angry people in middle east to fight their government has only helped terrorists and jihadists. it only caused chaos and mayhem. Nothing else.

    by: Plain Mirror Intl from: Plain Planet - Africa
    March 24, 2016 9:55 AM
    All these analyses are beautiful non-sense! Too late and useless! Where were better analyses and focasts prior to the stupid and satanic US and EU foreign policies implementation... ? Yes! Where were they? The evil hand that fed the pyton must be bitten by the pyton it fed.

    The US and EU have just started paying the price of their wickedness. It is very unfortunate that these attacks are randomly done! Nobody is safe anymore! Why don't the stupid policy makers in US and EU get the lion share... ? May be still not too late! He that provoked the sleeping lion must pay the price of his actions.

    Mind you, Democracy is not meant for everybody! It has laid the foundation for the final doom upon mankind!

    by: williweb from: Phoenix Arizona USA
    March 24, 2016 1:32 AM
    IS is part of an international criminal organization, including al-shebab , boko haram, taliban, etc. etc. Most of the professional military forces of the international community have already been aligned against them. They will ultimately loose, but the toll on innocent civilians around the world will be grim, as we are now seeing. Do not loose faith. They are the walking dead.

    by: Igor from: Russia
    March 24, 2016 12:57 AM
    Admit it or not, the terrorist attacks in Europe represent the stupid and irresponsible policy of the US and Western nations when they decided to back suni islamic extremists to overthrow the legal secular government of Assad. They have labeled those bloodthirsty terrorists as freedom fighters for democracy. Their allies such as Saudi Arabia, Quatar, Turkey are notorious for human right violations and massacring of the innocent. They think with the help of such dictatorship nations and those extremists they can build a western style democracy in Syria, Lybia, Iraq, Afganistan...But all have failed and now the Europe are paying high prices for their stupid policy.
    It is high time for European leaders to stop supporting terrorists disguided as fighters for democracy or the so-called Western backed rebels in Syria. Assad & his people never poses a single threat to you so far.
    In Response

    by: bill from: austria
    March 24, 2016 1:25 PM
    Terrorism is like a complicated network. you can not defeat them by just fighting with one of them. There are several terrorist groups in middle east some of them are dormant and others are now active, like ISIL, Alqade, government of Islamic republic of Iran, Hezbollah , Hamas, Bashar Asad and also turkey's government.
    In Response

    by: meanbill from: USA
    March 24, 2016 9:41 AM
    Hey Igor _ Freedom and democracy is the greatest fear for all the Sunni Muslim countries, kingdoms and emirates, [because], their governments and monarchies would no longer exist if their subjected people had free and democratic elections? .. Look at Syria? .. The Sunni Muslim countries, kingdoms and emirates have been supporting the Sunni Muslim terrorist/rebels in the US proxy war to replace the Shia Muslim led elected government of Assad and Syria, with an unelected handpicked Sunni Muslim Sharia law government?

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