News / Middle East

    Why Is Islamic State So Hard to Beat?

    image grab taken from a video published by the media branch of the Islamic State (IS) group in the Raqa province (Welayat Raqa) on Jan. 3, 2016, purportedly shows an English-speaking IS fighter speaking to the camera at an undisclosed location.
    image grab taken from a video published by the media branch of the Islamic State (IS) group in the Raqa province (Welayat Raqa) on Jan. 3, 2016, purportedly shows an English-speaking IS fighter speaking to the camera at an undisclosed location.

    Islamic State extremists have been bombed, strafed, derided and pushed back, yet they fight on.

    “For ISIS, in very plain English, they don’t give a s--- (don't care),” said Cyril Widdershoven, a Middle East and North Africa security specialist based in the Netherlands.

    With a fighting force of anywhere between 25,000 to 60,000, Islamic State militants control millions of people, thousands of square kilometers of land, and terrorize the world.

    More than 9,000 punishing airstrikes, reams of satellite imagery and a plethora of local and international military forces on the ground have yet to have significant effect.

    Even the victory of Iraqi forces in Ramadi, an IS-held city west of Baghdad, does not appear to have crippled the extremist group. Instead, they turned their considerable force to another city, Haditha.

    Why is the group so hard to defeat?

    This undated image, taken from video posted online Jan. 3, 2016, by the communications arm of the Islamic State group, purports to show IS militants executing five men who they accuse of having spied for Britain in Syria.
    This undated image, taken from video posted online Jan. 3, 2016, by the communications arm of the Islamic State group, purports to show IS militants executing five men who they accuse of having spied for Britain in Syria.

    Unconventional tactics

    The problem, said Widdershoven, is the United States, European and Iraqi forces continue to think of IS as a conventional military focused on holding ground.

    “That is the old fashioned approach: you take one city after another. For ISIS, in their overall strategy, they don’t feel as if they are losing. They see it as ‘OK, you want A, you can have A; we will go for B, and if you want B, C, or D, we will attack where you are not’.”

    Islamic State commanders have excelled at gaming strategies out, and turning battlefield losses to their advantage, analysts say.

    “They are human; they will take losses. That is all part of the game,” said Kamran Bokhari, a Middle East and Countering Violent Extremism expert at the University of Ottawa.

    “But when they get hit, do they become incoherent, or are we looking at an orderly retreat? I think it is an orderly retreat,” Bokhari told VOA. “This is not a demoralized force that is defeated.”

    FILE - Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq.
    FILE - Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq.

    Learn from mistakes

    IS learned from its predecessors. The group evolved out of and built on the lessons of al Qaida in Iraq, the experience of officers from Saddam Hussein’s army and international fighters hardened in places like Chechnya.

    It operates on multiple levels, explained David Kilcullen, a strategy and counterinsurgency expert with Caerus Associates.

    It’s just a matter of if their losses end up outstripping their ability to adapt. I think it’s actually likely that will be the case.
    - Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

    It has a central state-like element, a provincial structure and an international layer of individual players.

    As a result, even if it has ceased to expand territorially, because of this triple-layer structure it has been able to move fluidly between layers, sometimes responding on one while counteracting at another.

    “It makes it extraordinarily resilient,” Kilcullen said at a recent conference organized by the Jamestown Foundation.

    Kilcullen said IS tactics also have made it extremely difficult to quash.

    It uses one-way, broadcast–based, open communications that create a lot of background clutter that intelligence agencies have to dig through. It uses a model of revolutionary terrorism, with knowledge crossing borders and teams being built close to a target. It uses remote radicalization through technology, enabling the threat to spread. It attacks in urban settings.

    And it is poised to use the backlash against the migration crisis in Europe to provoke a cycle of retaliation.

    This map shows areas cleared and airstrikes in Anbar Province, Iraq, by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
    This map shows areas cleared and airstrikes in Anbar Province, Iraq, by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.



    US strategy

    The U.S. led coalition has said it is battling IS on all levels by pursuing its leadership, shrinking its safe havens, countering its financing, and puncturing its powerful idealistic narrative of a revival of a “true” caliphate.

    The coalition has increased attacks against the group, blowing up oil trucks, striking fighting positions, and taking out IS leaders and operations planners.
    According to coalition spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, IS today controls 40 percent less territory that it once held.

    Yan St. Pierre, a counterterrorism expert for MOSECON, a security consulting company based in Berlin, agreed there have been some gains. But he cautioned against declaring any kind of victory.

    “It sounds as if you are putting a dent in their armor, but they adapt. They might have some problems for three, six weeks, a few months, but they will adapt,” St. Pierre told VOA.

    All aspects of IS, military, social, propaganda, have to be tackled simultaneously, he said. “If you focus on the myth, they can rebuild it. If you focus on the military, the myth will allow them to rise again and rebuild the military.”

    “As long as that myth is alive, there are not enough bombs to destroy IS,” St. Pierre said, adding that as yet there are no credible, functional alternatives, and no credible unifying leaders to counter the group either in Iraq or Syria.

    St. Pierre warns IS is also developing fallback positions. “They are progressively getting more and more involved in Libya, Yemen, Somalia. They are trying to build bridges that become areas they can develop.”

    Solutions

    Analysts differ on a solution, with some suggesting that Arab Sunni boots on the ground, such as an alliance of nations including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE, is the only option.

    But most agree with CIA veteran Bruce Riedel’s view that “there is a short path to catastrophic defeat in the war against al Qaida and ISIS, and that path is to make this a battle between the West and Islam.”


    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.

    You May Like

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora