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Changing Under Pressure, IS ‘Potent’ as Ever

Shi'ite paramilitaries riding military vehicles travel from Lake Tharthar toward Ramadi to fight against Islamic state militants, west of Samarra, Iraq, May 27, 2015.
Shi'ite paramilitaries riding military vehicles travel from Lake Tharthar toward Ramadi to fight against Islamic state militants, west of Samarra, Iraq, May 27, 2015.

Nearly 10 months since the first U.S. airstrikes rained down on Islamic State (IS) targets in Iraq, the terror group has been subject to a persistent, if not relentless, assault on multiple fronts. Yet the campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy the self-declared caliphate appears to have done little to deter the militants from spreading terror throughout the Middle East and beyond.

“ISIL remains a potent force,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA, using an acronym for the group. “These folks know how to take advantage of security postures and strike fear in the hearts of their enemy.”

Perhaps nowhere has that ability been more prominently on display than in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq’s Anbar province. IS fighters took the city last week, despite being badly outnumbered, using a series of vehicle-borne explosive devices to ultimately scare Iraqi Security Forces into retreat.

U.S. intelligence officials admit the fall of Ramadi is concerning, but they also say it should not be seen as any sort of verdict on the larger effort to degrade IS capabilities.

“Battlefield setbacks and pressure from the coalition and other adversaries have forced the group to adjust its tactics,” the intelligence official said, adding it was “forcing ISIL to focus on targets of opportunity, compared to their land grab last year.”

Senior military officials also point out the terrorist organization appears to be largely focused on military victories that can quickly be turned into propaganda and say the group may not be capable of holding conquests like Ramadi, if that is even part of the plan.

“Clearly this is a group that is on a bit of a downward trajectory,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “They’re still extraordinarily dangerous, but they’re having increasing trouble taking and holding territory.”

Pentagon officials say since airstrikes began last August, IS has lost control of at least 13,000 square kilometers, unable to move freely in up to a third of the areas it once held. But there are growing concerns that the terror group remains more than just a “potent” force.

“The U.S. is continually underestimating the Islamic State,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official now with the American Enterprise Institute. “They’re certainly not degraded and they’re certainly not destroyed.”

Since August 8 of last year, the U.S.-led coalition has carried out more than 4,100 airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria, damaging or destroying more than 6,200 targets. And in a January interview with Al Arabiya, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Stuart Jones, said more than 6,000 IS militants, including top commanders, had been killed.

Based on U.S. intelligence estimates at the time, which put the size of the IS fighting force at between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters, such casualties should have gutted the group’s ability to fight. But it has not.

“Operationally, I see no evidence that these figures are accurate,” said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of The Long War Journal. “The Islamic State hadn't lost 20 to 30 percent of its operational capacity by January 2015. And it still hasn't.”

“While thousands of fighters and leaders have been killed since the beginning of the air campaign last year, the Islamic State's numbers have not dwindled significantly,” he said.

One reason is that U.S. intelligence estimates of IS's force strength may be too low. Intelligence officials admit their estimates have been conservative, but some analysts have criticized them for being much too low.

Joscelyn said even now, the number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria is “easily in the tens of thousands,” including a mix of local jihadists, ex-Baathists, conscripts and foreign fighters.

Others have put the number at 50,000. Some former officials have even suggested the group may have as many as 100,000 fighters at its disposal.

The Islamic State’s numbers have also been bolstered by a steady flow of foreign fighters. Despite reports by some human rights groups that the number of new foreign fighters has dwindled, a senior U.S. military official told VOA the group continues to replenish its ranks with, on average, 100 or so new foreign fighters per month.

Even that figure, though, may be low.

“ISIL is still apparently recruiting 1,000 officers a month from the world at large, around roughly 100 countries to come in and fight in Iraq and Syria,” according to Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael O'Hanlon. “We don’t really know how many fighters are inside of ISIL.”

No matter what the precise numbers may be, military officials say IS remains large enough to be effective.

The Long War Journal’s Joscelyn warns, ultimately, the numbers may not matter even to IS commanders.

“The Islamic State is having success not by overwhelming its enemies in large numbers, but by using sophisticated military tactics and improved weaponry,” he said.

VOA's Sharon Behn contributed to this report.