IRBIL, IRAQ, WASHINGTON - 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."
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.
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.”