Scott Stewart assesses the current strengths and weaknesses of the Islamic State and suggests that, despite losing power in absolute terms, the group is far from being a spent force.
On February 28, the Islamic State launched a complex attack involving three vehicle bombs and an armed assault against an Iraqi security forces barracks in Abu Ghraib, a suburb of Baghdad only about 18 miles (29 kilometres) from the centre of the Iraqi capital. Since the attack, many journalists have questioned whether the Islamic State is really being damaged by coalition airstrikes, and some have even suggested that the group may be stronger than ever.
These viewpoints stand in stark contrast to an article published by the Daily Beast last week, in which a Defence Department official was quoted as saying the Islamic State was ‘entering its death throes’. But neither of these takes on the Islamic State is correct. It is true that coalition airstrikes and coordinated movement by ground forces in Iraq and Syria have diminished the group’s manpower, finances, supply of equipment and territorial control. But it will be a long time before the Islamic State is defeated.
When assessing the capability of a militant organisation, it is important to remember that military action can be classified on a gradient scale. On the scale’s low end is terrorism through guerrilla warfare, and on its high end is hybrid and conventional manoeuvre warfare.
Indeed, rather than use the men and resources required to conduct one large conventional battle, a group can reserve them and then dole them out more slowly over time in a sustained guerrilla war. Terrorist attacks require even fewer resources than guerrilla or insurgent warfare. We saw this principle in action after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where, after a perfunctory defence, Saddam Hussein ordered his armed forces to disperse and engage in irregular warfare rather than attempt to directly face the superior firepower of the US military and its coalition partners.
In that case, it was clear that Saddam had lost control of Iraq—and was therefore weaker from a conventional military standpoint. However, that did not mean his forces did not pose a significant irregular warfare and terrorist threat. By 2004, Sunni insurgents had taken over cities including Fallujah and Ramadi and were a significant threat inside Baghdad. But as the insurgency grew in size and scope, Iraqi nationalists lost control, and the insurgency began to take on a more pronounced jihadist character. Known as Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group first renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers in 2004 and then the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006. The group proclaimed the city of Ramadi to be its capital, but it was not able to bask in the glow of its newly minted jihadist polity for long. By late 2006, US forces had defeated the jihadists in Ramadi, and the pressure of the US surge and the Anbar Awakening began to steadily push them out of the territory they had once controlled.
But losing control of its core territory did not spell the end of the jihadist insurgency in Iraq.
Instead of surrendering, jihadists melted back into the population and conducted insurgent warfare, such as hit-and-run attacks and ambushes. Meanwhile, they continued to engage in terrorist attacks, such as bombings and assassinations. Even though the Anbar Awakening and the surge essentially broke the back of the Islamic State in Iraq in 2007, the group remained a formidable adversary. In fact, 2007 would prove to be the deadliest year for coalition servicemen in Iraq.
This example makes clear how an organisation can lose power in absolute terms and yet still pose a significant threat—especially if it utilises its diminishing military force in a manner that maximises its destructive potential. Indeed, the Islamic State in Iraq was able to continue its campaign of terror for years after losing its capital city and the territory it controlled. From 2008 to January 2010, the group was able to conduct a series of spectacular vehicle bombings inside Baghdad, despite being consistently targeted by US and Iraqi forces. The Islamic State in Iraq proved to be resilient and resourceful even under tremendous pressure. When, in April 2010, the group lost its top two leaders—Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri—we questioned whether it could recover from such heavy losses. Obviously it did.
Not an isolated example
The Islamic State in Iraq is not the only example of a jihadist group that has lost territory but retains a formidable capability for terrorism. In 2012, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula lost a considerable amount of territory in southern Yemen that it had captured in 2011. Yet despite those losses—and the subsequent deaths of several key leaders—the group has rebounded and currently controls a significant portion of Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb established control over a large section of northern Mali in 2012, declaring an emirate there called Azawad before losing the territory in 2013 to an offensive by French and Malian troops. Yet despite the tremendous losses the group suffered in 2013, it remains a significant regional threat, as shown by recent attacks in Bamako, Mali, and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and by the recent kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahel region.
Over the years, Somalia’s al Shabaab has repeatedly gained and lost territory and resources. In 2006, while part of the Islamic Courts Union, al Shabaab and other jihadist groups assumed control in Mogadishu, only to be driven from power by Ethiopian troops. Then, in 2011, the group’s military presence was removed from Mogadishu altogether. More recently, it has lost control of other important cities, such as Kismayo in 2012. Even so, al Shabaab has been able to shift from governing to insurgency and terrorism on multiple occasions, and today it continues to pose a significant terrorist threat in Mogadishu and an insurgent threat in other parts of the country.
Another example is the Islamic State’s Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi (better known by its former name, Boko Haram), which has also shifted from holding and governing territory to waging an insurgency and conducting terrorist attacks in the Lake Chad Basin. The group’s use of suicide bombers has escalated rapidly as it has lost territory. In 2013, at the height of its power, it employed no suicide bombers. Just one year later, as it began to lose ground, it employed 26 suicide bombers in attacks. In 2015, the number jumped to 180.
The bottom line is that even if a militant group is losing power in absolute terms, it can and often will continue to pose a significant insurgent or terrorist threat. Groups intentionally increase their attacks—like the February 28 attack in Abu Ghraib and the recent bombings in Baghdad—to give the impression that they are still powerful and relevant. This was the same logic behind the Islamic State in Iraq’s 2008-2010 bombing campaign in Baghdad. Terrorism is generally a tool that a weak actor uses against a stronger military foe, and we can expect that as the Islamic State loses its capability to wage conventional and even large-scale insurgent warfare, it will turn increasingly to smaller insurgent attacks and terrorism as its chosen methods of operation.
Such a shift will permit the group to remain a threat long after it has been defeated on the battlefield and deprived of most of the territory it currently controls. After the insurgents lost Ramadi in 2006, it still took years of consistent pressure to significantly weaken them—and that was with tens of thousands of US troops on the ground in Iraq. Given the current limited involvement of international coalition troops in Iraq, it is hard to envision the Islamic State ‘entering its death throes’ any quicker than the Islamic State in Iraq was degraded. That means it will require years of sustained effort to defeat the group militarily in Iraq and Syria, not to mention its franchises elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
The example of the Islamic State in Iraq also demonstrates that even when a militant group is severely damaged, if persistent pressure is removed and the group is afforded operational space to regroup, it can come back stronger and more damaging. True, it is not possible to completely eradicate the Islamic State or other jihadist groups as long as their ideology survives and continues to attract new adherents. But heavy and consistent physical pressure must be maintained on them until the ideological battles that will ultimately defeat them can be won.