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Down the Rabbit Hole: Following the Islamic State out of Iraq, Syria into Oblivion


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As the battle for Kobani, Syria, continued into early 2015, reports surfaced that Islamic State (IS) gains in neighboring Iraq had slowed, that no new ground had fallen under its control since the initial offensive claiming significant territory the previous year. By the end of January, the four-month battle for Kobani was all but over. Kurdish forces had not only driven the militants from the town along the Turkish border, but dozens of surrounding villages as well. Although liberating hundreds more Syrian Kurdish villages lay ahead, the general consensus was that the Islamic State was taking a defensive position, that its focus was shifting to one of protecting supply routes and revenue streams over acquiring new real estate.

While the US-led coalition continued bombing IS positions from above, local militaries and militias fought to liberate strategic positions throughout Iraq and Syria. Despite the interruption to IS land grabs, however, fighters continued to strike indiscriminately throughout the embattled countries. Iraq’s military, in particular, consistently encountered the militants. January alone saw widespread activity across Iraq as the Islamic State continued to test the limitations of its enemy, including:

  • Kirkuk — January 30. IS launches attack on the oil-rich city.

  • Ninawa Province — January 22. IS claims six attacks on Kurdish Peshmerga.

  • Ramadi — January 20. IS seizes the compound Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha — who led the Sunni Awakening when tribes teamed up with the US military against al-Qaeda in Iraq — while he was in Washington, DC. Nine police officers are killed, and multiple buildings destroyed.

  • al-Rahaliya — January 20. IS claims the bombing of Iraqi soldiers and Shi’ite militiamen on January 18.

  • Undisclosed Location — January 18. For the first time, Canadian special forces come under fire from the Islamic State. IS fighters were killed from return fire.

  • Multiple Locations — January 15. IS fighters kill 16 Peshmerga soldiers during an attack on the Mosul Dam in Nineveh province. Seven fighters from militias are killed during an attack on al-Mansuriya. In Sinjar, Peshmerga forces stop an attack on the town's southwestern side.

  • al-Tamiya — January 15. The North Baghdad provincial division of the Islamic State claims a suicide bombing on Iraqi commandos.

  • Samarra — January 13. The Salah al-Din provincial division of the Islamic State claims a missile attack on and suicide bombings of the Al-Askari Shrine mosque.

  • Maiduguri — January 12. A suicide car bomb kills 12 Shiite militiamen and Iraqi soldiers, sparking a battle between security forces and fighters with the extremist Islamic State group.

  • Huwaish — January 8. Provincial division Salah al-Din of the Islamic State claims five suicide bombings of Iraqi forces.

  • Hamdaniya — January 7. Provincial division Ninawa of Iraq claims attack on Kurdish Peshmerga militiamen.

  • Anbar Province — January 5. Dozens of militants attack several Iraqi security posts and checkpoints, killing at least 11 people dead and injuring 18 others wounded.

  • Ramadi — January 5. IS militants attack the Albu Risha police station, killing several officers and injuring others.

Meanwhile, coalition exercises in both Iraq and Syria intensified. To better prepare allied forces for engaging the enemy, the United States sent search and rescue assets to northern Iraq to improve recoverability of coalition personnel. The move was made in response to the United Arab Emirates’ decision to suspend participation in air strikes following the broadcast of Jordanian pilot Mouath al-Kasaesbeh being burned alive.

To further degrade Islamic State strongholds, airstrikes were extended to include Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — in advance of a Spring offensive that will test both coalition and IS forces’ preparedness. Mosul is presenting as a potential game-changer in the young war, and with considerably larger and diverse military powers coming into play, the brewing showdown is certain draw upon lessons learned in Kobani and, most recently, Tikrit, Iraq.

Tikrit, liberated at the end of March by the Iraqis following a year of failed attempts, exposed a shift in how the Islamic State is choosing to engage its enemies. Where close to 1,000 IS fighters were killed in the battle for Kobani, approximately 150 perished in the Tikrit offensive. And, where Kobani saw IS reinforcements arrive almost daily to bolster building-to-building battles for control, investment of human resources in Tikrit was much more conservative by comparison. If Kobani left a lesson on the table, it’s that the Islamic State knows when to play a hand, and when to fold. It is not afraid of a lengthy fight stuck between relentless bombing from above and resilient adversaries on the ground. Tikrit, meanwhile, teaches us that the Islamic State is adapting.

By forcing the enemy to fully commit to offensives that leave little to conquer, the value of urban control suddenly lies in the interim, versus the long-term. Kobani and Tikrit mostly destroyed, approximately 750,000 combined residents were displaced. The growing humanitarian crisis not only drains government and military resources indefinitely, but hinders any opportunity to stay ahead of the Islamic State with resources dedicated elsewhere.

As control shifted back to the Iraqis, only a few dozen militants remained in Tikrit, primarily as snipers. Complicating matters, the Islamic State wired the city with thousands of bombs to slow their advance, just as it had city outskirts before close quarters combat ensued. By using small pockets of defenders in tandem with passive explosives, the Islamic State is able to engage the enemy longer while limiting losses. Such conservatism, as well, further enables the militants to recruit and propagate elsewhere in the wake of such engagements.

As new markets for the Islamic State emerge, where they are — and, in some cases, who controls them — poses a significant problem for the United States and its allies. Their respective political landscapes, above all, will influence just how well IS is contained. Delay will continue to prove costly later as 360° creep continues, and is the equivalent of leaving the door open just enough for their foot to get in, as the world is reminded with each new day.

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Continental Drift

In early March, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. Nigeria’s national security spokesman Mike Omeri dismissed the announcement as "an act of desperation” following heavy losses at the hands of government troops. Just one month earlier, African leaders agreed to deploy 7,500 troops from five West African countries to combat the militants, about the same time Iran entered discussions on how best to provide support.

Shekau’s announcement coincided with Nigeria’s hiring of hundreds of mercenaries from South Africa and the former Soviet Union to supplement government forces already engaged in combat. While Chad, Cameroon and Niger coordinated efforts to contain Boko Haram within their respective, shared borders with Nigeria, the move to bring in guns-for-hire served as insurance that attacks like the one on Baga and surrounding villages — where upwards of 2,000 people were murdered — would not be repeated.

Within one week, the Islamic State accepted Shekau’s offer of allegiance.

Further north, the Islamic State was expanding its footprint. Militants executed strikes across Tripoli that included the Corinthia Hotel and the Algerian Embassy. In Tunisia, the murder of more than 20 tourists in Tunis served as a grim reminder that some of the estimated 3,000 Tunisians who had joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had returned home. During the same period, Egyptian soldiers and security outposts were consistently targeted, a significant development in that suspected Islamic State militants had already been arrested at the Egypt-Libya border. Activity continued into the second quarter with early April attacks on five army checkpoints, killing 15 soldiers and two civilians. As a result, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is fast becoming an ungovernable bridge between the Middle East and North Africa.

A Perfect Storm

In January, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government was forced to relinquish control when it fled Sanaa, Yemen in advance of Shi'ite Muslim Houthi fighters taking control of the capital. With political, tribal and sectarian rivals embroiled in a multi-dimensional power play — including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — the world responded.

The United States, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Turkey and Spain all closed their embassies. As the international political vacuum grew, regional allies pooled their military resources to launch Operation Decisive Storm. The combined air, sea and land capabilities of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Egypt outfitted the alliance with 100 fighter jets, 150,000 ground troops as well as a naval component. While airstrikes pounded approximately half of the country’s 21 provinces, naval forces shut down its ports, and infantry engaged the Houthis along Yemen’s northern border with Saudi Arabia.

As Yemen descends into chaos, the Islamic State is presented with the ideal situation: civil war. Arguably becoming the most volatile location in the world, there exists ample room for the likes of IS to establish itself, even as AQAP controls much of the country to the south and east. Sworn enemies of the Houthis, AQAP stands to benefit as other Sunni groups join their fight against the rebels. The Islamic State is certain to take advantage of the Sunni network, too, as it sets up shop in Yemen, despite its severed relationship with al-Qaeda.

Restoring order in Yemen becomes increasingly complicated with the introduction of conflicting priorities, as well. For example, the United States, an ally of Saudi Arabia, recently negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran. Blasted by many Arabs as a sign of waning US power, the move further muddies the still developing picture In Yemen and elsewhere. As the U.S. backs Gulf Arab states in their fight against the Houthis, who are allied to Iran, both the U.S. and Iran are heavily invested in helping the Iraqis defeat the Islamic State. Every step in every direction is fraught with diplomatic implications. As world powers simultaneously converge on multiple fronts, the rules of engagement will undoubtedly be compromised if there is any hope of continuing to facilitate peace away from the fight.

Any Which Way is Forward

The Islamic State remains undeterred and uncontained as it expands beyond Iraq and Syria. IS activity worldwide continues without pause. The recruiting arm and online divisions remain vigilant in carrying out their respective missions, while lethal attacks on civilians, civil servants and military personnel show no sign of slowing. From Christopher Lee Cornell’s botched plan to open fire on US Capitol employees, to Amedy Coulibaly’s murder of Parisian officer Clarissa Jean-Philippeon, and separate killing of four hostages during a standoff with police, IS sympathizers worldwide are complicating the West’s ability to define who, and where, the Islamic State actually is. Arrests of known IS affiliates in Germany, Pakistan, Israel, Belgium, the West Bank and elsewhere only serve to support the notion that, despite their best efforts, many world governments remain underprepared as they scramble to reconsider their respective stances on border control and home-grown terrorism. By mid-2014, American intelligence suggests that as many as 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries travelled to either Iraq or Syria, most of whom joined the Islamic State, many of whom have returned home.

While the Caliphate was originally promoted as a geographical conquest, the Islamic State requires constant growth based on its very economy of war. It has proven successful in actively managing areas of revenue, recruiting and governance with thoughtfulness, care and discretion, all the while under constant duress from Operation Inherent Resolve, as well as emerging competition from other jihadist groups. In the face of attrition, it has adapted and even thrived as it survives by any means necessary. As a result, the Islamic State will become what it becomes, and already appears as if it were not as concerned with acquiring new real estate as it is assimilating new allies while replenishing itself away from the wound opening in Iraq.

Iraq will re-estabish itself as the center of global focus should a conflict in Mosul dictate. Meanwhile, the Islamic State will continue to fill any void where there is room to further anchor itself. Cells including born nationals are being encountered throughout Europe. Anecdotal associations pepper countries including the United States. Yet, as fast-mobilizing militaries converge on multiple, uncontained situations, the respective steps taken by cause-formed allies must be delicate as their paths continue to intertwine. As heady a concept as the spread of the Islamic State remains, focus on the weather system forming around the eye of the storm should become paramount. The number of nations involved militarily is staggering, and that they are being applied to multiple theaters, concerning. Shared conflict creates shared loss, and compartmentalization must remain king while the world's borders continue to be tested by the Islamic State.

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