Islamic State loses ground in Iraq and Syria, advances in Libya
The reconquest by the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad of the town of Qaryatayn from Islamic State this month is the latest indication of the declining fortunes of the extremist organisation in Iraq and Syria, following the loss of Palmyra in late March.
Facing determined enemies on three fronts, the Sunni jihadis would appear to be adopting a policy of tactical retreat to preserve their forces for the vital battles to come. As Islamic State holdings in Iraq and Syria contract, the organisation is seeking to maintain its image and momentum by focusing on gains on other fronts.
Islamic State’s slogan is baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). But in its home grounds, Islamic State is no longer expanding. The prospect of its eclipse there is visible, though still distant, on the horizon. Elsewhere, most notably in Libya, Islamic State is still moving forward.
Islamic State was never solely, or mainly, a ramshackle de facto governing authority in the badlands of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Had it been so, it almost certainly would have been left in place, just one florid example of brutal and dysfunctional governance in a neighbourhood where dictatorship is the norm.
Such a bargain would not have suited the Iraqi jihadis at the head of the organisation. They are not in business to rule a small and dusty emirate. Rather, they are deadly serious regarding the task of their caliphate: war against the non-Islamic world until the latter is defeated. More pragmatically, the sense of forward momentum is necessary to keep the foreign volunteers coming and the monetary contributions flowing.
For Islamic State, focus on other fronts means two things.
The first is increased efforts to engage in international terrorism. The bloody attacks on Brussels airport and Maalbeek metro station on March 22 were the latest events in a discernible trend to offset defeats in the Levant by staging terrorist actions farther afield. The second is heightened efforts to expand territorial holdings in areas other than Iraq and Syria. The movement’s holding in Libya is emerging as a place of concern.
As Islamic State’s territorial holdings continue to be whittled away, it is likely to attempt further international terrorist attacks.
Preparations for the retaking of Mosul city are under way. The Iraqi army is cutting supply lines to the city from Salah al-Din and Anbar provinces. Three army divisions have been moved to the Mosul area. Mosul, with more than a million inhabitants, will be a tough target to take. But the outcome of the war is clear and it is against the jihadis. The consequent need for vigilance, communication and co-operation between the security services of the democratic world has never been higher.
Regarding the second issue, Islamic State claims authority over eight “provinces” in addition to its area of control straddling Iraq and Syria. The eight areas in question are in Sinai, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the north Caucasus and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.
These areas vary greatly in size and importance, and in the extent of control that Islamic State has over them. In some cases, such as the “provinces” of Saudi Arabia and Algeria, the term means relatively little. Both these areas are ruled by powerful states with strong security agencies. The groups in question have carried out terror attacks. But they are seen more properly as organisations supporting Islamic State rather than entities in control of territory analogous to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria itself. However, in areas where, as in Iraq and Syria, the state has lost control over territory, the threat represented by Islamic State “provinces” is of a more substantial nature. It is in these lawless and ungoverned or poorly governed spaces that a repeat of the Iraqi and Syrian experiences and the emergence of new de facto jihadi sovereignties is most possible.
Some of the countries listed above fit this description. But it is in Libya that Islamic State has made the most progress. In other areas, various factors have stymied the growth of Islamic State, but these factors are absent in Libya.
In Yemen, Islamic State declared its wilayah (province) in November 2014. Its growth and activity, however, have been hampered by the presence in that country of a strong rival Salafi jihadi organisation. This is the branch of the core al-Qa’ida leadership in Yemen, known as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP denounced the formation of Islamic State province in Yemen and its presence has limited the ability of Islamic State to grow.
Nevertheless the latter has carried out several attacks. These include suicide bombings in two Shia mosques in March last year and the murder by crucifixion of a Christian priest last month.
In northern Sinai, the former Ansar Bait al-Makdis organisation, now called Wilayat al-Sina (Sinai Province), is engaged in an insurgency against Egyptian security forces. The group also has vowed to carry out attacks against Israeli targets across the border. Wilayat al-Sina claimed responsibility for the downing of Russian Metrojet flight 9268. But the insurgency appears to be contained within Sinai, ongoing but with little likelihood of spreading into Egypt proper.
Libya is different. The importance of the Islamic State holding there derives from its location and the number of fighters under Islamic State command in the area.
Islamic State controls an area of about 200km around the city of Sirte on the Libyan coast. The greater part of this area was secured last year against the backdrop of Islamic State setbacks in Iraq and Syria, and general chaos in Libya. The location of Sirte offers the possibility for Islamic State of infiltration into Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. Sirte was the birthplace of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It has extensive infrastructure, including an international airport, a seaport and oil installations.
Islamic State is thought to have about 4000 to 5000 fighters in Sirte, and is recruiting African migrants making their way to the coast. The movement also derives the depth of its support in the Sirte area from the loyalty of tribesmen Clearly, the goal is to seek to replicate the model for success in Iraq and Syria: once a territorial base is established, a military force can be built up that can be used aggressively to expand the holding.
Islamic State achieved its greatest successes this way, when its forces swept from eastern Syria into Iraq in 2014. In Libya, as in these countries, central government effectively has collapsed and the country is in a state of civil war. Two rival governments vie for power: an internationally recognised authority in Tobruk in the east and an Islamist de facto power in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.
The Islamic State area of control is situated between the two. The organisation hopes to expand east and west. Its immediate targets are the city of Misrata, halfway between Sirte and Tripoli, and Ajdabiya to the east, near the Sidr oil port and the refinery at Ras Lanuff. Notably, Islamic State propaganda has begun to place increased stress on its Libyan holding. New recruits are being encouraged to head for this area rather than for the Levant. Some prominent commanders of the movement are reported to have relocated to Libya, too.
Islamic State was able to take Sirte last year because it faced little resistance. The local tribes were largely affiliated with the Gaddafi regime and had little reason for loyalty to either of the administrations in the country. Indeed, Islamic State may serve a purpose as a new structure of loyalty and protection for them, analogous to the process in which Sunni former loyalists of the Saddam regime found a home with Islamic State in Iraq.
For a while, both Libyan governments and the West appeared content to let Islamic State fester in its small desert domain. The Tripoli and Tobruk governments are mainly concerned with ruling their own areas rather than striking out against one another. However, as Islamic State prepares to expand towards areas vital for the Libyan oil industry, the issue becomes more urgent and has begun to appear on the radar screens of European policymakers.
In February, US special forces carried out a raid on the town of Sabratha in which 40 Islamic State men were killed. Reports have appeared in the British and French media concerning the presence of special forces from both countries close to Islamic State’s holding in Sirte. British and French aircraft are carrying out reconnaissance missions over Sirte. Le Monde described what it termed a “secret war” being conducted by French intelligence and special forces personnel against Islamic State on Libyan soil.
At the same time, there appears to be no prospect of a large-scale involvement of Western forces on the ground to vanquish Islamic State in Libya. Rather, the strategy appears to resemble that employed in Syria and Iraq: namely, use air power to partner with local allies identified by intelligence and bolstered by the discreet presence of Western special forces.
Attempts to bring together the two rival administrations in Libya are ongoing but have run aground. An agreement reached for a unity government on December 17 remains unimplemented.
At the same time, the two governing entities with their Western support are far from helpless, and Islamic State, with its 5000 fighters, is far from invincible. This means the Islamic State enclave is unlikely to score major territorial advances. But it is also unlikely to disappear.
Ultimately, Islamic State is part of a much broader problem: the collapse and fragmentation of several formerly centralised Arab states. It grows and flourishes in the environments left by this collapse. Will McCants, an expert on Islamic State and Sunni Islamism recently said more generally that the record suggested such movements tended to overreach themselves. Their inability to accept a limited role leads to their enemies uniting to destroy them.
This may well be the final fate to be suffered by Islamic State. In the interim period, however, it remains powerful and dangerous.
Where Arab states have collapsed, the bodies that rise up to compete within the ruins tend to be political-military organisations, usually organised on a sectarian, religious, ethnic or tribal basis. Islamic State is an example of this phenomenon. It is a particularly virulent and malignant strain of a much broader malady.
Ultimately, perhaps, only new definitions of civic loyalty and citizenship will serve to transform this process. In the interim period, violent dysfunction and the need for Western and regional states to defend adequately against it are likely to remain.
The Australian, April 23, 2016