As the Islamic State retreats from parts of Iraq and Syria, the group is looking to expand in other areas, perpetuating a tug of war for territory and influence that shows no signs of abating any time soon.
A fierce bombing campaign led by the United States coupled with gains by U.S. allies on the ground has clawed back territory from the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, militants are looking to capitalize on the power vacuum in Libya as President Barack Obama orders his national security team to counter the radical group.
“The president directed his national security team to continue efforts to strengthen governance and support ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Libya and other countries where ISIL [also known as the Islamic State or ISIS] has sought to establish a presence,” the White House said in late January.
The question of who’s “winning” the war against the Islamic State is a hotly contested one, with gains and losses oscillating between the U.S.-led coalition and the Sunni extremist group that has proven to be a dogged, unpredictable adversary.
The Islamic State rampaged through northeastern Syria and large swathes of Iraq in the summer of 2014, seizing a chunk of territory similar in size to Belgium. The territorial gains took the Americans and the government in Baghdad off guard at the time. In August 2014, a U.S.-led bombing campaign called Operation Inherent Resolve started targeting Islamic State-held territory. The military offensive initially showed diminutive influence over the group’s ability to control land and conquer new towns, as evidenced by the Islamic State’s lightening-fast seizure of Ramadi, 70 miles from Baghdad, in May 2015.
In December, though, Iraqi troops routed the group from Ramadi after months of intense fighting backed by heavy airpower from the United States. Earlier, Kurdish forces had liberated the Islamic State-occupied town of Kobani in Syria and the Iraqi town of Sinjar.
Victory, however, has been difficult to define in a murky conflict with subjective and shifting parameters of success. The Pentagon says its strikes have destroyed or damaged over 20,000 targets in Syria and Iraq, including vital oil infrastructure. By targeting oil fields, supply lines and even stockpiles of cash, the U.S.-led bombing campaign has cut off critical funds, although the Islamic State still profits from taxing populations under its control and from illicit activities such antiquities trafficking and extortion. Recent reports indicate that the Islamic State has been forced to slash the salaries of its fighters as a result of the U.S.-led offensive, which has also taken a heavy toll on its leadership.
U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren recently told reporters that Operation Inherent Resolve has “decimated their ranks and shaken their leadership.” U.S. officials estimate the bombings have killed some 20,000 Islamic State fighters; they also report that desertions are on the rise. Overall, the U.S.-led coalition estimates that its campaign has recaptured about 40 percent of the territory that the Islamic State seized.
Experts, however, caution that reports of the group’s imminent demise have been exaggerated. U.S. National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper himself recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the group remains the “pre-eminent global threat.” The Islamic State continues to replenish its ranks with new recruits and may have 30,000 or more fighters still on the field. Fighters have also proven to be highly adaptable and adept on the battlefield — using, for example, inadvertent civilian casualties from the U.S. bombings as propaganda.
Obama has refused to send a large number of combat troops back to Iraq, saying the fight against the Islamic State needs to be led by local actors. Nevertheless, he has steadily ratcheted up the American military presence there, sending roughly 3,700 advisors to train Iraqi forces, along with a smattering of special operations commandos to train rebels in Syria. But progress remains spotty. The Iraqi military is rife with corruption, Baghdad continues to rely on Shiite militias and the country’s Sunni population remains wary of the central government.
Meanwhile, Syria remains a cauldron of chaos. In February, opposing parties in the Syrian civil war met with world powers for peace talks in Geneva but — as widely expected — the diplomatic effort sputtered, although a temporary ceasefire had been announced as of press time. In Syria, the Islamic State has come under attack not only by U.S. warplanes but also by a separate offensive launched by Russia to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. While the Islamic State doesn’t seem to be gaining ground in that warzone, it has claimed credit for several recent attacks in Damascus and Homs that have killed scores of people.
The complicated landscape in Syria is partly why the U.S. is focusing its manpower on Iraq for now. After suffering a string of humiliating defeats last year, the Iraqi army, backed by U.S. training, regrouped and successfully engaged Islamic State militants in pitched street-to-street battles to take back Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
U.S. officials are hoping to replicate that success in the Islamic State strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria later this year, although both cities pose a far more formidable challenge than Ramadi did.
Despite the challenges, the Islamic State’s territorial grip is gradually weakening, as Iraqi, Kurdish and American efforts are showing tentative results.
“In Syria and Iraq, they are losing ground relatively slowly,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies with a focus on counterterrorism, told The Washington Diplomat.
Gartenstein-Ross noted that U.S. Special Forces raids were highly successful in Hawija (north of Baghdad) and in eastern Syria, where an American raid last May killed Islamic State commander Abu Sayyaf, yielding a trove of financial and other data. “The operation against Abu Sayyaf produced a cache of good intel,” he said. “As they lose ground they are trying to do two things: carry out terror attacks abroad and expand into countries like Libya.”
Opening Up New Fronts
With increased pressure on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the group is looking to expand into neighboring countries and show that it is capable of spreading operations internationally, in part by launching spectacular attacks. Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Indonesia, Tunisia and France are among the countries to suffer from Islamic State attacks in recent months. Paris in particular captured the world’s attention when a team of militants killed 130 people. U.S. intelligence officials also warn that the group has set its sights on striking the U.S. homeland this year.
The Islamic State has made some inroads into countries like Somalia and Afghanistan as of late, though they have encountered resistance.
“There was a push to expand into other theaters loudly,” Gartenstein-Ross said, citing examples of a prominent al-Shabab leader in Somalia who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and is now being pursued by intelligence agencies; the defection of 70 officers from the Islamic State to rejoin al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); and a crackdown on the group in Afghanistan by none other than the Taliban.
“They’ve done well in Libya but not well elsewhere,” he said.
In Libya, however, the group is already in control of Sirte, a city strategically located at the midway point between Benghazi and Tripoli. The strategy for Libya’s Islamic State branch somewhat mimics that of Syria’s in that it is oil-focused. The goal is to snag control of Libya’s oil-producing regions to self-fund its operations as it did in Syria prior to the U.S. intervention.
Aggressive posturing by the Islamic State in Libya forced the White House to react, as did the prospect of the group gaining control of the country’s oil wealth. According to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the Islamic State’s Libyan arm established training camps and invited foreign fighters to join its ranks (estimated to number anywhere from 5,000 to 6,500 fighters). “We don’t want to be on a glide slope to a situation like Syria and Iraq,” Carter said at a news conference in January. “That’s the reason why we’re watching it that closely.”
The Pentagon has already deployed a limited number of military personnel to collect intelligence on the complex fighting situation on the ground. On Feb. 19, an American airstrike bombed a reported training camp in northwestern Libya, killing over three dozen people. The dead possibly include a militant linked to deadly attacks in Tunisia (along with two Serbian hostages).
Surveillance, targeted airstrikes and possible raids are among the menu of options U.S. officials have been discussing to contain the group’s rise in Libya, but thus far the administration has dismissed calls for a unilateral military intervention. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry has tried to galvanize foreign powers to prod Libya’s warring political parties into forming a unity government under a U.N.-brokered plan.
Unlike in Syria and Iraq, the central government in Libya is effectively powerless. Ever since the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, the country has been fractured along complex sectarian, tribal and geographical lines. In 2014, the government split into two rival camps, with an Islamist-dominated faction seizing control of Tripoli while the internationally recognized government fled to eastern Libya. A number of Islamist militias of all stripes — ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood, who participated in Libya’s democratic elections, to violent jihadists — are vying for control and influence on the ground, as is the secular militia chief Khalifa Heftar, a controversial former Qaddafi-era general.
“Many of the groups fighting the Islamic State in Libya are Islamists so it is not necessarily straightforward,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings, told The Washington Diplomat.
“Over the last year and a half the political power struggle and resulting security vacuum has created an ideal space for Islamic State to expand its presence,” said analyst Mary Fitzgerald in a January interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“What’s been striking is the utter cynicism with which different elements in Libya’s power struggle have exploited the Islamic State, or the threat posed by it. Some allied with the administration in Tripoli, while they abhor the attacks Islamic State has carried out in western Libya, are supportive of IS fighters in Benghazi because they are battling Haftar’s forces there,” she explained. “Similarly, certain elements connected with Haftar or the recognized parliament, in eastern Libya, have at times wildly exaggerated the scale and presence of Islamic State, trying to smear all their political opponents as being in cahoots with them. In the middle of all of that, Islamic State has grown.”
Fitzgerald warned that “inserting Western special forces into such complicated local environments risks inflaming existing rivalries.”
With such a tangled web of competing militias, it’s difficult for American forces to know whom to trust or align with in Libya. Normally, Washington might turn to valuable allies to share intelligence. In this case, Libya’s neighbor to the east, Egypt, would be that ally. But internal strife and Egypt’s own problems with the Islamic State, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, have prevented close coordination.
Gartenstein-Ross predicted that American involvement could be initially limited to drone strikes, special ops raids or ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance).
“Before kinetic action, we need to understand how this fits into the broader strategic plan,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
As for the Islamic State’s overall strategy, experts continue to debate whether the group’s attempts to go global and stage attacks in far-flung countries while gaining a foothold in North Africa are a sign of weakness or strength.
For the first time since they burst onto the scene, the group appears to be on the back foot in Syria and Iraq, but that hasn’t blunted its ambitions to gain ground in other arenas.
About the Author
Justin Salhani (@JustinSalhani) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor.