The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the Syrian war through a network of activists, reported that the Islamic State (ISIS) has summoned its senior figures to a meeting in Iraq to choose a potential successor to the elusive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
It is not clear why ISIS would be seeking to do this after suffering major battlefield reverses and facing the loss of its major strongholds and the collapse of the caliphate it declared in Syria and Iraq in mid- 2014.
However, if the call for an emergency meeting is correct, it would suggest that the jihadist group could hold Baghdadi, an Iraqi cleric, responsible for its current crisis and wants to find a new leader.
It is questionable whether a leadership change would be enough to change ISIS’s fortunes.
The Americans and their ragtag army of Syrian and Kurdish allies are preparing an offensive to retake the city of Raqqa in northern Syria, the de facto capital of the caliphate with a population of about 500,000 and ISIS’s last urban stronghold in Syria.
In northern Iraq, Mosul, the largest city ISIS conquered, is under threat by US-backed forces and expected to fall. On December 7, ISIS lost its last foothold in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, the only city outside of Syria and Iraq it has held and that was intended to be the hub of the group’s North African operations.
US officials say 60% of the caliphate had been lost by mid-December. A measure of ISIS’s desperation is its claim to have mounted 1,024 suicide attacks between January and November, the overwhelming majority in Syria and Iraq but with some in Libya.
It is not possible to verify statistics provided by Amaq, ISIS’s news agency, but the unprecedented intensity of martyrdom operations jibes with front-line reports and underlines how ISIS is falling back on suicide attacks in a last-ditch effort to slow its enemies.
Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, Baghdadi’s Syrian No.2 who was ISIS’s top propagandist and strategist as well as chief of its formidable external operations apparatus, foresaw that the jihadists would have to return to insurgency warfare and terrorism if they were to survive the growing onslaught.
A few weeks before he was killed in a US air strike in northern Syria on August 30, Adnani pointed towards a sharp shift in strategy in an audio message:
“Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land or some authority or that victory is measured thereby has strayed from the truth,” he declared. “It is the same, whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare, open desert, displaced and pursued.”
Some analysts say that once Mosul falls, ISIS’s forces in Iraq will retreat into nearby Diyala province, a haven for jihadists since 2003, to regroup and rearm in the rugged, sometimes mountainous terrain that in its southern extremity loops around eastern Baghdad, which would be the likely target for a wave of suicide bombings.
US analysts Michael Knights and Alex Mello, who have both worked in Iraq, call Diyala, where 60% of the population is Sunni, “Iraq’s sectarian tinder box” and observe that by “escalating terrorist attacks against Shia targets there, the group could create a spiral of sectarian violence that it could exploit to make a comeback.
“The strategy almost worked a decade ago,” they said in a report by the Counter-Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy in October.
“After the US surge cleared Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS’s predecessor) fighters from Anbar province, the group made significant gains in Diyala by carrying out a terrorist campaign against Shia targets designed to plunge the country deeper into civil war.”
They warned that if ISIS continues to take the initiative in Diyala, the province “is likely to become the Islamic State’s main safe haven location in Iraq, back-to-back with other key operational locations like Tarmiyah, the Jalam Desert, the Hamrin Mountains, the Iranian border and the eastern approaches to Baghdad.”
In Syria, where ISIS is still a fighting force to be reckoned with, as demonstrated when it unleashed a surprise offensive that recaptured the storied city of Palmyra from the Syrian Army on December 10-11, the thinking is the jihadists will retreat into the country’s vast eastern desert around oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province where it is strongly entrenched.
John Arterbury, a Washington-based counterterrorism expert, observed in an analysis published by the New Statesman of London, that activists said ISIS plans to gather its senior leadership in Deir ez-Zor, which will “afford the Islamic State the springboard for guerrilla or conventional attacks…
“The Syrian regime lacks the manpower and the operational capability to retake Deir ez-Zor, even with the backing of Russian air power,” he wrote.
“Likewise, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has poured cold water on the notion that Iraq’s popular militias enter the Syrian theatre. Should they defy him and try, an advance by the mostly Shia militias could upend eastern Syria’s ornate social fabric and add fuel to the sectarian fire…
“The fight against the Islamic State will continue long after Raqqa and Mosul’s liberation,” Arterbury noted.
“The US should not yield in its determination to pursue the terror group to the farthest stretches of Syria. If it fails to do so, the Islamic State may just re-emerge once again, revitalised and born anew as it has before.
“Ignoring Deir ez-Zor means ignoring a key piece of the Syrian tapestry. It is only by recapturing Islamic State-held territory in its totality, including these desert flanks and fringes, that the US and its allies can hope to put the final nails in (ISIS’s) coffin.”
There is another reason why it would be imprudent to consider that ISIS can be completely crushed. It is expected to regenerate, just as its jihadist predecessors did, such as al-Qaeda after its dispersal by the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.
ISIS can also be expected to unleash a new wave of terrorist attacks in the West and other parts of the world where its so-called provinces have spread. ISIS has established extensive terror networks in Western Europe — France and Belgium in particular and reportedly in Spain and Italy.
It also has a presence in such distant regions as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Nigeria and Latin America.
“The pace of jihadist attacks in Europe is unprecedented,” observed security analysts Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Colin Clarke in a November paper for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington on how ISIS’s strategy is likely to evolve.
ISIS “has operated on across a larger contiguous geographic area than anything we have seen previously from jihadists”, but now likely seeks to decentralise its terrorist operations as the control exerted by external operations apparatus, known as Amniyat al-Kharji, diminishes.
“Regardless of its success in building an insurgency,” they noted, ISIS “has achieved a level of mass mobilisation internationally that al-Qaeda never did. This makes the strategic use of truly disconnected cells more feasible than it has ever been for jihadists.”
Gartenstein-Ross and Parker concluded: “One defining feature of the group’s military strategy has been that it doesn’t want to have the time and place of violence dictated to it… It is possible that, consistent with this doctrine, losing in Iraq and Syria will prompt (ISIS) to channel more resources into attacking Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf or Europe.”
James Bruce has written extensively on Middle Eastern security issues for many years for such publications as Jane’s Intelligence Review and Jane’s Defence Weekly.
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