Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The end of the ‘caliphate’, not IS

Iraqi and Syrian forces have recaptured last key towns from IS, but crushing the group remains the major challenge, writes Salah Nasrawi


The end of the ‘caliphate’, not IS
The end of the ‘caliphate’, not IS

With the Iraqi and Syrian forces taking back the last main urban strongholds of the Islamic State (IS) this week, attention is turning to the future of the terrorist group and the thousands of its brutal fighters.

Beyond the militants’ loss of more ground with the liberation of Al-Qaim by Iraqi forces after their defeat in Deir Al-Zor across the border with Syria, the prospect of an end to IS terrorism remains uncertain.

Units from the Iraqi army, Counter-terrorism Forces, Sunni tribal forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) recaptured Al-Qaim on Friday and immediately launched an offensive to drive the group from Rawa, the last remaining area in the country still held by IS.

On the Syrian side of the border, Syrian pro-government forces backed by Russian air forces and Iranian allies liberated the eastern city of Deir Al-Zor from IS. The forces are advancing rapidly towards the border town of Albu Kamal, which is still held by the group.

The developments are the latest significant defeat for IS as the militant group sees its self-proclaimed “caliphate” crumble and lose almost all its urban strongholds in the two countries.

The two offensives reduced IS’ presence to the nearby desert on the Iraqi-Syrian frontier, where hundreds of fighters are believed to be holding out in caves and valleys after losing nearly all their other territory in both countries.

As the Iraqi and Syrian forces stage their final push to end IS’ territorial control, the fate of the organisation, its leadership, fighters, weapons and assets remains a mystery.

At the height of its power, the group ran vast territories that covered nearly half of Iraq and one-third of Syria. It reportedly took in hundreds of millions of dollars from oil smuggling, taxes and donations. IS forces also seized a huge arsenal of weapons, including chemical and gas canisters, after capturing Iraqi and Syrian territory.

The fate of the tens of thousands of IS fighters has become an issue of international concern amid fears that the militants could slink off the battlefield to melt into local populations or infiltrate other nations worldwide.

Since 2014 when IS seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, thousands of foreign fighters have joined the group, helping it to grow in manpower.

A report by the Soufan Centre, a US security research group last month estimated that some 40,000 people from over 110 countries had made their way to Iraq and Syria to join IS.

After the recent large-scale military campaigns in Iraq and Syria, however, thousands of IS’ foreign fighters have returned to their countries as the militant group’s territory fades away in the desert, the report said.

Based on an analysis by its experts of official numbers from 48 countries, the centre concluded that at least 2,000 former IS members had gone back to Western countries including the United States. Overall, 5,600 citizens or residents from 33 countries have returned home, it said.

In Iraq and Syria, huge numbers of IS zealots and battle-tested fighters are believed to have fled the conflict and melted back into their Sunni “incubators” to prepare for attacks.

It is widely believed that IS fighters who fled the battlefield from the Iraqi and Syrian security forces will still be able to mount guerrilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.

The Iraqi security forces have been reporting aerial strikes in the desert and crackdowns on “guest houses” or enclaves where they believe IS militants have been taking refuge.

Iraq’s Counter-terrorism Force reported this week that it had carried out several raids on militant hideouts and arrested militants planning attacks on cities including Baghdad.

Local media and online reports suggested that the IS group is undergoing sharp splits within its leadership and its rank and file, with disputes over security, political and theological issues to the fore.

In addition to exchanging blame over their defeats, the militants are reviewing their future strategy on working with still-disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis in their struggle against the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

On Sunday, an Iraqi security official told a local media outlet that the security forces had seen cells of the Al-Qaeda group quietly re-emerging in Baghdad and the Anbar and Salaheddin provinces of Iraq.

Similarly, in Syria many IS militants are believed to be joining less-extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Al-Nusra, which had been rebranded as Hayat Tahir Al-Sham.

US top commander in Iraq Paul Funk told the US newspaper USA Today last week that Washington should prepare to maintain a presence in the region even after IS’ collapse because the group will still be capable of acts of terrorism.

One big concern is that those who return home to their countries of origin could pose a serious threat to these countries’ security. There are increasing fears that so long as jihadi ideology continues to hold an appeal for extremists, the contagion carried by the returnees could still easily spread.

The squeeze on the group has greatly accelerated the flow of IS fighters from Iraq and Syria back into Europe, Russia, the former Soviet republics and even the United States.

In the Middle East where several countries are struggling with their own jihadist insurgencies, counter-terrorism experts are also watching IS affiliates closely and seeing signs that they are rebranding themselves.

In Egypt, there has been a drumbeat of terrorist attacks, many of them in the Sinai Peninsula, which IS proclaimed a “province” in 2014.

Last week a previously unknown group called Ansar Al-Islam claimed responsibility for an attack in Egypt’s Western Desert that killed several policemen on 20 October.

The group said in an online statement that “we have started our jihad... on the borders of Cairo, and we were victorious against the enemy’s campaign,” indicating that this was its first attack.

In neighbouring Libya, though IS militants have lost control of many towns they still operate in the desert border area with Egypt and have been showing signs of trying to gain ground in the country.

Among other places where IS still operates is Yemen. On Sunday, at least eight soldiers were killed in a suicide car-bombing in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. IS later claimed responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by a bomber who rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into the gate of the main security headquarters in the port city.

Sometime before the end of this year, the authorities in Iraq and Syria may announce the end of combat operations against IS and the total collapse of its “state”.

This will be a victory — of a sort. Yet, it does not suggest that the “caliphate’s soldiers” are finished as a terrorist force. Nor does it mean that the terror threat to the world will necessarily decrease.

Reminiscent of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda after the US invasion of Afghanistan, IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s IS will be looking for a new jihad in a new challenge which the world will need to deal with differently.

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