IS los­ing ground but still a threat

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The Is­lamic State group has been eroded by in­ter­na­tional ef­forts to crush the ji­hadist group but its abil­ity to mount dev­as­tat­ing at­tacks on the West re­mains very real, de­fense and se­cu­rity ex­perts say. As France pre­pares to mark the first an­niver­sary of the Paris at­tacks by the group on Novem­ber 13, an­a­lysts say mil­i­tary de­feats in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria will al­most cer­tainly not make its West­ern tar­gets any safer. “De­priv­ing ISIS of con­trol over pop­u­la­tion cen­ters and sanc­tu­ary to raise funds and train fight­ers, and break­ing it up as key or­ga­ni­za­tion, mat­ters,” said An­thony Cordes­man of the Wash­ing­ton-based Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (CSIS), us­ing an­other name for the group. ”De­feat­ing it in any prac­ti­cal sense, how­ever, will not be­gin to deal with the last­ing threat,” he added.

It was in June 2014 that IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghadi pro­claimed the cre­ation of a caliphate in land the group had seized in Iraq and Syria and urged Mus­lims who shared the group’s vi­sion to join them. Thou­sands of for­eign­ers an­swered his call, among them sev­eral French and Bel­gian men who would go on to slaugh­ter 130 peo­ple in a Paris con­cert hall and at bars and res­tau­rants. The blood­shed in Paris con­trib­uted to strength­en­ing the re­solve of the West to fight IS. A year on, Iraqi forces backed by the air power of the United States and coun­tries in­clud­ing France are locked in fierce fight­ing to re-take Iraq’s sec­ond city of Mo­sul from the ji­hadist group. On Sun­day, a US-backed Kur­dish and Arab force said it had be­gun an as­sault on the city of Raqqa, IS’s strong­hold in Syria.

Re­cruits dry­ing up

These mil­i­tary ef­forts have led to a sharp re­duc­tion in the num­ber of for­eign­ers mak­ing the trek to join IS forces in Iraq and Syria. The Pen­tagon says from 2,000 a month in early 2015, the fig­ure is now just 200. Tighter con­trols on the Turk­ish bor­der-the main gate­way to Syria-and im­proved sur­veil­lance by Eu­ro­pean in­tel­li­gence have also helped stem the flow of for­eign re­cruits. The mil­i­tary on­slaught on IS has also slowed the pro­duc­tion of the slick, blood-drenched pro­pa­ganda which has played a prom­i­nent role in at­tract­ing re­cruits.

The num­ber of ar­ti­cles or videos posted on­line by the ji­hadists’ of­fi­cial me­dia out­lets dropped by 70 per­cent, from 700 items in Au­gust 2015 to 200 a year later, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter (CTC) at the elite US West Point mil­i­tary academy. The au­thor of the re­port, Daniel Mil­ton, said while IS’s main sell­ing point was the cre­ation of its self-pro­claimed caliphate, it was now “strug­gling to main­tain the ap­pear­ance of a func­tion­ing state”. Most ex­perts agree, how­ever, that crush­ing IS’s hopes of es­tab­lish­ing the caliphate will not di­min­ish its abil­ity to launch at­tacks against the West.

“In the minds of sup­port­ers in the US, EU, North Africa, and else­where, the ap­peal of the Is­lamic State has not dis­si­pated with its ter­ri­to­rial losses. For some, the group re­mains a pow­er­ful mag­net that at­tracts vi­o­lence and a sense of be­long­ing,” the US-based So­ufan se­cu­rity anal­y­sis group said re­cently. It is pos­si­ble that the group’s losses in Mo­sul and else­where “could lead to an in­crease in ex­ter­nal sup­port, and a cor­re­spond­ing in­crease in the threat of ter­ror­ism around the world,” it added. While IS may now find it harder to launch com­plex op­er­a­tions such as the Paris at­tacks, West­ern govern­ments fear an in­crease in at­tacks by in­di­vid­u­als who are merely in­spired by the group.

“We are prob­a­bly in a phase with fewer spec­tac­u­lar op­er­a­tions but more in­di­vid­ual acts, with in­spi­ra­tion com­ing through from the In­ter­net,” said Di­dier Le Bret, who was France’s na­tional in­tel­li­gence co­or­di­na­tor un­til Septem­ber this year. French au­thor­i­ties, for ex­am­ple, sus­pect a French-born IS pro­pa­gan­dist, Rachid Kas­sim, guided an at­tack in July in which an el­derly priest was mur­dered. Kas­sim, who is thought to be based in Syria, used the en­crypted mes­sage sys­tem Tele­gram. An­other grow­ing threat is the re­turn of for­eign fight­ers to their coun­tries of ori­gin as IS’s ter­ri­tory shrinks.

Joby War­rick, the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist who won the Pulitzer Prize this year for his book “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS”, be­lieves 40,000 for­eign­ers have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight. He said some will come home and try to re­sume nor­mal lives. “Oth­ers will be, per­haps, these Tro­jan horse-type fig­ures, ones that will be in­ter­ested in car­ry­ing out ter­ror­ist at­tacks,” he said. The chal­lenge for law en­force­ment and for in­tel­li­gence agen­cies would be “to sep­a­rate those that have ter­ror­ist am­bi­tions from the ones who just want to get on with reg­u­lar lives, and per­haps be help­ful, in the sense that they can counter the ISIS mes­sage,” War­rick said.

Le Bret mean­while said re­gard­less of its mil­i­tary de­feats “IS re­tains its main strength-weak­en­ing our so­ci­ety from the in­side”.

The group has proven adept at ex­ploit­ing so­cial di­vi­sions in France, where both the Paris at­tacks and the as­sault on the satir­i­cal news­pa­per Char­lie Hebdo in Jan­uary 2015 hard­ened at­ti­tudes in some quar­ters to­wards the Mus­lim com­mu­nity. And the ji­hadists have also sought to desta­bi­lize North African coun­tries such as Tu­nisia, be­liev­ing that weak­en­ing their economies is the best way to cre­ate new sup­port­ers.

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