Beyond Raqqa: Daesh’s next bat­tle­field

Ex­trem­ist group un­likely to dis­ap­pear after los­ing ter­ri­tory, ex­perts ar­gue

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION - By Heba Nasser

BEIRUT: A con­ven­tional mil­i­tary de­feat of Daesh (ISIS) seems to be on the hori­zon in Syria and Iraq, but an­a­lysts warn of a per­sis­tent dan­ger posed by the group, with spec­u­la­tion it could re­group in Libya.

The fore­see­able losses of Mo­sul and Raqqa might strengthen some Daesh branches else­where, such as in Libya, which has been sug­gested as a pos­si­ble al­ter­na­tive for Daesh’s prin­ci­pal lead­er­ship to re­lo­cate to, Mara Revkin, an Islamic law fel­low at Yale Univer­sity, told a con­fer­ence in Beirut held Mon­day by the Is­sam Fares In­sti­tute and Kon­rad Ade­nauer Stiftung en­ti­tled “The Fu­ture of Islamic State Provinces and Af­fil­i­ates.”

Daesh’s pe­riph­eral branches, out­side its core bases in Syria and Iraq, dif­fer in im­por­tance based on nat­u­ral re­sources, smug­gling net­works and strate­gic lo­ca­tions for stag­ing at­tacks.

In Libya, Daesh was able to cre­ate a proto-state in the coastal city of Sirte and im­pose social and eco­nomic sys­tems rang­ing from tax col­lec­tion to run­ning pub­lic of­fices and ser­vices.

“Libya is ar­guably the great­est as­set for ISIS as it is the only province where [the mil­i­tant group] has come even close to repli­cat­ing its gov­er­nance,” Revkin.

Revkin said Daesh had dis­patched a se­nior mem­ber to Libya to as­sist in ca­pac­ity-build­ing for the new or­ga­ni­za­tion set­ting up in the north African coun­try.

“ISIS is known to ro­tate per­son­nel be­tween dif­fer­ent provinces of Syria and Iraq to fa­cil­i­tate the stan­dard­iza­tion of pro­ce­dures and share lessons learned. It is pos­si­ble that sim­i­lar per­son­nel move­ments are hap­pen­ing be­tween the core and Libya,” Revkin said.

Daesh briefly con­trolled two oil fields in the city of Sirte, lo­cated be­tween the cap­i­tal and the oil cres­cent, and at one point had con­trol over 250 km of Libya’s coast­line. The mil­i­tant group was ousted from Sirte last year by U.S.-backed unity gov­ern­ment forces, after a sev­en­month-long bat­tle.

Other po­ten­tial sce­nar­ios are emerg­ing, mean­while, about how Daesh could con­tinue its ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties long after its de­feat, one of which is the group’s shift from the con­cept of ter­ri­to­rial con­trol to­ward a strat­egy cen­tered on ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the re­gion and the west.

Ay­menn Jawad al-Tamimi, a re­searcher on Is­lamist mil­i­tancy at the Mid­dle East Fo­rum, said that ev­i­dence has been found that as Daesh ex­pects to lose its core bases, the group has moved its nar­ra­tive away from the idea that the “Islamic State con­sti­tute con­trol of ter­ri­tory and ad­min­is­tra­tion of ma­jor cities.”

The Daesh doc­u­ment Tamimi re­ferred to was found in a town west of Mo­sul and is en­ti­tled “Al-Khal­ifa Lan Ta­zoul,” or “The Caliphate Will Not Van­ish.” The pub­li­ca­tion quotes Abu Mo­ham­mad al-Ad­nani, for­mer Daesh spokesman killed in Au­gust 2016, on the idea that los­ing Mo­sul, Raqqa and Sirte does not spell the end of the “Islamic State,” Tamimi told the con­fer­ence.

In a glimpse at the mil­i­tant group’s fu­ture plans, Tamimi said the doc­u­ment also quotes the Daesh shura coun­cil as say­ing the group will still have the sup­port­ers it cul­ti­vated in the West who will carry strikes in their home towns.

“This doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean the re­turn­ing fight­ers as much as an ex­pec­ta­tion that their sup­port­ers in the West who can’t come to the ISIS ter­ri­to­ries in Syria and Iraq will be a real strike force in the fu­ture,” he said.

Echo­ing Tamimi’s sce­nario, Revkin said Daesh’s loyal mem­bers will con­tinue to en­gage in ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties ei­ther in their home coun­tries or in Syria and Iraq.

“Even if ISIS doesn’t sur­vive un­der the ban­ner of the caliphate we can ex­pect some sort of re­brand­ing to hap­pen [in the fu­ture],” she said, al­lud­ing to the his­tory of Iraqi-based in­sur­gen­cies that have con­tin­u­ally resur­faced un­der new names.

How­ever, such a nar­ra­tive, de­tached from ground con­trol, might pose a chal­lenge for Daesh as its le­git­i­macy is put in ques­tion when it loses its ter­ri­to­ries, which are a ma­jor ap­peal for po­ten­tial re­cruits.

Revkin noted that in a com­pet­i­tive field of global Is­lamist mil­i­tancy, Daesh sup­port­ers might be en­cour­aged to de­fect to ri­val mil­i­tant groups that can of­fer al­ter­na­tive state-build­ing pro­jects. Oth­ers might de­mo­bi­lize from mil­i­tancy al­to­gether.

“It’s a ques­tion of whether or not the ISIS ide­ol­ogy can re­main prefer­able in the ab­sence of ter­ri­to­rial con­trol, given that the ide­ol­ogy hinges so cen­trally on a state-build­ing project that’s an­chored in con­trol of ter­ri­tory,” Revkin added.

The ques­tion fac­ing Daesh is whether or not it would be able to ad­just its ide­ol­ogy to be “a vir­tual caliphate that ex­ists in peo­ple’s minds and not ac­tu­ally on the ground,” which, she said, might not be as at­trac­tive.

An­other chal­lenge to the group, as Revkin sug­gested, is that an ap­par­ent fail­ure of the “caliphate” might push lead­ers in pe­riph­eral provinces to dis­pute the group’s strate­gies, lead­ing to in­fight­ing and power strug­gles, which ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments found by Tamimi might al­ready be hap­pen­ing.

With dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios on the ta­ble, the con­fer­ence’s pan­elists seemed to agree on the idea that the threat posed by Daesh will still ex­ist, al­beit un­der a dif­fer­ent for­mula that is yet to be de­ter­mined.

Ab­dul­lah bin Khaled al-Saud, vis­it­ing re­search fel­low at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, said that in Saudi Ara­bia, with re­cent se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence suc­cesses achieved by the king­dom’s in­sti­tu­tions, the threat of Daesh at­tacks has been re­duced.

How­ever, he cau­tioned that a de­feat of Daesh would lead to “more scat­tered, ran­dom and prob­a­bly more bru­tal at­tacks.”

Tamimi, for his part, sug­gested that the Iraqi province of Diyala, re­cap­tured by the Iraqis in 2015, presents a good model for the Daesh ac­tiv­i­ties after its de­feat.

Tamimi said in ad­di­tion to IEDre­lated incidents and raids on se­cu­rity forces of­ten tak­ing place in the province, there are still ar­eas in Diyala that have had to be re­peat­edly cleared of Daesh mil­i­tants.

“Ex­ploit­ing dif­fi­cult ter­rains seems to be some­thing that, post-ter­ri­to­rial con­trol, the ISIS in­sur­gency wants to take ad­van­tage of,” he said.

Daesh had set up a Libyan proto-state cen­tered in Sirte be­fore U.S.-backed forces ousted it last year.

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