Launch­pad to fu­ture

With global net­work of ji­hadis, the ter­ror group likely is here to stay The Is­lamic State’s mix of a lo­cal in­sur­gency and dig­i­tally connected global ji­hadis gives the group stay­ing power and the means to re­launch its fu­ture, from small cells of ex­trem­ists

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Lori Hin­nant

The im­pend­ing loss of Mo­sul and Raqqa cuts out the ur­ban heart of its self-pro­claimed caliphate, but the ex­trem­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion has built-in plans to en­dure and has shown a de­gree of flex­i­bil­ity that will be dif­fi­cult to coun­ter­act.

For more than a year, Is­lamic State has ac­knowl­edged the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing the ter­ri­tory that pro­pelled it to the fore­front of the global ji­hadi move­ment — and drew thou­sands of for­eign fight­ers. The Is­lamic State’s goal since then has been to main­tain its lo­cal and global sup­port base in the face of over­whelm­ing de­feat. Whether it suc­ceeds de­pends on what hap­pens well af­ter to­day’s bat­tles are over.

Es­cape cells

A first group of Is­lamic State fight­ers from Syria and Iraq num­ber­ing more than 100 ar­rived in Afghanistan at the be­gin­ning of Fe­bru­ary, fol­lowed by a smaller group, about 20, at the end of March, ac­cord­ing to a U.N. re­port re­leased last week. The group is un­pop­u­lar among av­er­age Afghans, but shows trac­tion among the young and, most im­por­tantly, re­ceives am­ple fund­ing from Is­lamic State’s cen­tral com­mand to pay new fight­ers triple what the Tal­iban of­fers — $500 to $600 a month.

The U.N. re­port said the Is­lamic State has warned its Afghanistan con­tin­gent that it soon will need to be self-fi­nanc­ing, an omi­nous sign for the or­ga­ni­za­tion that once pulled in mil­lions of dol­lars in oil money, ran­soms and ex­tor­tion.

Other groups of for­eign fight­ers are feared to be try­ing to make their way back to Europe or North Africa, to plot at­tacks there or sim­ply await or­ders.

In Europe, this has fed fears of ex­trem­ists hid­ing among the in­flux of mi­grants, while North Africa is “re­ally un­sta­ble . ... It’s awash in weaponry,” said Colin Clarke, an an­a­lyst with the RAND think tank.

Is­lamic State is “a global group, but it’s more re­gion­ally an­chored. I don’t see them tak­ing up and trav­el­ing whole­sale to an­other place. They’re go­ing to go where they have roots. They’re go­ing to seek out these weak states. They’re go­ing to in­sin­u­ate them­selves in lo­cal con­flicts,” he said.

Hos­tile takeover

Al-Qaeda and the Is­lamic State split in 2014, driven apart less by ide­ol­ogy than by a dis­pute over tim­ing and tac­tics.

Now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in its lat­est re­brand­ing ef­fort, al-Qaeda is on the rise in some parts of Syria and in re­cent days has be­gun tar­get­ing what it calls “or­ga­ni­za­tion cells” of the Is­lamic State in Idlib and other Syr­ian prov­inces.

The two groups have con­sid­er­able cross­over — and both claim the man­tle of Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda cam­paign could be a pre­cur­sor to de­mands for a merger or hos­tile takeover, com­plete with a choice of death or re­pen­tance from rank-and-file de­fec­tors.

Many of the Is­lamic State’s for­eign fight­ers, es­pe­cially those from Europe, headed to Syria with the ex­pec­ta­tion of join­ing alQaeda’s branch there, then switched to what they be­lieved was the win­ning side. Chang­ing back will not be dif­fi­cult, said Bruce Hoff­man, head of Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s se­cu­rity stud­ies pro­gram and au­thor of “In­side Ter­ror­ism.”

Fight­ing, or hid­ing, in place

Iraq and Syria of­fer plenty of safe havens for lo­cal ex­trem­ist fight­ers bid­ing their time. At its height, the Is­lamic State held vast stretches of ter­ri­tory by promis­ing not just bru­tal­ity but a re­li­gious govern­ment be­yond cor­rup­tion that would pro­tect against ar­bi­trary pun­ish­ment, theft and graft in the ser­vice of a global move­ment for Sunni Mus­lims every­where. The prom­ises tapped es­pe­cially into the griev­ances

of Iraqi Sun­nis, who felt aban­doned by the Shi­ite-led govern­ment in Bagh­dad and were sus­pi­cious of the Kur­dish govern­ment in Irbil.

Many in the U.S. have called on the Iraqi govern­ment to en­sure that Sun­nis share in the coun­try’s gains go­ing for­ward — a step that will prove es­pe­cially com­plex given that Sunni ar­eas have seen wide­spread de­struc­tion in the fight against the ex­trem­ists. Block af­ter block of shat­tered homes line the roads of Mo­sul, Fal­lu­jah and Ra­madi.

“It’s al­most at a new level of di­vi­sive­ness and an un­re­lent­ing decade of blood­let­ting has made any sense of re­build­ing a civil so­ci­ety un­be­liev­ably chal­leng­ing,” Hoff­man said. The Is­lamic State re­tains a pow­er­ful pres­ence in Iraq’s An­bar prov­ince and in the city of Tal Afar.

On Tues­day, Shi­ite politi­cian Karim al-Nouri warned that de­feat­ing the Is­lamic State in Mo­sul doesn’t mean that “ter­ror­ism” is fin­ished. He urged the govern­ment to re­view its poli­cies to­ward Sunni ar­eas to “avoid pre­vi­ous mis­takes that led to the emer­gence” of the Is­lamic State.

The group’s lead­er­ship still has a core of lead­ers from Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Baathist or­ga­ni­za­tion, known for their sur­vival skills and the sup­port net­works they built — some­thing the group’s spokesman, Abu Muham­mad Ad­nani, noted in a mes­sage be­fore he was killed last sum­mer in a U.S. airstrike: To sur­vive “whether Al­lah blesses us with con­sol­i­da­tion or we move into the bare, open desert, dis­placed and pur­sued.”

Re­venge at­tacks

A ma­jor as­pect of Is­lamic State pro­pa­ganda nar­ra­tive has been to of­fer a haven to Sun­nis world­wide, and un­til re­cently its videos and pho­tos made a point of tem­per­ing ex­treme bru­tal­ity with im­ages of abun­dant har­vests, chil­dren at play and ef­fi­cient, free med­i­cal care.

Re­cently, how­ever, its videos have de­picted airstrikes de­stroy­ing the caliphate, pro­vid­ing a pow­er­ful new mes­sage — vengeance.

Last month’s at­tack at Lon­don Bridge was claimed by the Is­lamic State as re­venge against the U.S.-backed coali­tion, and the group pledged more vi­o­lence. With sup­port­ers from around the world linked by so­cial me­dia and thou­sands of pieces of pro­pa­ganda, se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in Europe and the U.S. fear sim­i­lar at­tacks are in the off­ing.

At its height, the Is­lamic State had tens of thou­sands of fight­ers at its dis­posal, although es­ti­mates var­ied widely. Airstrikes killed a vast per­cent­age, the streams of Euro­peans head­ing to the war zone have dried up, and new re­cruits from the re­gion are grow­ing scarce. But its sur­vival may not de­pend on num­bers alone.

As­so­ci­ated Press file

Fight­ers from the Is­lamic State pa­rade in a com­man­deered Iraqi ve­hi­cle down a main road in Mo­sul in 2014. The group’s mashup of lo­cal in­sur­gency and dig­i­tally connected global ji­hadis gives the group stay­ing power.

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