ISIL shows in­creas­ing strength, struc­ture

Takes war where al Qaeda couldn’t

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

The al Qaeda off­shoot ter­ror­ist group con­quer­ing parts of Iraq is gain­ing strength thanks to pris­oner re­leases and its so­cial me­dia mag­netism for for­eign fighter re­cruits.

As its ranks grow, the Is­lamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant, some­times called the Is­lamic State, has be­come the first ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion to plan and ex­e­cute a two-front land war, pre­sent­ing yet an­other chal­lenge to the United States in its long war against Is­lamic ex­trem­ists.

Last week, ISIL showed it could cap­ture towns and ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq at once. Al Qaeda and its fran­chises have not ac­com­plished such a feat.

ISIL has demon­strated that it is an or­ga­nized hi­er­ar­chi­cal army that launches cam­paigns based on bru­tal tac­tics, clear ob­jec­tives and a timetable.

“They’ve been able to project a lot of force pro­jec­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties into two coun­tries si­mul­ta­ne­ously, which has been un­prece­dented for a sin­gle group,” said Patrick John­ston, a coun­terin­sur­gency an­a­lyst at the Rand Corp.

He said al Qaeda cen­tral, based in Pak­istan, has pro­jected power via fran­chises in Ye­men, So­ma­lia and North Africa.

“But here we have a sin­gle group that is able to fight a two-front war, and you can’t do that with­out man­power and re­sources to run an or­ga­ni­za­tion do­ing com­plex op­er­a­tions,” he said.

ISIL’s grow­ing prow­ess does not bode well for the un­der­per­form­ing Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces. Its ranks fled in large num­bers as ISIL’s fighters in­vaded from Syria, hooked up with old “Qaeda in Iraq” ter­ror­ists and pro­ceeded to cap­ture city af­ter city, from Mo­sul to Tikrit on Bagh­dad’s doorstep. There were re­ports of ISIL mil­i­tants emp­ty­ing Mo­sul pris­ons of thou­sands of po­ten­tial re­cruits. “It’s get­ting larger,” Mr. John­ston said. Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, ISIL’s reclu­sive leader, has po­si­tioned about 3,000 fighters in Iraq and some 7,000 in Syria, ac­cord­ing to a U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial.

Al-Bagh­dadi de­clared last week that he was the ruler of a new Is­lamic caliphate, which fol­lows Shariah law, span­ning swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“ISIL is prob­a­bly the strong­est it has been in sev­eral years,” the in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said. “Its mo­men­tum in Iraq and in Syria poses a threat to Western per­son­nel and in­ter­ests through­out the re­gion.”

An­a­lysts of the Sunni Mus­lim group’s YouTube up­loads see ev­i­dence that ISIL owns some types of air de­fense mis­siles as well as tanks and ar­tillery pieces.

“ISIL’s mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties have greatly im­proved as the group has gained ac­cess to ad­vanced weapons from Syria and Iraqi in­stal­la­tions that it has over­run,” the in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial said.

The of­fi­cial said per­haps half, or 5,000 mem­bers, of ISIL’s army is com­posed of for­eign fighters — non-Syr­ian or Iraqi. This raises the prospect that, in its quest to con­quer Bagh­dad, ISIL may un­leash sui­cide bombers in the Iraqi cap­i­tal be­cause for­eign re­cruits tend to be more will­ing to as­sume that fa­tal role.

Even be­fore the of­fen­sive, ISIL cells with head­quar­ters in Mo­sul showed an abil­ity to un­leash a wave of at­tacks against the Shi­ite-dom­i­nated govern­ment by de­ploy­ing ve­hi­cle-borne im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices.

“I think a lot of the ca­pa­bil­i­ties they’ve demon­strated show that they are an or­ga­nized group able to co­or­di­nate com­plex op­er­a­tions in places of their choos­ing,” Mr. John­ston said. “That’s re­ally the crux and the key to their suc­cess more than ma­teriel it­self.”

ISIL also has em­braced so­cial me­dia like no other ter­ror­ist group. Its posts on YouTube are cir­cu­lated by news me­dia and pri­vate in­tel­li­gence web­sites, which, in ef­fect, are do­ing ISIL’s bid­ding.

“A big part of its bu­reau­cracy in­ter­nally is a me­dia com­mit­tee,” Mr. John­ston said. “This is in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tions, pro­pa­ganda type of en­tity that has been mes­sag­ing within Iraq since at least 2006.”

An ex­am­ple of the West spread­ing ISIL pro­pa­ganda as a source of in­for­ma­tion is a re­port from the Com­bat­ing Ter­ror­ism Cen­ter at West Point.

“There is al­ready a pic­ture on Twit­ter of Abu Umar al-Shis­hani, the mil­i­tary com­man­der of the ISIL in Syria, step­ping out of his per­sonal [U.S.] Humvee,” the re­port notes. “Sev­eral posters on ji­hadist web fo­rums and Twit­ter have sent out re­quests for he­li­copter pi­lots to po­ten­tially fly some of the air­craft that the ISIL cap­tured in re­cent days.”

The me­dia com­mit­tee also knows how to meet dead­lines. Within hours of its Iraqi con­quests, ISIL doc­u­mented the vic­to­ries in the English-lan­guage Is­lamic State News mag­a­zine. The sto­ries out­lined its eco­nomic goals for Iraq.

“Vir­tu­ally all Is­lamic ex­trem­ist groups make use of so­cial me­dia to ad­vance their causes, but the ISIL’s me­dia pro­duc­tion team is es­pe­cially adept, and its tar­get au­di­ence ex­tends be­yond the Ara­bic-speak­ing world,” the West Point group said.

The com­bi­na­tion of ISIL’s grow­ing power, the sorry state of Iraq’s army and the lack of a Sunni-Shi­ite gov­ern­ing coali­tion prompts the high­est-rank­ing U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cer to say this:

“If you are ask­ing me, will the Iraqis, at some point, be able to go back on the of­fen­sive to re­cap­ture the part of Iraq that they’ve lost, I think that’s a re­ally broad cam­paign-qual­ity ques­tion,” said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Prob­a­bly not by them­selves.”

Gen. Dempsey, who di­rected the train­ing of Iraqi se­cu­rity forces from 2005 to 2007 and re­cently ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment in their per­for­mance, laid out what now must be done: “You’d like to squeeze them from the south and west. You’d like to squeeze them from the north and you’d like to squeeze them from Bagh­dad. And that’s a cam­paign that has to be de­vel­oped.”

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