The Next Phase of the Battle Against ISIS
As the vestiges of the fiercely defiant Islamic State (IS) are being rummaged by the American-led coalition and hard-fighting Kurdish forces, a new and potentially bloody phase is in the early stages of development.
In recent months, military leaders as well as intelligence and security analysts have been warning Western governments that a new chapter of conflict is evolving from the violent demise of the Islamic State, also known as Daesh by peaceful Muslims who assert that the IS ideology in no way represents Islam.
Throughout the well-phased and systematic destruction of the IS, numerous Islamist fighters have reportedly escaped, with the objective of returning to their respective nations or remaining to continue the fight locally.
Some, on the other hand, realizing their precarious personal situation, abandoned their Islamic nirvana and exfiltrated, escaping an otherwise unpleasant experience or personal demise. Many gave themselves up to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Western-supported Kurdish led militia, or fought to the death, seeking the reported rewards of martyrdom.
In a not-so-subtle warning, American General Joseph Votel, who has responsibility for the conduct of operations in the Middle East, advised a congressional committee in early March 2019 that substantial numbers of IS fighters have dispersed across Iraq and Syria – likely to continue the fight. American intelligence estimates some 15 to 20 thousand IS fighters are now distributed throughout Syria and Iraq. Some terrorist experts believe the numbers are somewhat higher.
In his presentation, General Votel clearly outlined the situation on the ground. “What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.”
Moreover, “The ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized.” Votel’s analysis does not bode well for those who hope for a reprieve from Islamist violence. Conversely, such analytical ruminations underscore the possibility of a renewed Islamist terrorist offensive targeting Western and Middle Eastern interests.
Votel’s cogent assessment further justifies British concern for the safety and security of its citizens when the London Telegraph reported (23 April 2019) that some 23,000 jihadist extremists have been identified in the United Kingdom. It was more concerning that some 3,000 of these are believed to pose an active threat.
Implications of Sri Lanka’s Easter Attack
The April 2019 Easter Sunday attack ranks among the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent history with a reported 253 dead and hundreds more wounded. The Sri Lanka bombings were “seven times deadlier than the 15 March  massacre by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The death toll is also more than double that of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which involved 10 Pakistani-based militants in one of the modern world’s longest-ever terrorist sieges.”
Although initial analysis suggested that the Sri Lanka church bombings were in revenge for the mosques attack in New Zealand, this may not be the case. Reports released by the Islamic State described “operation Sri Lanka” as a “victory… for the soldiers of the caliphate, to raise the flag of the Islamic State in new areas and to build up the presence of fighters in other areas.” This statement was posted on NABA, the Islamic State ‘s weekly newsletter, and openly counters the claim that IS has been defeated.
Moreover—and most alarmingly—Sri Lanka’s bombings could be the commencement and the pattern for future Islamic State operations in the so-called “periphery.” One London-based researcher who monitors the Islamic State proffered the notion that, “the statement was significant because it scotched the idea the Sri Lanka attack was carried out in revenge for the far-Right attack on mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand.”
An April 2019 London Times article noted that MI 5 is looking into reports that Islamic State plans to carry out a series of attacks in Britain and Europe using “crocodile cells,” essentially sleeper cells that would suddenly surface and without warning undertake mass casualty terrorist attacks. This latest development spurred the police and security authorities to press for churches and mosques to undertake counterterrorism measures and argued for the conduct of security training.
The attacks in Sri Lanka strongly support the analysis and perceptions signalled by General Votel during his report to Washington. His assessment is clear – IS will get stronger if the U.S. and coalition partners lighten up. IS fighters will now focus their efforts on carrying out attacks on the “periphery”, which includes anywhere outside the Middle East that have IS sympathizers who are committed to conducting terror operations.
Some have argued this will embrace areas within the Far East and include India, the Maldives, Kenya and Tanzania – but is more likely to include any country or region that has IS sympathizers/operators willing to undertake such missions. Moreover, any country involved in the US-led coalition represents a potential target for IS operators. The destruction of the caliphate, in the short to medium term, creates an acute problem in that IS foreign fighters have and will continue to disperse around the world, seeking out soft targets to promote the Islamist message and demonstrate that they remain a force to be reckoned with.
Financially Sourced – Money for Mayhem
The Islamic State leadership once controlled a fortune estimated to be in the range of $6 billion USD, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, making it the richest terrorist organization in history.
This wealth was derived from a number of sources including oil and gas; taxing citizens under IS control, which reportedly accounted for $500 million 2015 USD; taxes; and extortion, which added approximately 360 million in 2015 USD. These amounts were generously augmented with an estimated $500 million USD taken by the IS from Mosul banks when the city was looted in 2014.
According to David Kenner in The Atlantic magazine, this enabled the IS to raise roughly $1 million a day from taxes on their citizenry and from illegal oil sales. This in itself transformed the Islamic State into the world’s richest terrorist organization.
A February 2019 United Nations study estimated that IS militants having a war chest estimated to be $300 million USD. Astutely, some of these funds have been invested in legitimate commercial enterprises, embracing businesses from real estate to car dealerships and apparently managed by middlemen who are more focused upon enlarging profit margins than an Islamist ideology.
There are indications that large amounts of Islamic State’s assets have been transferred to Turkey and held by certain individuals while a portion of these funds have been invested in gold. During the existence of the Islamic State, Turkey reportedly turned a blind eye to the smuggling and selling of oil to Turkish buyers.
IS leadership is reported to have transferred large amounts of cash through the hawala banking system. This methodology enables the secure movement of monies across borders without any question regarding who is receiving or sending it. Although American-supported coalition forces were able to retake large parts of Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, its overall strategy and efforts to squeeze the group financially has been more complex and operationally challenging, which will likely take much time to garner success.
The loss of the Islamic caliphate may be reminiscent of the period between 2008 and 2012 when its precursor Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] was forced to operate underground. Like the AQI, the Islamic State will likely continue criminal activities to fund its nefarious activities, which may include stealing goods and reselling them, kidnapping wealthy family members, trafficking in antiquities and skimming construction contracts, and other initiatives.
These criminal ventures garnered IS up to $1 million a month and do not require an ability to hold territory, nor to demonstrate that the Islamic State is both financially focused and shrewd in its business dealings. Similar to any multinational, IS has diversified its finances, making it difficult for America and her allies to turn off the financial taps that feed the Islamist agenda as well as support IS terrorist initiatives wherever IS deems them feasible for success.
Should reconstruction commence in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State may target those projects with the intent to infiltrate the various supply chains with a view of extracting funds through every stage of the process. IS could also commence extortion operations against the local populations that live in areas where government control is tenuous. During the period of the caliphate, the IS garnered substantial personal data from the population under caliphate control, including details on personal wealth, family assets and information pertaining to extended family members who may have resided elsewhere. Such information could still be used to leverage IS intimidation initiatives so as to extort monies for their own ends.
Although the Islamic State has much less money now, its expenses also have dramatically diminished as there is no caliphate responsible for paying the spectrum of services required of a modern “state,” such as salaries, public works, health and social services. The money saved can therefore be reallocated to facilitate terrorist operations and the insurgency campaigns that apparently have commenced in Iraq and Syria, essentially just weeks after physical destruction of the last caliphate stronghold of Bagouz.
It must be appreciated that the assets represented above can be combined with any future monies, enabling the IS leadership to finance its recruiting efforts, reorganize and resupply their fighters in various parts of Syria and Iraq in preparation of a renewed campaign of terror and insurgency in the region.
IS Change of Strategy
As early as 2016, the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi directed his global followers to remain at home and orchestrate attacks utilizing cars, knives and other improvised weapons. Since the demise of Islamic State at its last stand in Bagouz, there has been a resurgence of violence in Iraq and parts of Syria.
Many of these attacks have been claimed under the slogan “The campaign of vengeance for the blessed province of Syria.” This campaign appears to have already commenced; as reported on 25 April 2019 in the London Times, as Assad’s Syrian regime began deploying troops into eastern Syria to counter new territory that has been seized by IS insurgents for the first time since the fall of Bagouz.
This ground situation seemingly morphed when large numbers of IS fighters reportedly conducted a series of raids that retook territory around al-Kawm. According to pro-Assad online reports, two Syrian Army battalions were surrounded by IS forces, and Syrian forces reportedly lost 50 soldiers including members of the Palestinian militia sent to relieve them. If true, such an event, along with other unreported incidents, must be taken as an ominous omen for the future.
Such a revival of violence underscores the tenuous regional situation as well as a providing a salient reminder that IS retains determined jihadists fighters dedicated to pursue the fight on behalf of the Islamic State and their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and are a force in being.
In the wake of the so-called “defeat” of the Islamic State, such violent encounters, albeit sporadic, substantiate coalition and United Nations reports that thousands of fighters from the Islamic State, known in military parlance as “squirters,” had slipped through coalitional lines with the likely intent to regroup and reorganize so as to conduct a new but retrograde phase of operations against coalitional and regional powers.
Reports indicate that since early 2016, IS leadership had commenced a strategy to seed areas in both Iraq and Syria with fighters assigned to garner local support and undertake small-scale operations when required. This is consistent with the phased Maoist doctrine of guerrilla warfare, the IS will likely foment an aggressive terrorist campaign, which will evolve into an all-embracing insurgency that will likely embrace Iraq and Syria, and possibly wider areas of the Middle East.
It should be appreciated that large tracts of northeastern Syria to western and the northern regions of Iraq are in complete ruin. Communities have been devastated, populations uprooted and the borders are porous, enabling Islamic State fighters to move freely between countries. Moreover, large tracts of Iraq and Syria have no governing authority, leaving jihadists able to recruit, train and regroup as they rebuild their support networks.
Although claims of victory over the Islamic State resonate precariously through the halls of many Western capitals—this is most premature. The fact remains that a large number of dedicated, combat-experienced fighters, who were devoted to the Islamist cause / Islamic State, still exist. Although many have been taken prisoner by the KSF, many foreign fighters have successfully escaped the net and have either returned to the home from whence they came or are on route. Scores of these fighters will likely have nascent support networks operating in “home countries.”
As with any terrorist or resistance organization, undoubtedly some of these foreign fighters would have been directed to develop command-and-control, recruiting and logistical cells to plan, organize and prosecute clandestine Islamists operations. It has been made quite clear that the Islamic State intends to prosecute targets not only in the Middle East region but against members of the American-led coalition as well as so-called soft targets.
Taking a Cue from MAO TSE TUNG
This flexible campaign strategy is reminiscent of Mao Tse Tung’s famed 3-Phase Strategic Model of Guerrilla Warfare. In Phase 1, the Islamic State garnered a degree of popular support through its impressive online media campaign and well-honed and diverse propaganda machine that persuasively promulgated on the Internet its Islamist doctrine and ideas. Meanwhile, the IS attacked the organs of government police and security forces, spreading fear within the government apparat while garnering popular support.
In Phase 2, prior to the creation of the caliphate, Islamic State escalated attacks against the Iraqi government’s military forces and its institutions.
Then, in Phase 3, the Islamic State essentially went into a conventional war phase against the Iraqi military, which subsequently fled, enabling IS to seize major towns cities – overthrowing the local governments and assuming control of large tracts of both Syria and Iraq.
Like Mao’s doctrine, the loss of the caliphate forced the Islamic State and its supporters to revert to Phase 1 to continue to promulgate their Islamist agenda and propagandize supporters while regrouping, recruiting and embracing new members willing to undertake terrorist operations against regional and Western interests, writ large.
This return to a Maoist Phase 1 will likely be buttressed and ennobled by the Islamic State’ s impressive propaganda machine that will undoubtedly espouse and glorify online the “achievements” of the caliphate during its short existence, while concomitantly honouring those who sought martyrdom in defence of the caliphate and its Islamist agenda.
Islamic State, it must be remembered, now has franchises operating in Yemen, Egypt and as far afield as Afghanistan and the Philippines. Dedicated to an Islamist agenda and caliphate, these forces will to continue to conduct sectarian attacks and the aspirations for a challenge competing jihadists who seek influence, resources and territory to pursue their respective religious/political end state.
Insight into Islamic State Operational Requirements
The Sunday Times reported that documents found on a hard drive belonging to an IS sleeper cell reveals that the leadership is planning new attacks in Europe and has sleeper cells throughout parts of Syria. More chillingly, it reported that, even in the face of so-called “defeat”, the IS has formed assassination squads in preparation for direct action missions against specified individuals. Those persons targeted are to be named, located and scheduled for termination; and the assassinations are to be videoed for IS propaganda purposes and thenpromulgated on the Internet.
The documents also underline a number of challenges being faced. Oddly, there were no more volunteers available to conduct suicide attacks, there was a dearth of falsified documents and there were no vehicles in their possession available for conducting car bombing. The documentation requested IS leadership to supply monies for the acquisition of rifles, silencers and antipersonnel mines, as well as tankers to provide water for those jihadists who purportedly to have relocated to remote desert areas. Once in situe, these fighters were to await orders to take up the fight.
Substantial numbers of IS fighters escaped the final surrender at Baghouz, reportedly exfiltrating to the area of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. This is largely an ungoverned area where IS can regroup and operate ‘under the radar’ to re-establish themselves with the aim of adapting to their new operational reality of prosecuting terrorist operations regionally and globally, while concomitantly, conducting a low-level insurgency in Iraq and Syria.
This was showcased in late March 2019 when three terrorists ventured from Syria into Iraq, detonating suicide bombs in Sinjar. This was a site where ISIS had conducted a genocidal slaughter of Yazidis, subsequently kidnapping tens of thousands in August 2014.
Analysts already point to a low-level but growing insurgency as evidenced by a sudden increase in roadside IEDs, ambushes, flying check points and continuing minor skirmishes.
Defeating the Idea
The physical destruction of persons, places, and things can be viewed as relatively simple when one has the military capability and task to undertake such operations. The eradication of a philosophy, ideology or religious aspiration is more problematic.
The Islamic State is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, including fellow Muslims, who have been murdered or have died in this conflict. Many of these lives were taken in an unimaginably brutal and callous way. These events were seen by a helpless world that was paralyzed and repulsed not only by the all-consuming cruelty but also by an extreme interpretation of Islam that purportedly enabled these horrific acts.
In addition, thousands of people have been driven into exile, compromising the stability of nations that border Syria and Iraq and the region itself, including Europe. The occupation of large strips of these two countries subsequently experienced the destruction of the Christian and Yazidi communities that resided there for millennia.
Many of the Yazidi women and others were led into slavery. The IS further demonstrated its abhorrent extremist character by burning prisoners, drowning them, beheading them and in one case filming the massacre of 1,700 Shia police recruits who had been taken prisoner in Tikrit.
A New, Dangerous Threat
With the demise of the caliphate, the world is left with a group of IS fighters who are highly skilled in conventional and unconventional warfighting, urban warfare, weaponized drones, mass casualty terrorist attacks, psychological operations, and masterful online media propaganda. Many have returned, legally or illegally, to their respective home countries.
They are well-disciplined, knowledgeable in the application of weaponry and know how to shoot, move and communicate in disciplined formations. They are experienced in the employment of support weapons such as mortars and rockets, and are eager to undertake a spectrum of operations.
They have effectively conducted attacks utilizing drones and suicide operations, and fully appreciate the propagandistic and psychological nature of such operations. They understand the importance of media and the advantages this technology brings to the fight.
The police, security and military forces of the West and coalitional allies will confront a new army of terrorists who are hardened, better disciplined and even more focused. The randomness of yesterday will not prevail. Their operations will be very well orchestrated and media driven to maximize psychological dislocation and the ensuing shock and awe.
Utilizing the Internet, encryption, covert communications, couriers and other sublime means of communication, dedicated and determined IS operators in the West and elsewhere will be directed or self-directed to undertake “announcement”—we are back operations—with the aim of producing maximum casualties, as well as generating the much-desired psychological and media affect.
In an audiotape provided in mid-March, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir urged his listeners to “avenge the blood of your brothers and sisters… Set up the [explosive] devices, deploy the snipers.” The images of the burnt bodies of women and children killed by coalitional airstrikes that are promulgated on social media today will become the martyr motivating propaganda images promulgated to recruit future fighters for the Islamic State.
The physical destruction of the Islamic caliphate, albeit complex (particularly in a political/military coalitional context), appears to have been very successful. Modern weapons technology, while not perfect, minimized collateral damage. The extremist manifestations of IS, duly promulgated in the caliphate, clearly demonstrated to the world the threat posed not only to Muslims writ large, but to all communities that reject this extremist form of political Islam.
Failure by International Community
Many of the IS fighters who surrendered have been taken to detention camps where their fate is yet to be determined, particularly as many are foreign fighters whose respective countries, such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada, are not prepared to receive them back. Many countries privately hoped that their foreign fighters would find their temporal demise during the intense fighting for the survival of the Islamic caliphate.
There appears to be no consensus among the international community as how to address these foreign fighters – nor their female supporters and progeny.
American-backed Syrian fighters, who bore much of the fighting and casualties while driving IS militants from their strongholds, have been calling for an international tribunal on the matter.
The Western reluctance to have their now-detained citizens returned is understandable, as many of these foreign fighters could not be convicted in Western civilian courts. This is due to the difficulty of collecting evidence from a complex regional situation.
These issues notwithstanding, many police and intelligence organizations view these Islamists as a continuing and serious security risk if allowed back home. Some observers argue that foreign fighters should be tried where their crimes were committed. Notwithstanding, the international community has appeared most reticent and seems to have evaded its collective responsibility so far.
It appears that there is little desire for creating an international tribunal to focus on war crimes perpetrated by a proto- or quasi-state. This begs the question as to what countries/organizations would provide the judicial process.
It would appear that governments seemingly ignored the reality that some of their citizens would flock to the Islamist caliphate, undertake criminal activities including genocide, rape, murder, extortion as well as instigating large-scale overt slavery, and further ignored them in the wake of the demise the caliphate. This is unlike the situation in the Second World War when the allies commenced planning for a tribunal in December 1942 once Nazi criminality was uncovered.
There appears to be an egregious failure on behalf of the international community and particularly those nations who citizenry joined the so-called Islamic State. These individuals subsequently partook in crimes against humanity, and the international community seemingly did not anticipate what would happen in the wake of the destruction of the Islamic State.
Returning Sleeper Cells?
The issues and grievances that gave rise to the IS must correctly be identified and addressed – otherwise the cost in blood and gold was for naught
While the Islamic State no longer governs large areas of the Arab heartland, it still has strong appeal to angry, mostly young, Muslims throughout the world. The United States, Western nations and their regional allies must face substantial challenges in stabilizing the liberated areas of the caliphate, as well as dedicating resources to identify and eradicate Islamist sleeper cells and their sympathizers.
Concomitantly, rebuilding must begin to re-establish the towns, cities and residential, cultural and religious communities, to ensure the return of the diaspora that fled the region for safety. Finally, local governance, as well as effective security and law enforcement must be established and provided for in order to ensure the Daesh ideology does not return.
Furthermore, there needs to be a well-developed and cogent counter narrative to the Islamic State’s murderous ideology, and this has not yet occurred. This is a most difficult and prickly issue, as the IS will undoubtedly continue to raise funds through the Internet, and promulgate its propaganda to agitate and recruit those who wish to partake in this violent ideology. The Al Azar University in Cairo has opined that while they are not apostates, they are Islamic! There is no counter narrative coming from the leading Islamic school!!!
That operational focus is important to understand. It is now recognized, more than ever, that the fight on the Internet must be accepted as an integral part of the “battle space” of violent extremism.
Under American leadership, coalitional allies brought together an effective effort to systematically and physically retake lost territories while surgically attritting IS fighters and supporters. However, we will likely see competitive extremist ideologies evolving, similar to Al Qaeda giving birth to IS. Inevitably, IS will foster its own spawn.
In that regard, it is of paramount importance to anticipate these evolutions and be prepared to counter extremist philosophies on the Internet as well as utilize a whole of government approach to address the religious, cultural, sociological conditions and grievances that give rise to such violent teachings. This has been a most detrimental flaw in our strategy in combatting AQ and IS.
It must be fully appreciated by politicians, bureaucrats and the population at large, that the IS ideology has not been defeated, but rather has been driven underground. To ensure its own survival, the IS undertook a retrograde step into the realm of terrorism and low-key insurgency.
Logically-speaking, post-caliphate objectives for IS strategists would be to undermine the stabilization and reconstruction initiatives, however, any such reconstruction in Syria or Iraq also presents a financial opportunity for IS to extort money from officials, infiltrate IS operatives into the supply chain, and garner intelligence and funds for its future nefarious ventures.
Through the targeting of infrastructure and general rebuilding initiatives, IS could both thwart initiatives to economically rebuild the region while concomitantly exploiting these efforts through extortion and other criminal means.
An important issue the West must come to terms with, is that we are in what has been described as a “long war,” while belligerents are in a seemingly “forever war.” At a terrorist symposium in Toronto, one Canadian police officer acknowledged: “my children will be dealing with this.”
At its zenith, the Islamic State covered an area approximately half the size of the United Kingdom and controlled a population estimated to be up to 7.7 million people. This Islamic nirvana lasted five years, and thankfully physically exists no longer. Its leadership and its embraced/hostage population effectively ran a nation state, however, it soon discovered this was an all-consuming responsibility.
Now that this state no longer exists, another phase is upon us. Having no territory means the IS leadership of this now defunct proto-state has the time and the financial wherewithal to commence the planning cycle to resurface, phoenix-like, to prepare for and initiate terror attacks whenever and wherever they deem most advantageous.
The destruction of the Islamic State and the subsequent loss of fighters, their supporters and families will be subject to avenge attacks. Moreover, these losses and their memories will inevitably feed the propaganda machine and employed to radicalize a new generation of jihadists.
In turn, they will, no doubt, be willing to undertake a spectrum of terrorist operations – not only in the West but throughout the Middle East and Africa. It is through such operations, as well as online Islamist-inspired propaganda, that will keep this deep hatred and violence in the forefront.
This very sobering analysis was reinforced by U.S. Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera who offered that, “Make no mistake, Daesh is preserving their force. They have made calculated decisions to preserve what is left of their dwindling personnel and capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas. They are waiting for the right time to re-emerge.”
Warfare is Darwinian by nature, and IS leaders and their foot soldiers are now well-trained, well-led, combat-experienced and potentially well-financed. The West is confronting a new set of highly-motivated and determined fighters who have experienced and waged violence at a level rarely seen or experienced since World War II. Disciplined and targeted operations focused on mass casualties will likely be the order of the day.
Confronted with the military power of the coalition, the IS leadership recognized that their caliphate and territorial terms would be limited. However, their belief that such defeats are tests from God, who will grant an inevitable victory, gives them strength to continue.
The U.S.-led coalitional must acknowledge that although the fire is out, the embers of the ideology still burn hot.
Coalition allies cannot be complacent as the IS threat remains.
The recent Sri Lanka attacks remain a potent reminder if they are underestimated.
This was first published by our partner Front Line Defence on May 16, 2019 as “The ‘Periphery’ War: Faming the Flames.”
The featured photo is credited to Reuters and shows one of the damaged churches.
Three churches in Negombo, Batticaloa and Colombo’s Kochchikade district are targeted during Easter services and blasts also rock the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in the country’s capital.