Tabqah, Syria liberated from the Islamic State

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, May 11, 2017:

US-backed forces have liberated the city of Tabqah, the Tabqah Dam and an airfield from the Islamic State, according to Central Command (CENTCOM) and Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR).

The operations were “completed” yesterday (May 10) with the surrender of Islamic State fighters in the area.

The Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were responsible for the bulk of the fighting.

“This is yet another victory by the SAC and the SDF, our most committed and capable ground force partners in the fight against ISIS who remain hard at work erasing ISIS from the battlefield, liberating their own people and lands,” CJTF-OIR spokesman Col. John Dorrian said in a statement.

The battle for Tabqah is a key part of the US strategy for taking the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, which is less than 30 miles away. Kurdish and other Arab fighters are pressuring Raqqa from multiple sides in anticipation of a coming assault on the city.

The offensive on Tabqah began on Mar. 22 with “a surprise aerial infiltration behind enemy lines to the south of Lake Assad,” according to CENTCOM.

The US military credits the “multi-ethnic” SDF with increasing “pressure” on the Islamic State “from each flank,” thereby accelerating “the pace of the fight,” clearing “the final neighborhoods of the city,” and isolating Tabqah Dam before the jihadists were finally forced to surrender.

“Approximately 70 ISIS fighters conceded to the SDF’s terms, which included the dismantling of IEDs surrounding the dam, the surrender of all ISIS heavy weapons, and the forced withdrawal of all remaining fighters from Tabqah City,” CENTCOM’s statement reads.

Senior Islamic State leaders and foreign fighters relocated to Tabqah

Over the course of the past year, the so-called caliphate had moved key leaders, foreign fighters and operatives responsible for planning attacks abroad to Tabqah. The US military says the Islamic State had used the city as a “a key coordination hub” to “plan local operations and external attacks against the West” since 2013. Additional “foreign fighters and external attack planning” operatives were moved to the area after the Islamic State suffered losses in northern Syria. The group was hoping to keep these jihadists safe from the coalition’s airstrikes, but a number of them were hunted down.

CJTF-OIR announced late last year that Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti, a former member of the Islamic State’s “War Committee,” was killed in an airstrike near Tabqah Dam on Dec. 26.

Kuwaiti had been “involved” in the group’s “retaking of Palmyra” from Bashar al Assad’s forces “before being reassigned to Tabqah to try to improve” the Islamic State’s “defenses” against the SDF. Kuwaiti “was involved in the use of suicide vehicles, IEDs and chemical weapons against the SDF.” CJTF-OIR assessed that his death would “degrade” the organization’s defense of Raqqa, as well as the jihadists’ ability to “launch external operations against the West.”

The Islamic State’s Rumiyah (“Rome”) magazine reported earlier this year that one of the group’s chief propagandists, Ahmad Abousamra (also known as Abu Sulayman al Shami), was killed in an airstrike near Tabqah in January.

Abousamra, a US citizen who was long wanted by the FBI, rose through the Islamic State’s media ranks to become the chief editor of Dabiq, an English-language online magazine that frequently called for attacks in the West. Rumiyah is the successor publication to Dabiq. Abousamra was also a key player in the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: How a US citizen became a key player in the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda.]

Another senior Islamic State figure, Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili (also known as Abu Omar al Shishani), oversaw an Islamic State prison in Tabqah for a time. The facility may have “held foreign hostages,” according to the US Treasury Department.

Batirashvili served as one of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s most senior military commanders. In mid-2013, he was appointed the head of the so-called caliphate’s forces in northern Syria, including Raqqa province. He oversaw the forces that battled Bashar al Assad’s regime for control of the Tabqah military airbase in 2014. Batirashvili was killed south of Mosul, Iraq last July.

Possible “humanitarian disaster” averted

On Mar. 27, just days after the surprise assault on Tabqah, the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency released an alarming statement. It was titled, “Maintenance Teams Still Unable to Bring Necessary Tools and Equipment to Tabqah Dam Despite Risk of Collapse.” Amaq alleged that the dam was “completely out of service” due to airstrikes and “water levels are continuing to rise due to flood gates being closed, which could lead to the dam’s collapse at any moment.” Amaq also published photos depicting the damage supposedly done to the dam’s control room by coalition bombings.

The dam didn’t collapse, and Amaq may have been exaggerating.

But CENTCOM says the capture of the dam “prevented a potential humanitarian disaster and ensured local citizens will continue to receive the dam’s basic services.” CENTCOM adds that the SDF accepted the Islamic State’s “surrender of the city to protect innocent civilians and to protect the Tabqah dam infrastructure which hundreds of thousands of Syrians rely on for water, agriculture, and electricity.”

Partner forces make up main ground force

US military officials are trumpeting the fall of Tabqah as further evidence of the efficacy of America’s battlefield partners.

“The SDF’s success against ISIS demonstrates the power of working by, with and through local partner forces fighting ISIS, among their own people, in their own territory,” Col. Dorrian, the CJTF-OIR spokesman, said. “The SDF, fighting to liberate their own people and lands, have freed more than 8,000 square kilometers of Syria from ISIS since November.”

But America’s choice of allies has not been without controversy.

The Kurdish YPG (or People’s Defense Units) is part of the American-backed SDF. The YPG and its female brigade, the YPJ (or Women’s Protection Units), are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government. Turkey objects to the partnership, as the PKK is opposed to the Turkish government. US officials argue that the YPG is distinct from the PKK. But that line is not at all clear. Even Col. Dorrian slipped up earlier this month by referring to the PKK, when he meant the YPG. The US has downplayed this complication because the YPG has long been on the frontline in the battle against the Islamic State’s jihadists.

The YPG advertised its role in the battle for Tabqah on its official website and social media. Some of the video clips and pictures show the YPJ’s female fighters patrolling streets, a YPG flag being raised in the area, and residents celebrating the jihadists’ expulsion.

The Islamic State captured the Taqbah military airbase from forces loyal to Bashar al Assad in Aug. 2014. The fall of the airbase consolidated the group’s grip on the province of Raqqa. The third edition of Abousamra’s Dabiq magazine, released in Sept. 2014, celebrated the “major conquest.” Dabiq bragged that with the fall of the airbase, Raqqa had become the first “wilayah” to be “completely rid of the Nusayrī army” – a derogatory reference to Assad’s forces. One graphic image showed Assad’s soldiers being shot in the head from behind. Another photo showed the corpse of an Assad regime “officer” who had allegedly “boasted on television of false victories.”

The Syrian regime and Russia bombed Islamic State fighters in the area as recently as last year. In June 2016, Amaq released a video purporting to show Russia’s use of cluster bombs during airstrikes on Tabqah city. Amaq also claimed that Assad’s fighters had suffered casualties south of Tabqah at the Thawrah oilfield.

But ultimately it wasn’t the Syrian regime, which suffers from manpower shortages, or its Russian ally that ejected the Islamic State from the area. That was left to American-backed forces.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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Sebastian Gorka Speech at the Republican National Lawyers Association

Published on May 5, 2017 by Nick Short

Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to President Trump, gives an eye opening speech at the National Press Club on the reality of the threat posed to Western society by the Islamic State (ISIS).

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ISIS to Jihadists: Use Fake Apartment, Job, Craigslist Ads to Lure Hostage, Murder Victims

A screen grab from ISIS’ Rumiyah magazine

PJ Media, by Bridget Johnson, May 4, 2017:

The Islamic State magazine that has published tutorials on vehicle, knife and arson attacks as a tool of lone jihad is now encouraging terrorists to acquire guns at shows and shops and take hostages not for ransom but “to create as much carnage and terror as one possibly can.”

The latest issue of Rumiyah magazine, distributed online in 10 languages including English, offers another installment of the “Just Terror Tactics” series, praising lone jihadists including U.S. terrorists who have “set heroic examples with their operations.”

The objective of taking hostages, would-be jihadists are told, is “not to hold large numbers of the kuffar hostage in order to negotiate one’s demands,” but to sow terror with “the language of force, the language of killing, stabbing and slitting throats, chopping off heads, flattening them under trucks, and burning them alive, until they give the jizyah [tax] while they are in a state of humiliation.”

“The scenario for such an attack is that one assaults a busy, public, and enclosed location and rounds up the kuffar [disbelievers] who are present. Having gained control over the victims, one should then proceed to slaughter as many of them as he possibly can before the initial police response, as was outstandingly demonstrated by the mujahidin who carried out the Bataclan theatre massacre during the course of the blessed Paris raid,” the article instructs.

Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen “superbly demonstrated this scenario” of taking hostages simply to delay police while killing them “when, having armed himself with an assault rifle and a handgun, he single-handedly slaughtered 49 sodomites.”

Jihadists are told that Europeans should try to acquire guns in conflict zones or from underground dealers, and “much like its Crusader European counterparts, the UK faces a gun control dilemma as it feebly attempts to fend off the influx of weapons, but to no avail” so attackers are advised to find guns “readily available for purchase on the streets of Britain.”

In the United States, “anything from a single-shot shotgun all the way up to a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle can be purchased at showrooms or through online sales – by way of private dealers – with no background checks, and without requiring either an ID or a gun license,” ISIS states. “And with approximately 5,000 gun shows taking place annually within the United States, the acquisition of firearms becomes a very easy matter.”

They include a picture of an unidentified gun show with the caption, “Gun conventions represent an easier means of arming oneself for an attack.”

Jihadists are advised to refrain from casually asking people where they can get guns, lest they end up “bringing upon oneself unnecessary suspicion.”

Another suggestion for gun acquisition in the ISIS article is staging a ram-and-grab burglary driving a car into a gun shop when it’s closed.

“Alternatively, after some simple reconnaissance, one could follow the shop owner after he’s closed for the day, ambush him or run him over with a vehicle, and then take his keys in order to gain access to the store’s arsenal and any other location where he might be storing firearms and ammunition,” the advice continues. “Such targets, though potentially offering a considerable gain in terms of ghanimah [booty], are ambitious in nature and should be pursued while keeping in mind that tactical and gun shop owners are normally the type who arm and train themselves and would not be as averse to engaging in a firefight when attacked.”

Still, the terror group added, a “faint-hearted kafir shop owner in the West” can “be taken by surprise if one takes the means available to him and plans his attack carefully.”

Locations suggested for public hostage-taking operations include malls, movie theaters, nightclubs, ice-skating rinks, restaurants and college campuses — any peak-traffic, preferably low-light environment that “allows for one to take control of the situation by rounding up the kuffar present inside and allows one to massacre them while using the building as a natural defense against any responding force attempting to enter and bring the operation to a quick halt.” Operations with fewer jihadists taking part are encouraged to pick a target with fewer exits.

ISIS advises jihadists to consider attacks on “days on which police and other security forces might be pre-occupied with national or local events,” and begin killing hostages “as quickly as one can before the initial police response” while leaving a few alive as human shields.

“Using deception as a tactic of warfare in order to lure one’s target or trick them into believing that they are safe before killing them or inconspicuously assassinating them is divinely approved,” the article asserts.

Those who can’t acquire firearms are told to not let that stop them, and try hostage-taking and killing armed with a knife.

ISIS suggests luring targets by placing an ad at an unemployment center for a job Muslims would not take, then “subdue” each victim as they arrive at the interview site, even if that means renting a fake office, before murdering en masse.

Another suggested lure is advertising a studio apartment for rent, small enough not “attract large families,” and capture and kill the interested tenants. “It might even help to include in the ad that the apartment is ‘ideal for students,'” ISIS adds.

Jihadists are also encouraged to place some stuff for sale on “buy and sell websites such as Craigslist, Gumtree, eBay, the Loot, and others” and “specify that collection and payment is only available in person and that only cash is accepted. Also, the item being advertised should be something that requires the victim to enter one’s property.”

“It is likewise important to be realistic when advertising and not advertise something far below its valued price, as this can attract the attention of authorities searching for stolen goods or possibly attract other suspicions,” the article states.

ISIS tells terrorists using these lure scenarios to space out arrivals and have “a room specifically reserved for the disposal of the bodies… for the obvious reason of not alerting those intended victims entering the property after them.”

“One should not initiate his attack until the target has fully entered the property and is comfortable, so as to avoid any struggle and prevent the chance of him fleeing.” The terror group also says a loud TV and staging the attack in busier daylight hours can help conceal screams.

“However, in order for the operation to gain wide publicity and more effectively plant terror into the hearts of the disbelievers, one can keep some of his victims alive and restrained, making for a more lengthy and drawn-out hostage scenario. One may then notify the authorities, explaining to them that he is a soldier of the Islamic State and informing them of what he has just done,” the article concludes. “…The intention of this delay is therefore only to prolong the terror, as the ideal scenario is that they storm the location and he is killed as a shahid – inshaallah – after having inflicted upon the kuffar a just massacre.”

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Bedouins Burn ISIS Fighter, Urge All Sinai Tribes to Kick Terrorists to Curb

ISIS fighters in the Sinai in April 2016. (ISIS photo)

PJ Media, by Bridget Johnson, May 2, 2017:

A Bedouin tribe in the Sinai peninsula said it set an ISIS fighter ablaze as a response to a threat from the terror group, and called on all tribes to unite and battle the Islamic State together.

As ISIS has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria, their Sinai chapter has expanded its reach, even establishing a religious police force that has been terrorizing residents who smoke cigarettes or shave. ISIS also threatened residents against cooperating with the army and police.

That, along with ISIS spreading fake news that they had killed 40 members of the al-Tarabeen tribe, drove the Bedouins to snatch an ISIS leader and film their own video of his death, the tribe told Al-Arabiya.

They said the man had killed three Sinai residents and a police and burned their bodies, so the Bedouins set him on fire. That’s employing the Islamic principle of qisas, killing a killer in the manner by which the victim was murdered. ISIS tried to use the same reasoning when they burned a Jordanian pilot in a cage in a shocking 2015 video.

In the Bedouins’ short video, which appears to be cell phone footage, the suspected ISIS member, his hands and feet bound, is seen with his upper body on fire off the side of a road as members of the tribe yell at him. One appears to spray an accelerant on him.

The al-Tarabeen said in a statement they would fight ISIS “bravely and courageously as the sons of the tribe do not fear the battles.”

“It is time to get together to face ISIS, which did not have mercy on the elderly or young, and filled the earth with corruption and destruction,” they said in a call for the tribes to unite.

“To anyone who supports ISIS by word, action or by monitoring, he has to surrender himself immediately,” they added.

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Report: Foreign Fighters Abandon Islamic State, Flee to Turkey

Sipa via AP Images

Breitbart, by John Hayward, April 27, 2017:

Islamic State militants are reportedly abandoning ISIS as it loses territory and fleeing to Turkey, with foreign recruits leading the retreat.

According to the UK Guardianat least two British nationals and an American citizen have joined the “exodus” from the Islamic State. The American is 46-year-old Kary Paul Kleman of Florida, who surrendered to Turkish border police last week, bringing a Syrian wife and two widows of slain ISIS fighters with him.

The British defectors claimed they were not fighters but settled in Syria to become citizens of the “caliphate.” Kleman moved first to Egypt and Dubai after converting to Islam, then claims to have brought his family to Syria to assist with a “humanitarian effort” that turned out to be a “scam.” He was reportedly trying to reach the U.S. embassy in Turkey when he was arrested by border police.

CNN spoke with a smuggler who said Kleman contacted family members, the CIA, and possibly the FBI to arrange his exit from the Islamic State but apparently didn’t get the help he wanted, so he made a run for the Turkish border on his own.

Turkish prosecutors could seek up to 15-year sentences for these refugees from the Islamic State, while the U.K. could press terrorism charges that carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. It is also possible the authorities will decide the returnees are not a threat.

The Guardian sounds an alarming note about foreign recruits fleeing the collapsing Islamic State and seeking to carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries, to take revenge for the defeat of ISIS. There may already be up to 250 such trained terrorist operatives in Europe. Foreign recruits for other extremist organizations active in the Syrian civil war, such as al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, are also a concern.

Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College pointed out to the Guardian that ISIS “projected a narrative of momentum and success” to recruits, and it’s impossible to maintain that narrative when so much of the caliphate’s territory has been recaptured.

The Daily Star quotes Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. John Dorrian of the U.S. Air Force warning that the threat of foreign recruits making it back to their home countries, with the motivation and training to conduct terrorist attacks, cannot be dismissed.

“This is why there has been such a significant effort to isolate places like Raqqa to limit the ability of the enemy to depart Syria and move up into Europe,” Dorrian said.

A knockout punch has not yet been landed against the Islamic State’s Iraqi capital of Mosul. The Independent relates the horrifying story of ISIS militants who disguised themselves as Iraqi officials, drew a crowd of men, women, and children in central Mosul to greet them, and then shot them to “make it clear the area was still under enemy control,” as a Joint Operations Command official put it.

Various estimates suggest there are up to 5,000 foreign recruits still alive in the Islamic State, potentially preparing to return to Europe and the United States.

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House Panel Expert: U.S. ‘Losing in Afghanistan’ as Al-Qaeda Grows Stronger

Reuters

Breitbart, by Edwin Mora, April 27, 2017:

WASHINGTON D.C. — Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is growing stronger with the resurgence of the Taliban in recent years and “remains a direct threat” to America more than a decade and a half after the United States began targeting both terrorist groups in response to 9/11, an expert tells House lawmakers.

In October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, and the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has been raging since.

President Donald Trump inherited chaos and overall deteriorating security conditions in the war-devastated country.

Under former President Barack Obama’s watch, the Taliban seized more territory in Afghanistan than during any time since the U.S. military removed the jihadist group from power in 2001 and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) gained a foothold in the country.

The U.S. military “downplayed this problem of the Taliban” during Obama’s tenure, Bill Roggio, an expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and editor of the Long War Journal, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism.

“If that’s the attitude of the U.S. military towards the Taliban inside Afghanistan, we will continue to lose this war,” he later added. “We need to reassess Afghanistan… our policy in Afghanistan is a mess frankly, and the Trump administration needs to decide what to do and how to do it quickly.”

“The Taliban—al-Qaeda relationship remains strong to this day. And with the Taliban gaining control of a significant percentage of Afghanistan’s territory, al-Qaeda has more areas to plant its flag,” also said Roggio in his written testimony.

Last Friday, the Taliban carried out its deadliest-ever attack on a major military base in northern Balkh province that left as many as 250 soldiers dead.

Although the U.S. military argues the Afghan conflict is at a “stalemate,” Roggio told the House panel that America is losing the war.

“We are losing in Afghanistan… and The Taliban controls or contests at least half of Afghanistan,” Roggio told lawmakers, adding in his written testimony:

Al-Qaeda’s footprint inside Afghanistan remains a direct threat to U.S. national security and, with the resurgence of the Taliban, it is a threat that is only growing stronger. Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has not occurred in a vacuum. It has maintained its strength in the country since the U.S. invasion, launched a new branch, AQIS [al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent], and established training camps with the help and support of the Taliban.

Roggio testified alongside Dr. Seth Jones from the RAND Corporation and Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown from the Brookings Institution.

Echoing the U.S. military, the experts told lawmakers that Russia and Afghanistan’s neighbor Iran are providing military assistance to the Taliban, adding that neighboring Pakistan provides sanctuary to the terrorist group as well as its al-Qaeda and Haqqani Network allies.

According to the Pentagon, the Haqqani Network poses the “primary threat” to the American military in Afghanistan.

The experts noted that a U.S. military withdrawal from the war-devastated country would spell trouble for America’s national security.

The United States has already invested nearly $120 billion in nation-building efforts in the country.

Despite the threat posed by the Afghan Taliban, the group is not officially listed as a terrorist group by the United States like its ally al-Qaeda and its rival ISIS.

Roggio pointed out that although ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan is a problem, the Taliban remains a bigger threat.

ISIS is considered an enemy by both the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, considered the strongest group in the country.

“The reason the Taliban matters is the Taliban and al-Qaeda, they remain tied at the hip,” testified Roggio. “The Taliban refuse to surrender al-Qaeda members — Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. They continued to fight side by side. Al-Qaeda serves as a force multiplier.”

“The Islamic State is on the fringe. It’s a small problem in Afghanistan compared to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Pakistani jihadist groups that operate there (in ISIS’ Afghan stronghold Nangarhar province),” he added. They operate primarily in four districts in Nangarhar province and have a minimal presence in the north, and it certainly is a problem.

This week, ISIS in Nangarhar killed two U.S. troops and wounded another, the Pentagon revealed.

“Our efforts seemed to be focused on the Islamic State at this point in time while largely ignoring what the Taliban is doing throughout the country and that is directly challenging the Afghan military. They’re going toe to toe; They’re raiding their bases; They’re taking control of territory,” said Roggio.

***

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Analysis: ‘Signs of Recovery for the Islamic State’

Henry Jackson Society, by Kyle Orton, April 22, 2017:

The operation to clear the Islamic State (IS) from its Iraqi capital, Mosul, began on 17 October and is now 188 days old. IS was announced cleared from east Mosul on 25 January, and the offensive that began on 19 February to clear the more densely-populated and difficult west Mosul has ostensibly swept IS from sixty percent of that area. Official sources claim IS now controls less than seven percent of Iraqi territory, down from forty percent in 2014. But yesterday, a car bomb struck Zuhur, the first attack of this kind in east Mosul since February, murdering at least four people. This is part of a pattern of attacks that suggests the Mosul operation itself was rushed and more importantly that IS is already recovering in liberated areas.

OUT BUT NOT DOWN

When the Mosul offensive began, there was reason to worry that the timing was more political than it was determined by facts on the ground. Towns like Qayyara and Shirqat, which had been formally cleared of jihadists and were being used as launchpads for the assault on Mosul, were under constant harassment from the rural surroundings. More important is Hawija, which IS continues to hold.

Hawija, a town of about 200,000 people, fell to IS on 16 June 2014, after Mosul collapsed on 10 June and IS swept across northern and central Iraq. Located one-hundred miles south-east of Mosul, and roughly equidistant—forty miles or so—east of Shirqat and west of Kirkuk, with Bayji and Tikrit within sixty miles to the south, Hawija sits in a prime location to cause mayhem behind the lines, and has done so. IS is able to organize attacks from Hawija, and then fall back to safe-haven in the city. Days into the Mosul operation, IS executed a major raid in Kirkuk that killed dozens of people; the jihadists that did not blow themselves up slipped back into Hawija. This has happened despite the Kurdish Peshmerga having imposed a siege last August and blocked the four city gates.

In simple military terms, Hawija should have been cleared before Mosul, and now there are new worries. The recent announcement, which might well prove untrue, that IS’s occupation of Hawija, an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab town, will soon be brought to an end by al-Hashd al-Shabi, the conglomeration of Shi’i militias where Iranian proxies are the backbone, and the Kurdish Peshmerga, would continue one of the worst aspects of the campaign against IS, namely the use of demographically inappropriate forces to cleanse local areas that has meant IS’s military losses are not political losses.

Further to the east in Iraq, on the provincial boundary line between Saladin and Diyala, there is even more trouble as documented in an important recent report by Niqash. IS’s strategic depth is in the rural areas where it rode out defeat after 2008, a lesson it has taken into its foreign wilayats like Libya. The Jalam desert to the east Samarra—abutted by the Hamrin mountains to the north that stretch east into Diyala and west to the Tigris in Ninawa—with ad-Dawr to the south-east of Tikrit is a near-perfect location for IS. It was from the Jalam desert that IS invaded into Samarra in June 2014.

“The difficult terrain and long stretches of unpopulated land that straddle several provinces make this territory excellent for hiding, or for the establishment of secret bases,” Niqash notes. “[T]he IS fighters who are locals know the caves and valleys well and they know it would be very difficult to hunt them down here, if not impossible.” From these bases, IS have already managed to cut the road between Tikrit, the administrative centre of Saladin Province, and Kirkuk City. The area between Hawija and Kirkuk is known as the “death strip”. There have been many small raids, as well as some more significant ones, such as IS demolishing the police station in Albu Khado, which killed a number of people, or the attack on a police station in the village of Nayeb. To the west, there is the mountainous Makhul area, north of Bayji, where IS attacks at will, and the Iraqis are well aware that IS cells are spread all throughout Saladin and Diyala.

One special problem the Iraqis are having is Mutaibij, a remote village about twenty miles east of Duluiyah near the Udhaim River in the Euphrates River Valley. Mutaibij was occupied by Albu Issa tribesmen, who were opposed to IS, and now the village is abandoned. Despite four sweeps, however, the Iraqi Security Forces can never capture or kill any IS members when they move in. It has “become a mysterious place,” says local policeman Ziyad Khalaf. “Every time we raid that village, we don’t find anybody there. Then a few hours later, we are attacked again and we lose men.”

In the west of Iraq, along the Euphrates River Valley, where Anbar Province borders Syria’s Deir Ezzor Province, an IS-held zone the group calls Wilayat al-Furat (Euphrates Province), the terror group now has its centre of gravity. As Raqqa comes under pressure, IS has moved the bulk of its administration to Mayadeen in eastern Syria, seventy miles up-river from al-Qaim, long a main gateway for IS jihadists flowing into Iraq from Syria. “We are always under threat from the Islamic State group,” says an Iraqi border guard. “The danger doesn’t end when we arrive at our barracks. … [W]e are continuously losing men to the IS attacks. There are not enough soldiers or weapons to confront an enemy like this. They know that we are weak and they know the government is negligent.” Unlike the areas mentioned above, this desert wilderness has not yet even been nominally cleared and it remains to be seen if it can be. Until then, IS is able to use this base to strike at areas that have been cleared, like Rutba and Heet and devastated cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, with bombings and assassinations.

HISTORY AS A GUIDE TO THE FUTURE

In 2007-08, IS had been politically isolated and militarily driven from its cities by the Surge and Sahwa. Throughout 2010, the organization’s leadership structure was nearly destroyed. Yet in 2011, the IS movement was into a recovery—so much so it dispatched operatives into Syria to form a secret branch. By 2013, even as it underwent a schism with its Syrian wing, IS had nearly eliminated the Sahwa and launched a campaign of terrorism, particularly against the prisons, that freed important operatives, and seriously destabilized the Iraqi government. The heavy-handed reaction of the government, and its increased reliance on Iran, only fed IS. How had IS recovered in just five years?

Western inattentiveness was certainly part of it: the belief the Surge was a done deal rather than a process to be maintained. The political disengagement after 2009 allowed the worst, most sectarian and authoritarian instincts of the Iraqi Prime Minister free rein, polarizing the Sunni community, and IS reaped the benefits of that. IS did also realize it had made mistakes; it reassessed some tactics, especially in dealing with the tribes, though maintained remarkable continuity in ideology.

Still, the major part of the answer to IS’s resilience lies, as Craig Whiteside has written, in its deeply bureaucratic structure and strategic outlook that gives it the ability to wage a Mao-style revolutionary warfare. IS has proven capable of moving through the three stages: an infiltration and building stage by terror and inducement; expansion with terrorist and insurgent tactics; and then into the decisive phase of governance and state administration. Just as importantly, IS can move back through the stages when necessary. [emphasis added]

This means IS’s loss of territory should not be seen as the sole measure of how this war is going. What is needed in a revolutionary war is legitimacy over the long-term; if military defeats contain political victories, they can be absorbed, which is why IS has chosen simply to retreat in most areas before the attacks on its capitals. Fallujah was a classic case: IS held about two-thirds of the city; after evidence of atrocities by the Shi’a militias appeared, giving IS a political win, it pulled out within five days. The U.S.’s narrow focus on defeating IS, with the mistaken emphasis on when IS is defeated rather than how, has meant supporting Iranian-run Shi’a militias in Iraq and the PKK in Syria, playing into IS’s hands, legitimizing the group even as it loses territory, and assisting IS becoming a global movement that can mobilize its supporters abroad for external attacks.

The holding of a specific territory has never been the basis of IS’s legitimacy. Over the last year, IS has crystallized this view that the caliphate is more a cause than a destination, presenting the impending loss of its twin capitals, Mosul and Raqqa, as merely one stage in a cycle, part of the travails of the believers—a gift from god, indeed—to purify the herd before final victory. After inflicting terrible losses on the infidels, the jihadists will “retreat into the desert” temporarily, as they did last time only with hideouts stretching into Syria this time as well, and come back stronger, IS says. Given the conditions—no major U.S. troop presence on the ground; massive destruction, displacement, and persecution in the Sunni areas; heightened sectarianism; dysfunctional political systems all across the Fertile Crescent—IS’s belief that trends are on its side even more than in 2008 cannot be dismissed as self-serving delusion. In some areas those trends toward IS’s recovery are already becoming a reality.