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Weakened Militarily, ISIS Still Has Power to Sow Deadly Mayhem

By Robert F. Worth

December 25, 2016

In the past few weeks, the Islamic State has sustained a string of military defeats: ousted from its refuge on the Libyan coast, struggling to maintain its hold on the Iraqi city of Mosul, and losing ground in Syria. Yet as the deadly truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin made clear, those losses do not diminish the group’s extraordinary power to inspire terrorist mayhem around the world, and may even help fuel it.

In just the past year, even while under near continuous bombardment by the American-led coalition, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for more than three dozen attacks, stretching across 16 countries on four continents.

That figure does not include the organization’s home terrain in Syria and Iraq, where it has lost 50,000 fighters in the past two years, according to the Pentagon — nearly as many dead as the United States lost in the Vietnam War. Many of the attacks beyond the Middle East were carried out by assailants who cited their inability to reach the group’s Syria refuge, its self-proclaimed caliphate, as a motive for acting at home.

At the core of the Islamic State’s global success — and vulnerability — is a peculiar blend of theological boldness and criminal opportunism, something Al Qaeda, its predecessor and rival, never achieved.

“ISIS’ claim to represent the caliphate has clearly been a trump card,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, referring to the group by one of its acronyms. “It stirs deep sentiments, even among those who are not converts to the cause, about a utopian and powerful Muslim empire, and one that seemed, for a while at least, to be unstoppable militarily.”

At the same time, the Islamic State has cannily lowered the bar for what passes as an attack. The Berlin truck rampage — like the deadly attack in Nice, France, in July — is a case in point. Both were as simple as it gets: The attackers commandeered trucks and ploughed them into crowds of pedestrians. No weapons were needed (although the Tunisian suspected in the Berlin attack, who was killed in a shootout in Italy on Friday, is believed to have used a weapon to steal the truck).

Al Qaeda began promoting exactly such a truck or car attack seven years ago, complete with illustrations, through a slick English-language internet publication called Inspire. But there were no takers.

“For years, this kind of low-tech stuff was sniffed at,” said William McCants, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “U.S. counterterrorism officials were long confused as to why this wasn’t happening. But ISIS has succeeded in doing what Al Qaeda never did — it’s an open invitation to wreak havoc.”

The Islamic State has had its share of good luck: The Syrian conflict that began in 2011 created a vast ungoverned zone that was virtually an invitation to seize and hold terrain, much as other jihadist groups had done for much shorter periods in Yemen and Afghanistan in years past.

The emergence of the Islamic State came just as social media was in full bloom, and it benefited from an inflow of Western jihadist militants who could give its propaganda more reach and polish than any previous insurgent group.

The Islamic State was also endowed with an unusual mix of military expertise — many of its core members were former Iraqi officers with plenty of battlefield experience — and religious erudition. Arriving when the Arab world seemed to be collapsing, it deftly marshalled the skills of a cadre of young, intelligent Islamic fundamentalists such as the Bahraini religious scholar Turki al Binali, who helped recruit many frustrated young people eager for a radical new source of hope. What looks to outsiders like nihilism is the opposite to many young Islamic State converts: They are genuinely thrilled to be taking part in a venture that aims to redraw the map and reverse the moral polarities of what they see as a fallen world.

The caliphate has emerged, again and again, as the key motivating factor for terrorists in Europe, including Anis Amri, the Tunisian suspected of having carried out last week’s truck attack in Berlin.

Some European-born attackers, including some of those who struck in France this year, have cited their inability to reach Islamic State terrain in Syria as a source of deep frustration in their videotaped farewell statements, and a reason for striking on their home turf instead.

The same goes for the Islamic State’s suicide bombers, whose numbers are extraordinary testaments to the group’s ideological power. The group’s primary news source said in early December that Islamic State fighters had carried out 1,034 suicide attacks in 2016. That number is impossible to verify, but analysts agree that the total has been climbing for several years now.

Even if that increase is largely because of the group’s defensive use of suicide bombers while under siege, the number of people willing — even eager — to sacrifice for the cause is staggering.

When the political scientist Robert Paper wrote a book on suicide bombings in 2003, he counted a global total of 315, and that was over about 15 years.

Yet the Islamic State’s dependence on the idea of the caliphate is also a risk. It was noteworthy that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, urged followers in a November audiotape message not to abandon Mosul. That seemed to cut against earlier statements from the group, which had hinted that the Islamic State could withdraw and regroup in the desert if necessary.

Mr. Baghdadi’s warning suggested that he feared military defeat would drain the group’s global cachet, leaving Al Qaeda to inherit the jihadist mantle.

“Once it loses its territory, ISIS will become another lost jihadist cause,” Mr. Haykel said. “Al Qaeda has the advantage of being an ideology that is not tied to a territory or an institution like the caliphate.”