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ISIS Set To Expand Its Empire of Terror

By Talmiz Ahmad

Jul 07, 2016

As ISIS loses control of its heartland, it is expanding into its neighbourhood and beyond, and is going back to its original character as a jihadi body by carrying out lethal acts of violence

As the holy month of Ramzan drew to a close, Saudi Arabia got the worst possible gifts from its arch-enemy, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — three attacks directed at targets having considerable historical and political significance. Besides the suicide attack near the US consulate in Jeddah, representing the movement’s hated global foe, the ISIS hit a Shia mosque in Qatif, the stronghold of the country’s minority sect, and, significantly, a bomb blast near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, recalling the 1803 attack on the Prophet’s grave in that city by Wahhabi zealots, who saw reverence for the mausoleum as idolatry.

ISIS’ recent depredations are taking place two years after the proclamation of the “Caliphate” by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at the mosque in Mosul; they are also occurring in the holy last week of Ramzan when the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. For most Muslims, this is the period of fasting, prayer and self-denial. But ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani has urged his followers “to make (Ramzan) a month of calamity everywhere for non-believers”.

The response of ISIS warriors has been swift and merciless, with targets carefully chosen for their political value. On June 29, gun and bomb attacks killed nearly 45 people at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, condemning the Turkish government’s recent pro-West policies and the stern crackdown on Jihadi cells in the country. Later, on July 1, seven gunmen, identifying themselves as ISIS fighters, attacked an upmarket restaurant in Dhaka, affirming that ISIS, already present in Pakistan, now has credible bases from which India could be targeted.

The most lethal attack has been in Baghdad: on July 3, suicide bombers killed nearly 200 people in the busy shopping area of Karrada, the deadliest single attack in Iraq in nine years. Since the beginning of the year, Iraqi cities have experienced several attacks in which Shias have been the principal targets, thus aggravating the sectarian divide in this ravaged country.

Before these lethal assaults in the month of Ramzan, the past year saw some spectacular acts of violence across a wide geographical space. These included an attack on tourists in Tunis, the shooting down of a Russian civilian aircraft over the Sinai, attacks in Paris in November and the bomb attacks in Brussels in March. Experts have noted the calm and professional approach of the terrorists, their weapons skills, their “battle discipline”, and the considerable backup support available to them in different locales. Besides attacks organised by its own cadre, ISIS has also shown the capacity to inspire “lone wolf” attacks, like the shootings by the Malik couple in California in December and killings in Orlando at a gay nightclub in June.

These attacks took place after ISIS lost considerable territory, personnel and revenues. In Iraq, it has vacated a number of towns, the most important being Fallujah, that fell in June.

At its peak, ISIS controlled a third of Iraq and Syria; now it seems to have lost 45 per cent of its land in Iraq, while in Syria, after losing Palmyra, it is under siege by the opposition coalition at Manjib, at the Syria-Turkey border. The fall of this town will give Syrian Kurds a contiguous enclave along this border. Both opposition and government forces are also mobilising to capture the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa, but progress is slow due to sharp ISIS attacks through bombings and rocket fire.

ISIS revenues from oil sales have risen from $45 million a month to $16 million, so its main income is now from taxation and criminal activity, like ransom from kidnappings. Again, at its peak last year, ISIS had nearly 100,000 fighters; opposition sources believe 25,000 have been killed, while new recruitment has become difficult due to tough border controls on the Turkish side, a change from when it was the “Jihadi highway” into Syria.

It is clear that, as ISIS loses control of its heartland, it is expanding into its neighbourhood and beyond, and is going back to its original character as a Jihadi body by carrying out lethal and dramatic acts of violence in the territory and against targets of its choosing. In the face of sustained military attacks on its positions and assets in Iraq and Syria, it may seek to maintain a core doctrinal leadership in a remote hideout, as Al Qaeda did after the US attacks in Afghanistan after 9/11, and decentralise its operational presence into areas where state order has broken down or where central authority is weak and its writ doesn’t run into large parts of the national territory. These spaces will become the bases to plan and carry out new attacks against vulnerable targets.

The main source of ISIS’ resilience is that it already has bases outside its heartland in the Levant, such as those in Yemen and Libya, and also enjoys the allegiance of many Jihadi outfits in West and South Asia and Africa, which pay doctrinal obeisance to the ISIS leadership, while carrying out local operations on their own.

These include Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and splinter groups of the Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and, recently, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh.

Again, its mastery over the social media will ensure that its doctrinal messages continue to motivate “lone wolf” attacks, referred to by terrorism expert David Kilcullen as “remote radicalisation”. In recent messages intercepted in Amman, ISIS leaders were heard exhorting supporters not to come to Syria, but to fight their enemies at home. Thus, military setbacks in Syria and Iraq will do little to diminish the appeal of ISIS among disenfranchised and indoctrinated Muslim youth in Asia, Africa and Europe, nor will they reduce its capacity and enthusiasm to carry out its horrendous acts of violence and hate.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat