Friday, February 3rd, 2023 09:01:04

Crushing The Fangs Of Isis

Updated: May 29, 2015 11:22 pm

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suddenly emerged in Iraq and Syria a few months ago as a new terrorist group on the radar of terrorism. To the world, in general, it appeared to be a sudden rise. It was not actually so, for the Intelligence officials were monitoring the situation in both Iraq and Syria

In Iraq it was entirely because of the poor handling of the situation in that country by the United States when Saddam Hussain was ruling. Saddam was a Sunni from Tikrit. The population of his country was mixed, with Sunnis and Shias being the largest groups, while there were minority Christians, some animist groups on the edges of Christianity like the Yazidis and also some groups of different ethnicity like the Kurds. Unhappy with the rather authoritarian ways of Saddam Hussain, the United States intervened and removed Saddam and placed a Shia as the head of that hapless country. Regrettably, the Shia President treated the majority Sunnis rather shabbily, which led to a strong Sunni-Shia divide, which drove the Sunnis to the extreme right. The administration of the Shia led government was so partial to the Shias vis-à-vis the Sunnis, that it led to a violent reaction from the Sunni soldiers in the Iraqi army, who decided to teach a lesson to the Shias.

At this time there was a Sunni terrorist group, the Al Qaeda already in existence that was born in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This group was led by Abu Musa al Zarqawi, who pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and was fighting the forces of the United States and also attacking Shias in order to foment a sectarian civil war. The Al Qaeda had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi was killed in an airstrike by the United States in 2006 and soon after Al Qaeda was almost wiped out in Iraq. Al Qaeda however renewed itself in prisons run by the United States in Iraq, where terrorists and insurgents connected and formed networks and where Abu Bakr–al Baghdadi emerged as a leader.

Meanwhile in Syria, the President Bashir Assad, a Shia had alienated the Sunnis in his country who revolted, which suddenly blew up into a full scale civil war. The Sunni group who had revolted seized territory in Syria’s northeast and established a base.

In Iraq meanwhile the Prime Minister, Nouri-al Maliki pursued a hard-line pro-Shiite agenda alienating  Sunni Arabs throughout Iraq. The groups in Syria and Iraq, both following an anti-Shia line, connected and called themselves the ISIS-The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In Iraq the ISIS counts among its members Iraqi tribal Sunni leaders, former anti- United States insurgents and even former Iraqi Sunni military officers.

As ISIS has grown, its goals and intentions have become clearer. Al Qaeda conceived itself as a vanguard of a global insurgency, mobilising Muslim communities against secular rule. ISIS in contrast seeks to control territory and create a pure Sunni Islamist state.

The groups territorial conquests in Iraq came as a shock. When ISIS captured Fallujah and Hamadi in January 2014, most analysts thought that the United States trained Iraqi forces would contain the threat. However in June amidst mass desertions from the Iraqi army, ISIS moved towards Baghdad, capturing Mosul, Tikrit and other Iraqi towns. By the end of the month ISIS proclaimed the territory it controlled as a Caliphate. Meanwhile, according to United States intelligence estimates, some 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries flocked to join the ISIS. They came from Muslim countries like Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and some came from non Muslim countries like Australia, Russia and Western Europe. ISIS has even attracted some young boys and girls from western countries, mainly from Muslims who had migrated and settled there.

As ISIS has grown its goals and intensions have become clearer. Al Qaeda conceived itself as a vanguard of a global insurgency, mobilising Muslim communities against secular rule. ISIS in contrast, seeks to control territory and create a pure Sunni Islamist state governed by a brutal interpretation of Sharia to obliterate the political borders of the countries created by the western powers in the twentieth century and to position itself as the sole political, religious and military authority over all of the world’s Muslims.

It is now clear that the ISIS is very different from the Al Qaeda. Since ISIS’ origins and goals differ markedly from Al Qaeda’s, the two groups operate in entirely different ways. That is why, a United States Counter terrorism strategy custom made to fight Al Qaeda cannot fit the struggle against the ISIS.

In the post 9/11 era, the United States built up a trillion dollar infrastructure of intelligence, law enforcement and military operations aimed at Al Qaeda. Some 203 United States government organisations were created or reorganised in response to the 9/11 attacks. The ISIS however presents an entirely different sort of challenge.

About 75 per cent of the leaders of the core Al Qaeda group were killed by raids and armed drones, a technology well suited to the task of going after the targets hiding in rural areas. Such tactics do not hold much promise for combating the ISIS. The groups, fighters and leaders cluster in urban areas, where they are well integrated with the civilian population and usually surrounded by buildings making drone strikes and raids, much harder to carry out. Besides, simply killing the ISIS leaders will not cripple the organisation. The ISIS governs as a functioning pseudo-state. At the top of the military command is the Emirate, which consists of Baghdadi and two deputies, both of whom served as Generals in the Saddam era’s Iraqi army. They are Abu Ali al Anbari, who controls ISIS operations in Syria and Abu Muslim al Turkmani, who controls operations in Iraq. ISIS’ civilian bureaucracy is supervised by twelve administrators, who govern territories in Iraq and Syria, overseeing councils that handles matters such as finance, medical and religious affairs.

ISIS also poses a daunting challenge to traditional United States counter terrorism tactics that aim at jihadist financing, propaganda and recruitment.. Cutting off Al Qaeda’s funding has been one of the United States’ counter terrorisms most impressive success stories.

Such tools contribute very little to the fight against ISIS, since it does not heed outside funding. Holding territory has allowed the group to build a self sustaining financial model unthinkable for terrorist groups.. Beginning in 2012, ISIS gradually took over key oil assets in eastern Syria; it now controls 60 per cent of that country’s oil production capacity. Meanwhile, during its push into Iraq last summer, ISIS also seized seven oil producing operations. The group manages to sell some of this oil on the black market in Iraq and Syria, including some to the Assad regime in Syria itself. ISIS also smuggles oil out of Iraq and Syria into Jordan and Turkey. Altogether ISIS’ revenue from oil is estimated to be between one million and three million per day.

When ISIS captured Mosul, it looted the provincial central bank and plundered antiquities to sell on the black market. It taxes farmers and businessmen. The ISIS’ wealth dwarfs that of any terrorist organisation. The United States has not succeeded in reducing the group coffers.

ISIS core message is about raw power and revenge. Its brutality, video-taped beheadings, mass executions is designed to intimidate foes and suppress dissent. Revulsion among Muslims at such cruelty might eventually undermine ISIS.

Getting the ISIS out of Iraq and Syria                                                                                    

Despite being criticised for lacking a strategy, the United States and its allies have made significant gains against the ISIS. Over the past year the areas it controlled that were most threatening to our regional allies in Iraq and Syria have shrunk by more than a third. ISIS fighters have been pushed back from the Mosul dam in Kurdish Iraq, the town of Kobane in Syria, and most recently from Tikrit making the largest Kurdish and Shiite population centres vastly safer.

After the United States announcement of plans to retake Mosul, understanding what works in the fight against the ISIS is crucial. Many question whether the Mosul offensive is feasible? It is, but overall success against the ISIS depends on the United States sticking to the strategy it has the hammer and the anvil.

The air campaign has used this technique to force an invidious choice on the ISIS. Either it must concentrate its forces to achieve local superiority over opposing ground troops, but face being decimated by the hammer of United States air power, or it can avoid air strikes by dispersing its fighters into small units, but risk being beaten on the anvil of its adversaries overwhelming ground forces. Either way the ISIS loses.

United States air power has also bolstered morale and served as a force multiplier for local ground forces. Air power alone is however reaching the limits of its capabilities.

The ISIS has two main goals-expansion and consolidation. Since the air campaign started last August, it has succeeded in blocking expansion by the ISIS, but it has barely made a dent in the jihadist’s defensive strategy of consolidating control over the Sunni areas.

The United States can continue to use air power to limit the ISIS’s ability to move large forces between Syria and Iraq, blunting further expansion. If the ISIS is prevented from moving men and material in large concentrations it will be unable to reinforce positions in Iraq.

Since last summer, however, the ISIS has consolidated control over Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria, making gains, unhindered by the air campaign in Hit, Ramadi, Raqqa and other areas deep in the Sunni hinterland. However, air strikes targeting, ISIS command and control centres, and its revenue generating oil operations have failed to cause lasting damage.

Since 2006, the United States has killed the past three leaders of the ISIS and its forerunners; each time a newleader soon emerged. Unless the United States and its allies can take additional military action to exploit this disruption when it occurs, the ISIS will quietly regroup, minimizing the effect of any decapitation strategy.

Defeating the ISIS, demands a new approach to retaking Sunni territory. First we must identify and support pockets of Sunni resistance to the ISIS. Here any strategy that emphasizes Kurdish or Shia led Iraqi fighters, is likely to fail. As we saw in Mosul and other Iraqi areas that fall quickly to the ISIS, neither the Kurdish Peshmerga, nor the mainly Shiite Iraqi army and Shiite militias (some with Iranian backing) are willing to pay the price of holding.

There are two obvious places to start; one is the Nineveh province Police force. When the ISIS seized control of much of the province in June , this force numbered about 24,000 men, but was immediately cut off from funding and weapons by a distrustful Shia dominated Iraqi government. The other are the Sunni tribes that opposed the ISIS in Anbar province. These include the Joghaifi near Haditha and Albu Nisar near Hit, hundreds of whom were brutally killed, when the ISIS sought to subdue them during its 2014 conquest.

Both these groups have the incentive and the numbers to mount a serious challenge to ISIS control of their territory provided they get the support of United States air power an special forces. The brutal forces used by the ISIS over the last six months against not just Shiites but also some Sunni groups in its area of control has set the stage for a split in the Sunni community. Iraq is poised for such a fratricidal situation.

Announcing the plan to retake Mosul later this year was a first step, but only action by the Iraqi government can fully mobilise the Sunnis. To this end, the United States needs to secure a power sharing agreement between the Iraqi government and the Sunni tribes that would allow greater autonomy for Sunni provinces like that granted to the Iraqi Kurds. It will be vital to eliminate Sunni fears, that an Iraq rid of the ISIS would simply return to Shiite domination. A guarantee of greater autonomy can persuade the Sunnis to rebel against the ISIS.

The Mosul announcement fits with the incremental hammer and anvil strategy. By taking the unusual step of going public about the planned offensive, a signal that help is on the way, the United States is aiming to give the the Sunni tribes and former police forces clear encouragement to oppose the ISIS in their areas.

Pragmatic and informed though it is, this plan to defeat the ISIS by fostering Sunni resistance is far from simple. It requires brokering autonomy for Sunnis, arrangements that to date, the government is loath to accept. With that binding block in place, United States air power and special forces can combine with local allies genuinely motivated to push back the ISIS. If the strategy succeeds, we could soon reach a tipping point for the ISIS’s defeat in Iraq.

(The writer is former Director General, BSF)

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