The 2016 challenges for the Islamic State

Islamic State flag ISIS
ISIS flag

The Islamic State (ISIS), mainly considered “the world’s most powerful terrorist organization” or “the richest terrorist organization in history” is far more than just a terrorist organization. It is, in fact, a militant organization that uses terrorism, but also conducts guerrilla warfare, hybrid warfare and conventional warfare. And moreover, it has established a proto-state over a wide part of Iraq and Syria.

Despite the Islamic State’s criticism of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organization has roughly followed his pointed plan for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI):
– first step – expel U.S. forces from Iraq;
– second stage – establish an emirate and expand it into a larger caliphate;
– third stage – attack the countries surrounding Iraq (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan) in order to bring them into the caliphate;
– fourth step – use the power of the combined caliphate to attack Israel.

And indeed, in 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and, in 2011, after the withdrawal from Iraq, it seized large portions of the Sunni areas in Iraq and it took advantage of the civil war in Syria. And on June 29, 2014, the Islamic State organization announced not just the re-establishment of its emirate in Iraq, but the establishment of a caliphate.

Although the Islamic State is following the general guidelines of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s plan, there are significant differences between al Qaeda’s timeline and that of Islamic State for the execution of that plan.

Compared to Al Qaeda’s step-by-step plan, the Islamic State has adopted a more urgent approach, considering that the time for conquering and governing territory has come and that any conquered territory and resources will be used for the purpose of continued expansion. That explains why the Islamic State proclaimed the Caliphate quickly after capturing a large portion of Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State believes that the caliphate is a historical fact, nothing will stop its expansion and all Muslims should migrate to it and help it develop. This message proved appealing to jihadists who had become disappointed by Al Qaeda’s more cautious long war approach. Excited by the prospect of the creation of the Caliphate and by the Islamic State’s interpretation of apocalyptic prophesies confirming that the end of the world is near and that the final battle was being brought about by the creation of the Islamic State, the organization strengthened the jihadist movement and draw thousands of foreign fighters to joining its ranks.

In its transition from an insurgency to a government, the Islamic State has lost many of the advantages it enjoyed as an insurgent group (mobility, tactical surprise). The organization has had to take many of the responsibilities that come with being a government, such as devoting resources to governing, providing services to its people and security.

Since the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing efforts started in August 2014, the Islamic State’s military and smuggling capabilities have degraded. The Islamic State started squeezing the conquered population dry. In addition, the group has found it difficult to spread beyond the Sunni Arab majority areas into Shiite and Kurdish areas. The group’s advance was thereby halted and the internal state of play looks bad.

In 2016, the Islamic State will be challenged in several crucial battlefields. The first is Mosul in Iraq, the largest city under the Islamic State’s control and the place where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the caliphate. Evaluating from the coalition airstrikes and the Iraqi offensives in Ramadi, Baiji and Tikrit, the operation to recapture Mosul needs thorough tactical planning. The Pentagon has offered broad plans to retake Mosul using Kurdish and Iraqi forces to attack the Islamic State-held city from different directions.

Beyond Mosul, the town of Dabiq, Syria, is of great ideological significance. In the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islamic apocalyptic prophecy, Dabiq will be the place where the armies of the world will gather to fight the true believers in the final battle, in which the true believers will be delivered by the return of the prophet Isa (Jesus).

These prophecies are why the Islamic State leaders have shown no reluctance to attack, threaten or challenge world powers – they truly believe that the armies of the world will all descend upon them and that they will emerge from the conflict victorious through divine intervention.

The Islamic State’s position in northern Aleppo province, where Dabiq is located, is becoming increasingly weak and the group is being pressured from three directions by:

– a coalition of Syrian rebels in the northwestern part of the region – the rebel front line is now less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Dabiq;
– Syrian government forces, pressing in from the southwest around al-Bab;
– the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, east of Dabiq, near Manbij.

Unfortunately for ISIS, it appears that Dabiq is about to be attacked by a coalition of other Muslims and not the combined armies of the world. Still, it will be very important to watch how the Islamic State leaders respond to the threat against Dabiq.

A city of great significance is Raqqa, the State’s capital. The city was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate from A.D. 769 to A.D. 809, before the capital was moved to Baghdad.

Here, the Syrian Democratic Forces are now only about 30 kilometers (19 miles) away and capturing Raqqa from the Islamic State would mark a highly symbolic victory.

When considering the ISIS presence outside of Iraq and Syria, it is important to note that most of the Islamic State’s “provinces” (called “wilaya” in Arabic) or affiliate groups are rebranded versions of existing jihadist groups or splinters of terrorist groups that have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Except for the Wilayat Barqa (eastern Libya) and Wilayat Khorasan (Afghanistan), the Islamic State affiliate groups are entering 2016 weaker than last year, as they continue to be pressed hard on all sides.

On Dec. 26, 2015, the Islamic State’s Al Hayat Media Center released an audio message from al-Baghdadi titled “Wait as we Indeed are Waiting”, with a dramatically different tone from that of his triumphal 2014 declaration of the Caliphate. Al-Baghdadi appealed for Muslims to demonstrate patience and perseverance under severe inevitable affliction and trials and to do their duty to preserve the Islamic State by traveling to join it.

Nevertheless, experts warn that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may be looking to declare at least one foothold or at least establish a satellite presence in Southeast Asia in 2016, with the Philippines and Indonesia being the most likely targeted.

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