Wikimedia Commons.An interim report of the condition of ISIS in early April found a mixed picture. On the one hand the movement was suffering heavy losses, with as many as 28,000 of its supporters having been killed in the intensive United States-led air war of the previous 20 months. It was also having to cope with the increasing use of western ground troops in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, there were indications that substantial western military action against ISIS elements in Libya was becoming likely (see "The war on terror: an interim report", 7 April 2016).
On the other hand, the analysis suggested that ISIS was proving resilient in the face of these challenges. It had been able to extend its operations to western targets, including the tourist attacks in Tunisia in 2015, and the major attacks in Paris (twice) and Brussels. The key piece of evidence arising here was that this change of strategy had been decided before the air-war started, indicating that ISIS paramilitary planners had thought ahead as to how to respond to expected western action.
A more recent column highlighted the increased US involvement in the ground war, not least the forward-basing of marine-corps artillery units to support Iraqi army forces attempting to take territory from ISIS close to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (see "America vs ISIS, the prospect", 15 April 2016). A related briefing from Oxford Research Group in April had highlighted another factor: the way in which so many European states were turning their backs on often desperate refugees. Some of their governments believed that measures such as razor-wire, teargas, water-cannon and other paraphernalia of public-order control were necessary, but the impact across the Islamic world would be almost wholly negative: as yet one more example of the western hatred of Islam.
These elements all point to a hugely difficult and costly conflict. However, the two initially noted – the risk of ISIS attacks on the west, and more western "boots on the ground" – have been given a substantial boost in the past two days.
On the first element, the continental United States has little experience in the way of ISIS action except the multiple shootings in San Bernardino, California in December 2015. Now, however, Barack Obama's director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told CNN that ISIS has “the capability to stage a Paris-style attack in the US using local cells to strike in multiple locations and inflict dozens of casualties”.
Western officials making such claims may in part be doing so as a form of insurance: being able to say that they have given citizens advance warning of an attack rather than being pilloried for not preventing it. On this occasion, other administration officials tended to play down the risk. Even so, the comment of the US's senior domestic-intelligence official added to the sense that ISIS’s ambitions vis-à-vis the west go far beyond Europe – and Washington may have been wrong to think otherwise.
On the second element, details have emerged about the death of a special-forces operative, SEAL team’s Charles Keating IV. Early in the morning of 3 May, a group of around a dozen US combat-advisers was working with Kurdish troops in the village of Tel Askuf in northern Iraq, assessing their logistics requirements and advising on tactical defences, when they came under heavy attack by a large ISIS force. Keating was part of a quick-reaction force sent in to help them withdraw when he was critically injured, and despite rapid medical evacuation to the Kurdish city of Erbil he died within the hour.
On its own, the incident appeared another example of “mission creep”, a consequence of what happens as US operations expand. But the real significance concerns the nature of the ISIS attack, which (says Military Times) involved about 125 operatives of ISIS attacking the village while “maneuvering in small units with 20 armed vehicles and several truck bombs”.
A capable force
This illustrates two things, both significant. The first is that while ISIS may be under intense pressure from the air-war, it can still organise a formidable operation involving over a hundred of its people in a tightly coordinated initiative. Military Times reports the ironic fact that ISIS used some US-made Humvees in its attack, probably drawn from the hundreds they looted from Iraqi army bases during their advances across northern Iraq in 2014.
Even more surprising, though, is that ISIS succeeded in infiltrating the force nearly five miles from its own territory without being observed by Kurdish or US intelligence. This is remarkable in the context of the very heavy resources being utilised by US forces: especially high levels of real-time observation, including reconnaissance drones, satellites, signals interception and numerous resources of human intelligence.
It is also worth noting that an ISIS paramilitary force of around 125 would have expected a huge US response after the attack, and were prepared for death. In the event, the US brought in F-15 and F-16 strike-aircraft, A-10 ground-attack aircraft, drones and even B-52 strategic bombers; these destroyed 20 ISIS vehicles, two truck-bombs, three mortar systems and even a bulldozer that the ISIS paramilitaries had used. An estimated 58 ISIS fighters were killed.
Charles Keating was the third American soldier to be killed in action against ISIS, compared with 28,000 ISIS paramilitaries, but the manner of his death illustrated the striking capabilities of the ISIS movement. If it really has lost up to a half of its fighting forces, as some US sources believe, it should be on its last gasp. The attack on Tel Askuf shows that to be very far from the truth.