In late January 2015 there was a determined effort by the Barack Obama administration to present a picture of effective progress against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Thousands of fighters had been killed, much of the middle-ranking paramilitary leadership removed, and the entire progress of the movement across northern Iraq blunted. The United States secretary of state John Kerry was at the forefront of the rhetorical campaign, which for a short time it seemed to have an effect.
More recent developments have cast the situation in a rather different light. Among the most significant was testimony from Vincent Stewart, incoming director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, to the congressional armed-services committee. Only a couple of days after Kerry's up-beat interviews, Stewart predicted that Islamic State would “continue entrenching itself and consolidating gains in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, while fighting also for territory outside those areas.”
The marine corps' lieutenant-general, raising the issue of Afghanistan, expressed some confidence that the Afghan national-security forces (ANSF) could maintain control of key urban areas and major highways; but also that “the Taliban, al-Qaida and their extremist allies will likely seek to exploit the reduced Coalition presence by pressuring ANSF units in rural areas, conducting high profile attacks in major population centres, and expanding their safe havens.”
This warning was echoed less than two weeks later, when a report by the European Asylum Support Office stated bluntly that the "overall trend is one of decreasing government control outside the larger towns and cities, and escalating violence and more insurgent attacks”.
In his testimony, Stewart had also referred to the growth of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and here again other findings reinforce his concern. The US armed-forces’ main newspaper Stars & Stripes reports a Boko Haram announcement on 16 February that, in response to a regional meeting in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé, called to coordinate resistance to Boko Haram, the movement was prepared to engage in attacks on neighboring Niger and Chad.
Perhaps most significant in Stewart’s briefing to Congress was his concern over developments in north Africa, which predated the mass killing of twenty-one Egyptian Copts by an Islamic State affiliate. Again, Stars & Stripes gives a relevant insight by pointing to the way that several extreme Islamist groups in Libya have pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Such groups now control two ports: Darnah (Derna) with its nearby oil terminal, and the larger port city of Sirte, 300 miles to the west. They have also established a presence in several other cities, including Tripoli and Benghazi.
On the ground
Two other elements in Libya that are important. The first is that the level of ungoverned space is so great, with a huge array of militias, that any more organised and determined group can readily expand, absorbing other groups as it demonstrates success. That seems to be what is happening for Islamic State as it carves out new territory, and the probability is that this will continue.
Moreover, a remarkable aspect of this expansion is that at least one of the associated groups has aircraft at its disposal. Two days after the killing of the Egyptian Copts, aircraft attacked the airfield at Zintan in western Libya; the target was one of the militias supporting Operation Dignity, an amalgam of groups opposed to Islamist forces. The aircraft, probably MiGs from the remnants of Gaddafi’s airforce, were operated by a militia that formed part of Libya Dawn (a cluster of moderate and extreme Islamist elements, including some loosely linked to Islamic State).
The second element is that Islamic State leaders see Libya as having major potential for controlling territory as an extension of their notion of a caliphate. This would be much closer to western Europe, and benefit from the long-term presence of support for Islamism among sections of Libyan society, The latter had been thoroughly suppressed under Gaddafi but has increasingly come to the fore since his lynching in October 2011.
In the air
All these factors, even taken together, do not lead to the conclusion that Islamic State is thriving and spreading. But neither do they mean that the movement is in terminal decline or anything like it. IS remains a substantial force. Yet there is little appetite in the United States or western Europe for ground combat-operations in Iraq and Syria, and still less - given the appalling outcome of the regime termination of 2011 - for getting involved in Libya.
What is becoming more evident, though, is the steady increased commitment to regaining and maintaining security by remote control, as many columns in this series have analysed. In that context, a notable recent development is the Obama administration's decision on 17 February to allow export of armed drones, including the singularly powerful Reaper - and not just to friendly European states (such as Britain, France and the Netherlands) but to regional allies like Jordan.
American arms companies engaged in armed-drone development and production have often complained at the US government's restrictions on their exports, which leaves competitors such as Israeli arms companies in a good place to benefit. That official policy may now be coming to an end.
There may not be “boots on the ground” taking on Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, Libya or elsewhere. But the use of armed-drones, including by non-western states, promises to have a great impact on the future of this conflict.
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