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ISIS's war: real to virtual, far to near

A series of attacks beyond its core territory reveals Islamic State's capacity to adapt and to plan for the long term.

Smoke from IS positions outside Fallujah, May 2016. Khalid Mohammed/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Smoke from IS positions outside Fallujah, May 2016. Khalid Mohammed/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In Libya and Iraq, military campaigns against ISIS are intensifying. But in assessing the movement's condition, a wider view is also needed.

On the second day of the new round of air-attacks against ISIS forces in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, United States marine corps AV8B strike-aircraft were launched from the USS Wasp, an amphibious-warfare vessel. Military sources say that the operation would most likely last weeks, and only end when those Libyan militias loosely aligned to the government of national accord in Tripoli succeed in taking control of the city.

When the current assault on Sirte started in May 2016, rapid initial progress was reported. The city, it seems, would soon be liberated. In practice the assault slowed to a crawl as the government-backed forces suffered 300 killed and many wounded, hence the need for US air-power. It now seems likely that ISIS has already withdrawn many of its paramilitaries and dispersed them to other towns and cities. Thus, even if Sirte is taken in the coming weeks, it will be just one episode in an ongoing conflict.

In Iraq, meanwhile, government forces have consolidated their control of Fallujah amidst reports that the city is now rigidly 'policed' by Shi’a militias to the anger of many Iraqi Sunnis. Even so, preparations are now being made for an eventual attack on Iraq’s second city of Mosul, which has been controlled by ISIS since the group's advance across northern Iraq in mid-2014.

The Pentagon is committing several hundred more troops to work closely with Iraqi forces, in the hope of retaking Mosul later this year. In that event, the city will in effect have succumbed to a combined assault of Iraqi government forces and Shi’a militias, backed by the United States and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This will be welcomed as a major step in the suppression of ISIS. Yet two substantial and awkward issues will arise.

From real to virtual

The first is that the idea that the war against ISIS is beginning to move to some kind of conclusion is not shared by highly experienced analysts in western security circles. This is confirmed in reports of the recent meeting of the Washington-based Aspen Security Institute where a comment from the European Union counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, is typical of the mood of the whole conference. Referring to the ISIS online presence, he says

“If we destroy [ISIS] in Syria and Iraq so they don’t have a territory anymore, of course that reduces their influence. But the virtual caliphate has not been destroyed. The capacity to inspire in the West will remain.”

This statement illustrates a more general assessment which rarely gets into the estalishment media, whose present concern is with the terror threat to individual western countries. The latter is shown by the parading in London on 3 August of Scotland Yard’s new anti-terror force, dressed far more like Robocop than even the armed police so common at airports.  

The key implication of the views expressed at the Aspen forum is even if it ever proves possible to comprehensively suppress ISIS in militarily terms, the movement will continue to exist. It will simply transfer into a virtual environment, though the impact of its operations will be far from virtual.

From far to near

This raises the second issue. An earlier column in this series noted what still seems to have been missed in many analyses: namely, that ISIS strategists saw years ago that a United States-led coalition would ultimately go to war against their movement (see "The war on terror: an interim report", 7 April 2016). It turned out that this would mainly be a 'remote-control' war dependent on airstrikes, drone-operations and special forces, rather than tens of thousands of boots on the ground. But it would still be seriously intense and sustained in its level of operations.

To counter such a strategy, the ISIS intention was to move beyond its proto-caliphate in Syria and Iraq and take the war directly to the 'far enemy'. This is clearly what has now happened – in Tunisia, Belgium, France, Turkey, the United States, Bangladesh and elsewhere. It also explains the upgrading of the British police counterterror units.

There is further evidence of ISIS's long-term planning for this wide-ranging policy: interviews with a would-be German supporter, Harry Sarfo, who is now in a high-security prison, as well as extensive documentation from European security and intelligence agencies.

In essence, ISIS operates a major organisational division, “Emni”, which has been working for at least two years to develop a capability for attacks, especially in western countries. The preparations extend to taking would-be recruits who have travelled to Syria to join ISIS and sending them back to their own countries. Thus:

“Reinforcing the idea that the Emni is a core part of the Islamic State’s operations, the interviews and documents indicate that the unit has carte blanche to recruit and reroute operatives from all parts of the organization – from new arrivals to seasoned battlefield fighters, and from the group’s special forces and its elite commando units. Taken together, the interrogation records show that operatives are selected by nationality and grouped by language into small, discrete units whose members sometimes only meet one another on the eve of their departure abroad.”

It is particularly significant that this policy exists in addition to the process of inspiring people abroad to carry out their own attacks. It is a much more 'professional' approach by highly experienced and utterly determined paramilitaries, and is clearly intended for use in the long-term, even after ISIS may seem to have been defeated on the ground.

Among all this material, what comes across repeatedly is the near total disconnect in most western minds between the supposedly random and motiveless attacks of the last couple of years and the actuality of a violent yet sophisticated strategy that is part of a singularly long-term war. Western forces may have killed 30,000 or more ISIS supporters in the two-year long air-campaign. But the ISIS leaders see this as just one part of a much greater confrontation, one they are now intent on escalating in the lands of their far enemy.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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