PORTLAND, Or. June 30, 2016/ Troy Media/ − In the pundit frenzy that followed Brexit, a significant anniversary passed by relatively unnoticed. Two years ago, on June 30, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the existence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its worldwide caliphate.
Dismissed initially by U.S. President Barack Obama as “the JV” team”, ISIS has proven to be remarkably resilient. It has spread its organization to more than three dozen countries around the world and has successfully organized or inspired dozens of attacks against Western targets.
ISIS has lost considerable ground over the past year, and especially over the last six months. It has relinquished between one quarter and one third of its territory. More significantly, it has been ejected from Tikrit, Ramadi and now Fallujah, the principal towns that it held in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland of Iraq. In the meantime, Iraqi forces, in conjunction with Kurdish Peshmerga units, are slowly advancing on the Islamic State’s principal city of Mosul.
In Syria, ISIS has also steadily lost ground. It has largely lost control of the region along the Syrian-Turkish border, a critical zone essential for its smuggling and resupply operations. Syrian military forces in the southeast are within 30 miles of Raqqa, the Islamic State capital. On the opposite trajectory, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group comprised largely of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and a combination of Sunni, Assyrian and other ethnic militias, are also advancing on Raqqa, and are roughly equidistant.
As pressure on the Islamic State has mounted, it has adopted a dual strategy to avoid defeat. On the one hand it has avoided pitched battles, relying instead on a scorched earth policy of inflicting maximum casualties through an extended and prolonged urban warfare campaign. At the same time, it has returned to its insurgent roots, organizing bombings against civilian targets in both Syria and Iraq.
In addition, Islamic State has steadily expanded its ability to carry out terrorist attacks, either directly planned or inspired, throughout Western Europe and the United States. Deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris and Brussels have left scores killed or injured. It’s estimated that ISIS has at least 200 trained jihadist operatives in Europe, and may have as many as 2,000 jihadists with some weapons and battlefield experience. ISIS itself claims that the number of jihadists it has infiltrated into Europe exceeds 5,000.
In addition, ISIS militants have been implicated in a range of attacks against soft, tourist oriented, targets in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey. On June 28, three IS suicide bombers detonated bombs at the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul killing, at last count, 41 people and injuring over 230. It appears that one of the core strategies of al-Baghdadi is to disrupt the tourist industry in North Africa and Turkey. Interpol has already warned that Islamic State is looking for opportunities to stage such attacks on the European side of the Mediterranean as well.
ISIS has been heavily engaged in the Libyan Civil War. For most of the year it held control of the Libyan city of Sirte − the only urban centre it controlled outside of its core territory. Indeed, there have been indications that ISIS was considering Libya as a fallback location should they be ousted from Syria and Iraq. Currently, it appears that it may have lost control over large portions of the city to other jihadist groups. The situation remains fluid.
In the United States, ISIS has inspired “lone wolf” attacks against “soft” civilian targets, most notably the attacks in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015, and in Orlando on June 12. It is unclear how extensive an organization Islamic State has in the United States. According to the FBI, it is investigating more than 1,000 Americans believed to have ties to the Islamic State. An ISIS affiliate has been announced in the United States, but it has not formally been recognized by al-Baghdadi.
Most significantly, however, is mounting evidence that Islamic State has been expanding into criminal activities. According to Interpol sources, Islamic State is now involved in the smuggling of marijuana from the Balkans into Western Europe.
In short, despite its recent notable setbacks, the Islamic State continues to be resilient and adaptive. The campaign to retake Mosul will stretch out well into 2017. Despite the progress by both the Syrian military and the SDF, Raqqa is in no immediate danger of falling. In the meantime, Islamic State will continue to expand its international franchises. It is increasing both the scale and frequency of its attacks in Europe and North America, while it also expands its for-profit criminal activity.
The “JV team” is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and it continues to show that it can handle anything the “pros” can throw at it.
Troy Media columnist Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics. Joe is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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