Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

How Strong is the Islamic State?

IS provinces attacks
Islamic State provinces and attacks between 29 June 2014 and 22 June 2015.
© Fanack 2015

On 29 June 2015, the Islamic State (IS) celebrated its first anniversary—a full year of brutality and tragedy paid for mainly by civilians. Such atrocities dominate the mainstream media, but let’s examine how strong IS really is.

On 26 June 2015, IS claimed three attacks, on three continents, in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France—on a tourist resort, a Shia mosque, and an industrial gas plant—leaving dozens of casualties, but it remains to be seen what role, if any, IS really played in these attacks. On 25 June 2015, it launched attacks in northern Syria that left 60,000 people displaced in Hasaka and more than 150 dead when it re-entered Kobani/Ayn al-Arab.

A few days earlier, IS began to mint its first coins—its gold dinar is meant to exchange at $139—making a still stronger statement about its sovereignty. And Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi recently told an Iraqi TV station that the Iraqi army had lost a large number of weapons to IS, especially when it seized Mosul in May 2014. These are reported to have included more than 40 M1A1 main battle tanks, 74,000 machine guns, about 52 M198 mobile howitzers, and 2300 Humvees.

A close look at the month of June, however, shows something less than triumph for the terrorist group.

IS lost Tal Abyad in Syria, when forces from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their allies drove IS forces out of the city on 16 June, after they had blockaded the town of Suluk days before. A week later, the YPG captured the IS base in Ayan Issa, a city located only 50 kilometres from the de facto IS capital of Raqqa, in Syria. Such losses are strategic, as they mean that Raqqa has lost its first line of defence. At the same time, a Syrian rebel coalition made remarkable progress towards blocking the Bab al-Salama border crossing, an IS supply route on the Turkish border, by capturing al-Bal village in northern Aleppo Governorate on 12 June.

In Iraq, IS certainly made gains in Anbar Province, when it seized its capital, Ramadi, in mid-May, but it had previously lost territories in Diyala and Salaheddin provinces north of Baghdad.

In Libya, forces from Libya Dawn, the Tobruk-based government, and al-Qaeda linked militias are fighting IS. They have made considerable gains, including in Derna and Sirte, both previously IS-controlled cities. Derna, where IS has committed some of its horrendous atrocities this year, has now seen its first traffic patrolman and Libyan flag in years.

Syrian refugees return to the Syrian town of Tal Abyad from Turkey
Syrian refugees return from Turkey to the Syrian town of Tal Abyad through the Akcakale Border gate on 22 June 2015 after Kurdish fighters drove out IS militants from the town. Photo Muslum Etgu / Anadolu Agency

In an acknowledgment of the significance of such losses, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, in a radio broadcast called “Our people, answer the preacher of Allah,” admitted the losses but reminded his audience that IS would not be defeated. “The mujahideen may lose one battle or more, they may lose one city or more, but they will not be defeated.” He also called on the militias in Libya and Afghanistan to refrain from fighting IS and to fight alongside it instead. He then called on people in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Jordan to mobilize before the Yemeni, Iraqi, and Syrian scenarios are repeated in their countries, scenarios in which the Shiiites (called rawafid, people who reject legitimate religious authority) took over those countries.

This change in the IS narrative, which had previously aimed to glorify the organization and present it as unconquerable, implies the seriousness of its losses. The calls for more fighters to join IS implies a shortage of combatants, particularly following reports that IS was short of suicide bombers, who were fleeing the group. And, according to US officials, 10,000 IS fighters were killed during the nine-month, US-led air campaign against IS.

IS is, however, by no means inconsequential. Its creatively brutal and manipulative communication and marketing campaigns have succeeded in recruiting tens of thousands of people from various demographic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. It has been able to spread its violent extremism propaganda under the umbrella of “Islamic jihad.” It has succeeded in expanding beyond the Levant, where it was born, and it has recently established in Russia the so-called Caucasian State, ruled by Abu Mohamed al-Qadari. At the end of 2014, its assets amounted to $2 billion.

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