Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Islamic State on the Retreat Yet Still Dangerous

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter gives a tour of Islamic State hideouts in the newly liberated city of Sinjar. Yazidi members of the Kurdish forces have already covered over some of the graffiti with their own. January 2016, Sinjar, Iraq. Photo Laurence Geia/SIPA.
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter gives a tour of Islamic State hideouts in the newly liberated city of Sinjar. Yazidi members of the Kurdish forces have already covered over some of the graffiti with their own. January 2016, Sinjar, Iraq. Photo Laurence Geia/SIPA.

“The Crusader strategy is not working, because the Islamic state is here to stay,” the Islamic State (IS) said on 19 January 2016 in their magazine, Dabiq, threatening attacks on Europe and in the West: “Until then, let the Crusaders get used to the sound of explosions and the image of carnage in their homelands.”

Western security officials, however, see IS threats to Europe as a sign of weakness on the ground rather than of strength. According to Europol, at least 5,000 IS fighters returned home to Europe and pose a threat. US coalition officials say that their anti-IS strategy is working and IS has increasing problems paying their fighters, controlling their territory, and maintaining their manpower.

In 2015 and 2016, IS lost the towns of Ramadi, Sinjar, and Bayji to US-backed Kurdish and Iraqi forces, and the US is slowly preparing its 3,800 troops in Iraq to work with the Iraqis to take the town of Mosul later this year.

Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers have arrived in the town of Makhmour, about 60 miles southeast of Mosul, where the Mosul operations will be led by Lieutenant General Najim al-Jibouri.

Losing territory

According to coalition estimates, between August 2014 and January 2016, IS lost about 40 per cent of its territory in Iraq.

“Yes, they are weakening, if we compare them to June 2014,” Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq’s former National Security Adviser told Fanack. “They lost the initiative, they are no longer on the offensive; they are on the defensive,” he said.

Al-Rubaie says they lost the important Sunni provincial capitals of Tikrit and Ramadi. “They lost good resources, they lost their leaders, and, more important, some of their financial resources and oil.”

However, the territory that IS has lost in Syria is small and due mainly to the advance of Kurdish-led forces.

According to coalition data, IS has lost only 11 per cent of its territory in Syria since August 2014. And in February 2016, IS managed to cut the regime’s defensive lines around Aleppo by taking Khanasir.

“There is a lack of a unified ground force to hit IS in Syria, compared with Iraq,” Ceng Sagnic, a researcher with the Tel Aviv-based Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told Fanack. Nevertheless, US-backed Kurdish forces managed to take the Syrian town of Shadadi from IS in February 2016.

The failure of the CIA programme of building rebel forces in Syria to fight off IS expansion “made the US-allied ground force a solely Kurdish one and therefore decreased chances for the US coalition to support such an ethnic movement to capture Sunni Arab region,” Sagnic added.

Foreign Fighters

US intelligence says that the total number of fighters has decreased to between 19,000 and 25,000 in Iraq and Syria from previous numbers estimated at up to 31,000, resulting from battlefield deaths and a reduced flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Through the end of 2015 slightly more than 1,000 foreign fighters a month were joining IS, a US official familiar with the data told Voice of America.

“But we also recognize the very wide range in that estimate, and we acknowledge the difficulty in determining real numbers,” army Colonel Christopher Garver, a coalition spokesman, told Fanack.

“We have also seen reports of forced conscriptions and of IS training and using child soldiers, so that could be an indicator of the level of success of their recruiting program,” he added.

Analysts confirm that the number of foreign fighters has fallen, due to additional measures taken by Turkey and to the capture by Kurds of more territory along the Syrian-Turkish border, “primarily because of loss of control of much of the Turkish border area and Turkish tightening of the remaining border,” Aymen al-Tamimi, an analyst at the Middle East Forum think tank, told Fanack. The Turkish army announced on 15 February 2016 that 1,220 IS suspects have been captured trying to sneak into Syria from Turkey since January 2015.

Turkey is still the main gateway to IS-controlled areas in Syria,” added intelligence analyst Sagnic. “There are credible reports indicating that foreign fighters even use [non-jihadist] rebel-held territories to access IS-controlled regions in disguise [as civilians].” In signs of growing weakness and falling morale, IS announced a month-long amnesty for deserters and executed 36 fighters by firing squad for refusing to fight south of Mosul.

Local Kurdish fighters battling IS also say they have seen a significant decrease in the number of foreign fighters.

“In the beginning, we were attacked mostly by Iraqis and foreigners, but recently, the people we have killed and captured were mostly Iraqis,” Peshmerga Captain Bewar, at the Naweran frontline, approximately eight miles from the de facto IS capital of Mosul, told Fanack.


The US-led coalition says that IS is having financial difficulties. The estimated salaries of IS fighters range from $50 to $400 dollars per month.

“We do believe the IS fighters are still being paid salaries, but we have also recently seen reporting that the salaries of those fighters has been cut in half because of strikes against IS’s financial operations, from illicit oil revenue to cash storage and distribution,” said US coalition spokesperson Garver.

This is probably due to the fact they have lost major oil and gas fields and the sale of oil on the black market.

“They used to earn an average of $8 million in 10 months on the black market in Turkey; that has now been degraded,” said former Iraqi security official Rubaie in an interview.

However, many in IS-held territories may be dependent on IS salaries because the Iraqi government has cut the salaries paid in IS-held territories.

“The Iraqi government stopped paying salaries,” said Iraqi civilian Abu Hassan (52) from Bayji. “Some people don’t have opportunities other than working for IS.” Syrian government employees still get their salaries, if they can reach regime-held territory, Ceng Sagnic said.

“More and more military-aged male Syrians are joining IS because coalition bombing has rendered their families poorer and ruined their previous means of living,” said Michael Weiss, co-author of the book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror in an interview.

Although IS is becoming weaker in Iraq and Syria, security officials suggest that IS remains a threat outside of those countries.

“They are on the retreat, but they are expanding in many parts of the world—Afghanistan, South Asia, and North Africa,” said Rubaei.

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