By Mahmut Aytekin
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been a turning point in asymmetric conflict for the past seven years. ISIL known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the Islamic State (IS) and DAESH (these names will be used interchangeably in this paper) is still a great international security problem that needs attention by not only countries within the Middle East, but also with its franchises in Africa and the Maghreb region, and also lone-wolf attacks within Europe as well. ISIL through their radical ideology have proclaimed to being the true representatives of Muslims, and have set up a Caliphate; fulfilling the prophecy of Islamic scriptures. This paper will be providing an analysis of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, initially providing an analysis of the environment and the adversary, and then providing a center of gravity analysis. This paper will address the loss of ISIL’s state within Iraq and Syria as a key vulnerability for the adversary, but its utilization of sympathizers as lone-wolf terrorists in regions beyond its ‘caliphate’ such as Europe and Asia as its key advantage. It can be determined that the most likely course of action of the adversary will be its loss of its land in Iraq and Syria, but it may move its battle towards Asia, with the current state of Malawi in the Philippines. A second most likely course of action may ISIL shifting its caliphate to the cyber-realm and controlling the organization from there. Most dangerous outcome will be its extensive use of suicide bombers and returnees fleeing from Iraq and Syria to Europe and other regions.
Evaluation of the Environment
From 2014 onwards, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has lost much of its safe-havens including its capital city Raqqa to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDG , and also the cities of Dabiq and Jarablus with the joint operation executed by Turkish Armed Forces and Syrian rebel groups. Dabiq is known to be the prophesized town whereby the final ‘apocalyptic’ battle was going to take place between the Islamic State and ‘non believers’ (Robins-Early, 2016).
The Islamic State is currently controlling urban areas on the Iraqi and Syrian border in the Anbar region. Key rivers running through Al-Mayadin to the Al-Qa’im regions provide water supplies to the Kurdish held regions those held by Syrian regime and Iraqi government. Waterlines are also seen to pass through regions close to Ninawah and Al-Qairawan towards the north of ISIL held territories.
These regions could be estimated to suffice ISIL’s irrigation needs and grow vegetables for consumption including food for animals as well. ISIL have also been known to use water supplies as weapons previously. ISIL had previously closed off dams in 2015 on the Euphrates River in Western Iraq to reduce the amount of water coming through and giving them greater freedom to attack regime forces in Ramadi. In addition to closing of water for greater movement, ISIL have also caused drought in Syrian regime held territories (Reuters, 2015).
The current urban areas held by ISIL on the Iraq-Syria border are the regions whereby the group has grew from. This ungoverned area at the moment may allow for ISIL to consolidate its followers, and re-grow again with its geographic advantage. ISIL also holds its geographical advantage economic gains as well. The provinces of Al-Qaim 350 kilometers to the Ramadi District and its surrounding provinces are shared with the Syrian border. The area is known to be holding beds of phosphate. Cement factories are also present in ISIL held territories as well allowing for industrial works to come about. Gas fields raw materials are also present in Akkaz. Finally, the region is also known for raw goods and fishing as well, aiding in seafood production (Center for International Private Enterprise, 2017: 10-11).
As most of ISIS’s top ranking cadre’s are from Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and security officers, the organization knows how to hide amongst the population and go underground effectively (McCabe, 2017: 97-98). The 2003 American insurgency into Iraq had led to small groups called ‘battalions’ forming with these officers who had been relieved of their duties with the de-baathification process initiated by the Maliki government (Byman, 2015: 130). ISIL had then offered them a way out and leadership positions within the organization. The Sahwa operation jointly initiated by the United States of America and the Maliki operation had also backfired as the Maliki government had not fulfilled its promise (Gurler & Ozdemir, 2014:3). Many civilians had joined the organization for reasons of poverty and unemployment. This has formed rapport between ISIL and the civilian population, giving way for ISIS to camouflage among the public. In 2016, ISIL had asked for locals to gather in schools whereby they were hiding amongst them.
ISIL were also utilizing civilians as human shields as well (Spencer, 2016). Airstrikes in this sense will result in severe casualties coming about, and boots on ground are needed. Hostage rescuing operations will need to take place in case of any human shields being utilized or hostages being present. Two US- Coalition airstrikes had taken place in the cities of Tabqa and Mansourah near Raqqa, resulting in the bombing of a school and a market place, killing 84 civilians (Human Rights Watch, 2017).
Evaluation of the Adversary
The Islamic State is can be seen to currently being sandwiched between Kurdish and regime forces. As stated earlier, the region ISIS is pulling back towards (Al-Anbar) is where it had officially offshooted from, recruiting Sunni militants to its ranks. Within this regard, ISIS may go for a change of narratives to regain support, and recruit more militants to continue its ‘battle for the caliphate’, but this seems very unlikely at the moment. For ISIS to continue its fight in Syria and Iraq, local and international recruits aiding in ‘fresh legs’ are needed, but with current new legislations being employed by European nations, this does not seem to be quite possible.
The main differentiation between ISIL and other organizations involved in terrorism activities is its reach of translational attacks. The cases of Charlie Hebdo, Las Vegas shooting and many others prove this. ISIL is able to recruit quite effectively in this regard with the narratives it employs. Profiles of fighters show that most ISIL recruits and lone-wolf terrorists generally possess being charged for crimes including theft. A second point to consider is that ISIL mostly targets individuals who have no idea of Islamic and theological values. These individuals tend to be those who are born with two nationalities, who speak two languages, and are stuck between two cultures, one being from the east and the other being from the west, thus suffering from cultural and family traumas.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham can be seen to be the most effective organization utilizing social media for its propaganda activities to recruit both foreign fighters, and also lone-wolves (Gates & Podder, 2015: 109). Sympathizers watching ISIL propaganda generally are motivated to join the organization, by having their psychological gap voided, and being pushed into the radicalization cycle. ISIL applies different recruitment tactics and divides these into two: Recruitment within the Middle East & Recruitment outside the Middle East. Within Syria and Iraq, ISIL utilizes religious preachers to indoctrinate sympathizers to feel a sense of injustice coming about because of current regimes present in the two countries, and also other groups present as well. ISIL sympathizers are then told to pledge allegiance to the ‘caliph’; who is the head of the organization, and traditionally head of the Islamic Empire. Allegiance is made to the caliph, and then sympathizers are taken into recruitment camps to be further indoctrinated with ISIL ideology.
ISIL furthers on its attacks globally with the utilization of lone-wolf terrorists. In this sense, there is no clear hierarchical order globally, but attacks are encouraged via social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and also mobile messaging platforms such as Telegram. Videos are generally sent of attacks being conducted, and messages are also present for lone-wolf terrorists (Bloom, Tiflati and Horgan, 2017: 2). DAESH also regularly publishes manuals to aid lone-wolves in conducting attacks. The latest plot on the Forum Istanbul Shopping Mall in Istanbul is a great example of this. ISIL’s manual titled ‘A handbook for the lone-wolf terrorist’ published in Turkish was spotted in the safe-house used by the lone-wolf terrorists plotting the attack.
The Turkish Department of Defence had published a memo in 2012 stating ‘intel was received of ISIL possessing two fighter jets, though they did not have the necessary training to fight them’(T24, 2014). In addition to this, ISIL also possesses weapons of high military grade as most weapons and vehicles were left in the battle of Mosul in 2014. As ISIL possesses Baathist intelligence officers and military personnel in its ranks, is has a large capacity of skill transfer to the utilization of these weapons and vehicles to new recruits (Basra, Neumann and Brunner, 2016: 35-36). This is a serious point that should be taken into consideration. In terms of battle, ideology plays a big part, for most fighters want to become ‘martyrs’ and ‘go to paradise’. This creates a sense of motivation and passion for fighting. In addition to ideology, ISIL is also known to give the ‘Super Pill II’, officially known as Captagon to its militants. This pill aids in motivation and provides energy and strength to the fighter. It also possesses traits present in that of amphetamines (Henley, 2014; Kan, 2016) .
Centers of Gravity Analysis
The key vulnerability present in ISIL will be its loss of its lands in Syria and Iraq. This exists for two primary reasons. Firstly, the Islamic State like other terrorist organizations argues for state-building, that is possessing a land of their own where ‘sharia’ is governing the region. Recruits who join ISIL tend to travel to Syria and Iraq to live in a ‘holy land’ and grow their children where there is purity and ‘no evil of the west’. DAESH’s propaganda in this sense revolves around this narrative of living the Islamic way (Schmid, 2015: 6-7). The loss of lands in Syria and Iraq will be a serious blow to ISIL. Recruits will have nowhere to go, and ‘live the pure life’. ISIL’s narrative will be shattered.
Secondly, if ISIL loses its lands in Iraq and Syria, its legitimacy in the eyes of its recruits will be eliminated. According to Islamic tradition as stated earlier, the Caliph is responsible all Muslims globally and is seen as the primary leader. The lands the Caliph rules are the lands of the Islamic Empire. Such examples could be seen with the Ottoman Empire, the Mamlouks and the Abbasid empires. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham is starting to continue this tradition by being the ‘prime leader of Muslims who everyone must pledge allegiance to’. If the lands of the caliph are lost, ISIL will not be able to recruit sympathizers to fight, as it will be illegitimate. According to the Holy Scriptures, the final apocalyptic battle will take place between believers and non believers. ISIL has used this narrative to is advantage, and has stated that the final battle will be taking place in the region of Dabiq. As Dabiq was taken by Turkish and Opposition forces, ISIL’s narrative had taken a vital blow. The final blow in this sense will be if Al-Anbar region is taken over by the coalition and ISIL is driven out.
On the other hand, a key advantage ISIL will be able to make use of is its sympathizers beyond Syria and Iraq. Recently, ISIL has been shifting towards the Asian continent, causing major problems in the city of Malawi. An addition of 20,000 Philippines security forces have been deployed to eliminate ISIL forces present in the city. In addition to Asia, current trends show that ISIL sympathizers will be performing attacks that have become much simpler, and are almost identical. ISIL publications have stated that ‘a knife should be used against the non-believer. If a knife cannot be used, a punch should be thrown to his face, and if a punch cannot be thrown, then one should at least spit into the non-believers face’. ISIL have been calling for simpler attacks by its sympathizers present in Western countries. The latest attacks by ISIL show that vehicles will be utilized more for mass casualties. This is a technique used by the organization in Iraq and Syria. Vehicles are utilized as mobile IED’s for the killing of many individuals. Within Europe, ISIL may not be able to find explosives as easier as they would find in Iraq and Syria. For this reason, vehicles are being used to employ simpler attacks by ramming into individuals who they see as non-believers.
If ISIL loses its territory in Syria and Iraq, a second most likely outcome may be ISIL shifting its caliphate to the cyber-realm. The Islamic State may change its narrative, stating the final battle will be taking on in the cyber-realm. ISIL will then be able to coordinate the organization from here, with utilizations of VPN’s and proxy organizations, thus not limiting itself to any given territory. ISIL will then be able to procure explosives, weapons, and financial resources such as amphetamines and the like from the dark-web (sometimes called deep-web). The Islamic State will most likely not face financial difficulties as most recruits have been in the crime-terrorist nexus. Methods of financing operations within beyond Syria and Iraq may be through legal and illegal methods. Legal methods include sympathizers pulling out loans from banks, selling their belongings such as their cars, or utilizing their monthly wages for weapons and explosive procurement. Funds are then transferred with the Hawala system (European Parliament, 2017: 13), Illegal methods of financing for ISIL could include robbery, theft, extortion and the selling of drugs and substances. This new approach will aid returnees to conduct operations in their countries, and also lone-wolves who have not travelled to Iraq or Syria to conduct attacks as well. ISIL will then most likely utilize ‘a second chance’ narrative whereby, those who have travelled to Syria and Iraq, but not become ‘martyred’ to being given a chance to become a martyr. This new narrative will be more effective to those who have not travelled to Syria or Iraq as most have looked for opportunities but have not been able to find a point of contact to travel there, or strict security measures have not allowed them to travel out of the country.
ISIS is still a great threat globally, even though its state in Iraq and Syria may show differently. Its continuous use of cyber-propaganda and mobile messaging apps are allowing for hundreds to be recruited as days go by. As the Islamic State is global, serious threats are present for countries in the Middle East, Europe and Asia as well. The current state of Malawi hows that, ISIL will be able to shift its fight from one continent to another quite quickly. Whilst it looses land in Iraq and Syria, it may gain land in Asia. Daesh’s effective utilization of social media effectively allows for its propaganda to go global very quickly(Pantucci, Ellis and Chaplais, 2015: 11-12). For this reason, combating ISIL’s narratives will be critical in defeating the organization. Troops on ground will be effective for containment of ISIL in the Middle East, but for regions present beyond the Middle East, a more structured approach is needed to fight radicalization and recruitment. In regards to center of gravity analysis, a key advantage of ISIL is its sympathizers and militants within Europe and other continents. These present a grave threat to the sovereignty of states they are present in and this would be the most dangerous outcome. A key disadvantage on the other hand is ISIL losing its territory in Iraq and Syria. This will void its narratives and lower the amount of recruits joining the organization. The most likely course of action will be ISIL losing its territory, but the organization may shift its forces and efforts to the cyber-realm, thus coordinating everything not from Raqqa, but a cyber-caliphate.
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