One year after shocking capture of Mosul, Islamic State remains formidable

Mourners on June 8, 2015, carry the flag-draped coffins of 15 militia members of a Shiite group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, who were killed in Beiji, Iraq, fighting with Islamic State militants, according to their families.
Mourners on June 8, 2015, carry the flag-draped coffins of 15 militia members of a Shiite group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, who were killed in Beiji, Iraq, fighting with Islamic State militants, according to their families. AP

One year after the Islamic State stormed out of eastern Syria to take control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, last June 10, it remains a formidable force, with few signs that a U.S.-led bombing campaign has significantly blunted its abilities or ambitions.

U.S. officials say the bombing campaign has killed more than 10,000 Islamic State fighters and insist that the group controls 25 percent less territory in Iraq than it did when the U.S. began bombing Islamic State positions there 10 months ago.

But the casualty numbers are impossible to confirm independently and suggest that, at best, the Islamic State is a far larger organization than American officials initially imagined, and it is having no difficulty recruiting new members from across the world. Pledges made last year that Iraqi forces would soon mount an offensive to take back Mosul are now considered to have been unrealistic.

President Barack Obama on Monday acknowledged that the Islamic State’s recent gains show a shift in strategy is needed. “They’re nimble and they’re aggressive and they’re opportunistic,” he said of the group, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

Speaking at the close of the G-7 conference in Germany, Obama said he had asked the Pentagon for a plan to accelerate U.S. military efforts to train and equip Iraqi forces. “We don’t have, yet, a complete strategy, because it requires commitments on the part of Iraqis as well,” Obama said. “The details are not worked out.”

In a recent briefing for reporters, a senior State Department official said fighters from 100 countries had joined the Islamic State. New recruits continue to flow into Syria and Iraq, “almost all” of them across the Turkish border, in the words of the official, who could not be further identified under the conditions of the briefing.

The number of people living under Islamic State rule has grown since the U.S. bombing began. Virtually the entire population of the mostly Sunni province of Anbar, Iraq’s largest, is under the group’s control, with the addition in May of Ramadi, the provincial capital, a city of nearly 900,000. In Syria, the city of Palmyra, a famed tourist destination, also fell to the Islamic State in May, and most of the province of Deir el Zour, an important oil producing area, has come under Islamic State control since the onset of the U.S. bombing campaign.

U.S. airstrikes around the Syrian border town of Kobani, which is also known as Ayn al Arab in Arabic, is widely credited for halting an Islamic State push. But the group has since opened campaigns in Syria’s Hasaka province, pushed into the Yarmouk neighborhood of Damascus, and is pressing a campaign north of Aleppo that U.S.-backed rebel groups fear will cut off their supply routes. It has maintained its siege of Iraq’s Baiji oil refining complex for a year, despite U.S. bombing raids and repeated Iraqi government and militia efforts to break through.

Military analysts say the group supplies its fighters with ammunition, food and water in battle with an effectiveness that can be only imagined by its rivals. It continues to capture weapons and vehicles that it then uses in new offensives. Its tactic of turning U.S.-made armored Humvees into bombs with suicidal drivers has had devastating effect, most recently in the battle for Ramadi, where as many as 30 such “vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices,” in U.S. military parlance, leveled Iraqi government military positions. The United States recently began shipping 2,000 shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets to Iraq in hopes of countering the suicide bombs.

The group also has expanded internationally. In Libya, where the fight between two rival governments has left the country in chaos, an Islamic State affiliate now controls the city of Sirte, the hometown of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

In Pakistan, it has gained declarations of allegiance from a half-dozen small factions, though they’ve maintained a low profile, and the group has suffered some notable setbacks. The group’s governor for Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed Khan, blew up himself and two colleagues April 15 while manufacturing an improvised explosive device in Tirah. Its chief in Afghanistan, ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, died in March in a CIA drone strike in southern Helmand province.

Still, a retired Afghan Taliban commander who maintains contacts among Pakistan’s many radical groups said the Islamic State’s “long-term plan is to await the destruction of dominant Taliban factions by the Pakistani military, pick up the pieces, and emerge as the top threat to the state.” The commander asked to be identified for security reasons only as Okasha.

In Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State has claimed the recent suicide bombings of two Shiite Muslim mosques – attacks that took place not surprisingly shortly after Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi vowed May 14 in an audio statement to bring retribution to “the rulers of the Arabian peninsula,” who he said “have lost their supposed legitimacy.

Despite concerted efforts to block its videos from the web and to close down Islamic State-related Twitter accounts, the group maintains a major social media presence that U.S. officials credit with its ability to continue to recruit adherents around the world. One of the gunmen from Arizona who tried to attack an anti-Islam convention in Garland, Texas, maintained social media contacts with known Islamic State supporters and declared he was undertaking the assault in the name of the Islamic State. The attack failed but was embraced by the Islamic State, which declared the attackers, both of whom were killed by police before they could carry out their plan, “brothers of the caliphate” in radio broadcasts heard in Syria and Iraq.

As a measure of the potential for international recruitment, governments across the world have passed to Turkey the names of 13,000 likely Islamic State sympathizers, which Turkey maintains on a list of people to be denied entry, according to the senior State Department official. Still, the official acknowledged, potential Islamic State fighters continue to flow across the Turkish border into Syria.

A recent U.N. report said that the number of foreign terrorist fighters throughout the world had risen 71 percent between the capture of Mosul in June 2014 and March of this year, most of them fighters who’ve flooded Syria and Iraq. While 100 nations are sources of fighters, the report said, major contributors are France, Russia, Morocco and Tunisia.

“In many cases, in particular those associated with ISIL, the use of social media strengthens relationships between foreign terrorist fighters, a situation that may lay dangerous foundations for future transnational networks among veteran fighters,” the report said.

There have been successes in countering the Islamic State. Iraqi government troops recaptured the town of Tikrit in central Iraq in April after a month-long assault and a fierce U.S. bombing campaign. Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government halted an Islamic State push on areas near its capital, Irbil, last August. Last October, Iraqi government forces retook the town of Jurf al Sakr, southwest of Baghdad, ending the Islamic State’s threat to cut off Baghdad from the predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq.

The United States and its NATO allies have poured billions of dollars in military equipment and training into Iraq, including 3,000 American military advisers. Iran has sent an unknown number of military specialists, some of whom have regularly engaged in direct combat with the Islamic State. At least one senior Iranian military officer has been killed fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.

“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” Obama said in September when he expanded the campaign to include Islamic State targets in Syria.

By any metric that objective has not been met.

The campaign’s impacts have been relatively few: stabilizing frontlines in Kurdish-controlled sections of Iraq and Syria, the recapture of Tikrit, driving the Islamic State from some small population centers controlled by the group adjacent to Baghdad.

“I’m sure the airstrikes have hurt ISIS in terms of tactical movement,” said one British former special forces soldier who now advises Kurdish security officials in northern Iraq. “But they’ve shown uncanny ability to avoid having their key forces in position to be badly hurt.”

One reality of the situation on the ground in Iraq is that by the time U.S.-led aircraft are authorized to respond to reports of Islamic State forces, the Islamic State fighters have moved. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi complained in recent days that the airstrikes take too long to mount, though the solution, the dispatch of U.S. troops to forward positions to guide aircraft to their targets, is considered politically unacceptable in the United States.

“Without properly trained forward air controls engaged in combat, most likely from the West, the air campaign can only considered to be harassing ISIS and making it change its methods,” said the British adviser to the Kurds, asking that he not be identified because of his work. “Without the immediate effect on target that a forward air controller brings to the situation, you can’t expect this system to make a decisive advantage.”

The United States military claims that the coalition has destroyed more than 6,200 Islamic State targets through May – including fighting positions, tactical units, vehicles of all sorts and oil infrastructure used for funding the group – a number that cannot be confirmed.

But its claims that Iraqi government forces have reclaimed 25 percent of the territory controlled by the Islamic State rely on creative map reading and a logic that appears intended to emphasize the most optimistic view possible.

A map published by the U.S. Central Command to back up its claim of Islamic State losses accurately shows that Kurdish forces – a mix of Iraqi peshmerga militia and Syrian Kurds associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK by its initials in Kurdish – have stabilized the front lines around the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.

But it is inconsistent in the way it portrays Iraq’s vast desert regions, indicating that they are under Kurdish control in the north, while delineating as “neutral” similar tracts in Anbar province, where the Islamic State dominates.

In areas around Baghdad, the U.S contends that the Islamic State has been pushed out of large areas of Diyala province, an assertion that is correct. But it fails to note that Diyala, with a mixture of Sunni and Shiite villages, was never under the control of the Islamic State and that the pockets where the Islamic State operated have been secured largely by Iranian-trained, -equipped and -led militias that forced out or terrorized much of the Sunni population.

“It’s true much of Diyala has been stabilized for now,” said one Kurdish military commander who operates in the area and asked not to be identified because he doesn’t have permission to criticize his American allies’ analysis.

“But that region has long been a mixed area with powerful forces from both Sunni and Shiite militants as well as a peshmerga presence. Avoiding the loss of the province and retaking some traditional Daash areas of support is not the same as liberating the province from Daash,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

He, too, felt more progress could be made only with the addition of trained Western spotters on the ground. “The Americans are under pressure to show progress in the campaign,” he said. “But without more weapons and ‘boots on the ground’ to call in airstrikes, they can’t expect the peshmerga or the Iraqi army to defeat Daash. We can only hold our lines.”

Other government successes have the feel of defeat. The Islamic State’s siege of the oil refinery at Baiji has failed to capture the facility. But the once-critical facility – it used to provide 40 percent of Iraq’s domestic gasoline supply – has been all but destroyed in the fight, according to a series of videos that have been posted online. Oil experts who have viewed the images say the multibillion-dollar facility will be offline indefinitely.

“Baiji is destroyed,” said one oil industry expert who viewed a series of videos from the site online. He asked not to be identified because of ongoing contractual relationships with the Iraqi government. “They’re fighting over the rights to scrap metal.”

In Syria, Kurdish forces in the north, with the help of American airstrikes, thwarted the Islamic State’s attempt to capture Kobani and have expanded their foothold around the city of Qamishli.

But the Islamic State has consolidated control of most of the key crossroads around the city of Deir el Zour, a development that allows its force to move between Iraq’s Anbar province and the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa, in Syria’s north.

In May, after it seized the ancient city of Palmyra, an area with significant oil and natural gas reserves, the Islamic State intensified operations in Hama province. This month, it pushed to within striking distance of the moderate rebel-held town of Azzaz in northern Syria, sparking desperate moderate rebels to plead for U.S. air intervention. The capture of Azzaz would badly hobble the last remaining effective units of the Free Syrian Army in the north and leave the Islamic State in position to push into the bitterly contested city of Aleppo, where both Syrian government forces and rebels are exhausted by years of unbroken stalemate – and vulnerable to attack by their common radical enemy.

The Islamic State’s focus on building an actual state has shown mixed success. The group declared its caliphate on June 29, three weeks after the seizure of Mosul, naming Baghdadi, to be known as Caliph Ibrahim, as its ruler.

Residents of areas controlled by the Islamic State for the past year describe governance under the “caliphate” as a mixture of carrots, in the form of heavily subsidized basic food and medical staples, and sticks, in the way of a litany of rules and regulations that pervade every part of daily life and have alienated many residents, who remain too terrified of the group’s swift suppression of dissent to rebel.

Stores remain well stocked, even in recently captured Ramadi. Residents say the group has streamlined the taxation of trucking and shipping along the critical supply line from Turkey to Raqqa and Mosul, and from Jordan to Anbar province. Truckers report that the group only taxes shipments once, at a fair price, then issues a permit that allows the trucks to pass through key checkpoints without being forced to pay bribes.

But its ability to maintain services such as electricity is questionable, and the depth of support for the group in areas it has captured in both Iraq and Syria is uncertain.

“There’s bread and meat is cheap and available,” said Abu Omar, a resident of Mosul who declined to be completely identified. “Electricity almost never comes on and gasoline is much more expensive since the (coalition bombing campaign) began. The water supply is not good. When there is water then it is dirty and dangerous.”

The Islamic State controls the price of water and electricity, Abu Omar said, “but poor people still can’t afford them.”

Everyone is too afraid to complain, however, “because we see executions or cutting of hands every week in the (city) center,” he said.

“At first we were free to come and go as we liked,” said Abu Omar. “But once the Americans started bombing and the Kurds closed the border to us, Daash has made it more difficult. If you are caught trying to leave without permission, you can be slaughtered as a spy.”

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Contributing to this report were Mark Seibel and Michael Bold in Washington and special correspondents Tom Hussain in Islamabad and John Zarocostas in Geneva.