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What's Next For Islamic State?

In 2015, more local jihadi groups will likely pledge allegiance to Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In 2015, more local jihadi groups will likely pledge allegiance to Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In 2014, the Islamic State (IS) extremist group emerged as one of the most powerful jihadi groups, rivaling even Al-Qaeda.

The extremist Sunni group now controls vast swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq and boasts thousands of fighters -- including many from Western Europe. An anti-IS coalition led by the United States has mobilized more than 60 countries, including several Arab states, against the group.

Yet after months of air strikes, IS militants are still threatening to take over even more territory and are continuing to attract foreign fighters and execute Western, Syrian, and Iraqi hostages.

While the chaotic and rapidly changing situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq makes it very hard to predict what will happen in the coming months, RFE/RL asked a number of analysts and experts to evaluate what might we expect to see from IS as we move into 2015.

1. IS will push to take over more land across Iraq -- and could take over Anbar Province

IS is "dependent upon constant victories and gaining and holding territory to maintain its base" and will continue to look for "targets of opportunity" to seize in Iraq and Syria, says U.S.-based analyst Joel Wing, who runs the Musings on Iraq blog.

These targets include key cities in Iraq's largest province, Anbar, which local leaders have repeatedly warned will fall unless Iraqi security forces are given more military support from the Iraqi government.

Caleb Weiss, who co-writes The Long War Journal website, which tracks the war on terror, says Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi, and Amiriyat Fallujah (about 30 kilometers south of Fallujah) will continue to be points of contention as IS pushes to gain ground in the beleaguered province.

"[IS] already controls over 60 percent of [Ramadi] and unless the Iraqi security forces and our Sunni allies gets effective support, I think the entirety of Anbar's capital will fall," Weiss said.

Weiss suggests that we may also see IS becoming more active in western Anbar along Iraq's border with Jordan.

Meanwhile, in Iraq's eastern Diyala Province, IS will likely continue to find itself under pressure. Reportedly helped by the commander of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, Shi'a militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga have already retaken several towns from IS, including Saadia and Jalawla. While IS will likely make a push in Diyala to regain lost territory (and lost prestige), the group could see more losses, as Iraqi forces continue to challenge it.

2. More U.S.-led coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria

Coalition military leaders have reported signs that U.S.-led air strikes have forced Islamic State to switch from an offensive to a defensive strategy in Iraq and in parts of Syria, notably in the northern Syrian town of Kobani.

These strikes look set to continue and may even intensify. Speaking to coalition leaders on December 3, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to continue the campaign against IS for "as long as it takes," while French President Francois Hollande has said France is willing to step up air strikes against IS.

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Analysts warn that the West will need to do much more militarily in 2015 if the coalition is to make a noticeable impact against IS.

The West is "not committing anything near enough resources to make a real difference," says Iraq analyst Wing. "Right now the coalition is more of a nuisance then a difference-maker in Syria and Iraq," Wing says, noting that IS has been able to launch major attacks against Iraqi cities despite the strikes.

However, the U.S. is unlikely to commit combat troops to fight IS. As one senior U.S. administration official put it on December 3: "President [Obama] has been crystal-clear and does not envision a scenario in which U.S. ground troops would be in place."

3. More U.S. support for Sunni tribes fighting Islamic State

As well as continued air strikes, we can also expect increased support from the United States to Iraqi Sunni tribesmen who are on the front lines in the fight against IS. A recent Pentagon document prepared for Congress stressed the importance of supporting Sunni tribal forces against IS and said the United States plans to spend $24.1 million arming them, including with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades, and mortars.

However, support for the United States' tribal allies should be "happening at a much larger scale," says The Long War Journal’s Weiss, who believes that ensuring Sunni tribesmen are sufficiently armed will be "key to rolling back Islamic State advances" in the coming months.

4. IS recruitment will continue, as will efforts to stop it

Recent reports suggest IS has relaxed or even given up on security measures for foreign fighters. The group is also expanding its network of training camps across Syria and has continued to attract recruits -- including women -- from Western Europe, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.

This trend looks set to continue, particularly if the group can carry on attracting new recruits by lauding its gains in Iraq and Syria.

To counter the recruitment, we can expect to see increased attempts by governments to crack down on their nationals traveling to Iraq and Syria, and guard against local radicalization by clamping down on IS's propaganda efforts. Steps have already been taken in Russia to block pro-IS social media accounts and in Kazakhstan to ban and block an IS propaganda video. We can also expect to see governments in certain countries -- particularly in Central Asia -- continue to use the IS threat as a means to justify increased controls on religious freedoms.

5. IS training facilities will continue to spread

IS will keep on expanding its archipelago of training camps in Syria and Iraq, amid ramped up efforts to train the influx of recruits and existing fighters in those countries.

The U.S.-led coalition is likely to take steps to slow these efforts down.

The Long War Journal's Weiss, who together with his colleague Bill Roggio has mapped 25 IS training camps across Syria and Iraq, says that coalition air strikes against these camps "might help cut down on [IS] recruitment and potentially [its] effectiveness."

6. More local jihadi groups will pledge allegiance to IS

If IS can continue to make gains in Syria and Iraq, and if it can continue with its slick propaganda efforts, its influence is likely to spread as more local groups pledge allegiance to IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Groups in places like Sinai, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia have already sworn oaths of allegiance to Baghdadi, and experts in Libya have warned that the eastern town of Derma is emerging as an IS stronghold.

Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, a British expert on jihadi groups at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, says that the Sinai-based An-sar Bayt al-Maqdis's recent pledge of allegiance to Baghdadi "consolidates the trend of moving towards alignment with IS in Gaza-Sinai, and that we may see another Gaza-Sinai jihadi group, the Mujahedin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC), following [its] example."

More breakaway groups in Russia's North Caucasus may well pledge allegiance to IS, as the group's increasing influence continues to destabilize and fragment the insurgency in that region.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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