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Tracking Islamic State

A Syrian government soldier displays an Islamic State (IS) group flag after Syrian troops regained control the previous day of Al-Qaryatain, a town in the province of Homs, earlier this month.

On June 29, 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave a speech from the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, announcing the formation of an Islamic caliphate, the newly proclaimed "Islamic State" did indeed have many of the hallmarks of an actual state.

It had borders, patrolled by its agents. It had a military, special-forces units, police, an intelligence apparatus, a press office, tax collectors, engineers, a stratified leadership, and both foreign and domestic policies. Unlike its predecessors Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had only been able to establish a state of mind among their followers, Baghdadi's organization had managed to capture and rule actual territory, not just individual cities or neighborhoods.

That is no longer the status quo. If an observer were giving a State Of The So-Called Islamic State speech, one would have to acknowledge that the "state" is weak. The United States estimates that Kurdish forces and the Iraqi military have taken back 40 percent of the territory held by Islamic State (IS). An unnamed U.S. defense official recently told USA Today that IS oil revenues had been cut by 50 percent. U.S. Major General Peter Gersten said that a series of coalition air strikes have destroyed as much as $800 million in cash that IS was hiding in various safe houses and hidden stockpiles, and that there had been a 90 percent increase in IS defections.

Gersten also said that there has been a massive drop in the flow of foreign fighters to IS, from a high of about 2,000 per month just a year ago to about 200. If true, it is now likely that the U.S.-backed coalition is killing IS extremists faster than foreign fighters can join the organization's ranks.

To make matters worse for IS, many of the militant group's top leaders have been killed by coalition air strikes. In March, a strike killed Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, IS's "top financier." Earlier that month, another air strike killed Umar al-Shishani, or "Omar the Chechen," the "minister of war" for IS.

A slew of less infamous IS leaders has also been killed, including the IS-appointed "governor" of the Al-Hamadaniya district of Iraq, Barzan al-Husam, and many other field commanders. While the big names make the headlines, the killing of local governors and military commanders and the strikes that hit IS in the pocketbook may have a more tangible impact on disrupting local governance, and thus shaking the perception that IS is indeed a state rather than just a terrorist insurgency.

Not Dead Yet

However, for all the military defeats IS has suffered, it is far from dead -- and a number of challenges for the United States remain.

The United States has had a military presence in one form or another in Syria for months. While U.S. soldiers have been in Syria since late last year, working with coalition members on the ground to "tighten the squeeze" on IS and establishing a headquarters at the Rmeilan air base in northern Syria, it appears that this mission may be expanding. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the United States will deploy 250 Special Forces soldiers to Syria.

One key challenge is that the United States does not have adequate intelligence on the ground to effectively target its air strikes. According to recent statements by U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) Colonel Pat Ryder, the anti-IS coalition has flown 91,000 sorties and conducted 12,000 air strikes -- that sounds like a lot until you realize that only about 13 percent of coalition sorties end in air strikes. As IS shrinks on the battlefield, it will only become more difficult to find, identify, and destroy targets from the air.
IS's leaders have also adopted a simple-yet-sinister plan to block U.S. air strikes -- militants are reportedly covering the roads of cities they occupy with canvas roofs. An activist news agency covering the IS occupation of Raqqah, its so-called capital, has posted pictures of these canvas awnings, which make it impossible for coalition drones or jets to follow the movement of IS fighters below.

It could become very difficult, then, to differentiate the terrorists from the civilians that they are terrorizing. Worse, if this strategy works we can expect to see it copied in other locations IS controls, a move that could prove to be far more effective at stopping U.S. air strikes than even the most advanced antiaircraft weapons. IS may be hemorrhaging money, but tarps are a lot cheaper than guns.

Changing U.S. Tactics

To help defeat IS, the United States may be attempting to refine its tactics and address a sectarian dynamic that is working against Washington.

Last week, pro-IS social-media accounts tweeted pictures they say show that U.S. fighter jets and A-10 Warthogs have been supporting the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime who have been locked in heavy battle with IS for months but are currently backed up against the Turkish border.

Earlier in the year, a coalition of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops, Hizballah fighters, and Iraqi Shi'ite militias fought side by side with the Syrian military to break the battle lines of the anti-Assad rebels who have held northern Syria for years. IS took full advantage of this situation and launched its own offensive, capturing large amounts of territory as its fighters pushed west from their strongholds and north toward the Turkish border. Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters to the west also launched an offensive against the struggling anti-Assad rebels, and a small group of those rebels are now trapped.

The rebels in the area east of Azaz had been making gains against IS in early April, but by the middle of the month that progress had now been reversed. While it's dangerous to ever take the word of jihadist propaganda as truth, the presence of the A-10 in this area would suggest that the United States is providing close air support for the anti-Assad rebels as they push back against IS -- a level of coordination between the United States and local ground forces typically reserved for Iraq or eastern Syria.

If the United States is conducting air strikes against IS, and in support of anti-Assad rebels, it may be an attempt to protect the Turkish border and reassure a frustrated NATO ally. However, IS is still making gains. On April 27, there were reports that IS had captured five rebel-held villages, including Dudyan, west of Al-Rai and right on the Turkish border. IS is now close to closing off and destroying the anti-Assad rebels who are defending their most important border crossing -- and the only one they still control in northern Aleppo.

IS, even more so than Al-Qaeda before it, which survived 15 years of the war on terror, has proven its ability to constantly adapt to both its victories and its defeats. Despite military victories against IS over the last 20 months, even the commanders of the U.S. coalition admit that there are new challenges ahead. IS is currently exploiting the military weakness of one of its principal enemies, the anti-Assad rebels, and it is digging in to its positions in both Syria and Iraq.

The next phase of this fight is far less straightforward, and IS clearly knows that the storm is coming and is preparing accordingly -- with new offensives and canvas tarps.

Reading The Terrorism Tea Leaves

November's issue of Dabiq, titled Just Terror, was published less than a week after the Paris attacks and was heavily focused on the incident. The issue following the Brussels attacks was less so.

The last few months have seen considerable change in the struggle against Islamic-extremist terrorism. On the battlefields in Syria, forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from Islamic State (IS) fighters. In Iraq, IS was pushed from the city of Ramadi in late January, and the key northern city of Mosul is the next target for the U.S.-backed coalition. The area that IS terrorists physically govern in Iraq and "Sham," or greater Syria, is shrinking. And it's the prevailing wisdom that militarily, IS is weakening.

But while the territory controlled by IS bears many of the hallmarks of an actual state, the "caliphate" that IS wishes to establish is not just physical. One of its goals is to conduct terrorism outside of the Middle East. If the memory of November's horrible terrorist attack in Paris was fading into memory, the March 22 airport and subway bombings in Brussels were a devastating reminder that IS is capable of striking areas far from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

It remains to be seen whether the terrorist cell (or cells) that conducted this attack have been effectively disrupted, and no one can be certain that there are not more IS sleeper cells within Europe. Furthermore, defeating IS on the battlefield may or may not discourage copycat IS-inspired attacks like the shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December.

In other words, it's not clear whether IS is being defeated militarily, but it's even less clear whether the extremist group's other power -- the power of its ideology -- has suffered setbacks.

Nowhere is this tension more evident than on the pages of Dabiq, the highly polished magazine published at irregular intervals by the terrorist organization. At its core, Dabiq is a publication aimed at those sympathetic to IS who live in the West. Its message follows a careful ideological construct -- that "the Islamic State" is a real location, but also a religious and spiritual reality that exists beyond its physical borders.

Muslims who live in the West can be citizens of the Islamic State, then, by traveling to its strongholds in the Middle East, by creating terrorist cells abroad, or even by conducting suicide attacks on their own. Previous episodes have, for instance, underscored that it is easy to acquire a gun and serve the ends of IS without leaving one's country. The magazine is also an intimidation tactic -- the professional pages, surprising readability, and the global message are designed to give the impression that IS is powerful, legitimate, and operating everywhere all at once.

The latest issue of Dabiq is titled The Murtadd Brotherhood -- "murtadd" meaning "apostate." The main theme is the definition of that term. The authors define true Islam as the path that has brought about Islamic State, and they also name many enemies of that ideology. Most of this issue is dedicated to the Muslims who resist this ideological radicalism -- those the terrorist group considers the true apostates because, in its eyes, they have betrayed their religion.

The cover story is focused on Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, setting the ideological stage for IS's battle against the Egyptian government, which is ongoing. One article lists a large number of Muslim leaders, many of whom live in the West, by name. These leaders preach a peaceful version of Islam, one that condemns the violence of IS. Since Dabiq's purpose is to convince Western Muslims to conduct terrorist attacks, these leaders are portrayed by the magazine as the worst kinds of traitors. Dabiq is laying out one key fact that is often missed by Western media coverage -- the majority of those fighting against IS on the battlefield, and arguably the most important ideological voices countering the message of IS, are Muslims.

The latest issue, which was published last week, is an interesting case study in how IS propaganda deals with both its achievements and its defeats.

The most obvious trend in Dabiq is the frequency of publication. The magazine was first published in July 2014, arguably as IS's military success in Iraq and Syria was approaching its height. The second issue came out just 22 days later, while subsequent issues were published roughly every 30-50 days. That is, until late 2015, when more than 100 days passed between the August and November issues, then another 62 days before the January publication. And this latest issue came out on April 13 after an 85-day lapse.

Why the sudden long gaps? Simply put, IS fighters have been losing ground in both Syria and Iraq, and it's been harder to spin the bad news. IS lost Ramadi in December, U.S. raids have captured or killed several high-ranking members of the organization, Kurdish YPG rebels have made inroads against the terror group in northern Syria, the U.S.-backed coalition is closing in on Mosul, and -- most recently -- the Syrian government coalition recaptured Palmyra in March. It's no coincidence then that the November issue was released just days after the attacks in Paris and April issue just three weeks after the Brussels bombings.

Analyzing the content of the latest installment of Dabiq provides a clue as to how its publishers are changing their marketing strategy. November's issue, titled Just Terror, was published less than a week after the Paris attacks and was heavily focused on the incident. By contrast, this latest edition praises the perpetrators of the Brussels bombings, was published three weeks later, and it largely buries the incident in other articles that discuss IS ideology more broadly. The Brussels attack is listed as just one of the terrorist organizations many battles and accomplishments.

The effect on the reader is that as big as the Brussels attack was in the Western media, the bigger story of IS's activities is not being accurately portrayed. IS may also be downplaying expectations, since the Paris and Brussels cell that conducted these attacks may have been largely or completely depleted in both the attacks and subsequent arrests.

Even in the biographies of the Brussels attackers, titled The Knights Of [Shahada (Martyrdom] In Belgium, Dabiq stressed their battlefield accomplishments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, more than the European attack. For instance, here is part of what they wrote about one of the Brussels attackers, Najm al-Ashrawi (Abu Idris al-Baljiki). Note how their fight is put in ideological context. The Assad government is not mentioned, but is instead called "the Nusayri regime," a derisive term for Shi'ite Muslims. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is "apostates," traitors of Islam. The Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) is instead called "Jabhat al-Jawlani," a reference to its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, whom IS considered to be an enemy (this issue seems to again close the door to any possible merger of the two groups.) In this framing, Paris and Brussels were only two "battles" among many that Abu Idris al-Baljiki fought against ideologies that are a threat to IS.

"He participated in several battles against the Nusayri regime before the FSA apostates started to fight the mujahidin. Proving himself steadfast during the sahwah in Sham, he fought them until the order came to withdraw to ar-Raqqah. He continued to participate in raids until he suffered a bullet wound to his leg in a raid against Jabhat al-Jawlani in alKhay," it says.

"After healing for several months, he began to train in order to realize his dream of returning to Europe to avenge the Muslims of Iraq and Sham for the constant bombing by crusader warplanes. Upon completing his training, he traveled the long road to France to execute his operation. It was Abu Idris who prepared the explosives for the two raids in Paris and Brussels."

One section is a description of battles fought by IS fighters or terrorists, "battles" being broadly defined to that they include terrorist attacks -- a key theme is that, according to Dabiq, killing civilians in Paris or opponents in Syria is all part of the same struggle.

The section gives the impression that IS fighters who have been killed died to achieve Allah's goals and took out plenty of "apostates" in the process. This is an important theme, since the next section, "affliction and faith," which features a photograph of an air-dropped bomb falling somewhere in the Middle East, focuses on struggle (or, in a word Dabiq would never use, defeat). No direct reference to the many recent military defeats IS terrorists have suffered is given, but the article no doubt was designed to restore confidence in the terrorist organization that is failing to make headway in either Iraq or Syria at the moment.

The military defeats of IS extremists have been many, but it's not yet clear if they will be permanent. Last week I argued that Russia and Assad cannot be relied upon to wage war against terrorism. It's been nearly a month since Palmyra fell to the pro-Assad coalition, but Assad and his allies have not pushed further toward the IS strongholds in eastern Syria and show no signs of doing so. IS has regained momentum in northern Syria near the Turkish border, and it's not clear whether the U.S. coalition is gaining or losing momentum near Mosul in Iraq.

But IS has gained new strength in Libya, and Boko Haram has recently pledged allegiance to the terror group. Dabiq wants its readers to ignore some of the details. Its message is that Islamic State is both a literal state and a state of spiritual being, and both are under siege -- by Muslim "apostates" and foreign "crusaders." Every battle counts if it leads to the deaths of nonbelievers, and there's plenty of death -- in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino -- to go around.

The unanswered question is whether Dabiq and the message of terrorist propaganda will have an impact if the perception in the media is that the terrorists are losing the war. One thing is clear, though: as long as IS can successfully conduct terror attacks, and as long as it controls large amounts of territory in the Middle East, IS will at least be able to convince some impressionable and disillusioned people to join its cause. Clearly, defeating terrorism at home and abroad, then, is vital.

But Dabiq has another strategy -- ideological fundamentalism. Its brand of Islam is simple -- nonbelievers need to be killed, believers who refuse to do that work are traitors and apostates and need to be killed. And since dying is part of the plan of this ideology, killing terrorists alone will not defeat this radical and dangerous death cult. IS's message must also be countered through ideological battles, a war that has proven at least as difficult to fight as the literal battles in the Middle East.

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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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