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Tracking Islamic State

Iraqi soldiers patrol streets near the city of Fallujah last month during an operation to regain territory from the extremist Islamic State group.

If there was any illusion that the fight against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) was nearing its final chapters, that naive notion should have been shattered in the last few weeks.

In the past month alone, IS has suffered major defeats, won major victories, and conducted some of its most impactful and successful terrorist attacks yet, proving that the fight against this group is at least as complicated as the battle to subdue its predecessors in Iraq.

When Al-Qaeda In Iraq (AQI) was formed following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it had several advantages over the United States.

For starters, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started as fairly traditional combat missions against fighting forces (the Taliban and the Iraqi Army, respectively) that were concerned with holding territory, and quickly scattered once this territory was captured by the overwhelming firepower of the U.S.-led coalition. Both wars soon devolved into asymmetrical counterinsurgencies which are much harder to fight.

AQI, however, had another trick up its sleeve -- the blending of asymmetrical and more traditional warfare. Coalition military commanders quickly learned that it was not enough to capture territory, but that territory had to be held, preferably by local forces which had to be convinced of the worthiness of the cause.

But whereas AQI was successful in briefly holding neighborhoods and even cities like Fallujah while conducting terrorist attacks in other regions of Iraq, IS has taken this blending of war plans to the next level, simultaneously occupying vast areas of land while conducting attacks across the entire Middle East and far beyond while inspiring attacks across the planet. Islamic State is at once a military, a terrorist group, a guerrilla warfare organization, and an idea, and all four of those aspects are proving difficult to fight.

In recent months there has been a lot of speculation that IS the military organization would be the easiest part of the terrorist group to beat. To be sure, IS has lost a series of battles in both Iraq and Syria. According to a newly-published report by experts at IHS, a data analysis company, Islamic State lost 14 percent of its territory in 2015 and another 12 percent in the first six months of this year.

As a result of those defeats, the extremist group is already changing its narrative by focusing more on conducting terrorist attacks abroad than in using propaganda to praise its more traditional military victories. This is undoubtedly a sign of weakness, but a wounded animal is clearly a very dangerous one.

Furthermore, IS still has the advantage of being able to use the power it derives from holding territory to project terrorism and fear beyond its borders. As a consequence of that dynamic, the faster it is defeated militarily, the better. The recapturing of more than a quarter of IS's physical strongholds in 18 months is certainly an important first step in ultimately defeating the terrorist group. But does this mean that it will take six years to militarily defeat IS?

Lagging Momentum

There are also indications that the battle is not going as well as many expected. Fallujah has been recaptured from IS after many months of siege and more than a month of nearly-constant combat. But Fallujah was one of IS's most vulnerable positions, originally captured by the militants primarily for its symbolic power. The Atlantic Council's Faysal Itani told RFE/RL that the city likely fell so quickly because Islamic State is overstretched in the region. Battles for places like Mosul and, ultimately, Raqqa, IS's "capital" in Syria, could take much longer.

Elsewhere, in Syria, there have been setbacks for the anti-IS coalition. IS forces launched attacks earlier in the week against the Syrian Defense Force (SDF), a primarily Kurdish group that is key to U.S. efforts to defeat the terrorists. Those efforts may have been reversed.

An Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Garver, was optimistic in his assessment on July 6, in which he stated that the SDF was resisting IS in Manbij and that other vetted opposition forces were making gains further west, near the hotly contested "Mara Line."

The SDF now claims that Islamic State is fleeing Manbij. Still, especially near Mara, Western-backed rebel forces are striking back against an IS offensive launched this spring rather than advancing deeper into the heart of IS's territory. Momentum is clearly lagging.

Worse yet, another key part of the U.S. strategy to defeat IS in Syria has suffered a major setback. In the last week of June, we reported on Russian air strikes against the New Syrian Army (NSA), a group dedicated to fighting IS which is backed by the United States and Britain.

Consisting largely of former Syrian special forces units that deserted the Assad regime, the NSA is important on several levels.

First, the NSA is made up of predominantly Sunni fighters -- an important symbolic balance to predominantly Kurdish and Shi'ite forces backed by the United States elsewhere.

Second, NSA's position south of IS's strongholds opens a new front against the terror group. Within a week of the Russian airstrikes, the NSA launched their own offensive against Islamic State in Al-Bukamal, the back door between IS's territory in Syria and Iraq. Despite initial success, the NSA was routed and retreated across 150 miles of open desert.

Sectarian Dynamic

It's unclear whether the Russian air strikes weakened the group enough to enable its defeat, but the United States also decided to reroute air support for the NSA to Iraq, to target IS in Fallujah. On July 7, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the United States had "missed an opportunity" in not providing air support for the NSA offensive.

Even in military victory there are setbacks, however. As the Associated Press points out, the mission to retake Fallujah was led by powerful Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and their victory has already taken on a troublesome sectarian dynamic. Unfortunately, this is exactly what experts predicted would happen.

Islamic State will be defeated militarily. It has to be. The world does not have a choice. Even though progress is being made, the slow pace of victory and concerns about worsening regional sectarian tensions are indications that much work remains to be done.

The aftermath of the bomb attack on the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.

Osama bin Laden may be dead but if the July 4 bombings in Saudi Arabia demonstrate anything to a global audience forcibly becoming, if not numbed, then wearily resigned to the horrors of jihadist violence, it’s that his playbook is still in full effect -- albeit with some major alterations.

On July 4, in what were clearly coordinated strikes, three suicide attacks targeted the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Qatif and, most stunningly of all, Islam’s second holiest city, Medina, the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed.

In Jeddah, a Pakistani expatriate targeted the U.S. consulate, injuring two security officers in the process. A Shi’a mosque was targeted in Qatif. In Medina, it was a security office near the Prophet’s Mosque. Four guards were killed.

Both the timing of the attacks and choice of targets are vital to understanding their nature. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for them but indicators suggest that they are almost certainly the work of the terrorist group which calls itself Islamic State (IS).

The attacks took place during the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which, according to Nicholas Heras, a Middle East researcher and the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security, “fit into the timetable of the would-be Caliphate's ongoing Ramadan campaign.” Islamic State, he told RFE/RL over e-mail, “has declared the month of Ramadan as a time of bleeding [for] what it views to be infidels and enemies -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

Yet more instructive is the choice of targets -- and it is here that bin Laden’s legacy can most clearly be seen. Bin Laden, a Saudi national himself, always denied the legitimacy of the House of Saud, which rules the kingdom, as the rightful custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites for the entire global Muslim community, or Ummah -- Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, and Medina. IS’s overriding goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate as far across the world as possible; central to this goal -- in fact, almost an absolute necessity -- would be to take control of Islam’s holiest territory.

In the words of Heras: “ISIS [Islamic State] would be sending a blunt message to the Saudi state, delivering a shot across the bow directed at the Al-Saud monarchy: we are coming for you.”

The Pillars That Prop Up Saudi Arabia

Two primary pillars hold up the Saudi monarchy: The first is the legitimacy it derives from being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest places. But it is a contested legitimacy. The Al-Saud tribe took what became Saudi Arabia by force in 1932. It has no real religious credentials and has only survived since by allowing its clerics to promote a severe brand of Wahhabi Islam across the kingdom in return for which the royal family receives much-needed religious backing. The combination of this backing and the custodianship of Mecca and Medina enhances the kingdom’s influence across the Muslim world accordingly. Not for nothing is the House of Saud called "The Sunni Lion.”

And here is where the attack in Medina comes in. It’s a risky move for IS to say the least. An attack on Mohammed’s resting place was always likely to enrage the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia's highest religious body has condemned the attacks unequivocally. Meanwhile, the hashtag #PrayForMedina has been retweeted across the Muslim world.

But the perpetrators were careful. They didn’t attack the Medina mosque itself, just a security office near it; an attack which can be read as being designed to call into question the Saudi’s monarchy’s claim to be competent “protectors” of the two holy sites. The attack, then, targeted the Saudi state’s security apparatus, not the Prophet.

The second pillar of the House of Saud is U.S. support (irretrievably entangled with the oil riches that financially prop up the kingdom). An IS attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah (which is also Saudi Arabia’s most cosmopolitan city) is a clear strike against its ultimate ideological Western foe, and coming as it did on July 4, U.S. Independence Day, has an inescapable and morbid symbolism that is plain for all to see.

But it is the attack on the Shi’a mosque in Qatif that has perhaps the most dangerous regional consequences. The Middle East is already in the throes of a battle between Sunni and Shi’a, approaching almost genocidal proportions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. For the Sunni Islamic State terrorist group, the apostate Shi’a are almost worse than the infidel West.

This attack is designed to do two things. First, as Heras told RFE/RL, IS clearly intended “to send a signal to the Shi’a of Saudi Arabia that they are infidels that should go out from the holiest lands of Islam.” The second is to create more divisions between Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shi’a minority and the government, yet one more way of destabilizing the country. The fact that Qatif -- and the majority of the country’s Shia population -- is located in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, where the center of the Saudi state-controlled oil industry resides, only further serves to compound the problem for Riyadh.

Beyond Saudi Arabia, Shi’a militias that are now battling IS in Iraq and Syria -- many of which are backed by Iran -- are unlikely to take the attack on the mosque well, to say the least. Brutal reprisals against local Sunni populations in both those countries -- always a distinct possibility if not often a near certainty -- are now likely to increase. In Fallujah, there is already evidence that this retaliation is under way. As history has shown, many Sunnis on the receiving end of such brutality have, with no one else to protect them, joined the ranks of Islamic State.

The planning, the execution (although imperfect), and, most critically, the apparent intended effects of these attacks indicate Islamic State is to blame. The bombings were as cunning as they were designed to be brutal, and their goal, like bin Laden’s, was to send a message to the Middle East’s premier Sunni state. This time, however, the stakes are higher. Islamic State seeks not just to overthrow the Saudi royal family but to conquer the state itself.

Welcome to Jihad 2.0.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war.

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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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