Losing Territory and Lashing Out: The Islamic State and International Terror
March 17, 2016
Abstract: There appears to be a strong correlation between territorial losses inflicted on the Islamic State by an international coalition and the group’s increasingly global campaign of terrorism. Two reasons likely explain why the group is shifting toward international terrorism. The first is a top-down decision by Islamic State leaders to prioritize international attack plotting as a strategy to safeguard their self-declared caliphate. The second is a bottom-up dynamic in which foreign fighters and satellite groups are retaliating on their own initiative on behalf of the caliphate, a function of the group’s fluid command and control structures. As the Islamic State continues to lose ground, the international community should brace for a surge in international terror.
A string of recent international terrorist attacks believed to have been carried out by the Islamic State and its affiliates and allies, including in Ankara, the Sinai, Beirut, Paris, Istanbul, and Jakarta, has captured global headlines and spurred discussions about a shift in the group’s strategy. Reflecting this trend, Europol recently stated that the Paris attacks indicated a shift toward a more global strategy by the Islamic State.
Prior to its bombing of the Russian airliner in the Sinai last October, and aside from a January 2015 gun-and-bomb plot thwarted in Verviers, Belgium, and attacks on Western tourists in Tunisia that it claimed the same year, the Islamic State appeared to be focused on consolidating control of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria. While the group’s leadership encouraged “lone-wolf” attacks in Western countries through its impressive media operations, it was not thought to be directly plotting attacks.
This piece argues that the recent international attacks should be understood as an evolution rather than a transformation in Islamic State strategy. This evolution has been precipitated most directly by two factors. The first is the group’s continued loss of territory, especially in western Iraq. The second is the fluid nature of the group’s command and control structure, particularly pertaining to its members and supporters abroad. Changes in both these domains may help explain why the Islamic State and its affiliates have launched international terrorist attacks and why they may continue to do so more frequently.
The Islamic State’s early territorial gains caught the West and the U.S. government on the back foot. The Islamic State took full control of the Syrian town of Raqqa from an assortment of rebel groups in January 2014 and named the city its capital before next taking Fallujah and areas outside Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province. The group then swept across eastern Syria and western Iraq, building on the June 2014 capture of Mosul with victories over Iraqi army units in Tikrit and Tal Afar. The successes built up a narrative that the Islamic State was simply better able to fight the fluid, fast-paced ground war that was developing. In the spring of 2015, the Islamic State took control of Palmyra in Syria and all of Ramadi in Iraq, bolstering the success narrative further.
The tide has since begun to turn. In Iraq, the Islamic State faces a number of cohesive forces, including the Iraqi military and the al-Hashid al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization) units—a diverse collection of mostly Shi`a militias that operate under their own command and control structures though ostensibly fighting in the name of the Iraqi state. Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga and irregular Kurdish fighting groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have increasingly taken the fight to the Islamic State, regaining key areas in Ninewa province.
There has been tension between and among these groups and the Iraqi government, but they have nonetheless rolled back Islamic State territorial gains. As of March 2016, according to an independent assessment, the Islamic State had lost roughly 22 percent of the territory in Iraq and Syria it controlled in January 2015, with over one-third of those losses coming over the past three months. The losses in Iraq include Tikrit, Mosul Dam, the destroyed Baiji oil refinery complex, all of Ramadi, the ethnically mixed areas of Jalula and Sadiyah in Iraq’s disputed territories, and a number of other strategic areas abutting the Tigris and Euphrates corridors. The Rabia border crossing linking northern Iraq’s Ninewa province with northeastern Syria was taken by the Islamic State in August 2014 before being promptly retaken by Kurdish and Sunni Arab forces just two months later.
To the West, Syria remains a chaotic battle space with the Islamic State facing pressure from a number of competing forces. The group maintains firm control of Raqqa, but Kurdish forces have made gains in northern Syria, taking control of areas south along the Turkish border. In June 2015, Kurdish YPG militia units and Free Syrian Army forces succeeded in retaking Tal Abyad, a key Syrian-Turkish border town. Offensives by Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga to the east retook Sinjar in November 2015, disrupting the Islamic State’s ability to transfer fighters and weapons across the border with Syria over Highway 47. In part a response to these territorial losses, the Islamic State intensified a nearly yearlong offensive against Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria. Pressing in the east has not led to gains in the west; the Syrian army, backed by Russian air support and an assortment of militia forces, has tallied a number of recent victories against militant groups around Aleppo, south of Islamic State-controlled al-Bab.
While airstrikes will not cripple the Islamic State, they have caused significant damage. As of the end of January 2016, the United States claims its forces have conducted 9,782 airstrikes against Islamic State positions—6,516 in Iraq and 3,266 in Syria. The Pentagon estimates that upwards of 26,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed since airstrikes began. More recently, coalition aircraft have increasingly targeted Islamic State financial resources, including oil tankers and cash storage facilities. The airstrikes have also provided crucial air cover for Iraqi military, the PMUs, and Kurdish peshmerga forces. Despite the losses documented above, the Islamic State remains a powerful force capable of taking and holding large urban areas, staging rapid assaults on Iraqi and Syrian security forces, and launching attacks against soft targets in both countries. It has also created a new territorial base on the coastline around Sirte in Libya. Yet, while the continued progress of the ground forces fighting the Islamic State is by no means assured, the group’s ability to take and hold terrain has been reduced.
As the caliphate shrinks, the group’s leaders must be keenly aware of the setbacks suffered by al-Qa`ida once it lost its own safe haven in Afghanistan. Given this history, the Islamic State may be calculating that an increase in headline-grabbing terrorist attacks abroad will draw attention away from its territorial losses, provide renewed incentive for fighters to join its cause, and force its adversaries to concentrate their security resources at home.
Losing Territory, Expanding Attacks: Precedents
There are several precedents for jihadi groups retaliating after losing territory by waging transnational terror. In 2010, al-Shabaab, al-Qa`ida’s Somalia affiliate, controlled large swathes of the country, including areas around Mogadishu, much of the area along the southern coast, and the port of Kismaayo. By late 2013, a combination of internal divisions and concerted military intervention by Somali, Kenyan, and Ethiopian forces reduced al-Shabaab’s territory to a fraction of what it was. In response, the group first carried out a number of large-scale terrorist attacks in Somalia. Amniyat, al-Shabaab’s intelligence unit, targeted Somalia’s presidential compound, parliament, national intelligence headquarters, and AMISOM’s largest military compound.[a] From local attacks, the group expanded abroad, primarily into Kenya. In 2013, al-Shabaab attacked Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, killing 67. In 2014 the group carried out mass casualty attacks on a quarry and bus in northern Kenya. In the largest attack to date, al-Shabaab fighters attacked a college in Garissa, Kenya in April 2015, killing 147.
A similar progression took place across the continent in Nigeria with Islamic State affiliate Boko Haram. As with al-Shabaab, Boko Haram has been pressed in its home area of operations by a coalition of regional forces, and has responded by staging mass-casualty attacks in rural areas and neighboring countries. For example, in September 2015, Boko Haram fighters attacked a crowded market in Kerawa, Cameroon, killing 30 and wounding 145 others. Then in October, the group staged a string of five suicide attacks in a market in Baga Sola, Chad, killing 36. This was followed over a month later by an attack on a village in southeastern Niger that killed 18. All three countries are part of a Nigerian-led coalition aimed at combating Boko Haram.
In Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has responded to recent offensives by the Pakistani military that have dislodged it from its strongholds in the tribal areas of Pakistan by targeting a range of civilian targets in settled areas of the country, including a school in Peshawar in December 2014 and a university in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in January 2016. Although these attacks were not technically transnational terrorism, jihadi groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan see the Pakistani army as essentially a foreign invading force.
Despite these precedents, there are also counter-examples. In the late 2000s the surge of American ground forces and the Sunni Awakening succeeded in pushing AQI (by then renamed the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI) from most of the areas it controlled. Rather than responding with international terror attacks, ISI developed a domestic campaign, dubbed “Breaking the Walls,” launched in 2012 with an aim to rebuild capacity and retake territory. Similarly, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) did not increase international terror attacks after losing ground in Yemen’s tribal areas in 2012. Instead, it strategically withdrew from towns in southern Yemen,[b] regrouped and took advantage of civil war to gradually retake territory.
Why the Caliphate Matters
While not all jihadi groups have responded to territorial losses inflicted by outside enemies by initiating transnational terrorist campaigns, the Islamic State appears to be taking this course. Arguably one of the key reasons for this is that by declaring a caliphate, the Islamic State created a religious imperative to defend its territory with all means at its disposal. While AQAP may have felt able to strategically withdraw from areas of Yemen under its control in 2012 and fight another day, the stakes are much higher for the Islamic State. Uniquely the Islamic State has explicitly developed its identity around a state-building enterprise through the declaration of the caliphate. By creating what no other Salafist group has achieved on the same scale, the Islamic State has set itself apart and largely stayed true to its motto, baqia wa tatamadad (Remaining and Expanding). This message comes through in the group’s social media presence, in its publication Dabiq, and in statements by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, encouraging Muslims to emigrate to Islamic State territory.
However, this narrative is increasingly threatened by territorial losses, which destabilize the foundations of the caliphate. At the same time, the loss of oil production facilities, transportation links, and a taxable population threaten the group’s finances. In 2015, leaked administrative documents from Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa announced the group would be cutting the salaries of all fighters by 50 percent. The publicity from these losses undercuts the Islamic State’s claims of functioning as a state, instead making it seem more like other jihadi groups, albeit an exceptionally violent one. The loss of prestige may also hurt the group’s ability to recruit foreign and domestic fighters.
The loss of territory also hurts the group by undercutting a prophecy—attributed to the prophet Muhammad and utilized by the Islamic State—that a final battle between infidels and Muslims will take place in the Syrian towns of al-‘Amaq or Dabiq prior to the Day of Judgment. Losing ground to non-Western forces undermines the Islamic State’s narrative and, by extension, the validity of the prophecy on which it is based.
Narratives about what the Islamic State is fighting for—the creation of a legitimate state with control over a defined territory or the precipitation of a Western ground invasion as part of an imminent apocalypse—have been difficult to harmonize, especially given public statements made by the group’s leaders both touting the caliphate’s strength and heralding apocalyptic prophecies. Whichever narrative dominates at the highest echelons of the Islamic State leadership, the end result is likely an increase in terrorist attacks abroad.
Some analysts have argued that one reason the Islamic State has only now chosen to launch large-scale attacks abroad is to deter continued airstrikes in Syria and Iraq by the United States, Russia, Turkey, and others; this is certainly a possibility. Dabiq clarified as much on the last page of its most recent issue with its headline “Just Terror: Let Paris Be A Lesson For Those Nations That Wish To Take Heed.” Recent statements by al-Baghdadi also underscore a desire to internationalize the conflict—“the entire world is fighting us right now.” In a likely attempt to garner further support, al-Baghdadi linked the fight waged by the Islamic State to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “The Israelis will soon see us in Palestine,” al-Baghdadi said in a recording released last December.
Another likely reason for the Islamic State’s switch to international terrorism is the simple fact that it is in a strong position to do so. The group is arguably better placed than any other jihadi group in history to wage a campaign of international terrorism because of the recruitment of unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters, deep financial pockets, and its significant support base around the world. It is possible that the Islamic State’s predecessor group ISI would itself have launched an international terrorist campaign in the late 2000s if it had had the same opportunities.
Weak Command and Control
A second likely explanation for the Islamic State’s shift toward international terrorism is to be found in its fluid command and control structures and limits in its ability to direct the actions of far-flung affiliates and allies. Put another way, the tail to some degree is now wagging the dog. The Islamic State leadership is not fully in control of the international terrorism being carried out in its name. Having called for retaliatory attacks overseas, it was natural for fighters and satellites to respond, and the leadership of the Islamic State may now find it difficult to rein them in. The implication is that the international terror unleashed in recent months may have a momentum of its own rather than being a function of any continuing cost-benefit analysis.
When it comes to command and control, there is a generational divide to consider when comparing al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. For al-Qa`ida, well-organized, mass-impact attacks were crucial and were deemed most successful when they were centrally planned, a time-consuming process for a terrorist group in Afghanistan looking to hit targets in the United States or Europe. By contrast, the Islamic State has empowered its members, organizational affiliates, and supporters around the world to carry out attacks at will.[c]
There is debate in the counterterrorism community on the degree to which the Islamic State has orchestrated recent international attacks.[d] Are the attacks being directly planned and supported by Islamic State leadership in Syria and Iraq? Are they being undertaken as a loose grouping—a network—of fighters who developed ties abroad and stayed together after returning to Europe and elsewhere? Or are they simply being inspired by the Islamic State from afar? Islamic State senior leadership is likely not in control of many of the plots hatched by its fighters and satellite groups, instead giving them the operational latitude to strike at will and on their own initiative.
Given the fact that the Islamic State has dozens of affiliates and allies from Mali to the Philippines and Somalia to Chechnya, broad strategic objectives can be communicated and then carried out internally by the satellite groups themselves, knowledgeable as they are of local conditions and security weaknesses. Recent attacks in Jakarta serve as a case in point.
However, in the Paris attacks, Islamic State leadership appears to have had a stronger role than in previous plots. And the group appears to have recently moved toward taking greater command and control over international attack plotting by reportedly setting up a unit dedicated to planning and carrying out attacks in Europe and the United States.[e]
The Islamic State is increasingly likely to lash out with international terrorism as it loses territory in Syria and Iraq. It is unique from other Salafist terror groups due to its seizure of large swaths of territory and its recruitment of a large number of foreign fighters. These successes have been mutually reinforcing and rely heavily on the ability of the Islamic State to showcase the caliphate as “remaining and expanding.” As the caliphate comes under strain, Islamic State leaders, with unprecedented potential muscle to carry out attacks, will likely feel a religious imperative to take action against outside enemies. They may also calculate that an increase in headline-grabbing attacks abroad will draw attention away from its territorial losses. There is already evidence that the Islamic State has set up a unit dedicated to international attack plotting. Islamic State leaders have also ratcheted up their calls for retaliatory strikes, and given the fluid nature of the group’s command and control structures, this is likely to result in a rise in plots launched on their own steam by Islamic State affiliates, loosely organized supporters, or those inspired online. This dynamic means that international Islamic State terror may have a momentum all its own, not fully under the control of the group’s top leadership.
Andrew Watkins is an energy and security analyst for the Iraq Oil Report. He spent four years working as a senior lecturer at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani.
[a] More recently, in January 2016, the group killed a significant number of Kenyan troops in an attack on an AMISOM base near the Kenyan border and in February 2016 attacked a hotel in Mogadishu. See Conor Gaffey, “Al Shabab killed 180 Kenyan troops in el Adde: Somali President,” Newsweek, February 25, 2016; “Police: 14 Dead as Al-Shabab Gunmen Attack Hotel in Somalia,” Associated Press, February 26, 2016.
[b] Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emir Nasir al Wuhayshi presented this as a strategic withdrawal in a letter to AQIM emir Drukdal in August 2002, stating that “after four months of fighting we were forced to withdraw. The offensive was very tough and it could hardly be stopped before achieving all its targets. The whole world was against us, after the victories we had secured. … Had we insisted on resisting, the campaign would have been long and would have exhausted us both in terms of casualties and money.” Nasir al-Wuhayshi letter to Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, August 6, 2012. This letter was discovered by Associated Press. For the original texts and translations, see hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/al-qaida.
[c] It should be noted that the Islamic State was not the first to call for lone-wolf attacks on soft targets in the West. It was an approach first advocated by AQAP and was also expressly encouraged by al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri after U.S. operations against al-Qa`ida in the tribal areas of Pakistan made international attack plotting difficult.
[d] Investigations into the Islamic State attacks in Ankara, the Sinai, Beirut, Paris, and Istanbul are in the early stages so it is difficult to assess the relative importance of top-down direction and bottom-up initiative in each of these plots.
[e] Europol highlighted the fact that the Islamic State has already developed an external actions command trained for ‘special forces style’ operations in countries outside the Middle East. “Changes in modus operandi of Islamic State terrorist attacks,” Europol, January 18, 2016.
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