Battlefield gains against Islamic State fail to deter small cells in West

Analysts predict long fight despite deaths of 25,000 jihadis and incineration of funds

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter   near Sinjar, Iraq: Iraqi and Kurdish forces have taken back 40 per cent of Islamic State’s land in Iraq, US officials say, and forces backed by the West have seized a sizable amount of the group’s territory in Syria. Photograph: Bryan Denton/The New York Times

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter near Sinjar, Iraq: Iraqi and Kurdish forces have taken back 40 per cent of Islamic State’s land in Iraq, US officials say, and forces backed by the West have seized a sizable amount of the group’s territory in Syria. Photograph: Bryan Denton/The New York Times

 

US air strikes have killed 25,000 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria and incinerated millions of dollars plundered by the militants, according to Pentagon officials. In addition, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have taken back about 40 per cent of the militant group’s land in Iraq, the officials say, and forces backed by the West have seized a sizable amount of territory in Syria that had been controlled by Islamic State, the group also known as Isis.

But the battlefield successes enjoyed by western-backed forces in Islamic State’s heartland have done little to stop the expansion of the militants to Europe, North Africa and Afghanistan. The attacks this year in Brussels, Istanbul and other cities only reinforced the sense of a terrorist group on the march, and among US officials and military experts, there is renewed caution in predicting progress in a fight that they say is likely to go on for years.

“Even as we advance our efforts to defeat Daesh [Islamic State] on the front lines, we know that to be fully effective, we must work to prevent the spread of violent extremism in the first place – to stop the recruitment, radicalisation and mobilisation of people, especially young people, to engage in terrorist activities,” deputy US secretary of state Antony J Blinken told a congressional committee on Tuesday.

Instead of engaging a pseudo-state in the Middle East whose fighters have proved susceptible to US airpower, the United States and its European allies must now also engage in a far more complex struggle against homegrown militants who need relatively few resources to trigger bloodshed in the West.

“Defeating the formal military presence of a terrorist group will not significantly mitigate the threat of lone wolf or small independent cells that are based in the West,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst who is now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Attacks in the West are cheap to finance – Schanzer estimates the cost of the materials used in the Brussels attack and the lab needed to make the explosiveat $10,000-$15,000 (€8,850-€13,000). “You can defeat Isis in Isis-controlled territories,” he adds, “but you’re not going to defeat Isis itself. The ideology of jihadism continues to evolve and continues to exist.”

Battlefield losses

Turkey

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledge that Islamic State, which has looted an estimated $1 billion from bank vaults across Syria and Iraq, and is widely perceived as one of the richest militant groups of all time, remains a resilient and adaptable battlefield adversary, still able to mount spectacular acts, such as the abduction of at least 170 workers from a cement factory near Damascus last week.

In Mosul, Iraq, and in Raqqa, the Syrian city that is Islamic State’s de facto capital, salaries for fighters have been cut in half since last year, according to residents and documents. But even with reduced salaries, US officials say, Islamic State, which collects hundreds of millions of dollars by extortion, fees and taxes on the people it rules, is still paying its fighters.

“There is no simple tool to separate Isil [Islamic State] from its vast wealth,” Daniel L Glaser, assistant Us treasury secretary for terrorist financing, said recently in a speech in London. But administration officials say that the twin efforts to militarily shrink the group’s dominion in Iraq and Syria and to cut into its finances have fed off each other. The strategic aim is to deprive the militants of the resources they need to wage war by retaking their towns, cities and oil fields, and by American accounts, they have been succeeding.

Oil revenue

Iraqi forces have also retaken the northern city of Baiji, with its oil refinery. Kurdish and Yazidi forces have driven Islamic State fighters out of the northern city of Sinjar. In recent weeks, US airstrikes have killed what administration officials say were top Islamic State leaders: the group’s minister of war, Omar al-Shishani – known as Omar the Chechen, and a top commander, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli. An Islamic State chemical weapons specialist, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari, was captured by US special operations forces in February.

However, officials acknowledge that Islamic State has been able to replace many of its leaders and that taking key figures off the battlefield will not necessarily finish off the group. Alongside the military efforts to disrupt Islamic State’s finances, the US treasury and its European counterparts are pursuing a number of paths to cut the flow of cash to the group, and to keep it from using the international banking system. They persuaded Iraq to prohibit bank branches in cities and towns held by Islamic State from making international transfers, instead ordering all requests to be routed through the central bank in Baghdad, where they can, in theory, be intercepted and stopped.

Financial blacklists

United Nations

The falling price of oil, which the militants typically sell on the black market for about half the going rate, has also hurt Islamic State, US and European officials believe. This time last year, oil was selling for nearly $60 a barrel; it is now around $45.

Coalition airstrikes have in the meantime hit at least 10 depots where Islamic State stored hard currency. In January, US aircraft struck what officials said was a particularly rich stockpile, and video taken in the moments after the building was hit by a bomb showed plumes of currency fluttering through the air.

The military said tens of millions of dollars were incinerated, although other US officials and experts were less bullish. “There’s a lot less certainty about how much money actually evaporated,” said Howard Shatz, a senior economist at the Rand corporation who has studied Islamic State’s finances.

Siege mentality

Obaida Nama, a retired engineer there, says he did not think Islamic State would last. “The corruption that Isis is committing is the beginning of its end,” he says. Still, says Derek Chollet, a former top Pentagon official in the Obama administration, “I don’t think anyone is going to declare victory now, nor should they.” Islamic State “is going to be a chronic problem that we’re going to have to confront,” he adds.

– (New York Times service)