Islamic State has lost a quarter of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria and is likely to retaliate by mounting attacks on civilians and economic targets, according to new research on the terrorist group.
Nearly 14 per cent of its conquests, made between 2013 and 14, have been lost this year, contradicting the group’s claim in a slick video that its two-year-old “caliphate” has become “more manifest than the sun in the middle of the sky”.
According to the British-based research firm IHS Jane’s Aerospace and Defence, in January 2015 Islamic State controlled 90,800 sq km, an area slightly larger than Ireland.
This area has been reduced by 22,000 sq km by military action of the Iraqi and Syrian armies, affiliated militias and US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces operating along the Turkish frontier.
Islamic State – also known as Isis – not only continues to lose ground, but has also suffered a reduction in revenues, from $80 million (€72 million) a month to $56 million in March and perhaps by another 35 per cent since then, according to the IHS report. The group has also been facing increasing defections and desertions.
‘Mass casualty attacks’
Senior IHS analyst Columb Strack says Islamic State is "failing". Consequently, "mass casualty attacks and sabotage of economic infrastructure" can be expected across Iraq, Syria and Europe.
Islamic State has lashed out at civilians and attempted to stir sectarian strife with a bombing killing 11 on Tuesday in a Shia district of Baghdad, twin strikes slaughtering 290 on July 3rd in the capital's mixed Karrada district, and an assault on a Shia shrine in Balad on July 7th, killing 40.
In May, the Pentagon estimated Islamic State had shed 45 per cent of its territory in Iraq and 16-20 per cent in Syria. The group has been defeated in Ramadi, Rutba and Falluja in Iraq; in Palmyra and villages north of Aleppo in Syria; and at Tel Abyad, a strategic border post on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Islamic State fighters are besieged by Kurdish and Arab forces at Manbij, north of Raqqa. Amid the fighting, jihadis are stripping off their uniforms and fleeing with civilians, stated Shervan Derwish, spokesman for the Kurdish forces.
Driving Islamic State from Manbij will cut the main supply route from Turkey to Raqqa, the group's capital, a key military objective of both US-backed units and the Russian-supported Syrian army.
Islamic State can be expected to fight hard to retain Raqqa and Deir al-Zor in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, but its power and influence are clearly waning.
Nevertheless, Islamic State retains powerful backers. In spite of a March 2015 law prohibiting support for Islamic State, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince Mohamed bin Salman, the king’s favourite son, has maintained contact with the group’s most influential supporter in the kingdom, Mohamed al-Arefe.
A popular television personality, al-Arefe claims “devotion for jihad ... and the desire to shed blood, to squash skulls and to sever limbs for the sake of God and defence of religion is a great honour”.
The prince met al-Arefe, who openly recruits Arab youths for jihad, shortly before travelling to the US for a meeting with President Barack Obama.
A British parliamentary foreign affairs select committee has called upon Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies to prevent residents, including royals, from funding Islamic State.
Foreign Office civil servant Dan Chugg pointed out, "It is difficult with some of these countries to know what is government funding and what is not when you are dealing with royal families, wealthy princes and those kind of things."
‘Army of Conquest’
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's official Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, and its jihadi allies grouped in the so-called "Army of Conquest", are holding firm in Syria's north-western Idlib province.
Amnesty International accuses Nusra and its allies of carrying out abductions, torture and summary killings in Idlib and in insurgent-held districts of Aleppo.
Amnesty points out that some of these groups "enjoy support from...Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the USA".
US anti-terrorism envoy Brett McGurk said: “Nusra is now al-Qaeda’s largest formal affiliate in history. This is a serious concern, and where we see Nusra planning external attacks we will not hesitate to act.”
So far, the US has not acted because, as Amnesty suggests, Nusra partners with groups the US has been using to try to effect regime change in Syria.