The Islamic State Will Survive America’s Military Onslaught
In a new report, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon predicts the ranks of the Islamic State will swell in 2016.
Is the Islamic State in decline or on the rise?
Is the Islamic State in decline or on the rise?
The U.S.-led air coalition in Syria and Iraq has put the Islamic State on the defensive over the past year, helping allies reclaim conquered territory and cutting into the terrorist group’s oil profits with precision strikes on refineries and trucks.
But the ranks of the self-declared Islamic caliphate are likely to expand in the coming year, as veterans of the Middle East wars move on to other countries, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon forecast in a report released Thursday. That has raised concerns about the spread of terrorist attacks and the possible development of crude chemical weapons, the report concluded.
It is by no means certain that the world’s wealthiest terrorist organization will be driven from the vast tracts of land it has acquired in Iraq and Syria since 2013. But the Islamic State has already established beachheads well beyond its Middle East proving grounds.
Some 34 groups around the world reportedly pledged allegiance to the movement by the end of 2015, according to Ban’s report. The movement and its affiliates have proved their ability to carry out complex terrorist attacks from Paris to Jakarta and to inspire “lone-wolf” terrorists, striking at Americans in San Bernardino last year.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, holds territory in Libya, where some 2,000 fighters have pledged allegiance to the movement’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. U.S. and U.N. officials claim the group has a presence in Ajdabiya, Benghazi, and Tripoli, and maintains control over the desert city of Sirte, not far from the birthplace of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
The United States also claims that many of these groups are not directed by Baghdadi. But the network’s sophisticated use of social media will continue to inspire people around the world to undertake terrorist attacks, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.
“ISIL represents an unprecedented threat to international peace and security,” Ban wrote in the 23-page report. “It is able to adapt quickly to the changing environment and to persuade or inspire like-minded terrorist groups in various regions of the world to facilitate and commit acts of terrorism.”
“The growing threat posed by ISIL to international peace and security is reflected in its strategy of global expansion, the development of which may reflect a reaction to recent territorial losses inflicted in Iraq and [Syria],” Ban said. “It is expected that [its] affiliates will increase in number and that its membership will grow in 2016.”
The U.N. estimates that around 30,000 so-called foreign terrorist fighters from 100 countries are actively working with the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or other terrorist groups. The Islamic State, Ban noted, has attracted recruits at “an unprecedented level.”
He cautioned states to be vigilant about the return of foreign fighters from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq who could plan, facilitate, and carry out future attacks. But Ban also cited “empirical evidence” suggesting few foreign fighters engage in terrorist activities when they return home. And he sought to challenge the perception that terrorists are trying to resettle in Europe and other countries alongside the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking safety and jobs abroad. Resettlement approval usually requires extensive screening and lengthy waiting periods that he predicted would deter terrorists.
Ban also expressed concern about the Islamic State’s strategy shift from controlling just territory in Syria and Iraq to carrying out attacks in foreign countries. He claimed the Islamic State “may be seeking to develop a long-term capacity to use more sophisticated weapons, including chemical and biological weapons, in such attacks.”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons determined that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard gas in Marea, Syria, in August 2015. The organization did not attribute responsibility for the use of chemical weapons, but Reuters cited unnamed diplomats blaming the Islamic State. James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said Washington continues to “track numerous allegations of ISIL’s use of chemicals in attacks in Iraq and Syria, suggesting that attacks might be widespread.”
Not everyone is convinced that the Islamic State will have the staying power to drive growth.
In Iraq, the Islamic State has drawn its strength from a large pool of disaffected Baathists who lost power after the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But in Libya and Syria, the movement has never put down deep roots, forcing it to compete for influence with powerful, entrenched militias and insurgents. They have stalled in Syria, where Kurdish fighters, backed by American air power, have driven them from the northern city of Kobani near the Syrian border with Turkey.
The further loss of territory in Syria and Iraq will undermine one of its greatest recruitment pitches: that it holds and controls the only Islamic caliphate. “I think it will reduce the ideological appeal over time,” said Jacob Shapiro, an expert on the Islamic State at Princeton University. “The more territory they lose, the more hollow their appeal.”
Shapiro predicted a finite number of people who are willing to risk their lives for global jihad, suggesting the Islamic State’s recruiting days are limited. “I don’t see how the numbers would expand from where they are right now, except through the rebranding of existing groups,” he said.
U.S. intelligence officials have touted military gains, citing the retaking of Kobani and, more recently, most of the western Iraqi city of Ramadi. In a Feb. 9 Senate hearing, Clapper said forces fighting the Islamic State would likely make “incremental battlefield gains” through this spring since the caliphate’s grip on territory is “probably faltering” under continued airstrikes that have hammered its sources of income. In turn, Clapper said, that limits the Islamic State’s ability to provide services or economic stability for people living in those areas.
Still, Clapper dubbed the Islamic State the world’s “preeminent” terrorist threat and “probably [the] most proficient” Sunni extremist group harnessing the power of social media to solicit recruits. The group is likely to “continue these activities in 2016 by using videos, photos, and other propaganda glorifying life under ISIL rule and promoting the group’s military successes,” he said.
“ISIL’s branches continue to build a strong global network that aims to advance the group’s goals and often works to exacerbate existing sectarian tensions in their localities,” Clapper added.
In his report, Ban noted the Islamic State’s expanded influence across West and North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, which he said reveals “the speed and scale at which the gravity of the threat has evolved in just 18 months.”
“The complexity of the recent attacks and the level of planning, coordination and sophistication involved raise concerns about its future evolution,” Ban said, adding that any effort to contain the Islamic State will require shrinking its sources of revenue. “ISIL is the world’s wealthiest terrorist organization,” he said.
Following its rise to power, the extremist movement seized control of 90 bank branches, holding about $1 billion in cash, according to the United Nations. Last year alone, the Islamic State generated between $400 million and $500 million in oil revenues, which it used to purchase weapons, military equipment, ammunition, and gear.
It raised another $900 million through a 2.5 percent tax on trucks entering its territories; that tax extends to everything from the sale of livestock to barley, wheat, and cotton. The group also earned many millions of dollars by extorting locals, looting antiquities, and reselling homes that were abandoned by fleeing Iraqis and Syrians. Additionally, the U.N. claims the Islamic State raised an additional $35 million to $45 million from hostage ransoms in 2014, including one case in which extremists charged $850,000 for the release of 200 minority Yazidis.
Ban echoed Clapper’s prediction that the Islamic State’s earnings likely are dwindling. He cited the airstrikes, blocked smuggling routes, and oil sales and purchases as indicators “that ISIL’s oil income, both in total and as a proportion of its overall earnings, will gradually diminish in 2016.”
Moreover, he said, the Islamic State will struggle to sustain its tax system in the longer term. The movement’s profits from wheat and barley crops, for example, have been shrinking because of the poor quality of the seeds used. Still, Ban warned that the Islamic State is able to easily pivot to other money-making ventures: “ISIL’s degree of diversification is such that dwindling revenue streams can be quickly replaced by others.”
The Islamic State has invested most heavily in establishing alternative revenue sources in oil-rich Libya.
Alarmed by the group’s activities in the chaotic North African state, the United States and Britain are discussing with Libyan officials the possibility of coordinating military operations against the Islamic State, Libya’s U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told Foreign Policy.
Dabbashi said any final decision on foreign military action against the Islamic State would have to await the formation of a national unity government, a process that has been stalled by disagreements among key Libyan players.
Libya would likely welcome foreign air support for a ground operation by local forces against the Islamic State in Sirte, he said, but “most Libyans are against [foreign] boots on the ground.” Libya also is open to discussions about organizing a Libyan assault force of national soldiers and fighters from the Misrata militias and Sirte.
Islamic State fighters in Sirte are “not strong enough” to withstand an organized military assault on their desert stronghold, leaving them no place to flee, Dabbashi said. “Strategically speaking, they are very weak,” he added. “I think it will be very easy with aerial support to eliminate them, to destroy and finish the existence of ISIS in Sirte. It is a city in the desert. They don’t have any place to go.”
Western governments already have the legal authority to use military action against the Islamic State in Libya, as long as it coordinates its activities with the Libyan government, Dabbashi said. In March 2015, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution urging member states working with Libyan authorities to “combat by all means” the Islamic State and its allies in Libya.
The Islamic State began its efforts to establish a base in Libya as early as 2013. It drew from local militants linked to Ansar al-Sharia, which participated in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, and Libyan veterans of the war in Syria and Iraq, according to a U.N. panel that monitors the Islamic State and other terrorist movements. Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s caliph, dispatched his personal emissary, a Bahraini preacher named Turki al-Binali, to establish a base in Libya in 2013, according to the U.N. panel. A stream of foreign fighters from Mali to Yemen followed. The core of the Islamic State in Libya now comprises some 800 Libyan veterans of the wars in Syria and Iraq, including members of Al-Battar Brigade, which fought for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
“Libya is strategically important for ISIL, in view of its geographical location at the crossroads between the Middle East, Africa and Europe,” the U.N. panel reported last November. “The ISIL central command in Iraq and [Syria] views Libya as the ‘best’ opportunity to expand its so-called caliphate.”
Currently, the Islamic State has more than 2,000 armed fighters under its command in the country, according to the panel. Its leaders have mused about the prospects of converting Libya, with its oil wealth, into a cash cow for the movement. So far, the extremist movement has enough money to finance its operations, including attacks on oil facilities in Libya. Still, it has been unable to generate the large sums in Libya that it has in Syria and Iraq.
Photo credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.