How did a few thousand fighters on pickup trucks manage to frighten the world?

While Western media highlights the Islamic State’s gains, and Obama seeks a strategy, the jihadists would be hard-pressed if faced with a conventional army

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A convoy of vehicles and fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq's Anbar Province, January 2014 (photo credit: AP)
A convoy of vehicles and fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq's Anbar Province, January 2014 (photo credit: AP)

If it wasn’t so disturbing, it probably could have been entertaining: an army in 4×4 Toyota pickup trucks, managing to terrorize not only Middle Eastern Shiites, but also Western and Israeli media.

If an outsider read the newspaper and internet headlines over the past few months, he would think that the Islamic State, and its counterpart/rival in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, were planning a mass invasion of tens of thousands of jihadis into Israel, and from there into Europe and the United States.

Everyone can calm down. IS and al-Nusra are not military forces that can present an actual threat to a functioning conventional army. The IDF, or the Jordanian army for that matter, are not expecting any difficulty dealing with these rising Islamist forces on the battlefield. The big problem with these two groups is that they can cause significant damage through terror attacks. And as is always the case with terrorism, the focus is the fear it engenders among the public.

Both groups, but especially IS, have chalked up impressive victories on the media battlefield and on the PR front. With their trove of videos and photographs, speeches and frightening scenes like mass killings and beheadings, IS has managed to instill fear in everyone who isn’t a radical Sunni.

The campaign in the Iraqi city of Mosul shows how significant its deterrence has become. The organization understood that in order to conquer a city, the attacker doesn’t need an advantage in manpower or weaponry. It’s enough for the adversary to be sure that his fate is certain death in order to instill mass panic. When IS forces approached Mosul, most of the residents and defenders left within 24 hours, before the first jihadist even began fighting.

By this week it was obvious that IS’s military progress had been challenged. True, its leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of Wilayat al-Furat (an Islamic State province), shattering the familiar borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. But the group is barely advancing, and in some places, especially in Iraq, its fighters have been forced to retreat.

There is no miracle or military secret here. The airstrikes carried out by the US military against IS did their work. The group cannot withstand these types of attacks, certainly not with the arsenal it has now. The Toyotas, the “army’s” main means of transportation, can’t do a thing against any type of helicopter attack.

So why hasn’t more been done, earlier? You would need to ask US President Barack Obama that question, as he seeks to find a strategy against IS and build an international coalition — as though he is dealing with a conflict with Russia.

And all the while, Israeli and American media continue to escalate the panic. This week, for example, a “senior US intelligence official” said that IS presents a clear threat to the West.

It’s almost unbelievable. They used to say in the IDF that “the man in the tank will win,” justifying the preference for armor over infantry. Now we hear that, from a US source no less, “the man in the Toyota” will defeat the West.

The rivalry

Plenty has been written in recent months about the rivalry between Al-Nusra and IS. The two were born from the same ideological womb. It was a fight over credit for their victories that led to the bitter rivalry, including suicide bombings against each other, between the two commanders, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from IS and Abu Muhammad al-Julani from Al-Nusra.

IS’s penetration into Syria, and its brutal actions against its rival there, led to Al-Nusra escaping west and south to center its activities on Dara’a and the Syrian Golan Heights area, while IS focused on eastern and northern Syria.

The exact number of fighters is not clear. Some estimates put the numbers of fighters in each organization at 7,000-8,000. That does not include the massive tribes who have affiliated themselves with the organizations in Syria and Iraq, like the Jubar tribe on the Iraq-Jordan border. If we include the tribes, and the former soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s military aiding IS, the number in Iraq reaches close to 15,000. IS and Al-Nusra are also aided by a significant number of foreigners (Europeans, Middle Easterners, and more). The dominant element was and is the locals — Iraqis and Syrians. Recently, however, we find in al-Nusra, too, plenty of foreigners, mostly Jordanians, who are fighting on the Golan front against the Syrian Army. Foreigners now make up a third of the fighters.

The two organizations operate as semi-militaries — not a conventional army with uniforms, but there is a hierarchy, central command, basic communication systems, and differentiated missions. The capture of Quneitra, on the Syrian side of the Golan, for example, required the al-Nusra emir in Dara’a (equivalent to a brigade or division commander for the Dara’a district) to not only assign missions to his men, but also to cooperate with more moderate opposition groups. In total, a few hundred al-Nusra fighters operate on Israel’s border, of which a few dozen participated in the capture of old Quneitra. About 3,000 operatives are deployed in the Dara’a district as a whole.

The story with IS is a little different. The organization enjoys the booty captured from the Iraqi Army, like armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles, including the SA-6 missiles that led to the decision by American and UAE air carriers to halt all flights over Iraq. Al-Baghdadi’s fighters can tap into the expertise of ex-Saddam soldiers, who are teaching them how to operate some tanks, wheeled BTR armored personnel carriers, and tracked BMP APCs.

And still, the most iconic piece of equipment in the hands of the two groups is the Toyota pickup with the heavy machine gun, the Russian “Dushka.” These machine guns can be used as a primitive anti-tank weapon, and can taken down for use as anti-personnel weapons. The organizations mount them on their Toyotas, and charge around Dara’a (in the case of al-Nusra) or the deserts of Iraq (in the case of IS).

The threat on other fronts

Senior officers in Jordan’s military intelligence have plenty to worry about these days. They are the ones dealing with the threats at home (Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, protests in Ma’an, a million Syrian refugees, etc.) and abroad (al-Qaeda and Jubhat al-Nusra to the north and IS to the east). The jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria have not shown any intention to operate in Jordan, certainly not as they have in Iraq or Syria. That is, there will not be an invasion or an attempt to take over, since there they will run smack into air and ground forces far superior to their fleet of armed Toyotas.

The danger for the Hashemite Kingdom is not the toppling of the regime, but unrest, terror attacks, car bombs, suicide attacks, and the like. The newspaper a-Sharq al-Awsat reported Thursday that Jordanian security forces had arrested 71 radical activists belonging to Islamist organizations, including IS and al-Nusra, throughout the kingdom.

The relatively small Jordanian Army is spread thin along the Iraqi and Syrian borders, huge frontiers stretching hundreds of kilometers, and the mission of defending them is not simple. But Jordan also enjoys close American support, including half an F-16 squadron and Patriot missiles, additional equipment and advisers. In addition, Israel helps significantly in the intelligence realm.

On the Palestinian front, there is currently no need for alarm regarding these groups. For now, there is no IS presence in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Gaza Strip. Yes, occasionally some Facebook hotshot posts a picture of someone running around with an IS flag, and one can even buy IS flags and shirts in the Old City of Jerusalem, but that’s all it is. In the West Bank, the Salafist Hizb ut-Tahrir movement is present, but it has no connection to IS and doesn’t identify with it. There are also members of Salafiya Jihadiya, like those killed in Hebron almost a year ago, but their numbers are vanishingly small.

Besides challenging the Syrian regime and Iraq, Jubhat al-Nusra and IS are a profound danger to Hezbollah. The Shiite organization has been fighting in recent weeks on the Qalamoun Ridge, which it had already captured from al-Nusra and its affiliates. That area, like the Beqaa, is critical for Hezbollah’s control of the routes between Syria and Lebanon. If it doesn’t control the border, Hezbollah’s ability to smuggle in weaponry from Assad’s storage facilities in Syria to basements and bunkers in Lebanon will be harmed.

Let’s not be fooled. It is estimated that even during the recent battles, Hezbollah has taken advantage of the chaos in order to smuggle into Lebanon rockets and sensitive military equipment originating in Syria or Russia.

In this vein, it’s impossible to ignore the drone that was shot down this week over the Golan Heights. Was Hezbollah behind the launch? Israel is having trouble determining that for sure. There are at least four groups that could be behind a drone launch, and one of them is Hezbollah. But Bashar Assad also understands that if he allows Hezbollah to fire drones from the Syrian Golan into Israel, he is risking a serious Israeli reaction. And that is the last thing he needs while he is fighting the jihadists for survival.

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