‘IS may be losing on the battlefield, but it’s winning at recruitment’

One year after the beheading of American journalist James Foley, terrorism expert breaks down the progress in the fight against the Islamic State

Islamic State fighters pass by a convoy in the town of Tel Abyad in northeast Syria, May 4, 2015. (Jihadist website via AP)
Islamic State fighters pass by a convoy in the town of Tel Abyad in northeast Syria, May 4, 2015. (Jihadist website via AP)

It’s been a year since the Islamic State shocked the world by releasing a video of American journalist James Foley — who had been missing for nearly two years at that point — being beheaded. While the jihadist group had been making rapid advances in the preceding months, that particular act of brutality gave it exactly what it wanted: a place in the world’s consciousness.

Aside from the terrible loss of a courageous reporter’s life, Foley’s murder allowed the Islamic State to capture the attention of the international community, according to Benedetta Berti, an expert on terrorism and the Islamic State at the Institute for National Security Studies, based at Tel Aviv University.

“Even though IS had already made very serious territorial gains, and the intelligence community was certainly aware they posed a dangerous jihadist threat, the video of that beheading completely shocked the Western World,” Berti told The Times of Israel.

“Ever since then, everybody knows the Islamic State.”

Benedetta Berti (screen capture: YouTube)
Benedetta Berti (screen capture: YouTube)

And in the 12 months since, she said, in spite of the Islamic State’s significant military losses, it has continued to attract a massive influx of volunteers. Thus, whenever IS combatants are killed, they are easily and quickly replaced.

It is a dynamic that means the war against the Islamic State is being fought way beyond the battlefield.

‘Evolving’ from al-Qaeda


IS was originally al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the group began to reorganize in 2010 under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, eventually splitting off into its own entity — largely because al-Qaeda leaders rejected its methods of violence against civilians.

The largest advance made by the Islamic State after that separation, according to Berti, was on June 10, 2014, when the group gained control of the Iraqi city of Mosul and declared its intention to form a caliphate, a global Islamic community ruled under Sharia law.

That military development eventually prompted President Barack Obama to authorize airstrikes in Iraq on August 8, 2014.

Eleven days later, IS released a graphic video of a masked militant, speaking in British-accented English, threatening to kill more Americans if Obama did not stop America’s latest military campaign. Next to him was James Foley.

Foley was on his knees in a desert, decked out in orange prisoner garb, his head shaved. He was forced to read a statement, presumably written by his captors, imploring his family, friends and fellow citizens to urge the president to stop the American airstrikes, saying they put “the last nail in my coffin.”

American journalist James Foley, kneeling in orange, in a video released by the Islamic State, which apparently showed him being beheaded by his captor, August 19, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/News of the World)
American journalist James Foley, kneeling in orange, in a video released by the Islamic State, which apparently showed him being beheaded by his captor, August 19, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/News of the World)

After US intelligence verified the authenticity of the video on August 20, 2014, Obama interrupted his annual family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard to lament the loss of Foley’s life and pronounce IS a “cancer” that needed to be destroyed.

Just two years after he had referred to the Islamic State as a “jayvee (junior varsity) team” in the global jihadist movement, the US commander-in-chief was ready to strike a different tone and forge a different policy: “The bottom line is this: Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL [IS is also known as the Islamic State in the Levant] so that it’s no longer a threat — not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.”

Since then, the US has embarked on a comprehensive mission to defeat the Islamic State. And Berti explained where the US and its international partners stand in that fight.

The situation on the ground

“The main problem,” she said, “is that while IS is getting pummeled militarily — American airstrikes have caused significant damage — it has such an exceptional media campaign, and is so adept at recruiting volunteers, that every time the US takes out IS combatants, they are replaced very quickly.”

The CIA estimates that IS has somewhere between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters; American airstrikes have killed approximately 6,000 since the campaign began in August 2014.

The CIA also estimates there are thousands flocking into Iraq and Syria each month — the exact figures are unknown — to join the cell-based terror group, and the number of enlistees exceeds the death count, according to studies conducted at INSS.

This reality represents just one of the ways Berti believes the overall campaign against IS is “mixed.” Before the American military campaign, IS had gained so much ground that it controlled territory in Iraq and Syria larger than the United Kingdom, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

(Institute for the Study of War)
Courtesy: Institute for the Study of War

Those territorial gains, however, have not been expanded upon since IS has been facing a combination of US air strikes and ground offensives by the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces, according to Berti.

“The Islamic State has lost a lot of military momentum,” she said. “Before the advanced military operations started against them, they were making rapid advances. Those advances have been largely stalled, though not completely, and they have subsequently lost territory.”

“Most significantly,” she added, “they were driven out of Tikrit.”

In April, Iraqi forces, aided by Shiite militiamen, took control of Tikrit, a northern city in Iraq that was the birthplace of the late dictator Saddam Hussein. The liberation of Tikrit marked a significant victory for the Iraqi government, Berti said, as its military forces had tried and failed numerous times in the year since the IS takeover.

“What we’re seeing is that they are losing significant battles,” she continued. “But those are still unable to erode the size of their military.

“This is why, with IS, it truly comes back to the broader war of ideas,” Berti said. “They have an extremely effective media propaganda apparatus that keeps causing people to join their cause of jihad.”

According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, nearly 20,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside IS.

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, shows fighters from the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) marching in Syria (photo credit: AP)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on January 14, 2014, shows fighters from the Islamic State marching in Syria. (AP, File)

“So America and the other forces are seeing some victories on the battlefield, but until they can block foreign recruitment, those gains won’t have staying power,” Berti said.

The main American policy toward preventing and deterring recruitment, she stated, is threefold — monitoring, intelligence and enhanced border security.

The most important development in that regard came this July, when Turkey announced it would cooperate with the US military.

American aircraft have since joined Turkish forces — with moderate Syrian insurgents — to collaborate in fighting IS militants along a 60-mile (96.5-km) strip of the Turkey-Syria border.

The plan will also create what officials have called a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians, and will help block IS recruits from crossing the Turkish border.

“One of the things this can accomplish is to stop people from entering the country,” Berti said. “While that is not the only border, it will likely have some impact on lowering the influx [of people joining IS].”

Nonetheless, the Islamic State remains a complicated organization that will require a holistic, multidimensional approach, she said.

Another challenge is the fact that the Islamic State is the wealthiest terror organization in the world. The territorial conquest of oil-rich Syria has enabled it to accumulate vast sums of money from selling oil on the black market. Additionally, it still collects donations from the Gulf States and is able to self-generate funds.

For all these reasons, Berti maintains that the battlefield victories are significant, but that there is still a long way to go, in President Obama’s words, “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. “If it was just a matter of asymmetric warfare,” she said, “they would have been taken out in short order.”

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