LONDON — Islamic State militants are being as vicious at the end as they were at the start when they rolled out their caliphate.
Gaining worldwide notoriety with macabre public-square slayings, beheadings of Westerners, murdering gay Syrians and Iraqis and enslaving Yazidi women, the militant group bragged their caliphate would rival the Abbasid empire of the Middle Ages, which lasted two centuries.
Their’s has lasted less than half-a-decade. In a bid to hold on to their last redoubt in the hardscrabble desert in eastern Syria the militants have kept to character, shunning the laws of war, readily sacrificing non-combatant lives, using as human shields women and children, nearly all of them their own wives and offspring.
Islamic State once controlled 88,000 square kilometers of territory straddling Syria and Iraq and imposed its medieval-style rule on nearly eight million people. At its peak the militant group, which skewed the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, generated billions of dollars from extortion, oil-smuggling, theft and kidnapping.
IS propagandists sought to legitimize their quasi-state by claiming false attributes of statehood, from minting coins to opening schools locals didn’t want their kids to attend.
For the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces battling IS the final assaults can’t come fast enough. Because of the risk of non-combatant casualties, “we have been compelled to go cautiously and accurately,” says Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the SDF.
The caliphate’s roll-back is being cited by U.S. and European officials as an example of successful Western intervention. The Kurds and allied tribesmen were mentored, supplied and advised primarily by the United States — first by Barack Obama’s administration, then by Donald Trump’s.
Despite the small investment in terms of American ground troops, never more than about 2500, the U.S. strategy of shaping a local proxy force and supporting it from the air worked better than many had expected. And it is already emerging as the default model for other challenging U.S. counter-terrorism missions, say U.S. officials.
Gen. James Hecker, vice director of operations at the Pentagon, highlighted the benefits of using surrogate forces, before a congressional panel last month, arguing the strategy lessens “the need for large scale U.S. troop deployments,” reduces the chances of being caught in quagmires and “fosters an environment where local forces take ownership of the problem.”
Among those who took ownership in eastern Syria were members of the Sha’itat tribe.
In 2014, Islamic State militants massacred Sha’itat tribesmen who had the temerity to revolt. IS fighters shot, beheaded and crucified an estimated 900 of them, the bloodiest single atrocity committed by the terror group in Syria. As with other slaughter, IS gloried in the barbarity, recording the slayings on cellphones for social-media sharing.
That massacre as well as others prompted a former British intelligence officer, Richard Barrett, to predict in a report for the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, that IS was sowing the seeds of the caliphate’s demise, arguing eventually the barbarity of the militants would catch up with them and provoke a backlash. The Sha’itat tribesmen fighting alongside the Kurds in eastern Syria are part of that reaction.
The caliphate may be crushed but it has left behind a high body count and added to the war trauma of Syria’s vicious conflict. The legacy of studied cruelty will haunt the Levant for generations. But IS aims to add to the legacy.
A pro-Islamic State online magazine, “Youth of the Caliphate,” has bragged the group will survive. Other IS social-media channels have emphasized that the terror group’s strategy is now to cause as much havoc as possible, using insurgency tactics honed in Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s al-Qaida mentor, after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
A draining insurgency is already in full swing in neighboring Iraq. Everything and anything is fair game as far as Islamic State is concerned — government targets, civilians, anyone who’s considered a collaborator with local or central authorities. The group’s aim, as in the past, is to provoke over-reaction and widen deep-seated sectarian rifts, which have only become more toxic in Syria’s long-running conflict, to exploit the sense of dispossession many ordinary Sunni Muslims feel in Syria and Iraq, both of which are ruled by Shi’ite regimes, warn analysts and Western officials.
“Today conditions in both countries are more favorable for the future resurgence of ISIS. The areas from northeastern Syria to Western Iraq lie in ruins, whole communities are devastated and the borders are too porous to be secured by central governments,” according to Hassan Hassan, co-author of a book on the terror group.
There are still pockets of IS fighters in territory controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, mainly in the vast Baida desert in Syria’s southeast and in areas south of the capital Damascus. Others have been making their way to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
They’re not being embraced by their rival jihadists, who also nurture dreams of establishing a caliphate. The al-Qaida group likely worries the Islamic State presence will invite more bombing from the Russians. Al-Qaida is enjoying a resurgence, benefiting from the humiliation of its competitor, say Western officials.
Some of the thousands of IS fighters in Syria may end up joining al-Qaida for survival reasons, but analysts believe most won’t. The majority of the IS survivors will carry out bombings like the blast on January 16 in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, which killed 15 people, including four Americans, say U.S. and U.N. officials.
Elsewhere, the group retains offshoots and adherents in Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Philippines and in Europe, too. But the hope of Western officials is that the demise of the caliphate will diminish the militant group’s macabre appeal and at least reduce the lure of the group for European recruits.
Nonetheless, the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence arm, MI6, Alex Younger, cautioned Western policy-makers recently against a sense of triumphalism as IS is “returning to its natural state as an asymmetric, transnational terrorist organization.”