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Jihadism in 2014: Assessing the Islamic State

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
11 MINS READJan 8, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

By Scott Stewart

Editor's Note: The following is the third installment of a series examining how the global jihadist movement evolved in 2014.

As noted in part one of this series, the largest change in the jihadist movement in 2014 was the split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In part 4 of the 2013 Gauging the Jihadist Movement series, we discussed the tensions between al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, as the organization was referred to then. We also noted that the group was the most powerful of the regional jihadist franchises, that it was growing in power and that it had the potential to be the next jihadist group to establish an emirate. Finally, we noted our belief that this growing power was going to draw the attention of the Unites States and its allies, who do not want to permit the emergence of a jihadist emirate in the heart of the Middle East.

However, while we correctly outlined the general trends that were going to transpire, the actual scope of how those trends played out caught us by surprise. We simply did not foresee the organization being able to conquer as much land in Iraq as it did, with the speed that it did. Also, while Stratfor has long been concerned about the capabilities of the Iraqi security services after the U.S. withdrawal, we were surprised by how quickly the U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi army broke and fled in the face of attacks by a far smaller and lesser-equipped force. We were also caught off guard at the way the generally well-regarded Kurdish peshmerga was initially driven back during the Islamic State's offensive into Iraq.

In that context, we will examine the Islamic State in terms of its goals and by comparing its stated aims to insurgent and terrorist theory.


Despite its current ideological squabbling with al Qaeda, and the pointed criticism of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri that was discussed in part two of this series, the Islamic State nevertheless continues to pursue the broad strategy al-Zawahiri outlined in a 2005 letter he sent to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the group that has become the Islamic State.

In that letter, al-Zawahiri wrote: "It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world." He also noted that the first step in such a plan was to expel the Americans from Iraq. The second stage was to establish an emirate and expand it into a larger caliphate. The third stage was then to attack the secular countries surrounding Iraq (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan) and bring them into the caliphate. The fourth step was to use the power of the combined caliphate to attack Israel.

Inspired by al-Zawahiri's letter, and emboldened by successes on the battlefield despite the death of al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike, al-Zarqawi's group renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006, thereby declaring the establishment of a jihadist polity in Iraq. While the group was severely weakened as a result of the U.S. surge of forces into Iraq and the corresponding Anbar Awakening in the Sunni areas of the country that began in 2007, the organization never let go of its goals. It rebuilt after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and took advantage of the civil war in Syria. Following a successful military campaign to seize large portions of the Sunni areas in Iraq, on June 29, 2014, the Islamic State organization announced not only the re-establishment of an emirate but also of a caliphate and demanded that all Muslims pay homage to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is now known as Caliph Ibrahim.

The Islamic State currently controls large sections of Syria and Iraq, including significant portions of Syria's energy production apparatus. It also controls Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, having assembled the largest and best-equipped jihadist armed force ever. It has therefore accomplished a great deal over the past year. However, jihadist emirates have been relatively short-lived, including the previously declared Islamic State in Iraq and the emirate declared by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali in 2012. They have also been destroyed by foreign intervention, and it is very likely that the Islamic State will find it extremely difficult to hold onto its gains in the face of the concerted international campaign against it.

Insurgency and Terrorism

The militants of the Islamic State have been fighting an insurgent war in Iraq for more than a decade now. They have also been heavily involved in the Syrian civil war since 2011. Through numerous battles in Iraq and Syria, the military leadership of the Islamic State learned hard lessons from attempting to stand toe-to-toe with the U.S. military in Fallujah (twice) and Ramadi. There have also been brutal conflicts with Syrian and Iraqi armed forces and an assortment of militant groups such as Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra — the al Qaeda franchise group in Syria that split from the Islamic State. As seen from its dramatic gains on the battlefield in 2014, the Islamic State has grown quite competent at guerrilla and mobile, light infantry warfare.

Much of the Islamic State's battlefield success came from the fact that it has accepted many former Sunni Iraqi military officers into its ranks, leaders who lost their positions after Saddam Hussein fell. These former soldiers have shown the ability to plan operations, handle logistics, and even operate and maintain heavy weapons systems captured from the Syrian and Iraqi militaries. Experienced militants from Libya, Chechnya and elsewhere have also bolstered the Iraqi contingent. The Islamic State's ability to employ heavy weapons like tanks and artillery greatly assisted its offensive operations in 2014.

While the Iraqi soldiers brought a good deal of military experience to the group, they have not been able to provide much in the way of terrorist tradecraft. Indeed, the Iraqi government was fairly successful in its military campaigns against its own minorities and other regional powers, such as the Kuwaitis and Iranians. However, Iraq struggled to project power transnationally through terrorism.

Hussein's government supported numerous terrorist groups with logistics and training facilities, but others carried out much of the terrorist tradecraft training conducted in those camps. Saddam's military and intelligence personnel were masters at instilling terror in their native population, but they never really mastered transnational terrorism tradecraft themselves.

The Iraqi government's lack of transnational terrorist tradecraft was plainly evident in January 1991 when it launched a string of botched and thwarted attacks across Asia, to include Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok and Beijing. Despite having the luxury of being able to send terrorist materials to intelligence officers assigned to its embassies, for passage to their terrorist teams via the diplomatic pouch, these would-be terrorists committed egregious technical and operational security mistakes. First, because of faulty timers, their bombs either failed to go off or killed their own operatives. Second, their operatives were traveling on sequentially numbered Iraqi tourist passports, and once that sequence was discovered, their terrorist teams were quickly rounded up in a number of countries.

The Hussein government's transnational terrorism incompetence was again displayed in April 1993 when the Iraqi intelligence service attempted to assassinate former U.S. President George HW Bush in Kuwait City. The Iraqis used the same type of explosives used in the 1991 Asia attacks, PE-4A, and the explosives were even from the same manufacturer's lot number the Iraqi intelligence service had sent to Asia and elsewhere via the diplomatic pouch in 1991.

As we have previously discussed, the Islamic State and its predecessor organizations have never conducted terrorist attacks outside their region of operations, and even their efforts to launch attacks in neighboring Jordan have not been successful compared with their terrorist operations in Iraq and Syria. This lack of success stems from the challenges associated with operating remotely in hostile territory, a far more difficult task than operating locally and using internal communication lines. Indeed, projection of terrorist capabilities at the transnational level requires different elements of terrorist tradecraft than attacking locally. For example, in bombmaking it is far more challenging to construct a viable explosive device from improvised components than it is to assemble one using military-grade explosives and other ordnance.

This lack of capability to project terrorist power was evidenced by the Islamic State's call to grassroots jihadists in the West to embrace the leaderless resistance model of terrorism and conduct attacks where they live.

If the Islamic State begins working to develop the tradecraft capabilities required for transnational terrorist operations, we would expect to first see it display a greater ability to project force within its region before we would see it attempt to project force half a world away. We have recently seen reports of the Islamic State attempting to infiltrate personnel into Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but those efforts have been amateurish, as have the group's terrorist attacks to date in Lebanon.


The Islamic State has surpassed al Qaeda's accomplishments on the battlefield, declaring a caliphate in an attempt to assume leadership of the global jihadist movement. However, as noted two weeks ago, we have yet to witness major defections of jihadists from al Qaeda to the Islamic state, outside of the Syria/Iraq theater of operations. The group's pointed criticism of al Qaeda for being too moderate and religiously flawed will likely serve to alienate those who venerated Osama bin Laden. The group's attacks on the Taliban, Mullah Omar and other Deobandi Muslims will also likely hurt the Islamic State's appeal to militants in South Asia.

It must be remembered that specific regional factors aided the Islamic State's growth — the brutal sectarianism in Iraq and Syria, for example — and the lack of those factors in other areas will continue to limit the group's ability to spread beyond its core locality.

The Islamic State has quite publicly tied its legitimacy to its success on the battlefield, essentially stating in Dabiq magazine and other outlets that its battlefield successes were a way to prove its claim to the caliphate and to show that it was being divinely favored. Yet, as the international campaign against the Islamic State progressed, the organization's offensive stalled and the Islamic State weathered dramatic losses on the battlefield in Kobani, Baji and Sinjar, to name a few. Indeed, it would seem that the reason the Islamic State continues to attack Kobani and suffer mounting casualties there is because of its propaganda claims. The city really has little strategic importance to it otherwise.

The U.S.-led coalition has also repeatedly struck at Islamic State-controlled oil infrastructure in an effort to limit the group's ability to finance itself through the black market sale of oil. Despite the Islamic State's recent public announcement of a $2 billion budget for 2015, its expected $250 million surplus for the year and John Cantlie's video assurances that the Islamic State's economy is fine, there are signs that the organization is struggling financially. Certainly, the group gained a great deal of money and goods when it seized banks, government buildings and military bases, but it is spending a lot of money to provide salaries for its fighters and services for the citizens of the cities and towns it controls. Anecdotal reports suggest that food, medicine and other essential goods are in scarce supply and that the residents of cities such as Raqaa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq are becoming unhappy with the many taxes the Islamic State has levied to support its economy. With very little other economic activity, shaking down the local population for "taxes" can work only for so long until people are bled dry.

The Islamic State also lost several key leaders, including its emir (governor) for Kirkuk, the head of military operations in Iraq, and al-Baghdadi's deputy, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, a former lieutenant colonel in Iraqi special operations. While the group had some success in recruiting foreign fighters, replacing al-Turkmani, a savvy and seasoned military man with on-the-ground fighting experience, will prove difficult.

While the Islamic State will attempt to celebrate such deaths as martyrdoms, these losses, when combined with the loss of territory on the battlefield and financial hardship, will nonetheless work to undermine the carefully crafted claim that the Islamic State is a divinely favored and inexorable force.

There will be no huge surge of U.S. combat troops into Iraq to combat the Islamic State as there was the last time it established a jihadist polity in Iraq. Instead, the fighting will be done by Iraqi troops, from the national army, the Shiite militias and the Kurdish peshmerga. Because of this, it will take longer to push the Islamic State out of cities such as Mosul, especially if Islamic State fighters choose to dig in and fight to the end rather than flee. However, once its lines of communication are cut and coalition airstrikes have hampered its ability to mass forces, the Islamic State will find it very difficult to retain the caliphate it has conquered.

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