ISIS On The Run?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross lays out the evidence that the jihadist group is losing steam:

The most obvious sign of ISIS’s decline is that the group is no longer conquering territory, seizing no major towns or cities since Hit (and this hasn’t been for lack of effort on its part). ISIS continues to capture villages from time to time; for example, on December 27 it gained control of 14 villages in Anbar after Iraqi security forces withdrew from the area. But those villages aren’t equivalent to a major urban area and had been taken from ISIS by Iraqi forces just two days earlier. In October, ISIS advanced ominously on the Syrian city of Kobane; the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy declared in The New Republic that “Kobane will fall. In a matter of hours.” It has yet to fall, and Kurdish forces now appear to have the advantage, though the town remains contested.

ISIS has even been losing ground, albeit unevenly. In December, the group pulled its forces from Iraq’s Sinjar district, home to one of ISIS’s main resupply routes from Syria into Iraq (the other being Tal Afar). This has threatened to isolate ISIS-held Mosul.

But Lina Khatib doubts ISIS will disappear any time soon:

What is likely to change in the coming year is the way the organization operates.

The year 2014 saw a number of terrorist attacks in countries outside Syria and Iraq that were linked to the Islamic State by the assailants, even though the attacks were not necessarily directed by the Islamic State itself. In many of these cases, the Islamic State gave its blessing to the attacks after the fact, with the latest example being the lone terrorist attack in Australia in December 2014. These scenarios are likely to lead to more copycat incidents across the globe, especially by groups and individuals pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in a bid to gain power, notoriety, and resources. As the Islamic State embraces more and more such entities, it will be forced to change from a centralized organization into a franchise. Transformation rather than extinction, then, is the likely scenario for the Islamic State in the coming year.

And even if ISIS’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse, that alone doesn’t necessarily mean America’s war against them is going well. Nancy A. Youssef points out that the Pentagon doesn’t know how many ISIS soldiers, or civilians, it has actually killed. What’s more, they don’t seem all that concerned about it:

[P]rogress in this war continues to be measured on fluid standards—where ISIS is trying to go, whether it can go there, and if local forces can fend them off. It is not a decisive war, with a single, signature victory, but a war of attrition. But there is no consensus about what the attrition of ISIS looks like. Success—and failure—is in the eye of the beholder. In the northern Syrian city of Kobani, for example, which, according to TheWall Street Journal, has seen 31 percent of U.S. and coalition strikes, Kurdish and local forces appear to be taking back parts of the city. But how much they have regained or how durable their hold is remains unclear. Kirby said that while the Kurdish forces control the majority of the city, it “remains contested.”

Breaking the will of ISIS, the military argues, is not a statistic. And too much of a focus on numbers can obscure strategic truths. Take the chief metric of the war in Vietnam—body counts, which ultimately did not answer whether the strategy was working.

ISIS: Once You’re In, You’re In

ISIS has executed around 2,000 people since June, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, including “116 foreign fighters for trying to flee to their home countries” and four others for “violations of the extremist group’s code”. Adam Taylor finds it remarkable that ISIS has been killing its own and points to the group’s dwindling power:

SOHR’s report seems to be further evidence that although some foreign fighters are no doubt fearsome, others are quite clearly not. In fact, a few may be quite some way from fearsome:

In November, the French newspaper Le Figaro carried an account of French Islamic State fighters complaining to their family back home about their broken iPods and the cold winter. Even hardier fighters may have had second thoughts as the Islamic State, facing U.S. airstrikes, began to lose its momentum late in the year. …

The Islamic State, which has built much of its reputation on the fierce loyalty of its fighters, would no doubt be aware of how damaging returning fighters could be, both in terms of publicity and because they could be of value to international intelligence agencies. According to a report from the Financial Times, the Islamic State recently formed a military police unit to crack down on fighters not reporting for duty. Executing fighters attempting to flee also would send a powerful message to other fighters having second thoughts.

In an interesting parallel, the Assad regime is having trouble filling the ranks of its own army and has resorted to stringent – though not quite as stringent – measures to stop desertions:

In recent weeks, the regime … began upping threats to dismiss and fine state employees who fail to fulfill military obligations, according to Syrian news Web sites and activists. In addition, they say, new restrictions imposed this fall have made it all but impossible for men in their 20s to leave the country.

Since the start of the uprising in 2011, Syrian authorities have used arrests and intimidation to halt desertions, defections and evasion of military service — but not to the extent seen recently, Syrians and analysts say. Men who are dragooned into the army appear to be deserting in larger numbers, they say, and the government’s crackdown is driving many of these men as well as more of the large number of draft-evaders to go into hiding or flee abroad.

Furthermore, the shortfall in pro-regime troops may also be due to the departure of foreign militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, who moved on to Iraq this summer to fight ISIS. So all in all, it sounds like going off to war in Syria is a pretty dismal experience whichever side you’re on.

Has The Tide Turned Against ISIS?

Clashes between ISIL and Peshmerga forces in Sinjar

Taking stock of the conflagration in Iraq and Syria at year’s end, Wayne White sees the jihadist group on the defensive:

Despite the jitters many have concerning the sweep of Islamic State forces, the view from the IS capital of Raqqa is hardly rosy. Still stalled in front of embattled Kobani, IS could not stop a sweeping Iraqi Kurdish, Yazidi, and Iraqi Army drive across northern Iraq to take Sinjar Mountain (again rescuing Yazidi refugees) and wrest from IS much of the town of Sinjar by December 21. Back in mid-December, the Pentagon also confirmed that an air strike killed Haji Mutazz, a deputy to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as the IS military operations chief for Iraq, and the IS “governor” of Mosul. Meanwhile, daily coalition air strikes grind away at various targets within IS’s “caliphate” (now increasingly wracked by shortages).

The implications of ISIS’s retreat from Sinjar are significant; Khales Joumah reports that the group’s grip on Mosul may be weakening as a result:

In the city of Mosul itself it seems as though ISIS is at a loss. Members of ISIS are still on the city’s streets but most of the foreign fighters appear to have gone.

The ones left on the streets tend to be younger, local fighters some of whom don’t even seem to be 25 yet. Some of the fighters on the streets admit that they’ve been forced to withdraw from Sinjar but only very quietly.

“For the first time you can sense the feelings of fear and frustration in ISIS’s fighters,” one Mosul doctor, who had been seeing ISIS casualties come in, told NIQASH; he had to remain anonymous for security reasons. “As the number of dead and wounded from among their ranks increases, they look more and more like they’ve lost confidence in their leadership.”

Juan Cole also stresses the importance of Sinjar’s liberation:

Historians refer to polities that exist on both sides of a mountain range, united by passes, as a “saddlebag empire.” These were common in South Asia, where southern Afghanistan and Punjab were often part of the same kingdom despite the barrier of the Hindu Kush mountains. What I have called the ‘neo-Zangid’ state of the Daesh unites the area from Aleppo to Damascus, across Mt. Shinjar , just as had the medieval ruler `Imad al-Din Zangi. It is a sort of contemporary saddlebag empire.

But now not only have the Peshmerga taken the Mt. Shinjar area away from Daesh, helping rescue the besieged Yezidis but they have at the same time cut the supply routes between the terrorist group’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, and its Iraqi power base, Mosul. If you take shears to a saddlebag, it can’t straddle the horse’s back any more and will fall down.

Still, hold off on the celebrations for now. As Loveday Morris reports, the humanitarian situation in Iraq remains grim:

U.N. officials acknowledge that the assistance is insufficient. The U.N. response plan for displaced Iraqis remains only 31 percent funded, while the World Food Program has stopped procuring supplies for the displaced because of a lack of money. That means the distribution of boxes of food to families, the only assistance many get, will end by February unless emergency funding is found.

“It’s not that we can do more with less; it’s that we don’t have anything and the needs on the ground are immense,” said Barbara Manzi, the outgoing Iraq representative for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is overseeing the organization’s response to the displacement crisis.

(Photo: Smoke rises as Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) fighters burn tires to obstruct the sight of warcraft during clashes with Peshmerga forces in Sinjar district of Mosul, Iraq on December 22, 2014. Peshmerga forces stage attacks against ISIL to liberate ISIL occupied Sinjar. By Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

An Actual War On Women, Ctd

by Dish Staff

The Islamic State’s “Research and Fatwa Department” is circulating a pamphlet on what the jihadis are allowed to do to the thousands of women and girls they have captured and enslaved in their rampage through Iraq and Syria:

Much of the pamphlet talks about ISIS’ policy on having sexual intercourse with a female slave, something that the group cites the Quran to justify. “If she was a virgin, he (the owner) can have intercourse with her 1(355)immediately after the ownership is fulfilled,” ISIS explains. “If she was not a virgin, her uterus must be purified (wait for her period to be sure she is not pregnant.)”

There are other rules as well, like that two men who co-own a captive can’t both have sex with her and that a man can’t have intercourse with his wife’s slave. As to girls: “It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse,” the document reads. “However, if she is not fit for intercourse, he (the owner ) can only enjoy her without intercourse.”

An English translation of the evil document, via MEMRI, is available here. Jamie Dettmer notes how many women ISIS is believed to have kidnapped:

According to Nazand Begikhani, an adviser to the Kurdistan regional government and researcher at the University of Bristol Gender and Violence Research Center, ISIS has kidnapped more than 2,500 Yazidi women. Yazidi activists, meanwhile, say they have compiled a list of at least 4,600 missing Yazidi women, seized after they were separated from male relatives, who were shot.

The women were bussed, according to firsthand accounts of women who have managed to flee, to the ISIS-controlled cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and chosen and traded like cattle. Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq say they have freed about 100 Yazidi women. In October, ISIS justified its enslavement of the women—and of any non-believing females captured in battle—in its English-language digital magazine Dabiq. Islamic theology, ISIS propagandists argued, gives the jihadis the right, much in the same way that the Bible’s Ephesians 6:5 tells “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”

Katie Zavadski finds some perspective on the ghastly situation:

The pamphlet may be part of a response to a recent condemnation of the group by Islamic scholars from around the word, according to UMass Lowell security studies professor Mia Bloom. Instead of engaging with centuries of Islamic theological debates, ISIS is reverting to seventh-century norms, at which point “women would have fallen under the rubric of war booty.”

She also doesn’t rule out the possibility that some foreign fighters might find these guidelines attractive. “Maybe they think that this is a recruiting tool,” she says, for frustrated men from abroad. But Bloom worries that this cycle of sexual violence will be difficult to stop. “They are creating a very perverse incentive system,” she says, noting the uptick of domestic violence complaints in postwar Serbia.

Previous Dish on the Islamic State’s barbaric view of women here.

Remember When They Opposed War In Iraq?

What a difference a decade makes. As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday finally began debating an authorization for the ongoing war against ISIS, the secretary of state urged them to grant the White House a much wider berth than the draft bill would:

Specifically, Kerry asked his former colleagues not to limit the use of military force to those two countries where Obama already has launched airstrikes, nor to bar the president from deploying combat troops on the ground, despite his repeated assurances that he will not do so. “In our view, it would be a mistake to advertise to ISIL that there are safe havens for them outside of Iraq and Syria,” Kerry said. On the use of ground troops, the secretary reiterated Obama’s policy that “U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL.”

But he doesn’t want Congress to put that in writing [in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)]. “That does not mean,” Kerry said, “we should pre-emptively bind the hands of the commander-in-chief—or our commanders in the field—in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee.” As examples, he said the administration needed flexibility to execute hostage rescues or respond if ISIS acquired chemical weapons outside the region.

And while Kerry was very clear on what the administration didn’t want in the AUMF, he had nothing to say about what powers they actually did want. The White House, after all, still refuses to put forth its own draft AUMF, so we still have no idea what constraints, if any, the administration envisions for this war. Jack Goldsmith analyzes Kerry’s testimony:

What the administration appears to be seeking is an open-ended IS AUMF akin to the one that Congress gave the President for al Qaeda and affiliates in the 2001 AUMF. In addition to the features noted above, the administration would like an “associated forces” extender but (apparently) not a reporting requirement about covered groups or places.  This would replicate the problem under the 2001 AUMF of Congress (and the American people) not necessarily knowing who we are fighting against, or where. …

Pretty amazing coming from an administration whose Chief Executive said in his NDU speech 18 months ago (i) “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may . . . continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” (ii) that he “look[ed] forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the [2001] AUMF’s mandate,” and (iii) that he “will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.”  I view Kerry’s testimony as the final repudiation of this element of the NDU speech, and as an acknowledgment that the “Forever War” is not close to over.

Morrissey is even less charitable:

Obama got elected by promising to end the war in Iraq, and then got re-elected by bragging that he’d done so by pulling out. All he did was set the stage for the war to expand exponentially, and with it the threat to the region and the West. Now Obama wants to avoid the political consequences of the failure of his policy by trying to get Congress to step in front of him while Obama prepares to re-enter the war he left behind. Republicans aren’t going to take the bait no matter how much they see the need for a forward strategy against ISIS, and neither are Obama’s Democratic allies.

The defining characteristic of this administration’s foreign policy has always been a failure to lead. It’s just becoming a lot more obvious these days.

Karl Vick rolls his eyes at yesterday’s proceedings:

The entire exercise, in a Lame Duck session, was academic at worst, and at best a dress rehearsal for the new year, when the Republicans will take control and — given the hawkish tenor of the GOP members — likely give Obama all the freedom he asks. Except for Paul, who scolded the administration on strict constructionist grounds, the harshest words were from Sen. John McCain, who called the hearing “kind of a charade.” The Arizona Republican stormed out after refusing to concede Kerry’s suggestion that more moderate Syrian rebels the administration has promised to arm are not, in fact, being left to die — owing, Kerry hinted, to secret measures that could not be discussed in a public setting. “More is being done, and more is being done than I can talk about in this hearing,” he said.

Why Was Kassig’s Death Different? Ctd

Tracy McNicoll suspects that the real purpose of the ISIS propaganda video showing Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig’s severed head was to feature its expanding cast of foreign fighters, some of whom are seen taking part in the synchronized beheading of 18 Syrian military personnel. One of the executioners has been identified as 22-year-old Frenchman Maxime Hauchard:

Hauchard is the first of the unmasked executioners in the ISIS video to be positively and publicly identified, although French authorities have said a second young French Muslim convert’s appearance may be authenticated shortly. As intelligence services around the world are working to identify any other foreign fighters among the band of killers in the gory new video, speculation also surfaced that another of the killers is 20-year-old Welsh jihadist Nasser Muthana, but that has yet to be confirmed.

Indeed, analysts agree one of the video’s key functions for ISIS is to illustrate how far the group’s seductive reach is extending globally. As France took in the shock news that one of its own sons may be a throat-slitting, decapitating terrorist, the Islamist specialist Romain Caillet told Le Monde, “In putting forward soldiers from the four corners of the world, Da’esh [as the French call the group, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS] is looking to create a ‘United Colors of Jihad’ effect. The message is simple: there are hundreds of Jihadi Johns.”

I’m still kinda agape at the idea of a 20 year old Welsh Jihadist. But I fail to be intimidated by that kind of ludicrous Western loser. They seem as evil as they are ridiculous. Simon Cottee reflects on why ISIS makes a point of showing off its beheadings:

The conventional wisdom holds that ISIS’s savagery will be its undoing—that it will alienate ordinary Muslims, and that without their support the group cannot succeed. But what this view overlooks is that ISIS’s jihad, as its progenitor Zarqawi well understood, isn’t about winning hearts and minds. It is about breaking hearts and minds. ISIS doesn’t want to convince its detractors and enemies. It wants to command them, if not destroy them altogether. And its strategy for achieving this goal seems to be based on destroying their will through intimate killing. This, in part, is what the group’s staged beheadings are about: They subliminally communicate ISIS’s proficiency in the art of the intimate kill. And this terrifies many people, because they sense just how hard it is to do.

Cottee’s analysis squares with a new UN report on the jihadists’ reign of terror, which also concludes that it serves a strategic purpose:

There’s a terrible logic at work here. “By publicizing its brutality,” the UN concludes, “the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or States that challenge its ideology.” Such violence isn’t rare in war zones. According to Stathis Kalyvas, a Yale professor who studies civil wars, rebel groups understand that civilian defection is an existential threat to their rule. Their violence is generally targeted to coerce civilian cooperation with the group — which is why ISIS labels the people it publicly executes as traitors. The message: defect to the government or a rebel group, and you’ll pay.

Meanwhile, Rodger Shanahan notices something odd about the timing of these videos:

Note that the latest video showing the beheading of Peter Kassig and Syrian military personnel was released a day or two after the fall of the town of Bayji to Iraqi government forces. … This is part of a broader pattern. A day after the Turkish parliament authorised military action against ISIS (not good news for ISIS), video of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning was released. And if we hark back to the recapture of Mosul Dam by Kurdish forces backed by US air support in mid-August, the beheading of US journalist James Foley followed shortly after.

None of these actions are designed to dissuade Western military intervention in Iraq or Syria, or even to goad the West into becoming decisively committed on the ground, because ISIS understands this is unlikely to occur. Rather, it has a much more short-term aim: to get ISIS’s military and political setbacks out of the media cycle and replace them with bloody imagery that demonstrates ISIS is still a force.

But they somewhat detract from that message, don’t they? They seem desperate and the last one rushed.

Why Was Kassig’s Death Different?

Yesterday, ISIS released a video showing that they had beheaded 26-year-old American aid worker Abdul-Rahman (né Peter) Kassig:

In the clip released early Sunday, the Islamic State displays the head of Mr. Kassig, 26, at the feet of a man with a British accent who appeared in the previous beheading videos and has been nicknamed Jihadi John by the British news media. Unlike the earlier videos, which were staged with multiple cameras from different vantage points, and which show the hostages kneeling, then uttering their last words, the footage of Mr. Kassig’s death is curtailed — showing only the final scene.

One possible explanation is that Kassig, a former Army Ranger, resisted his captors at the end. We may never know what happened for sure. One thing that is for sure, however, is that Kassig’s embrace of Islam during his captivity didn’t spare his life.

As Terrence McCoy notes, other captives of Islamist militant groups who converted, such as James Foley, didn’t reap any benefit from doing so either. Fawaz Gerges stresses that killing a convert “is an extremely serious violation of the well-established consensus in the Islamic community on the sacredness of life for converts to the religion”. He sees Kassig’s sloppy killing as a sign that the group is on the defensive:

Abu Muhammed al-Maqdsi, a mentor to many al Qaeda leaders, had called for mercy — not only because Kassig was a convert to Islam, but because he had given up so much to move to Syria and help victims of the war. Militant Islamists in the country also went public with a request for mercy. They said Kassig, a trained medic, had treated them when they were injured in battles against Syrian government forces.

It was inevitable that these calls would fall on deaf ears. Beheading Western hostages is one of the only tools ISIS has at its disposal to retaliate against the American-led airstrikes that are beginning to land serious blows on the group. … While it is difficult to keep track of the latest developments on the ground, what we do know is this: The momentum, at least in Iraq, is shifting. The group’s leaders are being hunted down, and they’re feeling the pain.

Now, according to Shane Harris, the jihadists hold just one American prisoner: a young woman, the same age as Kassig, who also went to Syria as an aid worker and was kidnapped in August 2013:

U.S. officials and the woman’s family have requested that her name not be made public, fearing that further attention will put her in greater jeopardy. No news organization has published her name. But the general circumstances of her capture and captivity have been known and widely reported for more than a year now. ISIS’s intentions for its remaining American prisoner are unclear. But current and former U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that it was notable she doesn’t appear at the end of a video, released Sunday, that shows the aftermath of Kassig’s beheading. That breaks with ISIS’s pattern of showing the next hostage it intends to kill.

Reflecting on better days when he could interview Taliban leaders without fearing for his neck, Goldblog worries about these beheadings prompting journalists (and, one might add, humanitarians like Kassig) to think twice before heading to war zones:

Why have some groups rejected the notion of journalistic neutrality? For one thing, the extremists have become more extreme. Look at the fractious relationship between al-Qaeda and ISIS, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda but which has rejected criticism from Qaeda leaders about its particularly baroque application of violence. Another, more important, reason relates to the mechanisms of publicity itself. The extremists don’t need us anymore. Fourteen years ago, while I was staying at the Taliban madrasa, its administrators were launching a Web site. I remember being amused by this. I shouldn’t have been. There is no need for a middleman now. Journalists have been replaced by YouTube and Twitter. And when there is no need for us, we become targets. …

Today, even places that shouldn’t be dangerous for journalists are dangerous. Whole stretches of Muslim countries are becoming off-limits. This is a minor facet of a much larger calamity, but it has consequences: the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria and Iraq are not going away; our ability to see these problems, however, is becoming progressively more circumscribed.