31 March 2018

10 Takeaways from the Fight against the Islamic State

By Michael Dempsey

Nearly three years on from the Islamic State’s high water mark in the summer of 2015, there are several lessons that the United States and its allies can discern from the terrorist group’s meteoric rise to control large parts of Iraq and Syria to the loss of its physical caliphate late last year. The steady decline in ISIL’s fortunes is striking given the palpable fear its rise in the summer of 2014 sparked across Washington, when a common question circulating within the policy community was whether Baghdad itself might fall. Many of these takeaways will be relevant to U.S. policymakers as they attempt to prevent the group from reconstituting itself in the coming months.

ISIL is Hurting Without a Safe Haven 

Since the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, ISIL’s external operations have been sharply curtailed, and its communications have been greatly reduced (almost three quarters of the group’s media outlets have fallen silent since late last year). Absent its control of territory in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is now focusing primarily on trying to grow its eight overseas branches and inspire lone wolf operations abroad. It’s clear that denying the Islamic State its physical caliphate has been deleterious to the group’s operations. As such, denying the Islamic State control of physical terrain anywhere in the world should be job number one for those who want to see this group defeated decisively. 
The Islamic State Still Gravitates Toward Chaos 

The Islamic State loves a vacuum. After rising again to prominence in the wake of the Syrian civil war and the political dysfunction of Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, today the group is making its greatest inroads in troubled areas from the Sinai and Libya to Yemen and parts of Southeast Asia. In Yemen alone, the Pentagon estimates that the Islamic State’s presence has doubled over the past year. Across the globe, the Islamic State has proven itself skilled at exploiting the erosion or collapse of local government authority and legitimacy, and at appealing to Sunni populations that feel threatened by growing Shia political power. The movement is also continuing to gain energy (and recruits) from the turmoil caused by the ongoing Iranian-Saudi conflict, which today shows no sign of abating and which is instead fueling the destructive war in Yemen
The Islamic State is Hard to Oust from Cities 

For most of the past two years, the bulk of U.S. and coalition military efforts against ISIL have been focused on ousting the group from cities under its control. This has frequently required block-to-block fighting by U.S. coalition allies backed by American airpower in scenes reminiscent of World War II combat. For example, in Sirte, Libya, progress in ousting the Islamic State was, for months, measured by the number of city blocks seized by the Misratan militia each day. Similar scenes played out in both Mosul and Raqqa.

In these cities, ISIL adopted a common tactical playbook, which included trapping and using civilians as human shields, cleverly using smoke to mask movements and obscure coalition airpower, destroying key transportation arteries into the cities, using tunnels to move personal and equipment, deploying suicide car bombs, and concentrating its forces in heavily booby-trapped buildings. Taken together, these tactics contributed to fights that devastated local infrastructure and triggered a wave of refugees—many of whom have yet to return home. It’s clear the Islamic State recognizes the utility of operating in cities, so U.S. policymakers and their coalition allies should expect more of that in the future. 
The Islamic State is Adapting its Battlefield Tactics

No comments: