News World Fight to retake last ISIS territory begins

Fight to retake last ISIS territory begins

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Ahmad Assad's two sons perished in the bombed rubble of Raqqa. Photo: NYT
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The last vestige of the Islamic State’s caliphate that straddled Syria and Iraq is under attack.

Members of an American-backed coalition said on Tuesday (US time) they had begun a final push to oust the militants from Hajin, Syria, the remaining sliver of land under the group’s control in the region where it was born.

The assault is the final chapter of a war that began more than four years ago after the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, seized vast tracts in Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate. The group lost its last territory in Iraq last year.

The caliphate put Islamic State on the map physically and politically.

The group seized major industries and taxed residents, generating enormous sums to fund its war effort, including training fighters to carry out attacks in Europe. The notion of the caliphate also provided a powerful recruiting tool.

As the group’s territory has shrunk, the number of foreign recruits into Iraq and Syria has dwindled. Still, security analysts say that even after the group’s expected defeat in Hajin, Islamic State is likely to remain a powerful terrorist force.

Islamic State remains just as determined to stage attacks in the West, but advances in counterterrorism and law enforcement abroad have frustrated many of its efforts.

Hajin does not look like much: On a bend of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, it appears to have only a few major streets and just one public hospital. An estimated 60,000 people are believed to be living there and in a smattering of neighbouring villages.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia fighting Islamic State in Syria with the United States and its allies, is nevertheless preparing for a slog. One senior militia official estimates the fight will last two to three months.

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Outside Mosul, Iraq, last May, a nighttime search on a compound for a man identified as a member of the Islamic State. Photo: NYT

Given Hajin’s size, that may seem a surprisingly long time. Islamic State-held cities with populations one and a half to three times larger, including Sinjar and Tal Afar in Iraq, fell in days.

The difference is that in those battles, the jihadists made a strategic retreat, choosing to abandon their positions to consolidate and regroup. This time, retreat is not an option.

“We expect a long and hard fight,” said Colonel Sean J Ryan, a spokesman for the American-led military coalition in Baghdad. “These are the die-hard fighters with nowhere else to go.”

In Islamic State’s remaining slip of land, aerial surveillance indicates fighters have mined the circumference of their last redoubt, laying explosive devices on the roads leading into the area.

And to facilitate escape, they have buried large quantities of cash in berms of sand and hidden weapons and ammunition in caves and underground passages, strategically positioning resources in the desert, analysts say.

The tunnels allow the militants to move from house to house, undetected from the air. Some passageways connect outposts to their military bases, said one resident reached by telephone who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

Because they know the coalition is trying to minimise civilian casualties, the militants have trapped people in the town, monitoring the roads and posting snipers, another resident said.

Iraqi Special Forces soldiers burning an Islamic State banner found hanging from a bridge in Mosul shortly after it was liberated last year. Photo: NYT

The forces fighting the jihadists on the ground are a mix of Kurdish and Arab militias that have been working closely with an international coalition led by the United States to push back the jihadists.

A statement by the Syrian Democratic Forces announcing the start of the Hajin campaign said that the coalition was providing air support for surveillance and to identify and hit targets. It was also co-ordinating with Iraqi artillery units to strike fixed Islamic State positions, the statement said.

The assault on Hajin is one of two late-stage battles taking place in Syria. To the north, Syrian forces and their Russian allies are preparing to invade Idlib Province, the last chunk of rebel-held territory, raising fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.

After the caliphate

Once in control of territory equivalent to the size of Britain, Islamic State is down to its last 200 square miles, according to Colonel Ryan. The group has lost all but 1 per cent of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, though it continues to grow in outposts in Asia and Africa.

It has taken more than four years, over 29,000 airstrikes and thousands of soldiers’ lives for the American-led coalition to reclaim the group’s land holdings in the region. But Islamic State remains a potent force.

Data collected by the United States Defence Department and the United Nations indicate that the group has as many fighters now as it did in 2014 — the height of the caliphate — with 20,000 to 31,500 members in Iraq and Syria alone, and thousands more spread across the numerous other countries where it has implanted itself. If those figures are accurate, they match what the Central Intelligence Agency estimated as the group’s strength four years ago, when it ruled over a population of 12 million.

Senior officials at the Pentagon and in the White House say the real number is far lower. But a third report, to be published soon by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, supports the higher estimate, concluding that Islamic State still has as many as 25,000 fighters.

Iraqi border guard troops looking out across the border with Syria in April. Islamic State fighters were believed to be hiding out nearby. Photo: NYT

The loss of territory, however, already has diminished its powers. At the caliphate’s peak, Islamic State functioned as a government. It provided salaries to fighters and stipends to their families, as well as public services ranging from marriage certificates to garbage collection.

The safe haven the militants enjoyed also allowed them to innovate. They taught themselves how to manufacture weapons on an industrial scale, they launched their own drone program, and they refined a method of online recruitment allowing them to guide terrorist plots from afar as if by remote control.

But driving the militants from their territory alone will not be enough to bring about their long-term defeat, officials and analysts say. Islamic State remains capable of wreaking damage around the world simply by inspiring adherents to take up a gun, a bomb or even a car. And in Iraq and Syria, the group has reverted to an insurgency.

“The easy part is done, which is removing ISIS from the cities it controlled,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Now comes the hard part.”

‘We just turned the clock back’

Politicians looking to score a public relations victory have taken to describing Islamic State as defeated, even decimated. President Trump has gone so far as to use the phrase “absolutely obliterated”.

But analysts who have been studying the group since it implanted itself in Iraq in the aftermath of the American invasion in 2003 point out that in the 15 years since then, Islamic State held significant amounts of territory for only the last four. They argue the group, which went through four name changes before dubbing itself Islamic State in 2014, will now revert to the organisation it was before the caliphate.

“We look at that as the defining period of the Islamic State, but the caliphate itself was an outlier,” said Colin P Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a New York-based research group on security threats and the author of a report on the group.

“All we have succeeded in doing is returning to ISIS 1.0,” Mr Knights said. “We just turned the clock back.”

The group’s territorial ambitions were clear from the start. As early as 2006, the militants renamed themselves the “Islamic State of Iraq” — even though they held almost no land. Yet throughout its first decade of existence, the stateless group caused enormous harm; it carried out back-to-back suicide attacks and killed countless civilians as well as thousands of coalition force members.

The organisation was finally brought to the verge of defeat in 2011, after a concerted counterinsurgency operation. As American troops drew down from Iraq, the group was estimated to have no more than 700 fighters.

But just three years later, the group came roaring back. It seized one of Iraq’s biggest cities, Mosul, with a population of about 1.5 million, as well as Tal Afar, Sinjar, Falluja, Ramadi and numerous smaller localities in between. In Syria, it claimed the city of Raqqa, with a population of more than 200,000.

Now that is down to just Hajin. But even as that city is about to slip from the group’s grasp, experts are sounding a note of caution.

Analysts tracking Islamic State have used three types of data points to measure the group’s potency: the size of the territory under its control, its troop strength, and the number and frequency of attacks.

If Hajin is retaken, the first of these indicators will be near zero. But the other two are another matter.

Raqqa’s cemetery was desecrated by Islamic State when it controlled the city. Photo: NYT

“Hajin is the last holdout of territory,” said Brett McGurk, the White House special representative in the fight against Islamic State. While the fall of Hajin would represent the end of its physical caliphate, he said, “we have always said this will not be the end of ISIS”.

The remaining Islamic State fighters may now be scattered, but they are numerous — and still pose a threat.

“The estimates we have for Iraq and Syria are a sizable number,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and author of the forthcoming study that estimates the group’s troop strength to be 25,000. “That’s important, because what it shows is that the cell structure is in place. They don’t control territory, but they have the ability to surge forces.”

Islamic State also remains well positioned to inspire attacks outside the Middle East, from small-scale assaults like the killing of four cyclists in Tajikistan this year to the truck attack in Nice, France, in 2016 in which more than 80 people lost their lives.

A shifting attack strategy

In Iraq and Syria, even with its territory greatly diminished, Islamic State has persisted. Months after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “final victory” over the group in 2017, three Iraqi provinces have witnessed an uptick in attacks.

Still, the violence there is less devastating than it once was. The group once routinely hit Baghdad with attacks that could kill more than 150 people at a time. Now it tends to carry out smaller suicide attacks, hit-and-runs, ambushes and targeted executions, especially of village chiefs, who are known as moktars.

Mr Knights, who tracks these low-level assassinations, estimates that more than three moktars are killed or wounded every week in Iraq, undermining official declarations that the militants have been vanquished.

“That means that 14 times a month, the most important person in the village is killed or seriously injured by ISIS,” he said. “Under those circumstances, do those people feel like they have been liberated? Stopping this type of targeted violence is the real challenge, and it’s much harder than clearing cities of ISIS fighters.”

Throughout cleared areas, Islamic State members are believed to have melted back into the population. They move and hide in cells made up of a handful of fighters, and occupy a network of safe houses, analysts say. In Syria, some believe these fighters are awaiting the departure of American forces before attempting a rebound.

If they do, they will pose a different type of threat.

The forces that drove Islamic State from its lands were equipped to liberate occupied cities, not fight a dispersed, clandestine force. Their vehicles and weapons were designed for engaging the enemy frontally in heavy combat, not for rooting out individual fighters in hiding.

“It’s evolved back into an insurgent movement far faster than security forces can evolve into a counterinsurgency,” Mr Knights said.

-The New York Times

Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon; Karam Shoumali from Berlin; and Mustafa Ali from Kobani, Syria.