The Islamic State is Losing at Home but Gaining Abroad

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Written by Justin Leopold-Cohen

Lately the forces of the Islamic State (IS) have been on the defensive; over the last several weeks, it has been consistently pushed back by the Western-backed Iraqi Army. Before celebrating, it is important to examine IS’s presence outside its base in Iraq and Syria, and how it continues to expand.

On the IS home-front in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul, there has been fierce fighting, and on March 7, 2017, the Iraqi army managed to recapture important government facilities. Among the recaptured territory were “the supreme court, central bank and electricity and water authority headquarters,” all of which represent important locations for day-to-day governance.

IS also has been pushed back in Syria as fighting in Raqqa has shifted in favor of anti-IS militias, which on March 6 of this year, took control of a major city road, severely limiting IS’s ability to maneuver in the city. This may indicate that Raqqa could change hands once again, having been taken by Assad opposition forces in 2013, and later by IS. There are a multitude of players involved in the fight against IS in Raqqa, including “Kurdish and Arab militia members trained and equipped by the United States, Turkish soldiers, [and] the Syrian [Assad] forces,” meaning the fighting will likely continue even if IS is driven out.

Such losses in Iraq and Syria weaken the IS base, but globally, the picture is different, and the worldwide presence that IS has obtained in the last few years remains strong. By way of social media, IS has inspired lone wolf attacks across Europe and the United States. As well, separate from these individual actors, there are 43-affiliate groups that have pledged their allegiance to IS, or operate as allied chapters with similar goals.

Thus, even as these victories in Iraq and Syria continue, IS could very possibly remain a global terror threat through inspired attacks and affiliate groups. Recently, there even have been signs pointing to IS branching out to new target areas in which it has yet to be heavily involved such as Israel and China.

In Israel, which has a long history of dealing with terrorist groups such as Gaza-based Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, there has been a growing presence of IS-linked activity.

November of 2016 saw a border clash on Israel’s northern border with Syria, between Israeli soldiers and IS militants. At the beginning of 2017, shortly after the deadly truck attack in Nice, France, there was a truck attack in Jerusalem in what Israeli authorities believe is an IS-linked attack. A month after that truck attack, IS claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Israel’s southern city of Eilat. The rocket was fired from the Sinai Peninsula, which is believed to be home of some 800 to1000 militants.

Most recently, reports have emerged that large numbers of Hamas’s “commando” units have been leaving Gaza and joining the IS fighters in the Sinai. Hamas defection to IS was originally thought to be a bone of contention between the two groups, however Israeli Major-General Yoav Mordechai recently called out the Gaza group for trying to cover up official Hamas-IS cooperation.

Fighting with Israel might seem like an easy move for IS; the two are very much at odds, and after all, geographically speaking, Israel is not far from major IS strongholds in the Middle East. Unlike Israel, though, IS has branched out far from its usual stomping grounds and has laid eyes on China.

On March 1, IS released a video stating that China should expect to be attacked by IS in the future. This message was the “first direct threat against China” by the group.

The threat came from IS fighters originating from “China’s Uighur ethnic minority.” Due to oppressive policies in China, some of the Muslim Uighur population were motivated to travel to IS stronghold regions to fight as “soldiers of the Caliphate.”

A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry did not comment on the video, but stated: “East Turkestan [an Uighur area] terrorist forces have been posing a severe threat to China’s security.” Though these IS-pledged Uighur fighters have yet to act on the threat, if they did, it could lead to another front for IS fighters.

The recent targeting of both Israel and China by IS could mean several things. Possibly they are not as fazed by their losses in Mosul and Raqqa as we might hope and are still capable of reaching out globally. Another possible rationale is that IS has, indeed, been struck a heavy blow, and is reaching out for the sake of appearances to keep up recruitment and fear. Nothing is certain.

About the author: Justin Leopold-Cohen completed his undergraduate degree in American History at Clark University. He later interned with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political and Military Analysis, and now is involved in graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, nearing the completion of a Master’s Degree in Global Security Studies.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, or any other government or institution.