The most recent issue of Perspectives on Terrorism had a paper by Ronen Zeidel entitled, ‘The Dawa’ish: A Collective Profile of IS Commanders’, which was “the first attempt to provide a comprehensive collective profile of commanders and leaders of the Islamic State (IS)”. Based on “an inventory of over 600 names”, the paper assessed the nationality, ethnicity, and tribal origins not just of the very senior IS commanders, but those lower down, a novel and much-needed line of investigation. Zeidel found that these commanders of the IS movement are or were overwhelmingly Iraqi and Sunni Arab, with an important Turkoman contingent.
Zeidel’s findings are important for drawing attention again to the local-revolutionary character of an organisation that gets a great deal of attention for its foreign fighters and external attacks, especially in the West, but which only a recently acquired global reach—and, indeed, only recently needed to: until 2011, the West was easily reachable since it had troops on the ground in Iraq, so the incentive to invest resources in creating a foreign terrorist apparatus was minimal.
One small part of Zeidel’s work has created something of a storm, however. Zeidel gives the occupation held by these commanders and, for those where this was known, 72% of them were former regime elements (FREs) from the dictatorship of Saddam Husayn. This reignited the argument over how important the FREs have been to IS. Continue reading
A year ago, I wrote a report documenting the biographies of Islamic State (IS) leaders and something of the structure of the organisation. Since then, the intricacies of the structure have been further revealed, even as it has somewhat crumbled in practice. The caliphate—the statelet built by IS—has been significantly degraded: the Iraqi “capital”, Mosul, has fallen, and operation to clear the Syrian “capital”, Raqqa, is underway. More significantly, upwards of 40% of those profiled have been killed, so it seemed an opportune moment for an update on who currently leads the world’s most infamous terrorist movement.
The “capital” of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya, Sirte, has fallen to pro-government militias. “Our forces have total control of Sirte,” claimed one spokesman on Monday. “Islamic State’s rule over Sirte is now over,” said another. That was slightly premature, though it does appear that the city fell entirely around mid-afternoon yesterday. Regardless, it is clear that IS’s hold on Sirte is soon to be at an end. Positive as this development is, it is what happens after IS’s grip on urban areas is broken that will determine the durability of this victory. IS will remain a disruptive force for some time no matter what happens next, and for that reason it is important to continue military operations in pursuit of IS in its rural sanctuaries. But IS is a symptom of Libya’s political problems, not their cause. Without a government that solves some of those original problems, and has the legitimacy and capacity to keep IS out, the group will rise again. Continue reading
Last week it was reported by The Daily Beast that United States defence and political leaders believe they can at least begin the operation to remove the Islamic State (IS) from its Iraqi capital, Mosul, before President Barack Obama leaves office on 20 January 2017. This seems unlikely. More to the point, if it is true it is highly dangerous, both in the short-term and especially over the long-term. Continue reading
In Libya, the government of national accord (GNA)—in this case militias largely from western Libya, specifically Misrata, and the guards from the oil installations—claimed to have driven the Islamic State (IS) from Sirte on 11 June. Backed by artillery and airstrikes, with tanks moving in on the ground and some street clashes, the GNA-flagged troops had reached the city centre on 9 June. Expelled from Derna in the east in June 2015 and cleared from Sabratha in western Libya after a brief occupation earlier this year, this left Sirte as IS’s only major urban stronghold.
At the end of 2015, IS had controlled about 200 miles of coastline, from Abuqrayn (100 miles west of Sirte) to Nawafaliya (80 miles east of Sirte). On 12 May, an offensive began to take Sirte, coordinated through al-Bunyan al-Marsoos (The Solid Structure) Operations Room. The attack began from the Misratan militias in the west and by late May the eastern front had been opened up. At the end of May, IS lost Nawafaliya, and the collapse of territorial control has been steady since then, with IS now controlling about forty miles of coastline. A Libyan government official was quoted saying, “The battle wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be.” While this is true—100 pro-GNA troops were killed and 500 wounded—there are reasons to be sceptical of the idea that this is the end for IS in Libya, and not just because IS still holds even areas of the Sirte.
IS had been in occupation of Sirte for almost exactly a year, meaning it has been able to accrue considerable resources, and had between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters in the city—composed of defectors from Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Qaeda), local tribes, elements of the fallen regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and operatives from IS core. IS has made a show of resistance, but the number of reported IS casualties is low, and the speed with which IS has fallen back makes such early reports plausible. In combination with the continued politico-military dysfunction of the ostensible governing authorities, this is very worrying.
Yesterday, Reuters had an article by Isabel Coles and Ned Parker entitled, “How Saddam’s men help Islamic State rule“. The article had a number of interesting points, but in its presentation of the movement of former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs) into the leadership structure of the Islamic State (IS) as a phenomenon of the last few years, it was a step backward: the press had seemed to be recognizing that the Salafization of the FREs within IS dates back to the Islamization of Saddam Hussein’s regime in its last fifteen years, notably in the 1990s after the onset of the Faith Campaign. Continue reading
In the eleventh edition of the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, released on 9 September 2015, there was an interview with the leader of their forces in Libya, Abul-Mughirah al-Qahtani, about the situation for the Islamic State in that country. The interview is reproduced below with some editions to transliteration, some notes added for clarification, and some interesting sections highlighted in bold. Continue reading
An Islamic State (ISIS) commander was killed in Libya in mid-June, The Daily Beast reported yesterday, after being “paraded … through the streets amid the taunts of onlookers, and then walked … to a gallows, where he was hanged.” [SEE UPDATES] This occurred in the eastern city of Derna, long a hotbed of Islamic militancy. The crucial thing about the “executed” ISIS operative is that he was an Iraqi and an FRE—a former (Saddam) regime element—who had been dispatched to Libya last year to oversee the cultivation of an ISIS branch.
Having presented the evidence that Saddam Hussein Islamized his foreign policy and then Islamized his regime, above all with the Islamic Faith Campaign, beginning in June 1993 that tried to fuse Ba’athism with Salafism, encouraging (and keeping under surveillance) a religious revival in Iraq that redounded to the benefit of the regime’s legitimacy and support, I wanted to look at what this history means for Iraq and the wider region now.
I pointed out in October that the “military strength” of the Islamic State (ISIS) “comes from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s military-intelligence apparatus and the Caucasus’ Salafi-jihadists.” Continue reading