Thursday 29 September 2016

Bombs in Brussels are a sign that Isil is losing the struggle

Isil is lashing out after losing several of its leaders and 30pc of the territory it had conquered

Michael Burleigh

Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30

Isil's war crimes: An Iraqi man carries the body of his daughter who died during clashes between Iraqi forces and Isil last week near the city of Mosul Photo: Safin Hamed
Isil's war crimes: An Iraqi man carries the body of his daughter who died during clashes between Iraqi forces and Isil last week near the city of Mosul Photo: Safin Hamed

Two separate events on opposing sides of the world reflect the declining fortunes of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - Isil.

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First is the appalling carnage wrought on the streets of Brussels, which has left 31 dead and 270 wounded. Second is the assault by Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian forces on the city of Palmyra, where only a few months ago the triumphant jihadists smashed statues and executed prisoners in its ancient Roman ampitheatre.

You can bet which story the terrorist group would prefer us to focus on. For as appalling and needless the blood shed by innocents from 40 different nationalities on the streets of the Belgium capital was, it reveals one simple fact from which we should take heart: these acts of terrorism are the late-life spasms of an organisation slowly being contained, if not yet crushed.

Since reaching peak expansion in August 2014, Isil has lost about 30pc of the caliphate's sprawling territory in Syria and Iraq.

As well as the battle for Palmyra, which even in Roman times was considered a key stronghold, an advanced guard of the Iraqi National Army, re-boosted by the US, has crept north of Mosul, prior to an assault by up to 50,000 soldiers and Kurdish peshmerga that is scheduled for the autumn. Losing the second-largest city in Iraq will be a body blow for the group.

Meanwhile, Isil's second-in-command, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, has been killed in an air strike, according to the US. Ashton Carter, the defence secretary, said American forces were "systematically eliminating" the group's leadership.

The death of al-Qaduli, who was the number two to Isil's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, comes after that of other key commanders, such as the Georgian Chechen renegade soldier Omar al-Shishani, also targeted in a US airstrike, many of whom were former Baathist commanders with vast battle experience dating back to the insurgency against the US in 2003.

In 2014, Colonel Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, head of Isil military operations, was killed in a US strike. The following year, Isil's then second in command, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, was also blown up.

The loss of the men who engineered Isil's expansion cannot be overstated. Though the US-led coalition has not publicised body counts, according to the Pentagon, to date 20,000 Isil fighters have been slain, by coalition bombing, the Kurds, Assad's troops, Iranian militias and Hizbollah. The fate of Isil prisoners is also under-reported and is as unappetising as they deserve.

The group has always been about expansion and bold gestures of terror, proving itself to would-be recruits that it was the strongest horse around, compared to alternative options in Syria, like the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Expansion is also crucial in an economic sense. A steady coalition air campaign has destroyed Isil's oil wells and the tanker trucks that moved the product, as well as huge stockpiles of cash in Mosul that it pays fighters with.

Instead, now Isil is having to extort more in taxes from the 10 million people under its black flags. They live under myriad petty rules designed to extort money for every infraction, all backed up by the lash and the sword.

As the money dries up, wages for fighters have been halved. Executions of deserters have increased, while the need to station large numbers of fighters to hold down large urban populations remains the same.

Isil has also failed to link up its foreign "wiliyats", or satellite provinces, from Afghanistan to Africa, into a super-caliphate. It took the Taliban a claimed 24 hours to kill off Uzbek Isil interlopers, while in Algeria security forces needed only a couple of days to wipe out the local Isil affiliate, now half-a-dozen fighters on paper. The group's presence in Libya no longer includes Dernaa or Benghazi and is confined to Sirte and a 200km coastal strip.

So significant are the losses to its territory and finance that it is no surprise the group is resorting to the one currency it knows best: terror.

This is the reaction of a losing side. It is lashing out in desperation. Blowing innocent civilians up and using your own people to do so is not a sustainable approach.

The group is committing atrocities on the scale of Brussels on a daily basis, not just in Baghdad, but in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Cote d'Ivoire, and Mali.

These are the most cowardly of attacks; machine-gunning and blowing up civilians on an entirely random basis. But they reflect Isil's inability to further wage blitzkrieg advances or even large-scale insurgency warfare.

When it claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attacks in Brussels, Isil bragged how it had dispatched a "secret cell of soldiers" to Belgium, including the el-Bakraoui brothers. Najim Laach-raoui, suspected bombmaker for both the Brussels and Paris atrocities, was trained by the group. One of the Paris suicide bombers, Omar Ismail Mostefai, is also a product of its terror camps.

We will learn more, no doubt, of how Isil helped engineer the violence and how it could build up and train a 30-man cell consisting entirely of convicted criminals and capable of operating between Belgium and France. Indeed, we already know the group has trained up at least 400 fighters to target Europe in similar attacks.

Online, "brand Isil" remains strong, though the objective ability of foreign recruits to reach Syria has belatedly been curtailed by Turkey. Isil's mastery of social media means its acts of terror continue to overshadow developments on the ground, because this ability to impact remains Isil's one triumph when it finds itself reeling under assault from all sides.

There will be more losses by the group in the months to come, and again that will turn their fury on us.

Even when you cut the head off the snake it lashes out with venom; but cut we must.

Michael Burleigh, a historian and Middle East expert, is the author of 'Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism'

Sunday Independent

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