Daniele Raineri is a reporter for Italy’s Il Foglio. He has been covering the Islamic State for years now. That group is currently attempting its second comeback from defeat. There are some questions about how successful they will be in this endeavor. Raineri weighs in on this issue. He can be followed on Twitter @DanieleRaineri.
1. You recently wrote a piece about how the Islamic State’s leadership has been devastated by its wars in Iraq and Syria. This seems remarkable similar to its last defeat when the Americans announced that 34 of the group’s 42 leaders had been eliminated or captured. The group has obviously gone through tremendous losses recently and the past. Do you see any differences between then and now, and what does it mean for the group in the short term that it’s top elements are devastated and on the run?
We know that the Islamic State can produce new leaders and the pool of potential leaders is still big today even considering the losses. For instance, I believe that every time we see a speaker in the thousands of videos released by the Islamic State in the last few years we are looking at a potential leader – or a leader already – because the first requisite for a commander of the Islamic State is to be persuasive. You have to lure recruits, to keep in line your fighters, to reinforce the ideology. That’s why you had a political commissar in every fighting unit – however small – during the Communist insurgencies in the Far-East. Charisma and oratory skills matter more than military or intelligence or governance skills in this kind of highly ideological wars. How many of those propagandists of the Islamic State we observed talking in front of a camera? Hundreds for sure. I consider those speeches like tests, like applications to be promoted in the chain of command of the Islamic State. But charisma is a rare quality.
Speaking of new leaders, I think we are overestimating the “Baath factor”, I mean the experience of so many Islamic State leaders of the past in the ranks of Saddam Hussein military or security apparatus. The Islamic State cells today are operating the way they operate because that’s the natural, more efficient way of fighting an asymmetrical struggle against a complex enemy (the complex enemy being the tandem of local forces plus hi-tech US assets they face in Eastern Syria and in Iraq). Probably the “Baath generation” guys are gone, but it doesn’t matter at this point. A random group of ruthless adepts would naturally follow the same “recipe” to wage an insurgency. That’s what they are doing now. You don’t need to be a military or intel guy to learn that game.
So the problem for the Islamic State today is finding charismatic men. They are not so easy to produce. One of the most revered, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, was a twentysomething playing soccer and cards in Binnish, rural place in Idlib province in Syria, before joining Zarqawi in 2002. He rose to be the spokesman and the head of the Islamic State’s intelligence until he was killed by a drone strike in August 2016. Zarqawi himself was a nobody in Zarqa and we all know he summoned an army of jihadists. Never touched a rifle before, both of them, but they had the time to acquire experience and charisma.
In short: the Islamic State can regenerate the leadership and that’s why the so called decapitation strategy – the hunt to kill or capture the high-ranking leaders of the Islamic State – cannot be the only way to eradicate the group, however the excellent leaders are rare and the decapitation strategy could actually have a bigger impact than we think.
2. A DC think tank recently released a report that IS was rebuilding faster than its last defeat and that it could unleash a wave of car bombs and even seize an Iraqi city. What is your assessment of the current state of the group?
They could seize a place, not a big one, think of a town in Diyala or Anbar, but they won’t to avoid the unnecessary gathering of forces and then the painful losses. Would be an ephemeral show of force. They can better use their men. They are already escalating along the sequence we observed in past years. Mafia like activities. Taxes. Improvised explosive devices. Sniping. Fake checkpoints. Increasing the tempo of videos and propaganda. Harassing small outposts. Punitive raids. They can go on like that for years. Sometimes they don’t even need to take a place because they are already ruling it. When I planned to report from Mosul in February 2014 I was dissuaded because it was already an area under the control of the Islamic State in spite of the presence of the Iraqi government, four months before the fall. You look at the recent maps saying that the territory of the Islamic State is zero compared to 2014 and that’s fine, but would you spend a few nights in some villages near the Hamrin hills or west of Ramadi? I doubt it. Anyway, today the red alert would be an attack of the Islamic State to free their men from a jail. That would be the event announcing the full comeback, 2013-style, more than the unnecessary seizing of a town. But the campaign to eradicate the group in Iraq has still the time and the resources to be successful.
3. What kind of steps is the Islamic State taking to try to rebuild its cadres in Iraq and Syria and is there any difference between how it operates in the two countries?
They are back to the long-term game. Keeping a low profile inside the marginalized post-war communities, cultivating local grievances, trying to win the trust of children and teens, avoiding exposure and losses, fighting and hitting less than they could, accumulating money – and spending it to attract people. The plan is the same, in Iraq and Eastern Syria, because the conditions are similar – in Syria the situation is more volatile thus easier to exploit. I’d say the Iraqis are tired of that cycle of violence (comeback- land control aka Caliphate-defeat) and ready to move on. I was a reporter in Iraq back in 2007 and 2008, writing about how the local Sunni communities were unbelievably effective against the Islamic State of Iraq. Then I observed – in the following years – how the same communities were progressively forgotten and left on their own, until they lost their gains and eventually their struggle against the extremists. Hope that mistake won’t be repeated. Last but not least: a big factor of the first comeback of the Islamic State in Iraq was the complete anarchy in the rebel-held territories in Syria during the first years of the civil war, that was a unique situation – I don’t think we’ll see something like that very soon.
4. Overall, what is your sense of how things will turn out this time as the group attempts a second comeback from defeat?
The second comeback in Iraq begins from a stronger position than the first comeback. And the Islamic State has established branches in other countries – this is a big difference with the first comeback. That said, I believe we got some sort of “vaccination” against the Islamic State now, in many fields. Take the international community. We can agree that the unbelievable delays in taking seriously the threat on the international level today would no longer exist. Governments learnt the hard way that when the Islamic State fighters take a city in Iraq or elsewhere the price to retake it is disastrously high – while preventing the fall of the city is so much easier. In 2013 and early 2014 we saw the Islamic State parading in the open here and there. Today I assume that a large concentration of forces carrying that flag would be bombed right away. More importantly, there is an ideological vaccination. The whole concept of the Islamic State as the right solution for the grievances of the Sunni people in Iraq and Syria has been proven false. Support the Islamic State and soon you’ll get attacks on civilians in Europe and in America and loud sermons about conquering Rome and Istanbul and the necessity of enslaving women, your local grievances are quickly lost. Then in response you get a lot of airstrikes and massive military support for your enemies and no much sympathy from the world when your cities are destroyed. That “ideological vaccination” could work for the foreign volunteers too. The Caliphate’s appeal was strong in 2014 and the projection of power was fascinating before the eyes of naive viewers: SUVs and AKs and victories. Today being droned on a dusty road across a forgotten place somewhere is not as tempting as before.
I dare to assume that there was a “vaccination” in the intel community too. Guess that spreading propaganda on social media or buying a one way ticket to Middle East is harder than before in a lot of countries. In Iraq it seems the security work is much more effective today than a few years ago. When you read the biography of Abu Ali al Anbari, one of the most dangerous leaders of the Islamic State ever, and you find that he was released in March 2012 thanks to some bribery and then just one month later he met Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Baghdad, well, that was a permissive environment – a prelude to disaster.