ISIS has recovered its forces in Syria and Iraq, and aims to start a long war of “attrition” extended to Africa and Asia, where its various affiliated groups are already operating. At the same time, ISIS remains ready to strike in Europe with new terrorist attacks. This is the alarm raised in the media by experts and analysts, who agree on speaking about a “rebirth” of ISIS after the fall of the alleged “Islamic State” in 2018.
FROM CONVENTIONAL WAR TO GUERRILLA
ISIS war machine has come out considerably downsized by the conflict. Without counting the local militiamen, according to various estimates, the “foreign fighters” who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of the terrorist organization were about 50,000 from over 80 countries. Today, UN sources stated that ISIS units amount to 10,000, scattered underground between Syria and Iraq, and without the weapons and the military capabilities of the past.
On the other hand, the passage from a stage of conventional conflict to insurgency (or the return to the latter), ensures that these 10,000 men form a considerable army of guerrillas, capable of operating through ambushes and lethal attacks, as occurred over the last few months both in the Syrian and the Iraqi territory.
In Iraq, since last May, government security forces have been engaged in a daily battle in the governorates of Nineveh (Mosul), Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salahuddin, where ISIS has repeatedly targeted the local population, carrying out extortion and other crimes aimed at self-financing and spreading terror. Operations conducted in hundreds of villages led to the arrest of dozens of militiamen, but in the clashes as many soldiers were killed.
On the Syrian side, the intensification of the ISIS insurgency began during the summer (23 attacks in July, 39 in August), affecting the governorates of Homs, Deir Ez Zor, Raqqa, Hama, and Aleppo, with over 70 victims among the government security forces. While the situation inside the Al Hol refugee camp is getting worse and worse, since ISIS keeps using it as an operation and logistics center, and as a place where to grow its militiamen of tomorrow, recruited among the thousands of children and adolescents who reside there in conditions of extreme precariousness.
The order to kick off the new phase of ISIS warfare was given by its founder, the self-styled “caliph” Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, who before dying could witness the gradual but definitive eradication of his alleged “Islamic State”.
The defeat required a sudden change of approach to save what still could be saved of the terrorist organization, offering a prospect of continuity also from an ideological and pseudo-religious standpoint. Thus was launched the “battle of attrition” (istinzaf).
In a 18-minute video, Al Baghdadi urged the units that were still under his command to attack the enemies “from all directions”, “weakening them, both physically and morally. Economically, administratively, in everything”. The goal is to create the conditions for regaining control of a territorial space to be renamed as the alleged “Islamic State”.
Al Baghdadi, however, found himself forced to downsize his own rhetoric compared to the previous one, when he used to extoll the alleged “Islamic State” as the fulfillment of phantom millennial prophecies and legends. By saying that “the battle will be long” and that “it will continue until the day of the resurrection”, he instead set aside any time horizon, and with it also the certainty of a favorable final outcome, left “eschatologically” in the hands of Allāh (swt): “God ordered us to undertake jihād, but he did not order victory”.
Al Baghadi’s “pragmatic” turning point is the result of a realistic assessment of the changed circumstances of the conflict. However, any intent to proceed with a “de-escalation” in the use of violence must be excluded. The emphasis on the killing of “infidels” and on “martyrdom” (suicide bombings), goes on unchanged, hand in hand with the extremist and warmongering distortion of the original meaning of “jihād”: from an “effort” of spiritual and inner perfectioning calling every Muslim, to the “effort” of ISIS aimed at destroying Islām (in its essence as a religion of peace, dialogue, reconciliation) and the entire human race.
CAUTION AND VIOLENCE
A broader “conceptualization of the guerrilla” launched by ISIS was formulated in an editorial of the weekly magazine Al Naba, n. 236, published online last May 28, the month of the surge of the insurgency in Iraq, followed by the surge in Syria during the summer. In general, the editorial was aimed at ISIS militiamen all over the world, from West Africa to the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia. Unsurprisingly, also these areas are undergoing increasing terrorist attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups, which are being strengthened by the arrival of those “foreign fighters” who have left Syria and Iraq.
The recommendations provided by ISIS strategists do not differ from the techniques of the traditional guerrilla warfare, but fit into a new narrative framework characterized by the perspective of the “long jihād” already launched by Al Baghdadi. Within the text, there are also disseminated Quranic quotations (adequately instrumentalized), as well as aphorisms attributed to extremist imams on the conduct to be adopted in war.
In areas where the “infidels” have established their “dominion”, the “hit and run guerrilla style is the most appropriate”, says the editorial, but be careful not to waste men and resources. The calls for caution, and not to haste in the execution of maneuvers, are reiterated several times:
[The mujahideen] do not need to strain beyond their abilities and to maintain control of the territory when they are few and their enemy is hundreds or thousands of times stronger.
[The mujahideen] are not tasked initially to keep control of the territory, because this is beyond their capabilities. Nor do they [have the task of] maintaining their position against the enemy in battles where they think they have no superiority.
[The mujahideen must] concentrate their efforts on causing the greatest possible loss to the enemy, in terms of lives and wealth; while they must be diligent in offering the least possible loss, in terms of lives and wealth.
In this phase, the soldiers of the “Islamic State” must concentrate on creating as much “attrition” as possible with the enemy, and must not worry about hastening the implementation of the “tamkin” [territorial and administrative control] over an area.
But what exactly is meant by “attrition”? Here is the explanation offered directly by ISIS strategists, in the name of maximum violence:
By “attrition” we do not mean simply to weaken the enemy until we force him to retreat from a territory, so that we can conquer him and “enjoy” the “tamkin”. Rather, we aim to push [the enemy] to a state where his bleeding leads him to destruction, or to exhaust him to such a point that he can only muster the strength to rise up and fight us again after a long time, during which we can prepare to repeal and destroy it. [We aim to] sow in his heart and mind despair, as well as the loss of any hope of victory, so that he sees our victory over him as a fait accompli in every possible battle, something inevitable.
With the “weakening of the enemy”, and the ISIS militiamen “becoming stronger”, “the appropriate conditions for the transition from the guerrilla stage to the other stages necessary to achieve the ‘tamkin'” will be restored.
COUNTER-TERRORISM AND PREVENTION OF RADICALIZATION
We cannot exclude a priori that the conditions will emerge in the future for ISIS to be able to become a “state” again, filling with its “sovereignty” any geopolitical and power gaps in a given territory, as occurred between Syria and Iraq beginning from mid-2014. However, at the top of the terrorist organization now led by Abu Ibrahim Al Hashimi Al Qurayshi, they are aware that this will unlikely happen again, at least in the foreseeable long term.
Hence, the insistence of ISIS “strategists” on containing losses, as well as on the need to avoid risky moves induced by enthusiasm following favorable developments.
ISIS is fighting a long-lasting battle, and the militiamen must therefore be infused with the necessary strategic “patience”, while constantly nourishing their motivations through the cult of “death”, “martyrdom” (suicide attacks), and of the “beauty” of brutally killing by inflicting unspeakable suffering to the enemy.
The final “victory”, or the establishment of an “Islamic State” comprising the entire globe, depends on the will of Allāh (swt), and none can be certain thereof, not even ISIS, as demonstrated by loss of its “caliphate” of terror in Syria and Iraq.
Nevertheless, in execution of an alleged divine command, the “mujahideen” have the task of fighting against the “enemy” until the end of time, identified primarily in the vast majority of Muslims − considered “apostates” because they do not adhere to the extremist vision touted by ISIS −, and then by the non-Muslim “infidels”.
The dogmatic “theologians” of ISIS evidently prefer to continue overlooking one of the most important Hadīth of Prophet Muhammad (saw), whereby: “The mujahid is he who fights against himself”. By saying so, the Prophet (saw) clearly wanted to indicate to all Muslims that the field where they have the duty to go to battle for Jihād is the spiritual one, along the path that leads them back to the perfection of Allāh (swt). This is the battle to be won for the eternal “salvation” after the resurrection.
On the other hand, if to err is human, and to persist in error is diabolical, ISIS does not intend in any way to stop embodying the (con)fusion, totally anti-Islamic from the theological and doctrinal point of view, between the internal battle of the individual for its spiritual perfectioning and a hyper-ideologized approach to religion and history, which envisions the extermination (or subjugation) of everything that does not conform to it. What to do?
The indefinite duration of the war of “attrition”, means that the terrorist threat will keep persisting everywhere in the world, including Europe and Italy, where ISIS operates not with the guerrillas, but through sleeper cells and “lone wolves”. This implies an enduring work of counter-terrorism and prevention of radicalization, both online and in non-virtual contexts.
To prevent radicalization, it is necessary to multiply efforts aimed at promoting correct information on Islām and on the message that Allāh (swt) wished to relay to humanity through his last Prophet Muhammad (saw), shedding light on the obvious distortions of ISIS extremist “discourse”. This is the way forward to effectively counter the manipulative propaganda and baseless narratives spread by the terrorist organization. If ISIS is hit in the crucial phase of indoctrination and recruitment of new militants, it will be ISIS itself to perish by “attrition” once and for all.