By Afro-Middle East Centre

With the Islamic State group (IS) losing territory in Syria and Iraq, many believe that the group will use the territory it controls in Africa as a fallback and shift its focus to the continent. This has seen international, and specifically western, powers grow increasingly weary of existing African conflicts, especially in Libya and Egypt, and we are beginning to see a convergence between Russia and the USA on supporting military strongmen. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar have thus been empowered in their attempts to crackdown on dissent in the name of countering ‘terrorism’, further militarising politics in those countries and impeding efforts to negotiate political compromises. African states have subsequently been compelled to admit Morocco into the African Union and reinstate Egypt, partially as a result of western pressure and the belief that the two countries could form a bulwark against the Islamic State group’s expansion.

Although IS controls territory and possesses operational capacity in Libya and Nigeria, significantly this is more the result of the group appealing to existing cleavages and state fragmentation rather than inspiring the creation of new anti-state formations. The group has thus spent minimal efforts in establishing structures in southern and central Africa, rather promoting immigration to areas it already controls. IS has lost ground in Nigeria and Libya, two of its three strongest African ‘provinces’; however, failure to fill the vacuum left by its territorial losses and an inadequate focus on the economic reasons behind the group’s rise is paving the way for a resurgence of similar groups. With IS on the wane, a contextualised response emphasising governance in areas recaptured from the group needs to be promoted, especially since the group’s emergence has galvanised the international community.

Background: The declaration of provinces

Following the declaration of a caliphate in July 2014, IS initially had great success. It consolidated control of much of Iraq’s Anbar province, parts of Deir ez-Zor in Syria and Qamishli in Turkey, in addition to areas it originally controlled in Syria. This enabled it to traverse the Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish borders, giving it the flexibility to direct the flow of arms and generate revenue through taxes and trade in oil. However, the group has increasingly faced setbacks, especially following the surge in the intensity of the international and regional effort to displace it from Syria and Iraq. It has been forced to alter its strategies and tactics. Initially advocating immigration to its ‘state’, the group has begun declaring non-contiguous provinces, as a result of a few major changes: First, heightened awareness and tighter border controls meant that by September 2014 the ability of IS recruits to travel to Syria, especially from western countries, had severely diminished.

Second, because IS was conceived in a system that was already experiencing local conflict, the group sought to subsume this conflict and capitalise on it in order to increase its influence. The group also began prospecting for areas with resources, both human and natural, that could strengthen its operational capacity and scope. The group’s mantra evolved to encompass ‘remaining and expanding’, with an increased focus on enticing militant groups to pledge allegiance to it, allowing it to increase its appeal and reach, and a shift away from a sole focus on territorial consolidation in Syria and Iraq. The group increasingly saw its success as expansion into other hotspots and the ability to incorporate these into its territorial project. This had succeeded, and by November 2014 it had received pledges of allegiance from around twenty existing militant groups, including former al-Qa'ida franchises in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya.

In recent times, especially since early 2016, the reversals suffered in its main area of focus, Syria and Iraq, have forced the group to begin contemplating the option of retreat in order to survive and remain relevant.

However, in assessing the group’s influence in Africa over the past year, a holistic contextualisation is required. First, distinctions between groups directly controlled by IS in Syria, those in Libya and those, such as Boko Haram, who exercise more control over strategy and tactics need to be made. Second, we need to identify areas that are strategically significant to IS, such as Libya and Egypt, and those, which the group sees more as a means of gaining increased publicity. Last, we need to remain vigilant and account for the nuances between the different threats posed by groups that have declared allegiance to IS and citizens emigrating to IS-controlled areas.

Libya

In the past, IS viewed Libya as critically important, because of its oil resources and large Mediterranean coastline. This, the group believed, would allow it to increase its operational capacity, and threaten Europe, especially because Libya is located close to European states such as Malta and Italy. The group thus declared three Libyan provinces (Fezzan, Barqa and Tripolitania) in 2014, and dispatched senior leaders to the country to convince militia to pledge allegiance. Further, unlike in other provinces, IS in Libya was led by an Iraqi, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, directly appointed by the group’s Syrian leadership. IS initially had some successes, capturing the jihadist stronghold of Derna in October 2014 and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in May 2015. However, following its capture of Sirte and the group’s attempts to move westward towards Misrata, a concerted campaign commenced to combat the group comprised of local militia groupings and western powers including the USA, the UK and France. The December 2015 Government of National Accord (GNA) was forced through for this purpose, and since August 2016 the USA has launched over 300 airstrikes in the country.

This has been somewhat successful. Since June 2016, the group has largely been pushed out of Sirte, and leaders such as Abu Nabil have been killed. However, Libya is an exemplar of the paranoia around IS that currently marks the international community’s response to it. First, IS’s strength in Libya was already questionable following its inception. Although possessing between 3 000 and 6 000 combatants, IS in Libya appears outnumbered and outgunned when noting that the country is home to around 200 000 people belonging to different militias. By August 2015 it had already been pushed out of the hotbed of Derna by the relatively small, al-Qa'ida-linked Derna Mujahideen Shura Council. Significantly both the rival administrations in Tripoli (the General National Congress [GNC]) and Tobruk (the House of Representatives [HoR]) have used the paranoia over the threat of IS in Libya to gain international support and weapons.

Second, the international community has favoured international intervention at the expense of local political processes. The Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat in December 2015 and forming the GNA, was forced through, ignoring initial successes in obtaining local backing and in spite of the fact that a week prior to its conclusion the rival administrations had expressed their willingness to conclude a local unification agreement. Even though the agreement was likely disingenuous, international actors needed to hold the two parties to it instead of the flat rejection that had been evident from the UN’s response.

The result has been a lack of support for the GNA, which is likely to never receive ratification from the Tobruk-based HoR, and which in recent times has experienced opposition from the GNC. The country remains divided, and may be headed towards partition as the divisive General Khalifa Haftar strengthens his control over the eastern oilfields.

Nigeria

IS’s partnership with Nigeria’s Boko Haram was more a marriage of convenience than an ideological and strategic union. IS saw the group as important in terms of gaining appeal and publicity, while Boko Haram viewed the merger as a means of unlocking financial resources and benefiting from IS’s media arm. There was thus very little tactical and operational coordination between IS in Syria and its then-declared West Africa province (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyyah). As a result Boko Haram’s military losses, which began during the last few months of the Goodluck Jonathan administration in Nigeria, have continued. The group has largely been forced out of the territory it previously controlled in Borno and Adamawa, preferring to undertake operations in northern Cameroon. Attacks in Niger have declined to less than half a dozen from a peak of twenty-four in February 2015, and since July, these have also decreased to around eight per month in Cameroon. Boko Haram is no longer able to maintain and hold territory; the group is now mostly involved in smaller operations against weaker targets and isolated military bases.

Further, in August 2016 IS in Syria released a message recognising Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the wilayat, supposedly because of indiscriminate attacks against Muslims by its former leader, Abubakar Shekau. Shekau’s inability to enact and implement governance structures in areas the group controlled had also influenced the move. Shekau has since disputed this, threatening to further fragment the group, which had already been reeling since Ansaru’s formal condemnation of the group in February 2015. Ansaru previously coordinated activities with Boko Haram, and prior to 2015 many analysts viewed it as the more sophisticated faction within the group, which was tasked with kidnappings and attacks on foreigners.

IS in Syria’s repudiation of Shekau is also influenced by the group’s recent recognition of a Saharan province based in Mali, which in June 2016 reportedly carried out an attack on a military post in Bosso (Niger) killing thirty-two soldiers, and in recent months has carried out two smaller attacks in Burkina Faso. Shekau’s repudiation is also significant since it is one of the first instances wherein IS’s Syrian leadership has acted to alter provincial leadership structures, and because it illustrates that the group has limitations on what it will tolerate from provincial leaders. Further, Barnawi’s appointment may be a sign that IS’s Syrian leadership is beginning to view West Africa as important since it continues to suffer setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Libya. However, the appointment has changed little thus far especially in terms of operational command and coordination. Shekau’s continued influence over factions within the group also points to the beginnings of a debilitating power struggle. The group’s infighting and the coordinated response by Lake Chad Basin countries has meant that by December 2016 it had been pushed out of its Sambisa Forest stronghold; in January 2017, a UN report went as far as claiming that it now lacks the resources to compensate fighters.

Notably, the success of the multinational Joint Task Force, consisting of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, has been constrained owing to concerns over sovereignty and different command and control protocols. The effort has transitioned more into a coalition of the willing, wherein states share interests and undertake individual actions, rather than an actual coordinated effort to contain the group. Moreover, failure to establish governance structures in areas where Boko Haram has been driven out from has led to the group being able to return intermittently; incidentally this is one of the key reasons the group initially arose.

Egypt

Previously recognised as Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, the group, now referred to as ‘IS Sinai Province’, declared allegiance to IS in November 2014, and currently remains one of IS’s most operationally and tactically capable fighting forces. Following the 2015 Sheikh Zuweid attacks, which saw around a hundred combatants mount a coordinated attack on Egyptian security installations, the group has continued to remain active, and in 2016 is alleged to have undertaken over 700 operations in the Sinai region alone. The most infamous of these was the blowing up of a Russian civilian aircraft in October 2015, killing over 200. The decades-long, 1 600-strong Multinational Forces and Observers mission stationed in the Sinai, which is tasked with monitoring the area following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, has also been affected and countries such as Fiji have pulled out troops. The USA has even proposed that an electronic monitoring system be used instead, to allow it to also decrease its troop contribution to the mission.

IS’s resurgence continues despite the third phase of Egypt’s Operation Martyr’s Right, which according to Egyptian security reports has killed around 2 300 militants and arrested a further 2 500 – even though most analysts estimated the group’s strength at between 1 000 and 2 000 fighters at its peak in 2015. The numbers of dead and arrested indicate the conflicting results of Egypt’s scorched earth policy, which has actually led to increased militancy, especially by other groups. Violence is also spreading to the mainland; in the past year, IS’s mainland Egypt province formed, and the younger, less ideological Popular Resistance Committees became hardened.

This is likely to continue, especially as the primary democratic alternative, the Muslim Brotherhood, remains stifled, and because the Sisi regime is facing increased economic pressure, and has thus curbed its state-led redistributive policies and widened its repression to include leftists and youth groupings.

Observations and returning combatants

It is clearly observable that in most instances IS uses already existent cleavages and groupings to further its influence and reach in areas outside of Syria and Iraq. In Nigeria and Sinai, it thus successfully rebranded existing organisations instead of establishing new ones from scratch. The presence of al-Qa'ida on parts of the continent has been significant in this regard, as IS has sought to entice militants belonging to it to declare their allegiance to it. For the most part, in Africa this has failed. Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb has largely remained intact, and thus far Shabab has withstood attempts to declare allegiance to Baghdadi, despite the fact that splinter groups within these organisations have broken off to join IS.

Further, it is observable that IS-linked groups for the most part were already involved in conflict with the state and other powers prior to the declaration of the caliphate. Boko Haram had been militarily confronting the Nigerian state since at least 2010, while Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis had turned inward following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013. Even in Libya, where the Derna Youth Shoura Council and the Battar Brigade were newly formed groupings that had previously been involved in fighting in Syria, IS’s ability to consolidate control of Sirte came as a result of aggrieved former Gaddafites joining the group, and because the Ansar Al-Sharia members present in Sirte rebranded and joined IS. This illustrates two key points: First, lack of governance and social services are a major factor accounting for the growth of IS on the continent, and ideology plays a supplementary role. Consequently, a military-only response, which does not improve governance, will lead to the group enduring, even though it may change its name and modus operandi. Second, as can be observed with the minimal coordination between IS and its West Africa and Sinai provinces, groups have had some form of agency. They have used IS headquarters to gain financial and operational support, and do not always follow its precepts entirely. Shekau, for instance, failed to install governance structures, and continued indiscriminate attacks on Nigerian Muslims while being allied to IS.

Apart from unsuccessful attempts to entice Shabab in East Africa, IS has refrained from attempting to establish wilayat further south. This results from various factors including the lack of a majority Muslim population as a base, the fact that many countries further south are more responsive to their citizens, and because most sub-Saharan countries are not directly involved in attempts to combat the group in Syria and Iraq. The group has however advocated emigration to areas it controls, and it is feared that returning combatants pose a threat to their home states. While justifiable in the cases of Tunisia and Morocco, which have seen thousands join the fight in Syria, for the most part this has been exaggerated. Most combatants have preferred to remain in IS-held territory, and most returnees cite disillusionment with the group as a reason for their return.

The current military-first approach to combatting IS, which has had some success, will only be long lasting if paired with a simultaneous focus on governance and restorative justice in recaptured areas. This will also help to stem the problem of IS recruitment, which, although partially curbed as a result of increased interstate coordination, may surge if former combatants and possible recruits feel aggrieved over perceptions around judicial unfairness and the lack of resource equitability.

Failure to create institutions to assist with this, as is the case in Libya, Egypt and to an extent Nigeria, risks engendering the conditions for the emergence of similar groups in future. African states thus need to ensure that the focus on IS extends from a military approach to one dealing with the root causes of militancy. This is especially pertinent as the group continues to lose territorial control in Libya and Nigeria, and its capacity wanes. Further, the reintegration of former IS combatants, and those belonging to other militant groups, is a necessity, especially as the majority of low-level combatants joined the group for economic reasons, and because the factors are an important weapon in disrupting IS’s claims of legitimacy.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The Iraqi army’s assault on the city of Fallujah held by the Islamic State group (IS) has ground to a halt in light of fierce house-to-house fighting with IS fighters. The city has been under IS control since January 2014, with 90 000 civilians trapped inside. Some 20 000 civilians fled during the first few weeks of the fighting, which began on 25 May, through IS lines, dodging Iraqi army fire, and even swimming the Euphrates river. In the initial push towards Fallujah, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Sha'bi) were at the forefront of the battle. These Shi'a militias have been accused of numerous human rights violations against Sunni communities, since their cooption by Baghdad in the fight against IS.

 

Merely fifty kilometres north of Baghdad, Fallujah is strategically important to the Iraqi capital. IS has used it as a staging ground for infiltrating the capital, and executing attacks that have sapped confidence in the government’s ability to provide security. The manner in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi retakes Fallujah and returns it to Baghdad’s authority will serve as the template for the Iraqi army’s impending assault on Mosul, which will be conducted in coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The battle of Fallujah also represents an internal political issue for Iraq’s Shi'a political class. The successes of the Badr Brigade, a Shi'a militia with strong links to Tehran, in securing Baghdad and beating back IS from Diyala province has provided Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri with significant political capital. Meanwhile the protest movement in Baghdad against corruption and poor service delivery threatens to de-legitimise Abadi’s fledgling government.

 

The inability of Iraqi forces to coordinate with Sunni tribal leaders – who the government had alienated through heavily sectarian security measures – granted IS the ability to consolidate its control over Fallujah in 2014. In light of the failures leading up to the fall of Fallujah, the government has recently worked to increase coordination with Sunni tribes and militias in battles to retake territory seized by IS since mid-2014. This coordination is a conscious attempt by Abadi to provide a united national front against IS, exemplified through the increasing purchase Sunni tribes and militias have over Baghdad’s approach to retaking Sunni areas. Sunni tribes have called on the government to reign in Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Fallujah assault. Abadi had attempted to hold them on the outskirts of the city. In the days leading up to the current assault, reports of abuses by these forces against Sunni civilians in the liberated areas south of Fallujah prompted Anbar’s Provincial Council to call on ‘sectarian factions [to keep] away from the battle of Fallujah’. In light of these abuses, Abadi also ordered the government to prosecute fighters accused of committing violations.

 

Within the Shi'a political class, Abadi is on the back foot. The Badr Brigade has become a prominent force within Iraqi politics through its successes against IS. Badr’s political front, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is poised to become kingmaker in Iraqi elections. This party receives much financial support from Tehran, and uses its control of Diyala province to exhibit its potential as a ruling partner. Meanwhile, the Sadrist camp, led by influential Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seized upon the May protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone to demand the prime minister changes his cabinet to a technocratic one, eradicates corruption, and enhances service delivery. Sadr and Abadi support the incorporation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces into the Iraqi army, a move opposed by Badr head Ameri. Other militia leaders echo this.

 

The battle for Fallujah will be a protracted engagement for Iraqi national forces, is becoming increasingly bloody as Iraqi forces get closer to the centre where IS militants are holed up, allegedly using civilians as human shields. Abadi knows that using the militias will grant political points to his rivals. However, these forces have proved effective at clearing and occupying rural zones around contested cities. Abadi thus devised a formula in which Popular Mobilisation Forces are held at the outskirts to prevent IS reinforcements entering the cities, but play no visible role in the liberation of the city. This is a positive development in the battle against IS. The perception of the Iraqi army as liberators in Sunni Fallujah will assist in the pursuit of national unity. Success could guarantee Abadi’s administration the popular support it drastically needs.

Omar Ashour

This paper examines the reasons for the military steadfastness of the Islamic State group (IS) in the face of local and international forces that are larger in numbers and equipped with more and better weaponry. The paper is divided into three sections. The first reviews some security and military studies that explain the reasons behind the success, or steadfastness, of militarily weaker players in the face of stronger parties. The second focuses on IS’s military capabilities and ways of using its power tactically and strategically. The final section discusses the crisis in the Arab political environment, contradictions in the strategy to combat IS, and the implications of such actions. The paper concludes that while defeating IS militarily may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region, the roots will remain valid.i

After more than seven months of the US-led air campaign against IS, and following a multiplicity of ground attacks by various parties, even opposing ones, the group remains able not only to survive but also to expand. This puzzling result emerges despite the group’s lack of numbers and materiel compared to those of its enemies, and despite its great losses since early 2015.

In June 2015, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, confirmed that coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq had destroyed more than 6 200 IS targets and killed more than 10 000 of its fighters since the strikes commenced in September 2014. In December 2015 the Pentagon updated those estimates to more than 8 600 attacks by the US Air Force alone, comprising of more than 28 000 bombs in its raids in Iraq and Syria. That’s about sixty bombs and seventeen air attacks daily for nearly a year and a half.ii The Pentagon estimated the death toll of IS fighters during the last seventeen months at 20 000 people, while it did not recognise any killing of civilians with the exception of six people killed by ‘mistake’.iii In December 2015, US President Barak Obama estimated that IS had lost forty per cent of its territory in Iraq,iv while other reports issued by military research centres specialising in intelligence analysis estimated that the group had lost fourteen per cent of its territory (12 800 square kilometres) in Iraq and Syria from January to December 2015.v

Despite losses in Ramadi, Tikrit, Baiji, the countryside of Hasaka, and some towns and villages around Raqqa, Homs and Hama, the organisation has not collapsed. This is contrary to what was suggested by the balance of forces on the ground, or any conventional military analysis that took those views into account.

It is interesting to compare IS with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. The former lost control of its capital, Kandahar, within two months of air strikes by the US-led international coalition and opposition forces loyal to the coalition. The latter lost control of its capital, Baghdad, less than a month and a half after the Anglo-American invasion began in March 2003. However, after nearly a year and a half of strikes by an international coalition consisting of more than sixty countries, IS dominates in both its capitals, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. During 2014 and 2015, the organisation expanded and remained on land stretching from parts of the Syrian Aleppo province to parts of the Iraqi Salah al-Din province, an area 650 kilometres in width.

This area includes large parts of the provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah al-Din in Iraq, as well as large parts of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo, Homs and Damascus in Syria. The organisation had also conquered the suburb of Al-Hajar al-Aswad and large parts of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus by late 2015, and it had reached within five kilometres of Umayyad Square in central Damascus. These areas (or ‘provinces’, according to the groups’ administrative-geographic division) are home to an estimated ten million people. In addition, the organisation has control or influence – through advancing and retreating – in parts of central and eastern Libya (Sirte and Bin Jawad), north-eastern Nigeria, eastern Afghanistan (especially Nangarhar), Egypt (northeastern Sinai) and other areas.

The smaller group: How to succeed militarily

Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the military capabilities of armed opposition groups against states and governments have risen steadily. Many military and security studies have documented a significant increase in the success of these groups against existing state authorities or the authorities’ inability to defeat these groups, which are much weaker than other groups in terms of resources and numbers. This is a significant change from the prevailing historical pattern. For example, a study of 286 armed rebellions between 1800 and 2005 showed that ruling authorities won only twenty-five per cent of the battles with armed revolutionary organisations between 1976 and 2005. This can be compared to success in ninety per cent of battles with armed rebels between 1826 and 1850.vi The RAND Corporation, partially funded by the US Pentagon, reached a similar conclusion in a study of eighty-nine internal armed conflicts, stating that regular armed forces triumphed in twenty-eight cases (thirty-one per cent), irregular forces won in twenty-six cases (twenty-nine per cent), and there were mixed outcomes in nineteen cases (two per cent, including cases of political negotiation or geographical division). The rest can be summarised as cases of continuous conflictsvii – i.e., regular armed forces of the ruling authority were defeated, failed to win or have been continuously fighting – in sixty-nine per cent of studied cases (mostly in the second half of the last century).

Security and military studies provide a range of explanations of the reasons for the military success, or steadfastness, of weaker entities in the face of more powerful entities – whether international alliances, individual countries or non-state actors such as armed institutions (i.e., factions of the regular army or armed revolutionary organisations). Most explanations and the theories they build upon have focused on rugged geography and complexities of topography, popular support factors of various types (populist, ethnic, sectarian, regional, religious, intellectual/ideological) and international military support for the weaker party, as well as the military tactics and strategies of the conflicting parties.

Mao Zedong, the supreme theorist of modern revolutionary war, shed some light on the local population’s loyalty to any successful armed resistance, whether against tyranny or colonialism: ‘The guerilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea.’viii The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, based primarily on experiences in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, with an intensive study of other cases, reached the same conclusion, emphasising that conflict between a regular soldier and an insurgent is a ‘loyalty contest’ to co-opt the general public which is mostly not in favour of the warring parties. Therefore, success in the fight against an insurgency requires winning the hearts and minds of a neutral public.ix There exists a near consensus among strategic military specialists in revolutionary war studies that when a local population is brutally treated by regular forces this aids irregular combatants in recruitment, collecting resources and validating their legitimacy. General Stanley McChrystal, former leader of US forces in Afghanistan, referred to this relationship as ‘insurgent math’. ‘Every innocent civilian killed by regular forces generates ten new fighters against them,’ he suggested.x

Military explanations that focus on geography and its complexities are numerous and varied. James Fearon and David Laitin confirm in a well-known study that geography is one of four critical variables in situations of successful armed rebellion.xi Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military commander and philosopher, also considered it as one of five critical factors in any type of armed conflict. Mao wrote that guerilla wars were more effective in large countries where it was easy to strike regular forces’ supply lines with small numbers and at low cost. As Neil McCauley showed, hundreds of left-wing revolutionary fighters of several nationalities could defeat a regular army of 40 000 troops during the 1950s Cuban revolution by using rugged terrain to turn the military balance in their favour. The well-known French officer and scholar of revolutionary wars, David Galula, asserted, ‘The role of geography, a significant one in an ordinary war, may be overriding in a revolutionary war. If the insurgent, with his initial weakness, cannot be assisted by geography, he may well be condemned to failure before he starts.’xii Kenneth Boulding introduced the ‘Loss of Strength Gradient (LSG)’ to geographic explanations, arguing that the further fighting centres (such as capitals, large cities and camps) are from regular forces, the more likely it is that they will lose some of their strength. Sebastian Schutte adjusted the theory in 2014, saying regular forces lose ‘accuracy’ in striking targets, and not necessarily strength, the further they are from the centres. Their attempts to kill insurgents become more random and less accurate, and the resultant local anger increases rebels’ legitimacy, and their ability to mobilise and recruit.

Other scholars have focused on the importance of different forms of external support to the militarily weaker party. The RAND study of eighty-nine armed rebellions against a variety of systems (authoritarian, democratic, colonial) found that armed movements that benefited from the care of an external state or states won militarily in sixty-seven per cent of unresolved cases. However, when external support ceased, and dependency shifted internally, the ratio of victory decreased to twenty-five per cent of unresolved cases (i.e., cases with a clear victory or defeat; these ratios do not take into account mixed cases or unresolved ongoing confrontations).

Another group of military strategy scholars showed that a weaker party’s victory may be explained through field tactics and military strategy. In terms of field tactics, a Yale University study found that modern military vehicles (especially armoured vehicles and aircraft) undermined the ability of soldiers to create positive relationships with the local population, and thus undermined their ability to gather valuable intelligence from local collaborators. A large number of scholars of military strategy – particularly from US and British universities – concluded that it is no longer the preserve of a state, capturing regime or armed actors to employ new military technologies in weapons, communications, information and intelligence gathering, transportation, infrastructure, regulatory and administrative sciences.xiii ‘Breaking the monopoly’ has allowed armed organisations independent from states and regimes to improve their combat performance. This remarkable increase in the number of defeats of regimes or state governments by armed organisations that are weaker in number and equipment differs from the historical trend. Some specialist researchers have provided a framework for the complex strategic interactions between varying strengths of military entities. The study concluded that the weaker party could often win if it adopted opposite strategies to the strategies and tactics of the stronger party. For example, a ‘guerilla’ strategy (indirect fighting strategy) is the most appropriate strategy against a direct attack by a stronger party, including strategies referred to as ‘shock and awe’ (blitzkrieg).

Military capabilities of the Islamic State group: Strategy and tactics

Many of these elements of military and strategic theories and studies help us to understand the status of IS in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. However, the group’s survival and expansion has not been fully explained until recently. Explanations citing geography, popular support factors, external support and related theories do not help much in understanding the situation. Most of the areas under IS control are not as rugged as the mountains of Cuba, Afghanistan or Chechnya, where weaker military parties have benefited from geographic complexities. The ‘support factors’ do not exceed minorities that shrink and grow according to the ferocity and brutality of regimes in conflict with IS. The Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies in Iraq conducted a micro-level opinion poll in the city of Mosulxiv and found that in June 2014 the percentage of those who believed that IS represented their views or interests did not exceed ten per cent; in December 2015, after the coalition strikes, the percentage increased to thirty-nine per cent.xv

Some IS supporters (not members) in areas such as Sirte (Libya), Deir al-Zor (Syria) and Sinai (Egypt) view IS as the lesser of two evil, where the greater is the ruling regime. In addition, the organisation is not only in a state of war with governments and regimes inside and outside the region, but also with large segments of conservative Muslim communities, as well as with many Sunni and Shi'a Islamic groups, and even with some jihadists – including al-Qa'ida. And, despite an abundance of conspiracy theories espoused by all parties for the purposes of political propaganda and to discredit opponents, it has not yet been proven that IS receives systemic support directly from any government or regime, similar to, for example, Soviet support for the Cuban rebels, or Pakistani and Saudi support for the Afghan mujahideen groups.

IS’s military strategies and tactics may better explain its ability to withstand and expand. The organisation does not have large numbers of troops and equipment compared to the sophisticated resources of its enemies. With regard to numerical strength ratios, the CIA in 2014 estimated the number of IS fighters to be between 20 000 and 31 000. Compared just to the Iraqi armed forces, this means that there is one IS fighter for every ten soldiers. This excludes the number of supportive or allied forces such as popular militia, tribal groups, Peshmerga units and international coalition forces. In the battles of Mosul (June 2014) and Ramadi (December 2015–January 2016), the ratios dropped to one fighter for every twenty soldiers and officers in Mosul, and one fighter for twenty-five soldiers and officers in the case of Ramadi. In areas outside Iraq and Syria, the numerical strength ratio sometimes drops to one fighter against 500 soldiers and officers, as in northern Sinai. These ratios only estimate numerical strength, without taking into account the quality of the weaponry, ratios of firepower, effects of air support and intelligence, and strategic/schematic regional and international advice and aid; none of these factors and ratios are in IS’s favour.

However, with a mix of general military strategy principles, discipline in the field, a decentralised command and control structure, the commitment of soldiers to leadership structures and the dedication of fighters to their work – whatever the degree of brutality, combined with unusual tactics on the ground and the use of sudden, fast, accurate and repeatable methods, the organisation has been able to overcome not only a lack of human resources and equipment, but it has won battles where victory was unexpected based on traditional military data.

Some of its combat methods are consistent with Sun Tzu’s strategies, particularly regarding the collection of intelligence about the enemy, stealth before and after striking, attacking the weaker flank, efficiently using the element of surprise, avoiding the enemy in its strongholds and the time of readiness.xvi Tactics of ‘urban terrorism’ (especially car bombs; suicide bombers; sudden, frequent and extensive use of snipers; and assassinations before and during attacks) combined with traditional revolutionary warfare methods (especially mixing military and trained volunteer units, a quick hit-and-run approach and small numbers), in addition to conventional tactics (light artillery, heavy armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as different types of guided and unguided missiles) have proven highly effective despite the small number of IS fighters.

IS’s attack pattern is designed to establish control on the ground (in a village, town or city neighbourhood); followed by its combat units attacking from three sides at the same time while using high intensity fire to push defending forces to the fourth side. When the defending forces gather there, they are attacked by one or a series of car bombs (either detonated remotely or by suicide attackers), which often leads to the defending forces’ collapse or weakening, making the attack much easier. Captain Hassan Al-Hajri, a commander of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade in Syria, pointed out that after attacking with booby traps, the ‘Inghemasiyoun’, a small commando unit of not more than twenty IS shock troops (mostly non-local), carry out further attacks.xvii This unit is given special training on tactics of close quarters combat.xviii Its main task after attacking with booby traps is breaking enemy lines, raiding hard targets and then progressing slowly. As a former officer in the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Squad 101 said, ‘After car bombing, IS sends not more than ten to fifteen fighters of different nationalities. They advance fifty metres, lie down, then advance another fifty metres, then lie down and concentrate their efforts. We have not heard of this specific method of attack in any Arab military academy, including those of the Ba'ath Party.’xix

Various kinds of booby-traps (containers, cars, motorcycles, etc.) have proven effective in breaking troop lines, initiating attacks and even as defensive tactics, but their place in the military doctrine of IS is still a mystery. Some military analysts argue that the element of shock and horror, and its effect in weakening and confusing enemies, has proven valuable for IS. Others focus on the extensive damage caused by car bombs. Thus, a quick resolution of battle is in favour of IS’s forces even if the conventional military balance is not in their favour. When FSA officers and Libyan military forces from Battalion 166 who fought IS in Sirte were asked about the reasons for the organisation’s military victories, despite its lack of human resources and equipment, the answers were similar and can be summed up as ‘booby traps are the key to victories’.

There is another important aspect with regards to the command and control framework of IS: the group’s decentralised approach to military action. IS sometimes attacks sites and towns that are not strategically important and has small numbers of people. It appears that, in these cases, mid-level leaders have taken attack decisions, without reference to senior leadership. Despite the tactical failure of some of these attacks, their frequency and success in other instances is an important indicator of the degree of centralised decision-making at the command and control level. This decentralised military modus operandi is more mature and effective than the methods of many Arab armies, which is one reason for their semi-chronic tactical weakness. In practice, IS has overcome a major obstacle facing the military effectiveness of some Arab armies. These armies, which sometimes show some tactical initiative and creativity, lack the ability to innovate and improvise without orders from the top brass. They have little ability to adapt to sudden and unexpected circumstances, and are unable to undertake independent tactical operations. The degree of centralisation may reflect the weakness of ‘strategic coherence’ between military units and ‘tactical turmoil’; it is a traditional point of weakness that may defeat and obliterate any military entity. However, in the case of IS, a centralised senior leadership with a decentralised field of operations has proven vital for enhanced military performance. The dynamic attack forces allow the organisation to make quick decisions when facing superior forces. In addition, it seems that IS leaders on the ground learn quickly, continually improving their performance.

On the other hand, most IS air defences are weak, limited and undeveloped. The group can defend only against helicopters and old military aircraft flying at low altitudes (at 20 000 feet or less). This has been very costly for the organisation. The traditional irregular warfare style (especially the use of armoured vehicles) has been undermined to a large extent due to coalition air strikes, and the lack of capacity of terrestrial defences to respond. However, the group was able to avoid further losses by dispersing and concealing heavy weapons and some armoured vehicles and tanks that had survived the bombing. During IS attacks, its fighters benefit from the confusion created by both sides using a combination of Russian, US and Chinese weapons. This makes coalition air forces unable to distinguish between friendly and IS forces. The difficulty of precise targeting also increases because of the limited number of joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) – plants for qualified personnel closely working to provide offensive air operations with information.

The quality of the fighters who join IS brigades has added to its military balance, in terms of discipline on the battlefield and focus on the goal. Its combatants may be divided into three categories: former members of regular armed forces (especially from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Georgia) who had served in various structures, including the republican guard, military, intelligence, artillery, armour and police (civil and military); unlawful combatants who fought in previous wars, have abundant combat experience in a variety of geographies (mountains, jungles, deserts, cities, villages and towns); and local fighters who had accumulated long-term experience in combating local regular troops and providing logistical support for building networks over the past decade. Some fighters, especially from the second category, fought many defensive battles to prevent the enemy from controlling villages, towns or cities in several countries. In later wars, they used commando tactics when they had lost land to their enemies. These tactics relied on light infantry units with ten to fifteen fighters clashing with the enemy at close range (fifty to 250 metres), which prevents the use of heavy artillery and shelling from the air.

The near future and the far enemy

In conclusion, attention must be focused on the environment within which IS has developed, remained and expanded. In most countries in the region – with a few exceptions – legitimacy obtained through religious advisory opinions (fatawa) or through extreme nationalism are the crucial means by which to access or remain in political power. In most Arab political environments, elections, constitutions, laws, principles of good governance, and social and economic achievements are merely secondary factors, and sometimes only cosmetic. The regional context proves that the bullet is frequently more effective than the ballot in reaching and staying in power. In this context a large proportion of political, social and cultural elites see force as a way to filter and eradicate political dissent – at least through torture, or, at most, through genocide – and mutual concessions and political compromises to prevent bloodshed are regarded as forms of ‘betrayal’. IS and other jihadi groups have merely increased the dose of violence, multiplied its targets and radicalised religious interpretation, but they did not depart from the prevailing political pattern in the region. These jihadi tendencies organisations are a natural consequence of this pattern of violence and ruthlessness.xx

IS, therefore, does not face considerable difficulty in recruiting minorities that support it because the repressive political environment helps to give credibility to its tactics. This explains the imbalance in the long-term strategy to contain and destroy it, which depends on four major pillars: two military/security pillars, a political/reform pillar and an intellectual/rhetorical pillar. This translates into air strikes to contain it in the short term; local partners who collaborate with coalition forces to weaken and destroy it on the ground in the medium or long terms; attempts to repair the political environment through settlements and/or reconciliation and/or democratisation to create a political and social environment that would prevent the group from reproducing; and the production of ideologies and discourses to counter the ideas and behaviours of the organisation and behaviours arising in the long-term. These pillars are incompatible with each other, with the most conflicting being the second and third pillars. Considering that the regimes have committed massacres against their own people and crimes against humanity, being ‘partners’ in the fight against terrorism (which are some of the second pillar’s concerns) would harm the third pillar of the strategy over the long term. Thus the military defeat of IS – a result that should not be seen as an accomplishment of tactical/field significance given the enormous differences in numbers, equipment and weaponry – may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region. However, the roots of the crisis remain valid (unless the third pillar succeeds). Consequently, those roots will generate another symptom that may be more extreme, violent and rigid.

* Dr Omar Ashour is a lecturer in security and strategic studies at the University of Exeter, and associate fellow in security studies at the Royal Institute of International Studies (Chatham House)

i The paper ignores several important dimensions that the author sees the need to discuss in greater depth. First, at the field or operational level, the importance of individual battles in the countryside of Aleppo (January 2014), the city of Raqqa (January–March 2014 ), Mosul (June 2014), Al-Ramadi (May 2015, and December 2015–January 2016), Sirte (May–August 2015), Sheikh Zuid (July 2015) and the countryside of Deir ez-Zor (January 2016). The paper also avoids analysing the Islamic State group’s security and intelligence capabilities; this has proven most important in military action, especially its ability to penetrate its opponents and map internal opposition parties or the regimes that it is fighting. This paper also avoids delving into the extreme ideological discourses employed in IS’s mobilisation and propaganda, despite the importance of this militarily as well as in special operations that continue and sustain recruitment, thus giving IS the ability to train, substitute and replace fighters; to survive and expand in the battlefield; and to continue as a ‘state’ structure.

ii Schultz, Bryan (2015). ‘The Pentagon Says It Has Killed 20,000 ISIS Fighters—and Just 6 Civilians’, Mother Jones, 23 December. <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/12/united-states-isis-bombing-civilian-deaths/>.

iii Schultz, Bryan (2015).

iv ‘US hitting IS harder than ever, says Obama’, BBC, 14 December. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35097279> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).

v Strack, Columb (2015). ‘Islamic State’s Caliphate Shrinks by 14 Percent in 2015’, Jane’s Intelligence review, 21 December. <http://www.janes.com/article/56794/islamic-state-s-caliphate-shrinks-by-14-in-2015>.

vi Strack, Columb (2015).

vii Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). ‘How Insurgencies End’, RAND Publications, <http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG965.pdf/> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).

viii Mao, T (1937/61). On Guerrilla Warfare. Champaign: University of Illinois.

ix Petraeus, David, Amos, James F and Nagl, John A (2007). The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

x Dreyfuss, B (2013). ‘How the War in Afghanistan Fuelled the Taliban’, The Nation, 23 September. <http://www.thenation.com/article/how-us-war-afghanistan-fueled-taliban-insurgency/>

xi Fearon, James and Laitin, David (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90.

xii Galula, D (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger.

xiiiThe conclusions are based on a large number of military and strategic studies, such as: Ashour, O (2009). The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. New York, London: Routledge; Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). How Insurgencies End. Arlington: Rand Publications; Fearon, JD and Laitin, DD (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90; Johnston, PB (2008). ‘The Geography of Insurgent Organization and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone’, Security Studies 17 (1): 107–37. Kalyvas, S (2006). The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kalyvas, S and Kocher, Matthew A (2006). ‘Ethnic Cleavages and Irregular War: Iraq and Vietnam’, Politics and Society 35 (2): 183–223.

xiv See the poll details at: <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).

xv See <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views>.

xvi Tzu, Sun The Art of War, Pax Librorum, 2009

xvii Hendawi, Hamza. Abdul-Zahra, Qassim and Mroue, Bassem (2015). ‘Inside ISIS Battle Strategy, Use of Special Forces’, Associated Press, 8 July. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/873276499f8145eba8680d5b4e1e13f1/secret-success-shock-troops-who-fight-death>.

xviii See testimony from a person who belongs to the organisation: <http://justpaste.it/diwanaljundnotes>. (Accessed: 15 February 2016).

xix Interview with the author, September 2015.

xx  Ashour, Omar (2015). ‘Cooperation to repression: Islamic–military relations in Egypt’, The Brookings Doha Center, March 2015. <http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/03/10-islamist-military-relations-in-egypt-ashour/collusion-to-crackdown-arabic.pdf>.

By Afro-Middle East

The accession to the throne of Salman Bin Abdulaziz has led to a reprioritisation of Saudi Arabian foreign policy. The rise of the Islamic State group (IS) and resurgence of Iran are now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of democratic/participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with like-minded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters, such as youth unemployment, will increasingly force the regime to look inward in the struggle for regime survival.

 

History and foreign policy impetuses

 

Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the Saudi kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought and took the form of partnerships with the United Kingdom and the USA. These partnerships, together with its vast oil wealth, have enabled it to grow in strength. From the mid-2000s, Riyadh has acted more as a regional hegemon and deployed its financial and military power in the pursuit of its national interest. Although foreign policy in the kingdom is an elite-driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses disproportional influence. Domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.

 

Foreign policy during Abdullah’s era

 

Under Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia aggressively increased and diversified its bilateral relations. In 2006 and 2007 alone, Abdullah visited China, Russia, India and Pakistan. These visits were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state-sponsored discrimination. Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.

 

The MENA uprisings

 

The kingdom, however, maintained warm relations with the USA, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam had enabled Iran to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the US opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed following the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the US’s role in enabling this; Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies. The kingdom felt that the USA betrayed Mubarak, and that the US would take a similar stance if Abdullah were in that position. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were democratic Islamists. Riyadh views these groups as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior MB figures refused to support its role during the 1990–91 Gulf War.

 

Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013, even when Bashar al-Asad was alleged to have used chemical weapons. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase its regional and global influence. This is especially since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf states including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hizbullah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of its holding of elections. The kingdom was especially angered at not being informed about the initial US–Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future US support.

 

Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive and independent foreign policy. First, it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over seven hundred billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and successfully provided funding to withstand protests. The kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Hamid regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command and shared Gulf police force.

 

Second, Riyadh sought to reverse the successes gained by Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through supporting former regime officials, together with the UAE and Kuwait, to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, the Morsi regime was overthrown and replaced by former military head Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party in light of Islah’s links to the MB, and Saudi–Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining democratic Islamists. This culminated in the March 2014 decision, adopted by Gulf states, declaring the MB a terrorist organisation and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. Even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran by removing the Assad regime, which is closely allied to the Islamic republic. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition groups sought to distinguish between Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, supporting the latter.

 

Abdullah’s death: change of course?

 

Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. This resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the Brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole was not viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE.

 

The Iranian nuclear deal and rise of IS have been key influences in these decisions. The kingdom views these threats as posing a greater threat to it than that of democratic Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence.

IS on the other hand has been active in Saudi Arabia, claiming bombings on mosques frequented by Shi'a and special forces. Further, the group’s leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime because of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance.

 

Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward more democratic Islamists, with leaders from Ennahda, Hamas and the Islamic Action Front all visiting Saudi Arabia in 2015. It has also re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party. Further, the kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm opposition groups in Syria, while in December it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni, countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic – even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus, and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troops fighting IS. In addition, in January 2016, the kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an unsuccessful attempt to stall the improving relations between Iran and Western states.

Yemen

 

Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s reprioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were part of a ten-member Saudi-led coalition and were without initial US endorsement. The Yemeni Islah party has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground force, consisting of around 5 000 troops has since been deployed. Thus far the effort has had some successes; the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south and in recent weeks has been gaining ground in and around Sana’a. However, Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many northern regions, and will be difficult to dislodge in light of their institutional links and grass-roots support.

 

Salman’s renewed relations with democratic Islamists constitute tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Turkey’s president (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and the previous emir of Qatar (Hamid bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision to re-engage democratic Islamists is more the result of Riyadh’s belief that these groups have been weakened and no longer pose an immediate threat to the regime’s survival. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these Islamists possess some influence regionally, and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to those of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties, and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action. Further, US–Saudi relations have largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.

 

Implications

 

Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and reprioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen peace talks scheduled for January have already been postponed indefinitely, while the Munich truce between the Syrian regime and opposition fighters is already proving difficult to implement. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which increasingly resembles a regional cold war.

 

Foreign policy constraints

 

Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. The balance of power is influenced more by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE, for example, is more fearful of domestic Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, where the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has thus refused to finance and arm the party. Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. The UAE and Oman have important economic ties with Iran, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars / North Dome gas field. All three of these countries refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations with Iran after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, especially since Ankara now has tense relations with Russia, and has thus offered to play a mediating role between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite the Erdogan regime’s opposition to Iran’s interests in Syria.

 

Second, the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas prices will impede the kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. The price drop has even meant that it has had to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic programs, causing these to drop by over a hundred billion in 2015 alone. Riyadh has increased levies on petrol and gas by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent, respectively, and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value-added tax with income tax soon to follow. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime.

 

Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However, issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the fifteen to twenty-four year old group stands at over thirty per cent, and around two-thirds of the country is under thirty. The 2016 budget allocates around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services; however, much more will need to be done, including providing employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. This is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammad bin Salman (aged thirty) and the relatively young Muhammad bin Nayef (aged fifty-six) as deputy crown prince and crown prince, respectively. The kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult, especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes.

Things however can change quickly, and chances for miscalculations abound, especially in light of the complex regional and international alliances involved. Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the allegiance council did not unanimously endorse the appointment of Mohammad bin Salman as deputy crown prince and de facto prime minister. However, for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The revelation that the alleged mastermind of the 13 November Paris attacks claimed by the Islamic State group (IS) was of Moroccan descent, the turmoil in Libya, and the general strife in numerous African countries such as Nigeria and Somalia that is being attributed to IS and Al-Qa'ida has sparked speculation that IS is likely to expand within Africa, and even in South Africa.

However, most of these assertions are the result of hurried summaries rather than sober analysis. One news outlet, for example, carried two contradictory headlines on the IS threat in Libya within two days of each other. One claimed IS was ‘struggling to expand in Libya’ and the other that IS ‘could expand from Libya’.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The terror unleashed on Paris streets on 13 November reverberated throughout the world. From the G20 summit in Antalya to social media debates about how only the suffering of white or western bodies is highlighted, the attack continues generating much debate. The most important questions arising from the Paris bombings concern the French response, and what, if anything, the incidents might tell us about the Islamic State (IS) group’s future strategy.

The French government’s response has been multi-faceted. At the domestic level France began investigating the planning and execution of the attacks, and the parliament approved a three-month state of emergency. The French parliament amended the 1955 law governing states of emergency to concentrate power in the hands of the government, and has given wide latitude to police in a manner that undermines human rights and civil liberties in France – similar to laws passed in the USA after the 2011 attacks. Police have been empowered to detain people in their homes without trial, search houses without warrants, break up meetings, impose curfews, and block websites at their whim. The army may also be deployed in French cities. France also worked with Belgian authorities to follow up links the attackers might have had in Belgian. France also announced with Russia that the two states would coordinate their aerial attacks in Syria, after France claimed to have hit IS targets in Raqqa, which IS considers its capital.

Afraid that questions will be raised about their inability to prevent attacks such as the Paris bombings from occurring, no state waging war against IS seems willing to admit that the operation should not have been a surprise, and that more are possible soon. Instead, demands are being made by governments for a freer hand in ‘fighting terrorism’. UK prime minister David Cameron is still attempting to convince the British parliament to approve air strikes inside Syria, and Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel, asked parliament to implement stricter measures – such as extending the time for detention without charge to 72 (from 24) hours; the authority to shut down mosques that ‘preach hate’; and to approve an additional 400 million Euros for state security.

While refugees entering Europe have not yet been targeted after the IS attacks, they will likely occasion a growing European military role in the global coalition against IS, and stricter border policies. Such reactions will likely attract the ire of IS and its global sympathisers. Therefore, attempts at duplicating the Paris attacks could continue after IS members realise the great deal of fear created in France, and the potential for such attacks to unleash Islamophobia in the West, both of which are tactical objectives for IS.

The Paris attacks raise the question of whether this is a new phase in IS’s evolution, and whether the group has adopted a new strategy of carrying out terrorist-type operations rather than the insurgency which won it victories in Iraq and Syria a year ago. It is unlikely that IS is substituting one strategy for another. It needs to control and govern territory, otherwise it will be another al-Qa'ida-like entity, after having eclipsed its parent entity as the biggest world enemy. From a strategic perspective, it would not want to invite the wrath of western powers to the extent that will undermine its ability to hold territory. Therefore, the Paris attacks, rather than representing a strategy change, can be explained differently. IS regional affiliates are decentralised, with broad directives to engage in operations in targeted areas; the precise timing and coordination is left to local operatives. France is a target because of its bombing campaign against IS in Syria. Hence, the timing of the attacks in France is probably not significant.

How the IS strategy unfolds in the next few months will provide important hints for the group’s future. Its leaders do not all hold the same views on its strategic objectives. Many are pragmatists, more concerned with fighting an insurgency and controlling territory than undertaking terrorist attacks in western countries. Therefore, it can be expected that high-ranking IS members are not all in favour of operations such as that in Paris because of tactical and strategic considerations, and the fear of eliciting reactions that might be difficult to bear.

Whatever the exact reasons behind the attacks in Paris, which the IS claim of responsibility does not fully explain, it is possible that Paris might not be the last city that IS and its sympathisers will target in the countries whose governments are maintaining a war against it in Iraq and Syria.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Since its declaration of a ‘caliphate’ on 29 June 2014, the Islamic State group (IS), the brutal successor to al-Qa'ida, has gone from strength to strength. Short of an indiscriminate air bombing campaign whose victims will include civilians and militants, a wide and well coordinated rebellion within IS ranks and/or the civilian population under its control, or a massive troop deployment and ground invasion by the United States or a regional hegemon such as Turkey or Iran, IS is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

It has become common among some commentators to describe IS as losing ground and being on the defensive as a result of the US aerial bombardment in Syria and Iraq. While the control of territory in some places is often fluid, this assertion is not true. Such habitual arguments may stem from a tendency within the Anglophone world to (re)circulate stock claims and media releases of the US government. Or, it might be attributed to the retaking of Tikrit from IS control in Iraq, or IS’s loss of Tal Abyad and Kobane in Syria. But such cherry-picking of facts must also consider that while IS loses territory, it also gains control over other areas, such as the crucial ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, and the provincial capital Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province. Further, even in the case of cities where it has lost ground after weeks of sustained US air support in favour of IS opponents, the group has not entirely given up on these cities, as proven by recent clashes in Kobane and Ayn Issa in Syria and fighting near the Iraqi city of Baiji. As for the latest offensive mounted against IS in the Anbar province, it is too early to predict how it might develop, though it must be noted that the recent record of the Iraqi army and its allies does not inspire much confidence.

A better understanding acknowledges that while IS has not been able to add to its rapid advances from last year in Iraq, it now controls about half of Syria’s land mass. Though this does not mean it exercises control over a majority of the population – and includes that part of the Syrian population, such as some tribes on Syria’s eastern edge, that was only nominally connected to the central authority in Damascus, – it is incorrect to suggest that IS is on the defensive or losing territory in Syria.

It should have been evident to any cursory follower of the region that IS would not, at least in the short term, be able to expand much beyond the Sunni regions it already controls in Iraq. To use this fact to suggest that IS is on the defensive represents a misunderstanding of a fundamental part of IS’s strategy which is, first, to capture, and, second, to hold and build the areas it captures. Thus, a prognosis on the organisation cannot be given by looking at the lack of growth in its territorial control. Rather, it is essential to analyse the success or failure of the second phase of IS strategy: its management of territory that it already controls, the activities of its affiliates outside Iraq and Syria, and the influx of foreign fighters into its ranks.

On all these counts, despite occasional problems, IS is faring sufficiently well. First, consider the management of territory it already controls – probably the most complex of the three indicators. A plethora of pro-IS videos point to the group’s establishment of schools, construction of roads, provision of medical and welfare services, setting up of courts and resolution of disputes, along with the formation of police forces to maintain public order (which for IS ranges from the fair use of weights and measures to regulating the modesty of mannequins outside clothing stores). Similarly, ‘immigration (hijra) guides’ issued by IS to those planning on moving to and settling in IS lands mention how the Islamic State will provide adequate housing and salaries for all those who wish to migrate. For example, the South African citizen with the moniker Abu Hurayrah al-Afriqi, who migrated to IS territory last year, joked that internet services there were better than in South Africa.

While it is tempting to dismiss these assertions as pro-IS propaganda, much of it has been verified by other sources. One problem that is frequently raised as confronting civilians under IS control is that of electricity. It is clear the delivery of electricity has been a problem in certain areas, creating resentment amongst locals. However, complainants often also mention IS efforts to provide generators. This is not to suggest that all is well in territories within IS control, or that there is no dissatisfaction among civilians under its control. After all, IS did kill over three hundred members of a single Iraqi tribe last November. Similarly, there are reports of some Syrian tribal leaders becoming dissatisfied with IS because they are no longer able to collect taxes. However, as long as IS maintains a stranglehold over the information coming out of its territories, and the civilian population under its control is unable to arm and organise itself, it will be very difficult to estimate the level of antagonism it is breeding within.

IS’s service delivery is also ‘subsidised’ by the Iraqi and Syrian governments, which have continued paying salaries to state employees living under IS control, especially in Mosul and Raqqah. Presumably, the respective governments want to use the salaries as leverage over civil servants (especially if these areas are recaptured), and because they do not want to create further antagonism against themselves. This has been useful for IS, but could become a problem if the two governments decided to cease salary payments. To what extent the drying up of these monies could affect IS coffers is difficult to establish. What is clear, however, is that this situation allows IS some financial leeway in not having to pay some of those providing municipal and other services. A huge issue that is alienating many people is IS brutality and conservatism, even though some see it as necessary to maintain peace and order in a time of war. And there is the often-repeated criticism that IS discriminates against its local recruits in favour of foreigners by giving the latter higher salaries and more benefits.

Despite these – often serious – problems, in order to survive, IS just needs to ensure is that the population living in its territories likes it better than the alternatives. And the alternatives, for many, are not appealing. In Iraqi areas controlled by IS, where many people are still stinging from their perceived betrayal at the hands of Baghdad after they had helped defeat IS’s predecessor, al-Qa'ida in Iraq, a common sentiment among the people is that while IS is bad it is the least of the evils besetting them.

The second indicator of IS’s health is the activities of its affiliates outside Iraq and Syria. With the announcement of certain prominent organisations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, sections of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, and the Caucasus Emirate in Russia pledging their allegiance to IS, the group’s international profile is on the rise. While some seasoned jihadi leaders – such as the recently deceased Nasir al-Wuhayshi of al-Qai'da in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Jordanian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi – have not accepted IS, and have condemned it for causing divisions among jihadis, even they do not simply dismiss the group.

More crucially, with the recent high profile attacks in Afghanistan, Yemen, Kuwait, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia being linked to IS sympathisers, IS does not seem like an actor that is restricted to the Syrian and Iraqi theatres. While it is unlikely that the IS central leadership in Iraq or Syria was directly involved in or gave its blessings to these specific operations, there is definitely an exchange of personnel and tactical information between IS's provincial groups – such as those in Chechnya, Libya and Egypt – and the centre in Iraq and Syria. This is another way of understanding IS’s claim of it ‘expanding’; its expansion cannot only be measured in terms of an increase in territorial control within Syria and Iraq, but must consider the spread of its tentacles in the rest of the world.

Our third indicator is the inflow of foreign fighters into IS’s ranks. The group’s propaganda and battlefield exploits are succeeding in attracting an increasing number of sympathisers and the number has increased in the last few months. While most Muslim organisations and scholars have condemned IS and its brutal methods, it cannot be denied that there is a tiny minority that finds IS’s claim that it is building an Islamic utopia, or challenging the global order through its perverse sense of retribution, quite appealing. The total number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq has already surpassed the number of fighters attracted by the nearly decade-long 1980s conflict in Afghanistan. Though it is unclear what percentage of this has joined IS, it can be assumed that of the fighters going to Syria, an increasing percentage is linking with IS.

*IS then, contrary to some claims, is far from exhausted. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to suggest that it will survive into the foreseeable future. Its slogan, ‘remaining and expanding’, is bearing fruit, even if that does not translate into taking over all of Syria or Iraq and the continuation of its lightning advances from 2014. IS strategists have an evolving understanding of what ‘remaining and expanding’ entails. At this stage, they do not see it as necessarily involving a quick stretch of sovereignty over all of Syria or Iraq. The measure of success is simpler: continued existence as a pseudo-state, providing services to the population under their control, and increasing sympathy throughout the world, whether through more immigrants, regional affiliates, or lone wolves willing to carry out attacks in its name.

Almost three years after the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the country is suffering the dramatic rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS), a militant group that has succeeded in dividing Iraq, and has the potential to unravel the states that make up the modern Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, northern Turkey and Cyprus. Some argue that ISIS has already created a new ‘state’, having carved a ‘country’ from the adjoining regions of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Its latest and most stunning victories have been the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the most important Sunni-majority city, on 10 June, followed by the seizure of Tikrit, less than 150 kilometres north of Baghdad, just one day later.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday, US president Barack Obama unveiled his strategy for confronting the Islamic State group (IS). He emphasised the need for an international coalition supporting the efforts of Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels through airstrikes and logistical support inside Iraq and Syria. The US administration had already been working on the formation of an international coalition. The recent NATO summit resulted in a ten-nation alliance against IS, and US secretary of state, John Kerry, has also been trying to build an Arab consensus against IS. That move was pre-empted by an Arab League resolution earlier this week announcing Arab states’ willingness to support international efforts against IS. Additionally, the United Nations Security Council had unanimously adopted resolution 2170 in August, which called on member states to prevent the movement of terrorists and their obtaining arms or finances.

Hamas’s Usamah Hamdan to be keynote speaker

After the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa region, Political Islam took centre stage in many respects, as numerous actors in the region claimed their Islam as the inspiration or basis of their political activity. This manifested during various elections, coups, and civil wars. Perhaps the most recent of these has been the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, which seeks to undo the post-Ottoman Sykes-Picot architecture of the MENA region.

These developments over the past four years have resulted in the MENA region, and the Muslim world more generally, experiencing a profound conceptual rethinking, including a re-evaluation of notions of global ethics, citizenship and democracy, capitalism and economic development, imperialism, and liberation.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The battle for the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane, resulting from a siege of the city by the Islamic State group (IS) since 2 July, has become the iconic battle in the USA-led international coalition’s war against IS. Despite IS having fought its way to within a few kilometres of Baghdad, a city of far more strategic importance than Kobane, the latter has become the focus of international media attention. There are various reasons for this. First, the initial inaction and the subsequent hyperaction by the USA have generated much discussion and criticism. Second, the Kurdish population in Turkey, Iraq and Europe have successfully kept Kobane in the headlines for weeks through methods such as large, widespread protests. Third, the use of women fighters, even as suicide bombers, by Kurdish militias has also sparked more than a few conversations. However, the most significant aspects of the battle for Kobane relates to the geopolitical dimension of the conflict, especially in the way it intersects with the interests of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Turkey and the USA.

By Omar Shaukat

With the release of another video showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff, held hostage by the Islamic State (IS, also variously known as Isil, or Isis), IS’s confrontation with the US has become a hot topic of discussion throughout the world.

However, what such discussions typically miss is the manner in which IS has not only found enemies in the US but also within the Muslim world and the jihadist circles that at some point supported it. In fact, these internal divisions are so deep that a former ally of IS, and the US’s previous public enemy number one, al-Qaeda, too finds itself engaged in mortal combat with IS.

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