Global media started broadcasting footage of the destruction of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque and its leaning al-Hadba minaret, a holy site and a symbol of resolve of people in Mosul for nearly eight centuries by the Islamic State (IS) in the early hours of last Thursday. The destruction was popularly argued as the case of Islamic State’s reign in the key Northern Iraqi city of Mosul coming to an end with the imminent fall of the city to advancing Iraqi forces in the coming days.
Currently, amidst many wars that are gripping Middle East and North Africa, two key decisive battles are raging and their outcomes anticipated shaping the future of Middle Eastern politics and security. The battle for the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa are underway and analysts fear especially the Syrian battle theatre may end up being the catalyst for a much larger conflict beyond the region given the number of players from USA, Russia, France, UK, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran being key participants.
The Battle for Mosul is key, the former strong hold of the deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party, was stormed by IS militants, numbering around 1,500 and successfully drove out an Iraqi military numbering 30000 troops of two divisions and another 30000 police personnel exactly three years ago.
The destruction was a sign of IS’s reign coming to an end in Mosul
Radical extremism makes a lot of sense in the current global context, including Sri Lanka
Asian countries brace for more security threats after IS seizure of southern Philippines
The ISIS’s assault on Mosul in June 2014 was the largest military debacle in the history of the recent wars in the Middle East. The inability of 60000 Iraqi personnel armed with American weapons and weapon platforms to stop a few thousand rebels was a major embarrassment to the Iraqi government and the Americans. A simple figure is sufficient enough to expose sheer magnitude of this debacle, the Iraqi military lost between 2000 – 2300 Humvee vehicles to the IS, that were abandoned by the retreating forces.
These debacles led to the IS declaring its caliphate three years ago at the heart of Mosul by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Al Nuri Mosque which was destroyed last week. While the current battle to retake Mosul is spearheaded by the Iraqi military aided by American advisors, the war in Raqqa is much more complex with Iranian, American, Saudi Arabian and Russian involvement. Yet the key observation among many experts is that the resolve of the IS and its grand plans to install a caliphate three years ago is withering away with imminent defeats in the last two major citiesthat it is controlling in Iraq and Syria.
Since the fall of Mosul in June 2014, as a response to IS’s military advances the United States assembled a coalition of states to counter the threat from IS and launched a military operation code named, ‘Operation inherent resolve’. This coalition of North American, Western European, Gulf and Asian states allied to the United States is based on achieving five key objectives.
These objectives include efforts to curb IS funding and financing operations, deter and mitigate the flow of foreign fighters to the outfit, countering the intense IS propaganda that is driving global recruitment of Islamic State fighters, to provide military assistance to fight the IS and finally to find ways and means to stabilize areas that are freed from its control. While all five objectives are important, the last seems to hold the key in preventing a catastrophic implosion of the region.
Long term stability seems to be the hardest to achieve, the most visible aspect of these efforts have beenthe military operations especially the air campaign against IS targets. The cost of inherent resolve is significant; the total cost for the 1000-day campaign is around $ 13 billion which translates into a daily cost of $13 million. The air campaign has been the most significant coalition weapon of choice with a total of just over 22,000 air strikes over the last three years on targets in Syria and Iraq conducted by the US led coalition. The US has conducted nearly 18,000 of these strikes. Strikes by Russian or Assad regime forces on IS targets are not included in the statistics above.
The coalition is making a case that such military pressure coming from coalition campaigns and through coalition armed proxies are finally pushing the IS out of its strongholds and will eventually be defeated. On the contrary to these assessments, one enduring feature of modern day terrorism is its high adaptability, strategic retreat options and to re-manifest far away from current battle theatres. Al Qaeda’s major attacks did not start in the West or in Middle East, it announced itself to the world by a wave of simultaneous attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 targeting US embassies and the UN compounds, a decade on IS has taken the fight to the peripheries.
The best example is the emergence of IS-inspired Maute Group, in Lanaodel Sur in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines. The siege in the township of Marawi in Mindanao has just crossed 30 days, the more the conflict drags, IS will reap strategic benefits in its new campaigns in theaters far from the heartland of the caliphate. Mindanao is an island that has a population of nearly 22 million, little over the Sri Lankan population and nearly two thirds of the Sri Lankan land mass. Thus when an internal conflict flares in a region such as Mindanao, it is no easy task for a government to launch a full scale counter terror operation.
"Since the fall of Mosul in June 2014, as a response to IS’s military advances the United States assembled a coalition of states to counter the threat from IS and launched a military operation code named, ‘Operation inherent resolve’. This coalition of North American, Western European, Gulf and Asian states allied to the United States is based on achieving five key objectives."
Such manifestations of the IS organization signify the potency of its ideology to be easily exported and adaptable to organizations that are not necessarily IS affiliates. From Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Murabitoun Brigade in Mali to recruitment of Uzbeks in Central Asia, IS has expanded its operations globally and in peripheral states. Attacks last year in Turkey were attributed to IS fighters from Uzbekistan and Chechnya.
A major concern for the global intelligence community is not the pure violent potential of IS and its affiliates but its ability to infiltrate liberal and conservative societies alike and remain hidden in plain sight while spreading its influence. There is a strategic sophistication of the IS organization which is far more superior to all other radical Islamic groups that operate globally. While Hezbollah maybe a well oiled military machine, IS seems to have a sense of global presence and global adaptation. Al Qaeda did have a global reach but its operations apart from 9/11 were more tactical in nature, purely attacking and harassing Western targets.
In a country like Sri Lanka, evolving a national security architecture which can detect and respond to threats emerging from radical extremism makes a lot of sense in the current global context. As in some societies extremist groups have chosen to lie dormant and silent but at the same time create necessary infrastructure and ground conditions ripe to exploit when deem necessary. With the IS attacks and activities increasing in peripheral states such as Philippines with increasing activity in countries like Indonesia, governments should take these signs as potential future threats of serious transnational terror activities. President Duterte was waging a war against drugs in the Philippines, now he has to deal with a fully-blown insurgency, some analysts try to connect the two, yet Philippines is a classic case study of mass strategic miscalculations and myopia of political populism.
The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)