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In Islamic State's global reach, new risks for jihadists – and the West

While the Islamic State offers its adversaries a geographical target for reprisals, the group may still perceive a win-win scenario: It deters the West or receives a 'recruitment gift.'

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    Members of the Kurdish peshmerga forces gather in the town of Sinjar, Iraq, November 13, 2015. Kurdish forces last week drove IS from Sinjar, a strategic town on the main highway connecting Raqqa, its self-declared Syrian 'capital,' to Mosul in Iraq.
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In launching a flurry of devastating attacks in the skies above Egypt’s Sinai and in Beirut and Paris, the self-described Islamic State appears to have embarked upon a new strategy to lash out against its enemies.

But this strategy carries risks: The jihadists have picked a fight against an array of powerful adversaries that could threaten the durability of their jealously-protected 18-month-old “caliphate” cutting across a swathe of Syria and Iraq. 

IS swiftly declared responsibility for the bombing of a Russian airliner, twin suicide attacks in southern Beirut, and a shooting rampage in Paris. In all, nearly 400 people were killed and 600 others wounded in under two weeks. The attacks provoked a declaration of war from Paris and a vow of a global manhunt from Moscow. 

In recent weeks IS has surrendered territory, generating a “crisis” within the organization, according to a Western diplomat with contacts inside the group. But the attacks in Egypt, Lebanon, and France showed a degree of sophistication and likely were planned over a period of months, analysts conclude. That suggests a strategic decision rather than a knee-jerk response to battlefield setbacks.

“You have to think that it was some months in the making, that they didn’t just decide over the past four weeks that they were going to do this,” says Will McCants, director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution.

IS already faces greater pressure in Syria and Iraq than at any other time since it declared a “caliphate” in June 2014. In recent weeks it has suffered setbacks in Syria’s northwestern Aleppo province, including an airbase that the group had besieged for a year, and in the northeastern Hasakeh province, where it is fighting a US-supported Kurdish-Arab militia. Kurdish forces last week drove IS from Sinjar, a strategic town on the main highway connecting Raqqa, its self-declared Syrian “capital," to Mosul in Iraq.

Territory comes with a return address

“With so much pressure on them there must be some degradation … but clearly they have a lot of fight left in them,” says Yezid Sayegh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Unlike traditional guerrilla groups, IS, as a self-declared state, has a clear return address for its enemies to target. Now the US, France, and Russia are all stepping up their airstrikes. 

“This is where global jihadists go wrong,” says Mr. McCants, the author of "ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State."

He cites several examples of failed attempts by jihadists to establish Islamic territories.

In early 2011, Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch established several "emirates" in southern Yemen; within a year, local tribes with US backing had risen up against the group's harsh rule. In northern Mali, a similar breakaway state set up in 2012 by another Al Qaeda affiliate collapsed with the intervention of French special forces a year later. And a similar effort by Al Shabab in Somalia also fell to troops from Kenya and the African Union.

Until recently, IS appeared to be careful not to provoke its enemies into a forceful direct attack on its “caliphate.” It sought to seize territory and govern rather than join Syrian rebel groups in the struggle to topple the Assad regime.

IS may perceive a win-win situation

A modus vivendi resulted in which IS and the Syrian regime with its Russian and Iranian allies largely ignored each other on the battlefield. Indeed, on several occasions, Islamic State jihadists and the Syrian Army were de facto allies by fighting the same anti-Assad rebel groups at the same time.

IS “benefitted from the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran focusing on the other rebels,” says McCants. “That seems to have ended, and they are taking on all enemies. And, as an outsider, that seems like a terrible idea if you want to hang onto a state.”

On the other hand, argues Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, IS, also known as ISIS, may see a win-win situation.

“Looking at both Western rhetoric and action, the Western powers have clearly concluded that destroying ISIS is not achievable within the levels of risk and costs they are willing to bear,” says Mr. Itani. “The strategy is now quite clearly one of containment.”

“If it deters the West, it wins,” he says. "If it provokes the West, one of two things will happen – the West launches some airstrikes and kills more Sunni Muslims while achieving nothing, fine by ISIS, or the West invades.” And that serves as a “recruitment gift” for IS, he adds. 

And if the 'caliphate' falls?

According to a Western intelligence source in Beirut, IS leadership coordinates its military activities in Syria from a bunker outside Raqqa constructed of buried shipping containers protected by car tires and piled earth. In the town, the militants have dug tunnels and bunkers to avoid the airstrikes, and are reportedly braced for a ground assault on their capital by US-backed Kurdish and Arab militias.

“The civilian casualties are very high and our heritage in the town is being destroyed,” says Ahmad, 19, a resident of Raqqa who fled the town for Lebanon 18 months ago because his family supports the Assad regime. “Daesh have good hideouts and long tunnels where they hide when the planes come. Very few of the militants are getting killed,” he says, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Ahmad declined to reveal his family name as he still has relatives in Raqqa with whom he is in near daily contact. He added that the IS militants were girding for a fight in Raqqa.

“ISIS is not ISIS if it does not control territory, populations and resources,” says Itani of the Atlantic Council. “The caliphate has been declared and must be defended.”

But if IS is defeated and the “caliphate” destroyed, it would unleash a whole new set of problems. 

“When ISIS… is ejected from its caliphate, it will spread well-armed and organized terrorist forces all over the region and potentially Europe as well,” says the Western diplomat with contacts in the group. “And they will be the instigators of the largest wave of terrorism we will probably have seen yet.”

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