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The liberation of Kobane and other signs of trouble for the Islamic State (+video)

The self-styled Islamic State is losing key battles on the ground in Iraq and Syria and in the propaganda wars as well. A Kurdish victory in Kobane would be a stinging blow.

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    Kurdish fighters celebrate victory in Kobani. After a four-month battle against Islamic State they make their way to the top of a strategic point to place their flag.
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Is the Islamic State, the jihadi group that's become notorious for beheading and enslaving captives, in trouble? Recent news – from the murder of a Japanese hostage to reports that the group has been mostly driven out of the Syrian border city of Kobane – point in that direction.

The IS siege of Kobane began four months ago, putting to work a lot of the heavy weaponry IS fighters seized when the Iraqi military collapsed in the north of that country over the summer. The ethnic-Kurdish town ultimately drew military support from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish enclave and a coalition of international powers led by the United States. The coalition conducted dozens of airstrikes around the city, coordinating its efforts with its defenders, in an attempt to drive back the militants.

If the battle for Kobane has truly been won, it would be among the most significant successes against the group so far. Control of the town would have given IS a nearly unbroken swathe of territory along Syria's northern border, facilitating the flow of fresh fighters and supplies from Turkey and cutting off its enemies in the area from the same kind of support.

IS fighters clearly also viewed the town as having symbolic value, given that so much outside assistance was focused on stopping them. Taking and holding the town would have been a powerful sign to potential supporters that the group could take on the heavyweight US and win.

That's probably why IS released a propaganda video in English, narrated by English captive John Cantlie, in October, in which he strolled outside in the city, speaking of "mopping up" operations and the inevitable IS victory. Today, it's Kurdish fighters who are speaking of "mopping up."

A change in demands

And the way IS has handled its latest gruesome propaganda video could well be a misstep. On Jan. 20 IS released a video showing two Japanese hostages, journalist Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, threatening to murder both men by Friday if Japan didn't pay $200 million in ransom. After the deadline came and went the group then posted a video, which Mr. Goto was forced to narrate, in which he held a photograph of a beheaded corpse that he said was Mr. Yukawa.

The group stopped short of showing the murder, as it has in other videos, and also clearly didn't carry through on its threat to kill both men. IS also abandoned its demand for cash, shifting to a new demand that underscores its ultimate intentions for the whole region.

The group now says it wants to swap Goto for Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who was captured when her bomb failed to explode in an attack on the Raddison SAS Hotel in Amman, Jordan in November 2005. Ms. Rishawi was part of Al Qaeda in Iraq – the forerunner to IS – and the attack on Amman horrified the region. Suicide bombers simultaneously attacked the Radisson, the Grand Hyatt, and the Days Inn in Amman, murdering 57 people.

Most of the victims were killed in the ballroom at the Radisson, where Rishawi's husband managed to kill 38 people at a wedding reception, among them the fathers of the bride and the groom. All of the victims were either Palestinian or Jordanian.

Jordanian authorities forced Rishawi to confess on national television, while wearing her defused suicide belt, and the murders sparked weeks of demonstrations against Al Qaeda throughout Jordan. The region at large was disgusted by the crime.

Failure to deliver

In short, IS has issued threats, failed to deliver on them, and changed its demands from cash to demanding the release of a woman synonymous with one of the most notorious jihadi crimes in recent years. It's one thing to claim you're fighting against the US or Assad in Syria or the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, quite another to place yourself firmly in support of slaughtering civilians at a wedding.

Rishawi was condemned to death but the sentence has not been carried out. Her brother, a top lieutenant to Al Qaeda in Iraq boss Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed fighting US forces in Fallujah in 2004. Mr. Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006. Al Qaeda in Iraq eventually became IS.

Is the tide turning for IS? It's far too soon for that. The group continues to hold major cities in Syria and Iraq, and there's a limit to what US air power can accomplish on its own.

As long as it holds cities like Iraq's Mosul, the commercial capital of the north, IS will be a long way from defeat. Nevertheless, Iraqi forces and allied Shiite militia have been claiming a string of success against the group in recent weeks. After fighting over the weekend, Iraqi forces said they had cleared IS from nearly 25 villages in Diyala Province, which runs along the Iranian border just north of Baghdad.

But in Kobane, it appears the reputation IS tried to build as an unstoppable force is in tatters. And its propaganda efforts are doing a lot to expand its circle of enemies.

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