Islamic State: US airstrikes, internal divisions take toll on militants

Oil revenues are declining and the flow of foreign jihadists may be slowing. Airstrikes in Syria by a US-led coalition come as Iraqi forces continue to battle IS in northern Iraq. 

Thaier Al-Sudani/REUTERS
Smoke rises from a vehicle belonging to the Islamic state militants on the outskirt of al-Alam March 8, 2015. Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militia fighting the Islamic State took control of the center of a town on the southern outskirts of Saddam Hussein's home city Tikrit on Sunday, security officials said.

Reports of new attacks in territory held by the self-declared Islamic State suggest that the jihadist group may be struggling to maintain its infrastructure and that its supply of volunteer fighters could be starting to thin.

Airstrikes carried out by the US-led coalition against IS hit an IS-run oil refinery near the town of Tal Abyad (Tell Abyad) on the Syrian-Turkish border Monday, killing 30 IS soldiers and refinery workers, reports The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group. 

Reuters reports that such attacks have cut the militant group's oil revenue, which in November was estimated by the UN to be between $850,000 and $1.5 million per day. Between airstrikes and a global supply glut, oil is no longer the primary source of income for IS, the Pentagon believes.

The Observatory also reported on Sunday that at least 12 IS fighters were killed in a pair of attacks by unknown guerrilla fighters in al-Myadin (Al Mayadin), a city in eastern Syria. The guerrillas, riding motorbikes, struck an IS patrol in the city, killing a dozen, before attacking another IS post, killing an unknown number of additional IS militants.

The Washington Post reports that such attacks on IS within its own territory are becoming increasingly common. The Post is quick to note that the reports "don’t offer any indication that the group faces an immediate challenge to its stranglehold over the mostly Sunni provinces of eastern Syria and western Iraq." But the uptick in both fighting between various factions within IS and guerrilla attacks against the group suggest that IS is struggling to maintain its grip.

“The key challenge facing ISIS right now is more internal than external,” [Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut] said, using another term for the group. “We’re seeing basically a failure of the central tenet of ISIS ideology, which is to unify people of different origins under the caliphate. This is not working on the ground. It is making them less effective in governing and less effective in military operations.”

Most striking are the growing signs of friction between the foreigners lured by its state-building experiment and local recruits, who have grown resentful of the preferential treatment meted out to the expatriates, including higher salaries and better living conditions.

Foreign fighters get to live in the cities, where coalition airstrikes are relatively rare because of the risk of civilian casualties, while Syrian fighters are required to serve in rural outposts more vulnerable to attacks, said an activist who opposes the Islamic State and lives in the town of Abu Kamal on Syria’s border with Iraq. The activist spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Post adds that there are signs that some foreign IS jihadis are attempting to flee the region, according to activists on the Syrian–Turkey border. One activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, reports that IS has implemented a series of clampdowns on travel out of its territory. And the Syrian Observatory notes that some 120 IS fighters have been publicly executed in recent weeks. The fighters allegedly were killed for infractions like spying, but are suspected of having tried to flee IS territory.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that Islamic State had imposed a nighttime curfew at the border in Tell Abyad in an attempt to curb defections and prevent anyone crossing into Turkey. 

According to residents, the entrances and exits to Raqqa and Tell Abyad – the group's Syrian strongholds – are tightly controlled, with militants inspecting all vehicle contents, scrutinizing ID cards, and poring over photos and messages in the cellphones of passengers. Any reference to Daesh, an Arabic term for IS that the group considers pejorative, in a found e-mail or text message is enough to land a person in detention, say residents. 

“It is clear that they are stressed out,” says Abu Omar, a Syrian smuggler based in the border town of Tell Abyad who has working ties with the group. “They slapped a night-time curfew two weeks ago, and now there are checkpoints and [mobile] checkpoints everywhere in the heart of the city and on all the roads leading out.”

The Sunday Telegraph reported that of some 700 "dangerous" Britons who traveled to Syria to fight for IS, about 320 have returned home. The Telegraph adds that the flow of volunteers going to Syria from Britain has “significantly slackened” according to government authorities, as those seeking to fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have found themselves disillusioned by IS barbarity.

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