By Brian Glyn Williams | (Informed Comment) | – –
The Destruction of the Dream of Extremist Warfare, 2014-2017
On Saturday the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al Abadi, announced that the last remnants of Iraq territory had been liberated from ISIL and proclaimed “Dear Iraqis, your land has been completely liberated, and your towns and villages have been returned to the homeland. The dream of liberation became a reality. ISIL dream has come to an end.” It was only three and half years ago that the dream of the so-called “Islamic State group” (ISIS, ISIL, IS) dream.
In June 2014, ISIL leader Abu-Bakr al- Baghdadi stunned the world by mounting the pulpit of the medieval al Nouri Mosque located in the old section of Mosul, the largest city conquered by the hybrid terrorist-army group, and declaring himself Caliph. As the “successor of the Prophet” and “Shadow of God on Earth” his spokesmen declared it was incumbent on Muslims around the world to migrate to the newly proclaimed holy state. Tens of thousands of Muslims from Europe, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East, North America and Africa partook in hijra, religious migration, to this utopian theocracy in the desert. Their dream was to establish a “divine state” where Allah’s laws prevailed, not man’s. Those forging the state at the barrel of a gun emulated the glory of the Medieval Abbasid Caliphates who ruled an empire stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
But the “Caliphate” established by al- Baghdadi, and his fanatical followers was more akin to the terrorist movement of the medieval Kharijites (a fanatical group that terrorized the Muslim world in the aftermath of the Prophet Mohammed’s death) or the Hashisihuns (the medieval Ismaili Shiite sect known as the Assassins), than the glorious Caliphate of the Abbasid Dynasty based in Baghdad. ISIL’s capital of Raqqa in the north central Syrian desert was a heart of darkness whose main square was routinely festooned with the decapitated heads of “sinners, sorcerers, apostates, infidels, fornicators, thieves and the enemies of God.” Raqqa was a far cry from the court in Baghdad of the famed Medieval caliph, Harun al Rashid who briefly held his court in this very city.
But for all of its depravity, the ISIL caliphate, which stretched from the Turkish-Syrian border at Jarabalus, down the Euphrates valley through northeastern Syria and into the Sunni lands in western Iraq, and up to Mosul in the north, had economic clout stemming from its control of the rich oil fields in eastern Syria’s Deir es Zor province, taxation of the eight million inhabitants in its Britain-sized territory, and criminal activity. At its height, the ISIL theocracy also deployed an army of as many as 40,000 fighters who were far more willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause and incur losses to win battles than the famed Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces who had become something of a “checkpoint army” since their liberation from Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi army was riven with sectarianism and filled with “ghost soldiers” (soldiers who paid half their salary to their commander stay at home). For its part, the Syrian Army was engaged in a desperate struggle for survival against Sunni rebels in western Syria and was similarly incapable of fending off the ISIL conquests in the north and east. Other more moderate Sunni rebel groups in Syria lacked ISIL’s numbers, organization and ferocity, and the 2 million Kurds in northern Syria had only light weapons and no record of military experience thus far.
The last factor, the untried nature of the Kurds of northern Syria, was, however, about to change in the fall of 2014 and winter of 2015 when the “ever expanding ISIL caliphate” pushed north into their homeland known as Rojava (the Land of the Setting Sun). Rojava was made up of three enclaves known as Hasakah, Kobane, in the east, and the isolated enclave Afrin in the far west. It was here that President Obama decided to make a stand against the expanding ISIL terror state and commenced a surrogate war known as Operation Inherent Resolve. This campaign involved using local proxies on the ground as “firemen” to put out the ISIL inferno that was spreading across the region, instead of redeploying division-sized forces to the killings sands of the Middle East. In the war Obama envisioned, it was to be the Kurds and the Arabs who would plunge into the back alleys of hellholes like Fallujah or the vast Syrian desert to fight ISIL, not American troops.
Central Command planned on using the tactics perfected by Green Beret commander Colonel John Mulholland in Afghanistan in 2001. It was Mulholland who leveraged local Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara anti-Taliban rebels to overthrow the Pashtun Taliban with the support of special force combat controllers (i.e. spotters armed with laser target designators for bombers). President Obama and Central Command made the bold decision to ignore Turkey’s fear of PKK Kurdish secession in its eastern provinces and arm and support the PKK-linked Syrian Kurds as a surrogate force.
The alliance between the untried Socialist Kurds who had thousands of female fighters in their ranks and the US was to be resoundingly successful in turning the ISIL tide. In a seesawing battle for the defense of Kobane, the “Kurdish Stalingrad”, the Kurdish fighters, supported by American GPS and laser guided bombs and armed with U.S. light infantry weapons, crushed ISIL’s dream of expanding northward in a bloody five month battle that was watched by the world.
Having repulsed the seemingly unstoppable ISIL war machine by January 2015, the Syrian Kurds, who were led by war-hardened PKK Kurdish commanders from Turkey, gathered momentum (and disgruntled Christian and Muslim Arabs) and moved in a southeasterly direction down the Euphrates valley conquering ISIL lands from 2015 to the fall of 2017. With an initial 500 American “training and assisting” boots on the ground, later supported by Marine artillery units armed with 155 millimeter artillery, howitzers and HIMARs (satellite guided cannons that shoot small shells) the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) finally liberated the ISIL capital of Raqqa on October 17, 2017. By this time, the Kurds had been given heavier weaponry to help them engage urban warfare and the number of US troops in Syria had risen to 2,000. At the same time, the Syrian Army liberated much of the province of Deir es Zor in the east and the two forces, one backed by the US and one by Russia, are currently squaring off, much as the Soviets and Americans did after defeating the Nazis in Berlin.
Meanwhile, in the ISIL-occupied Sunni lands of western and northern Iraq, U.S. Green Berets from the 5th Group and Navy SEALs worked with Iraqi Army troops, especially the revamped special forces, to retake the heartland of what was once known as the Sunni Triangle; namely the cities Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit and Baiji, in 2016. From there, the Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias loosely aligned to the Iraqi government moved up the Tigris river to attack the great ISIL bastion of Mosul, home to 2 million people.
The ISIL fighters had had three years to turn Mosul into a fortress and had created street-by-street barriers made up of piled cars and concrete berms and they had blasted holes through the walls of connecting houses to create passageways for their fighters. In addition, they had mined streets and fields with IEDs, created sniper overwatches on buildings, purchased hundreds of drones to be used to drop grenades and IEDs on the enemy, and had trained hundreds of suicide bombers to drive SVBIEDs (suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices) into invading troops. To compound matters, they had corralled hundreds of thousands of Mosul’s civilians to be used as human shields.
Arrayed against the ISIL force of approximately 15,000 fanatical fighters dug into Mosul was a jostling coalition of 50,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from the semi-independent Kurdistan in the northeast of Iraq, Iranian backed PMU (Popular Mobilization Unit) militias, and Iraqi security forces. These local forces were backed up by as many as 5,000 U.S. troops who supported the Kurds and Arabs with HIMARs from Qayyarah West Airfield to the south. On the front lines, Green Beret, Air Force Special Operation and Navy Seal “Ghost Soldiers” served as JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers i.e. spotters to call in “air artillery” from U.S. aircraft).
In a battle known as “Operation Nineveh We Are Coming,” that began on October 16th, 2016 the U.S.-supported Coalition moved first into east Mosul and fought predominately foreign fighters protecting the more modern half of the city located on the Western banks of the Tigris. Having taking this half of the city in fierce street fighting that took a heavy toll on both sides, the Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed militias fought their way through the labyrinth of winding streets that made up the older western half of the city (the Kurds had halted their advance on the eastern edges of this city the Iraqi that government claimed as part of a previous agreement).
Finally, in late June of 2017, the Iraqi President Haider al Abadi announced that the Al- Nouri Mosque, the very site of “Caliph Baghdadi’s” triumphant declaration of the Caliphate three years earlier in June 2014, and the city of Mosul had fallen. Iraqi troops then liberated the remaining ISIL held cities of Tel Afar, Hawija, al Qaim and Rawa in northern Iraq by mid November 2017. Al Baghdadi a.k.a. “God’s Shadow on Earth” was last seen ignominiously driving into the vast Syrian desert in a yellow taxi cab after exhorting his remaining followers to fight to death to hold the last two ISIL towns in western Iraq, al Qaim and Rawa.
Thus the quixotic dream of the Extremists was overthrown in three and half years and the physical state that Baghdadi and his followers were so proud of having created (and having thus superseded Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda) was no more. President Obama was resoundingly vindicated in his “standoff” approach to proxy war, despite the attacks of his Republican critics who claimed he had engaged in “retrenchment” and had “let the Middle East burn.” During my journeys to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016 and 2017, I found widespread appreciation for “Obomba” among Kurdish troops on the frontlines facing Mosul, and in Syria it was common for Kurds to name their children Obama. Central Command’s policy of working “by with and through” local forces had been a resounding success and it had not taken the tens of thousands of troops Obama’s critics had
ISIL has now been rolled back and destroyed at the cost of less than a dozen American combat KIAs (Killed in Action) and at a cost of just $10.7 billion dollars (compared to approximately 4,500 Americans and $3 trillion resulting from President Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom). As the extremists’ bodies are bulldozed into the ruins of booby-trapped basements and houses in Mosul, ancient Yazidi worshippers of pre-Abrahamic gods (who were defined as “devil worshippers” by ISIL) are freed, cult-like misinterpretations of Muslimlaws overturned, religious police and ISIL members imprisoned, one burning question remains; has the genie of ISIL been banished to the wastelands of the Syrian desert where approximately 3,000 fighters are said to be holding out?
Extremist warfare From the Ashes: The Continuing Threat of ISIL
Sadly, the almost Phoenix-like ability of the Arab Sunni extremists to arise from the ashes of their 2007-2008 US defeat at the hands of General David Petraeus’ troop surge (and Sunni Anbar Awakening) would seem to indicate that the underlying tensions that created smoldering fires of Sunni resentment can be fanned again, if conditions are right. For example, if the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that played such a key role in the liberation of Sunni cities in Iraq (whose fighters are more loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei than the Iraqi government), engage in anti-Sunni sectarian activities. There is also the fear that the millions of young Sunnis who lived in the caliphate and were indoctrinated as the “cubs of the Caliphate” for three and a half years have embraced the anti-Rafidah (a hateful name for Shiite) policies of ISIL. To compound matters, approximately 3 million people remain displaced in Iraq and the vast majority of them are Sunnis who feel that they can expect little help from their own Shiite-dominated government. One of these bemoaned his sect’s plight in November 2017 stating “We are now a displaced people, a completely marginalized people — and it’s getting worse by the day. We have a corrupt government controlled by a foreign power [Iran], at the expense of Sunnis.”
The burning issue that originally galvanized the awakening of Iraqi extremist warfare in the form of Al Qaeda in Iraq/ISIL (i.e. the disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion) has been tampered, for the time being, by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi’s outreach to Sunnis. Abadi has attempted to undo the damage done by his predecessor, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who repressed Sunnis after the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal. But power still evades the long-ruling Sunnis’ grasp and deep grievances remain as Shiites are in power in Baghdad and Alawites in Damascus, two famed centers of the Sunni Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates. Many Sunnis do not feel that they have a stake in the democratic (but Shiite-dominated) Iraq the US created in 2003 or in Assad’s Syria.
As the defeated survivors of the collapse of the short-lived dawla (Islamic state) retreat and re-calibrate to insurgency mode, the dream of the re-establishment of Sunni rule and a holy state with roots in the Middle Ages remains. There is still a vast insurgent network in Iraq’s Sunni lands whose followers think not in day-to-day terms, but in millennial terms. For them, this is a generational struggle and, much like the resilient Taliban who boldly proclaimed “America might have the watches, but we have time,” their grievances will be passed on to a new generation.
ISIL had clearly mutated back to its original insurgency mode and its resilient historical re-enactors take inspiration from the Quran and hadiths (saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammad). Its followers seek the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and even accept that their “holy” movement will come close to extinction, before returning to power. ISIL members take heart in these words of the Prophet “A victorious band of warriors from my followers shall continue to fight for the truth, despite being deserted and abandoned, they will be at the gates of Jerusalem and its surroundings, and they will be at the gates of Damascus and its surroundings.”
The resilient nature of the Islamist militant jinn that was unleashed by 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the continued nature of the threat posed by what is now “ISILism” as an idea or ideology, is best demonstrated by three recent events that represent the triad of post-Caliphate Assault (whirlwind attack) threats posed by the down-but-far-from-beaten Sunni extremists. Below are three ways ISIL will continue to terrorize, even though their state has been “degraded and destroyed” by Kurdish SDF fighters, U.S. combat controllers, Iraqi Golden Division Special Forces, Iranian Revolutionary Guard-trained Iraqi militias, and Kurdish Peshmergas.
Insurgent Assaults. In September 2017, as their capital was about to fall, ISIL announced that it would switch from frontal warfare back to a war of attrition based on guerilla attacks and traditional insurgent tactics. Soon thereafter, on September 14th 2017, ISIL militants dressed as Iraqi Army soldiers struck to the south in the Shiite city of Nasariya and attacked a checkpoint far from their northern Iraqi Sunni lands. There, they slaughtered 74 Shiites, many of them Iranians who had begun to travel and work extensively in post 2003 Iraq. This attack demonstrated to all that the Sunni insurgent demon created by Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2003 to fight the American invaders and Shiites was alive and well, despite the loss of the Caliphate.
Meanwhile, in northern Syria, on October 23, 2017, six days after Raqqa fell, ISIL militants stormed into the town of Qaryatayn and killed as many as 116 residents whom they accused of being collaborators with the Kurds and Syrian government. The militants had a “kill list” and went from door to door executing “traitors to Islam” in cold blood. Later in early November 2017, ISIL fighters launched a surprise counter-attack on the town of Albu Kamal in eastern Syria which has been their final stronghold in that country.
These incidents would indicate that ISIL will continue to wage insurgent/terror war in its original base in Iraq and to a lesser extent in eastern Syria.
Affiliate Assaults. On October 3, 2017, at roughly the time Raqqa fell to the SDF Kurds and Arabs in central Syria, hundreds of miles away ISIL would achieve its single greatest battlefield victory over America. Having been denied the opportunity to kill large numbers of Americans in Iraq and Syria due to the prudent nature of the proxy war strategy waged by Obama since 2014 and continued by Trump for the last nine months, ISIL carried out an ambush on U.S. forces operating in the massive, eastern African country of Niger.
There, an ISIL affiliate or ‘franchise’ known as The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara led by an amir named Adnan Sahwari launched an ambush on a 12 man Green Beret A-Team carrying out a reconnaissance mission alongside 30 Nigerien troops in a hostile village known as Tongo Tongo. In the ambush, four Green Beret Special Forces were killed, along with five Nigerien troops, by approximately 50 ISIL fighters driving “technicals” (pickup trucks with anti-aircraft mounted guns in the rear bed) and armed with rocket propelled grenades, and automatic rifles.
In the following month, an ISIL affiliate in Afghanistan (the Wilayat al Khorosan or Afghan Province) suicide bomber tried infiltrating a wedding in Kabul on November 16th. When he was stopped by police at the entrance to the wedding hall, he detonated his bomb and killed eight policemen and two civilians. The target of the bombing was an opposition politician in attendance at the wedding. This attack had been proceeded by an ISIL suicide storming of one of Afghanistan’s most popular television channels, Shamshad, which killed several staff members and put it off the air. An ISIL suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque a few weeks earlier left 20 dead.
But the death toll from the ISIL affiliate attacks in Afghanistan and Niger paled in comparison to that stemming from the ISIL Sinai franchise slaughter of 309 Sufi Muslims belonging to a mystic order known as the Jarirya. Condemning the Jariryas as “sorcerers,” the terrorists attacked their main mosque, known as the al Rawda, in four trucks flying the ISIL banner. They set off bombs, mowed down panicked worshipers with automatic weapons, and even shot at ambulances arriving to assist the wounded. When the carnage was over 27 children were among the dead and 128 were injured in Egypt’s deadliest terror attack.
The death of the American Green Berets in an African land hundreds of miles to west of Raqqa, of Sufi Muslims far to the south, and of Afghans hundreds of miles to its east, shows how far ISIL’s ideology has spread. ISIL “force multipliers” have been very successful in “grafting” their tactics and ideology onto pre-existing, but often previously less radical movements. The violent dream of ISIL will continue to inspire local groups or loosely affiliated cells to join the umbrella organization/cause and carry out extremist warfare in Africa and Eurasia, despite the fall of what Iraqi President Abadi called “the false Caliphate.”
Lone wolf terror Assaults. On Halloween day 2017, an Uzbekistani immigrant to America, who had had the good fortune of winning the green card lottery and becoming a legal resident, paid back his new American hosts by plowing a rented truck through dozens of bicyclists cycling on a bike path near the new One World Trade Center. Eight riders and pedestrians were killed in the nearly mile long rampage and many more injured before Sayfullo Saipov was shot and arrested after chanting “Allahu Akbar!” He left a note in his car declaring his allegiance to ISIL and proclaimed that the Caliphate was “enduring,” despite its loss of a state, and asked for an ISIL banner to be hung in his hospital room.
In this sense, Saipov, a “self-starter” armchair extremist who had not been trained or dispatched to attack the US by ISIL, was sadly correct. A second attack took place on the New York subway on the morning of December 11 2017 when a Bangladeshi immigrant with no criminal history set off an improvised explosive device. While no one was killed in the failed bombing due to a problem with the pipe bomb, had it gone off in the rush hour commute the results could have been far worse.
The poisonous message of the terror caliphate endures online and its extremist warfare ‘after-life’ means that it is in many ways ‘non-biodegradable.’ An Al Qaeda affiliate known as al-Qastantiyyah recently captured the hate of ISIL members that still circulates on the internet when one of its members posted a message which read “I wish that I could travel to Europe or America or Australia and, by Allah, burn their children with oil in place of their men and women. I would not choose a market, club, shopping center, or park…no… no…no…I would choose a kindergarten and a maternity hospital to slaughter them.”
Internet-enabled self-starters whom ISIL describes as “soldiers of the Caliphate,” like the ones who carried out attacks in Nice, Manchester, San Bernardino, Orlando and Manhattan, will most likely continue. Recent history, including the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, would seem to indicate that there are plenty of grievances to galvanize new attacks. The odds are high that there will be more “lone wolf” or “wolf pack” cell extremists who answer the chilling online call to action by an ISIL spokesman on December 4, 2017:
O monotheists, you have enough time to equip your car and run over them or buy a knife to stab them or filling your weapon with ammunition or if your soul rejects all of that, engulf in their crowds and shout Allah Akbar, God is the Great
The Challenges of a Post-Caliphate War on ISIL
When President Trump heard about the October 2017 “do it yourself” terror attack in Manhattan by Sayfullo Saipov, he tweeted “ISIL just claimed the degenerate animal who killed, and so badly wounded, the wonderful people on the West Side, was ‘their soldier.’ Based on that, the military has hit ISIL ‘much harder’ over the last two days. They will pay a big price for every attack on us!” Trump later told reporters that “every time we are attacked from this point forward…we are hitting them 10 times harder.”
But by this time, there were very few targets left for U.S. bombers to hit as the ISIL state had been all but destroyed. And this demonstrates the frustrating nature of counterterrorism when it involves an idea that inspires and radicalizes men like Saipov who do not appear on the FBI’s radar and cannot be killed with laser guided munitions in Syria. There are ongoing counter terrorism investigations of suspected ISIL sympathizers in all fifty states, but this has not prevented “soldiers of the Caliphate” from carrying out “self-starter” mayhem from San Bernardino, California to Orlando, Florida to New York. No amount of GPS-guided munitions or wiretapping can prevent home grown radicals from one day deciding to drive a truck into crowds of innocents as has been done in Nice, London, New York and Berlin.
The shamal (desert winds) of hate spawned by the 2003 American toppling of the ruling Sunnis from power and rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq/ISIL, will continue to swirl around the world inspiring fanatical rage among armchair extremists, affiliates, and insurgents in Syria and Iraq, regardless of the defeat of the physical state. The Bush administration and the Neo-Con schemers dreamed of spreading Jeffersonian democracy across the Islamic world when they blundered into Iraq, but their plan to sow the seeds of democracy inadvertently reaped the whirlwind of extremist warfare which has killed tens of thousands.
The assaults that were sown by the 2003 toppling of Iraq’s centuries-old Sunni rule will continue to gust across the Islamic world from the ISIL-related insurgency in Mindanao, Philippines, to Niger in western Africa, to the Sinai (where the most active branch of ISIL remains), to Libya, and Europe. They will most likely buffet the shores of distant North America again as well. Tragically, it seems likely that the storm winds of extremist warfare will continue to be unleashed by ISIL sleeper cells, lone-wolves, battle hardened “franchisers,” and desert insurgents who will fulfill one of “Caliph” Ibrahim/Al Baghdadi’s final, hate-filled commands, “Turn the nights of the unbelievers into days. Wreak havoc in their land…and make their blood flow as rivers.”
Professor Brian Glyn Williams is author of Counter Extremist warfare. The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (December 2016) and worked for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center and U.S. Army in Afghanistan. His website can be found at: brianglynwilliams.com
This article was done with the assistance of Robert Troy Souza, Allan Pilch and Robert Young Pelton.
 “As ISIL is Driven from Iraq, Sunnis Remain Alienated.” New York Times. October 26, 2017.
Related video added by Juan Cole: