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ISIS on backfoot: Coalition gets al-Baghdadi

Sandhya Jain is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. The current Essay is part of her ongoing research on Balochistan province of Pakistan. The views expressed are personal.
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  • November 11, 2014

    Even as the world learnt with surprise that US President Barack Obama has reached out to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for a nuclear deal and help in fighting the Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham (Daesh, or Islamic State), there are startling reports that self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was critically wounded and possibly dead in an airstrike near the Iraqi city of Mosul, close to the Syrian border.

    After hours of suspense, confirmation came late Monday/early Tuesday via a Twitter account affiliated with Daesh-affiliated Al-I’tisaam Media, which said it would give details about the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his succession. The news was first relayed by the Iran Government-owned Al Alam network, and then reported by, a website affiliated with Daesh.

    Late Friday night (November 7), the US-led coalition hit a house and 10-truck convoy in the western Iraqi town of al-Qaim, near Mosul. Top Daesh leaders, including the ‘caliph’, were said to be in the convoy. Though 50 deaths were confirmed by Mosul morgue officials, there was silence on the whereabouts and condition of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Washington had put a bounty of $10 million for his capture.

    Late Sunday (November 10), it was confirmed that al-Baghdadi’s senior aide, Abdur Rahman al-Athaee (Abu Sajar), was killed in the Friday raid. Others who died include Daesh leader in Anbar province, Adnan Latif al-Suweidi, and leader in the Euphrates valley, Bashar al-Muhandi.

    Given al-Athaee’s close proximity with al-Baghdadi, experts felt it fairly certain that the two men were in the convoy together, though US Central Command said it could not be confirmed if he was present in the convoy at all. Political analysts pointed out that it would be difficult to keep the death a secret. The ‘caliph’ was last seen in public at a mosque in Mosul in July. Other jihadi groups maintained silence on the episode.

    The US Central Command said that from late Friday, air strikes targetted Daesh leaders near Mosul, the town whose capture in June catapulted it to instant fame, with a view to limit its ability to move about, communicate, and commit acts of terror. It is possible the convoy was fleeing to a safer place when it came under fire. Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath news channels quoted unnamed sources saying that al-Baghdadi was killed in the raid; the Iraqi government said it would try to confirm the news (since announced the Daesh itself in an effort to rally the ranks).

    Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death could prove a serious setback to Daesh as it is different from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that did not proclaim a ‘caliphate’. The history of Islam shows that the proclamation of a new ‘caliph’ can be problematic; al-Baghdadi’s elimination so early in his tenure will certainly impact the status of the new ‘caliph’ and the overall ranking of Daesh among the various jihadi groups in the region.

    Intelligence analysts say that the reaction of militant groups that had pledged allegiance to the ‘caliph’ will have to be watched closely. Despite the uncertainty over the death of al-Baghdadi, the Sinai-based Egyptian militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on Sunday. Baghdadi’s death could trigger revenge attacks against small ethnicities (such as the Albu Nimr tribe that resisted Daesh’s advance in Hit town of Anbar province, Iraq) and Christians in the region, even ‘lone wolf’ strikes in Europe and America. Alternately, it could benefit older militant outfits like al Qaeda that distrusted al-Baghdadi. The Sunni tribes and Syrian rebel outfits that did not join the Daesh could attack it. But, as Daesh still commands considerable funds, it may regroup and win new adherents. The airstrike could also compromise the security of countries like Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt, and Arab states will have to beef up their security and flush out extremists within their borders.

    Al-Qaim and the adjacent Syrian town Albukamal were targetted as they lay on a strategic supply route. Initial reports suggest that several dozen civilians died and many were injured. As both the Daesh and local people rushed victims to al-Qaim hospital, it was unable to cope. Witnesses said the militants cleared a local hospital to treat their wounded and used loudspeakers to urge residents to donate blood (it is not clear if they commandeered the al-Qaim hospital for themselves; if so, the civilian casualties could be higher).

    Events over the past week suggest that the apparently invincible Daesh is on the backfoot as the international coalition against it begins to make an impact. At the same time, previously defeated communities have regrouped and begun to fight back. In Iraq’s Salahuddin province, the local Shi’ite militias joined hands with Government security forces to confront the Islamic State near Beiji town, which houses Iraq’s largest oil refinery. This forced it to change its modus operandi by moving its military bases and hospitals into civilian homes that are difficult to identity and attack from the air, and making its convoys smaller for the same reason.

    But the tide has turned. Observers point out that the Daesh drew its strength from poor, Sunni Arab neighbourhoods that felt alienated from the regimes and rebelled against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq. This gave it the initial stunning successes in Iraq, but it soon exhausted the potential of these areas and failed to capture areas with non-Sunni populations. It spread its wings in Syria, but encountered fierce resistance from rival rebel groups there. Without support from the local populations, it could not make further inroads in either country.

    Once the US-led coalition started bombing Iraq in August, the Islamic State began to lose ground. The fight by Iraqi government units, Kurdish peshmerga, Shiite militias and armed Sunni tribesmen who seized the Rabia crossing with Syria, recaptured Zumar in the north and Jurf al-Sakr south of Baghdad, and opened crucial roads in the country’s center, staved off Daesh advances. More importantly, they fractured the territory held by Daesh and disrupted its operations.

    Although a militant Sunni outfit, Daesh was unacceptable to many Sunni peoples who helped the security forces – for instance in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad – to cut its supply lines and killed several of its local leaders. This made it possible for Iraqi military vehicles to drive from Baghdad to the Kurdish city of Irbil on a main highway, for the first time since the capture of Mosul in June.

    In Syria, the Daesh still holds the territory it captured, but the air raids have forced it to quit the government buildings it occupied in Raqqa city. The targetting of oil wells and small refineries seized by Daesh have hit its war chest. Since the past week, Daesh has been fighting for control of natural gas fields in Homs province.

    But as Daesh makes its convoys smaller and strives for invisibility from airstrikes, it will be even more difficult to exterminate without boots on the ground. Washington’s plan to use proxies to fight the Daesh in Syria flopped after Jabhat al-Nusra jihadis (partly aligned with Daesh) forced the US-favoured Jamal Maarouf of the Syrian Revolutionary Front to quit his Idlib stronghold last weekend. This has fueled anger against the United States amongst the anti-Assad rebels who expected more overt support from Washington.

    President Obama, however, agreed to send 1500 US troops, in addition to 1600 military advisers already present in Iraq, to train and assist the Iraq forces to beat back the jihadis and reclaim all territory seized by them. The new surge, President Obama told Face The Nation on CBS, “signals a new phase” in the campaign against Islamic State. He clarified that the US troops would not engage in combat, but would help train and equip Iraqi troops and some Sunni tribes still resisting the jihadi group, and help them with strategy and logistics. Early Tuesday (November 11), following confirmation of the death of al-Baghdadi, 50 US forces arrived at the Al-Asad Air Base in the western Anbar province; more are expected in coming weeks.

    Daesh is also on the defensive in Kobane, where it failed to take the town after weeks of intense fighting. Last weekend, Kurdish Peshmerga forces from northern Iraq entered Kobane, bringing two heavy field guns via Turkey, and turned the tide, though the Islamic State is still holding on to nearly half the town.

    Kobane is now Daesh’s decisive battleground. On the one hand, the jihadis are fighting the Kurds in a bitter do-or-die struggle for control of the crucial town. On the other hand they are fighting for victory against the United States that entered this fight very late and very reluctantly, in response to global pressure. America helped the Kurds beat back the Daesh from Irbil, Iraq, in August. If Daesh manages to capture Kobane from the Kurds, it will mean the victory of their ultra-extremist version of Islam, with no leeway for humanism, women’s rights, or any modern sensibility.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India