Islamic State: blend of religious fervour and technical know-how makes a formidable foe

Iraqi forces liberate Tikrit. EPA/Ali Mohammed

At the end of G7, Barack Obama repeated his admission that the United States did not yet have a complete strategy for responding to IS. Republican opponents were quick to criticise him but few were prepared to say what should be done.

Some in US military circles believe an intensive air war can succeed, but not many, given that the months of air attacks have had so little effect. Indeed there is now an increasingly widespread view that one of the main effects of the air attacks has been to increase support for IS, ever ready to present itself as the guardian of Islam under attack from the “crusaders” of the far enemy and their cohorts from the apostate regimes in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East.

Even so, the Pentagon this week announced the deployment of another 450 US troops to assist the Iraqi army, taking the total to 3,550, less than four years after the US withdrew all its forces.

Later in the week, the chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, announced that the Pentagon was considering the establishment of a series of additional military bases which will add hundreds more US troops.

Until last month there was a view that IS was in retreat, much of this stemming from the Iraqi government’s retaking of Tikrit. That optimism has disappeared with the fall of Ramadi, the expansion of IS territorial control in Syria and the progress made by IS affiliates in northern Libya.

An air of reality is now intruding into US political thinking in the face of IS resilience, one year after the fall of Mosul and ten months after the start of the air war. US military sources claim to have killed 10,000 IS paramilitaries and to have hit many thousands of targets including oil wells and other sources of income, yet the impact has been small.

Explanations are now sought as to how IS has proved so resilient, especially as it appears to have completely supplanted al-Qaida right across the region.

One aid to this process is the slow stream of news coming out of how towns and cities under IS control are actually working. The indications are that there is rigid and even brutal control but this is in the context of functioning services ensuring adequate supplies of basic goods, regular tax collection, education and health systems working tolerably well, and local economic activity functioning even under air attack. Most important of all, there is order, with IS authorities able ensure that their bidding is done.

Casualties of the Iraqi army’s Tikrit offensive are buried in Najaf. EPA/Khider Abbas

To put it bluntly, IS is functioning and doing so with a considerable degree of competence while also fighting a bitter multi-front war. It looks like it is here to stay, but how is this being achieved?

Evolution of an enemy

The answer may lie in the way IS has evolved, and there are three components to this. One is the religious dimension dating back to al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) under Zarqawi in the mid-2000s, a determined and eschatological (looking beyond this life) movement that brooked no opposition but was fought head-on by US and UK special forces in an intense shadow war that peaked with Operation Arcadia in 2006, the year that Zarqawi himself was killed.

Thousands of the most determined AQI supporters died and well over 10,000 were imprisoned, but they included not just the religiously intense but also Ba’athists, many drawn from Saddam Hussein’s original elite forces that avoided direct conflict with the coalition in the early stages of the war in 2003.

Many thousands of the religious and secular elements were jailed for years, more than 20,000 in Camp Bucca alone. There a degree of unity of purpose was formed – a marriage of convenience between the two. Many were released from the US jails when US forces withdrew in 2011 and many of the hardliners that were transferred to Iraqi government prisons were later freed in spectacular AQI prison breaks in 2012 and 2013.

So if the first element was, and is, the religious dimension, the second is the huge experience of insurgency and urban warfare accumulated not just by the religious but also the secularists, a combination which persists to this day.

Supply of technocrats

It is the final element, though, that is commonly missed, and this is that IS seems to be able to draw on a substantial supply of technocrats well-versed in the systems of societal organisation and control that were such a feature of the Ba’athist rule of the Saddam Hussein era.

They know how to run towns and cities, how to control health, education, transport, social services, food distribution, power supplies and all the other elements that ensure a society functions. They do it with confidence and with high levels of control – and this is in towns and cities where the people at the top have a very close handle on what everyone is thinking and have the ability to ensure that their will is law.

It is this remarkable mix of intense and extreme religious motivation, with a secular Ba’athist element of hugely experienced paramilitary fighters and technocrats overlain by rigorous and brutal enforcement that makes IS so difficult to control. Add to this the symbolism of having created an actual geographical caliphate with its international attractiveness and we get a more complete idea of the problem being faced.

The US special forces people who talk of a 15-year war may well be underestimating the size of the problem they face, a problem that may require radically different approaches to those that have been adopted since IS forces took over Mosul a year ago.