Islamic State is far from defeated in Iraq and Syria, actively sending out messages to its extremists to revert to the terrorist group’s tactics of assassinations, bombs and ambushes.
The Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors jihadi chatter, reports that the orders have gone out in online publications and social media for a new way of fighting after the loss of the territory that protected the caliphate.
Other analysts are saying that, while the Iraqi government declared full liberation of all territories last month, Islamic remains adaptable and deadly.
“The end of the physical caliphate does not equal an end of the war or an end to their strategic goals,” retired Army Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, who led troops in Iraq, told The Washington Times.
Islamic State is the remnant of a semiconventional army of over 40,000 terrorists who rose up in Syria and invaded Iraq in 2014. But the organization still claims hundreds of fiercely committed fighters and thousands of loyalists in those two countries.
As evidence of its continued lethality, two suicide bombers on Jan. 15 simultaneously detonated explosive belts that killed over 35 people at a Baghdad square where day laborers gathered.
“ISIS has demonstrated its desire to return to its terrorist roots, with the bombings and attacks that have killed innocent civilians in Ramadi, Nasiriyah, Baghdad and elsewhere over the past several weeks,” Marine Corps Brig. Gen. James F. Glynn, deputy commander of special operations forces in the theater, told reporters a day after the Baghdad carnage.
Islamic State has been evicted by U.S.-backed forces from virtually all conquered territory in Iraq and Syria that it once controlled. Its new orders to its fighters hark back to the mid-2000s, when its predecessor, the Sunni Muslim al Qaeda in Iraq, unleashed a violent insurgency to topple the Shiite-dominated federal government in Baghdad.
“Now, in many ways, they’re just returning to their previous MO,” said Gen. Dubik, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War. “They’ve adapted, and they’ll be able to use their networks to try to reconstitute, rebuild leadership, recruit, retrain, resupply, replenish equipment and fund, just as they did in 2010-14.”
Islamic State has adopted brutal insurgency tactics as it seeks new territory in Libya, Egypt’s Sinai, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, among other countries.
MEMRI’s new report is titled “Official ISIS Sources: We Are Temporarily Changing Tactics, Opting for Guerrilla Warfare Such as Raids and Targeted Assassinations.”
“In light of the defeats suffered by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq over the past year, there has been a change in its military doctrine on the battlefield,” MEMRI analysts said. “In recent weeks, the organization has been using tactics characteristic of guerrilla warfare and temporarily abandoning the doctrine of conquering and holding large areas.”
The orders are contained in publications such as al-Naba, Islamic State’s weekly official magazine.
According to al-Naba, “ISIS fighters must perpetrate ambush-style killing campaigns in areas where there are concentrations of ‘idol-worshipping’ forces [Shiite militia] and ‘apostasy force’ [Iraq].”
Al-Naba, according to MEMRI, tells Islamic State commanders that they can count on a diminished number of U.S. and coalition aircraft, which played a crucial role in destroying Islamic State compounds, vehicles and fighter positions.
The magazine said that “lions” — its fighters -— “can now track them freely, kill them, or take them prisoner.”
This strategy, the publication said, is already in practice in the northern Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, as well as Diyala province, which includes Baghdad. Al-Naba called these three areas part of a “Death Triangle.”
A second article in al-Naba predicts that Islamic State will place more emphasis on organized raids in addition to car bombs and sniper fire.
As an instruction for these new orders to followers in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State released a photo that it said shows a fighter assassinating a local security officer in Yemen with a shot to the back of the head.
One day, the articles say, the mayhem will lead to Islamic State reclaiming the land it has lost.
“This is the perseverance of the soldiers of the caliphate,” according to MEMRI translation. “They only leave territory after they have hurt the apostates. And if they are forced to evacuate, then they return immediately to wear them down doubly.”
Al-Hayat daily, a pan-Arab newspaper, reports that this Islamic State strategy has produced an increase in assassination attempts against Shiite militia and tribal chiefs loyal to Baghdad.
Said Gen. Dubik, “Their goals remain the same, but realities of the U.S. campaign have forced a change of ways and means. They remain dangerous and still are a threat to the region and to us.”
Gen. Glynn said he would not describe Islamic State today as constituting a terrorist network or insurgency at this point.
“There are still remnants of ISIS who reside in a cellular structure who seek to bring instability to local areas, in particular population centers,” he said. “And that remains as it has for some time the focus of the Iraqi Security Forces and their counterterrorism forces specifically.
“This did not allow those elements to form into a network or something that could look like an insurgency …,” he added. “There’s no indicator of any coordination.”