Fighting Islamic State
It’s easy to find agreement that Islamic State is a menace. How to definitively defeat the group is a different story. After big chunks of Iraq and Syria fell to the group’s jihadists in 2014, the U.S. put together a coalition to fight them. Operation Inherent Resolve, officially engaging more than 60 nations, is a campaign of airstrikes and other efforts to back the Iraqi military forces and Syrian rebels fighting the group on the ground. The operation has begun to make gains. At the same time, Islamic State has become a wider threat, launching or inspiring terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S. and around the Muslim world.
Islamic State took credit for, was assigned blame for or appeared to inspire terrorist attacks in 2016 in countries including Bangladesh, Belgium, France, Germany, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. The group earlier had demonstrated its reach beyond the Muslim world by declaring responsibility for attacks in Paris in 2015. On the military front, Iraq’s military launched an offensive to retake Islamic State’s last major stronghold in the country, Mosul, in October. The next month in Syria, Kurdish forces supported by the U.S. began an operation to unseat the group from Raqqa, its headquarters in that country. The U.S. said in June that the group had lost 47 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria. Strategic victories, such as the retaking of the Iraqi city Fallujah in June, have been hard-won, however, and American commanders have said defeating Islamic State will take a decade or two. Fewer than 5,000 military personnel from the U.S. and 2,000 from elsewhere are deployed in Iraq. A few hundred more Americans are in Syria. The troops are mainly defined as noncombatants. Russia began airstrikes in 2015 against Islamic State in Syria, backing government forces. The U.S. stepped up airstrikes against the group in Libya in August.
Islamic State was established in Iraq as an affiliate of al-Qaeda in 2004. It attracted Sunnis rebelling against the occupation that followed the U.S.-led invasion the year before. When American forces toppled Saddam Hussein, the country's Sunni minority lost the dominant role it had held in his dictatorial regime. Like al-Qaeda, which eventually disowned it, Islamic State aims to create a purified Islamic society, but its methods differ. It openly targets Muslim civilians, especially Shiites, whom it considers heretics, but also fellow Sunnis who oppose it. Weakened in 2007 by a surge of U.S. troops combined with an organized Sunni backlash, the group revived with the 2011 departure of coalition forces. It honed its combat skills in the Syrian civil war that began the same year. In 2014, Islamic State began conquering Iraqi and Syrian cities and declared a caliphate, a state that claims dominion over all Muslims. Initially, many secular Sunnis in Iraq fought alongside the group or welcomed it as a way of opposing the Shiite-dominated central government and its record of oppressing other ethnic and religious factions.
Many analysts see Islamic State's expanded use of terrorism as an effort to appear strong when it's actually been weakened. The optimistic view is that the group will continue losing territory. That should undermine its ability to attract followers, since its unique selling point has been the establishment of a pseudo-state. On the other hand, challenging battles lie ahead for the remaining Islamic State strongholds. Critics argue that world powers and Mideast nations aren’t doing enough to defeat Islamic State. Donald Trump, elected in November to be the next American president, says that under his administration, the U.S. will be more aggressive. He hasn't spelled out a new military plan, however. Some analysts think bringing Iraq's Sunnis into the fight again is critical to crushing Islamic State. Their willingness to join, however, depends on whether the Shiite-led central government can reach an accommodation with Sunnis that has eluded the country since the U.S. invasion.
The Reference Shelf
- A paper by the Institute for the Study of War proposes an alternative strategy to defeat Islamic State.
- A Congressional Research Service report details U.S. policy toward Islamic State.
- Bloomberg QuickTakes provide overviews of Iraq’s Brittle Nationhood, Iraq’s Oil, Al-Qaeda’s Heirs, Jihad and Syria’s Civil War.
- The New York Times maps attacks directed and inspired by Islamic State around the world.
First published April 30, 2015
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