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Fighting Islamic State

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Islamic State stunned the world when its jihadist fighters swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014, conquering large chunks of territory. The proto-state it established in the two countries has collapsed now, with the fall of the group’s major strongholds. But completely defeating Islamic State and like-minded extremists is a larger challenge. The group has repeatedly shown that it can inspire terrorist attacks around the world without orchestrating them from a central headquarters. And jihadist groups have demonstrated a capacity to metastasize and to be reborn after past routs in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The Situation

In November, advances by Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, and Iraqi forces, supported by a U.S.-led coalition, pushed the remaining Islamic State fighters into an ever smaller area along the Iraq-Syria border. The previous month, U.S.-backed Syrian rebel fighters declared victory over Islamic State in its self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria. The group had lost control over Mosul, its most important stronghold in Iraq, three months before that. The U.S.-led operation against Islamic State, officially engaging more than 60 nations, combines airstrikes with support for the Iraqi military forces and Syrian rebels fighting the group on the ground. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has delegated more authority to its field commanders, increased airstrikes and adopted rules to prevent Islamic State fighters from escaping battles. In a separate campaign, Russia began bombing Islamic State in 2015 in Syria, backing government forces. Even as Islamic State has lost terrain, it’s become a wider threat, launching or inspiring terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S. and around the Muslim world. 

The Widening Threat of Islamic State

The Background

The group that eventually morphed into Islamic State was established in Iraq in 2004. It was originally an affiliate of al-Qaeda, the jihadist movement whose leaders the U.S. had driven from Afghanistan after they orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks. The new group attracted Sunni Muslims rebelling against the occupation that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. 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, as well as 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. Using the internet to recruit, it attracted tens of thousands of Muslims from all over the world as fighters in its cause. In the areas under its control, Islamic State has practiced systematic violence — including abduction, sexual enslavement, torture and murder. A United Nations panel concluded it was guilty of genocide against the Yazidi minority.

The Argument

Trump’s changes to the battle plan against Islamic State have produced a blunter use of force in Iraq and Syria, for better and worse. Freeing commanders of the need for high-level approval for even tactical movements has enabled them to take better advantage of changing battlefield conditions, military officials have said. But ending the requirement — imposed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama — means actions are less scrutinized for their potential to harm civilians. Refusing to let jihadists retreat, U.S. officials say, ensures foreign fighters won’t return to their home countries to commit acts of terrorism. Yet it may also endanger civilians. Under Obama, coalition officials cited the need to protect civilians — for instance when they were mixed in with retreating jihadists — when on occasion they allowed Islamic State fighters to slip away. Since Trump took office, reports of civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have risen significantly, beyond the increase in the strikes themselves. Trump’s approach may be achieving results faster, but critics say it is generating ill will among Muslims and breeding the next crop of jihadists.

The Reference Shelf

    First published April 30, 2015

    To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
    Lisa Beyer in New York at

    To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
    Leah Harrison at

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