TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Strategic Advances
May 26, 2015

The Islamic State’s Strategic Advances

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• An attack on a Shi’a mosque in Saudi Arabia could signal further Islamic State action outside Iraq and Syria

• But inside those two countries, the Islamic State will continue to deploy its standard tactics to gain more ground

• The Islamic State does not regard itself as a territorial entity and will expand wherever it can

• There is little sign in the region or beyond that an effective coalition is forming against the group.

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A suicide bomber killed at least 21 worshippers during Friday prayers in a Shi’a mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia last week. This attack, carried out by a Saudi national, was the first in the country to be claimed formally by the Islamic State. It was therefore a reminder that even while the Islamic State celebrates its capture of Ramadi and Palmyra, its ambitions are hardly restricted to Iraq and Syria. With recent pledges of allegiance from groups in Tunisia and Mali, the Islamic State continues to expand its reach and inspire its sympathizers. The loss of Tikrit and limited government advances in Baiji over the weekend seem puny by comparison. In both Iraq and Syria, government forces and local tribesmen are waiting anxiously to see what happens next.

But despite the dramatic recent advances, not much has changed in Islamic State strategy since the fall of Mosul almost a year ago. In Sunni areas, the pattern remains the same: infiltrate; intimidate; assassinate; attack. A sure-fire formula for capturing urban areas that are ill defended and where the population is at best ambivalent about its support for the regime. These tactics may change when the Islamic State has exhausted whatever opportunity remains to capture territory held by weaker rivals or that lie in Sunni majority areas, but the attack in Saudi Arabia shows us what could happen next.

The Islamic State does not think in terms of borders and frontiers; it thinks in terms of those who support it and those who do not. For the moment, circumstances determine that its main fighting effort should be in Iraq and Syria, but this is not its sole effort. It is highly likely that whether wounded or not, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph, also pays attention to what is happening in the broader Middle East and beyond, particularly in areas where he claims outposts of his caliphate. Ideally, these would be contiguous, but only for logistical reasons; the Islamic State does not see its provinces as any less attached just because they are far away.

The Saudi attack was claimed by the Wilayat Najd, one of the two Islamic State provinces in Saudi Arabia. In reality, these provinces may add up to little more than a few people scattered about, but there is no doubt that Saudis in the thousands have joined the Islamic State and many more will have sympathy for its objectives, especially insofar as they are expressed by attacks on Shi’a. Some less credible areas of the Saudi press blamed Friday’s suicide bombing on a joint conspiracy between Hizballah, Iran and the Islamic State, but even the most ardent conspiracist would have trouble believing that a common hatred could make friends of those sworn enemies.

For the moment, the Islamic State may keep its focus where its forces are and capitalize on its recent successes to threaten Baghdad from Ramadi and the Shi’a holy city of Kerbala in order to stir up further sectarianism in Iraq; and in Syria move west towards Homs or southwest towards Damascus from its new base in Palmyra. There are plenty of other targets too, if it retains its current remarkable capacity to attack on multiple fronts. But attacks in the wider Middle East and North Africa also serve to create the impression that the Islamic State continues to ‘endure and expand’; and if the discussion in Cairo on Sunday about forming an Arab joint force to oppose it is anything to go by, it has little to fear in the short term from any concerted military action by its regional enemies.

The problems of joint action facing the Western world are equally acute, with the allies having contradictory objectives and competing priorities. No strategy can fit all the circumstances, and things will have to get considerably worse before there is any agreement on priorities. As an example, the Turkish foreign minister pointed out on Monday that there is no point training Syrian rebels to attack the Islamic State unless the U.S. is also willing to give them air support, a logic that the Turks claimed the U.S. saw as well. But in the inevitable way that one thing leads to another, and given the fact that the trained rebels will also be attacking the regime, the tactical imperative of air support may clash with the policy decision to avoid fighting Assad.

This is the nature of war, and in its perverse belief in the coming apocalypse, the Islamic State will delight in the creeping engagement of its enemies. As its supporters see it, the more who join in on either side, the closer their victory will come; and even though their defeat is more likely, there will still be an unholy mess to clear up when it all ends.

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