IPCS Forecast: Islamic State in 2015

19 Jan, 2015    ·   4814

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy looks at the militant group’s likely trajectory in the new year

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Deputy Director

In 2014, the world, already engaged in the tedious task of controlling and eliminating several religious radical terrorist groups, came face to face with a new and more brutal terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS). This group has proven itself to be more brutal, more radicalised, more efficient, more organised and more consolidated than any group that had previously emerged. Oddly, while the ideology they aim to forcefully implement across the globe is a grossly misinterpreted version of the original – that itself was, comparatively, only applicable in the time it was propounded - and taken as far from its context as possible,  the group’s reach and functional capabilities have proven to meet global standards in today’s day and age.

Given how the rise of this group has shaken up the long-rooted complicated nature of geopolitical relationships in West Asia, it is imperative to understand the potential course its existence will follow through 2015, as policies towards addressing the IS problem are in formulation.

Will the Islamic State Grow Stronger in 2015? How?
So far, the IS’ territorial expansion has been tremendously curtailed, and this trend is likely to continue. The IS banks heavily on the marketing it does for the promotion of the quality of life it provides, to attract recruits. The regularity and frequency with which it has been producing high quality promotional material such as videos, magazines, etc. has done it a lot of good. Therefore, it is likely to invest in the quality of propaganda, as well as other important technological fronts such as encryption platforms and mass communication paraphernalia. It’s presence on various platforms and the fact that it responds to both supporters and opponents on these platforms – harnessing viewership from all quarters – has been particularly effective. Additionally, it will also up its ante in ‘research’. All the issues of the IS’ magazine, Dabiq, demonstrate the outfit’s strategy to legitimise its rationales by referencing and explaining several concepts by producing reports that read in the same style as research papers and essays. The IS comments on current issues and even counter-argued the questions raised on the creation and the legitimacy of the caliphate by means of theological references, and ‘case studies’ presented in an analytical format. This is likely to continue, and as a result, influencing impressionable youth will continue, unless there is a genuine comprehensive effort towards preventing those impressionable youth from being carried away.

Exploitable Vulnerabilities of the Islamic State
While cracks began appearing in the IS’ strategies early on, credible signs began appearing since October 2014. If studied carefully, the IS does have the potential to implode, and without escalation of warfare. However, the IS still remains a formidable adversary, but unless it rethinks some of its policies, there are two key areas it will find itself growing weaker in, in 2015:

a. Troubles in consolidation of power: Although the IS, for all practical purposes, does administer vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, it appears that it is unable to cope with the pace at which the idea of a caliphate it aimed to create is moving at. It certainly appears to have not understood the way a state functions – be it a democracy or a theocracy. It meticulously created departments to look into various affairs of administration of a state, but lacks the understanding of the relationship between a state and the people living in it. The IS aims and has plans only towards replicating the historical depiction and/or narrative of a type of a state. It managed to blitzkrieg its way into creating the said state, but finds itself mired in the challenge of delivering as state machineries are supposed to. It has a long term vision but appears to lack strategies to realise those visions – making this caliphate an unsustainable exercise. Additionally, it has alienated not only most of the populations in the territories it controls but also those who supported it during the initial period of consolidation of power – such as the other Sunni Islamist groups whose cadres also include Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s era. This will ultimately play an important role when the outfit attempts to expand further. Implosion of the IS will be more effective in long term resolution of the problem as compared to military defeat alone.

b. Unsound financial viability: The IS recently announced in an interview that they have established a central bank that would carry out tasks as any other central bank would. This development is essentially a propaganda exercise that might not be able to deliver all it promises. While a portion of its revenues flows in from the taxes it collects, the spoils of its plunders, and other means, a significant chunk of its revenue comes from oil sales. Now, as a result of the airstrikes, its ability to refine crude oil is almost nil, and therefore depends on selling the unfinished product. As a result, the revenue inflow has reduced considerably. This will affect its administrative and military capabilities considerably, as a substantial portion of its total revenue is spent on paying the fighters. This is precisely where the counter-strategies of the world must focus on, primarily – systematically dismantling those structures that help pump life and blood into this group’s existence. Simply put, no money will lead to fewer weapons and that will eventually result in lower threats of prolonged warfare.

What will Fund the Islamic State in 2015?
Thus far, the IS has depended heavily on energy revenues. With diminished oil-refining capacities, it now sells crude oil on the black market - which means, it makes lower revenues than before as crude oil sells for lower rates than refined oil. The shale revolution has resulted in reduction in oil prices, and therefore that too will impact its energy revenues. While it does control assets worth approximately US$2 trillion, and earn revenue via taxes, donations, extortion, ransom and sales of oil, and minerals, it is increasingly finding it difficult to acquire and manage funds. With the noose tightening around its black market oil sales, the IS will find it progressively difficult to rely heavily on oil sales alone. It is already exploring alternative options to diversify its revenue sources. Given how the Kurdish areas are home to several operational oil fields, the outfit will try hard to bring those specific areas under its control, while looking for other options. It has already branched into a thriving drug trade - from Afghanistan via Nineveh in Iraq to heroin markets in Europe - and illicit trafficking of organs harvested from minorities, children etc. with the help of foreign doctors, which is already generating significant revenues. This aside, the outfit will still continue to receive ‘donations’ from wealthy benefactors in Gulf countries, and extortion money (although these two sources bring in comparatively lesser amounts of money) as long as financial transaction processes are not made entirely fool proof.  Furthermore, the IS might try and expand the scope of exchange via diamond trade as diamonds can be used to earn, gain or store value, and are easily moved or smuggled – given the lack of monopoly, diversification of distribution channels, entry of new markets and trade centres, the use of internet to trade and the increasing preference to use online transaction over cash payments, among others, in this sector. 

Who will Join the Islamic State in 2015?
At present, apart from professionally unskilled radicalised people, the IS cadres include a considerable number of well-educated and skilled people such as engineers, doctors, graphic designers, etc. from various walks of life, from all over the world. This cosmopolitanism also works in the group’s favour in their efforts towards recruiting more cadres, and the IS will continue to recruit a variety of skilled people from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The multi-cultural backgrounds from which several recruits come from helps build the narrative that the Islamic State is truly a fair state for everyone. While promoting its relevance in the modern world, the IS will use this phenomenon to further its case. This is because, the IS will need more skilled labour to run the territories under its control – especially the money-making sectors such as oil and gas, metals etc. –  while simultaneously ensuring that it has a foot in the door in the countries it gets recruits from. The IS’s human capital will therefore continue to be a mix of people from various social, cultural, economic and ethnic backgrounds and nationalities, and mostly young in age, with the only condition being they all come from Sunni Muslim backgrounds.

Will the Islamic State be Enfeebled in 2015?
Thus-far, the counter-strategies employed against the IS have seen decent, measurable results. The strategies currently in effect are primarily towards containing rather than elimination. It is a good start, because it would be preferable that the IS terrorists operating in Syria and Iraq are encircled and surrounded before actual efforts to eliminate the group are ramped up. This way, the region wouldn’t make the same mistake Pakistan did when it launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014 – i.e. flushing out militants from its North-Western frontiers but failing to trap them – thereby making it possible for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan to slip into Afghanistan and escape.

Already, with the US’ air strikes, the IS’ territorial expansion has almost stopped. The IS’s oil refining capabilities have also been tremendously damaged, and the group is on the defensive. There has been a slow but steady reclamation of territories from the outfit as well, with the Kurdish Peshmerga undertaking the bulk of the effort. Village by village, the Peshmerga is slowly reclaiming territories. The reclamation of the town of Kobane from the IS by the joint efforts of the Iraqi Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) was a major breakthrough for several reasons.

While continued support to the Kurdish forces is definitely recommended, it would alleviate many other issues if the pressure of providing for the refugees in the Kurdish areas is shared by regional and international players. Medical and sanitation assistance and food and basic amenities, especially to prevent epidemics, will have to be organised.  As long as a substantial chunk of Iraq’s and Syria’s population continues to live in the IS-controlled territories, carrying out air strikes will continue to remain a complicated exercise. The chances of counter-strategies aimed at neutralising the administrative capabilities of the IS are likely to have a higher impact.

Additionally, as long as the US continues to refrain from deploying more troops in the region, it would prevent the situation from escalating further. Iran is already engaged – a good sign. What is needed now is for Saudi Arabia and Turkey to make the choice, and act towards it. For reasons of symbolism, Saudi Arabia’s engagement in warfare – even nominal – against the Islamic State would be useful. The US and Turkey must prioritise for their own selves as to which one of their rivals they would prefer to defeat first – the IS or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If the US realises the complexity of the situation, then it wouldn’t be wrong to expect the two countries to start communicating with each other directly, but one will have to wait and watch.

Finally, the targeting of IS’s financial channels will have to be continued with more vigour. The black market for oil, drugs and organ sales will have to be made unviable. More importantly, as long as the anti-IS coalition continues to engage with their counterparts on the ground and refrains from treating the IS as just another terrorist group, the successes will be comparatively higher in number. Simultaneously, plans for rebuilding Iraq will have to begin to be made. Otherwise, in an event of the collapse of the IS, any void will result in a Libya-like situation in Iraq.

The IS has to be destroyed from inside more than from outside. Unless the outfit implodes dramatically, a resurgence will always be a possibility.