IS wages war under cover of Ramadan

IS wages war under cover of Ramadan
Comment: The Islamic State group will use the holy month to drive its core strategy of expansion. But recent losses in Syria could blunt its ambition, says Bill Law.
5 min read
19 Jun, 2015
The IS group lost Tal Abyad to Kurdish forces [Getty]

Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, and one of the five pillars of Islam is a time for reflection, self-restraint, kindness and charity. But not if you are the self-proclaimed "caliph" of the Islamic State.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used Ramadan last year to make startling advances across Syria and Iraq. It was in Iraq's second largest city Mosul that he proclaimed his caliphate and the IS used the month to conduct major military operations and consolidating gains in both Iraq and Syria.

This year the IS will continue to attempt to use Ramadan to drive forward its core strategy "to remain and expand".

Those operations will include campaigns in what IS calls its three rings or theatres: the "interior ring" in Iraq and Syria, the "near abroad" in the wider Middle East and North Africa, and the "far abroad" in Europe, Asia and the US.

Three theatres of war

An analysis by a Washington-based thinktank, the Institute for the Study of War, details the sorts of campaigns it anticipates IS will attempt in all three theatres, with the "far abroad" being exposed to so-called "lone wolf" attacks encouraged by the IS propaganda machine.

The institute's report, ISIS's military operations during Ramadan: a forecast for 2015, notes that such attacks on "military and police targets [are intended] to inspire fear and encourage adversaries such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia to withdraw from Iraq."

The "near abroad" includes North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In North Africa, IS will strive to consolidate gains it recently achieved in Libya, where it has taken hold of Gaddafi's home city of Sirte.

Attacks on military installations and police in Egypt's Sinai by its affiliate, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, will continue.

And in the Arabian Peninsula, the 17 June car bomb attacks on Zaydi-Shia Houthi mosques in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa was a brutal statement of intent by IS.

In furthering its tactic of encouraging sectarian hatred, IS would no doubt like to target Shia in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province which has already seen three attacks in six months on worshippers at Friday prayers. But Saudi security has tightened significantly making such actions more difficult.

A softer target may lie down the causeway that links Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. There, Bahrain's security forces have kept a tight grip on a restive majority Shia population.  Whether those same forces can protect the Shia from an IS attack is uncertain.

     It is in the "interior ring" where Baghdadi will hope to make his most significant gains.

But it is in its main theatre of operations, the "interior ring", where Baghdadi will hope to make his most significant gains. That task will have been complicated by his loss of Tal Abyad, a strategic town close to the Turkish border, to Kurdish forces.

Tal Abyad controls a supply corridor for the de facto IS capital of Raqqa. Weapons and fighters flowed down the corridor and up it went oil from IS-controlled refineries for sale into the Turkish black market.

With Tal Abyad lost, IS will be looking for a spectacular attack elsewhere both to reassure its supporters and provide fodder for its global propaganda machine.

Toward that end, mosques and shrines in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq's Shia heartland are vulnerable targets. In 2003 and 2004, the IS predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, carried out devastating suicide attacks in both cities, including an attack on the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Shia Islam's third holiest site, that left nearly 100 dead.

During this Ramadan period the IS will want to consolidate its hold over Ramadi, the capital of the vast and sprawling Anbar province, now largely in the hands of the jihadists.

Hanging by a thread

The institute analysis notes that the seizure of the city of Habaniya and nearby al-Asad airbase would "essentially collapse the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] and Sunni tribal resistance to ISIS in Anbar, completing ISIS's control of the province and the Euphrates in Iraq."

Other Iraqi targets include the Baiji oil refinery, where Iraqi forces remain in uncertain control but is surrounded on all sides; and the Haditha dam on the Euphrates, the second largest in Iraq. That would be a huge prize, controlling as it does both electricity and water supplies for much of the country.

Turning to Syria, the main objective now for the group must be to retain Raqqa. The fall of Tal Abyad, together with other significant losses to Kurdish forces, as well as pressures from the Nusra Front, means that other campaigns such as an attempt on the western city of Homs or an effort to encircle and isolate Damascus will likely be put on hold.

It remains to be seen if the flow of foreign fighters, which if anything has increased in recent weeks, will be slowed by the loss of Tal Abyad. Though claims by the US that 10,000 fighters have been killed in the bombing campaign seem highly fanciful, there is no doubt that the IS group is suffering significant battlefield losses. 

Limiting the flow of recruits through Turkey's porous border will put further constraints on al Baghdadi's "remain and expand" strategy.

If such is the case, these coming weeks may not see the military and propaganda triumph that the so-called caliph demands from his followers.

This Ramadan may see his battlefield ambitions blunted and his grandiose visions of domination seen for what they are: the hate-filled delusions of a vicious foe whose perverse and twisted interpretation of Islam threatens us all.